I’ve been a fan of 5.45x39mm for quite some time. It’s a caliber that allows me to shoot “full recoil” ammunition for practice purposes, but at a fraction of the cost of 5.56mm ammunition. I like it so much that I suggested to Spike’s Tactical that they build a more corrosion resistant version than was available at the time – namely, the S&W M&P15R, which I had been using for a while. As it turns out, they had already been considering a 5.45 – so it didn’t take a whole lot of convincing on my part.
Although my initial concern was for more corrosion resistance, when I heard the effort that Spike’s Tactical planned to put into the uppers, I was concerned about cost. The whole idea of 5.45 is cheap shooting – and that extends to the upper, as well. Naturally, there will be less demand for 5.45 than 5.56, so prices will be higher, as components are ordered in the dozens or hundreds instead of the thousands.
When I was told that the barrels, gas tubes, front sight bases, and flash hiders would be finished (treated) in melonite, and the bolt carrier group and barrel extension would be nickel boron plated, I envisioned a retail price of 800 to 1000 bucks, and figured that demand would be low. However, now that the product is almost at hand, pricing has been released – $620 shipped from AIM Surplus, including a 5.45x39mm magazine and a more powerful hammer spring, required to fire the hard primers found in surplus 5.45 ammunition. That’s hardly more than I paid for my S&W upper, which had rather severe corrosion issues after being fired several thousand times without cleaning. Even after being assured that the price would be low, I was still thinking that it’d be $750 or so.
If I hadn’t been sent one for T&E, I definitely would have pre-ordered one from AIM as soon as they were available. But I did get a T&E sample, along with 1830 rounds of 5.45, and happily hit the range. Before I received the ammunition, I put a full tin (1080 rounds) and a few extra boxes of surplus 5.45 through the upper. I was pleasantly surprised with the way the weapon shot – while I was constantly seeking ways to make my S&W carbine gas upper shoot like a 5.56 carbine, the Spike’s midlength 5.45 shoots exactly like my Spike’s midlength 5.56 upper. I was also very happy with the reliability of the weapon.
I started the evaluation by removing all traces of lubrication from the weapon. This is not a new test concept – Mike Pannone recently did the same with a Bravo Company upper, and has done so previously with other weapons, including a FailZero-equipped (nickel boron) carbine. However, I thought I’d repeat the test, and show some photographs of the weapon after various round counts.
Here’s the weapon out of the box. Other than minor cosmetic differences due to the Melonite process, and the 5.45x39mm laser mark on the receiver, the weapon looks, feels, and handles just like a 5.56mm government profile midlength.
The upper came tagged with various assembly and QC procedures checked and initialed. As an end-user, I like to see this sort of thing.
Everything you see here, except for the stainless steel roll pin, the plastic single aluminum heat shield handguards, and the sling swivel, is Melonited for corrosion resistance.
The production uppers will have a different style laser engraving/marking on the upper receiver.
As mentioned, the bolt carrier group is nickel boron plated.
The feed ramps are M4 type, machined before anodizing, and the barrel extension is nickel boron plated.
Melonited gas tube – it’s my understanding that all Spike’s Tactical uppers will have melonited gas tubes in the near future.
As I said before, I’ve fired a fair number of rounds through the upper, considering that I’ve only had it for 11 days.
I first fired 1200 rounds of Russian and Bulgarian surplus – one full tin of Bulgarian surplus, and four 30 round paper “boxes” of Russian. I shot this ammunition with carbine, H, H2, ST-T2, 9mm, and rifle buffers, along with carbine, Wolff extra power, Wolff reduced power, Tubb CS flat wire, and rifle springs. I experienced zero malfunctions. This shooting was done exclusively with CProducts 5.45 magazines with improved followers.
I then moved on to the Silver Bear supplied by Spike’s Tactical – 750 rounds of 60gr FMJ. The majority of this was done with the H2 buffer and Tubb CS spring. I also used the ST-T2 and carbine spring for a high speed video comparison of the ejection pattern of each combination. After 600 rounds of Silver Bear, at a total round count of 1800, four failures to feed were experienced. 30rd Lancer L5 magazines were being used, and proved unsatisfactory. A switch to the CProducts magazine yielded fewer failures, but two still occurred within the next few dozen rounds. All of these failures occurred while the weapon was not being properly held by the shooter – the stock was not against the shoulder. After switching back to the ST-T2 buffer and carbine spring, no such failures were experienced, even when the weapon was held away from the shooter using only one hand. The remaining 100 rounds of Silver Bear were fired without incident.
The next day, another 550 rounds were fired through the weapon, this time Russian surplus 53gr FMJ. 2 CProducts magazines were used, along with a 30rd Magpul PMag and a USGI 30rd mag. The latter two magazines were loaded with only four rounds each, and were used to practice speed reloads. The USGI mag, loaded only with 4 rounds, still proved difficult to insert, as the feed lips spread significantly. No malfunctions were experienced during this course of fire, which occurred within about an hour and a half.
At that point, having reached 2500 rounds, shooting ceased for the day.
I will continue to fire the weapon until it consistently exhibits signs of being nonfunctional. The six failures experienced were, I believe, an aberration, although in retrospect, I’m glad the weapon was fired in the manner that caused the malfunctions. It showed me several things –
- Just because a weapon works in one circumstance does not mean that it will work in all others
- Magazines not designed for 5.45 are unsatisfactory for the caliber unless limited amounts of ammunition are used
- The H2 buffer is probably a little heavy for the midlength 5.45 shooting weak commercial ammunition
Had the lighter buffer been in use, I’m positive that the malfunctions would not have occurred. Readers make take from this situation what they wish – yes, the weapon malfunctioned after 1800 rounds and no lubrication – but the cause was identified and eliminated, and the weapon has functioned perfectly for an additional 650 rounds with no lubrication.
