Featured The Firearms Industry Choice Awards Steven Kuo December 6, 2016 0 COMMENT Aspirations, Inspirations, and Celebrating Excellence Photos by Rob Curtis and Steven Kuo Some industries have made an entire industry out of celebrating their own industry. Tinseltown, for example, has elevated self-aggrandizement to an art form with an unending array of awards and awards shows, from the Academy Awards to the Tony Awards to the Emmy Awards. Consumers eat it up, artists genuinely appreciate the recognition, and companies love the exposure. The firearms industry, however, has never been quite so organized and ambitious. But there’s an effort afoot to change that, and we were there to witness its unveiling — at the inaugural Firearms Industry Choice Awards in Park City, Kentucky. Nathan and Nick Noble of Rockcastle Shooting Center, David Powers of Oneida Molded Plastics, and many others worked tirelessly to execute an event honoring innovation and excellence in the firearm industry. The Grand Idea Powers described how it came to be: “We tried to come up with a different concept for the Firearms Industry Choice Awards and Team Challenge. It’s an opportunity for us in the industry to celebrate our passion, the things we do, and what makes these products so great.” Nathan explained that they wanted to develop an in-depth product testing process for firearms and accessories, with comprehensive and unbiased evaluations. The goal was to help consumers with their buying decisions as well as to give manufacturers honest and detailed feedback about their products. Participating manufacturers submitted products they considered their best in various categories — each evaluated and scored on fit, finish, form, and function. Product categories included rifles, handguns, shotguns, optics, accessories, and ammunition. A panel of 20 experienced evaluators assembled at the Rockcastle Shooting Center for several days of hands-on testing and evaluation of the products. Evaluators were hand-picked to include a mix of firearms retailers, distributors, gunsmiths, law enforcement, military, journalists, and competitive and recreational shooters. Powers elaborated, “We looked to bring in a team of people who have no bias and no correlation to the manufacturers who submitted the products.” Evaluators carefully examined products on the bench before taking them to the range for live-fire testing. From the perspective of the end user, they filled out three pages of evaluation forms per product, with both numerical ratings and qualitative feedback — no small task given the number of products, and time and effort required to review each. Their feedback was anonymous to ensure they could be completely frank and honest. We were impressed to see the reviewers taking their appointed duties very seriously, working on their evaluations from morning to night the whole time they were at the Rock. Ratings were then tallied to determine the winners in each category. All evaluator feedback was given to the manufacturers following the award ceremony, vetted end-user feedback being invaluable when it comes to product development. Hot Wash At RECOIL, we strive for credible and honest reporting, and we love to celebrate the strong values and excitement that the firearms industry, lifestyle, and shooting sports represent. Therefore, we were happy to hear of the Firearms Industry Choice Awards, with its noble goal of honoring the best the industry has to offer, evaluating products with hands-on, impartial testing, promoting the shooting sports, and bringing the industry together. With high hopes, we headed out to Rockcastle for the evaluation sessions and returned months later for the Industry Team Challenge competition and the awards ceremony. Coordinating an industry-wide product evaluation event is truly a herculean challenge. In an ideal world, you’d have many categories to compare like-for-like items and a wide representation of products from across the industry. But, the inaugural event saw a more modest field of entries, with a total of 65 products submitted. Therefore, categories had to be broad enough to foster competition — but made for some strange bedfellows. For example, the first year’s rifle category had carbines ranked against precision rifles. In the optics category, there were red-dots, tactical scopes, long-range scopes, and binoculars. The incomparable Andy Horner hard at work on the range. In speaking with manufacturers and evaluators afterward, both said they’d like to see narrower product categories. Increased awareness of the event will bring more resources and, we hope, more manufacturers who want to validate their concepts and reward their employees with the recognition of an award presented by industry insiders. The organizers created an evaluation process designed to produce honest and unbiased feedback based on actual hands-on use, coming from a highly experienced, end user perspective. The evaluator cadre collectively represented 151 years of military and law enforcement experience; 138 years as instructors, rangemasters, or coaches; 67 years of gunsmithing experience; 64 years of retail and distribution; 24 years as media; 346 years of recreational hunting and shooting; 288 years of competitive shooting; and an average of 14,000 rounds sent downrange each year. Rankings were calculated by tabulating numerical assessments on a scale of 1 to 10 across many specific dimensions. Qualitative feedback was also recorded, but not factored into the scores. The testing and evaluation protocol was focused on deriving impartial results, unencumbered by any other business considerations. One