Robinson Armament M96 Expeditionary Rifle .223 Rem. By Ray Ordorica, Gun Tests
From the 06-22-2004 Issue of Gun Tests
Model Name:M96 Expeditionary Rifle
Model Number:M96 Expeditionary Rifle
GunReports.com - -(AmmoLand.com)- Our initial evaluation showed us a very well made rifle with a lot of aura and some mystery to its makeup. The rifle came with two barrels, the mounted one of 20.25 inch length for the Expeditionary Rifle, and one of 16.2-inch length that let us convert this rifle into the Recon Carbine. There was no magazine, and the operator’s manual even stated that it didn’t come with a magazine. But any AR-15/M16 mag would do, the manual told us, so we used the Bushmaster’s 10-shot one. It worked perfectly throughout our testing.
At 8.4 pounds empty, the Robinson was no lightweight. At this weight the rifle could utilize a more powerful cartridge, we thought, like the .308, with no recoil problems. However, some shooters like this much weight in the .223 caliber. The rifle was entirely business-like in its appearance, we thought. It was attractively finished in matte black. Some of the finish appeared to be bluing, some Parkerizing. Everything about this rifle was steel, except for the magazine-release button and the stock. The rifle made good use of stampings and welding, and all that work was fully functional, though not totally lovely.
The first thing we did with this rifle was clear it by tugging back on the bolt handle, which was a non-folding protrusion on the left side of the action. But there was no way to hold the bolt open, we found. We stuck a finger into the mag well and pressed upward at the right spot and drove the last-round bolt stop upward to catch the bolt. This seemed like a major omission from the design, we thought.
Our examination of the rifle revealed seven detented cross pins running through the action, which we’ll get to. There was no immediately obvious way to mount a scope, but there were two sets of flanges on top of the perforated receiver, and we guessed these could be for an accessory mount, which didn’t come with the rifle. There were ambidextrous mount points for a sling on either side of the forend, and a fixed, rear sling-mount point on the left side of the butt stock. There was no butt trap. The trigger area and hollow pistol grip looked and felt like typical AR-15 stuff. The magazine well held the mag securely, with no trace of the looseness commonly encountered with detachable magazines. The plastic forend was ribbed and gave us a good grasp on the rifle. The safety was on the left side, and could be operated with a stretch by the right hand’s thumb. Lefties could easily move it with the trigger finger, probably more conveniently than right-handers with the thumb.
The muzzle had a beautifully machined integral brake. The front-sight assembly (gas block) was large and again beautifully machined. On top of the front-sight base were two opposing screws that gave windage adjustment to the well-protected and dovetailed front-sight post. The front post was adjustable for elevation in the conventional (mil-spec) manner. One exciting discovery was an adjustable gas bleed, as on a FAL, in front of the front sight, at the entry to the gas tube. This was locked in its setting by a sprung detent pin that permitted easy adjustment with only the fingers.
The rear sight was contained within a perforated sheet-steel guard that in turn was held to the rifle by two detented cross pins. The entire rear sight could thus be removed and be replaced with an appropriate sight rail or other accessory. We left it in place, because we had great interest in seeing how well the Robinson would shoot with its iron sights. Our initial few shots to verify the sighting and function gave us promise of good things to come in the accuracy department. The rear sight itself appeared to be a standard military-type, two-aperture unit, but it had a tiny aperture and also a huge one. The big one gave a ghost-ring effect, and is what we’d use in a battle-type scenario. Its hole was 0.20 inch in diameter. The small hole was about 0.060 inch in diameter, and promised to let us wring out the rifle well enough with the iron sights. Windage on the rear sight was by a click-stopped wheel on the right side, marked with an R to show direction of movement. Each click gave about 1/2-inch movement at 100 yards.
The safety was ambidextrous, sort of. We found lefties could get it easier than right-handed shooters. We’d lengthen it for easier thumb use. Magazines were snug in the box.
There were a few idiosyncrasies to the Robinson that bear mention. One was that, as mentioned, there was no way to hold the bolt open, short of sticking your finger into the mag well and fishing for the bolt stop, like we did. Another is that if the bolt were closed and the rifle had been dry fired and the safety then moved to the On position, it was impossible to cock the rifle. This latter condition is mentioned in the manual. The former is not. Another item we noticed is that parts of the manual were written as though its author were addressing a small child. Some parts were so oversimplified that they would perhaps insult some shooters’ intelligence. However, all of it was correct, and it’s possible some shooters have never read such basic descriptions of how an autoloading rifle works.
Unfortunately, the description of how to change barrels begins with a request to press in on the barrel-release button, but that button was never identified in the manual anywhere, nor does the vague photo help locate it, if you’ve never seen the rifle before. Once you know where that button is, its obvious, but we guarantee you’ll be lost awhile. The instructions tell you to manually hold the bolt partly open while pressing on the barrel-release button with the same hand, and then use the other hand to wrestle the barrel out of the action. A manual bolt detent would go a long way toward helping this clumsy situation, we felt. In another section of the manual, its author took 44 words to say “cock the hammer,” so that’ll give you some idea of the manual’s problems.
