The question you’re probably asking is, “Matt, what the hell is a rack rifle?” This post stems from a conversation in my friend Ilya’s community. He tagged me on it to provide some of my thoughts, and then he built out his own calling his project, “The AK of ARs.”
The instigating question went as such: “I have a thought experiment where I try to keep in mind what setup I’d choose as a rack standard. If I was going to set up a fire team’s worth of ARs the same, what would I actually buy for my people?”
Ilya gave his answer, and now I’m providing mine.
In all honesty the end result is not all that different from what I’ve already said about the minimum capable carbine, but there are a few philosophical points I think we can dig into a little bit more.
So What is a Rack Rifle?
By “Rack Rifle,” I’m specifically talking about a rifle that spends most of its life sitting on a gun rack (or in a safe). It’s not a pet project or something that sees a lot of range time. For all intents and purposes, it’s a “just in case” rifle that you own explicitly for handing out to your friends and neighbors during Scenario-X.
The caveat in the question is that it’s for a fire team’s worth of rifles. So we’re not talking about just another backup rifle to your main one, but up to four or five additional rifles all configured the same way. These rifles also need to be reliable enough for defensive purposes, and they need to be usable by just about anyone with a minimum amount of training.
This immediately rules out a lot of things I might otherwise advocate unless you are exceptionally wealthy. Most people can afford to set up one rifle really well for themselves and then a potential backup rifle. Outfitting four or five “hand out” rifles to an acceptable level means making compromises.
Targets and Requirements
As John Simpson talked about last week, an exercise like this starts with defining our target and situation. What is it that we actually need out of the gun?
I think there’s a lot of risk to bias our “favorite” use case, building the gun, and then hope that situation actually happens in a way that suits what we built. A great example is the ubiquitous “porch sniper” where everyone thinks they’re just going to get by with a Recce rifle or bolt action topped with big magnification and hold off bad guys at 400-500 yards. Instead, we should be thinking about the statistical probabilities of what will actually happen.
To that, I think we should consider what a defensive situation within Scenario-X actually looks like and what kind of people are likely to be involved in my imaginary fire team. I linked the scenario itself above, so I’m only going to focus on what conflict itself would probably look like.
I think John’s use of the 1957 Army Trainfire doctrine is an excellent starting place for armed citizen conflict- particularly the first 6 points.
- Enemy personnel targets are rarely visible except in a close assault
- Most combat targets consist of a number of men or objects linear in nature, irregularly spaced, and using cover such as ground folds, hedges, and borders of woods or ditches.
- These targets, detected by smoke, flash, dust, noise, or movement are usually seen only fleetingly.
- These targets can be engaged by using a nearby object as a reference point.
- The range of combat targets will rarely exceed 300 meters.
- The nature of the target, the terrain on which it appears, and the “digging in” requirements of the defensive often preclude the use of the prone position. These conditions do, however, favor supported positions such as the foxhole standing or squatting positions.
These principles are the result of a many years of research by infantry leaders spanning several wars, and provided the basis for infantry training standards for decades. With that in mind, what are our key takeaways?
First, the statistical outer edge of engagement for light infantry small arms is 300 meters, and probably far closer due to terrain and construction. Second, targets are fleeting, and so we must be able to get shots on target quickly. Thirdly, the ability to locate and identify targets is probably more more important than actual shooting them.
A second source of data about the situation should come from law enforcement engagements. In my view, the average citizen defender’s requirements are closer to a police officer than an infantry soldier in a foreign nation. Issues around the legal use of force, terrain, and other considerations are all pretty close.
I am not a lawyer, so take this with a grain of salt- but generally speaking, even if you can spot a target at 300 yards, you’re going to have a difficult time justifying actually shooting at it from that distance as an “immediate threat.” My emphasis on locating targets is so that you can see what’s coming before it’s time to engage it.
Moreover, John Simpson’s research into police sniping, a specialty role, shows that 98.58% all sniper engagements take place within 200 yards. Of that, 91.67% take place within 100 yards. I would wager that police patrol rifle engagements are even closer than that.
With this in mind, I believe we should primarily focus on up to 200 yards as our bread and butter distance for training. The bulk of our targets will be within 100 yards, but the goal is complete confidence up to 200. A 300-yard shot is still possible, especially depending on what part of the country you’re in, but it should be seen as an outlier.
Along with distance, we should discuss an accuracy standard. To reference John’s work again, most classic Army training uses silhouettes representing some form of front-facing “bad guy.” The average width of a human torso is 19″. However, point number 2 and 3 of Trainfire indicate that targets are probably not standing in the open squared off to us. They may very well be moving side to side perpendicular to us moving to cover. So instead, let’s reference the depth of a human torso from sternum to spine, which is about 10″.
