I am a fan of the Modern Sporting Rifle. The “Black Rifle.” The MSR seems to have a polarizing effect on shooters and non-shooters alike, at least in my experience. To an old-school rifle shooter, an AR-style rifle is anathema to his or her way of thinking…rifles are supposed to be wood and metal with no plastic. But, if you’ve kept up with modern trends, you might understand that the MSR is here to stay. From its inception in the 1950s to its adoption as our main battle rifle, the AR is here to stay.
So, I acquired a 5.56/.223 Del-Ton rifle a few years ago. I am not much into changing things around – I have not really upgraded it much past a trigger job and additional magazines. I am an OK shot with it, especially with my handloads. They are nothing special, but they generally hit the target. I left the iron sights on it so it is very handy to grab and go. So, it was with a bit of enthusiasm that I accepted the offered test gun from Rock River Arms, their LAR-15 BTB 5.56×45 rifle, in tan and black.
As you can see, it is a rather handsome specimen with its two-tone finish and furniture. It was a really decent shooter, as well.
Before we get on with things, let’s take a brief look at the history of the AR platform, both military and civilian.
Eugene Stoner’s Brainchild
It started in 1956. Eugene Stoner had designed the AR (Armalite Rifle) -10 in 7.62 NATO. That cartridge had been adopted two years earlier and the Army was looking to possibly replace the M1 Garand. They had even considered re-chambering the Garand…they were open to suggestion and this was as good a time as any to introduce a new rifle. So, Stoner submitted his rifle but it wasn’t adopted. (It was, however, looked upon with interest by a few foreign militaries). In the end, as we know, they settled on Springfield’s M14. But, it was big and heavy. Some of the powers-that-be wondered if we needed a full-size battle rifle that was good to 600 yards when modern confrontations were occurring at closer ranges, usually under 300 yards. It was about this time that some observed that Russia had introduced a mid-range .30 caliber round and had really started to deploy it in earnest in the 1950s, the 7.62×39 in the AK-47. This was not a full-power rifle round, a fact that we duly noted.
It was around this time that Remington introduced the .223, which became the 5.56×45 in military rifles’ chambers. (For a concise description of the difference between .223 and 5.56, go here. One is safe to shoot in both rifles but the other way around could be problematic…check it out).
In 1959, Armalite was having financial difficulties. They could not meet manufacturing needs, so they sold the AR-15 to Colt. Colt undertook production of the AR-15, which morphed into the selective-fire M16.
In the early 1960s, America was sending observers, trainers and Special Forces troops to a small, backwater Asian country called Vietnam. This started out as an effort to train indigenous forces in an effort to fight the communist North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. They ranged from North Vietnam, employing standard military operations and guerilla tactics in forays across the border with South Vietnam.
As we know, this was to grow into the Vietnam war, as we called it. We all know the story, how that relatively few troops were committed at the start but by the time we left Vietnam in March of 1973, we had placed over 550,000 military personnel in country at the height of our involvement. This is not a comment about that war – I have only admiration and respect for all who served – it’s just to demonstrate that we needed a whole of rifles and ammo. We did not have crates and crates of 5.56 ammo lying around like we did .30 caliber, so the ammo companies geared up and got with the program.
Another interesting side note – Defense Secretary McNamara was the one who ultimately decided the fate of the M14. He decided that the M14 was too expensive to produce, was too big and heavy, and fired a needlessly-overpowered round, so he asked that the AR be put into production, but with selective-fire capabilities. So, we went from a full-power .30 caliber battle round to a .22 caliber, mid-range round. Some folks liked it, others not so much.
You probably know the rest…how Winchester (who had been brought on board to help produce ammo) went from a stick powder to a ball powder and how that caused increased pressure and fouling, which translated into battlefield travails when troops who had trained with the gun were told initially they really didn’t need to clean their M16s. This put a whole lot of soldiers and Marines in great danger and worse when some of their rifles quit working in the heat of battle due to fouling and general jungle crud build-up. We eventually figured out that these rifles did indeed need to be cleaned, and that helped to lessen the problem. Other positive changes included the inclusion of the forward assist on newer models and Winchester going back to the original stick powder. (If you served and have experience with this situation, please leave a comment below – I’d like to hear your take on it). For an interesting read, check this out – a history of the AR-15/M16 rifle. It is very well-written.
