Compared: AR-15 (CMMG M4 LE) and Ruger Mini-14 Tactical .223 Carbines

By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff


Five Guns and Shooting Online staff members were enlisted for this comparison article. They are Owner and Managing Editor Chuck Hawks, Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays, Chief Executive Technical Advisor Jim Fleck, Technical Assistant Bob Fleck and Technology Services representative Dave Cole. All except Dave are experienced rifle shooters and have participated in a great many rifle reviews. Dave is our Guns and Shooting Online computer security person and most of his experience, although he has been shooting for a long time, has been with handguns.

Probably the best known and most recognizable civilian "black rifle" in North America today is the AR-15. The AR-15 is the civilian, semi-automatic version of the U.S. military's select-fire M16 and M4 assault rifles. All three are based on the same basic AR action and shoot the .223 Remington (5.56mm NATO) varmint cartridge. (I guess terrorists could be classified as "varmints.") As has been true of all previous U.S. service rifles, the AR-15 has become very popular with American civilian shooters and an entire cottage industry has grown up supplying parts and complete rifles.

However, the AR-15 is not the only military style rifle popular in North America. Among the AR-15's major competitors in the civilian autoloading carbine market is the Ruger Mini-14. The Mini-14 is styled after and operates similarly to the U.S. M14 service rifle, the very rifle the M16 replaced as standard U.S. Army issue. As its name indicates, the Mini-14 is a scaled down rifle, also designed around the .223 Remington cartridge. The Mini-14 is about the size of the WW II vintage M1 Carbine. This article will compare these two, very popular, civilian black carbines, both with (approximately) 16" barrels. These civilian Mini-14 and AR-15 carbines with ~16" barrels (the legal minimum) are popular, because the ultra-short little carbines are relatively handy.

Unfortunately, there is a steep price to pay in ballistic performance when a high intensity cartridge like the .223 is fired from a short barrel. The .223 Remington (5.56mm NATO) cartridge, which has been covered in detail on the Rifle Cartridges page, derives its excellent performance as a long range varmint and small predator cartridge from its high velocity, which is dependent on a full length 24" barrel. Sacrificing the very quality that makes the .223 cartridge good, its high velocity and consequent flat trajectory, for a short barrel is foolish. According to Winchester figures, a 60-62 grain spitzer bullet fired from a .223 with a 24" barrel has a MV of 3100 fps. From a 16" barrel the velocity falls to only 2750 fps. The 200 yard energy drops from 825 ft. lbs. to 505 ft. lbs.

Chambering carbines for high velocity cartridges makes no ballistic sense, particularly a cartridge firing a very small diameter, lightweight bullet like the .223, which depends heavily on velocity for its striking power. A .223 carbine with a 16" barrel is essentially castrated. For a rifle with a carbine length barrel, it would be much better to use a lower velocity cartridge firing a fatter, heavier bullet. This is why the old Soviet 7.62x39mm handily outperforms the .223 in such applications, but not at long range when fired from a 24" barrel. It is simply a matter of choosing an appropriate cartridge for the intended application. None of this, of course, occurs to those who have a sketchy understanding of ballistics.

The AR-15

CMMG AR-15 M4 LE .223 Carbine
CMMG AR-15 M4 LE .223 carbine with telescoping stock collapsed. Illustration courtesy of CMMG, Inc.

In 1959, Colt purchased the AR-15 name and manufacturing rights from ArmaLite Corporation, where the 5.56x46mm (.223 Rem.) caliber AR-15 was developed as a scaled-down version of Chief Engineer Eugene Stoner's AR-10, a 7.65mm (.308 Win.) caliber rifle. Colt immediately put the AR-15 into production, secured a contract with the government of Malaysia for military assault rifles and aggressively pursued additional military contracts. In this they were so successful that something like 10 million M16's have been produced by Colt and Colt licensed arms makers around the world.

The U.S. Air Force adopted a select-fire version of the AR-15 as their service rifle and they were followed by the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. The selective fire (semi-auto and full auto) U.S. military model was adopted as the M16, which went into service in 1963. Subsequently, many other nations also adopted the M-16 select fire rifle for their military services.

