Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Field Review of the Fenix HM50R Headlamp: Spoiler Alert...an almost perfect headlamp





I’ve been on a quest for the perfect headlamp pretty much forever. And I’m as close as I’ve ever been to headlamp happiness. The Fenix HM50R Headlamp has almost all the features I want in a useful and highly productive form factor. Where the Fenix HM50R Headlamp really shines in the small details that refine its design and use. But to appreciate the nuances of the Fenix HM50R Headlamp, one would need to have developed frustrations with previous designs. So here are some obvious improvements with the Fenix HM50R Headlamp. First and foremost is the light throw. With a turbo mode of 500 lumens, this light screams in the dark. And the steps down in brightness of 130, 30, and 4 lumens are exceptionally good choices give all types of darkness the proper amount of light.



For comparison, my first headlamp was four D-cell monster with a dim incandescent bulb that probably threw two dozen lumens on a good day going downhill and with the wind. The pound of batteries were worn on the belt in a big red plastic case. A wire ran from the case to a bulbous unit mounted on a two-inch wide rubber strap. At the time it was like the light from a Maglite but with the advantage of a headlamp. Overall, it was awful, but since it was the only affordable option in town, we didn’t know any better. Today, however, our standards are much higher, our expectations much greater, and our tolerance for poor design much lower.

Operating Operationally
In order to control headlamp lighting, a simple interface must power the light on and off and through the settings in an intuitive way that is watertight and works easily in the dark by feel as well as when wearing gloves.

Another consideration is beam control. Headlamps by design are to be worn on the head. This means a significant amount of control is possible just by moving one’s head. This works with gross movements, but what about when precision is needed such as with close-up work (think medical or mechanical interventions) or when moving through terrain with hands full and limited head movement? Generally a headlamp points forward or rotates down placing the center of light closer to the eyes. Lateral adjustments are from simply revolving head strap around the head. 


The Fenix HM50R Headlamp is essentially a cylinder in a cuff meaning it can spin 360 degrees around the vertical. The cuff is a rubberized plastic material that connects light to the headband. My Surefire Minimus headlamp uses the same attachment concept, but in a heavier, beefier design that requires a tool to adjust the tension. Normally I would prefer a Surefire light over almost any other brand, but the number of design flaws in with the Surefire kept me looking for a better light even after I dropped more than a Benjamin Franklin on it.






Batter(y) Up!
The Fenix HM50R Headlamp runs on a single CR123 battery which is my preference with headlamps, powers this light for two hours on full power and 128 hours on low with 14 hours and 48 hours respectively for the middle two settings. However, the Fenix HM50R Headlamp ships with a rechargeable 700mAh 16340 battery that extends the top end light by half an hour but lowers the runtime somewhat. The included battery recharges in the light through a micro-USB port, or outside the light in a charger. A similar Fenix light, the HL50 caught my attention with it’s ability to run either CR123 or AA batteries but required a extra tube extension if running AA batteries. That means one must carry the extra piece when running a CR123 battery in the light and nobody wants to do that. Well at least me anyway. 


Plus the HL50 headlamp had a metal attachment ring that was captured in between the battery tube and the end switch in order to keep the light attached to the metal clasp on the headband. That meant that you had to disassemble the light in order to remove it from the headband. With the newer Fenix HM50R Headlamp, all you need to do to set it free from the headband is to pull it out from the rubberized collar. For reference, the Surefire Minimus also requires a tool to remove it from the headband because the entire attachment system must be dismantled,


 


So why would you want to remove the headband from the light? Many reasons, notably that the Fenix HM50R Headlamp is a great flashlight on its own. The 90 degree angle-head design is like a mini military “moonbeam” D-cell flashlight. By the way, the first flashlight appeared around 1899 and was powered by D-batteries. So for almost 100 years, the D-cell ruled the flashlight world. Today I have no D-cell electronics except for a pair of 1950’s era Civil Defense Geiger Counters.

What’s Your Angle?
As an angle-head flashlight, the Fenix HM50R Headlamp can stand upright, upside down, and sideways. Often tail standing a flashlight requires a reflective ceiling to capture the photons from escaping out into space. The Fenix HM50R Headlamp on the other hand can sit still on a table firing the light forward or upward if you like. On the Surefire side, even if you remove the light from the headband, only one end of the cylinder shape has a flat-enough face to tail stand.





The Fenix HM50R Headlamp has a battery charge indicator in the form of a glowing or blinking green or blue light in the switch. When clicked quickly, the switch lights up indicating the rough amount of charge in the battery. This is a tremendously welcome feature for several reasons. First, it’s always good to know your battery’s condition. Second, as a rechargeable flashlight, the Fenix HM50R Headlamp can be topped off before adventuring so a quick charge indication will tell you both if you need to charge, and with charging experience, about how long that will take.