OK…we’ve seen where the AR-15/M16 came from…what about the company that made the one I reviewed? Let’s check it out.
A Bit Of History
Two brothers, Mark and Chuck Larson, worked for Springfield Armory; Mark was the head armorer. They formed a partnership, leaving S.A. in 1991 to work with Les Baer in production of his custom 1911 pistols. In 1993, they left Les Baer Custom to work with Eagle Arms in Coal Valley, Illinois, producing AR-15 rifles. They later formed their own company, Tolerance Plus (later Rock River Arms), producing 1911 pistols. They left Eagle Arms in 1997 and started producing AR-15-style rifles. Mark passed away in April of 2013.
Enter The D.E.A.
The Drug Enforcement Agency was looking for a new AR-style rifle in 2003. They tested 11 different brands, with Rock River Arms coming out on top in abuse tests. The contract called for at least 5,000 rifles to be purchased over the next five years. As a result of the DEA’s order, the F.B.I and the U.S. Marshalls initiated piggyback contracts with RRA as well. These two brothers did very well for themselves, indeed.
Even though their reputation was built on AR-15-style rifles, Rock River Arms produces, to this day, seven different 1911-model pistols and lots of related parts. They started out with pistols and have stuck with them. The company is based in Colona, Illinois.
Here To Stay
Whether you’re an AR fan or not, they are here and are most likely going to be here for a good while. There are a blue zillion different ARs out there and at least as many aftermarket parts for your rifle. And, if 5.56 or .223 is not your thing, guns are available in several other calibers. We are seeing more and more ARs in the hunting fields, chambered for mid-level hunting rounds such as the .300 Blackout and the new .350 Legend. In my humble opinion, this is a good thing. I am not the most rabid AR fan out there, but I do own one and could easily buy an upper in one of those calibers and take it to my deer blind. The AR MSR is, as stated, a polarizing weapon. If more folks could see that it has a purpose other than as an “instrument of destruction”, we might all be better off. And, adding in three-gun and other types of competitions, we start to see the AR in a more generalized light which is a good thing.
Versatility and Modularity
Another plus of the AR-style rifle or carbine is the availability of aftermarket parts. I joked above about how many parts are out there, but part of the draw of the AR is the fact that you can change just about anything out on your gun that you don’t like, up to and including the caliber. From triggers to sticking a back-up folding sight or light on one of the rails to putting a new upper on, you can customize your AR to your heart’s content. I’ve heard it referred to as the “Barbie of rifles.” (As a matter of fact, I am thinking about acquiring an upper in .350 Legend – the new Winchester round seems like a useful cartridge around my neck of the woods. It’s easy – just buy the new .350 upper from Bear Creek Arsenal or Rock River Arms and stick it on). As you can see on the screen shot below and in some of my photos, the handguard rail is on the top and bottom, and then there’s just enough of a small rail on each side at the forward end of the guard. Put a laser or light there…I like the possibilities. These are only a few of the myriad possibilities available when upgrading an AR rifle.
The Rock River Rifle
Let’s look at the specific gun I was sent to review…a Rock River Arms LAR-15 BTB rifle…
|Lower Receiver:||Forged RRA LAR-15|
|Upper Receiver:||Forged A4|
|Barrel:||16” chrome moly HBAR, 1:9 twist|
|Muzzle Device:||A2 flash hider, ½-28 thread|
|Gas Block:||Low Profile|
|Pistol Grip:||RRA NSP Overmolded, Tan|
|Butt Stock:||RRA NSP-2 CAR Stock, Tan, multi-position|
|Handguard:||RRA NSP Drop-In Rail, CAR-length, Tan|
|Sights:||RRA NSP Flip Front & Rear, Tan|
|Accuracy:||1 MOA at 100 yards|
|Includes:||Two RRA 30-round tan magazines, hard case, owner’s manual, warranty information|
|MSRP:||Limited Time: $825.00 (real-world pricing starts around $750)|
|Warranty:||Limited Lifetime, original purchaser, with the usual limitations|
One thing not mentioned above is that the gun functions via direct gas impingement, not a piston system. I guess that would be fairly obvious when it mentions a gas block, but I’m not one for the obvious at times.
