January 03, 2011
When I set out to put ArmaLite's new Special Operations Forces AR through the wringer, I couldn't help thinking about my father and that famous old song "Ballad of the Green Berets." I can remember listening to that song as a young boy growing up. I'm sure many of you know the tune and will agree that it tugs at one's patriotic chords. The chorus contains the line, "Put silver wings on my son's chest, make him one of America's best." In my mind, our Green Berets, along with all the other members of our Special Forces, are some of America's finest. My appreciation for these men began at a very young age. You see, my father, Ernest Joseph Fortier, wore the flippers of a U.S. Navy Underwater Demolitions Team (UDT) diver during World War II. Back then there were no Green Berets, and it would be years before Navy UDT divers evolved to become the Navy SEALs.
In place of the M-4's collapsible stock the SOF has a similar looking, but fixed, stock.
My father enlisted as a teenager and soon found himself in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. While he described himself as "thin as a rail," he was a natural in the water. This was good, considering his unit would be inserted by PT boat or submarine offshore from a Japanese-held island. In the middle of the night his small team would make its way ashore and bury their explosives in the sand. These were the early days of Special Operations, and their "specialized equipment" consisted of little more than a compass. Yet, even though their gear was lacking, and they were learning techniques as they went, they had a job to do. Over a period of days or weeks, under cover of darkness, they'd gather intelligence and wire enemy emplacements and beach obstacles for demolition just prior to a beach landing.
It was brutally dangerous to infiltrate a Japanese-held island. Sometimes things went as planned, and the Imperial Marines received a nasty surprise. Other times the Japanese showed what a wily and dangerous foe they were. On one such operation my father's team was ambushed. His entire unit wiped out, he alone escaped into the jungle. There, the Japanese hunted him for weeks. He escaped their grasp and survived to see Old Glory fly from that wretched island. Yet even so, he paid a price on that pile of rock that has followed him ever since. While it's hard for me to describe, I'm sure some of you understand.
Today, a new generation of American warriors is going into harm's way to defend our country. While some things haven't changed since my father went off to fight the Japanese, such as the cost of victory, the weapons and equipment certainly have. Laser-guided missiles, lightweight GPS units, and the high-tech communications gear available today were the stuff of science fiction during my father's war. Small arms have changed as well. I can remember my father remarking on the harsh recoil of the bolt-action M1903 rifle. Today the Springfield and all its peers are long departed from military service. Currently, the most prominent small arm seen in the hands of our Special Forces is the compact little M-4 carbine. Based on the AR15 family, this selective fire 5.56x45mm assault rifle features a 14.5-inch barrel and a collapsible stock. Though not perfect, the M-4 is light, handy, fairly versatile, and surprisingly accurate.
Recently ArmaLite Inc. (Dept. ST, P.O. Box 299, Geneseo, IL 61254; 309-944-6939; www.armalite.com) introduced a new AR15 carbine called the Special Operation Forces or SOF. This new model is intended to provide lawfully armed citizens with a lightweight and handy rifle similar in appearance to the military's M-4. Currently ARs of all types are hugely popular so Shooting Times decided to take a close look at this new offering. Because of the gun's "in your face" name — "Special Operation Forces" — I was interested in reviewing it for not just accuracy, reliability, and handling but also to see how close it actually is to an M-4.
The sample gun featured a fixed carrying handle with standard A2 sights; a flattop version is available.
Somehow, the old "Black Rifle" continues to grow ever more popular among today's shooters. Like the venerable Model 1911, shooters are seeking out ARs in a variety of forms to perform a variety of functions. Though its design is admittedly aging, the AR continues to evolve to meet the needs of its users.
I myself have taken another hard look at this design due to its versatility. An active High Power competitor, my rifle of choice is an AR-based match rifle. When fed 77- and 80-grain match bullets, this trophy winner will astound you with its accuracy, and it shoots much better than I can hold it.
Yet winning matches is just a small part the AR's capabilities. By pushing two pins out I can swap my match rifle upper for a wide variety of different barrel lengths, sight options, and even calibers. A 7.62x39mm upper allows dirt-cheap plinking with inexpensive Russian ball ammo. A .50 Beowulf upper turns a mild-mannered .223 into a hard-hitting brush-buster tossing 334-grain .50-caliber slugs at 1900 fps. And the list goes on. Everything from optically sighted varmint rigs to short-barrel carbines in calibers ranging from .22 rimfire to .50 BMG is available for the AR.
Some of the most popular models of ARs have been the carbines. Since Colt first sent the XM177 "Commando" to Vietnam, soldiers and civilians alike have admired the looks and handiness of these short carbines. A decade ago it was possible to buy a magazine-fed semiautomatic rifle with a pistol grip, folding stock, and flash suppressor, but this is no longer so. ArmaLite's Special Operation Forces carbine is a grim reminder of this.
