EXTAR EXP556 Pistol Review

This isn’t the kind of thing I set up my website for and this isn’t the kind of thing I ever wanted to do with it, but I have noticed a glaring lack of information about the EXTAR pistol on the internet, and having just bought one, felt compelled to put this up so people can have a reference to draw from when deciding whether or not to buy an EXTAR for themselves.

That being said, it will be in depth and very lengthy touching upon absolutely everything that is needed to be known about this pistol from ergonomics to construction, assembly, and reliability.

Way back forever ago in November 2012, in the weeks before the Newtown shooting and associated ammo-and-gun-rush, I attended the Small Arms Review gun show here in Phoenix. While my fondest memories of the show in hindsight was deciding not to buy a 1,000 round case of .40 S&W for a little over 200 bucks because they wanted to charge tax and being miffed about having to spend sixteen dollars a pop on P Mags, (prescience is not my strong suit), I did have another wholly interesting experience at the city’s largest gun show. Crammed amid the hundreds of vendors was a modest display set up for a company called New Frontier Armory out of Las Vegas. The thing that caught my eye at the table was a very compact, very lightweight AR-style pistol they were showing off. That pistol was the EXTAR EXP. While they were not yet for sale at the time of the show, New Frontier assured me that it would go on sale in a couple of months with a price tag of around $400-450, and that they were to be the exclusive dealer for this new piece of hardware. I was hooked on the idea and checked their website religiously for months. After many a delay in product manufacturing, New Frontier finally posted the EXTAR for sale on May 20th, and I immediately bought one and picked it up from my FFL dealer a few days after, lamenting however that the MSRP had crept up to $600, whether because of the current Obamascare or just a cost of doin’ business being inconsequential.

EXTAR itself as a company I was not able to find much about, they are based out of Lake Havasu City here in Arizona, and the Exp 556 seems to be their sole product at this point in time, though I did hear faint rumblings of a 5.45 offering. But like many things floating around on the internet, it’s probably bullshit at this point in time.

The most noticeable thing about this pistol is that it is LIGHT. I know that’s their sales pitch, but seriously, this gun is stupid lightweight. I showed it to a friend of mine and he thought it was an airsoft gun. It clocks in at three pounds unloaded, four pounds with a fully loaded AR magazine. Polymer is liberally used in this gun, making it the lightest AR pistol in the world. The only parts that are metal are the barrel, gas tube, and bolt/carrier group. Even the fire control group is polymer, the concept of which is somewhat concerning to me. I know the first hundred or so of these pistols has FCG issues that led to a recall, something about the hammer breaking. EXTAR has honored their warranty and send replacement parts when needed, though I have not thus far had an issue with it. I read on a forum that you can drop in a standard metal FCG to increase reliability but I have not tried it.

Another alarming thing about the all-polymer construction is that the BCG housing is plastic as well. There is no metal insert (akin to a Kel-Te Sub-2000), and I could see that to be an issue with the long-term life of this gun. What if after a few hundred rounds, the BCG or gun itself heats up to the point where it melts, scours, softens, or otherwise weakens the inside of the chamber? I guess we will find out in a minute when I get to the actual function review. I wonder though, if a professional gunsmith or a place like Robar (conveniently located here in Phoenix) would be able to put an NP3 (nickel-teflon) coating on the inside of the chamber to exponentially extend the life of the firearm? Hell, I feel that even a thin sheet of steel fitted to the inside of the chamber would have been beneficial. Was this done to keep the weight down or as a cost-cutting measure?

To disassemble the EXTAR pistol and see for yourself, poke out the two plastic takedown pins, just like an AR-15, and pull the two sections apart. The gun cannot be opened “shotgun style” as many people do to disassemble their black rifles. The recoil spring sits above the BCG and slips right out of its guide channel. Pull the bolt back all the way, and pull the charging handle out the side of the receiver. Weird, I know. The BCG will then slip right out. The first thing you will notice about the BCG is that, yep, it’s pretty damn similar to an AR-15. The bolt assembly, in fact, is identical, as is the procedure to separate the bolt from the carrier. Remove the cotter pin, pull out the firing pin, rotate the cam pin 90 degrees, pull out. Bolt falls right out. The carrier is much shorter than an average AR-15 BCG, but it is also a lot taller. There is an added section to the top of the carrier that interacts with the recoil spring, eliminating the need for a buffer tube and dramatically shortening the OAL of the pistol. Reverse the steps to reassemble. The weapon is direct impingement and not gas pistol operated, which I assume leads to the same reliability issues with most black rifles of the type. The PLR-16 is gas piston, why isn’t the EXP?

