It was about 15 years ago when we first started seeing AR rifles chambered in .308 with any frequency at our local gun shop. But it was anything but an easy sale.
The .308 ARs were expensive and unreliable. Compared to typical .223 ARs, these big-boy rifles were loud, got expensive to feed, and seemed like small flamethrowers. With 20-inch barrels the norm, they were also heavy and unwieldy. While 16-inch barrels were possible, that was the limit.
Short-barreled versions were all but unheard of. Besides, most .308 SBRs didn’t work. Gas piston systems were barely coming into their own in .223, let alone 30 calibers. Hunting with an AR was still a relatively new concept; most any semi-auto rifle was considered “tactical” — a limited market at the time. For most, it was a special-order item at best, and many retailers simply would not carry them.
My full-time job as a police sergeant in charge of the SWAT team demonstrated the value in an accurate and reliable semi-auto .308 rifle. Bolt guns are great, but they have their limitations. A lightweight semi-auto with a 16-inch barrel allowed for versatility on active situations, along with certain deployments.
Improved ergonomics over the M14 — coupled with .308 firepower — were incredibly useful. Unfortunately, most testing over the last 15 years yielded less-than-stellar results. Reliability was spotty, especially with anything other than FMJ ammunition. Match triggers suitable for duty use were rare to nonexistent. Accuracy was not bad but was inconsistent. It limited sales potential to police agencies, and hunters and enthusiasts all but ignored them. It left me skeptical at best, if not antagonistic towards the offerings.
That was then. This is now, and times have really changed.
While getting reliable .308 ARs to the market has been slow over the last decade and a half, make no mistake — they are here. The last year has seen a marked increase in their availability and their viability as a retail product. Virtually every major manufacturer offers an AR in .308 Winchester now. When Ruger and Smith & Wesson sell them, you know they are commercially viable. Add custom builds and small companies to the equation and the list gets pretty long. Still, the real change has been in the rifles, and that is what makes them a solid platform for sale to some of the AR market today.
Selling guns that don’t work is a killer, especially for small retailers. Unhappy customers don’t return, and dealing with returns is costly and time-consuming. Telling your customer to “talk to the manufacturer” is easy, but it’s not a good way to gain their loyalty — essential for smaller gun stores.
Customer service is where it’s at these days, and you want to sell a product that works. When it doesn’t, you end up taking the time to get them one that does, eating up your minimal profit. Early .308 ARs were the poster child for this issue — not so anymore. The last dozen or so .308 AR rifles tested by Tactical Retailer have all been incredibly reliable, no matter the gas system used. Manufacturers have this dialed in.
Rifles from Colt, Ruger, DPMS, LMT, LWRC, Rock River, Sig Sauer and POF, along with several others, were all reliable. Colt’s 901S remains one of the most reliable direct impingement AR rifles ever tested. Primary Weapon System’s long stroke gas system has proven to be boringly reliable in barrel lengths from 12.5 to 20 inches, even suppressed, with just about every type of ammunition possible.
Rifles with 16-inch barrels or longer from reputable manufacturers or builders are as reliable as the .223 AR will ever get.
As a police marksman, accuracy is the holy grail of precision rifle shooting. Generally you get one shot and it must be precise. Any first-shot variance must be minimal. Cold bores (first shot out of a cold rifle) must be consistent.
Once the sole purview of the bolt rifle, that first-shot inconsistency has changed. Many ARs tested by Tactical Retailer rivaled or surpassed all but the most highly customized bolt rifles in first-shot accuracy and consistency.
In fact, many shooters winning professional sniper competitions are doing so with a semi-auto. Hunters are also seeing tremendous success at extended ranges using these guns. While most don’t “need” precision accuracy, many production rifles these days have it, and that is a huge change.
While shooting groups has little real-world relevance, it remains an often-used tool for comparison. Early testing yielded consistent 2-inch groups on the best rifles, assuming they worked for more than one magazine. More importantly, the next serial number in inventory might as well be a shotgun — another killer as a retailer.
At this point, I can’t remember the last .308 AR tested that did not shoot 1-inch groups (or less) at 100 yards. Manufacturing of barrels is just that good now. Production processes are state-of-the-art. My recent tour of Ruger and previous tours of Smith & Wesson, Daniel Defense, Armalite and others make that clear.
Tour the likes of Wilson Combat and similar custom builders and it might as well be an operating room. Consistent assembly of an AR using solid parts yields consistent accuracy, and most quality builders and manufactures have that all but mastered. Variance from rifle to rifle is minimal with accuracy far superior to most people shooting them.
Pimping Your Ride!
Selling guns can be profitable, but the money is in the accessories. Available accessories for .223 ARs are endless. Availability for .308 rifles used to be minimal to nonexistent.
But that’s changed significantly, especially in the last year.
