August 04, 2023
It wasn’t long ago that AR-10-style rifles chambered for 7.62x51mm NATO were a topic of debate and admiration at shooting ranges and around campfires. Even Grandad, with his distrust of the “plastic” AR-15, could get behind Gene Stoner’s .30-caliber platform. Afterall, the .308 Winchester — the 7.62’s commercial counterpart — was a descendent of the two-time World War winner, the .30-’06 Springfield. As a military cartridge, the 7.62 NATO saw action in M14 rifles and M240 machine guns, among others, while the .308 Win. has been feeding Winchester Model 70s (and every other bolt action) since the early 1950s.
In the realm of personal-defense and self-reliance, Gunsite founder Col. Jeff Cooper championed the .308 cartridge as the ammunition for his Scout Rifle concept, an all-purpose bolt action. Among preppers and survivalists, the endless “if you can only have one” debate further encouraged the popularity of a magazine-fed .308, and semiautomatic options such as the AR-10 were heralded by tactically minded riflemen. Such platforms would be reliable game-getters and superior protection against two-legged varmints thanks to the greater capacity and rate of fire.
Around 2015, it actually seemed as if the debate was finished when DPMS, then part of the larger Remington family of brands, introduced the streamlined GII AR-308. Although Stoner’s original prototypes weighed less than 7 pounds, unloaded, commercial renditions with beefed-up components, longer barrels and additional accessories often tipped the scales between 8 and 9 pounds. As a result, the platform was criticized for its size and weight. The DPMS GII AR-308 reversed that trend by redesigning its legacy receivers, barrels and bolt assemblies with the goal of shaving ounces. The result was an attractive and highly functional semiautomatic .308 that, in its original configuration, weighed just 6 pounds, 14 ounces.
Case Closed, Right?
Not so fast! Just as it seemed we could all settle on a new generation of lightweight .30-caliber autoloaders, pairing the power of our favorite hunting rifles with the AR-15’s portability and familiar manual of arms, forces conspired to shake up the market. For one, a raft of metric sixes began feeling their oats. The 6.5 Creedmoor’s ascent shifted from slow-burn to meteoric rise. Too, autoloading cartridges meant to offer the AR-15 more “thump” engendered zealous support, including Bill Alexander’s 6.5 Grendel and Remington’s 6.8 SPC, which was once considered the military cartridge of the future. Finally, interest in commercial suppressors took off and .30-caliber autos that could be loaded for both super- and subsonic performance garnered special attention. J.D. Jones deserves credit for ticking those boxes with his .300 Whisper cartridge, along with Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) for taking the concept into large-scale production through its .300 ACC Blackout loads.
While space doesn’t allow for a longer discussion, suffice it to say the quest for the perfect rifle, if you could only have one, was far from over.
Small Frame Autoloading Rifle
Though no consensus for model or platform yet exists, I’d argue some basic parameters for an all-purpose rifle have emerged. First, we want a magazine-fed semiautomatic for easy ammunition management and firepower. Though we like the AR-15’s trim profile and familiar suite of controls, we’d prefer a chambering with more power and downrange performance than the 5.56 NATO/.223 Rem. Finally, although we don’t necessarily need it to be suppressor-ready, the ability to easily add a can would be nice.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Ruger’s Small Frame Autoloading Rifle (SFAR), a definitive contender if you can only have one.
Here’s the highlights, then I’ll describe it in detail: The SFAR is a gas-driven semiautomatic rifle chambered for 7.62 NATO/.308 Win. It follows the basic pattern for a lightweight — sub-7 pounds — AR-10, but it also includes a gas regulator to reliably function with a broad range of ammunition and suppressors.
At the heart of the rifle is the cold hammer-forged barrel made from 4140 chrome-moly steel and featuring 1:10-inch twist and 5R rifling. At launch, Ruger introduced two models of the SFAR, one with a 16-inch barrel — the subject of this review — and one with a 20-inch barrel. The 16-inch gun utilizes a mid-length gas system and weighs 6 pounds, 13 ounces, whereas the 20-incher runs on a rifle-length system and is heavier at 7 pounds, 5 ounces. All else is the same. The barrel has a durable black nitride finish, and the muzzle is threaded 5⁄8-24 to accept accessories. Included with the SFAR is Ruger’s two-port Boomer muzzlebrake.
Taking a close look at the gas system, the low-profile gas block utilizes a four-position regulator to control the amount of gas syphoned from the barrel and used to power the semiautomatic action. The faces of the rotary regulator are numbered and correspond to increasing amounts of gas. At “0”, or off, no gas is let into the system; the rifle will operate as a single shot and require manual operation to cycle. Conversely, the highest setting, “3”, signals the gun is running wide open. Most ammo is going to run well at setting “2”. Setting “1” is ideal when a suppressor is equipped. A channel in the handguard allows access to the regulator, and adjustments are made using the 3⁄16 ball-end wrench that comes stowed in the grip.
The SFAR utilizes direct gas impingement to cycle the action — no pistons used here. Gas syphoned at the gas block travels through the tube and into the bolt assembly’s staked gas key to push the carrier group rearward. A common experience when shooting direct-gas guns, particularly in large chamberings, is an unpleasant blast of escaping gas. As a remedy, Ruger added venting holes into the bolt carrier and through the barrel extension and upper receiver. The ports ensure that any gas not used to cycle the bolt carrier is evacuated forward.