And third, the subtle green or blue light does not interfere with the operation of the light whereas the Surefire Minimus begins an irritating blink sequence when its battery runs low. My lone complaint here is that the blue glow indicates a lower charge. Blue? Why not red? Red would make so much more sense, and Red is universal indicator of too much (redline) or too little (in the red). The meaning of blue must be memorized. And worse, if you use a Fenix rechargeable 16340 battery with built-in micro-USB port, the light on the battery glows red when low and charging, and blue when charged. So even within the Fenix family, a blue light means both fully charged and almost dead. May I suggest that the Fenix Flashlight engineers spend a few more minutes a week talking with the Fenix Battery engineers. It is those little things that are maddening.





Splitting Hairs
Regardless of the indicator light oversights, I highly recommend getting the ARB-L16-700mAh rechargeable batteries. The chief complaint about using CR123 batteries is their initial cost, and slightly less available presence in low-volume battery sellers like back road gas stations and small town grocery stores. So those same recharging superpowers that the Fenix HM50R Headlamp has are equally available in the ARB-L16-700mAh battery. Yes, the battery has its own port and can be charged just like a non-Apple cell phone.

Something to think about with headlamp batteries is that you just might have to swap them out in the dark...with cold hands...in a hurry...while on the run. With the Fenix HM50R Headlamp all you have to do is spin off the only cap, swap batteries, spin the cap back on, and fire it up. This is so very different from one of my 3-AA headlamps where the entire light must be unsnapped from its headband bracket, then cracked open like an oyster, then replace each AA battery in the proper configuration, then reseal the housing in the right direction, reconnect it to the bracket in the right orientation. In other words, you need time, patience, and an understanding of the battery replacement sequence prior to the lights going out.

Bounce Check
Another great feature of the Fenix HM50R Headlamp is the minimal weight. My other Fenix AA headlamps had some heft to them causing the light to bounce up and down on my forehead when running or biking, and being a noticeable weight on my head. So much so that a hard bump can knock the headlamp around if not wearing the strap that runs over the top of the head. With the Fenix HM50R Headlamp, no third strap is needed which makes donning it much easier especially when helmets and hats are involved.


 


The durability of the Fenix HM50R Headlamp seems above and beyond. The aluminum chassis of the light conveys solidity to everyone. The fine threaded aluminum cap with O-ring seal is part of the IP68 rating of this light. IP68 decoded means IP for International Protection standard. 6 means complete protection from dust, dirt and sand for eight hours. And the 8 rating means water resistance at 1.5m for at least 30 minutes.




Head of the Class
Fenix seems to have upgraded its headband material. Compared to my other Fenix lights seems less saggy (if that’s a word) with a tighter textile weave and with a grippy strip across the forehead. A few features missing from the Fenix HM50R Headlamp include that there is no strobe, no red light (to preserve night vision) and no SOS mode. You know, if it comes down to when I need to telegraph an SOS signal with my headlamp till the battery runs dry, well then I’ll regret the missing feature. But I will also likely forget that feature even exists if I ever have to use it.

So as noted, I am thrilled with this particular Fenix HM50R Headlamp. While there is some obvious room for improvement, the room is small and probably only apparent to those who have used many other headlamps and developed specific preferences. Either way, I have no reservations about this headlamp for general use, emergency use, and survival use.

Thank Goodness for Hollywood’s Seven Gun Skills



 

Hollywood is an easy target for the teaching of poor to impossible gun skills. The number of errors and impossibilities in any gun-filled movie gives the general population a wildly distorted understanding of guns, shooting, and expectations of a bullet; all a good thing in my survival book. As long as potential adversaries are living in a fantasy world, there is a direct and severe survival advantage to a confrontation where Hollywood’s magic has taken its toll.

 


The list of humorous gun behavior is long. From the inevitable click whenever a gun is pointed, to the ability to send someone airborne with a well placed hit, to anything and everything sparking when touched by a bullet, we come to expect the fairy tales of film firearms. But all that comic book action can be a good thing. Here are seven wonderful misconceptions that are sure to take the neophyte gun owner into bad territory when it really Hits the Fan.
1. The pre-shot pause: Most movies build tension during an armed conflict through dialog and well planned pauses. What that teaches is indecisiveness and introspection at the absolute wrong moment. When a couple of cowboys with antique wheel guns are squaring off fifty feet apart there is a poker-faced dance taking place. Not just draw speed but also hipshot accuracy. But in a true survival situation, Magpul got it right with its unfair advantage catch phrase. No reason level a tilted playing field by a calling time out. Act fast and without discussion.


