Building Your Perfect 3-Gun Rifle: Part 3
(Heath Clevenger's 3-Gun rifle build)
Part 3: Upper Receiver Component Selection
One of the many reasons the AR-15 is currently America’s the most popular rifle platform is due to its extreme level of modularity. By simple removing and locking two pins into place, a shooter can drastically change the intended role of their rifle. By utilizing a variety of upper receiver configurations, a shooter can quickly switch different barrel types, handguard lengths, optics, and bolt carrier group options that may provide additional benefits to shooters who may find themselves competing in different match types. Which components do Criterion-sponsored shooters run? Let’s find out!
(Pictured is a billet AR-15 upper receiver from Midwest Industries. - Photo credit Midwest Industries Inc.)
Niki Clevenger: I used to run a standard forged mil-spec upper, but now I use a billet upper manufactured by ADM
Heath Clevenger: I will use pretty much any mil-spec upper. I like Aero Precision, their products always seem to be tight (but in tolerance). For billet uppers, I recommend checking out American Defense MFG..
Thomas & Madalyn Stewart: The biggest concern here is to have in-spec items that fit and match other parts used. The upper and lower need to have a tight fit to eliminate any movement between them at the pivot pins. I have not noticed any major performance differences between forged and billet sets, however by specs billet appears better. I currently use ADM receiver sets. This choice was based on the quality of the material and machining, and the control system they use for bolt lock and magazine release.
Sean Dexter: I use NEMO and Midwest Industries uppers due to the consistency of their high quality parts.
(One of Niki's 3-Gun builds features a 16" Mid-Length HBAR contoured barrel from Criterion Barrels Inc.)
Niki: Depending on the event, I run an 18” chrome lined Hybrid contour barrel with a rifle length gas system, or a Criterion 16” stainless steel HBAR with a mid-length gas system. Both incorporate a .223 Wylde chamber and a 1-8 twist.
Heath: I run a number of different barrels from Criterion, using either a Hybrid profile or HBAR with a mid-length gas system, either with a chrome lined bore, or 416R stainless steel. Their chrome lined barrels offer the best of both worlds when it comes to accuracy and barrel life.
Thomas & Madalyn: Barrel options are limitless between materials, rifling cut, twist rate, contour/weight, length, and chamber configuration. The key item I look for in a barrel is its ability to maintain accuracy in the contour I’ve selected. A lot of the other choices are determined by what type of bullet you plan to shoot, and your budget. I’ve used single point cut barrels and chrome lined barrels, and have had good success with both.
In selecting a barrel it pays to do your homework on the history and the reputation of the company you are purchasing a barrel from. Just because Company A and Company B both sound like they make their barrels the same way, does not mean the final performance will be the same.
A prime example would be the Criterion chrome lined barrels. In general, chrome lined barrels have a bad reputation for accuracy and many times it’s well deserved. The poor accuracy of some chrome lined barrels is not a result of the barrel’s metallurgical composition, but is a byproduct of how it's produced. CBI chrome lined barrels are hand lapped prior to chrome lining, allowing them to obtain extremely consistent bore dimensions. The key to accuracy is shot-to-shot consistency.
(The Midwest Industries Sentinel Concepts Carbine features their reduced diameter handguards - Photo credit Midwest Industries Inc.)
Sean: I run a Nordic Components handguard for its perfect length, size, and weight. Midwest Industries reduced diameter handguards also tend to feel super good.
Niki: The American Defense MFG Low Light 15" free float handguard is lightweight, durable, looks good, and is practical for 3-Gun applications.
Heath: I like the American Defense MFG 15” free float handguard system. I like the barrel nut design and how everything mates together. The barrel nut allows for the proper torque without having to worry about aligning the gas tube.
Thomas & Madalyn: Once again this is a shooter preference item. A free floated rail needs to be free floated, and have a solid barrel nut/mounting system to maintain consistency with rough handling. Some areas that vary in the handguard are:
Length: I prefer handguards that are as long as possible. I run a 16” barrel with a 15” handguard. This allows me to grip the rifle near the muzzle end to aid in control, allowing me to “drive” the rifle from target to target. The additional length also gives me more options when trying to use a variety of barricades for support in odd positions while avoiding barrel contact.
Feel: This is a combination of diameter and surface texture. I prefer a small diameter handguard. This allows for a solid handgrip and lets me slide the handguard inside some of the narrow shooting ports in props. For surface, this can be textures on solid surfaces or provided by cut-outs. I prefer a handguard utilizing the MLOK attachment system. It helps when I am able to get a very solid grip on the rifle with my fingertips indexing on and gripping the appropriate MLOK cutouts.
All three shooters run adjustable gas blocks of various makes and manufacturers to help fine-tune their rifle to best accommodate their load of choice.
(DPMS Miculek Compensator. Photo credit Brownells, Inc.)
Niki: I love the Miculek Compensator. Great price for an awesome product. In my opinion it’s not worth spending the money on an expensive comp when you can get this one for a steal! Just recently I decided to give Seekins a try, and began running the Seekins Precision ATC, moving my Miculek comp to a backup rifle. This is another great compensator for a decent price. Both the Miculek and Seekins comps are great products for the money.
