Black Rifles & Tactical Guns

The Uncluttered Carbine: A Personalized Upper/Lower Matchup Results In A Purpose-Built, Accurate AR

Guns and Gear Contributor
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By Jeff John, GUNS Magazine

As you all remember during ObamaScare I, prices had gone through the roof and shortages arose on practically everything remotely associated with shooting. ObamaScare II didn’t help much either and it’s only been in the last six months some sort of inventory has been accruing on dealer’s shelves—including spot sales on items for which we used to pay handsomely. If there is a silver lining, it’s this: The shooting sports have drawn millions of new participants.

Recently, Federal released the new “Fresh Fire Pack AR 5.56” and it comes in a 30-round nitrogen purged, waterproof, weatherproof can. The easy-open pop-top can also comes with a resealable plastic lid. This is one of the most sensible products available for those who maintain “bug-out bags” and have chosen the AR-15 as their go-to rifle for self-defense. You have one magazine-load per can, available well-preserved and easily replaceable for long-term storage. The bullet employed? The 62-grain “green tipped” M855 and the ammo is loaded to NATO specs. The retail is a reasonable $23.95, and it is often found on sale.

I ran into a hitch after acquiring the ammo. My AR’s were all .223 Rem. However, like many of you, I bought an AR-15 lower “just in case.” It has been languishing in my safe since January 2013.

There’s always a dizzying array of AR uppers in various states of completion. Rather than surf the catalogs of every manufacturer, I chose Bravo Company because they build in-house and carry a wide variety of rifles and parts from many of the top names in AR’s. If there is a mission suitable for Stoner’s signature creation, Bravo Company has the parts. And, for serious shoppers, the stock status is displayed on the website—something I really appreciate.


The two scopes used in this test were the Leupold Mark AR 3-9X and the Leupold Mark AR Mod 1 1.5-4X. The 3-9X (above) helps wring out the accuracy potential and the 1.5-4X is better in the self-defense role. After the final zero is attained, the setscrews on the turrets of 1.5-4X are loosened and then moved to “zero.” The upright “L” is your key the scope is still on zero.


For accuracy testing, Jeff installed a Leupold 3-9x40mm Mark AR scope with the Mil-Dot reticle using the 1-piece Leupold base. The adjustments are positive and clearly marked as to direction and clicks. The elevation turret is calibrated for the 55-grain bullet, and turrets calibrated for other loads are available from the Leupold Custom Shop.

My lower is a mil-spec US Autoweapons M4 with collapsible stock. I like this one because it was ATF-approved with “safe,” “fire” and “auto” engraved on the receiver, even though the lower is semi-auto only and the safety only operates in “safe” or “fire” mode. I had been planning a varmint rifle, but since the lower was ready to go as a carbine, I dragooned it for my 5.56 build. These days I’m a little more concerned with self-defense than hunting anyway.

I had an idea for what I wanted—a lightweight carbine with a fore-end easy on the hands, slim and versatile. Too many fore-ends are just too thick and with far more rails than I want or need. My current house AR is such, with a big cylindrical forearm with four sharp rails now all covered with MagPul rail covers (making things even fatter). It weighs 8 pounds, 12 ounces loaded with 20 rounds, but feels heavier and clumsier than that.

Paring some weight and slimming the rifle was in order, even though the AR is an inherently heavy platform. My search at Bravo’s website took several visits, mostly because everything starts to look the same to me after awhile. Eventually I settled on a Bravo Company upper with the firm’s proprietary Key Mod fore-end. It didn’t hurt my feelings to find it was on sale at 20 percent off.

The octagon fore-end is made from an aluminum/magnesium blend giving greater strength and lighter weight than aluminum alone. The key slots aren’t sharp, don’t snag and gives the carbine fast handling qualities. The slots are on seven sides with a Picatinny rail along the full 12 o’clock position of the receiver and fore-end. Rail sections, sling swivels, forward pistol grips and dozens of other gizmos can be quickly added anywhere along the rails.


