It’s not a secret that I think most new shooters are best served with “general-purpose” carbine and lots of practice. That’s what I outlined in my guide to buying your first AR-15. While there, though, I also outlined several specialized configurations developed over time.
I want to dig a little more into the role of the precision carbine. The two major branches are the Mk12 Special Purpose Rifle (SPR) and the slightly less standardized compact cousin, the Recce rifle. Keep in mind the Recce was never a formal designation. It’s a label the civilian world came up with for what the SOCOM guys were doing.
Despite never having an official designation, the Recce rifle format has been extremely influential in modern AR culture. In fact, the ideas behind it underpin just about every “general purpose” configuration out there.
So let’s dig in.
Short History of the Recce Rifle
If you aren’t familiar with the lingo, “Recce” is British slang for reconnaissance.
Mounting a precision scope onto a standard infantry rifle isn’t a new idea by any means. I outlined a lot of that history in my post on DMR/SPR rifles– but this particular thread of AR-15 development seems to have origins in the early 1990s. Nobody really knows the true origins of it. All we’ve got are stories.
The story goes that US Navy SEAL snipers began mounting precision scopes and barrels to some of their M4 carbines as in-house modifications for team snipers. That means that there was no official specification. It was a personal choice of the individual sniper.
The intent was bridging the capability gap between a standard infantry carbine like the M4, but not step up to the size and weight requirements of something like the M14.
Kyle Defoor, a former SEAL Sniper and current firearms trainer, gave the best approximation I’ve seen. The original thread is lost to the internet, but thankfully quotes still exist in some forums:
Another SEAL in a related discussion laid out the role.
This capability is not unique, and represents a similar line of thinking seen overseas, particularly in Russian and British infantry doctrine for so-called “sharpshooters.”
Enter the Special Purpose Rifle
The SEAL Recon Rifle gained enough popularity that it left the hands of individual units and went up to NSWC (Naval Surface Warfare Center) Crane for further development.
The Army had a similar idea around the same period. According to the Small Arms Defense Journal, 5th Special Forces Group previously toyed with the idea. They called for an accurized upper receiver with a heavy barrel that could mount to standard lowers . Such a receiver was primarily focused on precision. However, it could still support with automatic fire as needed. The design was apparently ahead of its time and didn’t gain traction with the Army.
At the same time, the Marines went through a series of exercises, notably Project Metroplis, and came to a similar conclusion about improving the capabilities of the squad. That branch became the Squad Designated Marksman for the Army and Squad Advanced Marksman for the Marines.
NSWC Crane went to the Army to seek input on developing a new lightweight sniper rifle and cartridge to go with it. The Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) also entered the picture to offer their input.
The end result of this program was the Mk12 Special Purpose Rifle for use as a light sniper rifle. The original specification detailed a 20″ barrel, but the Navy’s procurement system wouldn’t approve it since 20″ barrels were already “in the system.”
The fact that these were the less accurate M16A2/A4 barrels didn’t matter to the bean counters. So the barrel specification became 18″ and the bean counters were satisfied.
SOCOM officially fielded the Mk12 rifle in the early 2000s with a Douglas-made 18″ rifle-gassed match-grade barrel. It had a fixed-length M16A1 stock, a two-stage select-fire trigger, and a free-floated handguard. There were two variants, the Mod 0 and Mod 1. There are subtle differences between them, but the most obvious is that the Mod 0 uses a PRI Carbon Fiber handguard and Mod 1 uses the KAC RAS.
Both versions came with Ops Inc mounts and suppressors. The optic of choice was a Leupold TS-30 2.5-8×36. The cartridge developed for the project was the now-famous Mk 262 77gr OTM.
The idea of a 20″ barrel never really went off the table. Both the Army and the Marine Corps still wanted 20″ match grade barrels, and that configuration saw service as the SAM-R (Marines) and SDM-R (Army).
The Mk12 saw use all over SOCOM with the 75th Rangers, Special Forces Groups, Navy SEALS, and Air Force Special Tactics. But that doesn’t mean everyone was happy with it, particularly the SEALS. They saw it as a less-effective version of what they started with.