evaluator told us, “The idea of an industry award is great, but it needs to be based on merit, not on popularity or monetary concerns. Nothing should skew the results. And they did a good job of that.” And a manufacturer (who didn’t win their category) said, “I don’t have a huge advertising budget, so my guns have to stand on their own merit. It sucks to lose, but it was good to get an honest shake.” A Springfield Armory EMP, the ICA Handgun of the Year, getting wrung out by one of 20 evaluators. However, resource and time constraints put limitations on the extent of testing that could be performed by the evaluators — for instance, evaluators weren’t able to shoot groups to test firearms for accuracy, run box tests on scopes, perform product durability testing, or examine the terminal performance of ammunition in gel blocks, and so on. We’d like to see the event expand the scope of product testing beyond the look, feel, measure, and shoot evaluations performed this year. Some participants suggested increasing the number of evaluators to allow subject matter experts to focus on specific categories and do more extensive testing. Still, when compared to the award criteria applied to other industries’ award competitions, it was a great start. And that’s really the most important thing — the fundamental underpinnings are strong and now in place. This sets the stage for growing the event and evaluation process while maintaining the purity of the original intent. In the end, you’ve gotta start somewhere. And for its inaugural effort, we were impressed with the objectives and execution of the Firearms Industry Choice Awards. There’s still much that can be improved with more time, resources, and support from the industry. We’re excited for the event to grow into the definitive source of recognition for excellence in the firearm industry. The Firearms Industry Choice Awards Winners ICA Rifle of the Year Ruger Precision Rifle Caliber .308 Win, 6.5 Creedmoor, .243 Win Barrel Length 20, 24, 26 inches Weight 9.7 to 11 pounds Magazine Capacity 10 MSRP $1,399 to $1,599 URL www.ruger.com There’s a reason Ruger Precision Rifles are scarce in stores, and it’s the same reason it won the rifle category — it’s a feature-packed, accurate, precision bolt gun at a great price. For a retail price starting at $1,399, Ruger offers a precision rifle with a 5R rifled cold hammer forged 4140 chrome-moly steel barrel, secured in a 4140 upper receiver with a KeyMod handguard. The lower accepts multiple magazine types and the folding buttstock is fully adjustable — and can be replaced along with other furniture with AR parts. The trigger is adjustable from 2.25 to 5 pounds, and the stock is in-line with the bore, providing more effective recoil management, like an AR. Evaluators were duly impressed. One stated, “The price point was really eye opening. Years ago, this would have been a custom gun with a custom price tag. But a shooter can just buy this off the shelf and do PRS matches. You get a lot for that price point, and it’s hard to beat with any other bolt gun platform.” Another said, “No other bolt rifle out there performs like it does with the same options for that price. It’s no surprise they’re so hard to find right now.” Runners-Up F-1 Firearms BDR-15 3G Nemesis Arms Vanquish ICA Handgun of the Year Springfield Armory 1911 EMP 4″ Lightweight Champion 9mm Caliber 9mm Barrel Length 4 inches Weight 31 ounces Magazine Capacity 10 MSRP $1,179 URL www.springfield-armory.com Springfield Armory’s EMP variant of the venerable and seemingly immortal 1911 platform is notable in that it’s scaled down for the smaller 9mm cartridge, resulting in a very compact package that retains all of the 1911 ergonomics that shooters love so much. The latest version extends the match-grade barrel to 4 inches and stretches the grip out another 1/2 inch, accommodating a 10-round magazine and more of your grubby mitt. The slide is satin stainless steel with a fiber-optic front sight and two-dot rear sight. The frame is black anodized aluminum, with a dimpled front strap, a checkered mainspring housing, and ambidextrous safety levers. Evaluators were particularly pleased with the downsized 1911 design, optimized for 9mm rather than retrofitting a .45 ACP frame. They also praised the quality, fit, finish, and value. However, in speaking with some, we could feel eyes rolling through the phone at a win for the century-old JMB platform — apparently no one’s immune to the age-old 1911 debate. Runners-Up Kimber K6s SIG SAUER P320 ICA Shotgun of the Year Benelli 828U Caliber 12 gauge Barrel Length 26 and 28 inches Weight 6.5 to 6.6 pounds Magazine Capacity 2 MSRP $2,499 to $2,999 URL www.benelliusa.com Benelli is known for its semi-automatic shotguns, and we’re big fans of their inertia-driven guns. So, it was a bit of a surprise when they unveiled a new over-under shotgun. But not a surprise was the fact that Benelli had a brand-new take on how to build an over-under. The 828U features an innovative steel locking system with a steel plate that locks behind the chamber and barrel, containing all the pressure. This eliminates stress on the receiver and hinge pin, enabling the use of lightweight aluminum for the receiver and avoiding a usual wear point. The result is a very light, lively, and well-balanced shotgun. Benelli didn’t stop there; the 828U also has a removable trigger group, carbon-fiber rib with a fiber-optic sight, and a recoil-reducing buttstock. The whole package comes together in a beautiful meld of metal and wood. Evaluators loved the 828U, despite its hefty price. They applauded its