After 2500 rounds with no lube, the weapon definitely feels more sluggish than it did at first – I get the feeling that malfunctions may be occurring soon. However, at this point, it still functions.
Just how dirty is the weapon after 2500 rounds?
Well, it’s pretty dirty.
Notice that the “steel deflector” shows significant wear. Also note the lack of carbon where the bolt carrier rides on the upper receiver.
Yes, that bolt carrier group was originally an attractive silver color. Again, note the lack of carbon on the contact surfaces of the BCG.
Although I can’t prove it, I believe that the lighter color of the carbon aft of the bolt’s forward contact surface is due to the higher temperatures experienced in this area relative to those on the forward portion of the bolt. Again, the contact surfaces are clear of carbon – some was transferred to them during bolt removal, but they normally see no such carbon while the weapon is in operation.
Here we see a “bolt’s eye view” of the inside of the upper receiver. Clearly defined contact/bearing surfaces identify areas requiring lubrication when a “no-lube” test is not in the works. It’s also easy to see where the bolt carrier meets the barrel extension, and that the M4 ramps are actually useful for this weapon.
We often see or hear of things “paying for themselves.” Most of the time, the people selling the items tell us this.
Now, some people will skew the results depending on their personal preferences. Some will say that they don’t consider buying 5.45 surplus because it’s corrosive, so 5.45 uppers don’t save any money, because you have to buy Wolf or Brown/Silver Bear 5.45×39. That’s silly. If you’re a very high volume shooter, you’ll shoot out a 5.45 upper before corrosion becomes a serious issue. With the Spike’s upper, corrosion should not be a factor at all.
On the 5.56 side, most people seem to assume that surplus ammunition is the same quality as Wolf or Brown Bear. Not so. Surplus ammunition was produced on behalf of various militaries and was intended to be used in wartime. It’s loaded pretty hot and quality control is generally very good. Modern day Wolf and Brown Bear is weak, underpowered ammunition. Bullet construction is not what many would consider to be high quality.
That said, you can’t really compare surplus to brass case 5.56, because the remaining brass has a good bit of value, while the steel 5.45 cases really do not.
So in order to determine how quickly a 5.45 upper will “pay for itself,” I calculated the relative costs of large amounts of 5.56 and 5.45 ammunition – approaching the subject from all points of view.
As of 8/24/10, AIM Surplus ammunition prices per round are:
5.45 Silver Bear: 18.3 cents (750 rounds or more)
5.45 Russian Surplus: 12 cents per round for 1080 rounds (11.1 if you buy 2160 rounds or more)
.223 Silver Bear: 20.95 cents (500 rounds or more)
5.56 PMC X-TAC: 30.95 cents (1000 rounds or more)
The above prices are the lowest in each category – 5.45 commercial, 5.45 surplus, .223 steel case, and .223/5.56 brass case.
Let’s assume that you already own a 5.56 upper, so the $620 cost of the 5.45 upper has to be added to the 5.45 tab.
From the chart, we see that the “break even” point of surplus 5.45 vs. PMC X-TAC is roughly 3000 rounds; versus Silver Bear .223, it’s just over 6000.
Silver Bear 5.45 breaks even with PMC at around 5000 rounds. I don’t know that many folks would consider comparing Silver Bear 5.45 with brass case 5.56. On the other hand, it would take about 25,000 rounds for Silver Bear 5.45 to break even against Silver Bear 5.56. You can see why I don’t really understand the people who buy Silver Bear 5.45 when surplus is available.
Also – 5.45x39mm is only cost effective if you buy in bulk. Surplus ammunition is readily available at the moment. If you want 5.45 surplus, I would buy it now.
“What if surplus 5.45 dries up?” you ask.
Well, if you buy 6000 or so rounds of surplus 5.45 now, and use it up, you will have “broken even” against .223; after that, if you have to buy Wolf or Silver/Brown Bear 5.45, you’ll be paying about as much as you would for .223 – so you’ll be no worse off. Eventually, you could swap the barrel and bolt out for 5.56 examples, and continue to use the rest of the components.
What about the 5.45 as an only AR? That’s a definite possibility for some folks. I certainly wouldn’t be upset if this was my only AR-15. And the money you save by not buying a 5.56 upper or rifle would go a long way towards surplus ammunition.
Here’s a chart showing the rough costs of the ammunition alone.
With all of that said, if you have a 5.56 AR, and you don’t plan on buying a lot of 5.45 surplus…the 5.45x39mm AR-15 uppers don’t make much sense from a financial standpoint alone.
But if you do…the cost savings can really add up.
To me, 5.45x39mm ARs are an inexpensive alternative to their 5.56x45mm counterparts for training purposes. For those looking to train with a 5.45 upper, I would recommend purchasing whatever 5.45 product is closest to your 5.56 (or 6.8, or 6.5) weapon. If you have a carbine, get the S&W. If you have a midlength, get the Spike’s Tactical. If you have a piston/op-rod weapon, get the LWRC. However, if you just want a great 5.45 to have fun with, the Spike’s Tactical 5.45x39mm is an excellent value, and one I would prefer over competing products on the market (at all price points).
Video reviews of the upper can be found by clicking on the “Videos” tab at the top of the blog.