 


2. The lack of aiming: This fallacy hardly needs explanation. It’s misfires on two fronts. First is the wildly skewed probability of a successful hit that Hollywood encourages. And second is the ease at which one can hit a target with a moment or two of actual aiming. Especially moving targets. Aiming a gun takes practice and is a perishable skill so knocking a few cans off a fence post twenty years ago is not of much comfort today. But the opposite is true. Even a little occasional practice can keep your shots in the center of mass rather than in the ceiling.
The bottomless supply of ammo: Usually the easiest criticism of any Hollywood gunplay, the belief in endless ammo is pretty common. Outside of Dirty Harry counting his shots, most shooters have no idea how many bangs went bang and most importantly how many bangs have yet to go bang. Add some stress to the poop salad and who’s counting? Right, nobody. So plan accordingly because they aren't. 




3. Weightless guns: Anyone who has really carried a long gun around for any length of time knows that the weight and size of the rifle makes a difference on what you can do and where you can go. Not many of the untrained can run through a forest with a rifle, nor tread water let alone swim while carrying a useful firearm even if the stock is made of wood. Walking from pickup to range table is not a workout. Ten hours of stalking during a mountainous hunt is a good start. Even after a couple hours of carrying around your rifle I can guarantee that you will want to set it down no matter how much you think you love it. 



4. Easy long shots: Whether a headshot from 200 yards while standing in a row boat (Bob Lee Swagger) or knocking a helicopter out of the sky with a .380 (James Bond) or bouncing a metal bucket at a quarter mile with a Sharps rifle, (Matthew Quigley), taking time to aim can make an accurate shot possible, but still unlikely. The movie Shooter did put an opposite spin on this theme as well by making a long shot seem superhuman. So illusive in fact that only a few snipers on earth could do it. In reality only a few snipers on earth are ever given the training and opportunity for a verified quarter-mile plus shot, but anyone with a bit of money, time, skill and a wide open space can ding steel at a thousand yards.

 


5. Loud but not too loud: It would really a be a downer if the good guys always went deaf during a shootout. In reality there would be very little dialog following gun fire. Just a lot of confused looks and bleeding ears. Now double all that when shooting inside a car. Triple it when shooting next to someone’s head. In real life, guns are absolutely silent until they're not. And when they are not, gunfire is one of the loudest things anyone ever encounters in life. That fact is hard to portray in the movies, and really is a buzzkill for plot lines. Actual gun loudness is ignored. Perhaps that’s why silencers are so common in movies. It’s a Star Trek fix to an obvious physics problem.
6. Faith in bad shots: The film vaults in Hollywood are stuffed full of movie footage where thousands of rounds zinged back and forth with not a meat hit in sight. There’s some truth to the accuracy outcomes of spray-and-pray, but the statistics of sustained auto fire in general directions lean heavily towards something bad happening. The happy takeaway here is that the uninitiated might suspect a positive outcome when hiding behind a telephone pole waiting for your reload.

We all owe Hollywood a collective thank you for planting the seeds of misconception in the general population. Tactical advantages are where you find them. Long before Hollywood, about the fifth century BC to be exact, Sun Tzu penned (or penciled, or scratched or whatever the heck they did back then) that letting the enemy believe the world is what it seems is truly an Art of War.

“Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and confirms their projections. It settles them into predictable patterns of response, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment — that which they cannot anticipate.”

Six Things To Get Before North Korea Goes South

It’s not hard to imagine what might happen if the US and North Korea get into a nuclear pissing match. The nuclear option involves mass destruction, radioactive fallout, and a bit of global destabilization. So with the instability of both the situation and the predictability of the situation, you know, given tweets and all. So here are Five Specific Things to get squared away care to survive. And all that squaring away must be able to go mobile on a second’s notice. This short list, of course, is on top of your regular preparations and bug out plans.



1. Food: Get a supply of dehydrated food. My choice is #10 cans of dehydrated Mountain House food. The number of days, weeks, months, or years of food is up to you, your scenario, and your budget. A way to calculate your timeline is to follow this very rough basic math: Women burn 2000 calories per day. Drop that to 1500 and she will lose a pound per week. Men burn on average 2500 calories per day with a 2000 calorie daily diet causing a weekly loss of a pound. So you can do the arithmetic of both what amount of food you need for your comfort and duration, and what trajectory of starvation is acceptable.

Canned freeze dried Mountain House food has a 30 year shelf life and a two week once-open life. All that’s needed is water. If no water, then food is not your immediate problem. And in case you’ve never tried freeze dried food with just cold water, you are in for a pleasant treat. While it takes a little longer soaking time, it’s no different that when you let a hot-mixed meal sit too long. Like cold pizza, you might actually like it more. Just don’t forget the can opener.





