Avoid Rookie Mistakes With Your AR-15 Rifle


A flexible, modular design and decades of robust sales have pushed the AR-15 to the top of long gun heap, making it America’s favorite rifle. But while it may look easy to operate, many novice users make a number of rookie mistakes with their AR.

In competitions, these mistakes can cause embarrassment. If you’re using your AR-15 for self-defense, these kinds of unforced errors can cost you far more than a bruised ego.

John Boch for TTAG

I volunteer as a range officer at an annual zombie shoot every year. I see all manner of skill sets on display ranging from needing lots of improvement to quite competent. Garrett, the 13-year-old pictured in the top photo, captured first place using good fundamentals and avoiding novice mistakes.

How can you avoid unforced errors with your AR-15?

Sight in your rifle

No, not everyone does this very basic step. Use a 50-yard zero which will put you roughly dead-on at ranges from 25 yards out to 300 yards. Using a 50-yard zero, your shot will never impact more than 3 inches high or low at those distances with typical loads and barrel lengths, which is more than enough precision for minute of zombie head shot.

The choice is yours, but whatever you do, sight in your rifle. An un-zero’d rifle may not save your bacon when you really need it. Plus, errant shots can become huge liability issues if you use the rifle in a self-defense situation.

Bringing an unsighted rifle to a competition just wastes everyone’s time, not to mention the shooter’s ammunition (and money). I saw one fellow fire two full magazines and fail to hit a single clay bird at 25 yards. At least we didn’t need to reset targets after that performance.

If you don’t shoot well, seek out training. Project Appleseed provides exceptionally affordable marksmanship and American heritage shooting events across the USA. For less than $100, an Appleseed event will show you how to shoot your rifle well using nothing more than a sling. Can you shoot to the Rifleman’s standard, 4 minutes of angle? Excuses don’t count.

Don’t understand the minute of angle measurement? Just another reason you should attend an Appleseed shoot.

Lubricate your rifle

I didn’t see a single dry rifle successfully complete the course of fire, which required breaking exactly one dozen clay pigeons at 25 yards and a single reload. Next to bringing a rifle unsighted to the line, shooting a bone-dry AR was the most common rookie mistake. While the dry ARs didn’t malfunction much in shooting only 30 to 60 rounds, novices who brought dry guns to the line also tended to bring all manner of other issues which led to poor performance.

An AR-15 rifle requires proper preventative maintenance, and to run reliably, your AR needs lubrication, and lots of it. Just like your car’s engine.

Break the rifle open, pull out the bolt carrier group and spray it until it shines like a freshly glazed donut. Don’t have spray lube? Use any brand of lube you have available. Anything from used motor oil (use the dipstick) to cooking oil to suntan lotion will work if you don’t have gun lube. Pat Rogers’ nearly 20-year-old article “Keep your Carbine Running” should have a place on every AR owner’s required reading list.

Without lubrication, you can expect malfunctions to begin within the first few magazines. And they’ll only get worse and more frequent until you lubricate your rifle.

At the same time, don’t get wrapped around the axle about cleaning your AR-15s every time you shoot. Even a dirty rifle with lubrication will run reliably.

In my Pat Rogers class long ago, he had a sample rifle that had fired well over twenty thousand rounds since its previous cleaning. Every morning and every afternoon, Rogers would break the action open, hose down that bolt carrier group with whatever lube or CLP someone had handy and that rifle ran flawlessly. Rogers did it to show us that proper lubrication was far more critical to an AR’s reliability than cleanliness.

Load your magazines to 28 rounds

Yes, your milspec magazines will hold 30-rounds. You might even manage to shoehorn in 31 in there if you try really hard. But that doesn’t mean you should.

AR-15 magazines

Dan Z. for TTAG

Smart AR users load their mags to 28 rounds which allows for reliable seating against a closed bolt. I saw numerous malfunctions this past weekend, as I always do. Seems like every one of those came from improperly seated magazines.  When loading, insert the magazine loaded with 28 rounds, then strike the mag’s baseplate with your palm to ensure it’s seated properly.

Know your weapon’s manual of arms

Another common problem plaguing novices involved weapon controls. One fellow dumped his magazine trying to release the safety on his AR-15. Other shooters found the trigger wouldn’t work with the safety engaged. Inevitably, these people would always look at the rifle as if to ask, “What’s wrong?” chewing up valuable time. Thank heavens their targets weren’t hungry for human flesh…and didn’t shoot back.

In addition, a surprising number of shooters cycled the bolt on a loaded chamber after reloading, wasting both time and ammo.

shot timer

John Boch for TTAG

The zombie shoot required shooters to engage three “zombies” at each of four stations, while not shooting “uninfected” targets. And they had to perform a reload somewhere along the way.

Thirteen-year-old Garrett won the rifle division with a time of 43.25 seconds (39.25 plus a four-second penalty for two extra shots). He beat dozens of grown men, not by operating operationally, but by using good fundamentals. And not making rookie mistakes.

Unlike a number of the men he was competing against, his rifle and accessories didn’t set his dad back a couple of thousand dollars. He ran a fairly basic setup with a Chinese knock-off optic. But he executed the fundamentals of stance, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control and follow-through…good habits that he’d ingrained through practice.

Garrett performed the basics well enough to win. You can too.



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