When Bill Dermody, Savage's director of marketing, told me that Savage Arms getting into the AR-15 game, my first thought was, Why? The nation is already awash in AR-pattern rifles. Do we really need more? Don't get me wrong, I love the AR-15. It's simple and reliable. We've been in some tight scrapes together, and it has always been a good friend to me. But enough is enough.
After spending some range time with Savage's new-for-2017 Patrol and Recon models, I'm glad they went down the AR road because Savage customers can win big with either model. These rifles stay true to the 60-plus-year-old Eugene Stoner design, but Savage gives the AR-pattern rifle the most accuracy for the least amount of cash.
Don't disregard an AR's barrel. The single most comprehensive reason why one AR-pattern rifle will perform well and another will not is the barrel. This is the case with any rifle. Barrels are complicated critters, and there are a lot of ways to screw one up. Thanks to modern manufacturing procedures, most AR barrels are consistently mediocre performers.
The typical barrel found on the AR-15 at your local gun shop is probably a cost-conscious button-rifled creation. The cheapest will have no finish in the bore and a carbine-length gas system because the military uses a carbine-length gas system, and by skipping the chrome lining or Meloniting phase of manufacture saves a few pennies on every barrel. Accuracy will be similar to the more expensive barrels, but service life will not.
There are only a handful of barrel makers cranking out large quantities of AR barrels these days, and these mass-produced models are recognizable by the M4 contour (with recess just forward of the gas block/front sight post) and 5.56x45mm chambering.
More expensive and higher quality barrels might be hammer-forged and will certainly have bores lined with either chrome or Melonite. These barrels will not be any more accurate, but, when treated like a bullet hose, they will offer longer life.
The best samples of these mass-produced barrels will average 1.2 to 1.3 MOA when free-floated (for optimal accuracy) and using factory ammunition that they like. I've read and heard all kinds of aggressive accuracy claims that are much better than that from manufacturers and shooters alike. The older I get, the more skeptical I become.
AR accuracy testing over the course of the last 10 years leads me to the 1.2 to 1.3 MOA figure listed above (that's for five shots at 100 yards). That is good accuracy for any AR-15. Of course, some do worse, but solidly constructed rifles with free-floating barrels that retail for $1,000 to $1,500 should offer that kind of performance.
AR barrels gone Wylde. Savage has long demonstrated a capacity to make barrels that perform on a level far above their weight class. It's not uncommon for a factory Savage barrel to perform just as well as an expensive custom barrel from one of the small specialty companies. Savage's tribal knowledge acquired over the past couple of decades paid off in spades with their new AR offerings.
Savage puts the same barrel on both the Recon and Patrol. It is 16-inches long with a mid-length gas system, has a 1:8-inch twist rate and comes with a .223 Wylde chamber. That list of specifications, along with the rifle's MSRP, tells me that Savage is building these barrels themselves. (I also asked, and they confirmed.) There is no other way to get that list of specs out the door for the price they're asking.
The gas system, twist rate and chamber, when combined with the low price, are all key reasons why this rifle offers a level of performance that has no competition. Quality barrel manufacture is certainly a key contribution, but the .223 Wylde chambering plays a pivotal role.
The .223 Wylde chambering means the Savage ARs can safely and accurately shoot .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO ammunition. The Wylde chamber combines the tighter .223 Remington diameter freebore with the longer 5.56 NATO freebore. The combination of tight and longer freebore is the magic recipe to premium accuracy, especially with longer, heavier bullets.
Stepping back, freebore is the portion of the bore forward of the cartridge case neck, prior to the rifling. Both the length and diameter of this crucial section of barrel must be understood to explain why the Savage rifles are so accurate.
The .223 Remington freebore diameter measures .224 inch. That means the .224-caliber bullet loaded in the .223 Remington case has no clearance once chambered. It's not an interference fit, but that is a really tight freebore dimension. The freebore distance
between the case mouth and the lead (where the rifling starts) is .04 inch. The upside to those specifications is that the bullet cannot yaw or get crooked in the chamber prior to entering the rifling. The bullet also doesn't travel very far before engaging the rifling, so pressures must be kept mild to avoid an unsafe spike.
The 5.56 NATO chambering has a freebore diameter of .2265 inch and a length of .070 inch. Those are sloppy specs that allow any garbage ammo to be stuffed into the chamber and fired with little concern about pressure. Accuracy will also be poor because the bullet has over .002-inch of additional diameter to yaw prior to engaging the rifling.
