by Ed Whiting
whether flying over wilderness areas, extended backpacking, or day packing, there may come a day when you have to protect yourself, or need to hunt game in order to survive. In addition, you only have to read the headlines about the growing number of mountain lion attacks and armed people at marijuana gardens in the northwest United States and Canada to realize it can dangerous in some remote locations. (NOTE: carriage of firearms may not be legal in all wilderness areas; be sure to check the law before doing so.)
Equipped to Survive® (ETS) has for years shown us what works and what does not for those days when things go really wrong. So when I first saw the folding Kel-Tec SU-16 rifle, I thought of ETS. Having the right tool for the right job can be critical to survival. I have been carrying various makes, models, and calibers of firearms in the back country of California since I was 16 years old. I always tried to balance light weight with necessity. Just when I think I tried and carried everything, along comes Kel-Tec with a new rifle.
It is not their first, but it incorproates a nice combination of features for a survival firearm. A lightweight semi-automatic chambered in .223 Remington (5.56 Nato), it has a picatinny rail system for mounting optics and integrated folding bi-pod legs. The rifle folds in half for storage, uses the same magazines as AR-15's and M-16 rifles, and holds two, ten-round magazines in the butt stock. All these features make a potentially outstanding survival firearm package.
I used two different Kel-Tec SU-16A Alpha models for this evaluation as well as a SU-16B Bravo model provided by Kel-Tec for this Test & Evaluation. The main difference between the Bravo and Alpha model is that the Bravo model has better sights and a shorter barrel. Otherwise it is the same rifle. Shorter translates into "lighter" and means it is a little easier to store. Since I backpack, lighter is a good thing.
I have come up some criteria for evaluating firearms I would be betting my life on. Whether it is a .22 rifle or a .20 gauge shotgun, I expect it to do the job intended and do it reliably. For the most part I have not found that "magic bullet" or "magic gun" which will do everything, but the Kel-Tec SU-16 is pretty close.
One of the first things I like to know is whether the firearm is user friendly. Is it easy to load? Easy to unload? Easy to assemble and disassemble? How does it carry? How does it shoot? When you are carrying in the wilderness or out of a downed aircraft, the last thing you want to do is go looking for the instruction manual. Can I read the manual and retain it for years to come?
After reading the manual, I assembled and disassembled the rifles. I found the SU-16 series of rifles to be simple, reliable, and easy to clean and put back together. With lots of color pictures, the manual is easy to understand. This rifle has some similarities in design with the AR-15 / M16 series of rifles, but the operating system borrows the operating rod from the AK-47 / SKS series of rifles for bolt cycling and the rest is John Browning via Colt.
To disassemble the rifle, after clearing it, place it in the folded position with the bi-pod legs down, then simply push in and rotate a 1/4 turn on the operating rod.
Push the bolt back and remove the bolt handle, then lower and remove the bolt assembly with operating rod. This requires no tools and is very simple. Anyone familiar with the AR-15 bolt can now disassemble the bolt and clean it.
After the first 450 rounds of .223, these rifles should have been pretty gunked up, but they were not. Since this is not a direct gas system, the expended gas and most of the residue go out the barrel or the gas port in the front. Very little gets into the bolt area. Most of the residue was easily cleaned. I cleaned the bores with Break-Free CLP every ten rounds, for the first 300 rounds, to break in the barrels, and then again at the end of the first firing session. After that I simply wiped down the insides and away we went again for another range session.
|37.4 inches overall length
18.5 inch barrel
|35 inches overall length
16.1 inch barrel
Both models can be folded down to about 27 inches by 7.5 inches. The Bravo model folds up nicely into my CamelBak HAWG pack and is ready anytime for a daily hike in the woods. It does not appear I am carrying a rifle, certainly not one in .223 caliber. The Alpha model is not much bigger. Both are easily stored in a back pack or day bag of the right size.
One of the best things I like about this rifle is the caliber. The .223 Remington (5.56 Nato) has been around for many years. It is an intermediate cartridge used for both varmints and medium game. Because of the widespread use of this cartridge by our military and civilian hunters, it is widely available in many bullet weights and loadings. This is a good thing for us. Plus, it also shoots right were you aim it. I like that in a bullet. Below is the list of ammo I used for this test, in copious quantities of course.