2. Water filters: When on the run from a nuclear blast, you won’t have time to pack all your supplies and you certainly don't want a half-ton of water slowing you down and threatening to roll your vehicle on a turn, or pull you over a cliff. A water source and filtering must be in your plan. And like the food, you will need to do the math of how much water you need and can filter. My plan begins with at least 20 gallons on board in five gallon tanks. Any larger and they are hard to move, carry, and distribute around your vehicle for driving balance. The larger tanks often invite waste and spillage when transferring contents to smaller containers and cups.






Backpacking pump filters are a great idea, but you might have more time than freedom to pump. Instead consider something like the Epic pitcher filter; a Brita on steroids, if you will. That way you can be making a supply of pure filtered water while doing other essential tasks like driving or preparing camp.

While it might be prudent to consider a filter that removes radiation, the reality is that when on the run such a filter will have a short life and give no indication when it is no longer effective against radioactive particles in water. Unlike dirt and organics that clog a filter, there is a finite amount of surface area on the radioactive absorbing materials in the filter and when they are full, nothing changes except the radioactive particles now flow right through the filter like its not there...because it isn't anymore.

If you have to cut financial corners, do it elsewhere. Water is not only the basis for life, but a fluid that is consumed internally daily and drenches mucous membranes where contaminants can get a foothold creating hundreds of ways to kill you.





3. Fuel for your vehicle: As you can imagine, an nuclear blast is a traumatic experience for those not vaporized, incinerated, or irradiated. The panic will be instantaneous and permanent. Swinging by the gas station is not an option, and neither is stopping for long when you are outrunning a gruesome, painful invisible death sentence.

Go grey with your gas cans. I’ve seen cars headed into questionable situations with as many as half a dozen bright red gas cans strapped to the roof like a parade float. Going grey with your gas means putting the gas cans into duffle bags or second hand suitcases or travel bags. A pile of visible gas cans is probably the fastest way to get robbed.

The quantity is up to you, but using the Mt. St. Helens model (see #5 below), you will need 1000 miles of gas in a worst case. For many vehicles that’s two full tanks or a 20 gallon onboard start, and another 20 in four five-gallon cans. Minimum. You might arrive, but then be out of options because you are out of gas. Drive a guzzler or tow a trailer and count on doubling the above prognosis or halving your potential.





4. Wind speed meter: Sure you could just toss up some dust or dried grass, but keep that as your backup plan. What you really need is a definite wind direction and speed. Those two tidbits might be the most important pieces of information when on the run. Little wind and you can outrun it. Strong wind and you might have to head into it. It all depends on the distance from and prevailing direction of contamination as well as the natural barriers like mountains, valleys, and drainage.

My analog here is the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The path of the ash was mostly east and then turned south near the eastern edge of Montana. So it covered all of eastern Washington, the north half of Idaho, all of Montana and North Dakota, most of Wyoming and Colorado, two thirds of South Dakota, finally dipping just across the border into New Mexico. The lesson here is that the ash followed the wind, the fastest escape route might have been to head south west towards the source at an angle even if it meant going into the cloud. Of course ash and radioactive fallout are two completely different things, so studying maps now will give you some idea of where to head if you know the location of the source.

There are iPhone/Smartphone options where a little wind meter taps into the headphone output port. Or a bluetooth solution like a Weatherhawk, or Pasco Scientific. And stand-alone devices like the handheld Kestrel and Oregon Scientific anemometers.





5. Radiation Monitor or Geiger Counter: Radioactive materials as part of fallout from a nuclear blast will follow the path of the wind. So two pieces of intel are needed; first, you need to know if there is an uptick in radioactivity or not. There are minimalist solutions that just change color when the radiation level increases. And more sophisticated devices that sound an alarm. The problem with those first two levels of radioactive indications is they are non-specific, non-directional, and non-quantitative. Moving up the ladder another rung is a stand-alone meter like the yellow 1950s civil defense Geiger Counters. However, while state-of-the-art 60 years ago, many more options are available today. And if you are planning on using “Old Yeller” you better have a five-gallon bucket of D batteries!

Companies like Vernier Technologies are a great source for a choice of on-the-run Radiation Meters, with a Bluetooth option talking to your iPhone. And a quick trip to the Amazon.com will give you plenty of choices starting at a buck and a half (that’s $150 to the rest of you).


 

6. Potassium Iodide tablets: When out shopping, you might want to pick up some potassium iodide pills to protect the thyroids of you and your loved ones. According to the PubChem open database of information about chemical compounds,

"Potassium Iodide is a metal halide composed of potassium and iodide with thyroid protecting and expectorant properties. Potassium iodide can block absorption of radioactive iodine by the thyroid gland through flooding the thyroid with non-radioactive iodine and preventing intake of radioactive molecules, thereby protecting the thyroid from cancer causing radiation. In addition, this agent acts as an expectorant by increasing secretion of respiratory fluids resulting in decreased mucus viscosity."
 

So stop wondering about it and just get the pills.
 

