Once upon a time I built my first rifle. I set out to build a super light weight do it all rifle. It turned out 6lbs 11oz with my chosen optic and I thought it was awesome. Until I actually used it to train with. My super lightweight weight rail would rotate when I applied force to the vertical grip. This caused my back up irons never stayed zero’d and the pencil profile caused my groups to open up quickly and significantly while shooting.
I was frustrated, so I built another gun. This gun would be heavy duty, no rotating rail here. It was awesome, until I used it in an all day carbine course. It wore me out because it was heavy. Front heavy in particular. I was frustrated again, while it was an awesome gun it was unbalanced and a chore to use. Transitions were slow and holding it up for an extended periods of time sucked.
So I built another gun, my Mini- Recce. It turned out perfect (mostly). It was 12 ounces lighter than the heavy duty gun, but well balanced and fast handling. In this article I’m going to lay out my thought process on building a lighter weight “go to” gun. Where to save weight, where to skip saving weight, parts I like to run, and generally how to build one. I will frequently make reference to the parts used in my own Mini- Recce and why I picked those parts.
Defining a “Go-To” Gun
Lets define a A “go-to” gun. This is the gun you grab when things go south. In my mind its a rifle that can do close stuff as well further stuff. A 0 to 300 yard gun that isn’t out of place in most situations. In the end you have to make a determination on what your gun is built for. A guy who builds a gun for longer distance shooting will build a his rifle differently. For our purposes its a well rounded gun that can make hits from CQB distances out to at least 300 yards, and will run any ammo, and run even when dirty or fouled.
The Operating System
You need to start with a good operating system. This means a good bolt carrier group, a good gas block and gas tube, and a quality buffer and spring combination. For this purpose I cannot recommend an adjustable gas block as to me its just extra parts to break, something to potentially come out of adjustment, and extra variables. You can however run a lightweight gas block. I have a titanium Battle Arms Development gas block on my gun. It saved roughly an ounce of weight and it saved it on the front end of the gun.
I also do not recommend a light weight bolt carrier. I want the gun to run even when dirty and lightweight carrier will be a compromise. I run a full weight bolt carrier from any of the many good manufacturers out there.
I run a standard buffer spring and the heaviest buffer that allows the bolt to lock back on an empty magazine. It must lock back on the weakest load you will run. This is best for your recoil assembly. I run a VLTOR A5 system for the widest possible operating envelope. It runs clean or dirty with weak ammo.
Here you can save some weight. I cannot recommend a polymer lower as that is a significant durability concern under prolonged and repeated use. You dont want your lower receiver breaking at the worst possible moment. There are many great lighter weight receiver options on the market such as 2A armament, V7 weapon systems, Hodge defense, and many others make great lighter weight options that do not sacrifice durability. I run a 2A armament lower receiver with a Sons of Liberty Gun works upper (picked because of the tight tolerances and having the Anti-Rotation pin hole already drilled).
This was an area I wasn’t willing to sacrifice a lot of weight. There are a lot of super light weight skeletonized rails out there, but they can be bent, rotate, or may not allow your irons or lasers to hold zero under heavy use. My first gun had a super lightweight handguard but it shifted easily and I guarantee that if I dropped it hard enough, then it would bend.
For my Mini-Recce I went with a Triarc trilock rail. Its a variation of the wedgelock rail system developed by Jim Hodge. Several manufacturers have recently licensed this setup from Jim and its an extremely well thought out / engineered setup. The rail will not rotate and Clamps extremely tightly to the barrel nut. Its harder to move than a fat guy in a buffet line. Its also thiccc enough (yes that’s thiccc with 3 “c’s”) in the areas that matter so that you will not bend it and it will not cause zero shift.
Here is another area where some weight can be saved , but you have to be careful. The first gun I built was super light weight in large part because of the pencil profile barrel. The front end on that gun is light, but after a short string of rounds the barrel starts to heat up and the groups open up significantly. Nothing like missing shots at 300-400 yards because your groups opened up 2-4 moa. Here I sacrifice on the lightness and opt for a medium weight barrel in the taper of your choice, though I favor keeping the weight toward the chamber. A tapered profile or one that keeps the weight more toward the chamber handles heat better and also balances better.
When it comes to the barrel I am also a big fan of running the shortest possible barrel length for the given distances the gun will be used. For 0-300 yards this means a 12.0-13.9 inch barrel to me. It is my opinion (I am no professional mind you) that people often run to long of a barrel, thinking they need 14.5 to 16 inches of barrel to shoot out to 300-400 yards. While the velocity doesn’t hurt, its not worth the extra weight or length to me. On the Mini-Recce I went with a Lothar Walther medium profile mid length gas barrel and had it cut to 13.0 inches.
The Small Parts
This is an often overlooked area where weight can be shaved. A lot of small parts can be made of aluminum or titanium instead of steel to shave some weight. The mag catch, takedown pins, safety levers, etc can be made of lightweight materials and save 2-4 ounces over traditional stuff. I wouldn’t recommend polymer parts but aluminum and titanium work among other things. Small parts can add up.
Open sights are obviously the lightest weight option for sighting, but scopes or red dots are the primary sighting system for most shooters. Either one can be used to make hits out to 300, so in this instance the preference is left to the end user. The weight of scopes is often over looked. While a great scope, the Vortex Razor HD 1-6 is heavy. Even the gen 2 E weighs in at 21.5 ounces. In contrast some of the Luepold 1-6 options weigh in at 17 ounces, 4 ounces is not an insignificant amount to shave from a gun. Why save all that weight elsewhere and then ruin all that hard work with an enormously heavy scope. The mounts can also add significant weight. It’s worth paying a bit more attention to weight when selecting your optic and mount. I went with a Steiner P4xi 1-4 in an Aero precision Ultralight scope mount.
Putting it all together
When everything was said and done my Mini-Recce weighed 12 ounces lighter than my Heavy duty gun. It was much better balanced and faster handling than the heavy duty gun as well. Even with an optic system that is 11 ounces heavier (Scope and mount versus Eotech) the gun feels infinitely better to run and gun or do drills with. If you haven’t built a lighter weight rifle I encourage you to build one and see the massive difference that shedding 4-12 ounces from a gun can make. A lighter weight and better balanced gun can feel dramatically different and change the way you put together builds.