AR-15 rifles are not created equally. There are degrees of differences among the various AR-platform rifles from near-indecipherable nuances to impossible-to-miss distinctions; some variations are only Cerakote-deep while others become blatantly obvious when you squeeze the trigger.
The firearms market is utterly inundated by black rifles meaning smart manufacturers find a way to stand out. That means taking a shot at the best AR which is, of course, rather subjective. If you’re talking about the best AR-15 for precision there is one in particular I’ve enjoyed for some time now: the Axelson Tactical Black Pearl.
Axelson Tactical isn’t exactly a newcomer to the gun world but they’re relatively new by gun industry terms. The company was founded by Jeff Axelson, surviving brother of STG2 (SEAL) Matthew Axelson who was killed in combat during Operation Red Wings, the ill-fated mission known to most due to the book and subsequent movie Lone Survivor. ARs have always been Jeff’s focus and I’ve been able to run and hunt with quite a few of them since he opened his shop’s doors, but the Black Pearl was the AR-15 to win a prize spot in my safe.
Why? Well, the Black Pearl stands out, not just among Axelson guns but among every rifle and carbine I’ve reviewed. The gun was created as a lightweight multi-purpose rifle with an eye for precision. Remember, accuracy and precision aren’t the same thing. Looking for precision? Meet my sub-half-MOA gun.
The Black Pearl is a made-in-America, custom-quality AR-15 built by gunsmith Dave Bischoff. Its specifications reflect it being designed to be competition-ready out of the box including its .223 Wylde chambering and 16” Proof Research carbon fiber barrel with a 1:8 twist rate. Yes, its barrel length makes it a carbine, but if you refer to it as a rifle there won’t be any label-shaming from me.
Carbon fiber furniture was used throughout including a Smoke Composites-made Ultra Lightweight Carbon Fiber Fixed Stock and 15” Carbon Fiber M-LOK Compatible Rail. Its lighter weight is one of the benefits of carbon fiber, but is neither the only nor the best reason to use it on AR-15s.
Carbon fiber has fantastic tensile strength and depending on the composite can be ten times stronger than steel and eight times stronger than aluminum – oh, and it has superior fatigue properties and corrosion resistance, too. This means the Black Pearl weighs in at a scant 5 pounds, 4 ounces and it’s tough as heck, too.
More traditional metals were used as well. The upper and lower receivers are 7075-T6 Forged Hard-Coat Anodized Aluminum; forging increases strength due to its continuous grain structure and the electrochemical process of hard-coat anodizing makes the metal wear-resistant.
Other components include a mid-length direct impingement AR-15 gas system and BCM gas block; the length of the former softens recoil and the latter is manufactured within tight tolerances. The trigger — this is no mil-spec thing — an Axelson Drop-In Adjustable Single-Stage with a curved blade, can be adjusted between 2 pounds, 5 ounces and 7 pounds, 5 ounces. I prefer lighter triggers so mine is set at the lowest trigger pull weight possible.
The quality of components used in the Black Pearl AR-15 continues with the Diamond-Like Carbon Coated (DLC) Bolt Carrier Group (BCG). There are quite a few BCGs on the market with a wide variety of finishes, making it difficult to know which is best, and DLC is currently less common. Even so, it’s a long-established coating in other industries, specifically those where high temperatures and friction are issues. DLC is a nanocomposite coating with properties similar to those of a natural diamond such as high hardness, low friction, and extreme resistance to corrosion.
Axelson Tactical chose the DLC bolt carrier group for the Black Pearl because it elevates the level at which the gun functions. The coating is applied to the bolt, bolt carrier, and gas key, and the BCG is HPT and MPI tested.
Testing and Accuracy
“Test to break.” Those were Jeff Axelson’s words when he first sent the Black Pearl as a review gun – before I returned it then got another for myself because, yes, I love it. I put it through its paces – rain, snow, sun, and the accompanying dust and mud – and fed it ammunition until the crates of spent brass reached astounding heights. It was dragged, carried, and knocked over (the latter being an accident caused by my 90-pound Lab, Puck). It was used until friend and gun store manager Tylar Coe dubbed it “Dirty GaGa” a name which has stuck.
For initial testing I mounted Trijicon’s 1-8x28mm AccuPower scope to the Black Pearl’s full-length Picatinny rail. The only downside to this pairing was the scope’s weight of 25 ounces – almost one-third of the AR-15’s empty weight. Shooters wanting to take full advantage of the lightweight build should use a lighter optic. Weight aside, the AccuPower is a stellar scope with a first focal plane reticle offering exceptional clarity and nice field of vision. Basically, it was worth the weight (see what I did there).
I shot from various distances but spent the majority of my time at 100 yards. For accuracy testing I shot from the bench, stabilizing it using Brownells sandbags, but I also shot off-hand, prone, and kneeling. The Black Pearl ate thousands of rounds ranging from Sinterfire Greenline .223 Remington 45 grain Frangible to Hornady Match .223 Remington 75 grain BTHP. To cover my 5.56x45mm NATO bases I used Federal 77 grain OTM and Barnes VOR-TX 62 grain TSX HP.
