All posts by Andrew Tuohy

Spike’s Tactical 16″ CHF Upper

Recently I was sent an upper receiver by Spike’s Tactical for test and evaluation. In the interests of fairness, this upper was provided to me for free. I still approached it from a critical angle and tried to find problems with the upper – of which there were none to find, making my job a little harder.

If you’re familiar with Rob Sloyer’s infamous “Chart” detailing what makes a good fighting carbine, well, this upper checks every box but one. The bolt is not HPT’d, also known as “proof tested.” Proof testing is where a special high pressure round is fired, making flaws or cracks more obvious during subsequent magnetic particle testing.

Beyond that, every specification equals or surpasses “mil-spec.” We see that word thrown around a lot, and it’s both good and bad. When it comes to the M4, generally, a mil-spec item is a good one. There are improvements that can be made – say, a 5 or 6 position stock instead of a 4 position, as long as the replacement is of equal quality – but if you were to be in the middle of a firefight with a mil-spec Colt M4, you would be well equipped.

So, what do I mean by “surpassing mil-spec” with regard to this upper? Well, the barrel is hammer forged. What is hammer forging? Essentially, a larger-than-normal barrel blank is placed over a mirror image of the rifling; the barrel is then hammered into shape. I’ll leave the technical info to the metallurgists, but real world reports from high-volume shooters indicate longer barrel life.

Upper Receiver Teardown

I’m of the opinion that the barrel and the bolt are the heart of any AR-15, and a quality example of each will lead to excellent reliability. This upper has essentially the best barrel you can purchase for the AR-15 – hammer forged by Daniel Defense in Georgia.

The bolt is also top-notch and includes a strong extractor spring with an o-ring.

The bolt carrier is properly staked, and marked by Spike’s Tactical with their logo.

The upper receiver had M4 feed ramps machined prior to anodizing, and the barrel extension matches them perfectly. You can see the excellent job that was done by whoever did the chrome lining in this picture. Sometimes, barrels have uneven chrome lining “shadows” at either end – that won’t really affect anything, since the bore and chamber are the important parts, but attention to detail always impresses me.

Why have M4 feed ramps? Well, the military found them to be necessary with this gas system length and in sub zero temperatures. I’ve also found them to be helpful in the case of magazines that may not hold the top round at the proper angle, resulting in failures to feed in non-ramped uppers.

In this photo, you can see parkerizing under the front sight base, which also happens to be the proper height for the upper receiver and gas system length, and is marked as such. Why is parkerizing under the FSB important? Well, I’ve had non-parkerized barrels rust even in this dry Arizona climate, making FSB removal very difficult. It won’t affect function, but it’s something that I like to see on my rifles, because I change things around from time to time.

Here’s the gas port. Why do I mention the gas port? Well, this is where gases from the fired case come out of the barrel and into the gas tube. Some civilian manufacturers make their gas ports too large, in order to maintain functionality with weak, underpowered ammo.

Unfortunately, because the gas port erodes over time, this means that the overall life of the barrel is shortened, and too much gas goes back into the action from the very first round on. It’s like buying new tires that have half the original tread depth. This gas port is a good size, .068, and the rifle functions with all ammo. Sometimes you’ll see gas ports above .1″, and in extreme cases, over .2″. Steer clear of these barrels.

Also included with the upper is the Spike’s Tactical ST-T2 buffer, which is an excellent upgrade for any rifle, as I’ve found. It’s heavier than standard and H buffers, and does reduce felt recoil. The added weight also helps maintain proper functioning.

ST-T2 Buffer
ST-T2 Buffer

Function Testing

Since receiving the upper, I’ve fired a wide variety of ammunition through it in an attempt to make it malfunction. I’ve fired everything from military M855 to handloads specifically loaded to be almost impossible to extract by hand. The extra power extractor spring and o-ring, however, prevent the extractor from slipping off the rim of the case, and I’ve yet to have a single malfunction with the upper. I even hand the rifle off to random folks at the range, who’ve shot mags full of their own Wolf and other steel case ammo, Ultramax factory reloads, etc. Its reliability is very impressive.

