Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Extar EXP-556 AR15 Pistol Review

Extar EXP-556 AR15 Pistol Review

I know what you are thinking. The AR15 pistol is the hard core party fratboy of the AR15 family and consequently most only think of it as the toy of the AR15 family. Generally the relationship ends with dollars worth of .223/5.56 ammo spewing from the pistol’s ejection port producing a grin from ear to ear. 

Yeah, you gotta love the party frat boy, however would you be surprised if I told you it could be your next precision hunting handgun, a very effective personal defense gun with one simple modification, or a perfect survival/hunting pack gun that will fit in even small day packs? Surprised? What was more surprising was the level of innovation that you simply would not expect on a $449 street priced polymer firearm marketed to the masses.  I will be very frank, I never expected to go all nuts over a short barreled pistol format AR15, however let me tell you this gun changed my mind when I was delivering nice little .25”-.5” 25-yard groups

EXTAR has teamed up with New Frontier Armory to distribute the EXTAR. I ordered one of the EXP-556 AR15 pistols and had it shipped to my local gun dealer where I completed my paperwork and skipped home with my new pistol.  With a few exceptions, essentially the EXP-556 is more or less a standard AR15 chassis with the obvious absence of a buttstock and very short 8.25" barrel. 

It should be noted that this is not a short barrel AR15, it is classified, manufactured, and registered as a pistol and converting it to a rifle could create significant legal (read that as jail) headaches for owners.  It is and forever will be a pistol even if you start swapping out parts, however never ever, ever, ever attach any type of shoulder stock to this pistol or it will immediately be considered an ATF controlled Class 3 Short Barreled Rifle which requires a whole bunch of registration stuff at the Federal level which is legal but expensive and time consuming. To further prevent someone from attaching a stock, the EXTAR has a molded in rear mounting plug which secures the rear buffer spring housing, prevents someone from inadvertently attaching a stock, or using the lower on a rifle package. As is, the EXP-556 pistol is a whole bunch of fun and utility all wrapped up in a small little pistol format AR15 package.

I reviewed the New Frontier Polymer Lower receiver back in early 2012 (see review here and it surprised me a bit on how great it worked. As I look back, it actually performed far better than some of the badly made lowers that have now flooded the market and worked just as well as the best I own. The only real difference was that it was polymer and a whole lot lighter and less expensive.  

Fast forward and now New Frontier has updated the receiver's features to include a single sided safety selector which will now operates just like a standard AR15 version which means it "cannot be switched into safe after the hammer has been dropped,".  Similar is the design on the EXTAR. The lower receiver features an extended trigger guard, and a few other minor cosmetic and structural updates.  

The fit similar to the original lower design, which means there is a bit of sharp flashing here and there from the molding process, however nothing a razorblade could not take care of in about 2 minutes. The black molded in color will not chip, fade, or come off, and matches well to standard Type III anodized upper recievers. In this case, the EXTAR EXP-556 has a new unique proprietary upper and lower (with the molded in buffer tube plug) for the pistol which eliminates the need for a short or extended buffer tube.  It does it via standard direct impingment and without the need for a heavy piston system. The end result of an all polymer upper receiver, polymer handguard, polymer based charging handle, polymer lower, polymer trigger assemble, polymer Mission First Tactical grip, and short proprietary bolt is stunningly light 2.98lb AR15 pistol.  Compared to anything else in the industry, it is the lightest by over 2lbs and the shortest by 6”-8” and it does it all for $449 which is about a third of the Rock River LAR-15.

Part of the genius of the design it the heavy reliance on an adjustable gas block which allows a minimally long and very light bolt to function perfectly with just a small top piggy-back riding spring hidden under the tall upper receiver.  The adjustable gas block allowed EXTAR to tune the gas way down to deliver only the required gas pressure to cycle the now much lighter BCG and lighter tension buffer spring. It all works marvelously… actually brilliantly. Obviously moving away from a standard AR15 upper design also required moving to a side charging format. A reciprocating polymer/steel hybrid charging handle on the left/weak hand side provides fast and efficient charging of the EXP-556.   To further improve control, EXTAR added a very aggressive muzzle brake.

Takedown is a bit different though as the front pivot on the upper just hooks into the lower pivot pin. All that is required for takedown is pushing out the rear take-down and sliding the upper off the lower.  I found having the hammer back and on safe worked the best for this process. Disassembly will produce a unique short bolt/carrier, spring, and charging handle; everything else looks just like your regular direct inpingment AR15. Up front is a combo front sight adjustable gas block with a stabilization/alignment tube running between the block and upper receiver. This tube simply assures the front sight remains aligned and the direct impingment gas tube remains in the same place it always has been.

