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Savage MSR-15 recon: value is always in style.

Did the world really need another AR manufacturer? There's always room for craftsmanship and innovative features at a good price.

One of the most hilarious canards tossed about by the anti-gunners is that the large gun manufacturers somehow conspired to manipulate the well-meaning, but dim, shooting public into desiring dangerous "assault weapons" to preserve a gun market that was declining from reduced hunting.

Unsurprisingly, that tale is 180[degrees] from the facts. It's hard to imagine any group less enthusiastic about black guns than the large firearms manufacturers were in the 1980s.

Most of the leading lights are dead now, as are several of their companies, so it's OK to recall that they wanted no part of "assault rifles," and for years barred them from the SHOT Show, before eventually ghettoizing them as "law enforcement" products in a separate area.

Before you work up a self-righteous rage against those now-departed execs, keep in mind that they came of age in a time when defeatism was profoundly ingrained in the gun industry. When I joined up in the mid-1970s, it was perfectly common for people to say blackpowder arms and airguns would be all we'd have by the year 2000, or even earlier.

All the strategizing was defensive, with keeping a low profile the most highly prized virtue. Black guns were "bad publicity" and endangered the sporting arms these industry honchos assumed would always be their bread and butter.

If you had told most anyone in the gun industry, to include the NRA where I worked, that by 2017 there would be a serious effort to repeal restrictions on suppressors or to enforce national concealed carry reciprocity, you'd have been looked on with pity.

The notion of going on offense really started with Cincinnati revolt of May, 1977, and it took quite a while to get real traction at the upper reaches of the gun industry. I can remember being subjected to a whiskey-fueled harangue from one company president against NRA legislative policy that continued to 2 a.m. And that was in the early 1990s.

When NRA President Marion Hammer started pushing concealed carry reform in the late 1980s, many in the trade recoiled from the notion of their customers wandering freely while packing. As this is written, concealable handguns are about the only thing that's selling.

So if consumers moved from buying side-by-side doubles and lever guns to ARs and pocket pistols, it certainly wasn't at the behest of the titans of the gun industry.

It was left to a lot of small manufacturers, most of them advertising in the pages of SHOTGUN NEWS, to build the market for black guns we know today. Some grew large and prospered, some have been absorbed into larger entities and some, like Olympic Arms, whose closure was recently announced, passed into history. But they carried the banner until the day arrived when consumer demand meant the larger makers had to come around.

We now have ARs from Colt, FN, Mossberg, Remington, Ruger, SIG, Smith & Wesson, Springfield Armory and the subject of today's story, Savage. I can promise you that if you had offered a bet on that list in 1985, you could have won a paycheck from anyone on the SHOT Show floor, especially from executives of most of those companies.

ARs are mainstream. The antis are smoking something if they think they can be banned today. In 1977, they probably could have done it. In 2017, no way.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation decided a few years back that the product category that included ARs and AKs really didn't have a good name. "Assault rifles" was both factually wrong and played into anti-gun propaganda. "Black guns" was popular in the industry, but also had a vaguely sinister twang.

After a whole lot of round-table discussion, they came up with "modern sporting rifle," and even sponsored a Sportsman Channel TV show called Modern Sporting Rifle Adventures.

That moniker drew a skeptical response from a lot of people who found it clunky and a bit too apologetic. But NSSF has stuck with it, and manufacturers, especially at the top end of the totem pole, have adopted it. Whether it makes its way into common idiom remains to be seen, but Savage has named its new AR the MSR-15, going all-in with the designation.

Several years ago, a Savage executive asked me if I thought the company should make an AR. "Better hurry" was my response. Savage didn't, and so is coming into the market at a time when the recent elections have put paid to the panic buying of the Obama years.

If people aren't just buying any old AR before Hillary Clinton can stop them, you are going to have to convince them to buy with a good suite of features at a good price. Clearly, the manufacturer has understood that with the MSR-15.

Savage has immediately distinguished its rifle by specifying a proprietary lower receiver design with angled grooves on the magazine well. These are distinctive, and if you are one of those who insist on grasping the mag well while firing, they serve nicely as finger grooves.

There are further dishes on either side at the front of the trigger guard that make a perfect resting place for the trigger finger when holding the rifle in a ready position.

The old folding trigger guard of the original AR is long gone on today's commercial rifles, as it is here. A solid curved guard gives plenty of room for a gloved finger, and makes the lower receiver more rigid in the bargain.

The flattop upper receiver is conventional, with the standard forward assist, shell deflector and folding dust cover. The operating handle is GI: some might argue Savage missed a bet not specifying one of the popular aftermarket replacements: BLACKHAWKI's, for example.