Two recent custom builds made that pretty clear. For an upcoming Pro Series Precision Rifle competition, I was looking into building a 6.5 mm AR, a common winner on the circuit. Putting the rifle together opened my eyes to all the choices available in the market today.
Rails, barrels and matched receiver sets are all available with a number of choices. Barrels range from simple production to hand-lapped stainless steel and carbon fiber masterpieces. Parts quality at every level is solid, with high-end parts often machined to something approaching artistry.
Profit margins are commensurate with most AR accessories. You can meet most any of your customers’ needs, ranging from entry level to high-dollar custom builds. If you are a manufacturer as well as a retailer, that’s even better, since building these rifles isn’t rocket science. It requires some expertise, but it is nothing like building a precision bolt rifle.
Many retailers who are building their own rifle lines are seeing significant profits selling customized .308 ARs, and that is only going to get better. Offering receiver sets and parts for the do-it-yourself builder opens another avenue for sales. What has happened to the .223 market is slowly but surely happening to the .308-based AR, and that is good for all.
Retail Prices/Market Share
Pricing on these rifles has met in the middle when it comes to market forces. Rifles in general are more expensive, bringing the .308 closer to entry-level rifles in .223 or similar.
In 2000 a $1,500 AR was a very hard sell, if not impossible. Most of the rifles sold were under $1,000, some hovering around $600 or so. Even with the current lull in the AR market, the average price hovers around $1,000.
Current retail pricing on many of the entry-level .308 rifles is similar. Upselling to a .308 is not nearly as difficult as it was before. Even ammunition pricing has leveled out a bit, and the disparity in price is far less than in years past.
It’s also a much broader market in general. Politically correct terminology aside, the platform is more accepted than ever. They are almost prolific amongst target shooters and enthusiasts, and it’s a boon of hunters for sure.
While .223 rifles remain varmint guns, the .308 provides legal and ethical hunting of most medium game and even larger game. Hunting ammunition is prolific and military surplus is still available, with many companies making affordable practice ammunition.
While it will never catch up to the .223 market, the .308 AR category is growing steadily with no real slowdown in sight. Given the rifles we’ve seen for testing, it would appear popularity of the .308 is generally growing, while the .223 has leveled off at best. It might not be “exploding,” but is definitely a market to watch and look closely at getting into more fully.
Which Gas System Is Best?
So, what should retailers stock — piston or direct impingement? With a couple of exceptions, DI rifles seem to offer advantages for the average consumer. They offer excellent accuracy, solid reliability, lower weight and a significantly lower price.
Most buyers simply do not need the advantages a piston rifle offers, particularly in this caliber. Rifles offered by the likes of Rock River Arms, Colt, Armalite and others will meet or exceed the needs of 90 percent of your customers. General prices on these guns seem to hover around the $1,500 mark, making them more affordable to most customers.
Accessories tend to be more compatible since they generally fit a similar pattern. Overall they are marketable to a broader range of consumers. They also reach the very high-end market where a precision AR is needed. Building and tuning a precision AR in .308 is just a ton easier and more consistent using a direct impingement system.
For those looking for shorter barrels or reliability under really harsh conditions, the piston guns can be a plus. Accuracy used to be an issue, but that has all but disappeared. Recent testing of both the HK MR762 and Sig Sauer Precision 716 dispelled any myths concerning the accuracy of a piston-driven .308 rifle. Groups in the .3-inch range were possible with both. Primary Weapons rifles often yield .5- to .75-inch groups, even with 13-inch barrels.
Piston guns run cleaner as a rule, and if you are going to add a suppressor or shorten the barrel (or both), they offer some advantages. Honestly, the biggest drawback is cost, which can sometimes be twice as much as a DI gun. If your consumer needs it, it is all they will buy, but it remains a product for a smaller margin of AR rifle buyers. My suggestion would be to sell DI as a primary product, with piston rifles as an option.
Here To Stay
There is little doubt the AR market is currently experiencing a slowdown; some would call it a crash. This is anything but new — this market always fluctuates with politics and marketing.
While much slower than last year, the AR market still remains pretty strong. Once the sole purview of police agencies, it is turning into the everyman rifle.
It’s hard to argue with the ergonomics, simplicity and design. Caliber choices abound using the .223 platform, ranging from 22LR to .458 Socom.
That has pretty well played itself out, leaving the .308 platform as the new frontier. LMT offers a barrel in just about every .308-based cartridge on the market for their MWS system. Many of the 6.5 calibers are ruling the competition realm, as well as medium- to long-range hunting. These rifles are lightweight and soft shooting and offer endless possibilities for customization.
At the very least it is a market that deserves some serious consideration for the retailer. Manufacturer support has never been better, and consumer interest is high. If you are looking for another way to offer choices for your customers, the big-boy AR might be just the place — at the very least give it a serious look.