The long road to a clean face

This is a story of how a fairly simple thing can turn into a long drawn out saga.

In the following, there are some gross simplifications made in some of the descriptions of how things work, this is necessary to keep this article from expanding into a book.

One of my hobbies is shooting, and one of the easiest guns to customize for specific types of shooting (target, competition etc.) is the AR-15.  The AR-15 is an interesting gun, it is a relative of the military M16 and M4 rifle and shares a lot of the hardware, minus the full-auto/burst/machine gun bits. This makes that hardware relatively cheap and easy to obtain. The ammunition is likewise relatively cheap, although with vast quantities being diverted to the Middle East recently, the cost and availability has been something of a problem.

The relatively small 5.56mm cartridge it uses means fairly light recoil, which is helped by the design of the rifle, which has the stock directly in line with the barrel rather than below it as in classic rifle designs. This light recoil, along with its semi-automatic operation make it very easy to shoot. There is,  however, one small problem – it is LOUD.

The answer to a loud gun is fairly simple, fit it with a silencer (or more technically correct, a suppressor). Physically an easy thing to do. Practically, at least in the USA, more difficult.

The US government, in its infinite wisdom, have watched some old gangster movies and determined that a silencer makes guns just go “pffttt”, which encourages silent murder or something, and if people are going to be shot, then they must be shot with a LOUD gun. For that reason, in the US silencers are very highly regulated and subject to a $200 tax.

After jumping through all the hoops and paying my $200 tax, I obtained a suppressor for my AR-15. Problem is, attached to the existing rifle the combination is rather long and unwieldy.

For the answer, look to how the military solved this problem – the M4, which is a stubby version of the M16 with  a collapsible stock and short barrel.

So, just build one with a short barrel – right?

Hang on a second … the US government, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that rifles will have a barrel length of 16″. If you fit a barrel of 15.95″, you do not pass go, do not collect $200 and go straight to jail. Apparently, that 50 thousandths of an inch makes the difference whereby you could conceal the rifle by stuffing it down your trousers, or something, but 50 thousandths of an inch longer, and it becomes impossible … what was that? handguns don’t have long barrels? and you could conceal one of them easier? … hmm … you are just confusing the issue! go away!

It is possible to build a short barreled rifle, but (you guessed it!) its highly regulated, and subject to a $200 tax.

So, after going through all the background checks … one to buy the gun, which is apparently not enough to then fit it with a short barrel, and the one you passed to get a silencer … well … um … that was for a silencer, not a short barrel! so another to prove you are not an abuser of short barrels … and forking over another $200, then you can fit your short barrel.

So we are there … nice easy to shoot gun, relatively quiet (no, not the “pfftt” as in the movies, but now at a level that won’t perforate eardrums) and a manageable size.

Just one small problem …

After shooting it for a few minutes, you end up looking like a refugee from the Black and White Minstrel Show (if you are old enough to know what that is — if not, Wikipedia is your friend).

This is due to the design of the gun. As with most semi-automatic rifles, there is a small hole tapped into the barrel to let a small amount of the very high pressure gas driving the bullet escape, and be used to operate the mechanical system which ejects the empty cartridge case and load a new cartridge into the chamber. In many guns the gas is directed into a cylinder and drives a piston which pushes a mechanical linkage to do the work. In the AR-15/M16 the gas is taken directly into the internal workings of the gun, and directly drives the mechanics.

This design has always been a point of discussion. In one way, it is an elegant design, removing gas cylinders, pistons and mechanical linkages. In another view, deliberately diverting hot gas and soot into the precision components of the gun is asking for trouble. In practice, these guns probably do need a more regular cleaning than, say, an M1, M14, AK47 etc. but that is offset by not needing to do a much more complex cleaning operation on piston operated systems, and less moving parts to go wrong.

The other small problem is the AR-15 charging handle. This is used to initially cock the gun. It sits at the back and top – right in front of your face. When a silencer is fitted it causes higher than normal back-pressure in the barrel, so more gas back into the works. This gas has to go somewhere when it is finished driving the eject-reload cycle, and a large proportion of it ends up escaping around the charging handle, carrying black soot with it.

The insides of a suppressed AR-15 get very dirty, very quickly – and so does the face of the shooter.

There are some things you can do to help with this. The cheapest is to use some black silicone gasket sealing compound applied carefully around the charging handle, making certain that the handle remains free to move.

Well, it sort of works, for a while. It also looks a complete mess. Not a good engineering solution at all.

