Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guns: Lighter, Stronger, Better? - Daniel Defense M4 V3 carbine review


When it comes to buying an AR-pattern carbine, today's market allows you to spend as much or as little as you like. For a shooter on a budget who's just looking for a fun plinker, you can buy or build a bargain-basement gun from Model 1 Sales or Del-Ton for around $600. For a few hundred bucks more, consumer-grade ARs from folks like Bushmaster and S&W are readily available in gun stores. Finally, at the very top of production ARs in both quality and price, there are makers like Noveske and Knights Armament who actually go beyond the U.S. military's requirements (the Knights enhanced bolt isn't just funny-looking for the sake of being different, it actually corrects some of the design flaws in the original M16 bolt).

Daniel Defense's line of AR-15s fits into what I call the "prosumer" level. The garden-variety gunshop AR might be cheaper, but Daniel Defense purportedly "dots all the i's and crosses all the t's"; aside from the happy switch, a DD M4 carbine seemingly has just about all the features and quality controls found on the military M4 carbine. To drive the point home, Daniel Defense put out a torture test video showing one of their guns being subjected to fairly extreme abuse, including getting hit with birdshot and being run over by a Jeep:

Outlandish torture testing is fine and all, but it doesn't have much relevance to the average user, who merely wants a gun that will run a wide variety of ammunition reliably, comfortably, and accurately. So, after donning my Skeptical Gunblogger hat, I tested out the DDM4 at the local range...

Fit and Finish

The DD M4 makes a good first impression, and the gun was blemish-free inside and out. A number of in-demand features were visible right from the get-go, including a 1 in 7 twist cold hammer forged chrome-lined 4150 barrel (medium-weight profile - it tapers from the chamber to the gas block), a chrome-lined chamber with proper M4 feed ramps, and a shot-peened bolt with M16 carrier.

There are also less obvious quality-assurance features present in the rifle. One can be seen from Daniel Defense's own website - interspersed with all the regular glamour shots of the rifles is a picture of the carrier key screws on the bolt carrier:

To the uninitiated, it's a strange choice for a gallery picture. If you're familiar with ARs, though, you know that one of the most common problems with factory guns is the carrier key staking. As promised, the staking on the test gun was executed properly.

The DD M4 also has some minor niceties that aren't very expensive. The carbine has a beveled magazine well, a Magpul enlarged trigger guard, a DD vertical foregrip, and a DD rear QD swivel plate. Daniel Defense also ships the rifle with a plastic hardcase and a 30-round Magpul PMAG magazine. These are all solid bells and whistles, but aren't enough, in and of themselves, to justify the expense of the rifle.

Daniel Defense Omega X 9.0 Rail review

The main reason why the DD M4 V3 costs considerably more than other ARs is the included, preinstalled Omega X 9.0 free float Picatinny rail system. The Omega X is one of Daniel Defense's newer rail systems, and, when bought as an aftermarket part, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $300:

Unlike the popular drop-in Omega Rail, the Omega X uses a proprietary barrel nut and thus requires some minor gunsmithing to install. In return, it's reportedly more solid than the Omega rail, and the rail halves can be detached from the gun for easy cleaning and maintenance.

In testing, I found the rail to be quite solid, and noticed no point-of-impact shifts when attaching foregrips, rail covers, lights, or slings (via the rail's limited-rotation side swivel points). The rail adds almost no weight to the gun when compared to conventional plastic handguards, and is fairly thin, to boot. There are other rail systems out there (the Centurion Arms systems are getting a lot of good press), but the DD rails are proven performers, and I can't imagine any reason for a user to swap them out.

Daniel Defense A1.5 Detachable Fixed Sight review

I've always been leery of flip-up back-up iron sights. You're already sticking a separate sight on the gun in order to aim it; do you have to make the darn thing move and lock under spring pressure, too? Apparently, someone at Daniel Defense shares my concerns, as the DD M4 comes with their "A1.5" rear fixed back-up iron sight.

It's a tough, sturdy unit. As the name suggests, the DD A1.5 sight combines an A1-style windage adjustment (a special tool is needed to adjust the windage drum, but it's also impossible to accidentally spin the drum out of position) with A2-style apertures (a large 0-200m ghost ring and a smaller aperture for long ranges).