The select fire (3-shot burst and semi-auto) M4 carbine, a variation of the M16A2 with a very short 14.5" barrel, began replacing the M16A2 (20" barrel) as the U.S. Army's primary long gun in 2010. It is popular with the troops for urban and house to house combat.

Colt uses the AR-15 name only for semi-automatic versions of the AR-15. Semi-automatic AR-15's use an internally different lower receiver, bolt, bolt carrier, hammer and trigger group to prevent retro fitting M16 parts to convert a civilian AR-15 into a true, full-auto, assault rifle. AR-15's in various configurations are used by many police departments around the world, as well as by civilians.

The AR-15 was designed for cheap mass production for military service, where rifles are expendable and a great many may be needed to prosecute a war. Consequently, it uses aluminum alloy and plastic parts wherever possible. Steel parts are used only where absolutely critical for function or safety. In the same vein, the AR-15 was designed with a direct impingement gas operating system, which is simpler and cheaper (but much hotter and dirtier in operation) than conventional gas piston operating systems, such as used in the M1 and M14 service rifles and the Mini-14 civilian carbine. The AR's direct impingement operating system has caused reliability problems in both the jungles of Vietnam and the sandbox of the Near East.

AR-15 is a registered Colt trademark. However, many manufacturers produce AR-15 copies under a variety of trade names. Most shooters, publications (including G&S Online) and manufacturers tend to refer to all of these civilian clones as AR-15's, regardless of Colt's trademark. The specific AR-15 chosen to participate in this comparison is the M4 LE version (product #55AE160) from CMMG, Inc. (www.cmmginc.com).

This autoloading carbine features a black nitride metal finish that is applied to the barrel, front sight base and upper. Nitriding is claimed to offer improved wear, abrasion and corrosion resistance when compared to hard chrome lining or phosphating. The external aluminum alloy parts are flat black anodized. The lower receiver is RDIAS/RLL compatible.

Standard AR-15 magazines for 5.56mm NATO cartridges are used. A single 30 round Magpul PMAG polymer magazine was supplied with the rifle. Magpul (www.magpul.com) offers accessory magazines that hold 10, 20 and 30 rounds.

The CMMG M4 LE's iron sights include a folding, adjustable, Magpul MBUS rear aperture and a protected front blade, which is a practical sighting system. As with most AR-15 type rifles, the sight line of the iron sights is unusually high compared to other designs, including previous U.S. military rifles and the Ruger Mini-14. (Optimally, sights should be low and over the bore.) The front sight ramp is so tall that it blocks the sight line of optical sights (telescopic or red dot). A spacer is required to raise the optical sight, unless the front sight is removed. Unfortunately, removing the front sight ramp is not as straightforward as it seems, as it is an integral part of the rifle's gas operating system. Consequently, we went with the spacer when we fitted a red dot optical sight to the CMMG AR-15.

The buttstock and front grip are black plastic. The buttstock is six position adjustable for length of pull. Sadly, there is noticeable play in every direction, which is detrimental to accuracy. The comb height is uncomfortably high (at least for some shooters) for use with the supplied iron sights and too low for optimum use with optical sights, a common problem with this sort of stock. Overall, we give this stock a "D" (poor) rating.

The out of the box trigger pull of our CMMG AR-15 was horrible, as well as inconsistent, at between 6-7 pounds with an extreme amount of gritty take-up and over travel. The standard trigger assembly is cheaply made and not worth fixing, so most knowledgeable AR-15 shooters simply replace these standard trigger units with something better.

The safety is a switch mounted on the left side of the receiver above the rifle's pistol grip. The switch's up position is "Fire" and down is "Safe." A hinged, spring-loaded flap keeps dirt and crud out of the right side ejection port. All of this is standard AR-15 fare.

Accessories and Modifications

Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays replaced the standard trigger with a single stage ALG Model ACT nickel-boron-Teflon coated trigger and installed JP Enterprises reduced power springs. After conversion, the new trigger pull measured a clean 3.9 pounds with only minor take-up.

The standard M4 type handguard was replaced by an aftermarket version with four Picatinny rails (top, bottom and both sides). This allows greater flexibility for mounting accessories.

