By David Higgginbotham
Enfield Rifle Company
The appeal of the AR-15 is rooted in the rifle’s reliable performance. The timeless rifles are so dependable that many of us simply take that for granted. Instead, our focuses shift to how we can make that dependability fit each of us, exactly. Perfectly. Yet finding that balance of form and function can elevate the AR-15 to a work of art. If you’re thinking about customizing an AR, I’d suggest you take a look at ODIN Works.
The modularity built into the platform’s design, once meant to allow multiple contractors to source interchangeable parts, has given rise to a world of ever-evolving aftermarket parts that reflect the our specific needs and tastes. While some of the options may seem faddish and more like fashion, there are some upgrades that seriously improve performance. The work-in-process below is made possible by the Idaho-based ODIN Works, a group of craftsmen dedicated to perfecting AR-15s.
ODIN Works makes a variety of parts, but it’s getting attention for it’s use of the KeyMod system. KeyMod is an advancement first designed by VLTOR in an attempt to one-up standard 1913 rails. The name is easy to understand. The Key refers to the oddly shaped nut that indexes in a keyhole-shaped slot. The Mod is an abbreviation of modular and refers to the accessories that can be added via the KeyMod system. ODIN Works has taken the abbreviated nomenclature one step further and shortened the name to Kmod.
KeyMod, Kmod…it looks like the defining trend in the industry. Kmod is the way to go. The ODIN Works free-float Kmod tube is milled from aluminum, and it offers a surprisingly rigid structure. Most tubular forends accept sections of rail, but the sections have to be screwed on. This isn’t always easy. The forends that are nothing but long sections of rail often have a larger surface area and weigh more. Their drop-in simplicity is one main attraction, and their modularity allows for a lot of accessory options.
KeyMod is different. A uniquely shaped nut threads into a keyhole on the forend. On the outside, a bolt tightens the rail section (or the accessory itself) against the forend. The nut snugs up tight inside the forend. When rail sections are attached, the options are the same as they would be for any railed AR. If the attachments add on directly (with their own integrated Kmod attachment points), then the girth is cut down a bit, and the weight is reduced slightly, too.
The problem with Kmod, as it exists now, is that there aren’t many options. Those who want everything mounted flush to the forend, without the extra .25-inch of nubby rail, will have to wait for some popular options to be available. Take Magpul’s RVG (rail vertical grip). Magpul makes the typical picatinny rail mount, and one for its MOE grips, but the Kmod grips are still in the wings. But ODIN Works is evidence that the industry is catching up.
The forends come into ODIN Works as extruded tubes built to the company’s specs. ODIN Works then mills away about 45% of the extrusion (which is recycled) and finish the aluminum.
ODIN Works makes the Kmod part to the VLTOR specifications for full modularity. Each forend attaches securely to the nut and is free floated for the rest of its length. They’re milled from 6005-T651 Aluminum. The tube is narrow, at only 1.8 inches in width. The walls are only .2 inches thick, yet they are rock solid. The top is a continuous strip of old-fashioned rail, and Kmod accessories can be mounted at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. Like all KeyMod keyholes, the slots act as QD sling mounts. The 9.5 inch forend weigh just over eight ounces. The 12.5-inch weighs a bit over 10 ounces, and the 15.5-inch comes in close to 12 ounces. Prices are $205, $219 and $245, respectively.
The expense is wrapped up in the raw material and the precision milling.
Modifying the MERC415
I started this build with a MERC415 from the Enfield Rifle Company. The carbine length AR is one of the best stock builds I’ve come across in recent years. The Enfield comes with very familiar Magpul furniture. The Magpul hand-guard is solid but has never been a favorite of mine. I’m not a fan of the plastic feel. And as I’m constantly swapping out gear for various reviews, I replaced it with a quad rail from Ergo Grips. Yet I still wanted more real estate. I also wanted more length, because the short forends don’t allow me to extend my support arm the way I’d like.
