In some ways, the strength of the AR-15 is its weakness. Currently, the ATF defines the “gun” part of an AR-15 as the lower receiver, which holds the trigger pack. This means that all manner of accessories like different grips, stocks and whatnot can be added to the lower receiver. In addition to this, the upper receiver of an AR-15, the part which holds the barrel, chamber, sights and recoil mechanism, can be changed out simply by popping out two pins on the lower receiver.
This makes an AR-15 almost infinitely configurable, but it also means there really is no definitive “beginner’s AR-15,” like there is with, say, an M1 Garand. However, there are certain features that come in handy if you’re new to the AR-15, and the FN15 Guardian from FN America has pretty much all of them.
On top of the receiver is a length of Picatinny rail which lets you add whichever optic you choose to your gun. That rail continues on the 15 inch long handguard, making it easy to add a set of backup (or primary) iron sights if you so choose. The handguard itself has M-Lok slots on three side, giving you another way to hand more gear off your rifle if so desire. The barrel is 16 inches long, which means you can change out the A2 “bird cage” muzzle device that comes with the FN15 Guardian for something else.
Further back, there is mil-spec trigger group and a six-position collapsible buttstock so the length of pull of the rifle can be adjusted to your specific needs. Best of all, though, is “FN” name that’s carved into the side of the lower receiver. FN America is one of the most-respected manufacturers of military small arms in the world, and they have taken all the expertise they’ve gained from building rifles that need to work in the worst areas of the world and applied it to the FN15 Guardian. If you’re looking for a place to begin your AR-15 journey, the FN15 Guardian would be an excellent jumping-off point.
A first-timer’s AR-15 should have a sighting system which works in a variety of different situations, and the Swampfox Trihawk is just that kind of optic. The reticle in this scope is etched onto the glass inside the optic, rather than projected onto the glass via a laser, as is done with a red dot or holographic optic. This means the Trihawk works great for people who are older or who have astigmatism. It also means that the battery inside illuminates the reticle, rather than creating the reticle, which lets you use the optic just fine in daylight conditions without any battery power.
The reticle itself has a 40 MOA outer ring for fast target acquisition, with a chevron inside the ring for more precise aiming. The hashmarks of the optic I have are measured in 4 MOA increments which helps in gauging bullet drop at distance as well has estimating the range to the target.
The Trihawk is a 3x optic, which gives you enough magnification at common defensive distances to make a precise, on-target shot, yet it’s not so powerful that it becomes useless at closer distances. You may find yourself wanting to add another lower-powered sighting system if you’re planning on using this rifle as a home-defense gun. The best way I’ve found to find this out for sure is to take a good-quality class that’s centered around the AR-15 and combine that with practice at the range and dry-fire at home.
Speaking of dry fire, it’s fair to say that the Mantis X Elite has revolutionized dry fire practice with a pistol. The Mantis X Elite an ultra-sensitive motion detector that attaches to your pistol and communicates with your smartphone via Bluetooth, giving you precise information how your gun moves as you press the trigger or perform common gun manipulations. With the Blackbeard system, Mantis has applied that same idea to the AR-15, and added in a battery-powered trigger reset system that lets you practice without needed to manually reset the trigger after each shot.
To install the Blackbeard, first open your AR and remove the bolt carrier group (BCG) and charging handle. The Blackbeard should slide into that empty, with the battery pack loading into the magazine well like a regular AR-15 magazine. Pair the system with the Mantis app on your smartphone, and you’re ready to go.
Once connected, you have access to a wide variety of rifle-centric training drills such as target transition drills, “up” drills and even an at-home version of the Marine Corps’ rifle qualification drill. There is also a green laser built into the Blackbeard which gives you instantaneous feedback about your marksmanship skills (or lack thereof).
One of the nicer things about the Blackbeard system is because it replaces both the BCG and the magazine of your AR-15, it’s almost impossible to have live rounds in your gun when you use it. However, make sure you stay safe, and keep all live ammo out of the room when you’re doing dry fire practice.