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An AR Alternative: The Benelli MR1 Review

by Patrick Sweeney   |  January 2nd, 2010 2

Benelli-MR1_001

Given the hot market for “black guns” and the apparent eagerness for everyone who makes a rifled tube to jump in, we have to give Benelli a lot of credit for trying a different path. And it’s an interesting one, too. Rather than simply making another AR from parts–or building it from scratch–the company took what it had and adapted it.

The MR1 is a gas-operated, magazine-fed .223 rifle that looks a lot like some enterprising Benelli engineer had too much time on his hands one day and an open line to the company CAD-CAM server. Now, this is not the first rifle from Benelli. The R1 has that distinction. However, it is quite a ways to go from a three- or four-round .30-06 or .300 Win Mag to a hi-cap .223.

Externally, the MR1 is pretty racy-looking. From the trigger back, it might be any of their tactical shotguns The pistol grip and stock appear to be the M4 Tactical parts, a good choice. I’m not an easy fit in clothes, shoes or guns, but the MR1 and the M4 stocks fit me. The pull is long enough, but not too long, and the pistol grip is filling without being a handful. The receiver looks much like the R1, and except for the magazine well, it looks much the same as the receiver for many of the Benelli shotguns. I imagine it was quite the afternoon, doing the preliminary CAD/CAM work to make the receiver accept an AR magazine. The handguard is the different part and, at first glance, seems a bit odd. Not like the shotgun forearms, which are comfortable and easy to get a grip on.

In fact, when I first saw a photograph of the MR1, my reaction was, “Oh, that handguard’s going to be porky.” Well, I was wrong. The MR1 is compact enough that you really can’t eyeball the proportions and get it right. You have to handle one.

Inside the handguard, which is simply a polymer shell, the Benelli ARGO (Auto Regulating Gas Operated) system runs the rifle. The piston is a stainless steel cup that drives the bolt/carrier with a single intermediate piece, and as a result, you don’t get gas in the receiver. You also don’t have a lot of extra parts. The gas drives the piston, which acts through the transfer bolt onto the bolt/carrier. It is the same setup that Benelli uses on the M-1014 shotgun it supplies to our military.

The controls are obvious, but you’ll need some practice. On the right side is the magazine-release button. To up the ante, Benelli puts an even bigger button on the left side that also releases the magazine. The bolt hold-open and release is the wedge-shaped block on the front of the triggerguard. Up locks the bolt open, down releases it. The only change from ambidextrous unity is the safety, which is a plain and simple cross-bolt button. However, the crossbolt safety design is so common that every left-handed shooter out there instinctively knows how to deal with it.

Those of you who live in restricted states may find some joy here The MR1 lacks a flash-hider, bayonet lug and any connection by name to the AR system. It is entirely possible that (with the correct magazine) you can acquire one without having to move to a Free State.

The flash-hider’s absence is a necessity, as disassembly would not allow it. First, make sure the MR1 is unloaded. Lock the bolt open. On the front of the handguard you’ll see a knobbed wheel. Unscrew it. Once it’s loose, take it off and the handguard right behind it. See the gas system nut, the one with two holes in it? Use the spring-loaded plunger that’s in the front of the handguard to loosen the nut, then unscrew the gas system nut. The nut and spring are a contained assembly–you can’t lose the spring. You can now ease the upper assembly off the lower, keeping the bolt under control.

Reassembly is almost a three-handed affair, as you have to keep the bolt back and line up the barrel gas cup and the piston while settling the bolt link into the recoil-spring cup and nestling the upper receiver down into the lower. All while keeping the gas system lined up.

Don’t worry, with a bit of practice it becomes a lot easier. And, as clean-running and self-cleaning as the gas system is, you won’t have to do it very often. Once the upper is installed, screw down the retaining nut, slide on the handguard, then turn down the barrel retaining nut to lock the handguard in place. The gas system retainer takedown pin in the handguard is also the spring-loaded plunger that keeps the barrel nut on. Once it starts clacking against the retainer, you’re almost there. When it stops, you’re done. And you don’t have to wrench the nut tight.

The trigger of the MR1 is certainly good enough. It seems a bit spongy in that I can feel it moving when I take up the slack, but it is not at all a hindrance to good marksmanship. And it is certainly a lot better than many mil-spec AR triggers with gritty, scratchy and stage-y trigger pulls. I suspect that with a bit of dry firing and range time the trigger will smooth out a bit. The MR1 comes with iron sights; the rear is a windage- and elevation-adjustable aperture, while the front is a post on the handguard.

