Equipment Review: Hunter Rifleworks AR-15 HBAR Upper

Backstory

Those who have read John’s article, The Case for Duplicate Guns, can well understand the advantages of having “doubles” of certain firearms available. One day earlier this year I found myself looking into my safe and realizing that I had only one “true” AR-15 carbine (gasp!). How was this possible? I thought these things were supposed to multiply in safes all over the country! Yet there was the evidence before me. My Spikes Tactical AR-15, which had—and continues to—serve me well. Yes, there was my recently completed AR Pistol (see my article here), and my Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22 (see my article on training with .22s here). I have a short-barreled rifle (SBR) that can share magazines with my AR-15 (the Sig Sauer 556 that I used in this class), but my AR-15 really lacked a “twin”. As the most popular self-defense rifle in the United States, I really felt the need for a second one.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts testifying before my state legislature, many of the firearms laws in my state changed after I bought the Spikes Tactical AR-15. No longer can a person buy an AR-15 with a pencil or LE profile barrel, unless it’s just an upper that’s going on a lower that was owned prior to this law going into effect. However, HBAR rifles are good to go, because we all know that they are less dangerous to the public (can our readers detect my sarcasm?). The only lower I still had in my safe was one that I had purchased AFTER the law went into effect. So I found myself in a bit of a quandary.

My options seemed to be limited. Most of my fellow residents were buying Colt 6721 AR-15s, and I thought of buying a complete one or perhaps just an upper from one. However, I wasn’t happy that its twist rate is 1:9, meaning it’s not the best choice for many of the heavier bullets out there. I don’t typically shoot heavier bullets, but the option would be nice. Though I regarded whatever AR I might get as a “back-up” to my Spikes (which has a 1:7 twist rate), I really wanted it to be equally capable.

I contacted a well-respected local builder, and they were able to price out an HBAR upper for me, made with all of the latest and greatest parts, at over $800, which was more than I really wanted to spend on an upper that I regarded as being for a backup carbine.

Next, I contacted Paul Howe, who has always been very responsive to my emails about tactics, gear, etc. I asked him if he felt like I would be giving up much by going with a 1:9 barrel. He suggested that I instead contact Dave Montana, one of his assistant instructors who I had met at both CSAT classes I had taken in the last year (see AARs here and here). In addition to assisting at CSAT, Dave also runs a company called Hunter Rifleworks, which is based in the Houston, Texas area.

I emailed Dave and explained my situation, merely soliciting his opinion on which direction I should go (Colt 6721 or a local build). Dave’s response: “Why don’t I just build you one?” It turns out that Dave was putting the finishing touches on the new CSAT Javelin carbine for Paul Howe (see here), and he thought it would be fun to build a version compliant for the laws where I live. I went back and forth a number of times about different options Dave offered me (this upper receiver or that one, this rail or that one, etc.).  In a few cases I went with parts he had on hand or with slight blemishes in order to keep costs down (this was to be a shooter, not a safe queen). Once all the decisions had been made, Dave had it built in a day or two and in my hands within a week.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that Dave built me the upper that I am reviewing at cost. In other words, he charged me HIS cost for parts and NOTHING for labor. I guess Dave likes me.

Specifications

Dave takes notes on all custom builds. Here are most of them as sent to me:

Parts Used

16” Faxon Heavy Barrel, 416R Stainless, Melonite QPQ, Fluted, 5.56mm

Hunter Rifleworks Billet Upper

Seekins Precision BCG with gas key removed, replaced with Sun Devil Adjustable, permatex applied and re-staked.

BCM Gunfighter Charging Handle, Medium

Hunter Rifleworks 12” MLOK Rail

Magpul MLOK QD Sling Swivel

Troy Industries .750 Gas Block

Seekins Precision Melonited gas tube (mid-length)

DS Arms Crush Washer

DS Arms A2 Flash Hider

Build Notes

The upper is blemished (Anodizer marked several parts), the following are the areas of concern:

Slot T6, ejection port side (this is the only noticeable part), ding in metal, 1mmx1mm

Front of Receiver/T14, chip in anodizing, .3mm

Left hand side front, closest to barrel nut, thin hardcoat, .3mm wide line, 2mm high

Rear Tang, left hand side, 1mm x .5mm

All areas were coated with Birchwood Casey ‘super black’ touch up pen. Caswells Aluminum Black did not take.

Barrel inspection good, melonite so expect 50rd break in.

Flash hider and crush washer new, required 1/4 turn to index.

Magpul QD sling swivel point attached to first slot, left hand side, for right handed shooter.

Seekins BCG. Lightweight model. Approx 60 rds (2 magazines) shot with BCG. Gas is set to highest flow to allow parts to break in.