Kyle Defoor put it bluntly:
So, in other words, officially making a program out of the SEAL’s Recce rifle turned it into a larger and heavier weapon that wasn’t as useful.
Now that we’ve got the history out of the way, let’s talk about building one for ourselves.
Breaking Down the Modern Recon Rifle
I am not a clone dork.
By that, I mean that I don’t enjoy building exact clones of military rifles. I find constantly searching for “correct” parts to be boring and tiresome. In a lot of cases, the specs for a particular rifle came out in a period where there just weren’t the number of options we have today.
In fact, I would argue that you can build a better rifle today since the market has truly evolved a lot since 2002. Instead, I prefer to look at the role a rifle filled and build towards it using available resources.
So let’s look at the core requirements for a Recce Rifle:
- Accurate enough to serve as a light sniper rifle
- Durable enough barrel to support an elevated rate of fire
- Two-stage match trigger
- Free-floated barrel
- Either a low profile gas block or front sight tower (both were common)
- Adjustable stock
- Variable power optic
You might look at this list and think, “You know…that’s an awful lot like most of the ARs I see posted in forum threads all over the internet.”
You’re not wrong.
Since 2010, the SEAL Recce rifle concept exerted a huge influence on the civilian AR world. Objectively speaking, it brings a lot capability to the table. It’s accurate, good looking, and compact enough to live with while working well at close and mid-range distances.
For a lot of folks just getting into the game, it’s their ideal “SHTF-TEOTWAWKI” general-purpose rifle. That’s actually why a Recce was my very first build, which I detailed in another article.
But everything comes with tradeoffs.
Something else to keep in mind is that the phrase “SPR” has grown to include any precision-carbine, not the just the Mk12. I have another build breakdown in my post on DMR/SPR rifles that you will find useful.
The Recce Rifle Barrel
The April 2012 issue of Shotgun News had a nice little article by James Tarr about the Recce Rifle and an attempt to build his own. He mentioned that the original early 90’s NSW Sniper M4s usually had 16″ carbine-gassed match barrels produced by Lilja.
The official Mk12 program used 18″ rifle-gassed barrels by Douglas.
Both of these are fine manufacturers who make accurate barrels. However, I don’t think that you should pursue crazy levels of accuracy here. A barrel capable of 1 MOA is more than sufficient for a light sniper role at less than 400-600 yards.
For a 16″ recce barrel, I’d with any of these options:
- Centurion Arms precision series
- Ballistic Advantage Premium Series
- Criterion Hybrid profile
- Rainier Arms Ultramatch or Match series
Mid-length gas was not a “thing” in the early ’90s, but it’s very common today. So I believe a 16″ middy is the ticket for most people. Could you go shorter, say something like a 12.5″ or 14.5″ barrel? Absolutely. And there are some great arguments for doing that. But then you’re dealing with NFA constraints and I typically try to keep newer shooters away from those.
The Recce Rail
The market has come a long way since the early ’90s or even the early 2000s. We have an almost unlimited number of choices when it comes to rails and handguards.
Our priority here is weight and durability. The recon rifle often gets used with a bipod or other rests. We want to minimize the flexion of the rail, provide good free-floating capabilities, and have strong mounting points for accessories.
This is really a personal preference, but I’m a huge fan of BCM’s rails these days. The mounting system works well and you can have it in your preferred flavor of Keymod, M-LOK, or 1913 rail.
I added a few more rails here, to include some personal favorites from Centurion Arms. There are plenty more on the market, but getting bogged down in Rail X vs Rail Y discussions really isn’t all that helpful.
Think light, durable, and secure.
The original Recce Rifle design came from accurizing M4 carbines. The modified versions that sprang up as teams worked over their Mk-12 rifles usually got collapsible stocks as well.
As such, it seems fitting to use a collapsible stock here. If you don’t mind the extra weight, the UBR 2.0 provides the best lockup and is the most solid feeling out there. It’s also compatible with the A5 buffer system, which is a big plus for me.
Aside from that, I say pick your choice from any of the quality makers out there like BCM, B5, Vltor, or Magpul.
