Rifle Review: Is The Shootrite Katana AR a One-and-Only Gun?

If you could have only one gun, what would it be? The very first sentence of Colonel Jeff Cooper's extraordinary book, The Art of the Rifle, reads: "Personal weapons are what raised mankind out of the mud, and the rifle is the queen of personal weapons." After a bit of further eloquence on the use of power, Cooper offers this: "The rifle is a weapon. Let there be no mistake about that. It is a tool of power, and thus dependent completely upon the moral stature of its user. It is equally useful in securing meat for the table, destroying group enemies on the battlefield, and resisting tyranny…" On matters pertaining to weaponry, I agree with Col. Cooper. I answered my "one gun" question in 1993, when I bought my first AR-15, a Colt Sporter, .223 with a 20-inch heavy, match-grade barrel, and began spending every last dollar I had on ammo to run through it. I've never been big on wishing for Armageddon (well, maybe for a little while, when I was 18 or so, watching the movie Red Dawn with a gang of friends) but I love to read history, and one of the key lessons I've come away with from my reading is that it's a lot better to be armed than to be unarmed. And armed, to me, has come to mean ARs: lightweight ammo and rifle, reasonably accurate far and near, capable of killing your deer, defending your castle, or having a fighting chance against the possible steamroller-driving malefactors of unfolding history. Col. Cooper would insist on his Steyr Scout rifle for these tasks, and a wild gaggle of other experts would insist on their choice, but that is what it is--a choice--and I choose the AR-15 platform, the simpler the better. Although I'm still shooting my Sporter, the world around my rifle has changed considerably. What we have witnessed is a kind of oceanic move by humanity into deeper and deeper levels of complexity in every facet of life. For some folks, this is highly rewarding--an app for everything, a GPS breadcrumb line to your bed each night. Caught somewhere in the yawn between the Luddites and the techno-geeks, I'm still seeking simplicity, in rifles and in life. Luckily for me, my old friend Tiger McKee who founded Shootrite Firearms Academy in Langston, Alabama, has been involved in the same search. Unlike me, he actually has the expertise to produce what he could not find. On a visit to Shootrite last summer, I got to shoot Tiger's new Katana rifle, a stripped down, hyper-efficient little AR-15, that McKee originally built just for himself. I take into account that I am prejudiced--Tiger and I have been friends for more than 30 years, and I was even an early guinea pig for some of the courses at Shootrite. That being said, after running a few thousand rounds through Tiger's rifle, I still choose the Katana as the answer to my personal "only have one gun" question.
Here's how Tiger explains the concept behind the rifle: "I saw the trend that all the manufacturers were following, building these heavier and more complicated rifles, and I wanted just the opposite - I wanted a rifle that was true to Eugene Stoner's original vision for the M16/AR, but one that was updated with bomb-proof modern components for reliability." When he could not find one of those, he decided to build one. "I just built the rifle that I wanted to shoot. And over time, my students asked me where I got mine. They'd shoot it, run part of a course with it, and they'd see what was obviously clear to Eugene Stoner: under stress, simpler is better. And they wanted one. I started out building the uppers for them, but I couldn't build nearly enough of them at home to meet the demand." For the past year or so, he's been producing the Katana on a limited scale with Will Hayden of Red Jacket Firearms in Baton Rouge. The Katana rifle, like its namesake, is a lethal piece of equipment that pays closest attention to the most important components. The barrel is thin and lightweight (with a 1 in 8.5 twist), with no heavy chrome lining, and trued to actual 5.56 specs (as Will Hayden explains, "There's a big difference between .223 and 5.56, and if you are using military spec 5.56 in a .223, it will get you into trouble eventually." Simply put, you can safely shoot the .223 in a 5.56 chamber, but not the other way around.) The bolt assembly is mil-spec with an MPI bolt and the firing pin is held in place with a solid retaining pin rather than the flimsier split cotter found in other AR bolts. Extractor and ejector springs are chrome silicon alloy for durability and corrosion resistance.
As you can see, there is no tri-railed handguard, no vertical foregrip, no tactical sling. The rifle comes with a fixed front sight and a removable A1 style drum rear sight, which can be adjusted for windage but not for elevation ("How many people really adjust elevation in a firefight?" Tiger asked. I'd add "or when subsistence hunting?") Around the barrel is a featherweight, single-piece carbon fiber handguard with the barrel nut permanently attached. A rail section at eleven o'clock (for the right handed shooter) allows for the attachment of a tac light. The Katana shoots the tried and true .223, as well as military 5.56 ammo. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel here," Tiger said, "I'm just making sure the wheel rolls like it's supposed to." Part of that goal is determining what this rifle is designed for (and what it is not.) "The Katana is a fighting rifle for general purpose--for law enforcement, the armed citizen, or for security applications," Tiger said. "We're talking about semi-auto fire (at) moderate or short ranges. We're not clamping on bipods, hammering our way through bayonet drills, or running mag after consecutive mag through it during extended field operations. For those applications, a heavy barrel is useful--as it is in a hasty sling position, where you are putting tension on the barrel. The Katana's thin barrel is free floated--you can sling up and it won't affect accuracy." Tiger (and Hayden) cite the same reasons for not using the heavy chrome lining. "The non-chrome-lined barrel is inherently more accurate," Hayden explained. "And this isn't 'Nam. We're shooting mostly good ol' American ammo, and we even get to clean our guns every once in a while."
