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Live Free Armory's Competition Ready 9mm Challenger Carbine

This "entry-level" carbine comes in at an affordable price, but the Live Free Armory 9mm Challenger is feature-packed and ready for competitions out of the box.

Live Free Armory's Competition Ready 9mm Challenger Carbine

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One of my favorite themes within the shooting industry is the reintroduction of concepts. In the ’90s, try as we might, we just couldn’t get 9mm carbines to take off. Sure, police and military had an affinity for them, particularly for close-quarters work, but the average Joe didn’t seem to have much use for one. Attempting to deliver on a more conventional front, I consider Ruger’s Police Carbine the last effort to make this platform stick, but despite its orthodox ergonomics, it just wouldn’t sell. To understand why that was, you need to understand the environment at the time. For starters, ammunition wasn’t nearly as expensive as it is today. If you wanted to shoot high volume, you could grab a rack-grade M1 carbine and a spam can of ammo for a song and have at it, granted you had somewhere to play. This brings us to our second issue: no real competitive value. In those days, there weren’t many (maybe even zero) shooting leagues where a 9mm long gun made sense or was even allowed to share the firing line.

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Fast forward to today, and times have changed. Guns like the M1 have gone from plinkers to collector’s items, and if you see spam cans show up at the CMP, they fetch nearly the same amount of money as current production offerings. AR-15s are cheap enough to build or buy, but 5.56 prices are too unstable to dedicate the round to informal practice. With 3-Gun fading from popularity, finding a match is getting harder, stripping you of this common usage avenue as well. This all paved the way for a resurgence of the 9mm carbine, particularly one built on the AR pattern. If we view the preceding as a combination of fuel and oxygen, the spark to this mixture would be USPSA introducing a Pistol-Caliber Carbine division, something that I think needed to happen a long time ago. In short order, we started to see these guns come back onto the scene, with new and “improved” operating systems bountiful. Now, I’m not frowning upon innovation, as it typically makes life easier. Cleaning my muzzleloader today affirms this statement. However, with extra parts comes a pumped-up price tag, and that doesn’t always guarantee better performance. Sometimes, simpler is better, which is the premise behind Live Free Armory’s Challenger, an entry-level AR-9 that leaves enough cash left over for practice.

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If Live Free Armory (or LFA) sounds familiar, it’s because they made quite a splash a few years back with their aluminum-framed AMP pistol. By milling nearly everything in-house themselves, these bad boys hit shelves with an MSRP of just $699. Not bad for an all-metal Glock clone. Using the same reasoning, LFA made the Challenger and, through lessons learned in efficiency, got it to dealers for even less than their handgun. When I first picked up the Challenger, I said out loud, “This feels too good to be this cheap.” Starting with the streamlined forend, LFA cut it thin to accommodate all of the modern closed-grip techniques that have grabbed hold. I think I speak for all of us when I say that I’m tired of clamping down on Picatinny rail sections and other unnecessary features. Maybe these worked for the guys designing the guns, but I’d rather make up my own mind. With M-LOK on three sides, we have that very ability. The one place on the forend where Picatinny belongs is the tip of the 12 o’clock section, and the Challenger has just enough for a backup iron sight if that’s your bag. Live Free Armory makes this part their own through aggressive slotting that one can bury their fingertips into for enhanced purchase.

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The Challenger reloads fast thanks to a flared magwell that Glock-pattern magazines shoot out of with authority. Complimenting the enlarged ejection port is a small brass deflector, a welcomed edition for lefties.

Working back to the upper receiver, we’ll find an enlarged ejection port with a baby brass deflector, which this lefty always appreciates. If you’re shooting this thing on the clock, anything to pump up reliability is a plus, and this is an excellent place to start. Directly behind it and on the opposite side, you’ll find some stylish cuts that typically don’t make firearms built purely for function. However, with today’s advanced CNC machining, all that stands between flash and flair could just be a few lines of code. Speaking of machining, this part is cut from a solid aluminum billet as is the lower receiver. Both are created together, assuring tight fitment, which is a cornerstone of accuracy and reliability. Moving onto the control suite, you can see that LFA wants this to be a fast-handling firearm. The magazine release is positioned in a way where dexterity can get to it without a terrible amount of trouble, and when actuated, the Glock-pattern magazine rockets out of the flared magwell. Yes, it does lock open after the last shot, which is why the Challenger features an enlarged bolt release that is oh-so-satisfying to slap. If racking the charging handle is your thing, a standard style comes stock but can be upgraded from nearly anything on the vast aftermarket. I don’t see the need to do so, though, as the main reason these grabbed hold was to navigate around large magnified optics. I have yet to see the need for anything beyond a LPVO on an AR-9, so I enjoyed the slim nature of the original.

