What is Mil-Spec?

milspec1

I still cringe when I see a so-called "expert" on TV put in a position to discuss firearms, how they are used or the Second Amendment. And when someone I want to like starts dropping gun terms popularized on the silver screen to sensationalize events, I put hands to my face and begin leaking a whiney shrill of disappointment while melting to the floor like Oz's Wicked Witch of the West.

Working at the National Rifle Association, I became a believer in the doctrine to advance people's understanding of their gun rights. Unfortunately, many people are turned off by what is being said if what they hear triggers emotions.

Though as a young Marine I used the word as frequently as those of the four-letter variety, I learned to avoid saying "weapons" as a label for firearms. With an added awareness, I began noticing that people arguing for an anti-gun position insisted on using the word for its negative connotation, even if to describe a hunter's shotgun or plinker's .22. When I began to think of the meaning of the word, it wasn't hard to understand the negativity behind it.


A weapon can be a knife, a hammer — or even a fork! A weapon can be anything used to inflict harm or cause physical damage. When someone in the media uses the word, they are intentionally avoiding an opportunity to specifically describe something that is otherwise an inanimate object or tool. Our choice of words does matter.


In August 1998, I graduated the U.S. Army Ordnance Training Center's armorer school in Aberdeen, Maryland. There, small arms repair instructors stressed the importance of using proper nomenclature to describe each assembly, sub-assembly, small parts and their operation in making up a firearm.

I was trained to build, troubleshoot and repair several variants of the M16 rifle and M4 carbine, all of which I came to know in further detail before leaving the military. Embarrassingly, I unintentionally placed an order for a rush shipment of 136 FN-made M16A3s before leaving Iraq.

I was trying to get my company's rifles up to condition code A before my unit lost its combat priority status. Rather than relaxing before shipping home, a misuse of nomenclature on my paperwork resulted in a rotation of exhausted and upset Marines having to share two weeks of guard duty for a container of brand-new rifles that had arrived to my attention in Kuwait. For me, that was a lesson learned: Pay attention to the details.

Now, more than a decade later, I'm still tripped up when I see or hear the misuse of a word. Perhaps "Mil-Spec" gets to me the most because it is so often used incorrectly to describe a component that was never approved for military use. Wait, let me back up.


Mil-Spec is an abbreviated term that stands for "military specification." For a firearm to be Mil-Spec, every aspect has to meet criteria defined by the military to often include dimensions, materials, testing of parts, etc. A Mil-Spec part and/or small arm system is ultimately approved by a U.S. government inspector.

A Mil-Spec firearm and its components must be evaluated and certified by the government for it to be Mil-Spec. In the case of false advertising, I loathe gun manufacturers who apply the term to parts or firearms that mislead consumers for marketing purposes. It's easy to see that companies are not offering civilian-legal Mil-Spec ARs because the military's feature Mil-Spec select-fire automatic or burst trigger systems.

I see and hear a lot of gun experts label a company's basic trigger as Mil-Spec. Even some of my colleagues do it. What they are describing is a semiautomatic-only trigger assembly that is not in the military's system. There are several different makes and designs of these basic triggers, so it is unfair to generally describe a heavy or gritty trigger as simply being Mil-Spec. There's more to a Mil-Spec trigger assembly than a single disconnector.


To this day, I love working on ARs and creating clones of all types of modern-day small arms. Though I tend to go deep in the minutia of finding correct government-issued bolt carrier groups and accessories, all I ever end up with is a copy that's not Mil-Spec. The closest civilian-legal clones to a current-issue Mil-Spec AR are the Colt LE6920 starting at $999 (colt.com) and the new FN 15 Military Collector M4 and M16 models for $1,749 (fnamerica.com).

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