Saturday, May 9, 2015

Samson MFG Evolution KeyMod Rail Review

I recently completed my second full AR-15 build (my first "modern" one since my last one was a Vietnam era repro) and I'm slowly working through reviews of the various parts I used.  About a week ago I posted a review of the installation of the 87 Industries PinBlock pinned gas block.  I'm happy to report that 800+ rounds later, it is still firmly attached and it functioned flawlessly.

Samson on the left, Troy on the right
One of the accessories I was really excited about testing was the Samson Manufacturing Evolution KeyMod handguard.  There were a couple of reasons for this: I've never used a modular handguard before, always a quad rail handguard; and this rail installs completely differently than my other free-float rail, so it was a chance to compare the two.

My other free-float handguard is a Troy Industries MRF-12" CX.  It installs utilizing a two part clamp and has an opening to fit around the fixed front sight base of the Colt 6920 it is installed on.  The biggest downsides to this design are diameter and installation.  Comparing the two rails, the Samson is simpler to install and has a much smaller felt outside diameter (while still maintaining a large inner diameter). 

Now that I can choose my own AR accessories (as opposed to having them dictated to me by a list from HQ), I've come to realize several things.  First, I like long handguards.  I have freakishly long arms and I feel like I get much more control when my vertical foregrip is located farther out on the rail than your standard CAR handguard allows.  For the record - yes, I do still run a VFG; I do not do the Costa/Haley/MagPul hold (although if you personally run the C-clamp or whatever it's called, the extended rail is also a plus for you).  Second, since I no longer run all the accessories I did in a previous life, the need for four continuous rails just fails to present itself in all but the most exceptional situations.  Removing those three extra rails not only lightens the handguard, but also makes it much more comfortable to grip and makes the accessories I do decide to attach fit closer to the handguard, leading to less protrusion and snagging.  Third, a free-floated extended rail lets me run my new favorite gas system (mid-length) while still keeping the extended rifle+ sight radius for my irons. 

With all this in mind, the 15" Evolution that I installed fit the bill pretty much perfectly.  It's lightweight, coming in at only 12.8 ounces, and is incredibly easy to install.  The packaging only contains four pieces: the rail, two bushings, and an Allen wrench.  If you watch the online installation video, installation should take you approximately 10 minutes from the time you open the package to the time you complete the install, and 7:26 of that is watching the video.  If you're an idiot like me and choose not to watch the video, it may take a little longer since you'll have to remove the improperly installed handguard, watch the video, and then re-install it (I put the thermal bushings on upside down).  Just watch the video...

I was initially concerned about the rail wobbling on the rifle after I installed it.  I mean, the rail literally dropped onto the rifle with no need to bang it or anything.  It freaked me out.  However, 800+ rounds later, there is zero evidence of movement in the rail.  The mounting system is very simple.  There are three screws that hold the rail - two to tighten it down, and a set screw to prevent any forward movement.  There are no torque specs for the rail.  The clamping area has two wings that the screws run through and tightening the screws down enough to make the wings touch provides all the pressure needed to keep the rail from moving. 

Speaking of simple mounting, the Evolution utilizes the standard AR-15 barrel nut.  I am a huge fan of rails that keep it simple like this.  Granted, removing a barrel nut isn't that hard, but removal and installation do require a few specialized tools (barrel wrench, torque wrench, breaker bar, and moly grease), and many first time AR owners may not have these on hand.  Many handguards that have a proprietary nut also have a proprietary tool to install said nut, so now we need another tool.  If you decide to switch to a different rail later, now you need another proprietary tool.  Plus, you're not just talking about removing the barrel nut, you also have to remove the gas block, and maybe your muzzle device as well, so you're talking about more tools, more time, and more money.  Are there some awesome proprietary rails?  Absolutely.  Can you get a rail that will do what you need it to do without all that hassle?  Um, yes, you're reading about one right now...  In fairness, the Evolution does require a low-profile gas block as opposed to a FSB, but more and more rifle/upper manufacturers are offering low-profile blocks as a factory option, so it should be very simple to find one that fits your needs.  If you build your own (which I did), it's even simpler.

