I’m guessing most folks reading this blog have a fighting rifle. You may have picked an AK, an AR, or maybe something in between like a SIG or a Vz58 . You might have gone old school with an FN or an HK or M1A or, or, or… I live in Maryland (that’s behind the Iron Curtain of gun rights), so my options are a bit limited. That just means I have to be creative!
In the Land of Mary, we can still buy and own ARs (with some limitations – no lightweight barrels, no M4 style barrels with the “cut” to mount the M203 grenade launcher, etc). We can even buy AR lower receivers (after a 7 day waiting period). Best of all we can still own “high capacity” mags. We cannot buy them, sell them, trade them, or transfer them HERE, but we can own them. Heck we can even take a road trip out of state and buy a truck load and bring them back, as long as we don’t loan one to a buddy at the next shooting bench. It’s like the story of two men waiting to be tortured. One guy looks over to the other guy and says, “It could be worse. We could be living in California…..”
So being creative has become a new science, sort of like new math: once you get it, there’s an “Ahhhhhh” moment. My creative moment came when I realized I could have something I had only seen in pictures and once through glass at a military museum. As a kid I had heard of the Stoner System. I had read all the articles about how it could be a carbine, a rifle, a LMG (light machine gun), and even a belt fed machine gun!
How cool was that to a kid, just waiting for his turn to go to Vietnam? Well, Vietnam ended before I was old enough to enlist and I put the Stoner dreams behind me like my buddy’s hot mom…. Then along came ARES Defense with their Shrike (note: ARES has changed the nomenclature of this system to the ARES-16 AMG-2), and those urges started again. The Shrike is an “upper” that pops on any AR lower receiver. But, it’s not just any “upper”, it’s a BELT FED UPPER! Yep, one minute you’re shooting your M4gery and the next you’re a SAW gunner. It’s that simple.
Ok, there are a couple things you might want to do. First, it is probably better to start with a lower that you want to run as your (primary) belt fed gun. The folks at ARES include with the “kit” a new buffer spring and a “spacer” that drops in the buffer tube. They also include a special bolt catch latch. It’s the “same” as a regular AR bolt catch except the top lever (the part you to hit to release the bolt) is missing. It’s “missing” so the belt of liked ammo can feed without snagging on it. That just means you have to pull back on the bolt handle to release the bolt when it is back. The “new” spring is heavier, it needs to be in order to strip the rounds out of the links. That’s it! There are no permanent modifications to your lower.
Once you have your Shrike and you have installed the buffer spring and bolt catch, you are ready to rip off a belt of ammo. Playing Rambo with a dangling belt of ammo looks cool, but you will probably want to add the magwell block that allows you to clip on a “nutsack” or Tupperware “can”. When the M249 SAW was first introduced, the plastic 200 round “cans” were standard, later some genius came up with cloth bags and a GI named them “nutsacks” because, well, they look like a nutsack to a horny 18 year old. They come in 100 and 200 round sizes. Both the “nutsacks” and the Tupperware cans clip onto the magwell adapter and hang just below the lower’s magwell. A 100round “sack” extends about as far as a 30 round mag, but it’s 3+ times the fun. The 200 round “sack” extends a bit further, picture a MagPul 40 round magazine and, well you can do the math on how much fun comes out of one of those.
Shrikes have quick change barrels. They also have both manually adjustable gas ports, for the gun mechanic crowd, as well as “auto” adjust barrels. I opted for the “auto” type for the same reason my Audi A8 and Jeep Wrangler have automatic transmissions. It just seemed like a 21st century feature worth having. You can have your choice of light and heavy-weight barrels in 12, 16 or 20 inches. Yes, you would need NFA approval to use the 12 inch barrel; but if you already have an SBR lower, then you are good to go – although I suppose you could use it on an AR pistol lower. Honestly, though, I don’t see a lot of practical use for a 12 inch belt fed; it is a “support” weapon, not a room entry gun.
The Shrike comes standard with a Picatinny rail on the top cover; iron sights are optional, but seem like a worthwhile expenditure. Again, this is the 21st Century, so I think optics are required. But which optic to buy? I chose the ELCAN. It’s the same one the military uses. I can see where a quality red dot might have advantages; but the ELCAN just called out to me. It is 3.5x and has ranging marks spaced to measure a man from waist to shoulder and marked with that distance, in case you want to stretch out your shooting.
The Shrike was designed to be a lightweight option to the M249. It uses standard M249 links as well as being able to use M16 magazines; but, unlike the M249, it does not require any adapter to use magazines – just remove the belt and magwell bloc, then slip in a magazine. The magwell block just pops in and out like a mag and is held in place by the mag button. A word about links seems in order: yes, you can link ammo without any tools; but if you are going to shoot your Shrike like a belt fed, then you are probably going to want a linker. I found mine on an MG fan website and it was well worth the money (about $150). M249 links are cheap and reusable, they also just drop right next to the gun, so they are easily found, if you’re willing to look (think of it like picking up brass).
