My affinity for scary black rifles began eons ago, back in 2003, as an honorary member of the Tarleton State High Power Rifle Team. From there, my interests morphed into local 3-gun competitions where I took my DCM rifle and changed out parts to make the gun more viable for match shooting—something of a Franken-gun, really, but it ran well, and it was a tack driver.
Unfortunately, my DCM Franken-gun also had some weight to it, compounded with the addition of an optic, rings and of course, a full 30-round magazine. Running it through 3-gun competitions was akin to a session of CrossFit and my balance of speed and precision, as a result, somewhat compromised—at least that’s my story.
For 11 years, the Franken-gun was my go-to. Honestly, as a writer, I’ve spent quality trigger time on some impressive systems, yet haven’t seriously delved into my race-gun woes or applied any real fixes to issues I face in match mode. So why change now?
I suffered significant back pain for years yet still competed, still spent my time in the gym, etc. Moreover, as I continue to age like good whiskey, my knees haven’t been keeping up. In 2018, I as the recipient of an incredibly expensive back surgery and am now on-deck for knee surgery. Simply stating “I don’t move like I used to” is an understatement and you would be amazed at how much the weight of a rifle, once negligible, is magnified by these physical challenges. That said, I wanted to stay in the competitive shooting game—enter, my season of change.
Not only do I know what I need, nobody knows what I want in a match rifle better than me, either. Sure, amazing race-guns are out there—some I would happily move into and that I’m sure I’ll write about in future assignments but here and now, this was my time, my opportunity to build the rig I should have been running upwards of 10 years ago.
And so, I built a race gun; a workhorse worth getting behind; a serious looker and laser beam of a shooter. From the beginning of my DIY 3-gun project, my build-buzzword was “sub”—sub-7-pounds and sub MOA precision. I also wanted reliability and jaw-dropping aesthetics.
Whoever coined “all things being equal” never built a premium competition rig. Put simply, parts matter. While some in the industry charge exorbitant prices, often as a result of brand equity, earned or not, the true get-what-you-pay-for dynamic is still going strong—gold in, gold out.
Finding a top-shelf receiver set and handguard was a no-brainer. I had worked with Phoenix Weaponry products in the past and the company’s precision machining and laser-focus on uncompromising quality have not been lost on me. It made sense then to start there with a rock-solid, lightweight, precision-machined foundation so I chose Phoenix Weaponry’s 7075-T7 billet aluminum receiver set and fully knurled competition handguard. This handguard, in my opinion, is industry-leading and quite simply the best. Worth noting here, I also chose a Phoenix Weaponry muzzle brake… and smiled widely when I finally mounted it to an 18-inch .223-Wylde BSF carbon-Jacketed, match-grade barrel—more on the barrel in a bit.
While Phoenix Weaponry receivers, handguards and yes, full production rifles, are head-turners in their own rights, I cranked good looks up 20 notches with a custom battle-worn tungsten Cerakote finish lovingly and artfully crafted by Rocky Mountain Tactical Coatings (RMTC), headquartered in Berthoud, Colorado. Not only is the rifle beautiful, but it also fits like a glove. More importantly, considering that knurled handguard, it isn’t going anywhere I don’t want it to, even in sweat-soaked hands—carrying, shouldering and firing, the rig is rock solid from A to Z.
On the back of the rig, I was after a lightweight, fully-adjustable stock system that not only fine-tuned my length of pull (LOP) and cheek height position for more comfortable shooting and enhanced sight alignment but also complemented the overall presence of the rifle. The Luth-AR MBA-3 stock was an easy choice. The MBA-3 is constructed of a rugged polymer with the exception of a few adjustment screws, one for LOP and the other for comb-height—so simple even I could figure it out.
Gassing and bolt cycling is critical to reliable, repeatable shooting performance. Gassing, and ultimately, cycling issues account for scores of shooting problems, some not so safe, including stove-piping, double-feeding, blowing primers, etc. Considering this, utilizing quality internal components and know-how are foundational to reliability and overall system safety. To that end, I take product selection here quite seriously.
Phoenix Weaponry produces more than amazing receiver sets, they produce world-class suppressors, adjustable gas block systems and other accessories worth taking a look at. For this build, I chose PW’s stainless-steel adjustable gas block, complete with a forward-facing adjustment screw for fine-tuning. I also selected a Luth-AR buffer assembly and enhanced lower receiver parts. Since we’re talking Luth-AR here, I’ll add that I also chose to use their seriously comfortable rubber-molded Chubby Grip.