The handguard is a Midwest Industries octagonal aluminum unit that is suppressor-compatible. It uses the MLOK attachment system, with a row of seven slots on each surface except the top, which has a 1913 rail.

The M-LOK system allows you to attach compatible accessories directly to the handguard. You can attach non-compatible accessories with short sections of 1913 rail. Slim fore-ends using the M-LOK or competing KeyMod systems have completely supplanted the fat old quad rail in today's AR market, as they allow a much lighter and trimmer installation.

Underneath the rail is a mid-length gas system. It was in the past common to use the gas system from the 14 1/2-inch barreled M4 carbine with 16 or 18-inch barrels. That yielded excessive gas pressure, with accompanying wear and tear on the rifle. Any and all self-respecting ARs that use 16- inch barrels now are fitted with the smoother-operating mid-length gas system.

The barrel itself has a 1:8 twist to stabilize a wide variety of bullet weights. Purists clamor for the 1:7 military twist, and I suppose it has its advantages with the very heaviest bullets, but consumers shoot a lot more 55-grain ammo and expect to be able to shoot 50- or even 40-grain ammo with acceptable accuracy. That argues for the 1:8 twist.

The MSR-15 also boasts 5R rifling, a style that was exotic 25 years ago but is become more common these days. As the name implies, it has five grooves, rather than the usual four or six. This means that no two lands or grooves face each other directly. It is thought that this reduces bullet-deforming constriction.

The lands also have tilted tops that reduce engraving force on the bullet. This is also thought to improve accuracy, as well as to make bore cleaning easier.

The chamber is in .223 Wylde configuration, which strikes a balance between the .223 and 5.56 chamber configurations. The 5.56 chamber has a longer leade for use with higher-pressure military ammo. The Wylde chamber gives you some of this, while retaining the commercial chamber's accuracy potential with varmint bullets.

The barrel is treated with Melonite QPQ, a hot salt bath nitrocarburizing process widely used in the gun trade. When they say hot bath, they mean hot. I stood next to the tank for it at Smith & Wesson, and it'll singe your hair off. You can Parkerize in your garage. Melonite is a process for a great big factory.

The benefits of Melonite treatment are durability, corrosion and scratch resistance, and a smooth matte black finish. My only negative observation is that it doesn't coordinate with the GI-style flash hider.

Savage is part of Vista Outdoors, a conglomerate whose other divisions include Alliant Powder, Bushnell, CCI, Federal Cartridge, Speer, Uncle Mike's, etc. So it's not a shocker that the MSR-15's furniture comes from corporate cousin BLACKHAWK!

Longtime readers will remember Knoxx Industries, which made some interesting recoil-absorbing buttstocks. Knoxx was absorbed by BLACKHAWK! several years ago and the name is being used on AR accessories.

The Knoxx AR pistol grip is, like a lot of them these days, more vertical than the military A2 grip. This is thought more comfortable when shooting in the low-elbowed style that has become the vogue in recent years. It's also more 1911-like. Or in this case, 1911A1, with a notable flare at the rear that reminds me of the arched mainspring housing.

It also has a mini-thumb rest and a palm swell on either side. A hefty beavertail nicely aligns trigger and trigger finger.

Speaking of the trigger, it is also a BLACKHAWK! product, the Blaze SSD. It is an essentially GI trigger that is treated with a process the manufacturer describes as follows: "The thermomolecular transfer of boron creates a forever-smooth pull and crisp break, while dramatically reducing creep."

If you buy the Blaze as an accessory, it comes with both "duty & defense" and "target" spring sets, the latter distinguishable by its red color. The MSR-15 comes with the "duty & defense" set, which certainly seems logical for a rifle that will be shot by a variety of people with a variety of ammo.

The collapsible buttstock is the Knoxx Axiom A-frame. As you would expect, it offers six pull length positions that let you adjust overall length from 33 1/2 to 36 3/4 inches. The latch is nicely integrated into the stock, though I'd be tempted to take a Dremel to either end of the roll pin that controls the latch plunger.

There's a honeycombed recoil pad at the butt that's tapered top and bottom to help avoid snagging. The stock has two QD swivel points. If you want to use an old-fashioned web sling, there's a slot for that, too.

The magazine is the tried and true PMAG 30, which seems to have established a dominant position in the OEM market. No one ever got fired for specifying it.

This gun will likely be used with a scope or red dot 99% of the time, but just in case, it comes with BLACKHAWK! back-up sights. The term "back-up iron sights" would be misleading here, as they are predominantly plastic. Unless you're planning a hump up the Hindu Kush, that's just fine.

