By Daniel Shaw
As a retired US Marine Infantry Unit Leader, I’ve had to rely on a rifle for survival. I have nothing against hunting or competitions, but I do very little of either. I spend the majority of my time now training law-abiding citizens how to survive life-threatening situations. I specialize in armed response. I demand high levels of accuracy and absolute reliability. And the ArmaLite M-15TBN has met my standards, and then some. This AR excels at variety of utilitarian tasks and delivers spot-on accuracy well past 600 yards. If you’re only going to own one AR, the 15TBN would be a good choice.
The ArmaLite M-15TBN
ArmaLite wrote the book on AR innovation. Yet there’s something refreshingly stable about its traditional designs. While other AR makers follow fads and fight to stay on top of the tactical fashion scene, ArmaLite continues to do what it does best. The 15 TBN is a good example of this. While the rifle is imminently capable, the 15TBN isn’t defined by gimmicks. Some manufacturers attempt to redesign parts of an AR to allow for faster and more efficient manipulation. They add an ambidextrous magazine release built into the lower receiver or cutouts for bolt locks and release levers. Others attempt to make the entire rifle as light as possible. I have seen friends get caught up in rifle weight so much that they spend a large amount of money on a product that makes the gun lighter when they could have achieved the same weight reduction by simply taking 3 rounds out of a magazine.
Controls and weight management are important, but secondary to the most important part of the gun—the barrel. The main reason the 15TBN is able to achieve a high level of accuracy is its stainless steel, triple lapped match grade, 18-inch barrel. The barrel is triple lapped, meaning that it was not only precisely rifled, it also had the rifling smoothed and cleaned of imperfections afterward. The lapping process helps to insure even pressures and contact between the rifling and the projectile as it travels down the bore. It is an extra that provides consistency.
I also like the choice of 1/8 twist rate in the 18-inch barrel. The combination allows solid stabilization for a variety bullet weights. 5.56 is getting much easier to find on the shelves, but the match grade stuff is still sometimes hard to find in some parts of the US. With the TBN barrel configuration, a shooter should be able to achieve very good results with almost anything they get their hands on.
The TBN comes with a standard mil-spec muzzle device. Everyone who has shot a typical AR knows how they perform. I threaded on a Gemtech Trek for those more civilized readers who like to make their guns a bit quieter. I found that the pair worked well together for both accuracy and sound suppression. A suppressed 5.56 round doesn’t get Hollywood quiet, but I was surprised at the noise reduction. Granted, my surprise was most likely due to the fact that my everyday carry rifle has a 10.5 inch barrel and is suppressed by a Gemtech G-5.
The handguard is really the only aspect of the 15TBN that I didn’t care for, but there is nothing actually wrong about it. The free floating quad rail handguard serves its purpose and (most likely due to its mass) contributes some to the softer recoil I experienced during testing.
My issue is that the 15TBN is built for precision, but could easily serve as a multi-role gun. The hand guard has a wide profile that thumb-over-bore shooters will not appreciate. Most of the three gun competitors I know have opted for more slim profiled hand guards, and likewise, the home defense and tactical side are moving to key-mod or similar concepts. The only change I would make to the gun would be to drop the quad rail and add a key-mod hand guard. This would solve what I think is a problem that a large market would find with an otherwise exceptional rifle. However, with the price point of the 15TBN, buyers could potentially still afford to add whatever hand guard they wish.
All told, the 15TBN is versatile. Its overall length comes in at 32.2 inches (Collapsed) and 38.5 inches (Extended). Despite the heavy barrel, it is still a manageable 7.9 pounds. It ships with one 10-round magazine, an owner’s manual and ArmaLite’s limited lifetime warranty. The MSRP is $1,449. While that may be prohibitive for some, consider it this way. If you’re buying a rifle, then you should be thinking about accuracy. Hold off on the rabbit foot holder and $300 light that you plan to attach to the hand-guard and make sure you have a good solid rifle that you can add onto later.
Shooting the 15TBN
As I drove out to the range with the M-15TBN to start some testing, I had high expectations. A few days prior to my turn with the 15TBN, a co-worker had taken the rifle with him to his favorite hangout. He spent two days shooting the 15TBN at targets ranging from 100 to 1000 and had nothing but great things to say about it. If Mason has great things to say about a rifle, it must be a pretty good machine. He is a complete gun and optic snob.
My 150-yard range doesn’t allow me to stretch the legs of rifles made for precision like the 15TBN, but I was able to test it to my own standards of what I desire in an AR. Still, this is much more than a long-range AR, so I was going to push it at a variety of distances.
While there are many things I look for and care about when selecting a rifle, two standards stand out above everything else – reliability and accuracy. When you combine these with the tactical capabilities, and defensive potential of the ArmLite, you have a rock-star AR.
Standard 1 – A rifle must shoot every time I want it to. End of story. What good is a rifle that won’t fire? It might look intimidating, but that is never enough.