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As promised, the Challenger’s action is indeed simple. Using the direct-blowback method, it doesn’t require a delay system to get the job done. Instead, a heavy recoil spring keeps everything closed long enough for chamber pressure to drop to a safe level before blowing open, ejecting the fired case and then striping a fresh round off of the magazine. Keeping things cost effective is also the result of the mil-spec trigger system, which broke at a measured 6.5 pounds. This is a little stiff, but it’s an easy upgrade. Within a matter of minutes, I had it replaced with a RISE Rave PCC drop-in unit, reducing the pull weight down to 3.5 pounds. I also gained a short, snappy reset in the process, which is far more recognizable with the flattened trigger bow. When it comes to the furniture on any AR, I hesitate to get that deep into it. After all, half of the fun is being able to swap it out, and in many instances, it’s an entirely tool-free operation. I will say that instead of going with a run-of-the-mill A2 grip and M4 collapsible buttstock, LFA made the Challenger sexy. The THRiL Rugged Tactical Grip fills the hand and is clad with aggressive texturing that is perfect for 9mm recoil and won’t be too rough for sensitive skin. Mission First Tactical’s BATTLELINK Minimalist stock keeps things light and offers plenty of length-of-pull adjustment plus a rubber butt pad to keep the gun from slipping during rapid-fire strings. Out of the box, it comes ready to go, so all I had to do was select ammo and an optic and hit the range.

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The Primary Arms Classic Series provided a red dot at $130, and with its included QD mount, it took longer to unwrap than install on the gun. This left me with the sole task of picking out ammunition, which is somewhat of a ritual at our house. Now, while the Challenger might be destined for competition, I always say your best defense weapon is the one you work with the most. To that tune, Federal makes “Practice & Defend” combo packs that feature a target load paired with a self-defense load that shoots to near identical points of impact. This is great because you don’t have to booger your zero when switching between the two. As both of these rounds are on the heavy side, I also grabbed some Black Hills 115-grain FMJ ammo to round things out. I began my testing by zeroing the carbine and getting a feel for how tight it groups. I have to admit that I went into it not expecting much and was happily disappointed. I was graced with 50-yard groups as small as 1.5 inches, which is far beyond the use case for a firearm of this style. I even pushed out to 100 yards and put an entire magazine on a Birchwood Casey 66 percent IPSC steel target. After dialing it in for closer engagements, I set up a second IPSC and worked on some rapid-fire routines.

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Cut from a solid billet of aluminum, the upper receiver is created together with the lower, so they fit together tightly for enhanced accuracy and reliability.

Running a series of box drills and Mozambiques was effortless, and I enjoyed every second of it. Some might squawk at the recoil associated with a blowback system, but while they’re cleaning extra parts and mortaring our jammed cases, I’m slapping in a fresh mag of mixed ammo and sending heat downrange. I honestly can’t say there was a noticeable increase in recoil when compared to other operating systems. Mind you, this is just with the factory A2 installed. If I were running a can or a brake, it would likely feel like shooting a .22. I ended the day after successfully firing 300 rounds of combined ammunition with only one hiccup during the first 50. After quickly lubricating the bolt, the gun ran trouble-free for the rest of the day, and I certainly heated it up enough to burn off both the factory lube and the extra that I applied. Overall, I think this is a terrific, no-nonsense 9mm carbine that is perfect for USPSA or just rocking out at the range. Live Free Armory named the gun as a nod to the competitive world, but if you ask me, the real challenge is finding a better AR-9 for this price or even a fair bit more.

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Live Free Armory Challenger Specs

  • Type: direct-blowback, semiautomatic
  • Cartridge: 9mm Luger
  • Barrel: 16 in., 1:10-in. twist
  • Overall Length: 32.5 - 36 in. 
  • Weight: 6.6 lbs.
  • Handguard: Free-float aluminum 
  • Stock: Mission First Tactical Battlelink Minimalist
  • Grip: THRiL Rugget Tactical Grip
  • Finish: Tungsten Cerakote, black nitride
  • Trigger: Mil-spec 6.5 lb. single-stage trigger
  • Magazine: 17 rd. Glock style
  • Muzzle Device: A2 Flash Hider
  • Sights: None
  • MSRP: $679
  • Manufacturer: Live Free Armory



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