Les Baer Custom Thunder Ranch Rifle

A solid hit with a .308 or .223 will, as Clint Smith is fond of saying, "Really change your channel."

Roy Huntington Headshot

"Anyone who brings a pistol to a fight has chosen poorly."
- Clint Smith, Director, Thunder Ranch

The argument over the hypothetical "one-shot stop" continues unabated. Yet, anyone with any experience in the real world knows the closest you can ever come to ensuring an abrupt end to a gunfight is with a rifle. When a rifle caliber is introduced into the equation, things get serious and a handgun's ability to neutralize a threat is suddenly put into perspective. A solid hit with a .308 or .223 will, as Clint Smith is fond of saying, "Really change your channel."

At the risk of preaching to the choir, it might be a good idea to revisit the fact that gunfights in the police world almost invariably occur well within pistol ranges. With the typical SWAT precision rifle shot being under 100 yards (and closer to 75 or less), some people still don't understand the incredible ability of a rifle to be a cop's best friend when the chips are down-even when those chips start dropping at muzzle-contact distances.

Unless you've had personal experience, it may be hard to understand how a trained person can move, shoot, and communicate quickly, effectively, and with finality, all with a rifle in his or her hands-all at distances commonly encountered with duty handguns. If you shoulder a short rifle and stand next to someone holding a handgun at arm's length, you'll find the muzzles are within an inch or two of one another in extended length. That simple concept, joined with easy-to-learn tactics on how to maneuver the muzzle and control shot placement when in close, can turn a rifle into the answer to those "call out the cavalry" moments we've all encountered.

If we accept the idea of a rifle for police work-as thousands of agencies have-then it behooves us to take the next step and understand why quality, innovation, and performance must be at their peak when a rifle is adopted. After all, we've already decided that a good rifle may make the difference in a deadly force encounter.

Dynamic Duo

One of the world's best makers of high-end duty weapons is Les Baer Custom. The company's 1911 series pistols are well-known to savvy handgunners and it's the lucky cop who carries a Les Baer Custom 1911 in his or her duty holster. Police reviewed the Baer Super-Tac II (January 2003) and found it to be, arguably, the finest semi-production 1911 on the market.

So we were understandably intrigued with the concept of a Les Baer Custom AR-platform rifle, especially when we found out Clint Smith of Thunder Ranch (the world-class training facility in Texas) had joined hands with master gunsmith Baer to create what many feel may be the "perfect" police rifle.

Baer and Smith had already teamed up successfully on a 1911 fighting pistol, the "Thunder Ranch Special." Basically a very simple, no-fuss 1911, built to Smith's specific parameters and to Baer's quality standards, the pistol swept the industry.

With that kind of history, it was only natural for Smith and Baer to work together again on a rifle. As the originator of the concept of "Urban Rifle" and corresponding training over the years, Smith brought his past experience to the table. After two tours of duty in Vietnam where he was wounded in action, a stint as a working cop, originating the H&K training program in the late '80s, and creating Thunder Ranch in 1993, Smith's "real world" experience is sobering. Years of working with thousands of students in addition to his own combat and police experience have given Smith a unique perspective on refining rifle design. So he realized that what was needed in a patrol rifle was a simple, yet robust, design without compromise in reliability, accuracy, and ergonomics.
Baer agreed and, over the course of about a year, the two went back and forth with ideas, rough designs, sketches, and, finally, a finished product. Due to their combined efforts, Les Baer Custom now offers an astoundingly accurate and reliable rifle for a variety of applications.

The Les Baer Thunder Ranch rifle is an AR-15 platform rifle, but it's not just another AR-15 clone. It's a carefully crafted compilation of design innovation, quality in manufacturing, and specific ideas, all wrapped up into a package that is, simply put, virtually without peer.[PAGEBREAK]Simple is Best

Risking cliché, the "Keep It Simple, Stupid" philosophy reigns supreme when it comes to reliability in the field. The more widgets and decorations you bolt onto a piece of equipment, the higher the likelihood it will fail when you need it most. Keeping it simple, yet guaranteeing .5-inch MOA and 100-percent reliability, is what makes the Thunder Ranch Rifle unique. Often, you can have one (amazing accuracy) or reliability, but rarely both. And, in its intended role, unless the rifle is 100-percent reliable, it's useless and may as well be a rusty bolt.

