In the early years of the push for patrol rifles, accessories were few and far between. It was the field of competition in the 1980s and beyond that really taught us what we needed to enhance performance of both the rifle and the shooter.
At the Second Chance Body Armor Combat Shoots—which ran from 1977 to 1998—Rich Davis (who started Second Chance) challenged us on many difficult and devious courses of fire. In early June each year, shooters from across the country made the journey to Central Lake Michigan. The original shoot was geared for law enforcement, but over the years, all shooters were ultimately welcomed. For a whole week, handgun, rifle, shotgun, and subgun events went on day and night. It was fierce competition, and many of today's well-known shooters were there at the start.
One of the most difficult events was the Light Rifle Pop and Flop (LRPF). The objective was to run a field course to set up your targets, 40 bowling pins out to 80 yards, and then run back to the firing line and knock them down. Over time, the LRPF morphed into shooting steel pins in banks at multiple distances, but it was surely no less difficult in terms of shooting skills. It was all about accuracy and speed—key elements in any real-world fight. The first-place prize for this event was, at times, a $1,000 check, a custom .44 mag Smith revolver, and an AR-15 Match Rifle—big loot for those (or any) times and a big draw.
What did we learn and what changes did we make as a result of this friendly competition? What effect did they have on the shooting community and industry? Very importantly, many of the lessons of hard-fought competitions were found to be relevant to the challenges of today's patrol officer. Further, while I will not claim that the Second Chance Shoot alone changed the industry, I know that much of what is considered to be mainstream gear today got a big start there.
Like today, the rifle of choice for the LRPF was the AR-15. We started in the bare-bones mode: iron sights, standard sling (if any) and a military-grade 7-plus-lb. trigger. I shot my original 1970s-era Colt SP-1 skinny-barrel AR-15. I did well, winning the event a number of times, but it was obvious that iron sights were not going to allow me to be as precise at distance and shooting multiple targets at speed. I needed to gain the fastest time on target. By this I mean that I needed the clearest and most precise target acquisition to engage the small steel bowling pins at 40–80 yards. Davis made a point that all his courses of fire comprise components that would be needed in a gunfight. At the top of the list: the ability to identify and target a threat quickly.
So the shooters adapted or invented the needed gear. In this article, I want to review what we had, what we made and what's available today. We're now at the point where there are so many choices, so many add-ons, that it's difficult to decide. Here's some help.
Iron sights are the foundation of the patrol rifle sight system. They're built to take abuse and remain in place and properly adjusted. Every officer should be required to be skilled in the use of iron sights, and every patrol rifle should be equipped with them. That said, iron sights are often a secondary sight system nowadays. Optics have become the primary sight system throughout our military system, and for good reason.
During a recent night fire in our patrol rifle classes, those officers using iron sights at 40 yards couldn't obtain a clear sight picture in reduced light. Those with illuminated red dots had no issues. We had each officer try out the different types. They all agreed that the illuminated scopes were a significant advantage. Even with rifle-mounted lights, iron sights were not nearly as easily and effectively employed as were the enhanced systems.
The serious shooters quickly moved from iron sights to both magnified and red dot scopes. The only means to mount them was on the AR carrying handle, and the mount of choice was made by Leatherwood. The photo above shows both a variable-power Leupold and an early Aimpoint in this mount. It was a 2-x-7 Leupold that I used with much success. These scopes and mounts are the same ones I carried for years on the street. There were no flat-top upper receivers on which to mount optics. It would be a few years before the gunsmiths like Al Zitta would start cutting off the carry handles and attaching Weaver bases to create what is now as commonplace as the Picatinny rail system found on virtually all AR rifles and carbines. Zitta built my competition upper, and it offered a significant upgrade in that I now had a solid cheek weld with my eye low and in line with the center of the scope. A solid head position translated into faster and more accurate fire.
The problem: The elevated carry handle mount didn't allow for a proper cheek weld. I had to raise my head high off the stock to get a center view through the scope. With the head off the stock and unsupported, accuracy and speed suffered. So I adapted by using a piece of soft foam rubber glued to the stock to create a cheek piece and solved that problem. Even today, a cheek-piece solution can be used by police agencies that desire to add a carry handle optic in a Leatherwood mount using the government LESO M-16 A-1s.
We also quickly learned that a variable-power, magnified scope offered enhanced visual clarity of the target. The clearer you could see, the faster you could target. I could dial in 2 power for close range and turn it up to 7X power for distance. While the red dot was very fast in close, our targets were extended and the diameter of the red dot reticle covered the target. The magnified optic enlarged the target, and the small dot or crosshair was easily centered.
What we learned 30 years ago is spot on today. Proof can be found by reviewing the results of the Center Mass National Patrol Rifle Competition (NPRC). After seeing the results and the prize distribution, Jeff Felts, long-time police officer and match owner/director, divided the scoring into three categories: iron sights, red dot non-magnified optics and magnified optics. Every year the magnified optics post the highest overall scores—and usually by a very large margin.
I've competed for many years in the NPRC and have seen the evolution of shooters and their gear. The shift to magnification is significant, either using a magnified optic or adding a magnifier to an Eotech or Aimpoint red dot.
When faced with an active shooter in a school or mall, an officer needs to see and identify a threat at distances that can easily be more than 100 yards away. Without a magnified optic, you cannot see critical details. A hand is raised and pointing, but—a cell phone or a pistol? There are a number of magnified optics that have an illuminated dot at 1X power for CQB/low light and can adjust up to 4–6X power, allowing extended visual accuracy. This solution also allows officers to take on a designated marksman role in the field. An officer can be tasked to provide cover protection at distance or accurately engage extended threats.