Accuracy Testing

Firing handloaded 73gr Berger HPBT bullets in Lake City cases, using Varget powder, I fired this ten shot group, which measured 1.45″. That’s more than adequate from a non-free floated carbine barrel. Often we see three or five shot groups bandied about, especially in magazines – the only problem is, if you laid three of those three shot groups on top of one another, they’d probably triple in size. I like firing ten shot groups, because after ten shots, your group size won’t increase much more, if at all. Therefore, ten shot groups are a good indicator of the maximum spread you could expect from a barrel.

Eagle eyed readers with five fingers on each hand will spot only 9 holes – 10 were fired and 10 impacted the paper. None are hiding under the calipers.

Final Thoughts

In summary, I can’t think of any changes I would make to this upper. I prefer midlength gas systems, but a carbine length gives you more options if you want to shorten the barrel in the future. The build quality, accuracy, and reliability of this upper are second to none.

Holsters for Duty, Combat, and Personal Defense

If you’re like me, you’ve got a box of holsters somewhere, stuffed with the good, bad, and ugly of leather, kydex, and, yes, even nylon or Cordura holsters. I could probably buy a nice handgun with the money I’ve spent on holsters I don’t use.

A lot of people see a holster that looks cool, then try to find a reason for it. In fact, people do that with handguns, rifles, cars, houses, women…but I digress. You should start with your current and potential future needs and work from there.

Concealed Carry

If you’re looking to carry a concealed weapon, but you also want to train with that weapon in a handgun or carbine course, I highly recommend the Raven Concealment Phantom.

Here’s one of my Kimber 1911s in a Raven Phantom. This holster is modular, meaning you can swap the attachment methods for inside or outside waistband carry. This way, you could use it OWB in a course that doesn’t allow IWB holsters, but switch to IWB when carrying concealed, thereby maintaining familiarity with location and draw characteristics after training has built up muscle memory.

It’s very comfortable and conceals very well. The RCS folks are always updating and changing things, they aren’t just content to allow their product to rest on its well-deserved laurels. They’ve got excellent customer service to boot. If your pistol has an accessory rail, they probably have a holster that will work with your pistol and your choice of weaponlights.

I’ve also used Comp-Tac MTAC holsters with varying degrees of success – their warranty is only a year long, and I’ve found that the RCS holsters conceal better and allow better access to the firearm. Retention is also far better with the Phantom.

Dedicated OWB Retention Holsters

Some people need retention. Some people don’t need retention. Some people don’t need it but want it anyway. If you carry concealed most of the time, you should try to practice with what you carry. If you really need a holster that offers good retention, such as for duty use, military use, or civilian open carry, you have a few very good options.

I am a fan of the Blackhawk Serpa. It’s the only Blackhawk product that I like. I was issued one, as was the rest of my platoon, and we used them almost exclusively. After seeing a Safariland dump an M9 out the door of a Humvee, I turned in my Safariland 6004 for a drop leg Serpa. I use the side of my finger to release the retention lock, and this places my finger high on the frame of the pistol. It is, in my opinion, an intuitive design. Many others disagree with me (based on “unwanted retention” and negligent discharge issues), and I urge you to read the opinions of both sides before making a decision. Blackhawk has made changes to the holster since initial criticism in 2005/2006 – make sure you check the date of whatever you read.

We spent a year in the desert and encountered no stuck pistols and no Marine had a negligent discharge. I have gone so far as to throw my Beretta M9/Serpa in the dirt, step on it, bury it, pack dirt in every which way I can, and had no problems drawing the pistol. I’m aware of only one training school which doesn’t allow the use of the Serpa – and I have a low opinion of that school’s cadre, but take my opinion and theirs for what you paid for it. Here’s my Beretta after the aforementioned abuse.

If you want an OWB option with a weapon mounted light, the only option, in my opinion, is the Safariland which allows the use of a light. Blackhawk offers a light that works with the Serpa design, or at least Serpa holsters meant for use with the Blackhawk light, but I will describe said light in only├é┬áscatological terms. I use a Safariland 6285 for my Glock 34 and Surefire X300, which reside on my “go-to belt”. Both these holster designs are rather bulky and not intended for concealed carry, despite what Blackhawk claims.

