Old-School Shooter…New-School Rifle
Editor’s note: David E. Petzal is the Rifles columnist for Field & Stream and has been writing about guns and...
Editor’s note: David E. Petzal is the Rifles columnist for Field & Stream and has been writing about guns and shooting for the magazine since 1972.
I finally broke down and bought an AR because I finally broke down and learned how to use the GPS in my car. The GPS came with a book of directions that was roughly the thickness and weight of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, and had obviously been written by Klingons. Finally I went to the dealer, and he explained how the thing worked in 87 seconds. The GPS turned out to be absolutely terrific, so I decided to take the next step in embracing 21st-century technology and get a black rifle, too.
A Short History of ARs
The first time I fired an AR was in the summer of 1965; it was one of the civilian models that Colt made, and it didn’t impress me much because I was already part of the Bolt-Action Generation. At the time, ARs were lightweight, had no recoil, and would shoot fast, but you couldn’t get a scope on them or hit anything much.
They caught on very slowly. The rifle’s debut with the Army was a debacle; it was strange-looking for the time, and wasn’t chambered for anything bigger than the 5.56mm, or .223, a round that is based on the .222 Remington Magnum, which was originally designed to shoot rodents. Many in the military establishment were bitterly opposed to the round. Though the 5.56 hath its virtues, its lack of penetration, its deficiencies at ranges past 300 meters, and its general lack of power have had the armed services tinkering with the original loading, developing strange stopgap rounds such as the 6.8mm, and hauling old M14s out of storage just as fast as they could.
But all this changed. The military version, the M16, was modified into a successful rifle, and civilians began to recognize that the AR had some things going for it. Traditional rifles had evolved from designs dating back to the matchlock. Eugene Stoner, who designed the AR, made a clean break with the past, much as Gaston Glock did when he came up with the pistol that bears his name. First, Glock asked, “What is a pistol supposed to do?” and went from there. I think Stoner did the same thing.
As a result, the AR is ergonomically superior to just about every other form of rifle. The high, straight comb and straight-line recoil reduce felt kick drastically, as does the buffer in the buttstock. Today’s good ARs are very accurate; the best will match a bolt gun. Vastly improved bullets, and the addition of the .308 chambering, have eliminated the concerns about lack of power. And the AR is modular. You can unbolt and attach a virtually limitless number of accessories and sights until you get exactly the rifle you want.
The Right One
Over the years I looked and looked but never found an AR that spoke to me. I was not a big fan of the .223, nor did I like the triggers on most of them, and only a very few (and custom jobs at that) were accurate.
Then I started shooting SIG-Sauer handguns. This German-Swiss company has a factory and a pro shop in New Hampshire. I discovered that I liked the way SIG made handguns, and I began loitering in the pro shop, looking at the nearly limitless variety of ARs that SIG manufactures.
My eye kept coming back to one model in particular—the 716 DMR. The letters stand for Designated Marksman Rifle. “Designated marksman” is a tactical concept now employed by both the Marines and the Army, in which a platoon is assigned someone who can really shoot and who is equipped with a highly accurate, scope-sighted, semiauto rifle. So, instead of the whole platoon’s smoking up the landscape, the designated marksman fires one shot and achieves the same result. I liked the concept.
I also liked that the DMR is a 7.62 and not a 5.56—as the former easily outranges the latter—and that it is a gas-piston rifle, and not a directimpingement rifle. This keeps all the dirt and heat up front in the gas system rather than letting it pour back into the action in order to cycle the bolt.
The 18-inch medium barrel is chrome lined, which means you’ll probably never wear it out, and the match-grade trigger is a two-stage Geissele that breaks at 61⁄2 pounds. The buttstock is a Magpul PRS, and the grip is a MIAD. There is no carrying handle, just an endless Picatinny rail (four of them, actually) and excellent quick-detachable iron sights. Twenty-round Magpul PMag magazines are standard.
The weight…ah, the weight: My rifle, with a scope in high Leupold Mark 4 rings, a flash suppressor, and a vertical fore-end grip, weighs 131⁄2 pounds. This means I will not take it hunting, but then it is not a hunting rifle. It does mean that the DMR has hardly any kick, holds steady, and can put down aimed, controlled fire at the range very rapidly.
Finally, it is not compliant with California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, or New York restrictions. I take considerable satisfaction in that.
By now, I’ve put about 500 rounds through the rifle—from the cheap surplus stuff that you hope doesn’t blow up to brand-new Federal Match. Through it all, I’ve never had a malfunction. The 716 DMR will shoot any ammo, regardless of bullet weight, or type, or place of national origin, into roughly a 2-inch circle at 100 yards. With good ammo, it will do much better than that.
For my go-to load, I settled on the Lake City Arsenal M118 long-range 7.62 round loaded by Federal and issued to Marine and Army snipers. It’s loaded with 175-grain Sierra MatchKing bullets, and ammo dealers sell it in lots of 100 rounds and 500 rounds. In my 716 DMR, this gives five-shot groups of 1.112 inch.
Federal now makes a commercial version of this load under its Gold Medal label, and this produced groups that averaged .882 inch, with some groups around .650, and some 10-shot groups that did not expand beyond .750.
The 716 DMR is not a cheap gun at $2,970. But I’ve found that long after you’ve forgotten how much you spent, you can delight in the performance of what your money bought. I waited a long time to join the 21st century, but I went about it the right way.