The rear sight is activated by a bar at the front and is click-adjustable for windage. I don't think I've ever seen click values listed in an instruction manual, so zeroing will be by trial and error. Set elevation by adjusting the A2-style front sight post. It's erected by pushing a button on the left side of the sight base.

In the best tradition of family togetherness, the sample MSR-15 Recon was provided with a Bushnell SMRS Elite Tactical 1-6.5X scope. Bushnell was a little slow to jump on the tactical scope train, but now is all the way in.

The Elite Tactical, at 10 inches long and 23 ounces, is just the right size and power range for a scope that most likely will be used primarily for range shooting or maybe 3-Gun competition. It has a 30mm aluminum tube, and the BTR-2 reticle, the currently popular horseshoe style, is in the first focal plane. That lets you use the mil-graduated crosshairs for ranging at any power setting.

Field of view at 100 yards ranges from 107.1 feet at IX to 16.8 feet at 6.5X. Clicks are fine at .1 mil. Don't look for a parallax adjustment knob, because parallax is fixed, presumably at 100 yards.

The knob on the left side controls reticle illumination in a 10-step range, with two extra settings for night vision devices. The Elite Tactical uses CR2032 batteries that you probably already have in a watch or garage door opener.

If you feel the need for rapid power changes, you can use a folding stick shift-like device called the ThrowDown PCL to effect rapid power adjustments.

My first trip to the range with the MSR-15 was buffeted by gusty, switching winds, and I used what ammo I could scrounge around the office, which turned out to be Federal AR556 and American Eagle. Both these printed shotgun patterns, very disappointing results even given the wind.

A fast shopping trip to three different stores dug up some Fiocchi 69-gr. Match and some of the new Hornady Black 62-gr. ammo. These, in combination with dead calm conditions the next day, saw 1/4-inch groups immediately.

I am not going to be so foolish as to suggest that the MSR-15 won't shoot 55s, but you should always keep in mind that the faster twists are intended for the benefit of heavier bullets. You may find that getting the best out of the MSR-15 may require more expensive ammo.

The Blaze SSD trigger is not a gimmick. It is not going to make you give up your Geissele, but for a unit based on GI-style parts, it provides an excellent pull, completely dispensing with any grinding sensation.

The Knoxx stock tended to rattle a bit, but was rock-solid when firing from the bench. It was easy to use with a rear bag support and generally comfortable on the cheek.

Whatever its tardiness to the party, Savage has made up for it with a well-equipped AR that comes in below the $1,000 retail line. With ARs a bit of a drug on the market these days, you may find aggressive retailers discounting it enough to make it extremely tempting.

I would think of it as a perfect second AR. If you've had an economical rifle and have grown tired of the crunchy trigger, mediocre accuracy and dated furniture, the MSR-15 will solve all your problems in one stop, with no need to accessorize.

And that's a great reason to be grateful Savage got into the game.

Caption: If you're looking to step up from that starter AR, you should have a hard look at the Savage MSR-15. It combines a lot of desirable features into a sub-$1,000 package.

Caption: The MSR-15 is immediately distinguishable by the grooved magazine well. This looks great and provides finger rests if you shoot hanging onto the well.

Caption: Like most commercial ARs these days, the MSR-15 has a solid curved trigger guard in 1 place of the folding unit typical of the original AR-15 and variants.

Caption: The barrel is Melonite treated. It's a nitrocaburizing process that leaves a smooth, durable surface. Savage specified a 1:8 rifling twist for the bore.

Caption: The BLACKHAWK! pistol is right in style with a more vertical orientation and pam swells and finger grooves. A generous beavertail helps align finger and trigger.

Caption: An A2 style flash hider is fitted. The Midwest Industries aluminum handguard is octagonal and slotted for the M-LOK system for attaching accessories.

Manufacturer:        Savage Arms Co., 100
                     Springdale Road, Dept. FAN,
                     Westfield, MA 01085

Type:                Semi-automatic rifle

Caliber:             .223 Rem.

Weight:              7 pounds

Overall Length:      36 3/4 inches

Barrel Length:       16 1/8"

Length of Pull:      14 1/2 inches (maximum)

Drop at Heel:        1 3/4 inches

Drop at Comb:        1 3/4 inches

Magazine Capacity:   30

Trigger Pull:        5 1/2 pounds

Price:               $999
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Author:Hunnicutt, Robert W.
Publication:Firearms News
Date:Apr 1, 2017
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