So, I've talked a LOT about what types of ammunition to use in ARs, what bullets work best, what barrel twist works with what ammo... why the AR exist in the first place and uses the ammo that it does...
Somehow I never managed to get around to talking much about magazines; except to note they are the single biggest point of failure for the AR platform, and the first thing to consider when things go wrong.
Well they ARE. I harp on it for a reason.
Somehow though I never managed to talk about what magazines to buy, or not to buy, and how to pick'em.
Well, a friend of mine was heading to the gunshow this past weekend, and he asked for advice on mags; so I wrote this up for him, and I thought I'd share it with the rest of you.
Ok, let's break it down.
First things first, don't buy mags at the gun show (or at the gun shop for that matter), unless they're a spectacular bargain... or a reasonable price, but new in the plastic with the original manufacturers imprint on them, and/or in a sealed crate with a trademark you can read.
I don't trust mags bought at gunshows very much, and unfortunately most gunshops are only one step above that... after all most of the guys selling dodgy, mismarked, clearly fraudulent crap mags at gunshows, are gunshops.
Honestly, if they aren't 100% quality and cheaper than $20 don't bother, just order from Brownells. In fact I'd say cheaper than $15; and that's for brand new.
Second, what to buy and what to avoid.
Let's piss some people off shall we?
For aluminum commercial mags, Brownells mags are excellent; and are available straight from Brownells with an upgraded follower, spring and baseplate for $2-$6 extra. They are both the best value in commercial magazines, and the best quality. I recommend them over all other commercial magazines.
Bushmasters all metal mags are good, but avoid the ones with the plastic baseplates (they are reliable, but can't be rebuilt).
HK mags are also excellent, and actually worth a couple extra bucks, but not the $40+ that they charge for them (remember "HK, because you suck, and we hate you"). In that same vein, Colt commercial mags are good, but they try to charge a large premium for them just because of the name, and they aren't worth it.
C-products mags are generally very good, and they are the only manufacturer I know who sells new mag bodies only, in bulk, to the general public (convenient if you want to use your own spring, baseplate, and follower). They're also VERY reasonably priced.
Cammenga makes a new "speedloader" type magazine, that actually splits apart (the front of the mag slides down), to let you rapidly load them. Reports on them are good so far; but they're only a couple years old and havent seen much hard use yet. I'd be worried about fine dust and the like jamming them up... but for a range mag it seems like a great idea.
The Beta C-mag from Betaco is a heck of a beast. It's the only reliable drum magazine for the AR (and most other 5.56 rifles, and the M14 and others by the by) on the market, and it's great fun... but I don't know that I'd trust my life to one exclusively. Also, REALLY expensive.
That said, I do have one, and I love it. If you can afford one, it's the perfect companion for a heavy barreled AR on a bipod. You can just sit their and pick targets off all day long.
Aluminum USGI mags... a mixed bunch to be honest. First of all, frauds abound. Second, honestly, some of them just aren't that great, even though they are "mil spec".
Also it is VERY IMPORTANT to remember that a lot of the USGI magazines that end up on the commercial market are there because they were rejected by the Gov't (it's illegal to sell rejected USGI mags, but it happens all the time anyway). They may be generally good with a small flaw, or they may be unreliable POSes.
I have never seen Brownells USGI mags for sale commercially, but as I said, they are the best.
Sabre are excellent (their commercial and gov't contract mags are the same).
Bushmaster USGI mags are excellent (better than their commercial).
FN mags are generally good, but their springs are iffy on their USGI mags. I personally have seen failures in their springs, baseplates tabs, and feed lips to a higher extent than other manufacturers; but anecdote != data.
Colt mil-spec mags, if real, are excellent, as are Okay industries/OK, Universal Industries, Simmonds Precision, Knights armament, and original Armalite. They should be, they are all from the same manufacturer (OK). Again though, watch out because frauds are everywhere (usually made in Taiwan or Singapore).
LaBelle mags are excellent, in fact probably the best older USGI mags (Brownells and HK are the best commercial, and better than LaBelle by a small amount). DPMS labeled mags are from LaBelle, as are newer Armalite, Knights, Stoner, Smith and Wesson, General Stamping, Eagle Arms (not Eagle or American Eagle) and some others.
If your AR is from a reputable manufacturer other than Bushmaster, FN, Colt, or Sabre (who all make their own) and it came with an own brand stamped magazine; it's probably a LaBelle... or rather NOW a "General Stamping" as they bought LaBelle some years ago; though I believe they continue to use BOTH imprints.
Adventure Arms, Adventure Line, Center Industries and Parsons, are all also the same manufacturer, and pretty good.
Take this as you will, but as of today, there are only three certified providers of contract USGI AR magazines, Brownells, Center Industries, and OK industries.
Everybody elses aluminum mags , I'd stay away from.
Sanchez mags are not very good. Cooper mags are horrible.