I also pulled the trigger on WMD Guns’ rock-solid, NiB-X-coated bolt carrier group and Ambi charging handle. I was turned on to WMD Guns’ NiB-X coating after shooting fellow gun-writer, Kevin Reese’s WMD Guns Big Beast AR-10, chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor and have run several WMD Guns BCGs since including in my Franken-rifle. After thousands of rounds, the BCG still wipes clean and essentially looks new. WMD’s NiB-X coating is 40% harder than chrome (Rc70 hardness). Honestly, I’m not a scientist but I know from experience that WMD’s NiB-X coating is worth the spend and some suggest you can run the BCG dry but that’s not a practice I have entertained.
A quality trigger group is vital when trying to achieve repeatable, consistently accurate shot placement under the stresses of adrenaline, a timer in tow and multiple targets. I had heard the Timney Calvin Elite Trigger was arguably the best 3-gun trigger on the market but I was apprehensive—I had no idea what to expect from the 1.5-lb. trigger-pull—force some might say is akin to a butterfly fart. Still, I was anxious to put it to work.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to grasp the importance of a good barrel when it comes to accuracy—it’s the cornerstone of any accurate rifle. All the match-grade thingamajiggy in the world won’t matter if the barrel doesn’t do its part. With the critical role of the barrel in mind, I decided on an 18-inch, fluted, match-grade, carbon-fiber-jacketed BSF Barrel. Aesthetically, it’s definitely a show-stopper and the fluting and carbon jacketing made for exceptionally lightweight, keeping true to one of the major goals of this project. As it relates to accuracy, the performance was definitely commensurate with those good looks—more on shooting below.
The barrel’s design is more than an industry-first, to my knowledge, it’s alone in the field of match-grade barrels, period. The vented carbon-fiber shroud is exactly that, a jacket, not a wrap. Only 5-percent of the carbon-fiber actually touches the barrel at installation points. The space between the jacketing and barrel, along with the ports, creates something of an airfoil cooling system. Even after rapid, high-volume shooting, I was able to touch the barrel.
While BSF barrels are certainly precision-machined to deliver the accuracy goods, assembling the barrel and jacketing under tension causes the barrel to further stiffen as it warms. Of course, one additional benefit, an important one in terms of historical carbon-fiber barrel wrapping, is the elimination of potential delamination issues. Delaminating has certainly reared its ugly head in the carbon-fiber arena. One last comment on the BSF barrel here—attention to detail is readily evident, great affirmation when you’re stepping into a higher-cost barrel for the first time. In our you-get-what-you-pay-for world, my impression was simply that it was a great value.
Eye on the Prize
Finally, the optic combination I elected to use is a Sightmark Pinnacle 1-6×24 TMD 1st focal plane scope and ZRO Delta M4 DLOC single-piece, quick-detach scope base to sit on top of this platform. The Pinnacle is built around a 30 mm aluminum main tube and utilizes 30 mm rings for mounting. The glass in this optic is bright, crisp and easily competes with other top-tier tactical-style low to mid variable magnification scopes although the price point is noticeably lower—a big win for serious but cost-conscious shooters.
Now that I’m in my late 40’s, I truly appreciate optics that clearly distinguish the target from background noise, something my eyes cannot do with a non-magnified red dot sight. The Pinnacle makes identifying targets in 3-gun matches easy and the combination of a throw-lever for quick magnification changes and lightweight (about 20 ounces) only serves to amplify the scope’s ability to perform in competition shooting situations.
With my dream-build complete, I was ready for the range; as they say, the proof is in the pudding. I headed down to my personal slice of shooting heaven, the Triple C Shooting Range, near DFW in Cresson, Texas. Tucked into the heart of a working ranch Triple C is something of a shooting mecca, hosting scores of 3-gun, multi-gun, PRS, and long-range shooting competitions all year long on shooting lanes from up-close and personal bays to steel plates at 100-yard increments clear out to a mile. Triple C’s crowned jewel is a bright yellow steel plate standing menacingly at a 2,000 berm. Of course, in the interest of this particular project, the range is a perfect place for me to test the rifle and continue to hone my 3-gun skillset.