Other features of the Evolution rail are its ability to fit a suppressor under the rail, just in case one of your Grail guns happens to be a Honey Badger build (which mine is).  If you run a gas piston system, especially the Adams Arms system, the Evolution was built with piston systems in mind and has the necessary clearance machined into the upper rail.  You still need to double check with your kit maker, as there are variations between the different gas piston kits, but it should fit most of the current piston systems.  Also, in addition to the KeyMod mounting system at the 3, 6, and 9, Samson's Evolution accessories will fit the "S" cuts in between for even more mounting options.  As a side note on the KeyMod slots, the handguard has a continuous curve throughout its circumference, which means there is a slight curve even on the KeyMod section as opposed to some rails that have a flat surface for accessories to press up against.  I mounted two different KeyMod accessories on the rail for my class - a Bravo Company sling mount and one of their Gunfighter Mod III vertical grips.  I noted zero movement in their placement with the curved surface.  Once my Elzetta light gets here, I will mount it and check for fit as well. 

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Evolution KeyMod.  I think it's a great rail for someone who is looking for a sturdy, easy to install option.  This is going to be my go-to gun for receiving and giving training from here on out, so I'll let you know about its performance as I continue to push it.

About the author:

X Echo 1 is a 10 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team.  He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer.  He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US.  He can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

87 Industries PinBlock update

For those of you who read my article on installing the 87 Industries PinBlock gas block kit, I'm happy to report it has over 830+ rounds through it in the last week, with zero malfunctions and no movement of the gas block or the pin.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Installation review of the 87 Industries PinBlock Low Profile Gas Block Kit

So I've been looking for an excuse to build a new upper for a while.  In fact, I've had a Bravo Company blem upper sitting in my garage for a good year probably, just waiting for a use.  So when I found out I was going to get a chance to review one of Samson's Evo rails as part of Operation X, I got pretty excited.  Finally, the excuse I was looking for!

I've always admired the look of a 16" barrel with an almost full-length handguard, so I chose the Evo 15" KeyMod.  Naturally, now I needed a low profile gas block to go with it.  My personal preference runs to pinned gas blocks.  I've met several people that told me stories of their set-screw secured gas blocks relocating, especially when used with a suppressor, and my eventual goal is to have many suppressors.  Plus, I'm old school, and I figure the original gas blocks were probably taper pinned for a reason (although that reason may have been that set screws never crossed Eugene Stoner's mind, I don't know).  Naturally, I headed to the interwebz for some research, and I came across a review by Modern Service Weapons of the 87 Industries PinBlock Low Profile Gas Block Kit.  There were other options available, such as the Vltor low profile and the Black Rifle Disease pinning jig, but the 87 Industries intrigued me because it came with everything I needed to pin it for the same price as a non-pinned gas block.

The kit contains the gas block, set screw, dowel pin, gas tube pin, hex wrench, drill bit, and red threadlocker.  I know, I know, I said this was a pinned gas block kit, and it is, but the set screw and threadlocker are to keep the gas block in place while you drill it.  Instead of utilizing a jig, 87 Industries has machined a small dimple into the side of the gas block to give you a solid starting point for your work.
You can see the dimple for starting your drill bit at the bottom of the block

It took me almost three months to actually get around to installing the gas block, mostly because I was petrified of drilling my barrel.  I don't have a drill press, and this is the first time I've ever tried pinning a gas block.  Thankfully, not only does 87 Industries make a great product, they also have great customer support.  I used their contact form to ask my questions (Can I hand drill this? Why is there a weird gap between the shoulder and the gas block?), and I got a reply back from the "Guy in Charge," Blaine Wilson.  He quickly answered my questions (yes, you can hand drill it, and the gap is there to allow for a handguard cap if you want one), and it was pretty cool to get an answer from the top dog.