However, simplicity doesn't necessarily mean "without features." For instance, this rifle's innovative front sight is an example of simplified engineering combined with a new performance window. The tritium front sight folds down and locks with a detent to accommodate the installation of optics on the flat-top receiver. It will also fold and spring back if knocked against a hard surface. If the sight is needed, with the simple press of a stud it pops back up.

The rear sight is a Tippie National Match unit with quarter-inch MOA adjustments and a .198-inch ghost-ring along with a .1-inch precision aperture. This entire assembly comes off to mount optics and other goodies if you simply must have them. A Jewell two-stage trigger is standard (the same as that offered on Baer's National Match rifle) and is tuned to a 4.5-pound pull since it's a duty rifle. The barrel is made in house at Baer and is rifled with a 1-in-8 twist and likes heavier bullets. As you can see, this is not a bare bones military rifle.


When Clint Smith received the first Thunder Ranch Rifle from Les Baer, he immediately took it out on the range at the Ranch and fired about 700 rounds through it in 25 minutes. It got so hot the Baer Coat lifted from the gas block. But according to Smith, it ran like clockwork.

Our test rifle was a very early model that I had the opportunity to examine on a recent trip to Thunder Ranch. And I can personally report that Smith was very proud of the finished product and the job Les Baer did in taking their concepts and turning them into a real, shooting rifle.

Anyone familiar with the operation of an AR will be right at home with the Les Baer Thunder Ranch Rifle. The only thing you have to get used to is the incredible smoothness and almost effortless operation of the rifle.

Shooting this rifle is a pleasure. The crisp trigger helps to keep things on target, and half-inch to three-quarter-inch groups are possible with the iron sights, if you know what you're doing. With heavier bullets, like Black Hills 77-grain HPBT, not only do you have a serious rifle capable of penetrating deeply enough to make it through many barriers, but you also have tack-driving accuracy.

With quality optics, this rifle really can deliver sub-half-inch groups. Baer says, "I routinely shoot these rifles at .25 inches at a hundred, and that's no kidding." I would never accuse Les Baer of kidding about the accuracy of his guns. This rifle is scarily accurate, to the point that it's hard to believe, but we saw it with our own eyes.

Final Thoughts

Just as the Les Baer Custom Super-Tac II 1911 is a wonderful pleasure to shoot and a delight to behold, so is the Thunder Ranch Rifle. Baer's no-compromise quality control, design, and engineering coupled with Clint Smith's "learned it in the dirt" experience with rifles, has created a symphony of parts that pleases the eye as well as the hands.

Unfortunately, like anything in this league, quality doesn't come cheap. At about $2,488, the price of the Les Baer Custom Thunder Ranch Rifle might make a city administrator's heart stop. However, one missed shot from a cop's rifle, or an officer who doesn't make it home due to mediocre equipment, may cost millions-not counting the heartbreak.

What price do you or your agency place on peace of mind? If necessary, forgo the next personal watercraft or motorcycle accessory and invest in your future instead.

Les Baer Custom
Thunder Ranch Rifle

Caliber: .223
Barrel Length: 16 inches
Overall Length: 34.75 inches
Weight: 7 pounds, 6 ounces
Twist: 1x8 inch
Length of Pull: 13.5 inches
Sights: Iron, adjustable, front-folding (tritium)
Magazines: Any AR-type
Trigger: Jewell two-stage (4.5 pounds)
Finish: Baer Coat
Price: $2,488 (full retail)

Roy Huntington is editor of American Handgunner and a member of the POLICE Advisory Board.

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