I don’t see any reason to make this more complicated than the article I already wrote on the subject. Triggers are a highly personal thing. A two-stage trigger is my preferred, and also what NSWC Crane installed in the Mk-12 rifles.
Recce Rifle Optics
The final step is probably the most challenging. The optic you choose stems from how you want to use the rifle. The original rifles had a wide variety of optics, but the 2.5-8 or 2.5-10 magnification ranges were the most common. However, I’ve also seen 1-4, 1-6, and fixed low power magnification optics like the Elcan or ACOG used as well.
The thing to keep in mind here is that the Recce Rifle was not meant to be used at the long ranges a 10x scope is usually the answer for. However, only shooting at range like that isn’t always the role of the sniper. One of the quotes above highlights a lesser-known function of observation.
Think about scouting here, actually doing the recce. More magnification provides you with a bit more power to observe the target and provide support as necessary. Now there’s nothing stopping you from using slightly less magnification and also bringing along a nice set of binoculars. In fact, that’s probably the more comfortable option for most people.
I personally don’t think First Focal Plane (FFP) or Second Focal Plane (SFP) makes a huge difference here, but I have a personal preference for FFP optics. A second focal plane (SFP) scope is easier to use at lower magnification unless the manufacturers have a very well thought out reticle.
The advantage we have today over twenty years ago is that the optics market is dramatically different, and we can take advantage of that.
Can’t You Just Buy a Complete Rifle?
Of course you can. The Recce configuration is very popular, so a lot of companies make good approximations right out of the box.
To me, pretty much any quality built 16″ AR-15 will serve effectively as a Recce Rifle if you put the right optic on top. Most of the arguments flying around the web effectively come down to window dressing.
The real difference is the skill of the shooter behind the rifle.
Wrapping Up the Recce Rifle
To close out this discussion, let’s review a bit.
The original SEAL Recce Rifle was an in-house modification to M4 carbines. Since they were so individualized, there really wasn’t a spec. But we do know that Lilja barrels and optics in the 2.5-10 range were popular.
The original intent was to allow snipers to observe and provide rapid lightweight precision-fire capability at moderately close ranges (300-400 yards). If needed, the recon rifle could serve for house clearing or traditional fire and movement.
In other words, it was a true “general purpose” configuration.
I hope you found this guide helpful. As always, let me know if you have any questions in the comments.
Matt, I am sure you know by now that say the word “optics” has the same effect on me as saying “Beetlejuice” has on… well, Beetlejuice. Generally speaking, if you are up to it, we should do a podcast together some time. I am setting up to get one going if you are willing. Are you going to be at SHOT next week by chance? Now, onto the Recce rifle and optics that fit it. All of my AR-15s follow that same Recce prescription reasonably closely with some branching out since I am not a clone dork either (great choice… Read more »
Ilya, I’d be happy to jump on a podcast when you get it up and running. I’m not sure I’m all that interesting, though 🙂 Not going to be at SHOT next week. I couldn’t do something like that unless any income made from the blog was paying for it, so maybe in a few years (or one of the other conventions like TriggerCon). I hear you about living in California. I was stationed there twice, and only narrowly escaped before the whole new round of bullet button madness went into effect. I pretty much refused to go featureless while… Read more »
It sounds like you need to own more scopes so you do not have to move them from rifle to rifle. I’ll keep you posted on how it goes with getting a podcast going. There are a few people I know who I suspect will make for a good conversation, you being one of them. I had tried UBR back when I could still have it in this state and while it had a nice feel, the balance was too far to the rear with the rifles I had. I can live with that (I’ve spent a fair amount of… Read more »
Sorry for the delay, three of your comments got hung up in the spam filter. Odd.
It’s not that I need to move optics from rifle to rifle. I usually have one or two sitting in reserve. I just tend to okay with configurations a lot.
I’ll look forward to the podcast session!
I’d listen to a podcast with Matt on it. I totally agree with your position on FFP scopes. If I’m at 1x, I don’t want all that cross hair business cluttering up my view. I’ve held this view for a while but had no practical experience with this kind of optic until a few weeks ago when I finally purchased an SFP 1-6x. Now that I have some time on one, I find the reticle very distracting at 1x. I’ll put some sounds downrange in the next 2 or 3 weeks and really wring out my views, but I don’t… Read more »
Practice helps everything. The first time I put a 1-4 behind an FSP, I HATED it. But with time and practice I didn’t even notice it anymore.
