September 12, 2022
It is pretty easy to get jaded as a gun writer. The steady flow of high-capacity 9mm carry guns, the endless array of AR-15s, bolt action rifles in yet another sniper configuration, or lightweight hunting rifles that promise to bruise your shoulder and leave you cross-eyed from recoil. You know you’ve been at it too long when yet another brown cardboard box falls off of the delivery truck, and you do not have that “spark of joy” that Marie Kondo speaks of.
So, the latest box arrives, and I open it without even looking to see who it is from. I slide the inside box out, and see the Armscor label, and figure “Oh, this should be of interest.” And then when I lift the lid of the hard case, I see it. “Holy cow, what has Armscor done this time?” There is the VRF14. A 12-gauge firearm that is not like others I have seen, and it immediately drives thoughts of the other projects out of my mind. If I had looked at the shipping label, the Armscor name would have prepped me for something interesting. That I hadn’t heightened the difference, and that made it fun.
A quick summary: the VRF14 is a 12-gauge firearm with a 14-inch barrel, one that feeds from a box magazine, and is not an SBS.
The layout is distinctly AR-15-ish, but it is not dimensioned as an AR-15, if you follow. That is, Armscor did not try to shoehorn a 12-gauge shell into an AR-15 receiver set. No, they took the layout and proportioned it to work with 12 gauge, a much better idea. (I’m not even sure a 12 gauge would fit an AR-10, let alone an AR-15 receiver set.) The upper and lower receivers come apart in much the same way, a process we’ll detail in a bit. The upper receiver has a full-length top rail, a place to locate sights, optics, a laser, light, whatever. Just in case there isn’t enough rail estate up there for your needs, the handguard also has rail segments built in. The bottom of the handguard has a rail the length of the handguard itself, and the sides have a rail segment on the forward third of the handguard at 3 and 9 o’clock. The VRF14 ships with folding front and rear sights you can install on the top rail. While they are functional in most instances, I found them to be not as useful as you might think. The size and weight of the VRF14 made it difficult to get the firearm up to the line of sight, use the sights, and get the shot off quickly. It was more of a hip-shooting, or up to chest level point-shooting proposition. This is definitely an instance where a durable laser sight would be just the ticket. And I mention durable specifically because a 12 gauge that is as light (relatively speaking) as the VRF14 is, is going to be hard on electronics.
Unlike the AR-15, with its charging handle at the rear of the receiver, the VRF14 has a charging handle attached directly to the bolt carrier, and it reciprocates with the carrier. It is on the right-hand side, which leaves the left side and the rear of the receiver closed, and thus sealed from the ingress of gunk and debris.
The “14” in the model designation is the barrel length, at fourteen inches. The barrel does not have screw-in choke tubes, something that is almost a standard on shotguns these days, but I can understand leaving them off the features list. The barrel is chambered for both 23/4 and three-inch shells, something I thought curious when I read it, and after shooting, found almost eye-opening.
The gas system is just like that of many modern gas-operated shotguns. The gas bleeds out of the barrel through the gas port, drilled through the barrel hoop brazed onto the barrel itself. The hoop rides over what would otherwise be the magazine tube, but serves on the VRF14 just as the barrel mounting and gas system positioning tube. There’s a gas piston riding on the tube, which telescopes into the barrel hanger, and this drives the system when the gas pushes on it. Armscor ships the VRF14 with two pistons, one for light loads and one for heavy loads. To swap tubes you have to strip the VRF14 down, but this is not something you will be doing except to tune your VRF14 to the ammo you have or want to use.
The lower has the expected selector lever, and a pistol grip below it. The magazine release is where you’d expect it to be, and magazines insert as AR-15 magazines do; directly up, not tiled and rocked like an AK-47. The selector is not ambidextrous, but that isn’t a big deal to my mind. The pistol grip is comfortable, and combined with the textured and aggressive handguard, you have a pretty good chance of holding on to the VRF14 when you fire. The rear of the VRF14 has a sling loop, and you can put on whatever sling will work for you. The upper and lower are assemblies of polymer and aluminum, with the cycling and functional parts made of alloy steel.
The magazines are steel, and the VRF14 comes with a five-shot magazine. However, the VRF14 is the kid brother of the VR80, and the magazines for the bigger brother will fit. This means you have the option of getting more five-round magazines or jumping up to the nine and 19-round magazines for the VR80. A note here; the nine-round magazines are noticeably larger than the five-round ones, but still compact enough and manageable for the VRF14. The 19-round magazines are just too much of a good thing, being almost as large as the VRF14 itself.