The key to the SFAR’s relatively svelte design is its comparatively small bolt assembly, which appears closer in size to an AR-15 than the expected AR-10 components. Ruger was able to accomplish this thanks to the gas system and superior construction materials. Regulating the gas effectively ensures that the bolt carrier group and barrel extension aren’t being battered with every shot. Too, Ruger achieves greater durability by machining those parts from a high nickel content, high-strength, super alloy steel. Previously, to handle the large, stout, .308 Winchester cartridge, reciprocating parts had to be engineered bigger and heavier. Not so with the SFAR.
A detailed look at the bolt-carrier assembly, the carrier was chrome lined for durability and lubricity. The firing pin is titanium and features a diamond-like coating (DLC) finish. Finally, the bolt face features dual ejectors and a robust extractor. Rifles with components upgraded in this manner typically exhibit better-than-mil-spec reliability when it comes to feeding, firing, extracting and ejecting.
The upper and lower receivers are 7075-T6 hard-coat anodized aluminum forgings. The upper has a full length of Picatinny rail and an enlarged ejection port with a brass deflector. The lower receiver’s large angular magazine well, flared at the mouth, is the only external evidence that the SFAR offers with regard to its chambering. In all other respects, the SFAR looks like an AR-15. Controls are familiar fare, including the radial safety selector and bolt catch on the left side, magazine release and forward assist on the right. The charging handle is a touch better looking than a mil-spec component, and Ruger’s Elite 452 two-stage trigger is refreshingly clean for a production AR assembly.
As for furniture, the SFAR wears a lightweight 15-inch aluminum handguard. It’s a slick design with M-Lok slots on the 3-, 6- and 9-o’clock flats. Lightening cuts are throughout, and small portions of the rail are topside at the front and rear. The configuration accommodates the addition of sights and accessories without adding unnecessary weight or impeding a clamping support hand grip. The pistol grip and adjustable stock are from Magpul’s proven MOE SL line. Both the buttstock and the handguard have ports for adding a QD-style sling socket. Also from Magpul is the included 20-round magazine.
At the Range
I had a good feeling I was going to like the SFAR after pulling it out of the box, performing a functions check and giving it a few dryfire trigger pulls. I hadn’t done any research on the gun at that point, so I was assuming it had a standard trigger. Nope. Ruger’s Elite 452 delivered a consistent 4-pound, 3-ounce, pull with just a touch of takeup, a clean release and no overtravel. It’s not a high-end cassette-style drop-in unit, either. It’s just well made, properly dimensioned and well manufactured to prevent the grit and grind that characterizes many production ARs. Honestly, that trigger told me almost everything I needed to know about the gun: The SFAR has no frills, but is made of durable, well-made components throughout.
I mounted a Leupold VX-5HD 3-15x44mm riflescope and selected a variety of ammunition for performance testing. Included were Black Hills 168-grain boat-tail hollowpoint (BTHP); Lehigh Defense 152-grain Controlled Chaos (CC); and Remington Hog Hammer with a 168-grain Barnes TSX. I also brought Federal’s American Eagle 150-grainer for zeroing and familiarization fire.
Most noticeable was the lack of recoil. Now, .308 Winchester isn’t going to thump you, but a hundred rounds through a lightweight rifle could soften you up. Not in the SFAR. The combination of proper gas regulation, the Boomer brake and just enough weight in the gun made for a very tame shooting experience.
Given the nice trigger, low recoil and its cold hammer-forged barrel, I expected good, consistent accuracy, and the SFAR delivered. Five-shot groups at 100 yards averaged just more than 1 inch, but everything I fed the gun produced multiple sub-MOA clusters. It’s a gas gun, after all, not a fully bedded bolt action, so you can’t be surprised when a round or two wander a little and open groups up by a couple tenths.
The premise of the SFAR is to deliver .30-cal. performance from a .223-sized platform. Does it deliver? During my range session, I spent time doing common rifle drills, as I would with a home-defense AR-15. Holding the rifle at the low ready and shooting a couple magazines worth of one- and two-shot “Up” drills was a piece of cake. I even did a gasser I learned the SIG Sauer Academy: Keep the rifle up and ready while transitioning back-and-forth between shoulders with each shot until the magazine is empty. Maybe it was the fact that the SFAR feeds from a 20- rather than 30-round mag, but the exercise didn’t seem as taxing as I remembered.
Ultimately, the Mayodan, North Carolina-made SFAR in 7.62 NATO/.308 Win. is lightweight, low on recoil and built to last, just as you’d expect from any Ruger firearm. I enjoyed testing it so much, I’m planning to keep this one close. In my opinion, with a 1-6X scope, offset red dot and a .30-caliber suppressor, the SFAR sounds pretty close to perfect for an all-purpose rifle, especially if I could only have one.
- Type: Direct gas, semiautomatic
- Cartridge: .308 Winchester
- Capacity: 20 rds.
- Barrel: 16 in. (tested), 4140 CM, 1:10-in. twist
- Overall Length: 37.25 in. (extended)
- Weight: 6 lbs., 13 oz.
- Stock: Magpul MOE SL, adjustable
- Grip: Magpul MOE SL
- Length of Pull: 11 in. (collapsed), 14.25 in. (extended)
- Finish: Hard-coat anodized, black
- Safety: Two-position selector
- Sights: None
- Trigger: Ruger Elite 452, two-stage; 4 lb., 3 oz. (tested)
- MSRP: $1,229
- Manufacturer: Ruger, 336-949-5200, ruger.com
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