Given Trainfire’s outside edge of 300 yards, we should expect our infantry rifle to reliably hit a 10″ target at 300 yards, which works out to about a 3.18 Minute of Angle (MOA) accuracy standard. We’ll round that to 3 MOA as the goal.
Since our focus is up to 200 yards, at which a 10″ target is 5 MOA, I think we should say that 5 MOA is the minimum acceptable performance standard for our rifle and ammunition.
For the sharpshooters, 3 MOA at 200 yards is also about the width of a human head, so take that for what you will.
The Fire Team
The target requirements and rifle are one thing, but what about the shooters? I’m sure we’d like to think that everyone we hand a rifle to on our team is like us. They’re in good physical condition and have solid marksmanship fundamentals through regular practice. Sadly, that’s probably not reality when it comes to our “average” neighbor. If it was, then they’d probably bring their own gun to the fight and you wouldn’t be handing them a rack rifle.
We have to assume that in an emergency, our average neighbor is in relatively poor physical condition. They’re probably not very strong, nor are they particularly well conditioned. Eyesight may not be perfect- though they’ll probably have corrective lenses. Our friends and neighbors come in a variety of shapes and sizes as well.
We also have to assume that they don’t have a lot of familiarity with marksmanship. You’ll probably provide the basics to them over the course of handing them a rifle, but that doesn’t translate to copious amounts of practice with natural point of aim and the basic marksmanship positions.
I bring these up because it means that our rack rifles need to be as lightweight as possible (without sacrificing reliability). They’re going to be carried a whole lot more than they’re going to be shot, so they can’t be cumbersome. They also need to make it as simple as possible to achieve acceptably accurate shots at our target distances.
I also want to avoid any other complicating factors that would take additional training and practice, like white lights. I realize this is counter to my own advice about lights/sights/slings, but the reality is that becoming proficient with lights requires practice and discipline so that you don’t give away your position with negligent light discharges. For a rack rifle, it’s probably best to skip it.
Putting the Rack Rifle Together
We now have our scenario and basic assumptions laid out. From that, I figure the following requirements for the rifle itself:
- Lightweight, weighing ~7 lbs unloaded
- 16″ barrel
- Minimum 5 MOA accuracy standard, but preferably 3 MOA or better
- Adjustable stock length
- High reliability
- Basic trigger
- Simple and reliable optic suitable for up to 200 yards
- Simple sling
I haven’t mentioned cost at all, but the goal is obviously to keep it as affordable as possible while still meeting the above requirements.
Picking the Platform
The first question is what platform to build on? The obvious answers are either an AK-47 or AR. Both platforms and their associated cartridges were essentially purpose-built for light infantry combat under the requirements we’re talking about.
You can certainly make the case for the AK based on it’s cartridge and track record for reliability and ease of use amongst peasant folk. If I was going the AK route, I think the PSA AK-47 GF3 series is the winner. It’s got a pretty solid reputation by this point, and at $699 (as of this writing), it’s affordable. Reviews indicate it’s anywhere between a 2-5 MOA rifle, which meets our minimum specification.
However, I do have a few big caveats to the AK. First, it’s already topping 7.5 lbs before you add anything else to it. That’s beyond our desired target weight.
I don’t think the iron sights on AKs are great. To help our novice shooters obtain the expectation of consistently hitting 10″ targets at 200 yards, you’re going to need optics. The AK platform isn’t built for direct mounting. So plan to add another 7 oz and $150 or so to the cost of the rifle for the optics mount. That means we’re up to 8 lbs, before adding an optic, and a cost of $850.
I think the AR-15 is the better choice for a rack rifle. It’s lighter, more ergonomic, easier to mount optics to, enjoys huge economy of scale in pricing, and has great parts commonality.
The Upper Receiver
Without going down the parts build path, we can probably focus on complete uppers. On Aero Precision’s site, they have a 16″ pencil barrel upper with free floated handguard that catches my attention for a reasonable price.
Keep in mind you still need a bolt carrier and charging handle to go with it. They don’t have a weight listed, unfortunately, but I expect it to be light.
Since we don’t need a super high accuracy standard nor any fancy attachments on the front, I see no reason that we can’t go “classic” here with plastic handguards and fixed front sight post. Aero offers that configuration, too, and it saves you money even with the bolt carrier and charging handle. However, you lose the pencil barrel.
The site says this weighs 4.35 lbs. If you add a complete lower with basic mil spec stock, figure about 2 lbs, you’re looking at 6.3 lbs before we get to the optic. The first upper is probably lighter.
