Special Purpose Rifles

Special Purpose Rifles

The “Apocalypse Gun”

A lot of guys have fun talking about “apocalypse guns.” Some of this is aesthetic, and most of it is impractical, since the odds of a zombie apocalypse coming to a town near you are vanishingly small.

But even without an apocalypse, there is a dimension of practicality to apocalypse conversations. In an apocalypse, you’re likely going to be moving. Ammunition will be scarce, and you’ll likely need to be able to use what you can find — which is to say, what’s common. Weight will matter. And unlike a military mission, you won’t really be sure what use you’ll be using this for. Ambush? Counter-ambush? CQB? Hunting? Mountain warfare? Urban sniping?

Again, real Armageddon is a bad bet. But it draws out the question: “if you had to pick one rifle, what would it be?” And that can be a very practical question, because unless you’re a professional soldier, there’s a good chance you won’t have the time or the money to develop proficiency with multiple guns. All firearms junkies — including the newest gear-pushers — will say the same thing: training is key. But we can’t all be professional soldiers. We have families to feed and bills to pay. If we want to develop the basics of soldier skills — Striker talents at range — we might have to get economical, and choose one gun to develop those skills with.

There are all kinds of reasons for choosing one rifle over another. But one I want to put on the table that many people haven’t heard of before is the Special Purpose Rifle (SPR).

What is an SPR?

Back in the late 1990s, American Special Forces expressed interest in developing a medium-range accurized rifle that could reach out past the normal effective range of the M4. In 2002, the Navy came out with the MK-12, a semi-automatic Designated Marksman Rifle chambered in 5.56, and effective out to 770y.

The MK-12 isn’t the “perfect” SPR (back then SPR stood for “Special Purpose Receiver”), but it was the first of this concept, a kind of blend of sniper rifle and standard infantry rifle. This particular rifle grew into a more general class of rifle, which we loosely call SPRs today.

The characteristics of an SPR are, generally:

  • AR-15 chambered in 5.56/.223
  • 16″+ free-floating barrel
  • Magnified optic
  • Bipod

As a rifle, SPRs are best understood in comparison to other rifle set ups.

At close-range, you have a Personal Defense Weapon (PDW). These are your Uzis and TP7s and MP5s, or even your pistol brace kits. Their purpose is close-ranged defense, so compactness is king. They are usually foldable/collapsible, and are usually chambered in 9mm or .45 (though 300 blackout has started to overtake the role due to their shorter barrels).

A little bit more capable but less compact, you have your Short-Barreled Rifle (SBR). These are your MK-18s and M4s (10.3″ and 14.5″ barrels, respectively), very normal military-grade rifles designed for close-range combat, but capable of medium-ranged engagement. To suit this distance, they’re usually going to have a red dot sight, or even just iron sights.

This style will also include your Honey Badgers and other 300 Blackout-chambered rifles.

A General Purpose Rifle (GPR) is likely going to have a 12.5″ – 16″ barrel, and designed for engaging at slightly further distances. This is likely going to have some kind of Low-Powered Variable Optic (LPVO) or a roll-over magnifier, giving the shooter magnified sights usually from 1x to 3x/4x/6x power vision. It’s not as compact or maneuverable as an SBR, but it works well out to 400y or so.

Finally, the SPR. The SPR has a magnified optic, from 1x-8x on the low end to 4x-16x on the high end (most sit around 2.5x-10x). It has a bipod for more stable shooting at longer distances. It is the least compact, but the most capable at range, shooting standard ammunition accurately out to 600y, and more expensive, heavier rounds out to 800y.

Beyond these, we have the AR-10 and the Bolt-Action Rifle.

The AR-10 functions similarly to the AR-15s, but is chambered in .308 or a similar, larger cartridge. They have a heavier frame, bigger magazines, and (significantly) heavier and more expensive ammunition. A good .308 can reach out to around 1100y, but to take advantage of that range usually requires more serious optics — something more in the 3x-18x, 4-16x, or 5x-25x range.

The Bolt-Action Rifle is not semi-automatic at all. It’s mechanical simplicity makes it both reliable and extremely accurate (potentially), since fewer moving parts means fewer points of motion or failure. Popular for hunting and conventional military sniping, Bolt-Action Rifles are usually chambered in more hunting-capable (bigger) cartridges, from .308 up to 300 Winchester Magnum.

If you could only choose one, which would it be?

The Case for the SPR

If you’re a hunter, the obvious answer is necessarily going to be the bolt-action rifle.

But in an actual apocalypse, hunting is probably not going to be a dependable source of food… just as it isn’t today. And today, hunting isn’t necessary for food, even though it’s extremely rewarding and virtuous.