Once I actually got around to starting the process, it was very simple.  My barrel came with a dimple for a set screw, so in accordance with Blaine's instructions, I put on the threadlocker and tightened the set screw down into the barrel dimple.  After letting the threadlocker cure, I moved on to drilling the block.  Honestly, I'm not really sure what I was so worried about.  The block's dimple provides a solid starting point, and if you start your drill off slowly, you can avoid the skipping that is common when starting a drill at high speed.  I used my standard corded Black and Decker drill for the install.  The biggest worry I had was keeping it straight, so I utilized my wife as a spotter.  The drill bit moved through the block and barrel easily so long as I maintained steady pressure.
The dimple provides a reliable starting point for drilling
The drill bit was more than up to the task

After drilling the block, it was a simple matter of driving the dowel pin home with my punch set and making sure it was roughly even on both sides.  Once I had it set, in went the gas tube and I was good to go.

The dowel pin went in with about the same amount of effort needed for a standard roll pin
Dowel pin in and ready to go
I plan on finishing my build tomorrow and getting it to the range later this week to test fire and zero.  The install went very smoothly and only took roughly 30 minutes to an hour, even with the photography.  Right now, I'm very impressed, and I think that the 87 Industries PinBlock kit deserves a serious look for any home builder.
Almost ready to go!

If you want to check it out or purchase one for your next build, head over to 87 Industries.

About the author:

X Echo 1 is a 10 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team.  He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer.  He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US.  He can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

X Echo 1 Pistol Skill Builder - 25 April 2015

The next X Echo 1 class is scheduled for 25 April 2015 at C2 Shooting Center, Virginia Beach, VA!

This course is targeted to beginner to intermediate shooters. It is designed to take shooters with a basic skill level and introduce drills that emphasize the fundamentals of marksmanship while incorporating additional skills such as malfunction clearance. If you are an intermediate level shooter, the same drills will apply, but you can challenge yourself with them. The course will cover intermediate level pistol techniques such as:

Marksmanship fundamentals drills
Holster draw
Slide-lock and tactical reloads
Malfunction drills
Multi-target engagement
Barricade shooting
Shooting while moving

Required equipment:

3+ magazines
Magazine holder for at least 2 magazines
Sturdy belt
Eye/ear protection
Firearm lubricant
Cleaning kit
Food (there are no quick local restaurants)

Optional equipment:


Required ammunition:

Minimum of 500 rounds

Bring clothes suitable for the environment. Class will go on as long as the range is open, whether rain, snow (it is Virginia), or shine, so plan accordingly.

Cost is $150, and there are only 8 slots available! Message X Echo 1 with your full name and email address to sign up!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to Threats: Cooper, Boyd, Combat Hunter, and the Combined Theory

This article was first written by me, in two parts, for the RE Factor Tactical blog.  Although it was originally published under a pen name, I am the author.
Every day, we face threats in our lives. Whether a police officer, soldier, or simply a civilian heading home from work, there is always a possibility that danger will enter our lives. These threats could be something as simple as an erratic driver on the road, or as complex as a multi-assailant home invasion. As such, it is supremely important that we be able to spot and react to these threats. Three simple principles - Colonel Jeff Cooper’s “Color Code,” Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop, and the Marine Corps Combat Hunter program – combined with your body's inherent threat recognition can greatly enhance your ability to see and react or avoid dangerous situations.  In the next two posts, we'll look at these principles and see how they work together to make you safer.

Colonel Cooper's Color Code

In his book Principles of Personal Defense, Colonel Jeff Cooper introduced a four-color system to symbolize the varying levels of situational awareness. Loosely summarized, these levels are:

Condition White – relaxed and completely unaware. This is most teenagers that own smart phones, and most people I’ve seen at the mall on any given day. Many people also assume this condition in a familiar place, such as their home, which may or may not be acceptable, depending on the location.