AR shooters will search in vain on the Katana for the familiar round forward assist behind the bolt. Tiger says he deliberately excluded it from his design. "One of the things Stoner always said was this: 'When you get a cartridge that won't seat in a rifle, and you deliberately drive it in, usually you are buying yourself more trouble.'" The Katana has a small concave cutout behind the exposed part of the bolt carrier that provides an assist function, but lacks the leverage of an external assist. The rule is, if the pressure of a finger in that concave assist won't seat your cartridge, you need to cycle the bolt, not force that bad cartridge into your chamber. In the past 20 years, Tiger says, one of the most serious malfunctions he's witnessed on ARs is a bent charging handle. "A bent charging handle is one malfunction that will really put you out of commission," he explains. "When a charging handle twists, it locks up the bolt carrier. You're done. It's one crucial part that has to be of the utmost quality." His answer for the Katana is the Bravo Company's new BCMGunfighter charging handle. Likewise, Tiger says he's seen too many aftermarket trigger assemblies on civilian rifles fail under heavy shooting and training pressures. "I see these 3-pound triggers, these aftermarket trigger assemblies, sold as "match triggers" or "competition triggers" and they are fine for that function. But you are introducing variables that can lock up or break, and what might just be a hassle on the range will mean something entirely different in the field." The standard trigger assemblies in the Katana have proven reliability, an acceptable and crisp pull (approximately 6 pounds) and, most important for an instructor like Tiger, a positive trigger reset that an operator can feel in his trigger finger. "That is a 100% essential quality in any fighting rifle," he says.
How does it shoot? In two trips to Shootrite over the course of year, I was able to run about 1,000 rounds through the Katana, one equipped with an Aimpoint M-3 red-dot sight (on a GG&G mount), and one with the standard A1 drum sights. The rifle is extremely light (right at 6 lbs.). The A1 stock (5/8th inch shorter than the standard A2, as on my Sporter) seems tailor-made for our first session, a winter day where I'm wearing a heavy jacket. Session two took place on a sweltering 98-degree day. I had no problem, either day, finding a solid cheekweld on the stock. (The Katana is also available with an adjustable Magpul CTR stock.) In both sessions, I was shooting a kind of hybrid Shootrite class, focusing not just on my training, but also on trying to see how the rifle really works, for me, under a wide variety of shooting situations. We started from about 30 yards, shooting offhand. I turned out 2 ½ inch groups, which is not bad for me. Shooting two or three rounds at a time, I kept backing up to increase the range, still on flat ground, with excellent footing. I'm accustomed to shooting pretty slowly, on my own, out on the prairie, and this shooting on command was much faster-paced, and more stressful. Not surprisingly, my groups opened up quite a bit (I shot better with the Aimpoint than the drum sight).
Tiger called the groups acceptable, but said that I needed to slow down a little bit, and quit slapping the trigger. It's noteworthy that he doesn't keep a bench and sandbags anywhere on the range. He's convinced that the modern American obsession with hyper-accuracy is taking energy away from practical shooting and gunhandling skills. "You want a rifle that will shoot better than you can shoot it, and that is it," he says. And that is under field conditions, offhand, prone, standing with a one hand brace on a wall, rifle rested on a tire, etc. We ran The Wall, a structure of doors, windows, crawl-unders, and other obstacles that simulates an urban environment. By now we were at about 60 yards, and 300 or so rounds into the exercise, and I was banging the metal targets with satisfying consistency. From 100 yards (that's from the berm you can see behind me in this photo) shooting from prone or kneeling (and pretty much at my own pace), I was still banging them with every shot.
That is practical accuracy for me. It does not touch my Remington 700 .308, but no matter. I might have shot a better 100-yard group with my Sporter H-Bar, but I would have lost the mobility of the Katana while working up and down the Wall, and after holding the Sporter up through the countless malfunction and reload drills, I'd have been tired enough to have lost accuracy all around. It is, once again, a choice, and a series of trade-offs. For Will Hayden, producing the Katana has been, simply, the right course of action. "When I saw Tiger's design, I recognized a kindred spirit. The more I looked at what he was doing, the more I wanted to be a part of it." Hayden believes that the highest form of a fighting rifle is the simplest and most reliable version, and that many shooters have lost sight of what truly works, in the clouds of attractive gadgetry. Hayden adds, "It's funny, isn't it, how going back to what works can seem so revolutionary?"
As far as disadvantages to the ultra-simple approach, Hayden says he has not heard of any complaints from customers. "We've been in production for a while now, and I've heard zero negative feedback from anybody who has actually ordered one, paid for one, and used one," Hayden says. "And they've paid good money for that rifle, so if there was something to bitch about, believe me, they'd have long ago been bitching long and hard. Mostly, people who want the Katana know what they want in a rifle. It is what it is, and that's what they are looking for. "We are producing a fighting rifle that stays within match-grade specs. We want our customers to be able to win a competition with their fighting rifle, if that's what they want to do. It's a competition gun that has not lost sight of what you are training for. That pretty much sums it up."
I still don't own a Katana. At $1,849.95 it's outside of my price range for now (uppers alone are available for $1,249.95, but the lowers are now built by the top-notch Daniel's Defense, so the incentive is there to shell out the extra bucks), and I'm not selling off my Remington 700 meat-and-horns rifle to buy one. But I'm throwing the quarters in the jar, and in the crystal ball in my mind, I see a Katana resting prettily on the sprung seat of my bucket-of-bolts '80 Toyota pickup, which says a lot about my priorities. I guess that I could be described as one of Dave Petzal's "Preppers" - I just feel a lot better when I have a nice light bombproof .223 handy, or slathered in Cosmoline and hidden away. Even if that day of "one rifle" never comes (and I hope it does not), I'll still have had a lot of fun shooting the Katana out in the field. It'll be in the quiver of rifles that I pass down to my children, and they can pass it on to theirs.
_For more on the Katana visit these sites:
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Katana on Discovery Channel's Sons of Guns Sons of Guns Katana Target Course Specs and description of the BCM Gunfighter charging handle used in the Katana. Red Jacket Firearms