Ergonomics were great thanks to the Mission First Tactical grip and polymer forend. The polymer forend worked perfectly and shielded the heat generated from magazine after magazine of ammo.

When we look at all the polymer on this AR15 pistol I have to take pause and realize this is a pretty groundbreaking accomplishment from a design perspective.  Heck, not only could this gun give an H&K MP5 pistol a run for its money, if this same design had a 16” barrel and folding buttsock, you have a a mighty fine AR rifle format that could be tucked handily away in all sorts of places.

I shot the EXP-556 single handed, however the general consensus was that a significant accuracy advantage was delivered via an extended grip with the support hand gripping the magwell. The one big feature missing on the pistol is a single point sling mount, however I believe one could be mounted to the rear buffer tube cover and a front swivel stud and a picatinny rail could be added easily if needed as well. Ideally, I would like to see EXTAR offer a replacement rear buffer tube cover bolt with an integrated single point sling mount, QD-sling mount, or ring.

During testing I left the adjustable gas block alone, however later on I played around with it a bit and found that I would turn down the gas pressure a bit more with certain loads. For most, I would leave the setting where it sits to assure reliability.

I had zero reliability issues and it feed just like you would expect any other AR15 platform, chewing up over 300 rounds on our first day at the range.  From a setup perspective I would recommend mounting the scope mount bolts to the ejection side to avoid interference with bolt charging. A nice optional extra would be an extended charging handle was offered for scope users.

The muzzle brake is HIGHLY effective however also REALLY freaking loud and generates a HUGE 18” fireball apon firing. At dusk, we found ourselves asking "did I hit it, I lost the sight picture in the fireball". For non-defensive shooting, the brake delivers single handed squirt gun level recoil, however I would move to an effective flash hider for defensive use to kill some of the fireball. The stock muzzle brake makes a blast to spew mag fulls of 5.56/.223 rounds downrange.

Included in the very nice custom foam cut box was the EXP-556, a steel mil-spec 30-round magazine, and instructions. Already attached and zero'ed was a rear peep sight that worked extremey well to drill a lineup of pop cans and golf balls at 25 yards, but not scoping the pistol is doing both you a and the pistol a huge diservice.

Following that party boy image, most AR15 pistols are a lot of fun but are generally thought of as less than accurate big boy toys.  I was definitely in that mindset before I was shooting at, and hitting, golf balls at 25 yards offhand with the stock front and rear drift adjustable peep sight. What convinced me more was installing an EOTECH 912 on the top and printing a nice tidy little 1” group at 25 yards.

What convinced me the most of the accuracy potential slipping on a Leupold 4X handgun scope and watching the EXTAR EXP-556 deliver 25-yard .25”-.5” groups from the sand bags all with just Military XM193F Ball (FMJ) ammo. I printed a sub-1” group at 50-yards and was even able to hammer the 300-yard gong 10 for 10 with just a 4X scope. After spending some time with a higher quality Winchester PDX and Hornady match ammo, I increased accuracy by about 20%-25%.

Throughout testing, I found myself scratching my chin and muttering, "I am pretty sure you could hunt with this". In fact with this accuracy, you easily could. My other testers both noted that it was plenty accurate for hunting especially with the Leupold 4X mounted. One of my testers noted that it would be an outstanding coyote/varmit gun with a bipod added, because in reality you only get one shot at them anyway, so the muzzle blast and concussion is irrellevant, and it could deliver the power over a longer range in an easy to carry package.

I ended up zeroing at 20-yards which put zeros roughy 6” high at 50-yards, 8” high at 100-yards, 12” high at 200” (where we were ringing the 8” gong) and dead on at 300-yards. Honesly I never though I would get the accuracy I saw or I would have set up at least a 75-yard zero. That 20-yard short range zero and the lower velocity from the barrel definitely impacted the trajectory, however correcting over to a 100-yard zero would provide a pretty flat shooting trajectory out to 200-yards which is a realitic range for a hunting pistol.

Maybe I have convinced you with the frat boy fun, stunning low price, reliability, innovative design, and accuracy; on the other hand you might need a bit more convincing. Despite that beer can crushing party boy image, the AR15 has some extremely redeeming and interesting qualities.