An inexpensive Millett (www.millettsights.com) SP-2 Compact (#RD00005) red dot sight was fitted to the top Picatinny rail, using a 1" riser to clear the tall front sight. This optical sight uses a matte black, 30mm main tube and features click windage and elevation adjustments, a five MOA dot and 11 intensity settings. Millett claims that these sights are waterproof, shockproof and parallax free. Mounting rings that clamp to a Picatinny/Weaver base come with the sight. A red dot sight is a good choice for a home defense carbine. Our first SP-2 proved to be defective, but our local retailer (Bi-Mart) kindly replaced it with one that works.

A Grip Pod Systems (www.grippod.com) polymer combined grip/bipod was attached to the carbine's handguard using the lower Picatinny rail. This vertical pistol grip extends about 5-1/2" below the rail and has two legs that pop out to raise the rifle another 3" above a solid surface, for a total elevation of 8-1/2" when the Grip Pod's legs are deployed to serve as a bipod.

A SureFire (www.surefire.com) AD4493 tactical flashlight attaches to one of the side Picatinny rails for nighttime illumination. This is a bright, compact and high quality little LED light with a durable, anodized aluminum body. We regard such lights as useful accessories for any home defense carbine.

CMMG AR-15 M4 LE Specifications

  • Product number: 55AE160
  • Caliber: 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington
  • Magazine capacity: 30 (as supplied--other magazines available)
  • Receiver material: Forged aluminum alloy; flat top
  • Barrel material: Steel, nitride finish; M4 profile
  • Barrel length: 16" (17-1/8" inc. flash suppressor)
  • Twist: 1:9"
  • Buttstock: Black synthetic, 6 position collapsible
  • Handguard: Black synthetic, M4 type
  • Length of pull: 10" to 13-3/4"
  • Sights: Protected blade front, Magpul MBUS folding rear aperture
  • Trigger pull: 6-7 pounds; ALG trigger 3.9 pounds as tested (with reduced rate springs)
  • Overall length: 32-5/8" to 35-3/4"
  • Weight: 6 pounds without magazine; 10 pounds (empty) as tested
  • Included extras: 6" Picatinny rail on receiver, sling swivels
  • 2013 MSRP: $899.95

The Ruger Mini-14

Ruger Mini-14 Tactical .223 Carbine
Ruger Mini-14 Tactical carbine with stock partially extended. Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger.

Ruger firearms (www.ruger.com) are made in the USA and well known for both value and performance. As the name implies, the Ruger Mini-14 is based on a scaled-down (.223 size) M14 type action. As a result, all critical components of the barreled action are steel. Unlike AR-15's, we don't know of any aluminum alloy parts in the Mini-14. As originally designed, Mini-14's had hardwood stocks, but later plastic stocks were also offered, along with stainless steel barreled actions.

The Mini-14, like all modern military rifles, is designed for cheap and easy mass production. The stocks are black plastic or the cheapest possible hardwood. The lines of virtually all modern military rifles can accurately be described as "ugly." Stocks are ungainly and handling is, at best, clumsy. Picatinny rails sprout from forearms and flash hiders protrude from barrels, making even carbines awkward to carry when accessorized. Being autoloaders, they throw brass all over the place, so they are not a good choice for the reloader.

The most recent Mini-14 variation is the Tactical, the model included in this comparison. (See the full review of the Mini-14 Tactical on the Rifle Information - Reviews page.) It comes with a 16-1/8" barrel (17-3/4" inc. the flash hider) and an ATI (www.atigunstocks.com) Strikeforce folding/telescoping stock. The collapsible stock can be set for six lengths of pull and the comb is adjustable for height. This stock incorporates no less than six detachable sling swivel studs and four polymer Picatinny accessory rails. (A 7" rail on top and 2" rails on both sides and the bottom of the forearm). These supplied Picatinny rails make it easy to mount multiple accessories.

The Tactical's ATI telescoping and folding stock has play in every direction, no matter in what position it is locked. Play seems to be endemic to this type of stock, as our AR-15's telescoping stock exhibited the same problem. We adjusted the comb to its highest position and it is still too low to allow a proper cheek weld when looking through our rail mounted red dot tactical sight. On the other hand, in its lowest position, the comb was still too high for some staff members to comfortably use the rifle's iron sights. The comb height probably could be adjusted to a comfortable position for use with a conventional riflescope mounted in Ruger rings.