The .223 Wylde chamber combines a tight .2242-inch freebore diameter with a long .078 inch of smooth surface prior to the lead. This means bullets have very little room to get crooked prior to entering the rifling but enough runway to allow even long 77-grain bullets breathing room to avoid unsafe pressure spikes associated with short freebore dimensions of the traditional .223 Remington. The Wylde chamber really is the best of both worlds. Further, these barrels usually are found on rifles costing close to $2,000.
Under the Scope After testing both rifles, I wanted to know why they shot so well. Savage prudently chose the chamber dimensions, but a closer look seemed in order. Dusting off my trusty borescope, I gave both rifles a colonoscopy.
Sloppy chamber work is pretty easy to spot with a borescope. Dull reamers can leave chatter marks all the way from the case body to the bore's lead and can smear the rifling more than cut it. Accuracy will likely be poor, and such a barrel will inexplicably throw shots all over the paper.
Pushing the scope farther down the bore also allows visual inspection of the lands and grooves. Bores cut with a dull button or cut too fast will have chatter marks inside the bore. These chatter marks cause the bore to foul prematurely, and accuracy will rapidly decline. The Savage barrels on the Recon and Patrol showed smooth and sharp rifling, indicating that both tooling and rifling machine operator were more than proficient.
The barrel on each rifle looked identical. Chamber walls were smooth, and the lead had a nice sharp line that delineated the end of the cartridge case and the beginning of the freebore. The lead also had a sharp debarkation line with no smeared rifling, even at its most shallow points. The chamber work looked identical to that found on a high-end AR given a stainless steel barrel. It is extremely rare to see such good chamber work on factory rifles.
Burning Powder Savage made the prudent decision to use a mid-length gas system on these rifles. The mid-length system pushes the gas port in the top of the barrel an extra 2 inches down the bore. Since the action doesn't cycle until the bullet passes the gas port and pressurizes the system, the entire operating pressure of a mid-length rifle is much less than the more common and shorter carbine-length system. The extra 2 inches of bore gives the gas behind the bullet that much more room to expand, and pressures drop accordingly (Boyle's Law).
The lower operating pressure means the bolt and extractor don't have to work as hard to pull the fired case out of the chamber. The closer the port is to the chamber, the more pressure there will be in the chamber when the extractor tries to yank out the fired case. Longer gas systems, such as the one found on these Savage rifles, will have longer extractor and bolt life.
Savage didn't stop with putting a long gas system on the rifle; they also spent a lot of time getting the gas port sized correctly. Most AR-pattern rifles will have an H or H2 buffer that rides behind the bolt carrier group. The heavier buffers came into existence because the military was trying to slow the cyclic rate of the M4. More weight behind the bolt carrier group accomplishes this. Heavy buffers are also a Band-Aid for an incorrectly gassed rifle.
These heavy buffers continue to see extensive use in the commercial market because the guns that require them are overgassed, meaning the gas ports are too big and the bolts try to extract too fast. A heavy buffer slows that process down. It's not a big deal until parts begin to prematurely fail. The right answer is to use a smaller gas port and gas the rifle correctly. Savage has done this.
Rounds Downrange The smallest group fired came from the MSR 15 Recon while shooting Federal Gold Medal Match. It put five shots into a .57-inch group at 100 yards. I can count on one hand the number of ARs I've tested that posted a group better than that, and all of them cost more than twice the Recon. (The other rifles also had expensive aftermarket triggers.)
The Recon's AR Blaze single-stage duty (SSD) trigger costs $99 on the aftermarket from Blackhawk, but I couldn't tell the difference between it and the standard two-stage trigger in the Patrol. I even removed the triggers from both rifles to see if I could spot differences between the two, and, other than the lighter trigger spring in the Recon's, I couldn't. Hammer shapes were identical, as was the sear's appearance. In fact, I had to be extra careful where I put what on the bench so as not to mix them up.
Getting a .5-anything group with a standard hammer shape out of an AR-pattern rifle is highly unusual and indicates the Savage is truly able to stand toe-to-toe with the best ARs out there. I'm betting with a $200 trigger, which is what those other guns had, the Savage could shoot right alongside them.
The Patrol had no free-floated barrel and posted a best group of .7 inch with SIG Sauer's 77-grain Match load. It averaged just under 1.1 MOA, which is better than the overwhelming majority of quality ARs sporting free-floated barrels. Of course, the heavier contour on the Patrol helps and is why the rifle tips the scales at 61/2 pounds.
I am fortunate to have stumbled around the AR industry for the better part of 10 years and have seen and touched nearly all the best stuff. No one is offering more accuracy from an AR for less cash than Savage Arms.