About the only thing manufacturers of ARs haven't done to the platform is produce an entry-level model with an MSRP more in line with that of traditional, value-priced sporters. Even when it's less than a grand, the cost of a single AR could still fund the purchase of two bargain bolt actions. With the black rifle craze growing faster than a Picatinny rail takes accessories, DPMS has addressed the issue of cost and made it possible for budget-minded shooters to join the fun. The company's Panther Sportical is a carbine-style AR that carries a price tag of just $699.
An all-too-rare but ever-inspiring case where inexpensive doesn't mean cheap, the Sportical (half sport, half tactical) is built to the same standards that have earned DPMS recognition from both shooters and the industry—including back-to-back NRA Golden Bullseye Awards for Rifle of the Year from Shooting Illustrated in 2005 and American Rifleman in 2006. The company's founder and president Randy Luth has been building and manufacturing ARs, parts and accessories for the military, law enforcement and civilian markets for more than 20 years, so he knows a thing or two about making the platform run.
Like the rest of the company's ARs chambered in 5.56x45 mm, the Sportical starts with a forged, aircraft-grade aluminum-alloy lower receiver that is hard-coat anodized to mil spec. The Sportical's extruded 6066-T6 aluminum-alloy upper receiver, also mil-spec hard-coat anodized, follows the DPMS Flattop Lo-Pro design, with no forward assist, brass deflector or dustcover. Though purists may cringe at the absence of these items, it's a fair tradeoff considering the bottom line, and it gives the Sportical a slick, high-speed kind of look.
Standard in DPMS ARs, the heat-treated 8620 chrome-moly steel bolt carrier is plated per mil spec, as is the phosphated steel bolt. The Sportical's light-contour, 16-inch barrel is appropriate for a maneuverable carbine. It measures .642 inch in diameter along its length, before mating with the A2-type birdcage flash hider. A 1:9-inch rate of twist stabilizes heavier match-type bullets up to 72 or 73 grains.
The pair of vented, carbine-length GlacierGuards that surround the barrel and gas tube utilize 15 internal fins to disperse heat while providing rigidity. Raised ribs on the exterior of the GlacierGuards provide texture for a secure grip. Their fiberglass-reinforced polymer construction is able to withstand temperatures of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Mounted via a delta ring, the GlacierGuards are removable should a shooter want to equip the Sportical with a quad-rail handguard to add accessories.
The gas block residing in front of the GlacierGuards has the same flattop configuration as the upper. Iron sights are not provided with the Sportical, but with the two runs of rail, attaching an aftermarket set would be as simple as ordering it.
DPMS didn't skimp on the Sportical's buttstock, giving it the company's full-featured Pardus model. Made of lightweight, black Zytel, the telescopic buttstock is adjustable over six positions for a length of pull from 10 1/2 to 14 3/8 inches. The adjustment latch is curved to fit the hand, and three finger grooves further improve ergonomics. During testing the buttstock operated smoothly, and the reinforced latch pin locked solidly in place in each position.
The Pardus buttstock has four slots for sling attachment, plus an oval aluminum ring. Its curved, saw-tooth buttplate stays in place on the shoulder, though its texture did become a bit aggressive during extended range sessions. No worries, however, as DPMS offers a rubber recoil pad that fits over its face. A conventional polymer pistol grip with molded checkering complements the buttstock.
Other than lacking a sight system, the Sportical comes ready for action from the factory. Included with the gun are two 30-round magazines, a nylon web sling and a cleaning kit.
Over the course of several weeks, I ran more than 600 rounds through the Sportical. Not one time did the gun fail to fire, feed or eject. It never so much as hiccupped, functioning without a single incident right out of the box. This was with a variety of ammo, including some from foreign manufacturers, military surplus and factory seconds. The Sportical's price belies its absolute reliability.
Since the Sportical is intended as an entry-level AR, after putting it through an extensive function test I turned it over to a few friends and family members who had never before shot an AR. The shooters ranged in size from 6-foot-plus and 250 pounds to a couple inches over 5 feet and 125 pounds. All of them found the Sportical easy to get on target—a product of the gun's handy qualities and adjustable buttstock, as well as the 4x32 mm Trijicon ACOG mounted to its upper. Judging by the smiles and laughter, the value-priced carbine was a joy to shoot. I knew it would be.
Although I was already impressed by the Sportical's performance, the good times kept rolling when I took the gun to the range for accuracy testing. I kept the ACOG but traded the plinking ammo for quality factory rounds. In all, I shot seven different loads through the Sportical, firing five, five-shot groups with each from the 100-yard mark. Three loads—Black Hills 55-grain soft point, Hornady 55-grain TAP and Federal Premium Gold Medal 69-grain Sierra MatchKing—consistently grouped around 1 1/2 inches. The 55-grain TAP load edged out the other two loads with a five-group average of 1.31 inches. Pretty impressive for a lightweight carbine, especially one that sells for less than $700.
More shooters are discovering the fun of of the AR, and they'll find an excellent starting point with the DPMS Panther Sportical. It may be targeted at the new black rifle buff, but longtime fans of the platform will appreciate the carbine, too. The shortage of .223 Rem. just got shorter.