By necessity, what used to be the sole domain of the SWAT sniper has extended into patrol with modern optics and enhanced training. Police Designated Marksman is one of the courses offered through both Center Mass and Paul Howe of Combat Shooting and Tactics. Having attended courses and trained with both, I highly recommend them for officers who are looking to be the best with their patrol rifles.
The early slings were of the military/sport type. Attached in the traditional two-point system below the barrel and buttstock, it was essentially a carry strap. One day at Second Chance, while I was waiting for the hay wagon ride to the back range, I decreased the length of the sling on my AR and looped it over the back of my neck. By bringing my support arm through the space between the sling and bottom of the forend, and pressing down with my forearm, I was able to lock the rifle tight against my neck and cheek. I could do so quickly and gained a much more stable shooting position. That year I truly upped the game.
That was also the point I realized that slings were far more than a carry device. I handmade a slider-type two-point sling that could be extended or retracted quickly. Others would do the same, and a number of such slings are available today. Different designs have their proponents. My shooting partners and I use Spec Ops, Vickers and Blue Force Gear designs. Each has its strong points.
Additionally, in the past couple years I have tested and now use the Savvysniper design. Developed by a skilled police rifleman, this two-point system is extremely fast to adjust. It features a stiffened loop as part of the sling adjustment that you simply grab and slide—a brilliant idea that takes this system to another level. I've used single- and three-point slings, and they work to keep the rifle attached to you. But a sling can do so much more in the two-point system. Where an officer may need to engage threats at extended distances and a stable rifle mount is vital, two points is what I use and recommend.
In the early competitions, we only had heavy, 7-plus-lb., military-type triggers, and they weren't easily mastered in the high-speed environment in which we shot. A good friend who is a master gunsmith and machinist developed an AR trigger system that took the trigger weight to about 4 lbs. It served me well and was the only solution until mainstream manufacturers, such as Rock River, developed drop-in match-grade AR triggers. For competition, for the highly skilled patrol or SWAT officer, these triggers can offer upgraded shooter performance. For them a cleaner, lighter trigger makes sense.
There are any number of high-quality match triggers on the market today. But I caution that it's not the solution for all patrol rifle users. Lighter-weight triggers used in high-stress events, in cold weather, with gloves and a variety of other factors can significantly degrade officer performance and lead to unintended discharges. I've seen this happen in our patrol rifle classes over the years. It's almost always a replacement/light trigger system. We see officers setting up on targets and getting rounds away prematurely. When we ask them about the event, they readily admit that they were on the trigger but not prepared to fire. Officers place their finger on the trigger when they should not. We all say it is a matter of training, but they do it nonetheless. Safety has to be a paramount consideration.
For the regular officer working the street, who doesn't train on a regular basis, I recommend keeping the heavier standard trigger. Some things are a tradeoff, and in this, I choose a safety margin over the potential accuracy advantage.
The manual safety on the AR is a lever on the left side of the lower receiver. By adding an ambidextrous safety, every shooter can manipulate the safety to the off/fire position with their thumb but reengage to the safe position by using their trigger finger. How, you ask? This requires no movement or change of the gun hand position to reengage the safety. Instead of trying to maneuver the gunhand thumb to reengage the safety, simply move the trigger finger fully out of the trigger guard and drag the extended trigger finger backward against the bottom of the safety lever. This immediately returns the safety from the fire position back to the safe position. I install ambi-safties on all our patrol rifles and train officers in this system. It's safe, lighting fast, precise, and righties and lefties gain the same advantage. You may ask, what's the big deal? Again, we have seen officers changing hand position to reengage the safety and get fingers/gloves into the trigger guard.
In the early years at the NPRC, we had to shoot a course of fire in a low-light shoot house. Patrol officers using AR carbines not equipped with a mounted light were at a big disadvantage. Same as they would be on the street. The multitude of weapon-mounted lights is good news for the officer looking to purchase. SureFire and Streamlight have a big following. SureFire has been the leader in lighting solutions for many years and their gear is as good as it gets. The downside is price. Streamlight has filled a niche at lower cost but still offering highly serviceable lights. Both currently offer rifle lights that have 600-lumen or higher output. In earlier testing in pitch dark, using 200-lumen lights, we could make visual identification and targeting well beyond the 60-yard berm. These are what I use and there are others that deserve consideration. Check the Web for information and reviews. For your agency, many companies offer T&E models. Educate yourself before you purchase.
How to mount a light can be an issue. With tactical type forends, attaching the light mount to the Picatinny or cross slot mounting system is a simple bolt on procedure. But if your rifle/carbine has standard plastic handguards without an attachment point for a light, you can add one.
M&A Parts in Lake Zurich, Ill., is one of the best sources of all things AR. M&A offers an inexpensive single Picatinny type mount plate that is easily attached to the bottom handguard. They also offer a mount that attaches around the barrel in front on the sight assembly that allows the use of a standard one-inch-diameter tactical flashlight. If you are a patrol rifle user, a light is mandatory gear in my view. Be sure to buy a light that's designed for tactical use. Do not go cheap.
This information is based on years of personal competition, street use and instructing patrol rifle classes. It's a bit of history to tell you where it came from and why, as well as a look to where we stand today and a view to where we are going.
We are long past the point of convincing law enforcement administrators of the need for patrol rifles. This gear has become part of our daily police equipment. The questions instead focus on how best to choose what we need and provide quality training to our officers on a regular basis. For the challenges of these times, when violent criminal offenders threaten law enforcement officers and our communities, we must be prepared. We cannot do any less.
Chudwin's picks to consider as you outfit your patrol carbine for duty.