Ergonomically speaking, the weapon is comfortable to hold and handle, and anyone familiar with an AR-15 platform will be right at home here. The reversible safety switch and bolt catch are both AR-15 style, as is the mag release and pistol grip. Matter of fact, any AR-15 pistol grip will fit on the receiver of this gun, allowing you to do a little customization to make it work right for you. The gun shipped with a Mission First Tactical “Engage” grip with storage compartment that should be plenty suitable for whatever you plan on using the EXTAR for. The gun has no dust cover. The sights are rudimentary, the front sight being essentially just a post sticking up from the gas block. It is not adjustable for elevation and can be difficult to see without the proper lighting. The rear sight is an AR-style peep sight or “ghost ring” or whatever you want to call it that rests inside the groove of the furthest back section of rail that runs along the top of the receiver. Ideally, you can tap it to the left or right to adjust it. The trigger breaks at a crisp and reliable 5.5 pounds with no travel or wiggle, and the trigger guard is what the company calls a “winter trigger,” which is just a fancy way of saying it is flared at the bottom to accommodate gloved hands or really sausagey fingers. It is not removable, which is fine because there is nothing wrong with it in the first place. The handguard is free-floating and the muzzle break is ported to help control recoil. It also has the added benefit of shooting a jet of pissed-off fire about a foot out of the front of the barrel. Why is that a benefit you ask? Because it looks cool as shit, and half the reason people buy guns like this is because they are cool. Don’t give me that “law enforcement” and “VIP security” nonsense, this gun exists because it can and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My one big bitch about the layout of the pistol and its features is that there is absolutely no place to put a sling or even mount a sling ring on it. One could theoretically drill a hole in the end of the buttcap and put their own sling ring onto it, but that makes me understandably uneasy because drilling into the receiver of a gun is just something you shouldn’t do. You could attach a rail-mounted sling to the top of the receiver, the only section on the gun that is railed, but that would obviously make the iron sights about as useful as Viagra in church. I hear that EXTAR is planning on releasing a replacement butt-cap that will accept or be attached to a folding stock to turn the EXP into a short-barreled rifle (all Class III NFA rules apply of course). Can they also release a buttcap that has a sling mount attached to it? Kel-Tec did it to their PLR-16, of which this gun is in direct competition with. That one simple addition would go a long way in increasing the gun’s versatility, and will also allow for a PDW-style set up for shooting, the lack of which will be addressed in a few minutes when we get to the actual fire test of the pistol.

Speaking of the fire test, let me clarify: this will not be a torture test. I am not going to run this gun into the ground, cover it with mud, hit it with my car, clog the barrel, dump 10,000 rounds through it, let my dog chew on it, or otherwise try to make it explode. I bought this with money out of my own pocket for my enjoyment, and my inspiration to write this review came afterward when I realized that no one else has bothered to and the last thing I want to do is blow it up for nothing but shits and giggles. If you want to hear what it will take to destroy this thing, get in contact with Guns and Ammo or Recoil and see if they’ll do it, but don’t bother writing Combat Handguns, this gun has no place in their magazine because it’s not a $9,000 custom 1911.

The pistol accepts all AR-style magazines and ships with one TAPCO polymer mag. I will be testing out the rifle with 5 different kinds of mags and 3 different kinds of ammo. The mags used are: mil-surp aluminum mags with green followers, crowd-favorite P Mags, the supplied TAPCO mag, some HK Maritime mags, and just for the fuck of it, the laughably flimsy thermold mag. I will be function testing the rifle with brass 55 grain ball ammo, 62 grain Lake City green tip, and 55 grain Tula steel case. Accuracy tests will all be done with 55 grain brass.

The first thing I noticed when firing the EXTAR is that it is EXTREMELY FUCKING LOUD. I had earmuffs on and it still gave me a headache. The concussive blast coming out of the top of the muzzle brake was literally blowing chips of paint off of the ceiling of the range I was firing at. It was one of the manliest thing’s I’ve seen in weeks. Said blast was also very difficult to get used to, my eyes would instinctively blink after the round went off, because a volcano was erupting eighteen inches from my face. By the end of the shoot however I was used to it, but God damn, I would die of a heart attack just from the muzzle blast being thrown in my direction, bullets be damned. Conducting the test by myself, I was unable to get any pictures of the blast in action, but 702shooter has some cool examples if you want to see what I’m talking about.

Everybody loves collateral damage. Except, I guess, the range owner

I tried three different kinds of holds during my shoot, a two handed traditional pistol grip, a one handed pistol grip, and a two-handed rifle-style grip, much akin to how one would use a sawed off shotgun. EXTAR advertises that the pistol can be fired one handed with very little muzzle flip, and they were right. Recoil on this loud puppy is shockingly low, allowing one to fire the weapon one handed even with a small frame like mine. The two handed pistol grip afforded more stability but was awkward to get used to, considering most guns held that way are 7-8 inches overall and not 18. Despite this, accuracy and controllability were acceptable with this pose as well as the two-handed rifle-style hold. I saw little difference in accuracy between the latter two holds. I wanted to try a PDW-style sling hold, but again, no sling ring made that impossible.