This folding buttstock proved to offer less flexibility than we had hoped. Folded along the left side of the rifle, the buttstock is so bulky that it makes holding and shooting the Mini-14 Tactical even more awkward than with the stock unfolded. The stock's folding feature does make it a dandy finger crusher of the unwary. Incidentally, we found adjusting the stock for a length of pull of 13-5/8" (the fifth of the six available positions) best fit our medium size shooters. Overall, we give this stock a "D" (poor) rating.

The investment cast steel receiver and machined steel barrel and bolt are the basic blocks upon which every Mini-14 is built. The rest of the Mini-14's metal parts appear to be stamped from sheet steel. All external metal parts wear a blued finish. The Mini-14 uses a true gas piston operated action, which eliminates the heating and fouling problems created by the AR-15's direct gas impingement operation. It is a clean running autoloader.

The supplied front sight is a blade protected by wings on each side, in the style of the M1 and M14 infantry rifles. The rear sight is a receiver mounted aperture (peep) sight. The rear sight is user adjustable for windage and elevation. These are good iron sights. Attachment grooves for Ruger scope rings are machined into the Mini-14's receiver and a pair of Ruger's excellent steel rings is included with the rifle.

The Mini-14 safety is a sheet metal blade located in the front of the sheet metal trigger guard, similar in operation to the M-1 Garand safety. (The forward position is "fire," back is "safe.") The original reason for this safety location on the M1, and later the M14, is to allow the user to have his finger on the trigger and the rifle on SAFE. To fire, he need only move his trigger finger forward about a half inch inside the trigger guard to push the safety to the FIRE position, allowing him to instantly return his finger to the trigger without ever removing it from inside the trigger guard. This is a pretty good design for infantry combat conditions. Unfortunately, the Mini-14's safety blade is so thin that it is uncomfortable to use and civilian shooters are taught to keep their fingers off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.

The Mini-14 Tactical comes with a 20 round, sheet steel magazine. (Five, 10 and 30 round magazines are also available.) This magazine has sharp corners on its feed lips, so care should be taken when loading cartridges. The supplied 20 round magazine protrudes so far from the bottom of the carbine that it impedes a normal grip on the forend when shooting from the offhand position. As you know, the shooter's strong hand should be on the pistol grip and the support hand should be cradling the rifle's forearm from below with the arm directly beneath the rifle. This is impossible with a 20 round magazine in place. The support arm is forced to the side, because the magazine is in the way. This degrades steadiness when shooting from unsupported positions. We would like to see Ruger ship these rifles with two magazines, one each for 10 rounds and 30 rounds. The 10 round magazine should be short enough to allow a normal offhand hold.

There is slight, but perceptible, flex in the 7" top Picatinny rail and the upper hand guard to which it is mounted, which means there is flex in any sighting system (such as a red dot optical sight) so mounted. Both the rail and hand guard are injection molded polymer. Mounting a low power, conventional riflescope in the supplied Ruger mounting rings that clamp solidly to the receiver would result in a more rigid and accurate, if less versatile, sighting system.

The stock trigger pull measured a very heavy 6.5 pounds, out of the box. There was also a long, gritty take-up and noticeable over travel. Fortunately, Mini-14 triggers can be improved with a little home gunsmithing, which became the first item on our "to do" list.

Accessories and Modifications

Ruger Mini-14 Tactical w/acc.
Mini-14 Tactical w/CounterStrike sight and bipod; stock set for 13-5/8" LOP. Photo by Chuck Hawks.

Guns and Shooting Online Gunsmithing Editor Rocky Hays did some trigger work on our Mini-14. Polishing the hammer, sear and trigger engagement notches and surfaces (the stock parts are pretty crude) reduced the Tactical's trigger pull to 2-5/8 pounds. There is still a rough, military style take-up, but once you get to the final pull, the release is crisp.