Final Shot

The last thing you want is to try and get your act together when the news report sounds like a Tom Clancy novel. You must assess the situation. Make a decision. And go. Not figure it out. Lay out some options. And then go shopping. The window of opportunity is smaller than almost any other catastrophic man-made event. There are no major surprises here. A nuke could fly through the air exploding over somewhere in the USA. and won’t matter one bit if we turn North Korea into bacon. The damage here is done, so the rest is up to you. If you don’t believe me, please watch the classic movie from 1983 called “The Day After.”

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Epic Smart Shield Water Filter: Truly Epic!




Call me paranoid, but I’ve used my MSR backpacking water filter in homes and hotels on three continents. That’s not when camping, but in actual cities where I’m absolutely sure the water passes all industry standards…on paper. Anyone who ventures closer to the equator than not knows the perils of drinking local water, using ice made of the local water, and even bathing in so-called clean local water. Unless there is a riot outside your door, or a terror threat in progress, there is no greater challenge to your health than what’s in the water you drink.


The explosion of micro filtration devices like LifeStraw, Sawyer, and others is evidence that 1) there is a need, and 2) we care enough to use them. We are the lucky ones who have a choice. Given the endless supply of contaminated water on this planet and the mindboggeling number of ways water can make you sick or kill you, leaving the purity of your drinking water supply up to the local government or hourly-wage workers checking monthly that all’s well is foolish from every perspective. Even bottled water is questionable given that the standards for bottling water are no better than those same rules that regulate the water in every major US city.

Jumping off the Brita Wagon
Gravity filtered pitchers were all the rage when they appeared on grocery store shelves. The Brita movement was most people’s first taste of what filtered city water was like. Of course the trend caught fire and became the household standard for decades. Unfortunately, the Brita concept is based more on looks than quality. Brita filters do remove some contaminants, but no where near what’s necessary to actually raise the quality of the water to reasonably high standards.



But over those decades, we have learned more about the bad stuff in our water, and even the stuff we don’t measure. And also the fact that the Brits filter won’t remove much of the bad stuff, and even less of the other bad stuff. Luckily there are choices today. I’ve been running a Culligan Reverse Osmosis system in my house since last century. But dropping a grand on a multi-stage under sink self-fauceted system is not for everyone. So when it came to equipping my mountain home with a filtration system, I turned to Epic Water, a Boulder, CO based company that cares more about clean water than any other company.



Epic makes an affordable, effective, and simple to install under sink system along with its line of filtering bottles and pitchers. I’ve had an Epic Water Pitcher for a year now and it never fails to impress. Here’s a video showing how it removes the colored dye from Gatorade compared to a Brita…which doesn’t.

  

Sub MOA
For under a hundred bucks, the Epic Water Epic Smart Shield is a single canister multi-stage water filter than can be inserted directly into your cold water line. Using the bypass coupler, the cold water line is diverted through the filter, and back into the existing line. It really is that simple. The press-fit couplers are an industry standard that I’ve used for decades with no issues whatsoever.
 

The replaceable canister can be swapped out in a quarter turn, and the cost of all that clean pure safe water is often less than what many pay for a month of water service. Often half or a third! So while you throw a wad of cash at the local water company each month, do the smart thing and purify your water supply with a solid filter system like Epic Water.


And don’t even get me started if you have kids. I honestly believe that there is no better start in life for a child than fresh clean water. The stressed on the earth’s fresh water supply has never been greater, and it seem each month there is a new threat. From arsenic to lead to pharmaceuticals to mercury to biological agents, water is the source of life, but also a constant threat. There’s not much you can do about most world problems, but there is a solution for clean water: its called Epic Water.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Designated Marksman Carbine (DMC)




The concept for the Designated Marksman Carbine or DMC has been around for awhile now, but not in the pure DMC form. Instead it was either hopping up a 5.56mm to maximums, or dumbing down a larger cartridge so it could be shot effectively off-hand. To really capitalize on the Designated Marksman Carbine concept, I had to do it myself to ensure the spirit of the DMC was in play for my imagined needs.

The Designated Marksman Rifle or DMR is a middle ground between a battle rifle and a sniper rifle. It is usually a semiautomatic in the pattern of the M16 or AR15 rather than a bolt action hardstock version that could be mistaken for grandad’s hunt’n rifle. Almost. The removable box magazine options of the DMR allow a larger capacity than bolts, and the manual of arms is often nearly identical to the battle rifle like the M4A.


The DMR is an accurate long distance shooter when compared to a battle rifle built with a 16-inch or shorter barrel. But compared to the 24-inch barreled sniper rifle, the DMR is a medium distance shooter with near-MOA accuracy out to 500 meters any day of the week and 800 meters on Sunday. But the DMR is not without it’s issues. First and foremost, it is yet another rifle to ruck around the battlefield. And second, it requires a DM or designated marksman to operate with it. A third issue that may or may not be of concern is that the DMR usually takes a different larger cartridge compared to the battle rifle with accompanying need for different mags, different bore brushes, and it is likely mounted with a heavy optic that prevents fast operation in close quarters.