Here are some photos of the test gun I had. A quick observation…the tan goes with the black very well (at least I think so).
Notice how easy it is to adjust elevation.
Again, ease of adjustment.
Note small rail on sides.
Front and rear sights, folded down.
Two 30-round magazines are included.
Standard A2 flash hider…replace with something else if desired.
Shooting the BTB
I shot the BTB at my backyard range on a cold day. I used the sights that came on the gun – I didn’t add a scope or red dot. I wanted to get a feel for how it performed out the box. The fold-down (or -up?) sights were, like most BU sights, at the same time both easy and not easy to pick up. What do I mean? Those of you who have shot a rear-aperture-ring/front-post setup know what I’m talking about. The ring on the rear sight was, well, a typical aperture ring. It did its job well of directing my eye to the front post. Here’s where it gets a bit sticky…the post was, like most all other front AR posts, black and small. I’ve mentioned before that my glasses sometimes aren’t the best for putting everything in focus, give the angle I have to hold my head in order to see the sights. Plus, the post is black. On my Del-Ton AR, I used white liquid paper (OK, not the best but it’s what I had handy) to make the front sight brighter and easier to see. Now, I get it…this would not be a big deal if you were under 50 or were shooting at a range not surrounded on three sides by hills and trees. It’s pretty dark and gets increasingly so this time of the year. So, with all my lame excuses in a row, let me say that the gun did pretty well. I ended up shooting some ammo that I had bought a few years ago (and was glad I saved) that used a type of armor-piercing bullet. As you can see in the shot above, there are holes in the steel plate. THAT was fun. (For more pics and a video of us perforating some fairly thick metal, check out my piece on the AR-50 .50BMG bolt action here. It was a fun shoot).
I had generally good luck with all types of ammo I shot except one…the Remington plain-jane “green box” 55-grain .223. I couldn’t get any of it to go “bang.” I’m not sure why, but I think it was the longer 5.56mm chamber allowing the cartridge to seat deeply enough in that chamber so that the firing pin couldn’t reach the primer. That really doesn’t make much sense since the .223/5.56 cases are basically the same but I don’t know where else to look for a reason. I’d heard that not all .223 rounds may function in a 5.56mm rifle due to their chamber and the longer leade. Anyway, it was no big deal. I just shot other types. The 5.56 rounds mentioned above were fun (unless you were behind the steel plate) and behaved predictably.
The sights were good, the trigger more than acceptable, the fit of the gun was fine. I enjoyed shooting it. I reload .223, but I refrained from shooting my loads in a test gun. They work fine and are accurate in mine.
OK…what did I think of this rifle? I liked it. I know, you might think I’ve never met a gun I didn’t like but that’s not true…I could go on and on about the dogs I’ve owned or shot. This gun was very well-built, solid and was fun to shoot.
(In case you were wondering what the ammo box said in the above photo, here’s a close-up…penetrator rounds).
The tan furniture blended nicely with the matte black of the other surfaces. I have seen many ARs finished in a similar manner but this job was especially well done, with the pistol grip exhibiting both black and tan colors. What the screen shot above the specs doesn’t show is the tan magazine. Both mags were tan, as you can see from my pics. Speaking of mags… they did not send 10-round magazines, but instead went for the “full meal deal” on the 30-round extended mag. I recently reviewed a 9mm AR-style rifle (Troy Defense M5 9mm Carbine) that came with one 10-round Glock magazine. I assumed they pack their guns with the “lowest common denominator” in terms of magazine capacity, for those restrictive states that limit such things. I was glad to see not one but two long mags with this gun. Here is the mag, from their site:
The mag is not only a 30-rounder, but it’s cheap and it works. I have nothing against polymer mags – I just have too many steel ones to start collecting the polymer variety. One big advantage – you drop the above mag, it bounces. No dings or dents. And, for $9.00 (from the factory, no less), you can stock up. If, on the other hand, you want a metal or other type of mag, no worries…they show six different styles and brands of magazines on their site, ranging in price from $9.00 – $25.00 and from 5 to 45 rounds capacity.
