Arguably, one “Big Dawg” is the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent who is called on to go into harm’s way on a regular basis and does so worldwide.
In 2002 and 2003, the DEA held selection trials, jointly conducted by members of both the FBI and DEA Firearms Training Units (FTU), as well as their armorers/gunsmiths. The request for bid went out to all manufacturers of ARs; some chose to respond, others did not. Rock River Arms, Inc. was the winner, but the identities of the runners-up were not disclosed.
In July of 2003, while at the DEA FTU, I was able to handle – but not fire – the winner, the Rock River Arms LAR-15 rifle. However, six months later, I did get a T&E sample.
Up Until Now…
As background, prior to Rock River Arms winning the contract to supply the DEA with its Model LAR-15, DEA special agents primarily had two long guns from which to choose – an M16 in .223/5.56 NATO and a Colt AR in 9mm. (Some Heckler & Koch MP-53s in .223 were in inventory, but not regularly issued.) Both ARs had been OK in mission specific applications, but the advantages of a single long gun chambered for .223 looked to be a better answer – both for field use and administrative needs – such as simplified training and the required qualification which has to be done with each firearm issued.
What Makes It Special?
The RRA LAR-15 Model started out as the Rock River Arms Model CAR-4, a flattop rifle with a removable carry handle which attaches to the Picatinney rail on the receiver and a flash hider on the 14.5 inch chromed Wilson barrel, mounted with an A2 adjustable front sight. Rock River then followed the specifications as outlined in the government’s request for bid. The final approved package includes the familiar AR adjustable post front sight, flash hider and a Rock River six position, straight-line, collapsible stock and Hogue rubber pistol grip, as well as the SureFire M73 four sided Picatinney rail handguard and SureFire M951XM05 tactical light. (The contract specified that the vendor would be the sole source supplier of both the rifle and accessories.)
As to the new SureFire light, it has both end cap and “pigtail” wire and pad pressure switches to allow the individual user to best position the light as he sees fit. The SureFire forend has three rubber covers which snap into the unused rail sections, making the forend more comfortable and stable in hand.
The specified EOTech holograph sight Model 552 Series, with night vision interface, mounts to the receiver’s Picatinney rail. A flip up GG&G Back-Up Iron Sight (BUIS) was in the package and is mounted to the receiver rail when the EOTech sight is installed. The iron sights can be used with the optic in place for backup…just in case.
The collapsible Rock River stock is straight-line retractable and can be locked into any of six positions to better fit a user’s size and/or body armor. The Viking sling can be mounted at the toe or around the top of the rear of the stock.
No Rock ’n’ Roll Allowed
The LAR-15 has one significant “omission” – there is no full auto capability. This is a matter for a stand-alone discussion. It’s worth noting, however, that, while the LAR-15 is described here as the “DEA rifle,” the testing and contract is for a rifle to be supplied to both the DEA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). This latter agency has long issued the Heckler & Koch MP-5 in semiauto only to its field agents.
This lack of full auto mode is not a hindrance (in my opinion) to the special agents’ effectiveness since they are in law enforcement, not warfare, and, as such, are legally and morally responsible for every round fired. “Collateral damage” – wounding or killing of noncombatants – is not acceptable. Add to this the fact that the special agent can only carry a limited amount of spare ammunition; factor in the cost of training and maintaining full auto skills (and the hyperawareness of the need to make sure the full auto capable weapon isn’t stolen), as well as a large body of experience indicating that full auto fire is not effective; then this semiauto only “restriction” just makes sense.
Sling It Aside
Now, going to a possible gunfight, the best place to have a gun is in hand, but this is not always possible or practical. The long gun needs to be slung, just as the handgun is holstered. To do this slinging well, the LAR-15 wears the Viking Tactics Quick Adjust Sling, Model VTAC MK1. The sling is designed to work with the DEA agents’ mode of carry which is muzzle down beneath the off shoulder. This requires the sling to go over the shooting shoulder, across the back and out from beneath the off arm. The rifle is brought to the firing position by grabbing the forend with the off hand and pushing the muzzle toward the threat, with the shooting hand assisting.
The Viking sling is designed to do this and also has a quick adjustment tab. By pulling on the tab’s attached 550 para-cord lead, the sling can be adjusted with one hand for length and tightness. This allows it to be tossed over a shoulder or head and the tab can be pulled to tighten it. This is a pretty slick setup – and quick. The downside, for me, is that when the sling is tightened, there’s a sling “tail” dangling. Given my propensity for catching parts of me and my clothes on things, I’m sure I’d easily manage to trap this “tail” in (and on) everything. I specifically asked about this on my first exposure to the rifle, but was assured this had not been a problem for those testing the setup.
Finishing off the package is a very sturdy Eagle brand carrying case containing six, 30 round magazines with the new green followers. Inside the case are four mag pockets and two VELCRO® strips to hold the gun in place. A GI cleaning kit is also included.
My Favorite Part of the Testing Process
The Rock River Arms LAR-15, after being so configured, was delivered to the “trials” held by the DEA/FBI team which are simply brutal. The trial consists of two parts. The first phase should be termed, “Let’s see if we can break it” or “Is it ‘Marineproof’?” Technically, this phase determines durability and reliability. Of note, after the completion of each segment, the rifle is required to feed and fire 20 rounds from the magazine without malfunction.