Barrel nut threads were coated with moly. Nut then tightened to 30ft.lbs and loosened 3x as per Colt specs. Final tightening was around 41ft.lbs aligning for gas tube.

Gas block used was a Troy Industries steel .750 block. Screws are of the non-recessed/cutting type so care was taken to ensure proper tightness and solidity. Screws were coated with rocksett and tightened to mitigate thermal expansion/drifting in use.

Weight

3lbs 10oz

Attached to standard lower with Larue furniture, 6lbs exactly.

The upper as it was delivered to me.
The upper as it was delivered to me.

The Build

It should be obvious to anyone reading this that Dave does not just throw builds together. This is clearly a labor of love.

What does all of this mean? It means that, through careful use of parts, Dave built me an upper that is superior to the one on my Spikes Tactical carbine (as it includes adjustable gas on the bolt carrier group, a higher quality barrel, MLOK 12 inch rail, etc.). But, the kicker is that, not only is it better, but, despite the HBAR barrel, it’s actually lighter than my Spikes upper which has a non-HBAR barrel!

It suddenly seems as though what started out as a “build-a-backup-carbine” build has become my primary AR-15, relegating my Spikes Tactical carbine to a backup role!

Performance

I assembled a lower with a Palmetto State Armory lower parts kit, but substituted an ALG-ACT trigger for the fire control group in the PSA kit. I function tested it and all seemed fine. Within days I had it at the range and put 60 rounds through it getting a rough zero and testing it for overall functioning. As of this writing, the only ammunition I have shot through it is Federal M193 55 grain FMJ.

I brought the upper with me to the CTT-Solutions (Mike Pannone) “Street and Vehicle” class (see AAR here); my lower could not join me due to where the class took place. I was able to borrow a lower just like my own (same trigger and stock), so no issues there. I refined my zero the night before the class with 40 rounds at 100 yards (did a Kyle Defoor drill in there as part of the 40 rounds), and then used it in class.

Its performance in class was basically flawless. I had one double-feed (which I induced through sheer stupidity by slamming a magazine in on an open bolt so hard that the top round popped out of the magazine, so that when I sent the bolt home, two rounds fought over the chamber). This took place during a reload drill, so I have no idea which/what type/whose magazine it was or what round was loaded in the magazine, as we were all using each other’s magazines for the drill.

Over the course of the weekend, I used a combination of Lancer, G.I., and Generation 1 Magpul Pmags (all 30 rounders), and have used Generation 3 Mapul Pmags on my own as well. All functioned without incident.

The upper on the lower I built up, set up as I used it in Mike Pannone's
The upper on the lower I built up, set up as I used it in Mike Pannone’s “Street and Vehicle” class.

As of this writing, I cannot comment on any long range accuracy. In class, we never shot past 50 yards, and I did the zeroing the night before at 100 yards. That’s as far as I’ve shot with it so far. Having said that, I shot very well with the carbine when zeroing and in class. The 12 inch rail allows me to get my support hand a bit further out, but not so far that I’m straining. The fluted barrel and the lightweight rail keep the muzzle weight down, even with a Surefire x300u mounted at 12 o’clock.

I hope to get it out to the range and stretch its legs a bit further, at least to 200 yards, in the near future. Access to longer ranges where I live is…..rare.

Anyway, that’s about it. As of this writing, I have 378 rounds through it, plus some that Dave did in a test fire before he shipped it to me. I love the weight (or lack thereof) of the carbine, the fast-handling characteristics, the rail, and the look and functionality of the fluted barrel. The adjustable gas on the bolt carrier is a nice feature that I do not have immediate plans to take advantage of, as I am lacking a suppressor at this point. I shall have to address this soon!

I plan to revisit this article—or perhaps write a new follow-up—as I get more rounds downrange. If things keep going well, I will report that, and if some troubles appear, I will report that as well. I think that, as much as Dave likes to hear about the success of his work, he is a professional, high-end builder who would also love to hear any criticisms so that he can improve his work for his many customers.

Special thanks to Dave and Hunter Rifleworks for providing this reduced-cost AR-15 upper. It is now the star of my safe!

UPDATE 11-19-15

Just a quick addition to this article.  Though I continue to be very pleased with Dave’s work (and he has done more for me since….more on that in a future article!), if my own testimonial is not enough, try this:  I’ve recently been informed that one of Dave’s uppers is currently being evaluated by the 22nd British Special Air Service Regiment (Dave is a Brit by birth and a British Army veteran).  I’d rather not say anything more about it in terms of specs, and I have no idea how the trials will go.  But, I think the mere fact that they are considering it is testimony to the quality of service Dave and his company, Hunter Rifleworks, provides.

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