It used to be that bolt-action rifles were the only serious consideration for law enforcement sniper operations. These rifles required quite a bit of specialized gunsmithing to get them to where they consistently produced the pinpoint accuracy required.
Times have changed and in recent years the Army solicited .308 semi-auto rifles from various manufacturers for its Semi Auto Sniper System (SASS) program. Knights Armament eventually won that contract and is now producing rifles for the military replacing tired M24 bolt guns and more than 50-year-old M21s (modified M-14 sniper rifles) with the M110 SASS. Accuracy of the semi-auto rifles now matches and in some cases surpasses that of the bolt guns.
The advantage to using a semi-auto weapon over a bolt gun is obvious. Follow-up shots are much quicker and the felt recoil is much less. Another advantage of the AR platform .308 weapons system is the familiar layout of the selector, magazine release, and charging handle. For service veterans and LEOs trained on the 5.56 AR system, there's no confusion as the controls are nearly identical.
Recently Rock River Arms introduced the LAR-8 Varmint A4 rifle. Chambered for the .308 cartridge, this rifle's most obvious feature is its 26-inch heavy stainless steel barrel.
Other qualities that make the rifle well suited for precision long range work include its free float handguard, match two-stage trigger, and its ability to use plentiful FAL surplus 20-round magazines.
If you're feeling a slight twinge of deja vu it is because you may have seen this rifle before in a different guise. Back in 2005, I reviewed a Bushmaster .308 with a 20-inch barrel for POLICE. "The .308 was an in-house project that probably started in the late '90s. We had the initial design going in 2002 and about that same time Bushmaster discovered that we were doing a .308 and approached us about licensing," explains Steve Mayer, Rock River's law enforcement and government sales manager and new product development coordinator.
Why would Rock River do such a thing? "At the time we were a very small company and had our hands full with the new DEA 5.56 carbine contract-the biggest that we had ever dealt with," says Mayer. "So the decision was made that we would license the design of the .308 to Bushmaster. They produced a few thousand rifles during the couple years that they had it under their control before eventually relinquishing the rights back to us."
Rock River did not immediately reintroduce the rifle. Rather the company spent the next two years going through the rifle from front to back, learning from Bushmaster's experience with it and incorporating new technology and newer ideas.
More than 60 countries used the FAL rifle from the 1960s on. At one time it was called the right arm of the Free World because it was so common in non-communist countries' arsenals. So there are literally millions and millions of surplus magazines available. At a recent gunshow I saw FAL magazines ranging from $8 to $20 for a like new magazine. The new Rock River rifles will accept both inch and metric pattern magazines.
"We were revolutionary in the way that we approached the FN FAL magazines," says Mayer. "Rather than working with an AR platform and thinking what can we stick in the magwell, we started working with the FAL mag and built the rifle around it. When it came to designing the bolt catch we thought let's make it work with one of the most plentiful magazines in the world and see what we can come up with.
"Our bolt release is very similar to that of the release on an original FN FAL, in both placement and how it functions," adds Mayer. "Everyone said that we couldn't build a rifle that would work with a FAL magazine and we proved the naysayers wrong."[PAGEBREAK]
In fact, the bolt release seems to be the only part on the LAR-8 Varmint that is not typical of the AR family of weapons. The bolt catch runs along both sides of the mag well and is ambidextrous. Pushing up on the lever while pulling the charging handle back will lock the bolt carrier in its open position. Downward pressure on the lever, which can be done with the trigger finger, will drop the bolt carrier. The magazine release is also ambidextrous.
Rock River started shipping what it calls the LAR-8 Varmint A4; presumably the "Varmint" refers to the heavy barrel. For a gun that retails for just $1,385 the LAR-8 features one of the most sophisticated barrels that I've seen in this price range.
Rock River uses a Wilson barrel that is air gauged to ensure uniformity, but the company also goes the extra step of cryogenically treating it. This process involves cooling the barrel to minus 300 degrees F and then gradually allowing it to return to ambient temperatures. This process refines the grain structure of the barrel to stabilize it.
Greater velocities are realized as the barrel becomes denser and the smoother surfaces reduce friction which, in turn, reduces heat. De-stressing the barrel, makes it less likely to warp when it heats up from continuous firing, which would normally cause vertical stringing of groups.
The 26-inch heavy stainless barrel takes full advantage of the .308's range and gives the propellant plenty of room to burn completely. Higher velocities will ensure that the projectile remains stabilized at longer distances. Rifled with a 1:10-inch twist, my test rifle performed admirably with every bullet weight I tried from 147 grains to 175 grains.
Rock River guarantees this rifle for Minute of Angle accuracy-meaning that at 100 yards it is capable of producing one-inch groups.
My experience with the rifle is that it is capable of much greater than MOA accuracy. Before you think that the company sent me a ringer-a gun prepared specifically for a gunwriter's evaluation-let me point out that this rifle was purchased through consumer channels.