My Shrike is set up for 55 grain ammo. I know some folks will say the heavier stuff is better, but 55 FMJ is still a killer (maybe even a better killer than the new heavier stuff). It also means you can use matching 55 grain tracers without a ballistic change. I generally divide my belts into range and fighting ammo. My range and training ammo is all ball, while my fighting ammo is a mix of 1:4 tracer:ball. Buy it, function-test it, zero it and keep it stockpiled: it’s that simple.
I mentioned earlier that the Shrike was intended to be a lightweight option to the M249. It IS! In keeping it light, it gives up some features, most notable is the lack of bipod and no carry handle. I can “live” without the carry handle, but a bipod seems a must on a SAW/LMG. I have seen custom rigs where a M60 or M249 bipod was mounted to the Shrike barrel. That is tempting, but since I managed to avoid “shop” classes and my practical tool experience is a busted left thumb when I swing a hammer in my right hand, I chose another route. The current Shrikes come with either a Picatinny quad rail or a Keymod rail. Earlier releases came without rails on the handguards (remember I said they were pushing the lightweight option), but ARES will upgrade to either rail offering if you buy an early version.
My bipod hunt went something like this: I searched the Internet for 3 days looking for the “best” and the “coolest” looking bipod. I asked everybody that I thought might “know”. I coveted the M60 bipod conversion guns. I “knew” I didn’t want a Harris type unit. They may be great precision bipods, but they just look “wrong” to me on a SAW/LMG. I also wanted something that was tall enough (more on that in a second) and didn’t hang too low or get in the way, because I was also using a front stubby grip. ARES uses a “Grip Pod” in their photos. I tried one, but didn’t like it. Honestly, it’s a personal thing; but the Grip Pod feels too big as a grip and not big enough as a bipod. Ultimately, I chose the Vltor Modpod. It’s a two piece bipod, meaning one leg attaches to the left side of the quad rail and the other attaches to the right. That also means each leg operates independently, you have to pull down and fold up each leg separately. That’s not really a big deal, unless you are in a real hurry, but it also means the legs fold up tight to sides of the handguard. It’s the “cleanest” look out there. It also doesn’t hang below the handguard. Another plus is the bipod can be mounted forward (traditional position) OR back by the receiver. Both have some pros and cons. Forward gives the most stable support. Mounting closer to the receiver changes the angle, meaning you can get the most height from the bipod, it also means you get more “side to side” travel. The biggest issue with the Vltor ModPod for a SAW/LMG is that it doesn’t pivot for tracking a target, so no side to side tracking.
A bipod has to be long enough for you to get the gun off the ground. That’s less of an issue at longer ranges because the shooting angle usually decreases; but if you’re prone and firing at close targets that are standing, a higher bipod is a better option. The Vltor extends from 8 to 11 inches, which is normally fine; but in an ambush drill, I wasn’t able to engage a target at 25m from the prone. How often that would be a real world issue is a question you’ll have to decide.
The Vltor is on the pricey side at $180, but it is by far NOT the most expensive bipod I considered, with some being in the over $400 range. It is mostly polymer (think Glock), if that bothers you, keep looking. The locking points are steel, so there is no issue there. I am generally happy with the Vltor; I really only wish they had a longer option – say one that was 10-13 inches – that would be about perfect.
The Shrike is a great idea, though maybe not for everyone. It belongs in a team role. No, it’s not the gun I’d carry in a Zombie Apocalypse, if I was walking across the deadlands all alone, in search of the last can of Coke and a hot blonde to repopulate the earth; but it IS the weapon I kept ready at my house during the recent troubles in Baltimore City. It’s not the rifle I carried when I went to the grocery store for a refill of Ben and Jerry’s. It’s just the rifle I want when my “Elite” team of operators (wife and kids) are kicking in the neighbors’ doors to root out the dang Rooooshins. It’s a SUPPORT weapon that is light enough to be used as a rifle, but offers all the advantages of a SAW when you need (oops) want them.
Usually at this point, somebody suggests a SlideFire stock. I am NOT a fan of SlideFire stocks because of the way they force you to shoot differently than normal shooting (pull away instead of traditional shooting). They are also “one side” use only, you can not switch left to right handed. I do, however, like the Tac-Con trigger, and I am waiting (not so patiently) for the Binary trigger to become available. The Shrike just screams for the Tac-Con. In “position 3” the trigger resets (think trigger slap) and releases almost like a set trigger (+/- 3 pounds). It fires semi-auto, but magazine dumps are stupid simple once you get the feel of it; it is also able to be used like a conventional trigger. The binary trigger fires on pull AND release of the trigger: think a two-shot burst each time you shoot.
If you have gotten this far, you are past the “Why do I need a belt fed weapon?” stage. I could wax on for hours about the “whys”, but the simple answer is a need vs. want thing. I wanted a Shrike, so I saved until I could buy one. The early ones sold for $5000, but they are now significantly cheaper (in the $3000 range). For that you get a weapon that weighs hardly more than an AR (okay, an HBAR AR) and you get total fire superiority with quick change barrels and the ability to run around with 200 rounds at the ready, (actually you can make your belts longer or shorter if you like). My “door kicking” days are pretty much over; but I can still cover my “Elite” operators and I can have a heck of a lot of fun at the range too.