April 24, 2019
Photo by Mark Fingar
U.S. manufacturing is making a comeback in Berryville, Arkansas, the home of Wilson Combat. Every year, the company brings more of its manufacturing in-house.
First known for building custom 1911s, Wilson Combat (wilsoncombat.com) is just as well known for its EDC X9 pistol, which was first reviewed in Guns & Ammo’s October 2017 issue. They’re also known to refine tactical shotguns and AR-pattern rifles.
When Wilson Combat started making AR-15s, they switched to billet machining so their upper and lower receivers, as well as handguards, could be made in-house. Wilson made this decision at great expense, but having hands-on control of critical components was important to Wilson, ensuring that they get exactly what is needed.
The most recent manufacturing move was to bring barrel production to Berryville. Barrel making is one area of firearms manufacturing that takes a lot of tribal knowledge to do well. Barrels are difficult to make because small variations in the composition of the material can have a huge impact on how the barrel performs. Creating a straight tube with a straight hole down the middle for 16 to 24 inches is a lot harder than it sounds.
Perhaps the best indicator of how well Wilson Combat has executed the moves to bring production in-house is illustrated by its recent success with a U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) solicitation. I’d heard from a friend still serving that a SOCOM unit in particular had selected Wilson Combat’s AR-10 in .308 Winchester as their semiautomatic sniper rifle. A few months later while in a training facility classroom, I saw a number of Wilson Combat rifles in the rifle rack. As luck would have it, members of that same unit were there to train. That’s when I managed to pick up a few details of the selection process.
The unit in question required all rifles submitted to come with a suppressor. The two components would be tested together to check for compatibility. They had become frustrated with the process of finding a rifle they liked and then finding a suppressor only to find that the two didn’t play well together. Direct-impingement (DI) rifles — especially AR-10s — need an adjustable gas block or need to be developed with a specific suppressor in mind. Adding and removing a suppressor changes how a rifle functions.
Testing for any special operations unit varies, but some things are a given. The unit will test for accuracy, reliability and durability to ensure the rifle will perform adequately under field conditions. Of all the rifles tested by this unit, only two survived through the accuracy testing phase and Wilson Combat’s submission was one of those rifles.
The durability testing was far more abusive than anything the civilian world would experience simply because no one has that much time or ammo. Full-automatic fire was not required for a precision rifle, sensibly, but the firing schedule was still very aggressive.
At the end of all that testing, Wilson Combat emerged victorious. Not only was the rifle exceptionally accurate, it showed incredible durability during an intense beating. When interviewed, Bill Wilson would tell me nothing about the testing specifics or even confirm that it was a Special Operations unit conducting it. He did say that when the samples came back, they “looked like someone had thrown the rifle and suppressor on the grill and left them there for a few hours.”3
I asked Wilson what he learned from the process. He said the unit testing the rifles tore them apart often to inspect them for wear. The feedback was invaluable. Wilson has applied those lessons learned across the entire product line.
Wilson saw how his rifles fared when pushed through tens of thousands of rounds. Subtle changes to the geometry of the bolt radically changed the rifle’s timing and reduced wear, the number one cause for failure in an AR.
Every Wilson Combat AR-pattern rifle now features those subtle bolt modifications extending that component’s life. The barrel that proved accurate enough to win the Special Operations solicitation is Wilson-made and is on every .308 and 5.56mm rifle they offer.
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