Heath: I have been quite happy with the DPMS Miculek Compensator. It’s a steal for both price and function. I saw a compensator comparison a while back and the Miculek Comp placed third, but the others were double to triple the cost with minimally improved results. I was running Battlecomp’s on my 3-Gun rifles and noticed a significant difference when I switched over to the Miculek Compensator. Lately Niki and I have been running Seekins Precision brakes as well.
Thomas & Madalyn: My opinion on compensators is that they definitely help, but body position and weapon grip have a much greater effect on muzzle control with a .223. When picking a muzzle device think about how you tried to cut a few tenths of an ounce off of your barrel contour or handguard to help your rifle swing and stop faster. Now think about the negative effects of putting a 4-5 ounce heavy stainless steel compensator at the end of your muzzle (the worst place for extra weight). I run a Surefire Pro comp. It’s effective, compact, mid-weight, and economical.
(Heavier, longer bullets like the 69-77gr. Sierra MatchKing are the preferred load of choice for long range targets. Lighter 55 gr. loads are more popular for short range stages. Photo credit: MidwayUSA)
Thomas & Madalyn: For 3-Gun I run two different types of rifle ammunition. This is done primarily for cost savings. For 0-200 yard targets I X-Treme 55gr. FMJ at a relatively slow 2750-2800 FPS. For longer range or small targets I’ll run 69gr. Sierra MatchKings loaded to 2750 FPS. The 69gr. load holds accuracy better for long range targets, and hits flasher steel targets harder at distance, making it easier for the range officer to call hits.
Sean: I run Hornady loads because they’re the best!
Niki: We use a similar strategy as Thomas & Madalyn. For long range targets or smaller mid-range targets we’ll use higher quality match-grade ammunition. Heath shoots 77gr. Federal Gold Medal Match, and I run Freedom Munitions 77gr. BTHP loads. For closer, larger targets where accuracy is less critical we’ll generally run a mix of different 55gr. FMJ loads.
Heath: I have been shooting Federal 77 gr. Sierra BTHP for years. They are reliable and I have had awesome accuracy results using them. I have used several different cheaper 55 gr. loads, and have found little difference from one brand to the other. Whatever ammo is used, it needs to be quality and tested. It also needs to be something that you can get repeatedly. Each lot should be tested to confirm your zero when you get in new ammo.
(Extended charging handles like this BCM Gunfighter enable rapid bolt manipulation around optics, slings, and accessories. Photo credit: Bravo Company USA)
Sean: I like to utilize an extended charging handles such as those made by Vltor.
Thomas & Madalyn: I’m right handed but I still prefer to have ambidextrous controls for the charging handle. It gives you more options in weapon manipulation when in odd shooting positions.
Niki: I never considered a charging handle to be an important part of a rifle build until I didn’t have an extended charging handle. It was then I realized (and my knuckles realized) just how much easier an extended charging handle makes things.
Heath: I run a standard charging handle.
(Pictured is an ADM Premium Bolt Carrier Group)
Bolt Carrier Group:
Sean: I use a lightweight JP bolt carrier to accommodate some of my lower receiver components (including a JP Enterprises lightweight buffer assembly). I will also use Voodoo’s lightweight bolt carrier. If you go this route, you must use a Gen II Syrac adjustable gas block.
Niki: I use an American Defense MFG bolt carrier group and Enhanced HD buffer assembly.
Thomas & Madalyn: When I first jumped on the lightweight system bandwagon I came to the conclusion that the lower reciprocating mass you have in your rifle, the less rifle movement you will have when it cycles.
If you want to demonstrate this yourself, lock your bolt to the rear (on an unloaded firearm) and hold your sights on a target while releasing the bolt. The bolt movement has an equal or greater effect on the rifle than the bullet leaving the barrel.
The only way to limit this is to cut the weight of the moving parts and reduce spring pressure. Keep in mind that the number one thing all firearms need to do is to go bang every time you need them to. Every time you change something in “the system” it has to be balanced with the rest of the rifle. The weight and spring tensions have been set up for reliability so you run the risk of creating a potential malfunction.
I went the route of lightweight bolt carrier group, empty buffer, and adjustable gas system. It seemed to run all the time in practice, and most of the time at matches. That “most of the time” always came at the worst possible moments of a match. All these changes where trying to lower the recoil impulse and aid in faster shot-to-shot split times, helped lower stage times by hundredths of a second at best. (A single malfunction will lead to a much greater delay than the time saved on other stages). I have since gone back to a full weight system with an adjustable gas block and 100% reliability.
In the final segment of this four part series we will carry out a piece by piece analysis of each shooter’s “ideal 3-gun rifle” in regard to their preferred lower receiver design.
Part 1: Introduction to the Perfect 3-Gun Build
Part 2: Functions, Classifications, and Build Strategies of the Ideal 3-Gun Rifle.
Part 3: Upper Receiver Component Selection.
Part 4: Lower Receiver Component Selection.
Criterion Barrels always welcomes feedback and input from shooters using our products. If you would like to share details regarding your ideal 3-gun rifle build (that includes your preferred Criterion barrel model), feel free to send us a list of build specs and a photo of the rifle, submitting your response to firstname.lastname@example.org