The Lowly Case
The gun case that the rifle came in was interesting. It had the company logo molded into the front and was pretty sturdy. It used two metal clasps on the front and was padded fully on the inside with foam. Some folks don’t pay attention to the case (or box) that their new gun comes in, but I do. I figure that some folks may not have the cash to invest in a gun safe so the gun had better arrive in a decent hard case, preferably lockable. (Here is an over of good AR-15 cases).
The last long gun I reviewed came in a cardboard box, which offered precious little protection…this gun was different. I’ve noticed in previous reviews of handguns that some companies may make a mediocre product but they ship it in a whiz-bang hard case. All else being equal, I’ll take a good-quality firearm in a cardboard box (I refer to my excellent 1982-vintage S&W 629 8 3/8”-barreled .44 Magnum that came in said cardboard box), most all the time, but if you don’t have a gun cabinet or safe, you’d better have a really decent hard case to put the gun in. Even something as inconsequential as dust can play havoc with your scope or finely-tuned action, not to mention the safety factor. I am doubly impressed with this gun and case, because both seem to be of high quality. How did all that quality come about? The company, no doubt, wants to build top-quality guns and parts. So, before we ring down the curtain on our little look at this very nice rifle, let’s look at a detailed examination of the rifle and then we’ll end.
The Engineer’s Report
Before we end our look at the RRA BTB rifle, I thought I might add some comments from one of our sons who is a manufacturing engineer at a regional automotive parts casting facility. I took the gun to him because I wanted to see the rifle the way he would, as an engineer. He is qualified to do so, being an AR fan… he owns at least one of his own and has had it apart and modified it several times. He helped me build mine several years ago. Here are his observations…
He started with the case the gun came in. It uses rotating hinge pins instead of a tab to connect the halves, metal clasps on the front and stiff foam inside. The case will hold up to continuous use. It was also cleanly molded in terms of the logo on the top half.
Fasteners: socket head, not hex head and are of industrial strength.
Handguard: reinforced glass fiber, well-made. This is more expensive to make than plain plastic. It will wear molds out quicker. Even the inside was well-finished, which it really didn’t need to be.
Magazine: The halves are well-matched, with the overall finish very well done. No molding line were visible.
Rails: The rails are threaded into flat metal T-nuts, not a plastic insert.
Engraving: The lettering is clearly cut with no “fuzz” or rolled-over edges.
Trigger components: MIM cast to precise tolerances. Not much evidence of post-processing.
Overall metal finish: very even with no “waves” or other anomalies.
Threads: The threads for the stock and barrel were not overly sharp. There was no “chattering” evident.
Bolt: He was not sure if the bolt had been shot-peened, but it had been post-process finished.
Bolt screws are from Fang Sheng Screw Company in Taiwan (YFS marked on the heads). This company’s products are built to either ISO 17025/9001/14001 or ISO/TS 16949 standards and are very tough.
General Metal Fit: No burrs or sharp edges – it had been blended very well. The radiuses had been hand-blended, most of them. Not many tool paths – very smooth (no snagging of fibers from a cloth).
He, as I said, is a shooter and knows of gunsmiths who have bought RRA rifles because of their quality.
To Sum Up…
Rock River Arms LAR rifles are some of the best AR-pattern guns you can buy. If you don’t believe me, ask the D.E.A., F.B.I., the U.S. Marshalls or any one of thousands of satisfied civilian buyers. These rifles are tough, and stand up well to abuse. They are accurate and are made out of some very tough parts. I don’t think you could do a whole lot better, if you are in the market for an AR… I was really blown away when I saw the price of the gun I tested. For a little over $800 MSRP, you get a rifle that should last you a lifetime and then still be able to be passed down to your kids. (Actual real-world pricing starts around $750). As I said above, I don’t think you could do much better than that. As always, leave a comment below for all to read and then go shooting…just stay safe!
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Mike has been a shooter, bullet caster and reloader for over 40 years. Never one to be satisfied with the status quo, he is often found at his reloading bench concocting yet another load. With a target range in his backyard and after 40 years of shooting, his knowledge of firearms and reloading is fairly extensive. He is married, with four sons and daughters-law and 8-and-counting grandkids.