I started with a 12.5 inch forend. The A2 front sight gas block on the MERC415 barrel had to go. If you find yourself in the same situation, ODIN Works has a Low Profile Gas Block ($35 from ODIN Works). It is handy if you want to your AR to work as anything other than a bolt-action rifle. Getting the old block off isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t exactly easy. There are two pins that have to be drifted free and the site has to be wrestled off the barrel. Then the castle nut has to be removed and swapped out for one that will accept the Kmod forend (it is included in the kit). You’ll have to take off any obstructive flash hiders or muzzle breaks, too, to slide off the old sight post. All of this is easy enough, but you may need a vice, punches and a dedicated AR wrench to make it happen.
As it is, with all of the gear and tools I have accessible, I still needed help. After attempting it at home, I scheduled an appointment with my gunsmith. He guided me through the process. It was very helpful. Together, we discovered that clamping the actual sight post in the vice (by the conveniently placed bayonet lug) made drifting the pins much easier. In all, breaking down the rifle took about 15 minutes. Rebuilding it took less than 10 minutes. The only step I have left to do is to time the muzzle brake. That’s what happens when you forget the new low-profile gas block and have to take the rifle back home in pieces.
After I’d finished the forend installation, I needed some basic accessories. The Kmod one-inch flashlight mount ($50) will securely hold lights with a tube diameter of one inch, like this InForce 9VX. I wanted a vertical grip. For that, I needed a section of Kmod rail and the grip from Magpul.
Once I’d gotten the forend situated, I added an XMR. The extended magazine release button is stylish, functional and only $20. Even though I have the AR platform fairly well memorized and can run this rifle with my eyes closed, I’m not so proud of my abilities that I won’t accept an extra advantage. And that’s what the XMR is for me. The larger button is easier to index, and the color is a stark contrast that allows for me to see the button easily.
Using the new system
The Kmod rail greatly increases my support hand’s forward reach. The 12.5 inch tube is still not as long as I would like, but it is ideal for the 16.5 inch barrel. Any more length might put an unprotected hand in the path of venting gasses. With the Magpul VRG pulled back slightly from the front of the forend, there is just enough room for a solid grip. The RVG serves as a handle and as a stop for the back of my palm.
The light mount is trickier. With it in the two o’clock position, I can grab the RVG with my support hand and click the InForce 9VX’s button with my thumb, all without releasing my shooting hand’s grip. I’d rather have the light on the left side of the forend, but that interferes with my support hand’s grip. On an even longer upper, this wouldn’t be such an issue. As is, it is functional.
The XMR is very intuitive. It will spoil you. It was a ridiculously easy switch out, and I’ve gotten used to the extra leverage. When I pick up an AR with a standard mag release, it feels uncomfortably small. I don’t know yet why this modification hasn’t been made standard on all ARs. Like the wider charging handles that are becoming the norm, it just makes more sense. And I’m partial to the spot of color, too. The green helps me stay oriented when I’m moving fast.
In short, the modifications I’ve made to the MERC415 haven’t improved the way the rifle shoots, per se. But they’ve improved the way I shoot the rifle. And that’s no small task. I can handle an AR, but they’ve always felt too small for my 6’4” frame. I’ve got a long wingspan, and need a long length of pull. The typical AR configuration leaves me feeling cramped. By allowing me to stretch out, even on a 16-inch AR, ODIN Works has offered me a slight advantage. Stretched out with a forward grip, I can more easily hold the gun on target. Because of that, my split times are faster and the shot placement is tighter.
I can’t help feeling that the KeyMod system is more effective than typical railed systems. The connection is physically secure. The weight reduction adds up. The strength of the design is an asset, too. And anything that slims down the AR-15, without reducing its functionality, has to be seen as an asset.
And don’t let the cost stand in your way. These are lasting improvements. And KeyMod is the way of the future, it seems. The changes will increase the value of the rifle. And like tattoos and hot rods, modifying an AR is addictive. Some of us have to justify every gun that comes into the house. Just yesterday, a good friend informed me of his wife’s “one-in-one-out” policy concerning his guns and guitars. Working with a company like ODIN Works can take a stock AR and make it feel like a brand new gun.