innovative design and simply enjoyed shooting it. One complaint focused on the slimline safety, which could be difficult to actuate with gloves while hunting. Runners-Up Mossberg 930 Pro Series Sporting Remington V3 Field Sport ICA Optic of the Year Trijicon MRO Reticle 2 MOA red-dot MSRP $579 to $639 URL www.trijicon.com The red-dot sight market seems to get more crowded every day. The Trijicon MRO differentiates itself with an offering that’s compact, lightweight, boasts long battery life, and comes from a distinguished lineage of bombproof optics. In particular, its 25mm objective size provides better field of view than other micro-sized red-dot sights. It has cap-less windage and elevation adjustments and a brightness control on the top of the sight for quick ambidextrous use. You can opt for a low, co-witness, or lower one-third co-witness mount. Evaluators appreciated the MRO’s mix of features and its price. For instance, one wrote, “The Trijicon MRO has been one of the best values in optics that’s come out in a long time. I really like the balance of the 25mm objective size — it’s right in between the Aimpoint Micro and the fullsize Aimpoints, allowing for a decent FOV while still maintaining a small footprint. What’s especially impressive to me is how crisp the dot is until you really push the brightness levels.” On the other hand, the MRO has something of a reputation for having slight magnification noticeable to some shooters; indeed, some evaluators noted that. Still, the MRO’s many strengths chalked up a win for Trijicon. Runners-Up Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 Steiner T5Xi 3-15×50 ICA Accessory of the Year Luth-AR MBA-3 Carbine Stock Colors Black, Flat Dark Earth MSRP $160 ($170 in FDE) URL www.luth-ar.com Following on Luth-AR’s original MBA-1 rifle-length AR buttstock, its MBA-3 stock clicks onto a carbine receiver extension. You get the same custom fit and light weight, while being able to set it to your desired length. The shorty Luth-AR retains the tool-free cheek height and length of pull adjustment and adds multi-position functionality, a three-axis butt plate (with fine adjustments for length, vertical position, and cast), a Pic rail on the base, and a set screw to eliminate play in the stock. Spin those knobs and get that precision feel for your carbine. Evaluators praised the stock for being well designed and thought out, packed with features while being light and affordable. Those familiar with the evolution of the Luth-AR buttstocks were pleased that the company consistently incorporated customer feedback in improving each successive generation. One suggestion for improvement was to include a QD sling swivel cup, which currently can be added by screwing in an aftermarket threaded cup. Runners-Up AXTS Raptor Freedom Bone ambidextrous charging handle Safariland Model 578 GLS Pro-Fit holster ICA Ammunition of the Year SIG SAUER V-Crown Elite Performance 9mm Caliber 9mm Bullet Weight 124 grains MSRP $19 (20 round box) URL www.sigammo.com SIG’s V-Crown defensive ammunition features jacketed hollow point bullets with V-shaped jacket skives and scores, designed to provide uniform and controlled expansion. The brass cases are nickel-coated for additional lubricity, corrosion resistance, and enhanced reliability. The loads are optimized for terminal ballistic performance in smaller-framed handguns. The organizers noted that the ammunition category was the most difficult category to evaluate, and scoring was very tight. Terminal performance wasn’t tested, but evaluators weighed, measured, and chronographed the ammo, sending thousands of rounds downrange in a variety of guns. They also assessed retail appeal and packaging. In the end, the SIG ammo was victorious. Runners-Up Barnes Precision Match 5.56mm Browning BPT Performance Target/BXP Personal Defense 9mm Competition, Camaraderie, and Celebration Two months after the evaluations, their representatives converged on Rockcastle Shooting Center for two days of shooting competitions, good food, and good company. The Industry Team Challenge format pitted teams of four against each other across eight courses of fire. Three shotgun stages featured trap, five-stand, and sporting clays. Competitors’ pistol skills were put to the test on the Smoke and Hope stage from Steel Challenge and a team relay stage with 70 steel targets spread across the berm to be engaged with five different types of pistols. Two three-gun stages required shooters to engage targets with pistol, shotgun, and rifle at both close quarters and at distance. Finally, a team relay called for teammates to crawl through culverts and engage long-range targets with a precision bolt gun and a gas gun. After all the dust settled, the Luth-AR team won the event. Reveling in the hospitality at the Rock, musical performances, and generous portions of delicious smoked pig for dinner, folks from the various companies enjoyed the opportunity to connect with each other in a much more intimate manner than the frenzied Vegas nights at SHOT and other trade shows. Two other causes near and dear to the firearms industry are the youth of America and supporting our veterans. The former are critically important to the future of the Second Amendment; the Generation III Gun and 2A Heritage organizations were on hand, raising money and awareness for junior shooters. In fact, the Generation III Gun team of junior shooters took second place in the Team Challenge. Mission 22 was also present, raising awareness, enlisting support, and seeking to end veteran suicide in America. Raffles and auctions raised funds for all of these causes.