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Kel-Tec PLR-16 .223 Handgun

Can an AR-style pistol really hold up to combat conditions? The rugged and accurate PLR-16 can.

Mike Detty Headshot

If there were a weapon that provided 60 percent more power than your standard sidearm yet weighed less than half of what a traditional AR-15 carbine does, without sacrificing accuracy, it would get your attention, right? Well, Kel-Tec has just introduced an AR-style pistol that weighs just over three pounds, takes M-16 mags, and possesses laser-like accuracy. After having fired nearly 1,000 rounds through my evaluation sample, I have to say that this pistol has got my attention.

Called the PLR-16 (Pistol Long Range), the gun’s receivers are made from Zytel, the tough, impact-resistant polymer. My initial reaction was that the plastic gun would not be tough enough to stand up to the rigors of law enforcement work. Which was the same opinion voiced by military brass when Eugene Stoner introduced the rifle that would become the M-16, made largely with aluminum alloys. But what has to be understood is that the steel bolt locks into the steel barrel extension and the aluminum alloy, in the case of the M-16, and the plastic, in the PLR-16’s case, bear no mechanical stress. After my short evaluation, I couldn’t find any signs of wear on the Zytel receivers.

Kel-Tec’s minimal use of steel in this pistol helps cut the gun’s weight. But another big factor in weight reduction is that the PLR-16 does not have the traditional buffer and buffer tube (receiver extension if we want the nomenclature to be correct) that the M-16 does. The omission of this appendage gives the PLR-16 incredibly good handling characteristics.

Innovative Engineering

Over the years I’ve tried to build a number of AR pistols and could never get them to cycle correctly because of the buffer spring and buffer combination. Kel-Tec’s CEO and chief design engineer, George Kelgren, ingeniously solved this problem and, in my opinion, created an improved gas system for his pistol. Rather than bleed gas from the barrel back into the receiver to force the bolt carrier rearward like the AR-15 and M-16 rifles, Kelgren attached a piston rod to his bolt carrier. This design keeps gas that can foul the weapon out of the receiver. He was able to eliminate the buffer tube and buffer by wrapping the action spring around the piston rod.

The bolt handle is located on the right side of the receiver. In my opinion, it would have been handier to have it on the other side so that the operator could charge the chamber without releasing his firing grip with his or her right hand. As it is, the user can reach over with his or her left hand and pull the bolt handle to the rear and release it. The bolt handle does reciprocate so the user must make sure that nothing, especially body parts, gets in the way of the bolt handle as it cycles.

Fitting It Out

Iron sights come standard issue on the PLR-16. The rear sight is adjustable for windage and the M-16-style front sight can be rotated for elevation by pushing in a detent pin and turning the sight. To be completely honest, I never did use the iron sights during the evaluation. Instead, I mounted an EOTech 512 holographic sight on the pistol. To my way of thinking the EOTech is the perfect sight for the Kel-Tec. Because of the pistol’s limited range, I could see no reason to put a scope on the gun. Designed to be used with both eyes open, the EOTech offers extremely fast target-to-target transition.

To give the PLR-16 night-fighting capability I mounted an Insight Technology M6X laser/light combination on the Picatinny rail on the handguard. I was able to get it quickly dialed in by making the laser match the aiming point of the EOTech.

Kel-Tec ships the PLR-16 without handguards. For those that use the gun for target shooting or hunting this might be all right, but if you intend to do any kind of rapid fire exercises with the pistol you will absolutely have to get the optional handguards. After just a few quick shots the barrel becomes hot enough to scorch skin, and it’s awfully easy to inadvertently grasp the barrel with your support hand. Believe me the handguards are an absolute must! And it only takes a few seconds to install them. Note: They feature a Picatinny rail at their bottom for mounting accessories like the M6X light/laser.

The addition of a vertical fore grip on the PLR-16 would undoubtedly aid in the control of the pistol and make rapid fire much more controllable, but doing so will require even sworn law enforcement to jump through some federal hoops. To quote an ATF newsletter to dealers addressing this issue: “ATF has long held that by installing a vertical fore grip on a handgun, the handgun is no longer designed to be held and fired by the use of a single hand. Therefore, if individuals install a vertical fore grip on a handgun, they are ‘making’ a firearm requiring registration with ATF’s NFA Branch. Making an unregistered ‘AOW’ (Any Other Weapon) is punishable by a fine and 10 years’ imprisonment. Additionally, possession of an unregistered ‘AOW’ is also punishable by a fine and 10 years’ imprisonment.”

If you use a PLR-16 pistol for duty, or any pistol for that matter and want to attach a vertical foregrip, make sure beforehand that you have completed the necessary paperwork to stay on the right side of the law.

For tactical use, the optional sling system is also a must. Kel-Tec’s kit includes a steel sling loop, mounting screws, and the sling itself. Once properly adjusted, the sling makes the pistol almost as stable as a stocked weapon. When not being used, the weapon hangs conveniently at the ready. Because of the gun’s light weight, about three pounds without a magazine, it is not a chore to carry the PLR-16 around the neck and shoulder.