Here’s the Safariland for use with an attached light – this is a drop leg holster, and I much prefer belt or chest mounted holsters for essentially all uses – but you get an idea of what it looks like. To me, drop leg holsters add unnecessary bulk, are uncomfortable when temperatures rise, aren’t very steady, and are also more expensive than belt holsters.

Chest Rigs

There are currently a large number of chest rigs available. Not too long ago, this wasn’t the case, and selections of such gear were slim and none. We’re lucky that this is no longer the case. I’m writing this as a simple description of one setup that I like – this is not the “only” way or the “right” way, it’s just not a “wrong” way. There are far too many gear options for me to cover in a reasonable amount of reading time.

Now, a chest rig is a pretty high-profile item. What I mean by that is, if you’re not military or law enforcement, it would be an exceptionally rare case for you to wear a chest rig off the range. If you are in the military or in law enforcement, hopefully you have a good idea of what you need to attach to a chest rig. Many people who are new to this area err on the side of “too much gear”, which isn’t really horrible unless you get stuck in a hatch or your friends make fun of you because stuff falls out and/or flops around.

Chest rigs give you the option to quickly remove or put on a lot of gear, keeping that gear separate from your armor, if you’re so equipped. They can be affordable or semi-expensive. They are normally a little more than the average civilian probably needs – I mean nothing negative by that statement – a single 30rd mag on a belt pouch is probably sufficient for carbine courses and tactical rifle matches, less bulky, and cheaper to boot. I’ll cover belt setups in the next day or so.

I’ve definitely gone with a minimalist approach after carrying too much stuff. Especially now, as a civilian, with zero mission requirements beyond carbine courses. I have two double M4 mag pouches, two single pistol mag pouches, and a small trauma kit.

Okay, I’ve been rambling too long – you still want one, so what chest rig should you buy? Well, I’m partial to Eagle chest rigs. SKD Tactical sells several variants. I use this one, though not in Multicam:

I like this chest rig because it gives me the option to put MOLLE pouches exactly where I want them. The downside is that chest rigs with integral M4 mag pouches are only $10 more, so if you’re on a tight budget, this is not the way to go.

This is probably the best “chest rig option” for civilians looking to go to a carbine course – you’ll head to the firing line with at least 4 magazines, which is what most instructors ask for. Plus, the MOLLE on the front of the rifle pouches would allow you to place pistol mags in an accessible position. Kydex inserts in the mag pouches will keep those mags from falling out.

I like to attach pistol mags to the front of my rifle mags, as I’ve said. If I don’t do this, then I leave rifle mags as close to the center of my body as possible, and move the pistol mags to the left. On the right, I have a trauma kit. I’ll cover trauma kit contents separately. It’s not required that you bring first aid gear to a carbine course or tactical rifle match, but it’s a damn good idea – you don’t want to show up on the day that everyone else forgot to bring one, too.

As for pistol mag pouches, I’ve used several kinds, and I do like the ones offered by TAG with the integral magnets – they held M9 magazines for me, inverted, with the retention strap off, for months. However, there are other kinds, and anything that’ll keep your pistol mags from falling out is good enough. I like gear made in the US – as I said, Eagle is a good way to go – but HSGI, Esstac, etc also make great pouches.

Cheap Bastage AR-15 Survival Kit

None of what I write here is new or groundbreaking. I did not come up with any of it.

It’s just a distillation of the basics, the items you should buy if you’re on a budget and have an AR-15. Even if you have a fat wad of cash, this is where you need to start. Before you buy any items such as optics or flashlights, you should buy what I’ve listed here.

If you click on the pictures, you’ll be taken to the item in Brownells’ online catalog. Some of the prices are higher or lower than elsewhere, but you’ll save on shipping if you buy from one place.

My intent here is to direct you to specific items, based on dollar amounts, that you should buy.

