by Steve Adelmann - Tuesday, October 5, 2010
Whether you love or hate them, AR-style magazines are finding their way into more new rifle and carbine designs each year. Before the AR frenzy, we could choose between expensive models from one or two firearm manufacturers and well-worn surplus mags that were ready to be scrapped. Today we have options of exterior coating types, body materials, follower styles and round count windows in 5-, 10-, 20-, 25-, 30-, 40-, 45- and even 100-round variants. Most shooters like to have extra mags available for the range, competition or just-in-case scenarios, but filling a bag full of spares is a small investment that only pays off if they work.
A quick check of my range gear turned up eight different varieties of 30-round 5.56 mags from five companies. I'm finding that newly manufactured 5.56-magazine quality is mostly very good in this and smaller sizes. Veterans from the '80s and '90s may remember that wasn't the case back when ABC (anything but Colt) mags were a scourge to all combat-arms Soldiers. When we do suspect a bad detachable magazine, swapping is a good first step to troubleshoot the problem. They are cheaper and easier to replace than other parts and it doesn't take much technical knowledge to figure out that if switching mags solves the problem, you have your answer. Not surprisingly, I've always had solid performance from both Colt and Heckler & Koch magazines. I'm also having excellent results with several variations of 30-round magazines from Magpul and C-Products. Although I have many Mil-Spec versions (flat gray finish, green followers), one feature I now look for is the anti-tilt follower. These remain level under load via extended "legs" channeling inside of the magazines' bodies. When a follower tilts, it causes the top cartridge's nose to lag below the case head, resulting in a failure to feed. I continue to use the old-style followers for range work, reserving the anti-tilt versions for serious pursuits. If you search enough, well-functioning 5.56 magazines can be had for as little as $8 each.
Large-receiver AR mags come in 5-, 10-, 15-, 20- and 25-round sizes, but in two very different lock-in styles. Rifle designs that use M14-style magazines (Armalite) don't have many options beyond manufacturers' offerings. The only options for many years were surplus M14 magazines that had a bolt-stop modification and while functional, these had a low tolerance for dirt. Armalite now makes a "Gen II" magazine that has an integral bolt stop and these are more dependable, retailing around $45 per unit. Unfortunately the story isn't so simple with the rest of the large-receiver AR crowd. Most other rifles in this size class use the traditional-style magazine, resembling a 20-round 5.56 mag on steroids. My experience with these has been that you simply have to pay more for reliability. As a Soldier, I learned to trust Knight's Armament Corporation's later-generation magazines for my sniper rifles. Fortunately, these are available on the commercial market, but that dependability will set you back $124 per copy. Though several newer .308-mag options are available for less than $20 each, I've had problems with every one I've tried. Most suffer from weak springs, failing to lift rounds in time for feeding regardless of the rifle or gas system used. A shiny diamond in the rough is LaRue Tactical's Optimized Battle Rifle (OBR) magazine. As with everything else Mark LaRue and his able crew do, this tight-shooting rifle and its magazines are built in-house and done absolutely right. Though mags were not available for sale at the time of writing, the projected MSRP should be $60 to $70 per copy. Right away I noticed LaRue's mags feel slicker both inside and out. The durable, flat-black coating helps empty magazines launch clear of the mag-well after releasing. The red followers are also slicker than normal, reducing the chances of hang up. I've had zero problems with the OBR mags I've been testing and I believe they'll be worth every penny when available.
Overall our magazine choices for AR-style rifles and carbines are very good right now, with options and availability at all-time highs. I suggest buying one or two of a particular brand to ensure your gun likes them before ordering enough to equip a nine-man rifle squad. Once you stock up, be sure to test them all with your rifle or carbine. Since that will require a fair bit of trigger pulling, take advantage of that time to introduce someone new to the joys of shooting.
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