This ammunition selected is widely available almost anywhere and only represents a fraction of the loaded ammo available. All of the major manufacturers load a .223 Remington or equivalent 5.56 Nato round. As always, never rely upon any ammo that you haven't first thoroughly tested with your particular firearm, no less than 100 rounds for a long gun.
I know some of you reading this will ask if I tried the Wolf Brand of ammo from Russia in this test. I did not. Wolf ammo is cheap ammo to be sure, but hard on extractors and chambers. The steel cases don't "give" like brass or nickel and they wear out extractors faster. Some of the available Wolf ammo still has the lacquer finish which can gum up hot chambers and cause failures to extract. There is better ammo out there to practice with. Besides, if I was betting my life with this rifle, and I would be, I don't want the extractor to break in the field after practicing with cheap ammo. This would be courting disaster a.k.a. "Murphy" -- and he really doesn't need any extra help.
As for performance, the Alpha and Bravo models performed flawlessly. After 730 rounds fired between them, there were only two malfunctions, and both were ammunition-related failures to feed (FTF). It seems the Kel-Tec feed ramps do not like the Remington UMC 45 grain hollowpoints. I suspect it is because of the flat nose bullet design. As you can see from one of the pictures accompanying this article, the Remington UMC round was pushed deep into the cartridge case mouth. I could not get more than ten rounds of this ammunition to function in either rifle; I discarded the ammo and fed it to my AR-15 rifle, which digested it fine. Since it fed other manufatcurers' hollow points just fine, this is just another lesson in making sure your rifle likes to eat what you feed it.
I fired the Kel-Tec rifles with their factory ten-round magazines as well as with 20-round Bushmasters and 30-round Colt, Adventure Line, and Sanchez magazines. There were no magazine-related malfunctions of any kind to report.
The sights are easy to see and easily adjustable. The Alpha model uses a sliding elevation front post for windage and elevation, with a light-gathering front blade. The Bravo model uses the traditional AR-15/M-16 front post, adjustable for elevation, and a newer windage-adjustable rear sight. The gun shoots straight and fast. It has light recoil and the stock shoulders well. Keeping ergonomics in mind, this rifle is well thought out. Anyone who is recoil-sensitive will appreciate this rifle. The bolt is heavier than the AR-15 series of rifles and I suspect it absorbs the recoil somewhat better.
Being light weight and easy to store is one thing, but can it shoot accurately? I decided to shoot the gun cold a few times to check points of impact and then again after it was good and hot from several strings of fire. I wanted to see how the barrel held up under heat. Using standard ball ammo (Winchester 55 grain FMJ Q3131A) I test fired the Alpha Model from a stable platform at 100 yards. I also wanted to see how well the integral bi-pod performed. I will say while it is not the most stable bi-pod I have ever used, it does work, and keeps the rifle steady for tight, well-placed shots. I was able to keep the groups tight, an average of 1.5 inch groups at 100 yards. Keep in mind this is not a target rifle with a target trigger, target barrel or target ammo, so that's pretty darn good performance right out of the box.
The one thing I found was that when I did not use the bi-pod, the rifles shot several inches low. Groups were still tight, but lower than when using the bi-pod. This means it is incumbent on the user to know where his or her rifle prints, both with the bi-pod and without it. With any rifle you shoot, using a bi-pod will sometimes change the point of impact. The Kel-Tec is no different. If you use this accessory, you will want to shoot it both with and without the integral bi-pod and know your point of impact change. If you don't, you may well waste a couple of rounds trying to get supper on the table, rounds you may need later. Sometimes, there is no second opportunity.
The bottom line is, if I do my part, I know the SU-16 will do its part. Good to know, and good to go.
In order to see if this rifle would put meat on the table, I asked my friend Joe, who is a fellow law enforcement officer, if he would like to assist me in this project. With hunting licenses in hand, he and I drove up to some nearby BLM land for a little workout session with the Alpha and Bravo models. Now keep in mind Joe has never shot this rifle, but is not a rookie either. After some preliminary safety instructions on the rifle we set out to see if dinner was waiting for us. The BLM land has no shortage of small game, including rabbits, coyotes, and ground squirrels. Jack rabbits and cottontails are by far the most prolific. We did not have to wait long. I spotted the first rabbit with 5 minutes, but Joe got off the first shot of the day. The Bravo model was quick and fast handling. A few minutes later the second rabbit fell to me with the Alpha model, courtesy of the red fiber optic front sight. Two rabbits, two shots. Joe said the Bravo model shot exactly where he put it. He was impressed and so was I.