We fitted a Redfield (www.redfield.com) CounterStrike combined dot type optical and laser sight to the Tactical's top Picatinny rail. (There is a full review of this sight on the Scopes and Sport Optics - Reviews page.) Some sort of optical sight is advisable on this carbine, as the ATI folding stock makes it difficult to use the supplied iron sights. Despite the slight flex in the rifle's handguard and top rail, we found the Redfield CounterStrike sufficiently accurate for most applications and it is excellent in dim light or at night.

Redfield describes the CounterStrike thusly: "Our new CounterStrike™ puts every advantage in your favor, combining a powerful, visible, red laser and an illuminated, 4-MOA green/red dot scope in one versatile sighting system." The CounterStrike comes with an integral Picatinny/Weaver mount. A red or green dot aiming point is selected by means of the aft (round) push button on the unit's left side control panel, which also serves as the on/off switch for the red dot sight. (Press to turn on, press again to change color, press and hold for two seconds to turn off.) The intensity of the dot can be increased or decreased for comfortable sighting in any lighting condition. The unit will automatically turn itself off after two hours. The projected laser sight, located directly below the optical sight's tube, is turned on and off by the front (square) push button on the unit's control panel. It is excellent for snap shooting indoors, or outside in dim light or at night, but is not bright enough to be visible at normal rifle ranges in bright sunlight. Both the optical aiming dot and projected laser are user adjustable for windage and elevation. We consider the Redfield CounterStrike an excellent sighting system for a home defense rifle.

We attached a black, 9" Caldwell (www.battenfeldtechnologies.com/caldwell) XLA Pivot Bipod #571429 to the sling swivel stud in the center of the bottom Picatinny rail. The legs extend from 9" to a maximum of 13" in steps. Caldwell Pivot bipods allow the shooter to tilt the rifle on the bipod for use on uneven ground. (This bipod is reviewed on the Rifle Information page.) It performs well.

An NcStar (www.ncstar.com) 35 lumen LED flashlight was clamped to the left side Picatinny rail. This little gem is only 3.25" long and less than an inch in diameter. It has an anodized aluminum body with an easily operated push button on/off switch at the back of its tailpiece. Power is supplied by a single CR123 battery. A Weaver/Picatinny mount is included with the light. There is a review of this NcStar tactical light on the Outdoor Accessories page.

Ruger Mini-14 Tactical Specifications

  • Catalog number: M-14/20CF
  • Model number: 5846
  • Caliber: 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington
  • Magazine capacity: 20  (as supplied--other magazines available)
  • Action material/finish: Steel, blued
  • Barrel material/finish: Steel, blued
  • Barrel length: 16-1/8" (17-3/4" inc. flash suppressor)
  • Twist: 1:9"
  • Buttstock: ATI Strikeforce black synthetic, 6 position collapsible and folding
  • Handguard: Black synthetic
  • Length of pull: 11-7/8" to 15-5/8"
  • Sights: Protected blade front, adjustable rear aperture; Ruger scope bases and rings
  • Trigger pull: 6-1/2 pounds (as supplied); 2-5/8 pounds as tested
  • Overall length: 34" to 37-3/4"
  • Catalog weight: 7 pounds 4 ounces (with empty magazine)
  • Weight as tested: 10 pounds 2.5 ounces (with empty magazine and accessories)
  • Included extras: Ruger 1" scope rings, 7 sling mounting studs, 1- 7" and 3-2" Picatinny rails
  • 2013 MSRP: $989

Shooting the AR-15 and Mini-14

As usual, we did our test shooting at the Izaak Walton outdoor range south of Eugene, Oregon. This facility has covered shooting benches and 50 yard target frames convenient for testing rifles with iron sights or optical sights without magnification. (Multiply 50 yard group sizes by two to get equivalent 100 yard group sizes.) Dave Cole, Bob Fleck and Jim Fleck did the shooting for record. The weather was typical of June in Western Oregon, with partly cloudy skies and a temperature of 61-degrees F. The light five MPH breeze was not a factor at 50 yards.

Due to the Obama post reelection gun and ammo ban effort, we had available only one .223 factory load for testing. This was Hornady Varmint Express with a 55 grain V-MAX bullet at a MV of 3240 fps (measured in a 24" test barrel). The expected muzzle velocity from the short 16" barrels of our carbines is approximately 2800 fps. The Hornady Varmint Express is an extremely accurate .223 load that we also use in our best varmint rifles.