There are arguments both ways for FFP and SFP. It really comes down to smart design of the reticle and where you plan on using the scope.
The development of very bright reticle illumination modules has changed the game somewhat in terms of reticle design, but I am sorta paranoid so I try to choose reticles that maintain reasonable visibility if your battery dies. That is an unpopular position these days, but I am sticking with it.
Is that a Turner Saddlery synthetic sling you’re sporting in that photo? I might have one of those…maybe. Great article. I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly on, once again, using what works and not necessarily is rigidly prescribed by those who know better. I think it might have been the first article I ever read of yours that convinced me of staying with the 16″ barrel as the do-all length. After sporting a 10.5″ with both a linear comp and then a suppressor, and this applies most in a shoot house that bounces that reverb back, I don’t feel like I’m… Read more »
Good eye, Mark! That is indeed a Turner synthetic. When I bought my first rifle, a Springfield Loaded M1A, I had in mind to be some kind of long-range semi-auto sniper. I think there’s just something alluring about that image, especially to people like me who grew up playing video games. That led me down a bit of a money hole with the M1A. In any case, the Turner sling was highly recommended as an updated shooter sling, and I grabbed it as well. A lot of new shooter slings have hit the market since then, with my favorite being… Read more »
The guys at Q over in New Hampshire are doing some interesting work on improving the terminal ballistics of subsonics. If you decide to go with the SBR route, consider their HoneyBadger.
Another solid article describing origin and philosophy of use of the Recce design. Broad spectrum of versatility in the AR platform, you can build to taste and function. Eugene Stoner would be astonished to witness the platforms evolution, versatility and longevity.
Hey Jerry, I totally agree. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the sheer number of variations that arose nor the longevity of the system. Generally, the US military switched to a new primary infantry rifle ever 10-15 years or so. The fact that we’ve stuck to the same system for 50 years is quite a feat.
Great article. I bought a Ruger MPR with a Mk 12 influenced build but ive been seeing a lot of people talk about the 16″ vs the 18″ and now I’m think of maybe building a recce 16″ upper once the I finish with the 18″ upper is finished.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting!
Honestly, if you already have an 18” with collapsible stock, then stick with it. You really don’t stand to gain much by doing a 16” to fit a similar niche. That’s especially true if you aren’t running a suppressor. I’d say spend that money on quality optic and ammo and shoot the snot out of your rifle.
Great article. The recce build idea fascinates me, even though I don’t see myself building one anytime soon (too much overlap with other guns).
That being said, would it not help the lightweight aspect to use a lightweight/pencil profile barrel? Modern pencil weight barrels meet your 1 MOA requirement even when hot. Granted they would not hold up under full auto fire as well as a heavier barrel, but would that not be offset by the increased indoor maneuverability and reduced swing weight? Or do they not bring enough to the table when compared to a medium profile?
A lightweight would work fine, honestly. My own Recce Rifle in the pictures uses a Centurion Arms lightweight barrel. The caveat there is that Centurion’s lightweight is still heavier than a true pencil profile. It’s probably going to come down to usage. How many shots over how much time do you need it to maintain that ~1 MOA? There’s also an element of balance to this (which is the next post going up, actually). When shooting a Recce from field positions, I found the combination of increased magnification and very light barrels to be a disadvantage. The front end didn’t… Read more »
I hadn’t considered balance, honestly. I’ve just always had it in my head that a more rearward balance is preferable, but hadn’t considered how a front bias, aka ‘hang, would help in unsupported shooting. It makes a lot of sense, and now I agree with your barrel choice.