.223 Rem. Semi-
| Manufacturer |
P.O. Box 299
Geneseo, IL 61254
|Special Operation Forces|
| Operation |
|Self-loading rotating bolt |
via direct gas impingement
|Fully adjustable dual-aperature rear; protected post, elevation-adjustable front|
|$1153 with carrying handle;|
$1253 with carrying handle and match trigger; $1084 with flattop; $1184 with flattop and match trigger
Out of the box the SOF looked good and appeared to be a good old-fashioned collapsible-stock AR carbine. However, upon closer examination, one quickly realizes that the stock is bolted in place and cannot be adjusted. The flash suppressor has been replaced by a muzzle brake. Bayonet lug? Don't be silly. The result is a 922r compliant "Post-Ban" rifle legal in most, but not all, of the United States. The SOF is simply as close as ArmaLite can legally come to building a "Pre-Ban"- type rifle.
That fixed stock soured me at first, but it's the reality of the world we live in. And until that wretched ban is lifted, things will not improve. With that in mind, I set out to objectively test this new model.
The SOF Up Close & Personal
Handling it, one of the first things one notices is the prominent two-port "forward blast" muzzle brake. Muzzle brakes are by their nature loud, especially to people standing next to the shooter. So ArmaLite designed this unit with its ports angled away from the shooter and the people next to him. This unit is pinned in place onto a 16-inch M-4-style chrome-moly barrel with a 1:9-inch twist. The barrel is chrome lined for long life and easy maintenance and sports an 11-degree crown.
One improvement over the M-4 carbine is that the SOF features a slightly longer gas tube. While perhaps not quite common knowledge, the M-4 has been plagued with a number of problems in service — a too high cyclic rate, extraction issues, and a tendency to crack locking lugs. Moving the gas port forward enhances the reliability and longevity of these short-barrel guns. The front sight housing/gas block is a clamp-on unit locked in place via two Allen screws. ArmaLite says this type of housing provides a superior gas seal and results in less gas blow-by. The housing sports a standard A2 front sight adjustable for elevation. To the rear of the front sight housing is a set of intermediate length handguards with heat shields. These units are quite a bit longer than the standard CAR or later M-4 handguards. To aid cooling they feature nine vents on top and bottom and heat shields.
The barrel is fitted to an upper receiver machined from a T7076 aluminum forging. The test sample sported a standard A2 carrying handle and had a forward assist. The rear sight features a large ghost ring aperture (for use from 0 to 200) as well as a smaller, fine aperture (for use from 300 to 800). Windage adjustments are via a knob on the right side of the sight and are in 1/2 MOA increments. Elevation adjustments are via a thumbwheel and are in one MOA clicks. The elevation knob also incorporates a bullet drop compensator and is calibrated from 300 to 800 yards.
In place of the military M-4's birdcage flash suppressor the SOF has a 922r compliant muzzle brake.
The upper is mated to a forged aluminum lower receiver. Both units have a hardcoat black anodized finish. The bolt carrier, bolt, and internal are Mil-Spec parts machined to tightened tolerances. The trigger was a standard single-stage Mil-Spec unit although a two-stage match trigger is available as an option. The pistol grip is a standard A2 unit. Feed is from detachable 10-round steel magazines. The butt is a black synthetic unit that mimics the look of a collapsible stock, but like I said earlier, it's bolted in place. The buffer tube is made specifically for this application, will not accept a collapsible stock, and houses a standard CAR-type buffer unit. Finish is a military phosphate.
First examining the SOF I noticed the controls all operated smoothly, the bolt retracted easily, and magazines ejected cleanly with the push of a button. The carbine is light, compact, and quick to the shoulder. However, all was not perfect. First, the trigger dragged along, seemingly through a foot of gravel, before breaking. Second, the front sight/gas block assembly was rough looking. How rough? Well, it reminded me of something I'd find on a Romanian Kalashnikov. Finally, the left side of the upper receiver had a large number of little nicks and dings beneath the finish. This detracted from it aesthetically. Let me add, that it would have detracted much more if I had just shelled out more than a grand for this rifle and it arrived at my dealer like this.
The SOF sports upper and lower receivers forged from T7076 aircraft-grade aluminum with a hardcoat black anodized finish.
Shooting ArmaLite's New Carbine
Next I moved to checking the SOF's accuracy, velocity, and reliability. First I fired a few magazines through the carbine to c
heck its function and break it in a bit. Then I stripped and cleaned it before moving to the bench. Next, four five-shot groups were fired with each load off sandbags, using the iron sights, at 100 yards. Velocity readings were recorded 12 feet from the muzzle with an Oehler 35P chronograph at an ambient temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind varied in direction and velocity from two to six mph. Test ammunition ranged in weight from 50 to 77 grains and included FMJ, match, and hunting loads from Black Hills, Federal, Hornady, PMP, Sellier & Bellot, Winchester, and Wolf.
Moving from the bench, I posted some NRA regulation High Power targets and IPSC silhouettes at 300 yards. Shooting prone with a military leather M1907 sling, I stretched the SOF's legs a bit. Looped up, my first thought was how short the barrel seemed compared to my match rifle's barrel. The next was how big the front sight seemed in relation to the silhouettes. I fired a group, adjusted the sights, and then got to work. While the sight radius is short, I must note that it is longer than that of a standard M-4. Shooting Black Hills's 69-grain Match load, the ArmaLite averaged six-inch five-shot groups and posted a best of five inches at 300 yards — good enough to keep all its shots in the 10-ring of a regulation 300-yard High Power target. Recoil was nothing, and while the trigger felt like it had a shovel full of gravel in it, it's nothing that can't be overcome if you set your mind to it. At 300 yards I was the limiting factor with this rifle. If it had been a flat top with a decent scope mounted, I'm sure I could have shaved my groups down a bit.