If we can only have one gun, what’s more essential in a rifle than hunting — even though it is less common and in a sense less practical — is martial capability.

When laws are of no concern and you have to put food on the table, a 5.56 rifle can and will do the job. Chris McCandles killed a moose with a Remington Nylon 66 — .22lr rifle — for survival. Legal caliber concerns aside, a 5.56 can get you meat.

But in a combat situation, a bolt-action rifle is going to be more limited. It’s hard to clear a room with a bolt-action. Most fire-fights are won more by volume of fire than by accuracy. Inside of 400y, it’s hard to give any kind of volume of fire with a bolt-action.

For training, bolt-action calibers tend to be more expensive and kick more. Men scoff at the idea of kick, but too much recoil can cause even tougher men to develop flinches if they’re shooting a lot. Developing good form can permit you to shoot heavier loads when necessary, but it’s hard to develop that form while shooting something large like a 300 Win Mag.

AR-10s suffer similar cost-problems, plus AR-10s are notoriously less reliable than either bolt-action rifles or the more standardized AR-15. Both the gun and the ammunition are heavier, and tend to have lower-capacity magazines, due to the larger size of the rounds themselves.

And both the AR-10 and the Bolt-Action Rifle don’t work well in close quarters.

The SPR is not as good in close-quarters as an 10.5″ barrel and a red dot, but as with hunting, it can do the job. Many military snipers cleared buildings with their Mk-12 while maneuvering to their hide, or simply helping out with a mission.

But if the sniper was armed with a 300 Win Mag or even a .308, odds are he moved to position and helped room clearing with a secondary weapon chambered in 5.56 or 300 Blackout.

(Close-quarters maneuvering is especially doable if the suppressor has a quick-detach mount — most modern suppressors have a quick-detach, rather than direct thread).

In the form of a rifle built for sniping, but which can work close-quarters, the SPR provides a true “jack of all trades” platform. It is a rifle you can take to basic rifle courses and practice close-quarters engagement, and also something you can practice — and even compete with — at longer ranges.

It isn’t the cheapest way to set up a rifle initially. But one rifle is still usually cheaper than two or three, and a reliable rifle you’ve taken the time to understand, train with, and test out will be more valuable than half a dozen that sit unused in a gun safe.

And a 5.56 chambering makes it cheaper and easier to make that training happen.

Setting Up an SPR

There are innumerable ways you can set up your rifle. Based on your own needs, preferences, and setting, it might make sense to make something else.

But if you are going to build an SPR, there are plenty of good resources for what people do and why.

Jim’s Goon Life attended and filmed a Ridgeline Defense course specifically on SPR use, where they talked about setting up their rifles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UsV1L4lGjrs

Brass Tacks and Hoplopfheil discuss their experiences building SPRs from a more civilian perspective: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XfFbxf3XFY

My own build is the budgetiest of budget rifles in this class, but it’s still a blast to shoot and (in my own limited judgment) still performs really well:

  1. Palmetto State Armory 18″ .223 Wylde Upper ($390)
  2. Palmetto State Armory Lower (doesn’t matter  which kind) ($140)
  3. Larue MBT-2 straight-bow trigger ($80)
  4. Streamlight Pro-Tac weapon light ($120)
  5. Vortex Diamondback FFP 4x-16x Scope ($400)
  6. 30mm scope level ($30)
  7. Magpul MOE Bipod ($90)
  8. Yankee Hill Machining Turbo-2 5.56 Suppressor w/ QD mount compensator ($400 + $80 compensator + $200 tax stamp)
  9. Palmetto State Armory Nickel-Boron Bolt-Carrier Group ($100)
  10. Ozark Armament offset iron sights ($40)
  11. VTAC Sling ($50)

All of this comes out to about $2,120.

You can easily make it pricier depending on your budget. A Bravo Company upper receiver, a Nightforce Optic, and a Geissele trigger would quickly turn this rifle into something professional or even competition quality.

The budget version still isn’t cheap, but it’s at least affordable to many.

That’s basically it.

But beyond functionality, one final point in favor of the SPR set up is that they’re tremendously fun. Reading books from military snipers (like Ryan Cleckner’s Long Range Shooting Handbook), it’s striking how consistently these shooters speak fondly of their Mk-12s specifically, as if it was their favorite gun when deployed.

That pleasure has been my own experience too. With the YH suppressor-mount compensator, the rifle has practically zero recoil. And with the suppressor, even the subdued crack is satisfying.

And in a rifle, what more could you ask for than a perfect apocalypse gun that’s also fun to shoot?

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