You could have just told me to wait till today “…and all will be revealed!”
lol, unfortunately, I’ve never been one for mystery and suspense
Regarding barrel profile, there’s been a return to a heavier profile by Spec Ops soldiers who see high volumes of fire – mainly to deal with the intense heat generated by sustained full-auto fire. But what makes that interesting for civilians like me is that these heavier SOCOM profile barrels are also proving to be surprisingly accurate – and it seems to be due primarily to the stiffness imparted by the heavier profile combined with the short 14.5in length. These barrels are otherwise made to the same specs as normal USGI / Gov’t profile bbls. So it would seem that… Read more »
Thanks for coming by and commenting! The SOCOM profile is indeed interesting, and I know it has a reputation for accuracy. I do wonder how much of that was related to Colt being the manufacturer, as their barrels are generally known for good accuracy.
Barrel whip and harmonics certainly play into accuracy as well, so stiffness matters- but I think it gets less important as the barrel gets shorter.
In any case, thanks for coming by and I’m glad you found the article helpful!
I have a URGI with an ACSS ACOG over a Geissele SSP trigger – No complaints & still smiling.
That sounds like a fine setup! How do you like that SSP? I haven’t gotten to handle one yet.
It’s crisp & clean. I am not looking for another trigger!
I recently added a SUREFIRE DualFuel and a Viking Tactics sling.
I’m getting ready to Rattlecan the whole thing!
Amazing article. Finally a well put together piece on the RECCE that doesn’t come in pieces from forums.
I notice all your reticle choices are some kind of crosshair MIL variation. I agree that for ranging and observation (recon!) that a mil dot style reticle is the best.
Is this why you chose those or is there another reason that BDC reticles don’t make your list?
Thanks, and again, great article! I’m enjoying all of your in depth blogs.
Hey Andrew, thanks commenting! I definitely have a preference for MIL reticles, especially on rifles intended for a precision role. It’s not that I dislike BDCs, though. My main issue is that BDCs are a kind of “one size fits all” option for a specific bullet fired at a specific velocity. If you are running a TA31 RCO with M855 through a 20″ barrel, then it works pretty well. But if you take that RCO and put it on a 16″ carbine firing 77gr Mk262, then what? Sure, it’s close enough for average infantry fire and maneuver work, but I… Read more »
And BDC is useless when you move teh optic from your 5.56 rifle to your .458 rifle, or 6.5, or 7.62×39, or, or, or… 🙂
One of the better articles I’ve read on the subject. Great effort. My only suggestion would be to point out how a carbine/rifle is built is probably just as important as the sum of its parts, which would make a great follow up article. Oh, and i a gas block is best pinned with a tapered pin made of a metal that behaves well chemically with the material of the gas block itself. And a proper jig like those from BRD are essential for anyone without experience as a machinist.. at least imo. I’ve seen too many barrels buggered from… Read more »
Good article codifing the nebulous Recce Rifle concept. My setup is Daniel Defense DDM4V7 16″ Gov’t profile barrel to which I added a LaRue MBT2 trigger, swapped the furniture (from another rifle) to a Magpul CTR so I could install a LaRue RISR cheek rest and topped it off with a Kahles 1-6 scope. I splurged on the Kahles for its fantastically wide field of view which lends itself to the recce concept. The rifle, which I refer to as a “bushwacking carbine” or “The Partisan”, really performs well whether as a paper punching target rifle or up close and… Read more »
That sounds like a fun carbine to shoot!
Enjoyed the article and agree with you about not cloning rifles. The Recce gun has been a passion of mine since I first saw them used in theatre in 2003. I don’t know the history for sure, but I’m pretty sure the name did not come from the civilian world, as the Army guys I was working with in 2003 told me they were calling them that in the early 90’s when they started to really flesh the concept out. Recce rifles, for recce troops, who had a fair bit of British influence. They had $100 Japanese scopes on their… Read more »
Thanks for reading and commenting, SLG! I’m glad you enjoyed the article. I always enjoy hearing how things evolved over time, so thank s for sharing the insight about the optics.
In the FWIW category, I talked to a couple of buddies who were there and they confirmed that the recce rifle originated with the Navy, though it quickly made its way down south as well. I gather that the only real “spec” for much of its life, was the 16″ barrel, as the SPR/MK12 had an 18″ barrel. My version, circa 2005, was made with a Lilja barrel and Knights furniture, though there has obviously been a lot of variations before and since.