Just as the DMR ran interference between the carbine and the sniper rifle, I saw a need in my personal preparation for something that closed the gap between the AR15 carbine, and the bolt action hunting (think sniper) rifle capable of reaching half a mile with enough energy to make the trip worthwhile. While the 55 grain .223 round can reliably touch targets at 700 yards, it won’t make much of a statement when it’s get there. Even if the 5.56mm bullet extracts its pound of flesh, its effectiveness is limited to flesh and not hide, leather, canvas, plastic, glass, wood, sheet metal, and especially not sheet metal. At 800 meters, the .223 bullet drops into double digit energy. That’s almost a 90% drop compared to the energy the .223 has at 100 yards and might even be less than a traditional .22 long rifle at 100 yards!

Contradiction as Opportunity
So while the need for a Designated Marksman Carbine seems obvious, I’ve found many of the off-the-shelf AR10 (.308 in an AR pattern) carbine rifles to be less reliable than I’ll tolerate. I don’t live on the gun range, and don’t imagine that a dark future will have covered bays or sunny days on the square range. Therefore, any AR10 in my preps will need to be above average and with hand-picked Designated Marksman Carbine components.


In a nutshell, the AR10 I built up started with a matched pair of Mega Arms upper and lower receivers with the Mega Arms nickel-boron finish. The receivers are named the Maten presumably for “Mega Arms Ten” instead of AR10. Umm. Whatever. I was hoping the Maten was some exotic jungle dwelling apex predator that captured prey at long distance.

The parts that matter include a single stage CMC drop-in flat-shoe trigger set at 3.5 pounds, and locked in place with anti-roll pins. An Aero Precision stainless steel 16”  barrel with matching Aero Precision bolt with phosphate finish. The handguard is a smooth round aluminium beauty from Unique AR, an McCall, Idaho based ARtisan company that makes CNC artwork where a boring quad rail used to live. For a build like this Designated Marksman Carbine I wanted a smooth round handguard to allow for an unobstructed rest when on rough or non-level surfaces.

Level Headed
A rifle is only sighted in as well as it’s leveled. A perfect vertical alignment between optic, barrel and gravity is imperative if you want to know with certainty if the bullet will hit is mark. Since the optic is not affected by the pull of the earth, but the bullet it, sighting in a long gun means dialing in the intersection between crosshairs and bullet drop (or rise). Like shooting a basketball towards a distant hoop, the arc of the projectile’s flight whether ball or bullet is only as precise as it’s vertical alignment with gravity. If a rifle is tilted, the arc is different so the accuracy is compromised. For close shots, the difference is minimal but still, the offset iron sights should be on target for a 45 degree counter-clockwise rifle rotation.

Back to the round handguard, when a railed handguard is places on a compromising surface, it either tugs the rifle in a rotational direction as it searches for stability, or balances precariously on a point causing the rifle to teeter back and forth. A round handguard can sit still on many for surface shapes.

For those shots where a bipod is preferred, a bipod is available. Sitting out near the muzzle, it usually won’t interfere when not active, but the free-floating barrel allows the bipod to be at the furthest point away from the stock providing a rock-solid platform on such a short marksman sight radius.


Welding Flesh
Rounding out the other end of the Designated Marksman Carbine is a Magpul UBR or Utility Battle Rifle stock. What makes this an Unusual Buttstock Replacement (UBR?) is that the cheek weld remains fixed and only the shoulder pad section moves. The two benefits of this design are, first the position of face to sight (cheek weld) remains constant regardless of the position of the stock. And second, the lockup of the stock in any position absolutely rivals a fixed stock in solidity and quietness. Of course that does come with a bit of a weight increase, but it’s not as bad as it seems given that the UBR comes with its own buffer tube.

In the middle of muzzle and stock is a Leupold 3x-9x tactical scope on a Mark 2 integrated mount. The premise behind integrated or single stage mounts is that the scope has only one large point of contact with the rifle rather that dual scope rings. Dual rings can work great and are the staple of hunting rifles, but in that case the scope was not to be removed unless another sight-in session was possible. Integrated mounts like this Leupold maintain zero much better, and can cross rail lines between receiver and handguard if necessary without much if any loss in accuracy. In the case of this Designated Marksman Carbine, the Leupold mount resides completely on the upper receiver rail. If you scope has long eye relief you might have push it further down the barrel crossing real estate lines that can introduce alignment disputes.

