A closer look at the custom-quality Axelson Tactical Black Pearl AR-15.
ARs are not created equally. There are degrees of differences among the various AR-platform rifles from near-indecipherable nuances to impossible-to-miss distinctions; some variations are only Cerakote-deep while others become clear on the range. With the market inundated by black rifles, manufacturers must find a way to stand out. One manufacturer working to distinguish themselves is Axelson Tactical and they’ve reached new heights with the Black Pearl.
Axelson Tactical may be a relative newcomer to the gun world but in the handful of years they’ve been designing firearms they’ve made an indelible mark on the industry. The company was founded by Jeff Axelson, surviving brother of STG2 (SEAL) Matthew Axelson who was killed in combat during Operation Red Wings, the ill-fated mission made public through the book and subsequent movie Lone Survivor. Jeff Axelson and his family decided to shift their focus solely to firearms in part as a legacy to the late SEAL. To date AR platforms have been their priority.
Secrets Of The Pearl
Since Axelson Tactical began designing rifles I’ve been fortunate to run almost every model they’ve produced both on the range and in the field, dropping everything from hogs to Blackbuck. And while all their guns certainly get the job done with quality and style, the Black Pearl stands out. It was designed as a lightweight multi-purpose rifle with an edge: precision. It’s important to remember that just as there are differences between rifles there is a difference between accuracy and precision: put simply, accuracy is hitting the general vicinity of the bull’s eye with loosely grouped shots while precision is consistently striking an exact spot, creating a tight group. Looking for precision? Look at the Black Pearl.
The Black Pearl is a custom-quality AR-15 built by Axelson gunsmith Dave Bischoff who gives each rifle his undivided attention. Many of its specifications reflect its being designed to be competition-ready out of the box including its .223 Wylde chambering and 16” Proof Research carbon fiber barrel with a 1:8 twist rate. Carbon fiber furniture was used throughout the gun including the company’s own Ultra Lightweight Carbon Fiber Fixed Stock and 15” Carbon Fiber M-LOK Compatible Rail. Its lighter weight is absolutely one of the benefits of carbon fiber but it is neither the only nor the best reason to use it in firearms. Carbon fiber has incredible tensile strength and depending on the composite used can be up to ten times stronger than steel and eight times stronger than aluminum while also boasting superior fatigue properties and corrosion resistance. This means not only does the Black Pearl weigh in at a scant 5 pounds, 4 ounces, it’s tough.
Of course, the model includes more traditional metals, too. The upper and lower receivers are 7075-T6 Forged Hard-Coat Anodized Aluminum; forging is believed to increase a receiver’s strength due to its continuous grain structure and the electrochemical process of hard-coat anodizing improves wear-resistance. Other components include a mid-length direct impingement gas system and BCM gas block; the length of the former softens recoil and the latter is manufactured within tight tolerances. The trigger, which is an Axelson Drop-In Adjustable Single-Stage with a slightly curved blade, can be adjusted between 2 pounds, 5 ounces and 7 pounds, 5 ounces.
The high quality of components continues with the Diamond-Like Carbon Coated (DLC) Bolt Carrier Group (BCG). There are a number of BCGs on the market with such a wide variety of finishes it can be difficult to know which is best, and DLC is currently one of the least common. However, it’s a long-established coating in other industries, specifically those where high temperatures and friction are issues. DLC is a nanocomposite coating with properties similar to those of a natural diamond such as high hardness, low friction, and extreme resistance to corrosion. Axelson Tactical chose the DLC BCG for the Black Pearl because it enables the rifle to function at a higher level. The coating is applied to the bolt, bolt carrier, and gas key, and the BCG is HPT and MPI tested.
Testing and Accuracy
“Test to break.” Those were Jeff Axelson’s words regarding my testing the Black Pearl, and I took him at his word. I put the rifle through it all – rain, snow, sun, and the accompanying dust and mud – and fed it ammunition until the crates of spent brass reached astounding heights. It was dragged, carried, and knocked over (the latter being an accident caused by my 90-pound Lab, Puck). It was used until friend and gun store manager Tylar Coe dubbed it “Dirty GaGa”. This is what I found.
For the review I mounted Trijicon’s latest, the 1-8x28mm AccuPower, to the Black Pearl’s full-length Picatinny rail. The only downside to this pairing was the scope’s weight of 25 ounces – almost one-third of the rifle’s weight. Shooters interested in taking full advantage of the rifle’s lightweight build should use a lighter optic. Weight aside, the AccuPower is a stellar scope with a first focal plane reticle offering exceptional clarity and nice field of vision.