As I understand it, the tests begin with a number of sample rifles from the same manufacturer being disassembled. The parts are mixed, the guns are reassembled; then they’re shot. I do not know the exact order, but, at some point, the rifle undergoes the FRISBEE® test, where a sample is thrown 15 feet to land on concrete – once on each side and starting from a height of four feet. After this, the gun, held at the same height, is dropped six different ways on the concrete.
In addition, the rifle is cooked and chilled. It’s put in a box and the temperature is raised to 120° F and lowered to -20° F. Each temperature is then held constant for an hour, after which the previously mentioned function test must be passed. The rifle also gets a saltwater and a sand test – then it is function fired again.
The second part of the test mandates that the rifle fire 5,000 rounds; again, without malfunction. Accuracy, velocity and bullet dispersion are monitored during this test and must stay within prescribed ranges. The Rock River Arms LAR-15 passed every test and Rock River was awarded a five year contract to supply both agencies.
My Testing Regimen
Fortunately for me, the sample I received was not one of the test guns…it still looked good. Since I’ve written extensively about the DEA, their training, their testing and their guns, any “endurance” test I might do would be a joke. But, it doesn’t hurt to cut the cards anyway. I didn’t have any sand or saltwater, but I did have snow and cold. I left the assembled LAR-15 in 15° F weather for a few hours in my SUV and then loaded and shot it with no malfunctions. I also managed, without hurting myself, to get the sling to work as previously described.
The cold weather highlighted another feature – the six position stock. I’m no longer in the body armor wearing environment, but, dressed for the cold weather, I found I needed to collapse the stock one click so that I could get behind the gun enough to use the EOTech sight. (The sight’s batteries and holographic display were not affected by the cold, either.)
The LAR-15 is not ammunition sensitive in the least. I shot at least 50 rounds of each of the following brands and bullet shapes through the gun. Almost all of my shooting was limited to close quarter battle work, firing singles, doubles and triples from 25 yards and using the EOTech sight. While I didn’t have any of the DEA duty ammo (Federal 62-grain Tactical Bonded), I did have some 55-grain Federal American Eagle loads, the DEA’s training round. I shot this, as well as Hornady 55-grain U-MAX, Hornady 60- and 70-grain TAP, Winchester 40- and 64-grain JHP, Cor-Bon 52-grain JHP and 40-grain Blitzking, as well as Remington 55-grain UMC and 62-grain JHP.
I had used the EOTech sight previously, but, on the LAR-15, the EOTech sight mounts low and the A2 iron sight doesn’t fold out of the way. The front sight assembly was blurrily visible, but, rather than being a hindrance to CQB work, I found myself looking through the EOTech sight and using both the blurry iron sight and/or the red holographic display. The brightness is adjustable, which I needed since I was shooting in bright sunlight on a snow covered range.
I didn’t expect any malfunctions and had none on my first range visit. The second time out, I did have a failure to fire, but it was operator induced…I had incorrectly reassembled the firing pin in the bolt.
I installed the SureFire light at the six o’clock position since this was the only location for the light which allowed me to get my hand around the handguard. With the light so placed, I could easily push the end cap with the edge of my off hand and, with the trailing pigtail pressure pad switch VELCRO’d to the side of the handguard, I was able to use fingertip pressure to turn the light on as long as I could grasp the handguard.
As far as the light being too long, this is a case of “be careful what you wish for.” SureFire followed the government specifications exactly as to configuration, controls and brightness with the result that the light body is just a bit too long. I was told that SureFire is currently working on getting the light a bit shorter.
I found an alternative “cure” by mounting an Instrument Technology, Inc. M3X light in the same location and now can get my support hand around the forend – as I’ve done for decades (old dog, no new tricks). If you want a full grip, but also the SureFire light, only use one of the two mounting cross pins on the light base which puts the light further out on the rail.
All in All
Obviously, since the LAR-15 won the trials, it’s a good product. My various quibbles with sling and light will probably not be unique to me, but they’re easily curable. What we have then is what I’ve observed on repeated visits to (and with) the DEA firearms unit instructors (special agents who rotate in and out of this assignment): They know what is needed and won’t settle for second best with arms which will be used to solve life or death problems. When it’s “guns out and press triggers” time, failure is not an option!
And for the Rest of Us
NOTE: Subsequent to getting the LAR-15 for T&E, I realized I liked the setup and wanted to do some extended shooting with it – basically hanging other accessories on it – but the test sample had to go back to Rock River Arms. Chuck Lawson of Rock River suggested their Government Model which has almost all of the same features. (Rock River is not permitted to mark the rifle “DEA.”)
The Government Model has a 16 inch barrel with a permanently mounted muzzle brake and comes with one eight round magazine and the previously mentioned carrying case (but the rifle is a bit long for the case). The EOTech sight and SureFire handguard and light remain. Pending the sunset of the 1994 Assault Weapons Law, the telescoping stock now does not. It’s a fake and, as such, there should be no question as to the legality of possession, ownership or transportation which, not coincidently, fits the requirements for an individual officer or nonsworn civilian purchase. (Incidently, Chuck mentioned that Rock River will permanently shorten the fixed stock for a better fit, if requested.)