The American Gold trigger is an aftermarket unit and is complete with pins for mil-spec receivers. Jeff’s US Autoweapons lower has such and the trigger dropped in as if it were made for the unit.


The Gunfighter Charging Handle provided on the Bravo upper extends further than the standard AR’s, making it easier to charge when optics such as the
3-9X Leupold are mounted. The bolt carrier key has properly double-staked screws.


The Bravo Mod 0 compensator differs from the usual M4 flash hider in that it also reduces muzzle rise as well as reducing flash.

Proof Tested

The heart of the Bravo upper is the bolt and barrel assembly. The mil-spec barrel in the lighter GI contour is proof-tested at 70,000 psi, then magnetic particle inspected for flaws. The 1:7-inch twist barrel is NATO chambered. Both bore and chamber are chrome lined, with the barrel exterior Parkerized. The bolt is fitted and the combination test-fired at Bravo. The barrel comes fitted with Bravo’s Gunfighter Mod 0 compensator. It is designed to reduce muzzle rise and side blast, plus lower the flash signature. My combination ran flawlessly throughout the first range session, which was a little more than 100 rounds.

The US Autoweapon lower is also mil-spec, made from hard-anodized 7076-T6 aluminum. It came complete with buttstock and GI trigger. I had one American Gold trigger on hand and have come to desire them in all my AR’s. It’s a light, 2-stage design breaking at a combined weight of just more than 3 pounds—a really delightful let-off and one I believe contributed to the accuracy results immensely.

The Gold’s instructions recommend you to have it installed by gunsmith, but by watching the company’s online video and following the instructions, I successfully installed it. Both the trigger and the upper fit as if they were custom-made for my lower. I don’t usually find anything goes together so easily and happily didn’t have to take a bag o’parts to the gunschmidt!

Next page please…

With an older Leupold Mark AR 3-9X scope mounted in the sturdy Leupold Mk 2 integral mounts for accuracy testing, my carbine weighs 7 pounds, 8 ounces, but feels lighter. There is just enough muzzle heaviness for a steady offhand hold and smooth swings between targets, and it carries easily.

With the aid of an Accuscope chart, I quickly zeroed the scope at 25 yards. Moving to 100 yards, a few more clicks put me into the diamond of the Mountain Plains targets. My shooting technique got me into trouble as my initial groups were in the 2-inch range shooting off a pair of bags. I removed the rear bag and my groups instantly settled down. The American Eagle 5.56mm delivered a 5-shot group of 1-1/2 inches, and four of those shots were in a pleasing 3/4-inch cluster. Federal Gold Medal Match took top accuracy honors with a 5-shot 1-1/8-inch group (four of those shots were in a tight 1/2-inch cluster).

There were no malfunctions throughout the test. The Bravo Company Gunfighter extended charging handle made working the bolt effortless even though the eyepiece of the optic is right over it. The last can of ammo was dedicated to ringing the 14×14-inch steel plates at 250 and 300 yards. A full 20-rounds was loaded into the Brownells magazine (I prefer 20’s over 30’s at the range for the lower profile).

The Leupold 3-9X scope has a simple Mil-Dot reticle. The closest gong required one dot down and centered to produce a satisfying ring. The 300-yard gong only needed the second dot raised to the top of the gong to ring it, and I placed 15 of the 20 rounds on target.


The new American Eagle 5.56mm 62-grain load, used as inspiration for this AR build, delivered a nice tight 1-1/2-inch 100-yard group. The ammo comes packed in convenient nitrogen-purged, weatherproof, resealable long-term storage cans holding 30-rounds in each.


Accuracy was all Jeff could ask from a carbine shot off a casual rest at 100 yards. Black Hills .223 77-grain Match ammo (left) delivered this 1-1/2-inch group and the Federal Gold Medal Match delivered a 1-1/4-inch group with four of those shots in a tight 1/2-inch cluster.


