The popularity of the AR-15/M-16 platform continues to expand in the law enforcement marketplace, with about an even dozen or so makers in the fray. Some of the names associated with "aftermarket" AR rifles have exhibited questionable quality, but a sterling few are, simply put, as good as anyone could possibly want, or need.
After the North Hollywood bank robbery and shootout, battle-weary M-16s began to show up in patrol cars, courtesy of the U.S. government. Whether or not this was, or is, a good idea, should be left to the agencies involved.
However, unlike a six-shot revolver, the AR is a complex system to operate, maintain, and shoot well. Anyone can be taught to send a few rounds downrange with it, but becoming intimately familiar with the operation, maintenance, potential pitfalls, and strengths of the AR family of rifles takes training.
And that's where a lot of agencies come up short. After a short "transition" training class (I've seen them as short as two hours!), officers are usually left to their own devices while they learn to live with the AR. This seems to be especially true with smaller agencies with correspondingly smaller training budgets. There are tens of thousands of personally owned AR rifles sitting in patrol cars, purchased in good faith by officers tired of being undergunned, but unless that initial purchase is followed up with regular training, the situation might be best described as an accident waiting for a time to happen.
So let's pretend you've made the decision to buy ARs for your agency, or to buy one personally. The first thing you have to do is pick out a gun. Do your homework. We're not going to get ugly and name names, but there are some models that don't measure up. So ask around and conduct some real-world research into quality before you lay your money down. After all, from a low of around $800 to a high of close to $3,000, the cost of an AR isn't exactly chump change.
Our advice is to stick with one of the top-quality makers and remember the adage "simple is best" is usually the case, especially for a rifle that's going to beat-around in a patrol car. But if you need or want something a bit more sophisticated, it's available.
And that brings us neatly around to the case at hand. Rock River Arms, long famous for its line of quality 1911-series handguns, entered the AR market with a vengeance and has quickly risen to one of the top positions.
Rock River's AR line is bewildering to the uninitiated and even a bit daunting to those who understand the gun. By my own count, there seems to be about 26 basic models in the company's catalog, ranging from base rifles to complex varmint models. If you factor in the options available and your ability to essentially custom make one to meet your own specific needs, or wants, the final potential model count tallies in the hundreds.
The strength of the AR platform is the fact that it's so easily "improved upon" by garage tinkerers. Top-ends, caliber conversions, butt stocks, grips, bolts, barrels, sights, rails, triggers, and just about every other part can be changed virtually at will. But this can also be dangerous, as the average "Joe" can get a bit carried away with bolt-on goodies, many of questionable value. Keep that in mind before you reach for the screwdriver.
According to the Federal Business Opportunity Website (www.fedbizopps.
gov), Rock River was awarded a contract to supply specified models of the AR (in pre-ban NFA configuration) to the Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. The award amount is for more than $85 million, which is a lot of AR rifles no matter how you look at it.
The Rock River DEA model seems to be essentially the company's Tactical CAR-A4 carbine, albeit highly accessorized and perhaps slightly modified in some respects. Our test rifle showed a one-in-eight-inch twist barrel, although the specs for the DEA show a one-in-nine requirement. Perhaps it had to do with the fact our gun has the full-length 16-inch barrel, and the contract rifle comes with the 14.5-inch version. Both the civilian model and the DEA model are semi-auto only.
Rock River's pre-ban six-position collapsible buttstock is standard on the DEA model, and the pistol grip is an obvious Hogue model that says "Rock River." There are hard points for sling attachment, both for right- and left-hand operation, and our rifle came with a simple nylon sling. Six 30-round mags, a soft Eagle case with slots for five mags, a carrying handle, and cleaning kit make up the package. Ours being the civilian model (nobody trusts us with the short 14.5-inch barrel), we're not sure if the package is any different for the L/E model. We doubt it.[PAGEBREAK]
Not surprisingly, the DEA rifle is supplied with the EOTech Model 552 HOLOgraphic weapon sight system. This nifty sight features the same technology Bushnell uses in its famous HOLOsight. Parallax-free, the EOTech delivers true "heads-up display" and can be (should be) used with both eyes open. Even if the display glass is shattered, if there is any portion still useable, the aiming point will be visible and functional. The EOTech also delivers night-vision capability. This is all pretty revolutionary technology and if you love optics on your battle rifle, this is the rig for you.
