It was during a scorching 113-degree day, under the bright burning sun and five hours into a carbine competition that I started adding up the merits of lightweight AR-15s. With arms feeling like gummy worms and SPF50-soaked sweat stinging my eyes, I became slightly delirious trying to line up a 150-yard shot at a steel plate to end my run on the final stage. The weight of my 10-plus-pound rifle wasn’t playing nice, and I thought to myself, “Hmm, how does the old saying go again? Ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain?”

That episode feels like a lifetime ago. It was well before the lightening craze that has hit the AR world over the past few years. It was a time when Picatinny was king, handguards were wide-bodied and we couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Lightweight-profile barrels were not yet popular, and optics felt like they were made of tubes of lead. A lot has changed over the years, including the approach to rifle builds, ever lighter components and how rifles are used.

The Mission

The guys at Black Dawn Armory of Sedalia, Missouri, are not only gun builders but competition shooters as well. They regularly attend, as well as sponsor, local 3-Gun matches. It was while shooting at these competitions that people kept asking them the same question: “Can you offer a lightweight rifle without having reliability issues?”

Looking into the matter, they found that many off-the-shelf 3-Gun AR-15s, prior to adding accessories, weighed in at just under 8 pounds and could check out in the lofty $2,000 range. Add a variable scope and some other kit, and you’re looking at a rifle that can weigh 11 pounds or even more. Black Dawn found that by the end of the day, many shooters begin to succumb to fatigue, and as a result, their accuracy, times and scores begin to suffer—as yours truly can attest to.

Now armed with a mission to solve these issues, they set out to bring to market a lightweight AR-15 geared toward competition as well as tactical shooters that could perform reliably without breaking the bank. The result is the model BDR-556-3GLW that you see before you. In its stock trim, it weighs in at just 6.18 pounds with a Black Dawn Armory 15-inch, MMR-length, free-floating handguard and is available in an even lighter 9-inch-rail version that weighs a sparse 5.81 pounds.

Keeping It Simple

The BDR-556-3GLW is very straightforward and basic in a good, keep-it-simple-stupid kind of way. It features forged 7075-T6 aluminum upper and lower receivers that are finished in MILS 8625 Type III Class 2 anodized finish. They are precision CNC-machined with the upper getting M4-style feed ramps. We did not observe any imperfections on our example when we examined it closely. The upper and lower receivers fit together nicely, with no slop to speak of.

Inside the upper receiver, we discovered a full-auto M16-type bolt carrier group (BCG) with Black Dawn etched on the carrier. The BCG is ion bonded for durability and features melted contours for extra slickness. The bolt itself is stamped “MPI” for “magnetic particle inspected” to ensure against material defects, which is a nice sign of quality assurance. A standard charging handle helps charge the rifle in its stock form, and a teardrop-style forward assist completes the top end.

Aside from an ambidextrous sling mount at the end of the lower receiver, it does not have any other ambidextrous controls. Again, it’s a very straightforward build. The buffer tube is mil-spec size and can handle any aftermarket stocks of the same diameter. An oversized trigger guard is ready and willing to accept fat fingers or gloved hands.

Built To Perform

As we just mentioned, most of the rifle is pretty simple—you might even call it boring. But that modesty only exists where it needs to be. The Black Dawn crew, being competition shooters themselves, didn’t skimp on components that they knew would make a big performance difference.

The heart and soul of the BDR-556-3GLW is a 16-inch, pencil-contoured, carbine-gassed Black Hole Weaponry barrel made of 416R stainless steel. The barrel features Caudle 3-land polygonal rifling, which translates to increased accuracy, an improved gas seal for better efficiency and easier cleaning. The barrel has a smaller 0.625-inch-diameter gas block to help shave down extra weight. We postulate that the barrel’s skinny profile is the main reason why this rifle can hit a sub-7-pound weight. A low-profile gas block is secured to the barrel via setscrews.

On the business end of the barrel is a Lantac Dragon Muzzle Brake DGN556B. We’ve already had great success with the DGN556B in a previous build, so we were confident that the muzzle brake could do a fine job with this rifle as well. It features what Lantac calls a Short Energy Pulse system that reduces the length of recoil so that repeating shot energy does not knock the shooter off target. In plain English, it means that it’ll reduce recoil for faster repeatable shots on target.

Another well-chosen performance item that comes standard in the BDR-556-3GLW is a CMC 3.5-pound, flat-contoured, drop-in trigger. This match-grade-style trigger keeps your trigger press nice and clean for rapid follow-up shot capabilities. A bonus is that because the trigger is a self-contained unit, its removal from the lower receiver for maintenance and cleaning is as simple as loosening a couple of screws and pulling it out without any risk of flying springs.

Keeping to the lightweight-build theme, Black Dawn chose to equip this rifle with Mission First Tactical’s Battlelink Minimalistic Stock. Incredibly, this stock weighs less than 6 ounces even with a rubber buttpad on it. For the grip, Black Dawn went with XTech Tactical’s ATG grip. The ATG is user-adjustable for three different grip angles. This grip is another component we’ve had great results with in the past.