On the top of the receiver is a Picatinny rail. My personal feeling is that the rear aperture of the MR1 sight is a bit too small, but too small is easier to correct than too big. The rail is a good addition, but if you mount a scope or red-dot sight there, you’d be wise to find as low a mount as possible. The stock is designed around the iron sights, and the extra height of a scope may get your face off the stock while aiming. You will not have any luck trying to mount a red-dot scope and having it cowitness with the irons. The iron sights just aren’t tall enough for that.

The barrel is a light contour, with a chrome-lined bore and a twist of 1:9. At 7.9 pounds, the MR1 is not any heavier than a lot of ARs, and you’d have to work hard to build an AR significantly lighter than Benelli’s new rifle. I was curious to see how the 1:9-twist barrel would do with heavier bullets, as I’ve had some barrels in that twist that weren’t happy. I need not have worried. The 75- and 77-grain loads showed no signs of yaw and shot very accurately. While I’ve only had the MR1 a short while, it has not given me any problems at all. Well, no shooting problems.

The MR1 comes with a five-round magazine that is long enough to be a 10-rounder. It is designed to also “accept high-capacity M16 magazines.” Which it does readily. I thrashed the MR1 with some standard drills, testing it with my various USGI, Teutonic high-reliability mags and my all-steel Fusil USA mags. No problems.

Then I started with the Magpul PMags. Oops, tight fit. They work, but they have to be forced in and out. No problem; if I were going to use PMags, there are fitting pads on the magazine tube that I can carefully file on to make them fit.

Then I slammed in a Lancer L5 mag. No-go. You see, the Benelli magazine has an oversize baseplate on it, which nestles into a recess in the receiver. The result is a system well sealed against ingress of crud, dust and unfriendly thoughts. The lip also wedges against the L5 magazine’s dust lip. So, if you have magazines with a midline dust lip (Lancer, TangoDown, Israeli surplus Orlite, etc.), they may not work. However, good magazines are now so common it should not be a problem to find USGI mags for your new MR1.

The MR1 has the bog-standard side sling rear rail and a slot in the handguard for your sling. If between those two you can’t figure out how to rig a sling, you should be prepared for your man-card to get some points deductions.

One thing I noticed right away was how soft the MR1 was in recoil. Now, a nearly eight-pound .223 is not going to thump you all that hard anyway. Still, the MR1 was noticeably softer in recoil than the AR I had along as a comparison. I think it is a combination of things The stock on the MR1 is wider than most AR stocks, and the rear has a cushy recoil pad on it. Most ARs have plastic or aluminum back there. A few have a sketchy rubber non-skid pad, but not something that really dampens recoil much. Also, the soft, hand-filling pistol grip gives you more surface to stop recoil.

The gas system has to have some say in this, too. My impression is that there is much less mass cycling back and forth in the MR1 than in your typical AR. In an AR, you’re energizing more than a pound of metal, and the Benelli parts have to weigh less than that.

I’d had the MR1 a short while when another package arrived–the tri-rail adapter. Simply bolt the tri-rail onto the forearm and you now have a place to mount lights and lasers. Well, you will once you adapt things. I also received a Crimson Trace MV-515 light and laser vertical foregrip. The designers of the tri-rail made sure the looks and lines of the tri-rail matched those of the MR1 forearm.

As a result, the rear of the rails have a small curve on the ends. The curve interferes with getting a secure grip between the vertical forearm and the tri-rail. In the scheme of things, it’s a small detail Two seconds with a belt sander (or a minute with a dremel tool) and the curve would be flattened enough to let the two snug together.

For accuracy testing I locked an EOTech XPS-3 sight and 3X magnifier onto the Picatinny rail. The magnifier was a tight fit over the rear sight, but with a bit of pushing I made it lock in place. The accuracy, given the 3X magnification, was right in line with what I’d expect from a top-of-the-line AR.

Since the MR1 is a first-production rifle on loan, I really don’t think I’d win friends and influence people by taking power tools to their rifle. But the tri-rail is polymer and easily modified–or replaced if you get too enthusiastic with the tools.

Where does the Benelli MR1 stand in the scheme of things? I think it has a very promising future. The curmudgeons among us might remember when an AR cost $600. Well, those days are gone. The MSRP is entirely reasonable in today’s marketplace. While it is black, it isn’t an AR, which may make it easier to acquire in some states. And if you do need it, it is obviously a firearm, without being an “evil” black AR or AK.

While the .223 is not going to beat you up, any reduction in felt recoil is a good thing. Reliable, accurate, soft-shooting and something different, the Benelli MR1 is a hard combination to beat.

Benelli-MR1_002

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