Speaking of hitting what you're aiming at, the Kel-Tec is very accessory friendly. This is because Kel-Tec has a flat top receiver with a picatinny rail system. This is designed for easy mounting of scopes or optics of any kind. No drilling or tapping required. Just mount and shoot. Quick detachable scopes and optics are an ideal feature in any survival rifle, allowing the shooter to retain his original sights in the event the optics or scope fails.
Another feature I like is the storage of two, ten-round magazines in the butt stock. To date, no folding rifle I am aware of comes close to carrying this much centerfire ammo integrally with the firearm. The Kel-Tec boasts 20 rounds of .223 Remington. The stock also supports the use of a 20-round or 30-round AR magazine in place of the ten-rounders. So it is conceivable you could just carry one, 30-round magazine in the butt stock, folded, throw it in a pack and off you go into the world. (NOTE: Not all states allows high-capacity magazines. Check your state and local laws.)
I did find two areas that need to be addressed. One of my concerns is the takedown pin. If it becomes lost in the field, the rifle will not fire without some type of field-expedient fix. Moreover, it's a proprietary pin. The good news: the takedown pin is easily replaced with a 1/4 inch hitch pin, available at any hardware store for about $2.00. You could carry a spare or just replace it ahead of time. The hitch pin has a ring attached which makes it easy to secure. I like simple.
Another issue I noted several times was that while carrying loaded ammo in the ten-round magazines stored in the butt stock, one of the rounds came loose, then rattled around until it fell out. Not just once either, and not just one round, but sometimes two or three. This became a routine after driving around the ranch or just driving to the range. I attributed this to the polymer magazines being too flexible, so a little bumping of the weapon allowed a round to become dislodged and fall out. Rick Mueller at Kel-Tec tells me the older magazines did not have enough percentage of fiber in the polymer, and the newer magazines do. Rick said anyone with the older magazines can simply send them to Kel-Tec and they will be replaced at no charge. If you have older magazines, I suggest you take advantage of this offer?
The Kel-Tec is made in the USA and has a lifetime warranty, with the usual caveats about modifications of the original configuration. But, there's nothing really that you need to do to this rifle, it's good to go as is. It is rugged and reliable, has light recoil, has an integral bi-pod, boasts a flat top receiver with picatinny rail system, and it folds in half to make a compact package. It is very easy to clean, and easier to store. It's no slouch in the accuracy department, either. Plus, it is lightweight. What else could I say except "I like it!"? I liked it so much, in fact, that I bought mayself an Alpha model, the second Alpha mentioned in this article.
The Kel-Tec SU-16 rifle is light and uses a good, all-around intermediate cartridge which is easily obtained and a joy to shoot. It is also easy for the shooter to absorb the recoil, making it better suited for a woman than a shotgun or a heavier rifle in a survival scenario. Its most desirable feature is that it folds up and can be carried in a back pack or stowed away under a seat without getting in the way of other gear. Add to this an integral set of bi-pod legs and a flat top receiver with a picatinny rail system for mounting scopes and sights and you have a real winner. It is available in all 50 states, including California.
The backpacker in me says this is my new "ride." The Range Master in me says I would have no problem allowing this rifle to be carried on duty as a patrol rifle. What more could anyone say?
Kel-Tec also has a line of accessories and several different variants with everything from a shorter barrel to a heavier barrel, better sights, parkerized barrels, and different colors such as OD green, coyote, and black. The "Charlie" model boosts a folding stock which still allows the shooter to still fire the rifle, though this stock is not legal in California.
Manufacturer's Suggestted Retail Price (12/2005) for the SU-16A is $640, while the B model lists for $690. Shopping around can yield significant discounts. The Kel-Tec Web site includes updates on their rifles and their manual in PDF format.
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Review written by: Ed Whiting
Email: Ed Whiting
Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
Email: Doug Ritter
First Published: December 11, 2005
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