Next, minus the sling, I took it on several four-mile hikes through the Maine woods. Why? Just to get a feel for how it carried and balanced. I walked and jogged with it. I noted that the handguards are small enough in diameter to fit the hand and carry well. I liked their diameter and length. I cannot say the same for the A2 pistol grip. This design just doesn't fit my hand. Luckily it can be easily replaced by removing one bolt. The overall length and weight made the SOF easy to carry and quick to the shoulder.
From the bench the SOF initially looked like a 2.5-inch gun. I suspected this was not really the case, it being an AR after all. So somewhat dismayed at my shooting, I hoofed it from my range back to my office. Rummaging around, I came up with a box of Black Hills 69-grain Match ammo. This was much better suited to the ArmaLite's 1:9-inch twist barrel than the 77-grain match load I normally shoot from my 1:8-inch-twist match rifle. I loaded five rounds into a magazine and sat down behind the gun. Five careful trigger pulls later, the ArmaLite had posted a nice 1.12-inch group. Yes, the ArmaLite would shoot, she was just finicky about what she liked. This load went on to give the best accuracy from this rifle at a consistent 1.25 inches and 2715 fps. Surprisingly, the next most accurate load was the Black Hills 55-grain softpoint load; it averaged 1.41 inches and 2943 fps. The overall average for all the loads tested came in at a respectable 2.1 inches.
The SOF field-strips easily for routine maintenance.
Next I mounted up a Mamba tactical sling from Best Made Design (Dept. ST, P.O. Box 475, Monahans, TX 79756; 915-943-4888; www.specopsbrand.com) and ran the SOF through a variety of drills engaging IPSC silhouettes from 10 to 90 yards. Here multiple targets were rapidly engaged with multiple shots from a variety of positions. This portion of testing was to ascertain the SOF's practical accuracy, reliability, handling, and controllability. My ammunition load of choice for this work was Wolf Performance Ammunition's 62-grain FMJ load. Some AR manufacturers turn their noses up at this inexpensive steel-cased ammunition, claiming the sky will fall if you use it. So what better to run through it for testing? Here I used three types of magazines: original Colt 20-rounders, Thermold 30-rounders, and steel Post-Ban 10-rounders.
When the smoke cleared, and with my range littered with little biodegradable steel cases, the ArmaLite had performed well. Controllability was very good, the gun simply raising slightly and then hanging there during rapid fire. As the round count climbed I noted the intermediate length handguards did a fine job of protecting the shooter's hand from heat buildup. This is something some rifles, especially members of the HK and Kalashnikov families, have a problem with. The Mamba sling performed well, especially during transition drills. Functioning with the inexpensive ball was flawless. Magazines inserted easily, rounds fed smoothly, and extraction and ejection was consistent and vigorous. The silhouettes? All nicely riddled, thank you.
I concluded my testing by checking the ArmaLite's flash signature in low light and complete darkness. While flash varied dramatically by load, they were all quite noticeable and some were truly retina melting. On the positive side, the brake does not project the flash directly up into the shooter's line of sight.
Like the M-4 carbine the SOF has an ejection port cover, forward assist, fenced magazine release, and winter trigger guard that folds out of the way for use with heavy gloves.
Negative thoughts on the SOF? I'd prefer a front sight assembly pinned on rather than clamped on. Put a large volume of rounds through a semiautomatic rifle and screws have a tendency to loosen. Plus, the upper receiver on the test rifle was nicked up beneath the finish. This did not impress me from a new rifle in this price range. Looks-wise, I didn't think that it closely resembled an M-4 carbine due to the 16-inch barrel (rather than 14.5-inch barrel) and intermediate length handguards.
Positives? It's light, handy, accurate, and reliable. I liked the longer gas tube and intermediate length handguards. The sights adjusted crisply and distinctly. Controllability on rapid fire was excellent. There were zero functioning problems throughout the shooting.
Final thoughts? At $1153 ($1253 with a match trigger) the SOF carbine is not cheap and may run into stiff competition from other ARs in this price range. For the money you get an accurate rifle that's both good looking and reliable.
The .223 ArmaLite SOF At The Range
100-Yard Accuracy (Inches)
300-Yard Accuracy (Inches
| Winchester 50-gr. Ballistic Silvertip|
|Black Hills 55-gr. SP|
| Federal 55-gr. GameKing HPBT|
|Hornady 55-gr. V-MAX|
|PMP 55-gr. FMJ-BT|
|Sellier & Bellot 62-gr. SS-109|
|Wolf 62-gr. FMJ-BT|
|Black Hills 69-gr. Match|
|Black Hills 77-gr. Match|
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of four five-shot groups fired from a sandbag benchrest at the ranges speicifed. Velocity is the average of 20 rounds measured 12 feet from the muzzle.