That said, functionality is a balance of design, manufacturing and maintenance. When I took the M-15TBN out of the box and found it dry, I lubed it lightly with PWS Gun Ease. Before I’d had a chance to shoot it, my associate put about 120 rounds through it. Like any good friend would, he handed it back without cleaning it.
My first test was to run a 30-round magazine through it as fast as I could work the trigger. The two-stage trigger took some getting used to. Since I am accustomed to nasty stock AR or M4/M16A4 triggers, I don’t know what to do when I get my favorite finger on a quality trigger. It requires a different kind of muscle memory, and one you may need practice to develop.
The TBN ran like it was supposed to for all 30 rounds and continued to run flawlessly for the next 220 rounds I would put through it. Most AR shooters are not impressed by functioning guns. The platform is known for its reliability and ease of operation. But I have neglected on small detail; the gun was incredibly dirty. I lubed it, but hadn’t cleaned it, and even before I began, it was beginning to show.
I paired a Gemtech Trek direct thread suppressor with the rifle and every round fired for this review was suppressed. Adding a suppressor greatly increases the amount of gas and combustion byproducts that are sent back to the bolt carrier group, lower receiver group, and of course chamber and upper receiver. As the round travels through the suppressor, the released gas impacts the baffles in the suppressor and sends it back into the barrel and through the chamber. Some intern at ArmaLite is going to hate me when this gun gets home.
Obviously, I didn’t torture test the 15TBN with 370 rounds, but it met my reliability standard. ArmaLite has a reputation for reliability, and the 15TBN never once gave me reason to doubt that reputation.
Standard 2 – The gun must be accurate with a variety of ammunition and able to achieve consistent hits out to 500 yards on man-sized targets.
Like most quality rifles, the 15TBN does not come with an optic or bipod. I mounted an Atlas quick detach bipod and a Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×32 First Focal Plane with a 20 MOA American Defense Recon 30 and used it throughout my review.
After zeroing at 100 yards, we were able to get first round and consecutive hits on chest plates from 100 to 600 yards with 75 grain PMC Precision ammunition. I expect a good AR to hit at 500 yards consistently, but I was very pleased with the results of the M-15TBN off of the bipod at 600.
Switching to Hornady VMAX 55 grain, the 15TBN put ten rounds consecutively in a 6” square plate at 500. Publications and the Internet are filled with sub MOA groups from bench rests at 100 yards. Ringing a 6” plate at 500 yards for ten consecutive rounds, even from a bipod, smokes the quarter sized bench rest groups. I prefer to know what I can do with a rifle under realistic conditions instead of what a rifle can do under perfect conditions.
Since the 15TBN had already demonstrated itself to be an exceptional performer at long range with match grade ammunition, I filled some magazines with 55-grain Independence and Lake City M855 Ball to see how it would perform with common range ammunition. I began shooting at various sized steel hangers at 150 yards and, unsurprisingly, I rang all four from a chest plate down to a 4”x4” square. No rifle review can be complete without pictures of groups, so I put the crosshair on some paper at 100 yards.
I shoot M855 fairly often, but it isn’t known for extreme accuracy. I’d hoped that the 15TBN would make it magically precise at 100 yards. I was able to get it down to about the proverbial quarter size from a bipod. It is important to me for a rifle to perform well with a variety of ammunition, and the 15TBN didn’t let me down. Still, if this demonstrates anything it is that the ammo you feed your gun plays a big part is its accuracy.
My first few groups with the rifle were a little less than desirable as it took me a little time to get used to the trigger. It is a two-stage trigger with the first stage at 3.5 LBS. and the second at 5-6 LBS. My problem was not with the ArmaLite National Match two-stage trigger, but instead with the last 100k plus rounds I fired with standard M4 and M16 series triggers and cheap lower parts kits in personal builds. Once I got the hang of the trigger, I found that I liked the feel of it and really liked the sharp and distinct reset.
There’s nothing earth shattering to report about the stock, but it is well thought out with a quick detach point and multiple slots to fit a variety of sling choices. The rifle also comes with a rail-mounted sling attachment point that can be placed along the handguard wherever the user desires. On a side note, I wondered why there was QD on the stock and none provided forward on the handguard. While you could carry the 15TBN on a single-point sling, a traditional two point rig might be more logical.
Overall, my experience with the 15TBN was a positive one. I believe that ArmaLite has put together a solid performing rifle with the 15TBN and I would certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in owning a quality, built-for-precision AR-15 that can also function in multiple roles. With a MSRP at $1,449.00, you really get a lot of gun, considering all the features and exceptional performance of the ArmaLite M-15TBN.
Equipment used during the 15TBN evaluation.
Scope: Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×32 First Focal Plane
Scope Mount: 20 MOA American Defense Recon 30 Bi-pod: Atlas Quick Detach
Range Finder Vortex Ranger 1000
Suppressor: Gemtech Trek (Direct Thread)
Mason Felter contributed to this article