I wanted to select an optic that could take full advantage of the LAR-8's mechanical accuracy and range. So I matched the rifle with Trijicon's new TR23-1 AccuPoint 5-20X variable scope with standard crosshair and amber dot. I've long been a fan of Trijicon products and love the ACOG family of scopes, the company's reflex sights, and lower powered AccuPoints. But the aiming chevrons of those scopes don't seem to offer the precision of crosshairs especially for long distance.
Trijicon's TR23-1 solves this problem. At the very center of the crosshairs is an illuminated aiming point. In sunlight it glows brilliantly and is powered by the fiber optic collector. There's a manual brightness override to keep the aiming point from causing eye fatigue. In low light the aiming point is powered by tritium so the shooter never loses the aiming point. With the heavier recoil of the .308, I appreciate the longer eye relief of this scope and found the turret controls for windage and elevation also to be user-friendly. The scope also has side parallax adjustment for enhanced accuracy at longer ranges. I mounted the scope in a Rock River 30mm scope mount that attaches easily to the rifle's flat top receiver with two thumbscrews.[PAGEBREAK]
The unloaded weight of the rifle with scope is about 13.5 pounds and this weight, in addition to the standard impingement gas system, does a lot to minimize felt recoil. Over the course of two days I fired more than 150 rounds and felt none the worse for my efforts, despite having an arthritic shoulder.
For targets I used 1-inch Shoot-N-C target pasters attached to an IPSC target set out at 100 yards. All shooting was done from a cement bench, from a seated position, utilizing a rifle rest. The results were nothing less than spectacular.
Judicious ammunition selection makes this rifle easily a .5 MOA gun. My groups ranged from .78 inches to my best of .32 inches-a group so small that it could literally be covered with a dime!
The LAR 8 Varmint's trigger also contributed to the rifle's ability to place rounds on top of each other. The trigger on my rifle broke almost exactly at 3.5 pounds with very little overtravel. It is of the non-adjustable variety, which is fine with me. There are no engagement or overtravel screws that can back out and render the rifle unusable.
Blackening the Barrel
A good friend who is attached to a Naval Special Warfare unit, accompanied me during the field shooting portion of my evaluation. He mentioned that the shiny silver barrel would need to be darkened before it could be considered for use as a working gun.
When I asked him what process his guys used to camo their guns I expected him to say something like Birdsong
Black T or Lauer DuraCoat finish. His response was, "whatever spray paint is on sale at the hardware store." Those guys are hard on their weapons and realize that no matter what they put on their guns it's going to get scratched and require a quick touch up. His recommendation for me was to buy BBQ black-the same stuff that you'd use to repaint your BBQ. The hotter your barrel gets the more the paint cures. It is a flat black finish that is nonreflective and easy to touch up.
We set our targets out from 100 to 300 yards and fired the rifle using a Harris Bipod attached to the sling swivel stud on the bottom of the rifle's free float tube. The Trijicon optics and Rock River's two-stage trigger made hitting even the farthest target boring. It seemed an impossible to miss combination.
After going through a couple magazines of ammunition without a miss, we decided to do nothing but headshots and still found that we were hitting them with monotonous regularity. The long heavy barrel dampened muzzle disruption to the point that I could watch my bullets impact on the distant steel targets.
I used a variety of surplus FAL magazines and found that they all worked perfectly. During my 300-round evaluation there were no jams or stoppages of any kind.
I wanted to fit the LAR-8 A4 Varmint with a Magpul PRS stock but found that the new stock is not compatible as there is not enough clearance for the charging handle. Rock River does, however, have a new fixed length Operator stock. While it is not adjustable for length of pull, nor does it have an adjustable cheek piece, it does have a comfortable wedge shaped stock that allows for an excellent cheek weld for the shooter and a rubber butt plate that will keep the stock from slipping from the shoulder even when wearing a nylon vest. The Operator stock also features battery storage compartments and different places for a quick detach sling swivel.
If the 26-inch barrel length of the LAR-8 Varmint A4 seems to be a bit unwieldy for you Rock River now has a 20-inch version available and that should make the rifle a bit more portable. With a suggested retail price of just $1,385 (departments and agencies can call for LE pricing) the LAR-8 A4 Varmint rifle is one of the best values in the semi-auto precision .308 market.
Rock River Arms — LAR-8 Varmint A4
Barrel: Wilson air-gauged bull stainless steel with 1:10-inch twist
Barrel Length: 26 inches
Overall Length: 47 inches
Weight: 11.6 pounds
Accessories: Hard case
Warranty: Limited lifetime
Mike Detty is an NRA-certified rifle, pistol, and shotgun instructor. A certified rangemaster and competition shooter, Detty served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps and holds a degree in criminal justice from the University of Arizona.