Still, as a backup, the DEA rifle mounts the GG&G A2 style BUIS (Back Up Iron Sight) with its folding rear aperture. The unique thing about this whole rig (EOTech and BUIS) is the fact when everything is dialed in correctly, the red dot of the holographic sight rests just on top of the front iron sight, right where it belongs. So, even if you destroy your optics, you can still hopefully go to iron and stay in the fight.
The front end of the DEA rifle has the ubiquitous Picatinny rail-mount feature. Only this one, supplied by SureFire, has the rails mounted about everywhere and allows positioning of the light and other goodies anywhere the user might want them. Called the M73 Rail Mount Assembly, the hard-anodized unit is machine tooled, and this precision allows for "repeat zero" when remounting any accessories made to mil-spec quality control limits. SureFire also supplies the M951XM05 Tactical light with M49 mount as part of the package.
Basic finish on the DEA appears to be standard phosphate with anodizing on the aluminum bits. The rifle says "DEA" on it (which, we assume, makes it even cooler?) and can be had with special serial numbers, but we're not privy to what they might be. There's a forward bolt assist lurking on the starboard side of the receiver and the bolt is not hard-chromed, although the bore is.
The trigger is very good and is a two-stage military one, but that's where all resemblance to anything military makes an abrupt departure. Our test rifle had a very nice four-pound, seven-ounce pull, which matches the advertised "four-and-a-half-pound" weight nicely. It was crisp, repeatable, and, frankly, a very handsomely functional trigger.
The testing team measured groups at 50 yards since, honestly, the vast majority of fights with this rifle will take place at that range or closer, usually very much closer. Using Federal Tactical .223 we averaged around .6 inches for five shots, give or take a bit. We also shot a bit of everything we had laying around (Black Hills, PMC, Winchester, etc.) and the average with all of them was about 1 inch at 50.
Rock River says the DEA should do an inch at 100 yards, and we imagine it will with the right ammo and trigger finger. On a standard silhouette at 100 yards, head shots were a piece of cake, easily done off-hand. This is an honest 300-yard rifle. If you were ever called upon to solve some problem "way out there" some day, the DEA Tactical Carbine could do it.
The rifle ran just fine with no jams noted of any sort. However, as is the case with any AR platform, as the ranges get close (like 10 yards close) you've got to remember to take into consideration the sight offset or you may miss what you're aiming at. At the least, embarrassing and at worst, a potential tragedy.
On a personal note, I like my ARs to have a fixed stock, iron sights, and, OK, I'll compromise with tradition and put a light on the front. But being a semi-old guy, I confess I'm still leery of widgets. Heck, I like a fixed-sight, big-bore S&W revolver.
But all those fancy optics: red dot thingies, magic night vision scopes, and more seem to be taking over these days so I'd better get used to them. You should, too. Besides, I'm sure you noticed all the optics on the rifles in Iraq, so there must be something to it. Still, those steel GG&G sights are comforting, just in case the battery gremlins strike at an awkward moment.
The Rock River Arms DEA model is a nice rifle and a far cry from the average AR you find on the dealer's shelf. It's well worth a look if your agency needs such a thing.
Rock River Arms
DEA Tactical Carbine
Caliber: .223 (5.56 mm)
Barrel Length: 16 inches as tested (14.5 inches on law enforcement model)
Overall Length: 36 inches as tested
Weight: 8.4 pounds (depending upon accessories)
Stock: Synthetic collapsible rear
Forend: Machined aluminum w/Picatinny rails
Mags: Supplied with six 30-round mags
Sling: Nylon, with ambi feature on rifle
Action: Semi-auto only
Accuracy: Guaranteed 1 inch at 100 yards
Trigger: Two-stage match
Cost: Around $2,000 for tested model
Roy Huntington is editor of American Handgunner magazine and a member of the Police Advisory Board.