We fired five shot groups at sighting-in type targets for record. We did our shooting from a sturdy bench rest using the bipods installed on the test rifles for support.

50 Yard Shooting Results

CMMG AR-15 M4 LE

  • Hornady Varmint Express 55 grain V-MAX: Smallest group = 1.3"; Largest group = 2.5"; Mean average group size = 1.77"

Ruger Mini-14 Tactical

  • Hornady Varmint Express 55 grain V-MAX: Smallest group = 1.5"; Largest group = 2"; Mean average group size = 1.83"

This time out, Bob shot the smallest group. Our combined average group size for both carbines at 50 yards was 1.8", which would translate to 3.6" at 100 yards.

In its stand alone review, the Mini-14 achieved an average 50 yard group size of 1.66" with the same ammunition at the same rifle range. The average group size from both range sessions with the Mini-14 would be 1.75". We'd say there was nothing to choose in accuracy between our AR-15 and Mini-14 test rifles. Actually, both performed better than expected.

Comments

After spending time with and shooting both the AR-15 M4 LE and the Mini-14 Tactical, we were able to draw some conclusions about these tactical carbines. Here is a synopsis of our opinions and comments.

Accuracy

The accuracy of both carbines was judged good for home defense, or potting cottontail rabbits, coyotes and javelina at moderate range. They are chambered for an inherently accurate varmint cartridge, but admittedly, neither carbine can match the accuracy potential of a bolt action .223 hunting rifle. Give both carbines a "C" (average) for accuracy.

Reliability

Our sample carbines functioned correctly throughout our test shooting. There were no malfunctions of any kind; you can't ask for more than that.

In the long run, any autoloader requires more preventive maintenance and is potentially less reliable than a decent lever, bolt or pump action rifle. Give the AR-15 a "C" (average) for reliability. The Mini-14's conventional gas piston operated action should require less maintenance to keep it running reliably over time than the AR-15's direct impingement gas operating system, so the Mini-14 deserves a slightly higher "C+" (above average) reliability rating.

Sights

Both carbines come with decent aperture type iron sights that, due to the design of their stocks, are difficult to use. The Millett red dot sight we used on the AR-15 can potentially sit lower on a Picatinny rail than the Redfield combination red dot and laser sight we used on the Mini-14, because the Redfield's projection laser is mounted beneath its red dot's tube, raising the red dot's sight line about ¾". This extra sight height made a proper cheek weld on the Tactical's stock impossible, even with its adjustable comb raised all the way. On the other hand, the Redfield's optics are clearly superior to the Millet SP2 and provide a clearer and wider field of view. The Redfield's aiming dot is also smaller, allowing a more precise aim.

For use at night or indoors, the Redfield's built in laser could be a big advantage for fast target acquisition from unsupported (hand held) positions, but our outdoor range time in bright daylight made this a moot point. If we had taken advantage of the Mini-14's very solid and secure integral scope mounting system and the supplied Ruger scope mounting rings to fit a conventional rifle scope, its daylight sighting score would be raised to at least a "B" (good) and possibly an "A" (excellent). A telescopic sight in the 2.5x range would almost certainly have allowed the Mini-14 to shoot tighter groups from the bench rest. However, a conventional scope would severely compromise its night fighting capability.

As reviewed, using only their red dot sights, both carbines earned a "C" (average) for sighting efficiency.

Operation

The Mini-14 magazine is inserted into the well at an angle so that it first catches at the front; then it is rocked back and up to lock in place. Rocky and Chuck are sufficiently familiar with Mini-14's to not have a problem with this, but it caused problems for the rest of us. The AR-15's magazine goes in straight and was judged easier to insert.

The safety levers operate differently, but both worked satisfactorily, if not conveniently. In the case of the AR-15, the left side safety switch operates backward from the norm (up to fire on the AR-15, instead of down to fire). We judged the AR-15 safety slower to operate than the Mini-14's trigger guard safety and it requires more hand movement.