Since the point of the Designated Marksman Carbine is to manage the territory between 300 and 800 meters with enough dignity to bother with, the .308 Winchester seems a perfect round. It's almost as common as the 7.62 NATO, and just as good. Plus it’s one of the most common rounds available surpassed only by the 9mm, .223/5.56, and perhaps the 12 gauge. In other words, don’t worry about availability. But if you want something smaller like a 6.5 whatever, or larger like a .33x, I won’t be able to share ammo with you. And likely nobody else will either. That said, I appreciate the finer nuances of the recent calibers and cartridges for long range shooting, but there is no room in the Designated Marksman Carbine concept for nuances.

Magpul is THE source for magazines, providing a mild choice of capacity and color for the AR10 platform. With cartridges as large at the .308, weight adds up literally twice as fast compared to the .223. A boxmag of twenty .308 rounds is about the same as a box of forty .223s. Further, the size of a container holding noticeable and anything longer will mess up the rifle’s ability to move freely when bipod or resting low. This is the reason that hunting rifles and most sniper pipes don’t use or even have so-called high cap mags. Accuracy trumps volume every time. However, the Designated Marksman Carbine is not a ridiculous choice for CQB and janitorial work, but it is near the threshold of overkill and awkwardness. So considering a more-than-20 .308 mag is not foolish, just not as practical as it might seem.




Can It
Cans, suppressors, silencers, regardless of what you call them, they are an excellent idea for many reasons. With a noticeable reduction in the loudness of a rifle shot, there is also a reduction in stresses on the trigger pull from flinching and apprehension. Setting off a 60,000 PSI explosion inches from your face is bad enough, but a literally defining concussion is something to be avoided. The can on this Designated Marksman Carbine has a muzzle brake built in that really does noticeably reduce recoil to a pleasant level. With a recoil impulse up to four times more than a .223, while not scary for most shooters, it certainly is not enjoyable. Recoil is just a fact of life so lessening that fact is always a welcome change.

Home on the Range
Mobility is a key to Designated Marksman Carbine success so building a go kit for the Designated Marksman Carbine was the next logical step. As a carbine with collapsible stock, the entire rifle and bipod minus the can easily fits into a 36-inch gun case, the 5.11 Vtac MK II Double Rifle Case in particular for this project. Thirty-six inches is just a yardstick. It’s barely noticeable in the big picture.

Rather than a tube or pouch-type gun case, the 5.11 Vtac MK II Double Rifle Case completely unzips along three of the four sides turning it into a 36” by 24” range mat. Not as good a as a dedicated mat, but far better than nothing and much better than a tarp.

Other additions to the Designated Marksman Carbine Go-Kit include a Leatherman MUT multitool for the AR platform, a wind speed meter, A Sig KILO2400 Ballistic Rangefinder (with Applied Ballistics/SIG app on iPhone), a flashlight that can turn on in lowest mode (non-tactical), a camo baseball cap, and ear protection. And on the ear pro side, if possible I carry electronic ear muffs that can amplify the local sounds and take a radio input if needed. Regular earplugs/earmuffs block all sounds to a degree so it easy to miss things like someone sneaking up on you. Amplifying the sounds through electronic earmuffs is truly a bionic upgrade. They ate also a go-to for inhouse personal protection when you really want to hear those bumps in the night.


Another addition to the go package is a tarp of 3-D camo material. Behaving as a ghillie suit for a prone shooting position, the tarp is a quick and versatile concealment option that runs double duty as a hunting blind as well.

Gearing up for when it matters is never inexpensive or flawless. Choices have to be made, and money must be spent. Moving forward on your preparation plan ends in action. All the best intents will be meaningless if there is no action before the deadline.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Gear Review: Fiskars X7 Hatchet



Fiskars is a village in Finland that gave it’s name to a company back in 1649 owned by Dutch guy named Peter Thorwöste. Mr. Thorwöste started a blast furnace and forging operation that went from ironwork to copperwork and ultimately in 1832 cutlery in 1832. 

 

Cut to today. Fiskars is a household name for inexpensive and innovative cutting and chopping tools that often contain plastic components and bright orange colored accents. Oddly, or perhaps more a contradiction, the plastic-handled Fiskars hatchets and axes have a near rabid following on the scale of the all-steel Estwing choppers. I guess that’s proof that function trumps form.



For a $25 plus or minus hatchet, the Fiskars X7 Hatchet is surprisingly effective. In fact, the hollow-handled X7 does something that almost no other hatchet can do: place a vast majority of the weight of the tool on the cutting head, yet be strong enough for real chopping.
Hatchets are designed for one-handed operation, and as a chopping tool, the there are two simple machines at work, but only one that requires mass. The handle is a lever that moves the rotational energy into a larger diameter circle of motion. That leverage is consolidated onto a weighted head in the shape of a wedge (two inclined planes base to base). The weighted momentum of the hatchet head is where the action is. When the blade (known as a bit) hits wood, the sharp end of the triangular head burrows into cellulose spreading apart the grain. If the wood wins, the bit stops. If the bit wins, the wood splits apart forever.