For all testing, I chose to run Hornady 73gr 5.56mm ELD-Match ammunition. For its purpose, I’ve been incredibly impressed with the numbers I’ve experienced from Hornady’s ELD-M offerings, muzzle velocities have been comparable to what Hornady reports and groupings through numerous projects have not disappointed.
When it comes to building projects, I’m always a tad apprehensive on the first shot and this time was no different. I slipped down over the chassis, acquired my 100-yard target in the Sightmark scope and began to squeeze. Admittedly, the trigger broke cleanly but a bit sooner than expected—the result of a 1.5-lb. trigger.
Within the first few shots, I was completely comfortable and had fallen in love with the Timney Calvin Elite Trigger—now I understood the buzz and appreciated the competition benefit of the light trigger-weight. While “butterfly fart” seems an appropriate descriptor, it’s a genuinely positive shooting experience—no creep, ultra-crisp and responsive with a lightning-quick reset. Now comfortable, I sent short strings downrange. Lead flew out deliberately and as quickly as I could cycle my trigger finger and engage targets.
After a few strings, I broke down the rifle for a good cleaning and pulled copper from the BSF barrel—part of my barrel break-in process. Once the cleaning was completed and the rifle was reassembled, I settled down to zero the Sightmark Pinnacle 1-6×24 optic. It didn’t take long to make adjustments and the resulting combination of the scope and the match-grade barrel was an initial sub-¼ MOA—my best grouping to date. Unfortunately, my excitement caused the grouping to open up to a hair under ½-MOA after two more shots. Worthy of note here is my grouping method.
Full disclosure—my groupings include the human factor. I test with nothing more than a squeeze bag and bipod; of course, the bipod is also something worth noting. More recently, for firearm testing and precision shooting, I have put my trust in an Accu-Tac BR-4 Gen 2 bipod. While the BR-4 Gen 2 is the most stable platform I’ve used for AR-platform rifles, it’s also the heaviest I’ve used on gas gun systems. Still, this bipod has been my hands-down go-to since its first outing. As a side note here, for my long-range bolt guns, I recently followed suit and began using an Accu-Tac FC-G2 bipod. Impressed is an understatement. On both, depending on the surface, I switch often between rubber feet, spikes with claws and sled feet, depending on surfaces.
After zeroing and grouping 100 yards, I recorded some basic ballistic data worth mentioning here. While muzzle velocity averaged 2,608 fps, the greater story is found in standard deviation. Through eight shots, my Magneto Speed V3 Chrono reported a standard deviation of just 7.5. So, I’ll just come out and say it, Hornady’s ELD-M product quality is now rivaling performance we’re after when handloading. While shooters spend hours testing and perfecting loads, Hornady is beating down the repeatable-performance door well enough to entice even the most demanding shooters to give production ammo a shot, pun intended.
With performance as it was, leaving me grinning from ear to ear, I opted to see what she would do with some semblance of rapid-fire at longer range–not as much about the precision shooting but as a fun, challenging balance of speed and accuracy. After a couple of five-shot strings, I easily managed consistent hits on a 5-inch plate at 300 yards with a third-string.
For the rifle’s race-gun purpose, it delivered seriously impressive, repeatable accuracy. I had also hoped to slow down and send lead out to 500 during testing but Mother Nature literally rained-out my range parade without warning. In Forrest Gump’s words, “Rain flew in sideways and even seemed to come straight up from underneath.” So, I’ll save her for a non-rainy day. I’ve had a lot of pretty rifles come and go out of my life over the years but this one, she’s a keeper.
Handguard, upper/lower receiver, gas block, and muzzle brake $1200.00 www.phoenixweaponry.com
18″ stainless steel fluted barrel $599.00 www.bsfbarrels.com
MBA-3 buttstock $159.99 Chubby Grip $23.95 Lower Enhancement kit $49.95 www.luth-ar.com
Pinnacle 1-6×24 TMD optic $799.97 www.sightmark.com
M4DLOC mount/base $279.00 www.zrodelta.com
Calvin Elite Trigger $296.99 www.timneytriggers.com
NiBX bolt carrier group $159.00 NiBX charging handle $46.00 www.wmdguns.com
BR-4 Gen 2 bi-pod $308.00 www.accu-tac.com
The rifle weighs exactly 7 lbs without base and scope (over 2 lbs reduction compared to the “Franken” rifle), 8.6 lbs with base and scope