The A1.5 has some obvious drawbacks; the rear sight can obscure your view when using optics, and can't fold down underneath a scope. These are small prices to pay for simplicity and durability, however, and, if you don't like 'em, you can always take the sight off.

At the Range...

Since breaking in a rifle is more involved than breaking in a handgun, I've separated my typical range report up into sections, to better illustrate what happened when I tested an out-of-the-box, stock DD M4:

Range Report #1

My first magazine through the DD M4 is twenty-odd rounds of my light .223 target handloads - a 55 grain Hornady boat-tail FMJ over 23 grains of H310. Despite being noticeably milder than even commerically-loaded varmint-hunting .223, the handloads fire, feed, and eject flawlessly. It's good sign that the DD M4's gas system is squared away right out of the box.

I wish I could say the same thing about the extractor. Twenty rounds of Serbian Prvi Partizan M193 produce two fail-to-extracts; in each instance, the rim of the case has been broken off, and I have to send a cleaning rod down the barrel in order to pop out the case. 70 rounds of Federal American Eagle XM193 run well through the gun, with no broken case rims.

Range Report #2

100 rounds of Federal AE223 without any incident. As far as firing goes, the gun feels like any other AR-15. One niggle: Daniel Defense uses a stock, military trigger, so the pull weight is around 7 or 8 pounds, with plenty of creep. I don't mind, though - a milspec trigger isn't designed to win Camp Perry, it's designed to be safe and reliable under adverse conditions.

Range Report #3

I fire a mix of ammo, including Remington UMC, Federal XM193, and Sellier & Bellot .223. The American-made cartridges run fine, but the gun rips the case rims off of two S&B cartridges (S&B is Czech ammo, but it's generally good stuff, and shouldn't be causing these problems). Not wishing to troubleshoot a brand new rifle, I send the DDM4 back in to Daniel Defense.

I receive the repaired gun back in about two weeks' time. Daniel Defense says they've polished the chamber, which is generally gun manufacturer speak for "We have no idea what the problem is." Still, after the polish job, they report that they fired 10 rounds without incident. I fire three rounds in my gun shop's clearing barrel to make sure the gun is safe to use, and then head to the range for more testing.

Range Report #4,#5,#6

At these range sessions, I put a mix of about 400 rounds through the gun - several magazines' worth of 55-gr. S&B .223, PMC Bronze, AE223, XM193, and Fiocchi .223 (the gun was not cleaned or maintained in any way whatsoever between range trips). Everything fed, fired, and extracted fine, including the S&B rounds that previously caused trouble. Woohoo!

Accuracy and Shooting Impressions

Since I've only shot the DDM4 on a 25 yard indoor range with no machine rest and no seating, I haven't really had the chance to fairly evaluate the rifle's accuracy. I can say that the average ten shot group at this distance was about 3" with PMC Bronze, fired standing and unsupported (Why a ten shot group? Read this). This type of accuracy is on par with what I've shot out of 16" barreled ARs in the past, so no real complaints there.


On the whole, if you're looking for a complete prebuilt AR-15, I'd recommend the DDM4, despite my gun's early teething problems with broken case rims (let's face it - it's common for ARs to require a little tweaking: neither my old Bushie Superlight or my Stag Arms build worked 100% without minor adjustments). The Omega X rail system is excellent, overall build quality is high, and Daniel Defense has your back in case you do run into an issue. To be sure, there are plenty of competitors at or under Daniel Defense's price point (I recommend taking a look at Bravo Company Manufacturing), but the DDM4 is a solid choice.


At 12:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what can be done to help with the different types of ammo problems...anything?

At 4:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

this happens with all riffles..Daniel Defense is top notch. Just buy good ammo and your in the clear...

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Mulliga said...

My guess is that the Czech milsurp was loaded quite hot and also had brittle brass. Still not sure why the gun ripped the case rim of S&B .223, though - that ammo should be fine.

In any case, I've had the DD M4 for some time now after getting it back from the factory, and it hasn't malf'ed once in about 1500 rounds - good enough for me.


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