Remember, all legitimate USGI mags, and U.S. commercial mags will have the manufacturer clearly stamped on the baseplate; however with used mags, it's entirely likely the baseplate won't reflect the original manufacturer of the other components, as things get mixed around with cleanign etc...
The Singapore and UK steel mags are excellent if you don't mind the weight, but the lips can gall and bind on steel ammo. Other then c-products, I haven't seen any good commercial steel mags.
For polymer mags, Magpuls pmags are excellent. Thermold and Orlite mags are also very good. In any polymer mag though (even new ones), be very careful about cracks and warping.
The REAL israeli milspec polymer (Orlite, but may not be labled as such) and milspec metal mags are very good, but fakes are everywhere. Same thing for the South African mags.
USA mags, Triple K mags, Promags, National, Eagle, American Eagle, (but not Eagle Arms) and American Magazine are all horrible.
Any magazine with a finish other than than phosphated (parkerized), teflon coated, or epoxy coated, should be avoided as well; as no matter what the markings are, they are either cheap foreign made crap, refinished by god knows who concealing god knows what problems, or a fake.
For ANY of the above magazine, commercial or USGI, I'd change the followers to magpul followers. They're about $2 a piece. You can also buy Brownells mags with them installed already, and of course all magpul mags have them. Oh and HK has a direct ripoff of the magpul follower that they refused to license (they do that sort of thing).
What about used, or mag kits?
You can pick up mags with perfectly good bodies but with the older black follower design very cheap, as people read "green follower" on the net, and all of a sudden black follower mags are anathema. Well, the green follower isn't very good either, and for $2 you can change the follower to magpul, and get a real bargain in the process.
All USGI mag springs prior to the late 80s are suspect. I change them out for Wolff and Brownells springs as a matter of course. I would also recommend replacing the springs and followers of any used magazines you by as a matter of course (you just don't know where they've been so to speak).
Magpul and Brownells both sell rebuild kits that include a new spring and follower for around $5. Baseplates are cheap. If you can get a deal on good USGI, or good qaulity commercial (you'll have to look for proofmarks) mag bodies, you might want to consider it.
What to look for (and hopefully not find).
When you're evaluating a mag, the first place to look is the feed lips. They should be free of ripples, dings, gouges, nicks or burrs, and they should be even and smooth.
The feed lips are the second most common failure point on the AR mags behind the springs. A bad spring is fixable though; if you have bad feedlips, you've got a bad mag.
Then look at the base plate and see if it's secure. Are the body tabs good, does the plate move without too much binding, but not so loosely that it will vibrate out? Does the base plate bend and stay bent (bad. The mag is either old and abused, or a forgery. The plate should spring back)? Is there any discoloration, cracks, or burrs in the tabs, and do the tabs bend easily under finger pressure (they shouldn't)?
Use something to depress the follower as far as it will go. Make sure you're pressing down in the center as you push, and check to make sure it doesn't bind excessively (a very little bit is normal), or tilt excessively (again a little bit is normal).
Check the entire body for dings or gouges. Even if the finish is worn off it could be a good mag, so long as the body is sound.
Check the welds. They should be clean, neat, and evenly spaced. There should be a minimum of 4 of them front and back, and as many as 7 (different manufacturers at different times, have used different numbers of welds). Some earlier (or cheaper made) USGI and commercial magazines only had 3 welds and should be avoided. Current Milspec is 6 welds, front and back.
Try to twist the top and base of the mag in different directions; you shouldn't be able to or at least not to any significant degree. If you can, the welds are bad, the aluminum sheet is too thin, the aluminum alloy used is wrong, or it hasn't been properly heat treated (or possibly not at all).
Remember, AR mags are essentially disposable.
Excepting HK (remember, HK because you suck and we hate you) and the Beta-C mag, they sell for $10 to $20, and a slight structural defect is not worth trying to fix or work around.
If you start thinking of them as something other than disposable, you'll be tempted to keep them when they malfunction.
The HK mags are a special case here, in that HK may charge more for them, but they really take the disposable aspect seriously. HK mags are designed to be absolutely reliable, for 100 reloads. After that, HK doesn't care; and they have done their metallurgy to reflect this. They are known to develop feeding problems with extended use because of spring wear, and mag lip deformation.
AR mags always have been designed to be disposable, and you should treat them as such. You can replace springs and followers, but once the feed lips or the baseplate tabs go wonky, they cannot be recovered. You MAY use them as a range mag, but I just crushem or use them as targets.
Most "unreliable" ARs (from reputable manufacturers anyway) are just fine; they're just using bad mags (and usually bad ammo too. Cheap out on one thing, they're probably cheaping out on another).
It's very cathartic packing a bad magazine full of reactive explosives and blowing it up. Just stay at least 50 yards away, those aluminum bits can fly pretty far.
Oh and just on a note of personal preference, may I suggest 20 round mags over 30 rounders. I personally think they work better in general, and they're a lot easier to deal with at the range,
prone, on the bench etc... I prefer the straight bodied ones myself.
For more, and more detailed info, check out Troys Mag FAQ.