As previously mentioned, the Mini-14's trigger guard safety is stamped from thin sheet metal and this makes it less comfortable to operate than the original M1 safety from which it is derived. A World War II or Korean War veteran would be acquainted with the operation of this type of safety (shove the blade forward to fire), but most shooters today are not. Jim, for example, didn't remember where the Mini-14's safety was located and never used it during our range session.

Manually cycling the bolt to load the chamber from a freshly inserted magazine is a single step (pull back and release) operation with the Mini-14, which has a typical semi-auto bolt handle. It was simpler to do, at least for those not already acclimated to the AR-15's "two fingers from behind the receiver" racking operation.

The AR-15 uses a large push button that angles out and rearward from the aft right side of the receiver to ensure that the bolt is fully closed after loading. This means that a second manual action is required to securely close the AR-15's bolt before shooting. At least you only need to do it once per magazine load.

Among our staff, Dave and Rocky preferred operating the AR-15 action, while Chuck preferred the Mini-14 Tactical. Jim and Bob thought they were about equal.

Ergonomics and handling

After handling and shooting both rifles, Dave found the ergonomics of the Mini-14 Tactical satisfactory, but liked the AR-15 M4 LE better. He got a better cheek weld on the AR-15 stock's comb and also liked the aftermarket front grip handle (which he installed). Jim and Chuck, on the other hand, disliked the AR's vertical front grip.

The AR (with accessories) balanced well to the rear, over its pistol grip, and Dave felt he could shoot it effectively using just his strong hand in a short range emergency. The Mini-14 Tactical (with accessories) balances at the front of the receiver, like a conventional rifle, achieving a between the hands balance for normal two handed shooting. Even with its buttstock folded, it would be nearly impossible to shoot the Mini-14 Tactical effectively with one hand.

The telescoping buttstocks supplied with these carbines drew a lot of criticism. A standard Mini-14 Ranch Rifle that we had along for comparison, which uses the same basic barreled action as the Tactical, but in a conventional stock, is clearly a better handling rifle. The Ranch rifle's stock is faster to the shoulder and quicker to acquire a sight picture. It also carries more comfortably slung over either shoulder. Except for the minor advantage that you can collapse them part way for storage, most of us could find no practical benefits to the AR-15's and Mini-14's telescoping stocks. (The Tactical stock's folding feature allows further shortening for storage, but is worthless for shooting.) Due to the play in both folding stocks, accurate shooting is compromised.

A telescoping stock may be advantageous for an army rifle, to conserve space if you must ship hundreds or thousands of rifles to a combat zone, especially by air. However, for a civilian shooter with a single rifle, it is better to have a fixed stock with a comfortable length of pull that will not be inadvertently altered or hurriedly set incorrectly in an emergency.

The Picatinny rails on all surfaces of the forearms limits the available gripping surface, restricts hand placement and impedes handling. Bob and Chuck found this particularly annoying.

The long magazines protruding from the bottom of these rifles interferes with the natural and proper position of the shooter's lead arm. The AR's standard 30 rounder is an even worst offender in this regard than the Mini-14's supplied 20 round mag. Chuck and Jim found this especially irritating.

Everyone except Dave found the ergonomics, fit and handling of both carbines clearly inferior to rifles with more conventionally designed stocks. After adding typical accessories, they are also much too heavy (over 10 pounds!) for their caliber and barrel length. (If you want a good handling carbine, try a Marlin or Winchester lever action and you'll see what we mean.)

These two carbines combine the worst ergonomics most of us have encountered in a very long time and there is play (movement) in the stocks, where there shouldn't be any. As to which carbine's ergonomics and handling are better, our majority opinion (Dave would disagree) is that they are both near the bottom of the barrel. We'd give these carbines a D (poor) in ergonomics and handling.

Aesthetics

Dave, alone of our shooters, found these black carbines attractive. Dave likes this style of carbine, while everyone else does not. He thought they looked cool, especially the AR-15. He pointed out that the AR-15 and AK-47 look like military rifles should to young shooters. (World War II and Korean War era vets would probably say the same thing about the Mini-14.)

Chuck, Rocky, Jim and Bob found the lines, finish and overall aesthetics of both carbines singularly unattractive. (Jim likened them to dog poop.) The majority would give both of them an F (failure/unacceptable) for appearance, with Dave being the single dissenting vote.