The Black Pearl’s slim 3/8” thick buttstock mounted snugly to my shoulder although I had to adjust my usual support-hand grip while shooting from the bench since there was nothing to rest against the web of my hand. A pad is available as a custom option, something I need to get my hands on; the fixed stock can also be ordered with a closed rather than open configuration. The tube has a diameter of 3.5-inches which facilitated a solid cheek weld and despite my long length of pull I didn’t have any issues getting comfortable behind the gun.
Felt recoil was negligible which might not seem noteworthy considering the caliber but is worth mentioning because it was softened beyond my expectations based on experience with countless other AR-15s. Zeroing went quickly as did the time spent making adjustments for different loads. The trigger had a smooth pull and clean break; my Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge showed the Black Pearl shipped with a trigger pull weight of 4 pounds, 13 ounces. After spending some time shooting at that pull weight I adjusted it to fit my lighter preferences.
Making the adjustment was easy: I confirmed the AR-15 was empty, slid the takedown pins free, set the upper receiver aside, and held the lower receiver in my left hand. A single 1/16” Allen head screw was immediately visible atop the disconnector. Using the corresponding Allen wrench I turned it counterclockwise to lighten the pull weight, using my trigger pull gauge to monitor my progress. At 2 pounds, 5.3 ounces, I stopped adjusting. It’s possible to overturn screws and cause problems with a trigger’s functionality. One of the greatest benefits of lightening a trigger is increased precision, something the Black Pearl excelled at to right off.
It was immediately clear the Black Pearl does indeed perform well as a precision carbine. Best AR-15? For my purposes, yes. YMMV.
Loaded with Hornady .223 Rem 53 grain Superformance Varmint V-MAX it nailed Shoot-N-C targets with sub-MOA groups with a best five-shot group from the bench of .530”. It didn’t just linger above half-an-inch, though; Browning .223 Rem 50 grain BXV Varmint Expansion delivered numerous sub-half MOA groups with a best five-shot group of .428”. It liked heavier loads, too: DRT .223 Rem 79 grain Elite provided a best five-shot group of .595” and Federal’s .223 Rem 73 grain Gold Medal Berger BT Target did nicely at .619”. You could say accuracy testing went well.
I burned thousands of rounds – an investment that should have been my first warning that I’d end up wanting one for myself – and the Black Pearl experienced no failures of any kind. My goal of running it to failure failed in itself; the ammo ran out before the gun did.
In the end Dirty GaGa was filthy and in need of cleaning, but as long as I kept it lubed with SEAL 1 CLP Plus it cycled consistently. Its precision can be credited to everything from its Proof Research carbon fiber barrel, light, crisp single-stage trigger, and Axelson ROC Competition 10-Port Tunable Muzzle Brake.
With the trigger set at 2.5 pounds and the muzzle brake tuned – a task accomplished with an Allen wrench and some time dedicated to minor adjustments – the carbine proved itself as a reliable tack-driver. Sub-half MOA groups speak for themselves.
Jeff Axelson said the team “wanted to design a lightweight, strong, deadly-accurate AR-15. By combining the Proof Research barrel, our newly-designed carbon fiber furniture, DLC BCG, and single-stage trigger we created an ultra-lightweight speed demon.” Gunsmith Dave Bischoff added that they wanted to create a lightweight race gun. It would seem they accomplished all that and more.
I dabble in competition, something I keep saying I need to change for the better, but I shoot and hunt almost to excess. It’s my job, after all, and a lot of guns go through this house. Since the day the ArmaLite was created almost eighty years ago companies have been expanding on that original design, some with greater success than others.
There are endless variations, after all: MLok versus Keymod, chrome-lined AR-15 barrels versus, well, not – the list goes on. Gun owners can buy complete rifles or build their own, use iron sights or optics…I could go on at length (and really, I already have).
For my purposes, this is the best AR-15. It’s almost ludicrously reliable, excels for precision and has kicked serious ass in CQB classes. It’s a lightweight hunting rifle for smaller game and predators. It’s even a good home defense gun. Oh, and it’s sexy.
Was it pricey? Yes, but to me it was worth it. It’s worth noting I also own quite a few budget-friendly ARs as well as a number I built myself. This specific gun might not be what you’re after, but it’s become my personal favorite.
To paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean fame – the Black Pearl is, after all, his “nigh uncatchable” black-hulled ship’s namesake – it’s not just a receiver and a barrel and a trigger. That’s what a rifle needs, but what a rifle is – what the Black Pearl really is – is freedom. When was the last time you freedomed?
Note: I’m curious to hear what everyone’s favorite AR rifle is and why…and I mean yours, not one from an advertisement. Comment your favorite AR-15 (.223, 5.56, .223 Wylde, whatever) below.