In The Lab

Because the BDR-556-3GLW is already so excellently appointed, there wasn’t much we wanted to change about it. Of course it needed sighting options, but that was it. Or was it? Ballistic readers will know that we love installing aftermarket parts (when needed) on the guns we feature. In this case, Black Dawn had chosen a few key pieces that we really like, so we left those alone. What we did do, however, was replace the 15-inch Black Dawn MMR free-floating handguard. The diameter of the MMR is bigger than what we’re accustomed to, and the attachment interface it is made for is based on Magpul’s older MOE system, not that company’s current M-LOK system, which we prefer.

We went with the superbly built EraThr3 Low-Pro M-LOK Handguard in a 14-inch length. It weighs a measly 9.3 ounces with its barrel nut, is ready to accept any M-LOK attachments and it’s easy on the eyes. It mounts solidly to the upper receiver with only basic tools. For increased control, we attached an SLR Rifleworks M-LOK Handstop Mod2-Barricade, which has a jagged end for jabbing into barriers to help steady your shot. Helping shield our hands from the heat coming off the barrel and giving us a ton of extra grip are two sets of Magpul M-LOK Type 2 Rail Covers. The covers are ultra-grippy without any further need to stipple them. Up top we swapped out the standard charging handle for a BCMGunfighter Mod 4 charging handle. Its wide paddle and interior architecture make it easier to manipulate. Because we planned to use a variable magnification scope, we knew that traditional flip-up iron sights would not be the way to go because the scope would interfere with its use. A set of front and rear Magpul MBUS Pro Offset Sights were just what we were looking for. If the optic fails for any reason, with a quick flip and tilt of the carbine, we’ll be back in business.

You seasoned bargain hunters out there have probably come across the Sightmark brand before. The company’s mostly known for lower-priced optics that are commonly seen at gun shows or even discount sporting goods stores. We should probably say that they used to be known for that. Late last year, Sightmark unveiled its line of Pinnacle optics, which include an impressive variable, first-focal-plane, 6x magnification model called the Pinnacle 1-6x24FFP. Available in two different reticle flavors, it features excellent Japanese glass that can rival many other leading optics for hundreds of dollars less. Both Pinnacle 1-6x24FFP optics retail at $1,200 and feature many of the attributes found on more expensive scopes.

The scope’s first focal plane, 6x magnification, clear resolution from edge to edge and user-selectable red or green illuminated reticle make it a solid candidate to look at if you’re in the market for a 6x variable optic. The version we chose was the 1-6x24TMD, which features a Tactical Mil-Dash first-focal-plane reticle for range finding and quick target acquisition in competition or tactical applications. Our Sightmark sits in a Badger Ordnance 30mm Unimount one-piece optic mount.

To increase its “pew” capacity, we added a BCM TTI PMAG Base Pad that increases a 30-round Magpul PMAG’s capacity by five and a 40-round PMAG by six. We chose to run with the former.

Shooter Make Ready

After we fully outfitted the BDR-556-3GLW, we headed to the range to simulate various rifle competition stages. We loaded up on American Eagle 5.56x45mm in 55 grain and ran stages that consisted of everything from paper-shoot and no-shoot targets at 5 to 10 feet and steel plates beyond 10 yards, to poppers and a Texas star at 30 yards and farther, and then culminating with three 9-inch steel plates, two at 75 and one at 120 yards. Dashing from station to station, hitting the deck, shooting on the move and swinging the rifle from one side to the other gave us a good taste of what the Black Dawn gun was all about.

The rifle, for all its simplicity, worked effortlessly. It felt balanced and easy to point without any tendencies to oversway or overshoot the target. The CMC trigger made our string of fire extremely quick. If we had one argument with the rifle, it would be about the carbine-length gas system. We’ve become accustomed to the smoother-shooting mid-length and rifle-length gas systems that are in most competition-ready rifles, and the snappy recoil we experienced from the BDR-556-3GLW was a bit unexpected, especially for a gun geared for competition. The positive to such a setup would be that it should run a larger selection of ammunition without any problems. We were shooting full-powered 5.56x45mm, so perhaps if we shot lower-powered .223 Remington it would’ve been slightly tamer.

The Sightmark was a pleasant surprise. At 1x, it produced a slightly wide-angle view, so we dialed it in a third of the way, closer to its 1.5x mark, and got a very good approximation of 1x. At 1x, we could comfortably shoot with both eyes open with our choice of a bright red or green dot. For the targets that were farther out, cranking it to 6x would be made easier with an extended magnification throw lever. The glass was still clear and bright, even when acquiring targets at distance.

Our experience with the Black Dawn Armory BDR-556-3GLW was a very positive one. It’s basic where it needs to be, and it cranks up some serious performance where it’s required. The common theme throughout was a healthy dose of impeccable build quality. Considering it comes standard with a premium selection of parts, including a Black Hole Weaponry barrel, a CMC trigger, a Lantac muzzle device, and MFT and XTech furniture, its retail price of $1,399 seems reasonable.

Oh, and did we mention that it comes with a lifetime warranty? What’s not to like? The crew at Black Dawn Armory set out to build a reasonably priced, lightweight, 3-Gun-ready rifle, and we’d say they hit the mark dead center.

For more information on the BDR-556-3GLW, please visit

Up Next

19 Silent Suppressors From the Ballistic Buyer’s Guide

On top of reducing the level of noise coming from your gun, suppressors also...