Conclusion

We see these civilian carbines as most useful for urban or suburban home defense. Depending on the situation, they may or may not the best choice for such use, but their design is such that they are worse for other roles, so home defense becomes their primary purpose by default.

These tactical carbines are chambered for an excellent varmint cartridge, but they are not varmint rifles. In stopping power, at least with FMJ (ball) ammo, the 5.56mm NATO is near the bottom of the rifle cartridge barrel, as has been amply demonstrated in both Vietnam and the Middle East. However, with expanding bullets and used for civilian home defense against unarmored perps, the .223 has proven an effective man stopper.

Keep in mind that an ordinary Marlin or Winchester lever action .30-30 carbine handles better and hits much harder at all ranges. If the need is to protect your country home, farm or ranch from an aggressive man or beast, a .30-30 carbine would be a much better choice. So would a Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle in 6.8mm SPC caliber.

The primary strengths of these .223 tactical carbines are their large cartridge capacity, low recoil and fast follow-up shots. Unfortunately, as all experienced shooters know, you cannot miss fast enough to win any sort of contest, including a gunfight. One accurate shot from an enemy with a .308 or .30-30 carbine will make the little .223 carbines' big magazine capacity and rapid fire capability a dead issue. (Sorry about the pun.) However, for short and medium range encounters in an urban home defense scenario, especially against multiple hostiles, these fast firing carbines should be quite effective.

A 12 gauge shotgun (riot gun) is the traditional choice for urban home defense and certainly hits harder at close range with either buckshot or slugs, but these .223 carbines kick a lot less and are less deafening and intimidating to the user. They also allow faster follow-up shots. That said, Chuck, Rocky and Jim are sticking with their 12 gauge riot guns as their preferred long gun for short range home defense. Among our staff, only Dave considers his AR-15 carbine his primary home defense long gun.

The Ruger Mini-14 Tactical and CMMG AR15 M4 LE can accommodate a bipod, optical sight and flashlight. Our comparison carbines were so equipped. Of course, any conventional rifle with a detachable sling swivel stud on its forend can accept a bipod and provision for scope mounting is virtually universal on all modern rifles and many riot guns. Tactical flashlights, lasers, etc. can be clamped to the barrel or magazine tube of conventional rifles and shotguns. You don't need Picatinny rails on every forearm surface for these accessories.

Keep in mind that we are civilian shooters, not the Army Ordinance department. The need for suppressive fire from massed automatic weapons or for hundreds of troops to envelop or defend a prepared position is beyond our purview. Likewise, the necessity for helicopter re-supply of thousands of rounds of ammunition to sustain a fire fight is not a consideration for civilians. Those are the types of requirements for which modern military assault rifles, such as the M16, M4 and AR-74, were developed. However, these requirements are not applicable to civilian self defense situations and, in any case, cannot be fulfilled by semi-automatic carbines that look like military assault rifles, but really aren't.

Why the popularity of weapons designed to narrow and specific military requirements? We are more puzzled by that question now, after comparing these two semi-automatic carbines and discovering their flaws, than we were before we started. Their forte' seems to be intimidating ignorant folks who are unfamiliar with firearms, which includes the majority of American politicians. In hot rod terms, these tactical black carbines seem designed more for "show," than for "go."

In conclusion, these carbines are rather specialized firearms, primarily useful for urban home defense. They are expensive, heavy (after being accessorized), ugly, with flawed ergonomics and handling. If you are serious about defending your home and family, there are probably better choices.

The Winner?

Both carbines scored similarly and we found little to choose between them. Overall, Dave preferred the AR-15 M4 LE. Rocky was surprised that both carbines shot as accurately as they did. He thought the AR-15 was simpler to operate, but that the Mini-14 would be more durable and reliable in the long run, due to its all steel barreled action and gas piston operation. Chuck basically concurred with Rocky in this assessment. He picked the Mini-14 Tactical overall, mostly because its cleaner operating action requires less maintenance. Bob also picked the Mini-14, as he thought it fit him better. Jim thought these tactical carbines pointless and found little to like about either.

Note: There is a full review of the Ruger Mini-14 Tactical on the Product Reviews page.




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