The shape of a hatchet head has a couple traits that tell the story of how well the tool will do particular jobs. Splitting hatchets like the Stihl go from narrow to wide very quickly. While the modern tomahawks like the Estwing and the CRKT remain quite thin. A deep wedge will split rapidly, but loose speed into the workpiece almost immediately. The narrower the wedge, the deeper it cuts, so if your workpieces include things like animal carcass and human skulls, you might want some deeper penetration. In the middle are the camp-style hatchet and axe heads that run general duty but are limited in their splitting and battle qualities.


The Fiskars X7 Hatchet is a solid performer for basic camp woodworking tasks especially when weight is at a premium. Its weight-forward design chops above its pay grade, and that with a total weight of only 22.75 ounces. The balance point on the Fiskars X7 Hatchet’s handle is about one inch south of the head. For reference, the balance point on a classic Estwing solid steel hatchet is about two inches south. The Estwing, by the way, has a handle about an inch shorter than the Fiskars X7 Hatchet, and weighs about seven ounces more.


One of the most unique features of the Fiskars X7 Hatchet is that its hollow plastic handle can be used for a mild survival kit. Just north of the excessive swelling at the base of the handle is a lanyard hole. The palm-side of the handle base is called a heel, with the finger side named the toe. The X7 has a very pronounced toe. So pronounced that I can hang the hatchet by the toe on the web of my hand (between thumb and index finger). 



Back to the lanyard holes. There are actually a pair of them, one on each side of the emptiness. With 11 inches of emptiness filled with survive (I’ve taken to use the word “survive” as a noun lately), a bolt with wingnut or some other fastener can secure the tools within the grip. I’ve played around with different kit stuffed into the Fiskars X7 Hatchet handle including a half-dozen feet of paracord, a CRKT Pazoda folding knife, and a Swedish Fire Steel minus the cord and striker. The Fire Steel fits rather snugly so I first inserted most of the paracord, then the knife, and then tied a loop of paracord on the Fire Steel with a small section of paracord sticking out the bottom of the handle. A bolt and wingnut secure the kit. When extracting the kit, once the bolt is removed, the paracord is pulled popping out the Fire Steel and the rest comes tumbling out. The paracord is also an effective noise dampener for rattling objects since the hollow plastic tube of a handle resonates sound quite well.




Another option for fun is to drop a trio of orange Bic lighters into the handle followed by a little tinder to snug things up. Add the bolt, and you’ve got a fire kit. Of course this route is more orange than function.



While I’ve not had personal experience with a Fiskars handle shattering in the cold, I have heard such tales. I’ve also see pictures of broken Fiskars hatchets and axes. Fiskars is known for great warranty service, but ideally you shouldn’t have to use it. Another concern is that if the handle does become useless, the design of the Fiskars X7 Hatchet head is more like the primitive stone axe heads that contained no eye (hole through which a handle is inserted). Instead, to reclaim the cutting prowess of the hatchet, any handle remnants still attached to the head would need to be removed, and the head could then be lashed onto a branch or wedged into a split stick and tied in place.


The chance of handle breakage increases as the temperature drops and the handle length increases. The “FiberComp®” plastic material is surprisingly durable and the tube design is probably stronger than a solid plastic or fiberglass handle. Further, solid handles of steel and fiberglass are known for effectively transmitting the shock of a wood strike directly to the nerves in your hands and arms. 


The bit is coated with a non-stick film somewhat like a frying pan. This allows the hatchet head to penetrate further into the workpiece, and slide out backwards with less effort. The factory edge is plenty sharp to use right out of the box, but I did manage to chip it with less effort than usual. The Fiskars X7 Hatchet has a traditional compound bevel edge meaning the approach to the edge is smooth but just before reaching the edge, there is a sharper drop angle  to the edge proper. This double bevel is fairly easy to sharpen second only to the flat bevel where there is only one angle.


I also felt the edge dulled faster than some of the convex and traditional bit grinds, but that could also be the steel. However, when I used an axe sharpening puck to clean up the damage, it took much longer than my carbon steel axes and hatchets. But the Fiskars X7 Hatchet was back in service in no time since we are only talking a few minutes.


The widest metal on the head of the Fiskars X7 Hatchet is only five-eighths of an inch. While the narrowness reduces this tool’s splitting capabilities, it does boost its knife-like fine motor skill duties. With a hand wrapped around the head, it's easy to feather sticks for fire starting, and process fish and game.

Although the Fiskars X7 Hatchet is not anywhere near what I would consider an heirloom hatchet, it is a workhorse, and an inexpensive one at that.