First off I did an accuracy test, firing from a bench rest at a target at 75 feet. This is what I was able to conclude: the front sight sucks ass. While this pistol is plenty capable of scoring hits at 75 feet, the large, hard-to-see, unadjustable front sight keeps it from being a tack driver, and I would NOT recommend it as a competition gun. Nonetheless, I was able to score reasonable clusters of core hits on a silhouette target at 75 feet, with most of my rounds at least hitting the target and 60-70% hitting the vital center mass. I dialed the range back to 50 feet and tried again with much improved results, though that was almost entirely because I was now able to see the big red center of my target on the other side of the massive pillar of my front sight. I would highly recommend using a zero-magnification red dot optic on this pistol for anything other than fun blasting, the ability to aim reliably would take this pistol to great heights.

All five magazines worked well and functioned flawlessly, sans a misfeed on the first round of my Maritime mag which was more than likely caused by me seating the round wrong in my hurry to load it. Even the poor man’s thermold mag functioned well in the EXTAR. As for the ammo, the EXTAR chewed through all three kinds that I put through it, with one short stroke on a 55 grain brass during limp-armed rapid fire and a misfeed on the last round of the steel Tula ammo. Considering one can expect feed issues when limp-arming OR using garbage steel ammo, that sounds reliable enough for me. After dumping two mags in quick succession, the pistol became noticeably warm and a little smoke was coming out of the ejection port and front of the barrel. To my delight, at no point in the entire test did the chamber get hot enough to disfigure the polymer lining on the inside. I guess having a plastic FCG and bolt housing isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The safety was fully reliable and failed to yield despite my most dedicated tugs on the trigger. The charging handle DOES reciprocate with the bolt, but you will hardly notice it when firing because you will be too busy worrying about the muzzle blast burning your eyebrows off. Brass flew out of the ejection port like the pistol had dysentery and not once did a stray case come flying anywhere near me.

Remind me to hire a good lawyer

As I burned through mag after mag I could not help but smile at the sheer authority a squeeze of the excellently tight trigger commands. A trigger that by the way has no overtravel, wiggle, or fuss. As a final test, I put up my IDPA Just Beiber silhouette target and did a fast ammo dump downrange. As you can see, this little power pack means business, even if it does have a sense of humor.

Overall the EXTAR EXP was hilariously fun to shoot and would serve well in any niche it was designed for. Reliability was just shy of 100% and it took whatever I threw at it with a satisfying KABLAM. After a good cleaning (this thing gets filthy!) I would confidently carry it for a variety of situations despite all of my technical gripes about the way it was made. At a current MSRP of $600, it is a very worthwhile investment and costs a fraction of what a buffer-tubed AR pistol would run you. Compared to the PLR-16, its closest competitor, which I have not fired, the PLR has adjustable sights, while EXTAR front sight is unadjustable. The PLR is .44 pounds heavier, .5 inches longer, and has an MSRP $60 higher. The biggest difference, however, is the PLR’s gas-piston operating system compared to the DI system for EXTAR. Though I would take a second to bitch about how much more reliable a piston system is, my personal experience with the DI system on the EXTAR leaves me unafraid of the gun’s function. Also, at this point, good luck finding a PLR-16 for anything under a grand. If this is the market you are going for, get the EXTAR now, before they too sell out and double in price. Even with my restricted layman’s budget, I’m glad I shelled out the $600 for this weapon, and I know I’ll be getting my money’s worth from it for some time to come.

OAL: 18 in
Barrel: 8.25 inches with 1 inch muzzle break
Width: 2.25 inches
Twist: 1:9 RHT
Caliber: .223 Rem/5.56 NATO

The last time I took my EXTAR out for a range day, I found myself unexpectedly with a bolt-action pistol. I was having failures to eject on almost every round, even after trying different brands of ammo and different mags. On a hunch, I took the bolt-carrier apart to look at the ejector. The rear end of the ejector was sticking up at a very unusual angle, to the point where it made pulling the bolt out of the carrier, or reinserting it, extremely difficult. For reference, the bolt is exactly the same that standard AR rifles take, only the carrier is a different shape. I happened to have my AR-15 with me that day, so I popped the bolt out of that and pinned it into the carrier for the EXTAR. It worked flawlessly for over 100 rounds until I was satisfied. To ensure there was no damage to this bolt as well, I threw it back in my AR-15 and put another 100 rounds through it with no issues.

I’m not sure how the damage to the ejector happened. If this is indicative of a design flaw in the EXTAR itself, or just a cheap bolt that was included in the pistol, or a freak accident, I may never know. I’ve ordered a new bolt and will keep an eye on the gun’s performance over the next few range trips to see if it may be a recurring issue or not.