As a graduation exercise, after mounting and zeroing the Leupold Mark AR 1.5-4X scope, Jeff loaded a magazine with 20 rounds and shot the gongs at about a round per second. With the barrel hot, the final 14 rounds were loaded and fired on paper at 100 yards. Even in a hot, dirty barrel, the final 14 delivered this 2-1/2-inch group right to point of aim. Jeff has confidence he can rely on this new AR.

For the second range test, the smaller, handier Leupold Mark AR Mod 1 1.5-4X Illuminated Fire Dot scope now on my present house AR was switched over to this one. The eyepiece is far enough forward it gives easy access to the charging handle. The lower power meant my 100-yard groups were going to be bigger, and they were. My best group landed three shots into 1-1/2 inches with the 5-shot group enlarging to 4 inches. Most groups were in the 2-plus-inch range for three shots with the 5-shot group in the 4- to 5-inch range shooting the American Eagle 5.56mm ammo.

At the end of this 90-round session, I loaded a 20-round mag and shot about one round a second at the gongs. I loaded my last 14 rounds and fired on the 100-yard paper target at the same speed turning on the reticle’s green Fire Dot. The fore-end was now pleasingly warmer (since it was a 50 degree F day) and these last rounds went through a barrel allowed to cool only the time it took to load the mag. The overall group was 2-1/2×2-1/2 inches for 14 shots with no wandering of zero due to heat. The barrel was hot to the touch. I have confidence this outfit will allow me to shoot well hot or cold.

The rifle wasn’t cleaned between these shooting sessions, although I re-oiled the bolt carrier because I shot photos between range sessions. The bolt was lubed with Pro Shot Pro Gold initially and the heavy grease was sufficient for the whole test. There were no malfunctions to feed, eject or fire over these combined sessions of roughly 200 rounds.

All in all, I’m glad I built my own “Mr. Potato Head AR.” I now have a wonderfully accurate and reliable rifle. Weight with a loaded 20-round mag is a manageable 7 pounds, 13 ounces. Future plans are for folding iron sights, and I doubt I’ll add much more to the rails other than maybe a flashlight. My goal was a lightweight uncluttered carbine and that’s what I have.


Jeff had a spare lower in the safe, so when a good deal on Federal 5.56 ammo came along, a new house AR was in order to replace the one in .223. The Bravo Company upper with Key Mod fore-end can handle all manner of accessories. Clutter can include a simple forward grip to Browning’s new Black Label Rail System knife, the sheath of which attaches to the M1913 rail. The 5.11 vest holds two 30 round mags and three pistol mags in three of its 18 pockets. Brownells mags feature
chrome-silicon springs and anti-bind followers. The mags functioned flawlessly.


Mark AR Scopes

Maker: Leupold & Stevens
14400 Northwest Greenbriar Parkway, Beaverton, OR 97006
(503) 646-9171


Mark AR 3-9x40mm Model: Mark AR Mod 1 1-4x20mm
3.3X to 8.6 (actual) Magnification: 1.4X to 3.9X (actual)
40mm Objective Diameter: 20mm
4.3 inches (3X),
3.6 inches (9X)
Eye Relief: 125 MOA windage
& elevation
56 inches elevation,
52 inches windage at 100 yards
Internal Adj. Range: 125 MOA windage
& elevation
1/2 MOA Click Value: 0.1 Mils
1 inch Tube Diameter: 1 inch
12.4 ounces Weight: 9.6 ounces
12.6 inches Overall Length: 9-3/8 inches
Mil-Dot Reticles: Fire Dot-G TMR
$439.99 Price: $564.99

Interactive Whiteboards by PolyVision


.223 Remington Factory Ammo Performance

Load(brand, bullet weight, type) Velocity (fps) Group Size (inches)
Black Hills Match 77 BTHP 2,588 1-5/8
Federal Gold Medal 68 BTHP 2,521 1-1/4
Federal American Eagle 62 BT* 2,789 1-1/2

Notes: Groups the product of 5 shots at 100 yards. Magneto Speed Chronograph measures at the muzzle. *NATO-spec 5.56x45mm.

Big thanks to the team at GUNS Magazine for this post – click here to visit them online.

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