I shot from various distances but spent the most time at 100 yards. For accuracy testing I shot from the bench, stabilizing the rifle using Brownell’s sandbags, but during my sessions behind the trigger I also shot off-hand, prone, and kneeling. The Black Pearl ate thousands of rounds ranging from Sinterfire Greenline .223 Remington 45-grain Frangible to Hornady Match .223 Remington 75-grain BTHP. To cover my 5.56x45mm NATO bases I used Federal 77-grain OTM and Barnes VOR-TX 62-grain TSX HP.
The Black Pearl’s slim 3/8” thick buttstock mounted snugly to my shoulder although I did have to adjust my usual support-hand grip while shooting from the bench due to there being nothing to rest against the web of my hand. A pad is available as a custom option; the fixed stock can also be ordered with a closed rather than open configuration. The tube has a diameter of 3.5” which facilitated a solid cheek weld and despite my long length of pull I was able to position myself comfortably behind the fixed stock.
Felt recoil was negligible which might not seem noteworthy due to the rifle being chambered in .223 Wylde but is worth mentioning because it was softened beyond what was expected from experience with countless other AR-15s. Zeroing went quickly, as did the moments I needed to re-zero for different loads, the simplicity of which can be partially attributed to the trigger. My Lyman Trigger Pull Gauge showed the rifle shipped with a trigger pull weight of 4 pounds, 13 ounces which is around what many shooters prefer. Since I, myself, enjoy a light pull weight I chose to make an adjustment although I did spend time shooting beforehand.
Making the adjustment was simple: I confirmed the rifle was empty, slid the takedown pins free, set the upper receiver aside, and held the lower receiver in my left hand (a cradle or vise could also be used). A single 1/16” Allen head screw was immediately visible atop the disconnector. Using the corresponding Allen wrench I turned it counterclockwise to lighten the pull weight, periodically using my trigger pull gauge to monitor my progress. At 2 pounds, 5.3 ounces, I stopped adjusting; it’s possible to overturn screws and doing so can cause problems with a trigger’s functionality. At both the aforementioned pull weight of 4 pounds, 13 ounces and the lightest setting the trigger was smooth and had a clean, crisp break with a short reset. One of the greatest benefits of lightening a trigger is increased precision, something the Black Pearl excelled at to begin with.
It was immediately clear the Black Pearl does indeed perform well as a precision rifle. Loaded with Hornady .223 Rem 53-grain Superformance Varmint V-MAX the rifle nailed Shoot-N-C targets with sub-MOA groups with a best five-shot group from the bench of .530”. It didn’t just linger above half-an-inch, though; Browning .223 Rem 50-grain BXV Varmint Expansion delivered numerous sub-half MOA groups with a best five-shot group of .428”. The rifle seemed to like heavier loads, too: DRT .223 Rem 79-grain Elite provided a best five-shot group of .595” and Federal’s latest, .223 Rem 73-grain Gold Medal Berger BT Target did nicely at .619”. Overall, accuracy testing went quite well with the Black Pearl proving itself as a sub-MOA rifle with sub-half MOA leanings.
Through thousands of rounds of various brands and loads the Black Pearl experienced no failures of any kind. My goal to run the rifle to failure failed in itself; the ammo ran out before the gun did. In the end it was filthy and in need of a thorough cleaning but as long as I kept it well lubed with the SEAL 1 CLP Plus I keep in my range bag it cycled consistently. Its precision can be credited to a variety of factors including its Proof Research carbon fiber barrel, light, crisp single-stage trigger, and Axelson ROC Competition 10-Port Tunable Muzzle Brake. With the trigger at 2.5 pounds and the muzzle brake tuned – a task accomplished with an Allen wrench and a little time spent on minor adjustments – the rifle proved itself as a reliable tack-driver. Sub-half MOA groups speak for themselves.
Axelson did solid work with the Black Pearl. According to founder and owner Jeff Axelson, the team “wanted to design a lightweight, strong, deadly-accurate rifle. By combining the Proof Research barrel, our newly-designed carbon fiber furniture, DLC BCG, and single-stage trigger we created an ultra-lightweight speed demon.” Gunsmith Dave Bischoff added that they wanted to create a lightweight race gun. It would seem they accomplished all that and more.
To paraphrase Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean fame – the rifle is, after all, his “nigh uncatchable” black-hulled ship’s namesake – it’s not just a receiver and a barrel and a trigger; that’s what a rifle needs, but what a rifle is – what the Black Pearl really is – is freedom.
For more on Axelson Tactical, please visit axelsonusa.com.