With some help from the manual we finally found the takedown pin. Driving it out until it stopped permitted us to open the rear of the rifle by hinging it downward around another cross pin just behind the magazine well. The rear-most pin was for butt stock disassembly, and we left that one alone. The takedown pin was just in front of that one. So we now had only two cross pins to identify, one of which had to be the barrel-removal pin, we figured. We were wrong. But first, the bolt.
Getting the bolt out of the rifle ought to have been simple, and it was, once we got past the gibberish and indefinite pronouns in the manual. We eventually discovered that its removal required only an inward press on an oval button on the side of the bolt, going in through the ejection port with a suitable tool. We used a small screwdriver. Holding the button down with the screwdriver (or other tool), tug slightly rearward on the bolt. That frees the bolt and its odd-shaped carrier so they can slide out the back of the rifle. We found the inner parts were beautifully machined and finished, and everything worked with great precision. We were vaguely reminded of a German-made HK-91 we had inspected long ago, and that’s a high compliment to Robinson. With the guts removed it was possible to clean the barrel from the breech without further disassembly. Reassembly of the bolt into the action once again required simply inserting the assembly into the action, pressing the same appropriate tool against the bolt button, and pushing the bolt slightly forward until it locked into place. However, if it was desired to clean the bolt and its carrier, further disassembly was required, involving yet another cross pin. The manual explained this well.
In fact, the manual went into good detail about how to disassemble nearly every part of this modular rifle, including things that normally don’t need to come apart. In spite of our complaints about its wording, the manual was quite thorough, and also warned about things you should not do, because they might damage the partially disassembled bits of the rifle.
Of the remaining two detented cross pins, one was for the disassembly of the forend (handguard) from the bottom of the rifle, and the other was one of two that permitted the removal of the magazine receptacle from the rifle. So where was the barrel removal button? It was a relatively large, flat panel located underneath the rifle, surrounded by the rear part of the removable handguard. We found it when we took off the handguard, at which time it became obvious what it was.
Barrel removal was elementarily simple, with one slight modification to the manual’s instructions. The manual never mentioned blocking the bolt open while removing the barrel. Instead, it had the shooter using three hands, or the equivalent in manual dexterity, to simultaneously hold the bolt open, press the button, and wiggle the barrel out. We locked the bolt of the rifle open by inserting a finger into the magazine well and pushing upward on the magazine-driven bolt catch. That gave us two hands to do two jobs: press and hold the barrel button, and pull out the barrel.
Barrel removal was so simple that it would be the method of choice to clean it, we thought. However, we don’t know if repeated removal and replacement of the barrel would affect accuracy by wearing the mating parts excessively. The barrel came out very easily. Also, we could feel noticeable motion of the barrel within the fully assembled rifle, which didn’t promise us anywhere near the accuracy we had expected and received from the Bushmaster with its totally rigid barrel. Of course, the Bushmaster was not modular, so with a design such as the Robinson, some sacrifices may be inherent.
The shorter barrel assembly, that converted this rifle into the Recon Carbine, included the front sight and gas block, and also a shorter gas tube and activating rod. The manual told specifically how to interchange these items. We could see no reason to shoot the rifle with the shorter barrel. Velocity would be slightly less, and once we found out the Robinson’s accuracy potential with our test fodder in the longer barrel, there was no reason to expect anything better from the shorter setup.
With the rifle fully assembled, we shot a few rounds from kneeling at 25 yards, and noted it had an excellent trigger pull and outstanding sight picture. We easily placed five shots inside of an inch at that range, and looked forward to our bench testing. We found the Robinson to be a most comfortable rifle throughout all our test shooting.
We shot from our machine rest at 100 yards, and in short, the Robinson gave us groups on the order of three inches. No matter how well we held, and no matter that it was a comfortable, reliable rifle with an excellent trigger pull, the Robinson didn’t amaze us with its accuracy. However, accuracy didn’t tell the whole story here. The Robinson was more of a useful rifle, we thought, for almost any purpose, than the Bushmaster. We could hold and shoot the Robinson with great ease and confidence. It was fast, and plenty accurate enough to let us get hits on realistic-size targets at any range. We could not do that as well with the Bushmaster, not as we had it set up and not with that rifle’s poor trigger.
The ease of changing parts on the Robinson made it unique, we thought, in the world of .223 autoloaders. If you have a need for such versatility or the need to swap parts, including the barrel, quickly, this is your clear choice of all rifles of the AR-15 type we’ve seen. For some situations we can imagine, The M96′s modularity and quick barrel swapping would make it worth whatever it costs. The workmanship was generally excellent. The rifle worked very well, with no failures of any sort and no problems to feed, fire, or eject. We’d have liked more accuracy, but we thought the Robinson had enough accuracy for battle conditions, and certainly enough for lots of plinking fun.
The barrel-swapping feature must include a loose-enough fit so you can get the barrel out of the rifle without tools. That means it can’t be as tight as you’d find on, say, a varmint rifle, so you can’t expect similar accuracy. This system would be well suited to a fully auto rifle, we thought, where barrel-swapping ability would far outweigh accuracy demand.
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