Condition Yellow – relaxed but aware. These individuals do not anticipate a specific threat, but are observing those around them for indicators. This is the minimum acceptable level of awareness in the public sphere, especially when carrying a firearm.

Condition Orange – potential threat identified. The individual begins to focus more specifically on the possible threat, attempting to ascertain intentions. An attack from the potential threat is expected, all that is needed is a trigger.  If possible, evasive actions are taken to avoid the potential situation.

Condition Red – threat verified. The individual executes the necessary response to the threat, up to and including the use of lethal force.

Some instructors also teach a Condition Black, which was not part of Cooper's original system.  Condition Black is a complete shutdown of an individual's ability to respond due to surprise or overload (in the scheme of fight, flight, or freeze, Condition Black is a freeze).

Colonel Boyd's OODA Loop
Author's depiction of the OODA Loop

The OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) Loop was developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, an exceptional fighter pilot and strategist. In its most basic interpretation, it is a decision making cycle that allows the individual – be they soldier, armed citizen, or corporate tycoon – to react to their rapidly changing environment at a faster, more effective manner than their opponent. While the OODA loop is often portrayed as a simple closed loop that must be performed faster than a given opponent to succeed, Boyd's diagram offers a more in-depth model than most people realize.

In the Observe phase, the individual stays alert, scanning the environment for changes or indicators of danger. If the individual is not alert to their environment, the Loop will fail.

In the Orient phase, the individual filters the observed changes and indicators through their previous experiences and mental models to analyze and synthesize actionable plans. This is where a variety of “tools in the toolbox” comes into play. The more reference points you have to draw upon, whether from training, personal experience, or reviews of lessons learned from others, the more likely you are to be able to formulate multiple working plans for any given set of perceived threats, and the less likely you are to fall into the dogma trap.  Relying on a single tactic or experience for all possible threat scenarios will cause the Loop to fail.

In the Decide phase, the individual must choose the best option from the working plans formulated in the Orient phase. This decision will be imperfect, as waiting for all the possible information needed for a “perfect” decision would require waiting on the threat to develop until it is virtually too late to respond. Having visualized or practiced a variety of tactics and responses before the threat scenario occurs (war-gaming) allows the decision to be made faster, sometimes even subconsciously.

In the Act phase, the individual implements the chosen course of action.

Throughout the OODA Loop, there is constant feedback. No formulated plan is set in stone. There must be flexibility to adapt as additional observations enter the equation. Also, as shown in the diagram above, pre-briefed triggers or SOPs can shortcut or bypass the Orient and Decide stages, allowing individuals or units to move directly from the Observe to the Act phase. While this will shorten response time, it should be used sparingly, as those triggers or SOPs must be regularly reevaluated to provide up-to-date responses to an ever-changing environment.

For an excellent article on the OODA Loop as it relates to higher-level decision making outside of the personal defense arena, see an article by the Art of Manliness.

The Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program
The Combat Hunter program was developed by the Marine Corps in early 2007 on order from General James Mattis.  Mattis realized that Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan were essentially in a reactive state when fighting the insurgents - they would patrol, but often times they were letting their guard slip, following set patterns, and they didn't know how to recognize threats in the crowds that often surrounded them on their patrols.  Mattis directed the development of a program that would instill the same qualities in his Marines that a hunter would use when stalking their prey.  The Combat Hunter program focuses on four main aspects: 
  1. Observation: be able to effectively use day, night, and thermal optics to observe and survey their operating areas, collect information and report to higher.
  2. Combat Tracking: be able to see, identify, interpret, and follow tracks.
  3. Combat Profiling: once the 6 Domains of Human Profiling are understood, they will be able to proactively identify baselines and anomalies which will drive their decisions.
  4. Combat Policing: be able to understand the basic principles of policing, how to effectively interact with the local populace during an insurgency, and the dynamics of Criminal and Insurgent networks.
For our discussion, we are focused on the Observation and Combat Profiling portions of Combat Hunter.  No, we don't possess the sophisticated night and thermal observation devices that the Marines do, but we have our senses: sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing.  In our day to day lives, we depend on those senses to warn us of danger.  In their book Left of Bang, authors Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley, both former Marines, spell out the 6 Domains of Human Profiling that can take your observations to the next level and help you make threat decisions that could save your life:
Graphic by author. Content Copyright Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley.