The magazine release for the PLR-16 is in the Stoner-inspired location and is easy to manipulate with the trigger finger. One 10-round magazine is included with the pistol, but it will accept any M-16 magazine and they drop free when the release is depressed. I used a bunch of 30-round mags, and they all worked well and locked the bolt to the rear when empty.

Unfortunately, the safety on the PLR-16 is not in the same location as that of the M-16. More than once I caught myself sweeping the left side of the receiver with my thumb trying to find the safety. In actuality, the safety is a crossbolt safety located just above the trigger. In fact, my one biggest criticism of this pistol is that I have to relinquish my firing grip to take the gun off safe. I found that I had to move my hand off the grip about a half inch to push the safety from right to left to make it ready to fire. Fortunately, it is easy to use your thumb to put the weapon back on safe.

Range Time

I set up my targets at 25 yards to do my initial sight in with the EOTech and I was impressed with the tiny groups that the PLR-16 produced. Once I had the sights regulated, I moved the targets back to 50 yards and concentrated on adding pressure to the trigger until the shot broke.

My Kel-Tec pistol has a long and heavy seven-pound pull, and I did my best to keep the inner dot of the larger circle of the EOTech on the one-inch pasters that I used for targets. I was amazed that all of my groups measured under 1.5 inches for a five-shot group with the best group clustering under an inch. Over the years I have tested many AR-15 carbines that couldn’t match that level of accuracy, and it is important to remember that this is a pistol, weighing less than half of what the carbines weigh and it only has a nine-inch barrel.

After adjusting the sling, I fired the PLR-16 in some rapid-fire exercises. Muzzle climb is noticeably more than that of a .223 carbine, and it did make me wish that I could install the verboten vertical foregrip. With some practice I was able to get the time between shots down without sacrificing hits. Compared to other AR-style pistols that I have fired this particular gun has much better handling characteristics thanks to its lack of protruding buffer tube. The pistol is only 18.5 inches long and well balanced.

I took the PLR-16 out for a session of night shooting to see just how effective the Insight M6X laser/light is. I had a shooting dummy set up at about 30 yards and fired about 10 shots, all from the hip, using only the laser dot as an aiming point. I fired as fast as I could center the dot on the chest and press the trigger. All 10 shots landed in a cluster about the size of my fist. I could clearly see the laser out to 100 yards, even when it was used in conjunction with the light. I think the combination of the EOTech and Insight M6X light/laser combination will effectively handle just about any tactical scenario.

Muzzle Blast

One thing that a shooter will have to accustom himself to is the PLR-16’s rather substantial muzzle blast. I never noticed it when I was using the EOTech to fire groups but, when I fired a few rounds from the hip, the large orange fireball became evident. Kel-Tec threads the muzzle of the pistol’s barrel with a standard thread pitch so that any aftermarket flash hider for an M-16 can be used on their gun, but it’s obvious that not all of the powder is getting a chance to burn in that nine-inch barrel.

During my bench shooting, I noticed some unburned powder forward of my shooting position and that made me wonder just what the shooter is giving up by going to a nine-inch barrel rather than a 16-inch carbine barrel. When I chronographed the PLR-16, I took along an AR carbine for comparison. What I found is that the shorter barrel gives up about 16 percent in velocity. But that translates into a loss of 30 percent energy—not an insignificant number and something that should be factored into the equation if the Kel-Tec is being considered for duty use.

However, the PLR-16 produces far more energy than that of a typical duty sidearm. For example, my SIG 229 fires a .40 S&W, 165-grain Hydra-Shok bullet at 947 feet per second. That round produces 347 foot-pounds of energy. In contrast, the PLR-16 fires a Winchester 55-grain FMJ bullet from its nine-inch barrel at a velocity of 2,647 feet per second and produces 855 foot-pounds of energy. That’s 59-percent more horsepower for the PLR-16, compared to the .40 S&W SIG.

I finished my evaluation before ever cleaning the PLR-16, and I fired close to 1,000 rounds. I even fired some of the new Wolf 62-grain ammo and had no extraction problems with the steel-cased ammunition. In fact, I didn’t have any stoppages or malfunctions during the course of my testing. Disassembly of the pistol is easy and requires no special tools. One thing that I did notice was that, even after all of those rounds, the inside of the receiver was far from being dirty enough to induce a malfunction.

The PLR-16 is a compromise weapon: it can’t do everything that a full size carbine can do, but it sure can do a lot more than a typical police pistol can. When the confines of a building or vehicle inhibit an operator’s movement or when any environmental factors make using a carbine difficult or impossible, the Kel-Tec PLR-16 provides the user with more power, accuracy, and capacity than a duty sidearm can supply. My only real criticism of the pistol is the placement of the safety, and it may not be a problem for other more dexterous individuals. I am impressed with its accuracy and reliability and its extreme portability.

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.

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