As an upgrade option, I’d look at a BCM 16″ Enhanced Lightweight upper with MCMR rail. Again, no weight listed here, nor does it come with bolt carrier or charging handle, but I’m sure we’re down around 6 lbs with a complete lower.
If we figure that a complete basic lower runs around $250, then we’re looking at about $750 to $1100 to have some solid rack rifles put together before getting into optics.
On the budget end of the spectrum, Palmetto State Armory has a 16″ pencil barrel upper complete with bolt carrier, charging handle, and backup sights for $399.99.
There’s definitely a lot of appeal to this path because of the price. While I normally sway people away from going down this extreme budget route, I’m willing to compromise on it here because it’s not intended as your main rifle that sees thousands of rounds of practice, competition, and training.
The Complete Rifle Option
With a budget in mind, the upper/lower combination is really compelling. Of course, another route to go here is a complete rifle. For around the same price as the upper end upper lower combo above, Ilya pointed out that Faxon Firearms has a model called the Sentry which looks really interesting for our purposes.
It’s comes in at 6.1 lbs complete with upper, lower, improved trigger, fancier ambidextrous controls, and a 16″ Gunner profile barrel (which I’m a fan of, and used the 18″ version in my Minuteman Rifle project). Cost on the Sentry is $1149 as I’m writing this.
Rack Rifle Optics Selection
I’m sure there’s a lot of debate to be had about the “ideal” optic to use on our rack rifle. It all comes back to our stated scenario and requirements.
Our ideal requirements called for 3 MOA or better, with the bulk of our shooting being targets 10″ wide up to 200 yards (5 MOA). That standard is perfectly doable for just about any quality red dot sight, prism sight, or LPVO on the market.
So the next question is one of speed to target. Our optic should enable relative novices to quickly get shots on our 10″ target up to 200 yards.
Since this is a rack rifle that is probably going to be left alone most of the time, then we also have to consider battery life. How well will the optic do if it’s left alone for 1+ years without a battery change?
Given our objective of keeping costs down, the choice boils down to red dot sights and low power prism optics.
Red Dots vs Prisms
Spoiler, there’s no solutions here, only trade-offs.
On one hand, I sincerely believe that a low power prism with 2x or 3x magnification is the best all-around option for a general purpose rifle. It helps with target identification, has a reticle that doesn’t rely on a battery to function, and helps the shooter better place their shots. My own testing shows that these low power prisms don’t result in a significant speed penalty up close, typically within a 1/10th of a second, and are probably significantly better at range. On top of that, the latest generation of compact prisms are practically the same weight as comparable red dot sights.
On the other hand, prism optics (even at 1x) still have parallax and shooters must learn to have that consistent cheek weld and sight picture.
Red dot sights are nearly idiot proof. Set it for a reasonable point blank zero, which is easy to do with a primary distance of up to 200 yards, and it’s practically a “point and click” solution. This is ideal for novices. Examples from Holosun and the Sig Romeo series all sport very long battery lives, shake awake, and other features.
The downside of the red dots is that they don’t help whatsoever with identifying targets. Our situation says that targets will be using cover and mostly visually detected by smoke, flash, dust, and movement. Magnification helps us with all of these. Also, people with astigmatism often have issues with red dots- though we might expect our fire team has corrective lenses.
So which way would I go?
It’s hard to beat an optic that works without the battery all together. I lean towards a low power prism. The reticle is always there, and help a bit with precise aiming, the eye piece is adjustable, and they help with locating targets.
If you still insist on a red dot sight, which is perfectly valid, I think the Holosun 503 makes a compelling case at the budget-friendly end of the spectrum.
To wrap this up, I want to touch on just a few more things for the rack rifle. I honestly don’t think it should have many accessories. White lights are out due to lack of training and issues with unintentional light discharge with novices. We don’t need lasers or anything like that. So, really, what we’re looking at is slings.
It should be a 2 point sling, and I don’t care about quick adjustability. The one that stands out as a nice blend of functionality and low price is the Specter Gear Raptor 2-Point.
That’s it. That’s the rack rifle.
Spend the rest on magazines and load bearing kit to hand out to your team as well.
Thanks for indulging in my thought experiment. I realize it was long, but I found it helpful to think through the actual requirements for such a rifle and how I would meet them.
In the end, I know everyone would love to build up a whole collection of gucci rifles and gear- but we all have to start somewhere.
In truth, I see no reason that the rack rifle shouldn’t serve as the baseline template for all of our thinking about rifles we own for defensive purposes. Once we start at this point, then we make intentional decisions about what to change or expand on to suit other requirements like great accuracy, longer range, or higher complexity.