First is its power and capacity which in this case delivers an impressive energy level somewhere around a .41 S&W Magnum which has a power level between a .357 Magnum and a .44 Magnum and of course it can accept 5-round to 100-round magazines. That is a whole lotta power in a 3lb, 18” overall length gun. When in bear country, would this not be a really good option?

The size, weight, capacity, power, and accuracy make it a really interesting option for a bug out and survival gun. Not only can it be easily stowed in almost any small pack fully assembled and even loaded (if you have a concealed carry permit), but could also be an excellent defensive firearm at both short and long distances. Concealed under a longer jacket via a single point sling, the EXP-556 is clasified as a pistol and could be considered your CCW pistol.  The only modification I would make is a swap out the muzzle brake for an effective flash supressor to reduce or eliminate the giant 18” muzzle flash ball and the requirement to wear safety glasses when shooting the gun gangter style from the waist. Depending on your needs a 2x Leupold scope would provide a lot of utility, however go a little ninja and add a small laser for close defensive ranges.

Suppressed the EXTAR EXP-556 AR15 pistol and you have a very quiet little solution for a variety of situations including varmint hunting and even unsupressed the gun could put meat on the table, varmits in the ground, and a smile on your face all at the same time as a very fun hunting gun.

The $449 MSRP will pull you in, the 2.98lb weight will sell you, and the accuray will make you love the EXP-556. As a long-time handgun hunter, this gun very quickly moved mentally from a fun gun to a hunting tool.  I mean seriously this thing weights the same as a loaded 1911 and is 8" shorter than any other AR pistol on the market ... how can you not love it.

It is far from subtle and quiet however neither is my Thompson Center 30-30 pistol, however it is small, light, high-capacity, and accurate all while being quite innovative and inexpensive. In these times, it is hard to ask for more in a gun I have found to be more versatile than most would ever think.

Lightest 5.56/.223 Pistol In The World
Made In USA
Compact Design With No Buffer Tube
Ergonomic Pistol Grip
Integrated MIL-STD 1913 Picatinny Rail For Easy Mounting Of Optics And Accessories
Extremely Low Recoil – Can Be Held And Shot With One Hand With Virtually No Muzzle Climb
Crisp Trigger Pull Of 5.5 Lbs
Reversible Safety To Accommodate Left Hand Shooters
Why Pay Extra For Parts? Comes Standard With Front Anti-Slip Free Floating Hand Guard And Muzzle Brake!
Integrated Winter Trigger Guard

$449 MSRP
Model - EXP-556
Type – Semi Automatic Gas Operated Pistol
Caliber - .223 / 5.56 NATO
Magazine – Standard MILSPEC AR-15 Magazine
Weight (Unloaded) – 2.98 Lbs (48 Oz)
Weight (Loaded W/ 30 Rd AR-15 Mag) – 4.06 Lbs (65 Oz)
Overall Length – 18” (45.72 Cm)
Barrel Length – 8.25” (20.96 Cm)
Barrel Length Including Muzzle Device – 9.25” (23.50 Cm)
Barrel Twist – 1:9 Standard ½-28 Threaded Barrel With Included Recoil Reducing Muzzle Brake
Width – 2.25”
Fixed Sights -- Sight Radius Of 12.38” (31.43 Cm)
Pistol Grip Screw – 3/16” Standard Hex Head



Unknown said...

I want one , I want one..... did I mention I want one ..... will these ever be at gun shows.. or would it be best to go through mail order/dealer?

Unknown said...

When did you receive yours? Mine came with a Tapco mag , not a steel one. Also do you know of anyone that has suppressed one yet?

Major Pandemic said...

Carl - I would just order direct
Zack - Mine came early Oct. I don't know of anyone who has suppressed one yet.

Sckarekrow said...

No buffer tube = no sig brace
No sig brace = no practical value, or use
Little more than a novelty gimmick. No deal.

Unknown said...

I was curious if you had shot this much more and how its held up. I am contemplating ordering one but am not convienced. Sure, would be nice to spend half as much as I would on a Sig 556. Also, have you tried to take the break off?

Unknown said...

I have one. I have one. It's just as Pandemic says, they're friggen awesome, with and without the SIG brace. Oh, yes. I also have the SIG brace.

Unknown said...

I used their Tactimount and an aluminum tube to custom fit a Shockwave arm brace to mine.

Cooper said...

Do you know where I can find an upper receiver for a extar exp 5.56