Graphic by author. Content Copyright Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley.

As you observe your environment, you keep in mind these six domains, constantly asking yourself: what do the behaviors exhibited by the individuals I am observing tell me?  Does an individual seem to be in charge or dominant?  Do others act submissively toward or treat an individual with deference?  Are people avoiding a particular location, route, or person?  Is an individual displaying the involuntary physiological signs of excitement or nervousness?   Are people pulled toward or pushed away from a person or location?

As you ask these questions, you must compare your observations to a baseline, or what is normal for the environment you are in.  If you frequent an area, whether because you live, work, play, or patrol there, you get an idea of how people act, how people move, and who the "bosses" are.  You must be ever vigilant for anomalies, or changes that fall above or below the baseline.  Is a normally busy shopping center or intersection suddenly empty?  Are the people who inhabit that area suddenly showing deference to an individual who doesn't appear to belong?

In the Combat Hunter program, these observations drive the Combat Rule of Three.  According to the authors, if you have any three of the above indicators, you must make a decision (Baseline + Anomaly = Decision).  In Left of Bang, they describe only three possible decisions: Prepare to kill, Capture, or Make Contact.  For a civilian going about their daily life, these would obviously be different.  Your average civilian does not capture or detain individuals, although a police officer or security officer might.  Police officers or security officers may also make contact in order to question an individual, where as a civilian may choose to simply evade that individual unless unavoidable.  Preparing to kill, however, is a reaction that military, police, and civilians may have to make, although the criteria under which they may make the preparations would differ.

For more information on the Combat Hunter Program, visit the CP Journal.

Tying it together

So how do these three schools of thought tie together to benefit you?  As you've already seen, observation is a key to all three, and rightly so.  As author Gavin de Becker points out in his book The Gift of Fear, our bodies' intuition is usually right in two ways: when you get that "feeling," it is in response to something, and that "feeling" is your body's way of trying to warn you.  Intuition is also always learning as you add experiences, constantly modifying its responses.  If any of this sounds familiar, you may have been paying attention in the Orient section of the OODA Loop.  Humans, however, often marginalize their intuition, or interpret it wrongly.  If you are in Condition White, even though your intuition may try to warn you of danger, your lack of active awareness will more than likely cause you to marginalize, rationalize, or even outright ignore that warning.  

If I were to create a diagram that shows the relationship between these three systems, it would look like the diagram below.  Call it the Combined Theory of Situational Awareness.  Keep in mind that this diagram is specifically oriented toward self-defense, and doesn't necessarily apply to some of the other ways OODA could be used, such as corporate decision-making.

Your observations made in Condition Yellow (Kinesic, Biometric, Proxemic, Geographic, Iconographic, and Atmospheric) are oriented through your prior training and experiences (you compare your observations to a baseline looking for anomalies) to detect possible threats.  If a possible threat is detected, you move to Condition Orange, evaluating the threat through continued observation and orientation while developing and deciding on a plan of action.  You may also develop a plan to avoid the potential threat altogether and implement that plan.  If the threat is confirmed, you go to condition red and act on your chosen plan of action, which may include the use of deadly force if warranted.  While it sounds (and looks) complicated, having already developed a baseline, having a large "toolbox" to draw from, and constantly mentally war-gaming can make this an almost subconscious process.

About the author:

X Echo 1 is a 10 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team.  He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer.  He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US.