$10

I’ll start off with the most basic item. If you’re scraping the bottom of your checking account to pick up that AR-15 with one beat up mag and no rear sight along with one box of A-Merc ammo, and you now get to choose between buying food and gun stuff, buy this:

Or maybe this:

Both are in the $5-10 range. Really, anything is better than nothing, even if it’s an ancient bottle of Rem Oil or Hoppes that your grandfather used to clean the Arisaka he took off Tojo. Alternately, you could buy a quart of motor oil. Or wheel bearing grease. I’d rather have gun oil, but something to keep dry metal from rubbing against dry metal, that’s the learning objective here.

Let’s say you have a little more money:

$20

You buy the lube mentioned above, and you need to buy this:

It’s an extractor spring. That link will take you to a 3-pack, though you’ll probably only need one until you hit the 10,000 round mark and beyond. Alternately, you could buy the upgrade kit from Bravo Company that comes with an o-ring to install around the spring; I find that the o-ring is in most cases unnecessary.

Your paycheck just came in, and since you quit smoking last year, you have a little extra money. Now’s the time to spend it.

$50 or $100

Doesn’t really matter, your next few purchases should be magazines, whether that’s 2 or 10. Or 20. I prefer to have, at a minimum, 5 serviceable 30 round magazines. There are plenty that I’d recommend, but since this is a budget oriented writeup:

Brownells doesn’t have the best price – companies like Bravo Company and DSG Arms, among others, are selling them cheaper, but again, the point was to consolidate everything so you’d only have to pay shipping once. DSG Arms has a special, “while supplies last”, 10 PMags shipped for $90. They’re the old style, but the old PMags didn’t stop working with the introduction of the M-Rev. Alternately, the best price on USGI aluminum type magazines can be found at Bravo – $10 apiece for the Brownells brand magazines. Brownells has them, but for $18 apiece, and with green followers. Buy the ones with Magpul anti-tilt followers.

Now, the last bit: ammunition. You can buy a little or a lot. Steel cased, brass cased. There are many good options, but for factory ammo, I like Prvi Partisan. I buy the 75gr BTHP Match from Wideners – it’s reasonably accurate, reasonably fast, and pretty effective against soft targets. It’s also just pennies more than cheap 55gr ammo like PMC Bronze, American Eagle or factory rejects such as XM193 (and in some cases, it’s actually cheaper). If you want more information on ammunition, check out the Ammunition Review & Reference on AR15.com.

The Importance of Training

No investment you will make in the arena of firearms, gear, etc will be as important as the investment you make in training. Proficiency doesn’t automatically come with the purchase of a firearm or first aid kit.

I could hand you a well-stocked medbag, but if you didn’t know how to use the most basic of its components, it would be worthless to you.

I could hand you a precision bolt rifle, but if you learned how to shoot from a video game or action movie, you might not be able to hit a pie plate at 50 yards with it.

If you look at some of the more expensive training on the market, you might be turned off by it – “I can’t afford that”, you say.

Well, Red Cross first aid/CPR training is a great place to start on the medical side, and the classes are normally $50-60. It’s also solid training from a known entity. Trauma courses offered by some tactical schools will teach you a lot, but the majority of injuries you will encounter as an average person will be covered by the Red Cross first aid course.

Firearms training can be very costly – some courses run into the thousands of dollars. In reality, though, the most basic training is also the most important training. Paying $2,000 to run through a shoot house is fun, but trigger control and weapons manipulation are more important. A good one or two day handgun/carbine course will be very beneficial, and many one day courses are only around $150.

Be sure to research the instructor, though. You don’t want to take firearms courses from someone with an inflated (or imaginary) resume. Unfortunately, there are such folks in the industry.

A new blog…

Here I’ll be passing on my own concise, impartial gear reviews and tests.

I’ve got a fair amount of experience with weapons and “tactical” gear, from both field use and practical design standpoints.

Primarily I’ll be reviewing weapon accessories, but occasionally I’ll venture into other areas.

Discussions are welcome, but civility is a must. Agree, disagree – doesn’t matter.

Thanks for checking out the blog.