Next there is a replacement charging handle with some extra bits molded onto it to deflect the gas. This sort of works. Not entirely, but makes a big difference. It does make a big hole in your pocket though. It is exorbitantly expensive for what it is. It also does nothing for the accumulating grunge inside the gun.

The final solution is to rip out the existing gas system and replace it with a gas piston and an operating rod to move the mechanics. There are several manufacturers that build complete AR-15 uppers that are gas operated. They tend to be very expensive. Then there are manufacturers of add-on gas piston systems.

I chose this route, and selected the Osprey gas piston system. Mostly because it is simple (and IMHO, simple is usually better) but also because it seemed to address one of the most common complaints about add-on gas systems — that it made the gun unreliable.

Now there are different degrees of reliability that people look for in rifles. I am not going to be taking mine to war, dragging it through swamps and deserts and needing it ALWAYS to go bang when the trigger is pulled.  However, I don’t want to be having to pull it to pieces to find out why it jammed every five minutes either.

The Osprey system is really designed for military use, and the claim is that it actually improves reliability. One of the worst enemies of semi-auto (and full auto for that matter) guns is sand. Osprey produced this video to show off their system’s resistance to sand:

By the way – notice how long and unwieldy his full size M16 with suppressor is?

So I bought one of these kits and fitted it to my shorty rifle:

Worked perfectly, and no more black face. The only thing that I didn’t like much was the hand guards that come with the kit. They maintain the same style as the traditional hand guard, but are larger to accommodate the piston assembly. Just  a bit too chunky for my liking.

You can see the bottom half of the hand guard in this photo, along with the piston assembly sitting on top of the barrel.

So began the search for hand guards that would fit with an Osprey gas system in place.

There were people who managed to get various ones to fit, but this usually seemed to involve the use of a Dremel tool … not too appealing.

Then I saw a note on the Osprey website about a set which were being manufactured by Midwest Industries, specifically for use with an Osprey gas piston.

I have used hand guards from MI before, and know that they are of good quality. The hand guard being built for the Osprey is of the “tactical” variety, with accessory mounting rails on top, bottom and both sides. For those people that like hanging lights, lasers, whatever off their guns these are wonderful. For me, they are mostly just sharp edges for my hands.

While poking around the MI website I came across another, simpler (and cheaper!) hand guard which seemed just what I needed. In addition, it also said that it fits with Osprey (amongst others), the SS free-float hand guards (free-float just means that the hand guard doesn’t touch the barrel – this is a good thing).

A while later, when I had saved up enough pennies, I went to Brownell’s website (Brownell’s is probably the best known gunsmiths merchant in the US). They had the hand guard in stock, so I placed my order.

When the package arrived, I assumed this was about a 30 minute job. Yes, I had to remove the front sight (which can be a royal pain to do) but even so, I had all the right tools -plain sailing.

Except for those taper pins holding the front sight on. They would not move. Typically, the answer to this is to use a bigger hammer. Even that didn’t work. What eventually did work was using a blow-torch to heat everything up, then a couple of whacks with the big hammer and both pins moved.

Well past my 30 minute estimate, I could actually start. I fitted the new barrel nut – this replaces the original and is threaded on the outside to screw the hand guard onto. Next I put the gas piston and front sight back into place.

Hmmm… with that much wider barrel nut, it leaves only about 1/4″ for the piston to move. Nowhere near enough.

What am I missing?

Back to the MI website, where I discovered that they no longer claimed that it would work with the Osprey gas system!

Checked on Brownell’s website. they still had the original text, saying that it would.

In fact, it probably will work in some cases. There are three different length gas systems on AR-15s, mainly depending upon the barrel length. With the two longer systems, this would probably work fine, but no way with the short system I have.

I was preparing to pack it all up and return it, probably getting credit towards buying the more expensive “tactical” version (which would work), when I had a last desperate idea — call Osprey and see if its possible to get a rod with a longer actual rod, and shorter connector to connect it to the piston. It looks like this might be possible.

I fired off an email, and an hour or so later got a reply from the general manager of Osprey saying that this was a problem that they had seen before, and yes, there is an alternate op-rod. Unfortunately, they couldn’t give me one, I would have to buy it.

Hand over my credit card number, and one is in the mail.

Hopefully, this will be the end to the long saga of ringing ears and dirty faces.

More news to follow, once I have received the package.


A week later:

The new op-rod arrived. Fitting was a matter of 30 seconds, re-assembling the rifle took all of 5 minutes. Test fired, and it works perfectly.