The VRF14 magazines follow the usual magazine design for shotguns, in that the feed lips seem short compared to what we expect from pistols and rifles. This is a product of the feeding geometry. Rifle cartridges are much longer, as a ratio of their diameter, compared to shotgun shells, and thus need to be guided for a longer distance in order to reach the chamber. Unlike pistol rounds (well, almost all of them, anyway) the shotgun shell has a rim, instead of being rimless. These factors determine the length and shape of the feed lips of a magazine, and the one for the VRF14 (and the VR80) are what they are and work just fine.
Loading is simple. Press the round being loaded down on the magazine follower and press the rim of the shell back underneath the feed lips. Repeat until the magazine is full. To load the VRF14, insert the magazine and press up until it locks into place. As an added assurance, and a good habit to build, Tug the magazine down to make sure you did get it locked into place. No need to look like an internet commando and slap the magazine once it is in place, just push up until it clicks, tug and you’re good.
Pull the charging handle back to its full travel and let go. If you want to be fully loaded, you can make sure the safety is on (it should have been before you started) remove the magazine, top off the magazine, and push it back in place until it, yes, clicks.
Shooting the VRF14 is a wild ride. The pistol grip is hand-filling and well-shaped, so the cushioning it provides is up to the task. It is your other hand that has a lot of work to do. Despite the rails on the handguard, you really need to have a death’s grip on the handguard to keep a grip. A note to those who want to take up the life of an itinerant gun writer; there are not many good ways to both be in the photo and trip the shutter yourself. I use a very compact remote trigger (no longer made, alas) that I can hide in my grip and get the camera to click. This on the VRX14 made my grip not quite strong enough to stay in place, and invariably after a couple of shots the handguard would pop up out of my grasp. The boss likes action shots (and so do you) so it took a number of shooting sessions to get good images. For just having fun, and keeping control, the trick was to grasp the handguard with my thumb up and over the top rail. The other solution would be to fit a hand strap on the rail, so your hand would slip through the strap. Do Not install a vertical foregrip on the VRX14. This puts it outside of the regulatory niche it inhabits, and makes it an NFA firearm, subject to permitting, or penalty if you do not have the proper permits.
The VRX14 worked flawlessly as long as I matched the shell power to the piston I had installed. For the very lightest loads, the light-load piston, and the included lighter recoil spring, let me shoot wimpy-soft Skeet loads, which made the shooting even more fun. The VRX14 locks open when the last shot has been fired. I also have a VR80 on hand, and the 9-shot and 19-shot magazines also worked just fine in the VRX14, but the incongruity of an ultra-compact 12-gauge firearm, with an installed 19-round magazine almost as big as the firearm, is one to cause a stir at your gun club.
Disassembly of the VRX14 depends on what you want to accomplish. First, unload the VRX14. Unscrew what looks like the magazine tube cap. When I was first looking over the VRX14, the thought occurred to me: “I wonder what the thread pattern is, and if you can fit a longer tube.” Duh! It isn’t a magazine. The cap just holds the handguard on and provides a location for the sling swivel. Decades of 12-gauge firearms with magazine tubes have built some reflexive considerations.
With the cap off, remove the forearm by pulling it forward. The forearm removal will also bring the sights, light, laser, whatever, and everything, attached to the upper, forward of the rail segment at the rear that is part of the actual upper. You’ll see a knurled nut on the tube. That is the barrel retaining nut. Unscrew it. It need not be any more than hand-tight, but if you haven’t cleaned your VRX14 in a while, it might require a set of padded pliers to get it started. With the barrel nut off, turn your attention to the bolt catch lever. That’s the lever below the ejection port. Pull the bolt back part-way, and then turn the lever towards the muzzle. Ease the bolt forward, and you can then pull the barrel out. Pull the charging handle out of the bolt and remove the bolt assembly out of the front of the receiver.
You can now clean the things that need cleaning, swap pistons, and reassemble. If you want to install the lighter recoil spring, you simply install the softer spring on the tube instead of the stronger one. Then reassemble with the appropriate piston. One note; the handguard, at the rear, needs to slide underneath the short section of rail segment that is part of the upper receiver. Neither the owner’s manual, nor the official Armscor disassembly video discuss taking the upper and lower apart, so I am not going to detail how to do that. A further clue that you should not be digging in there is that the hammer and trigger pins are held in the lower by “C” clips on the pins ends. Given that all the parts you’ll have to clean, for the first few thousand rounds, will be the barrel and gas system, which you can take apart, there isn’t a need to take the upper and lower apart. It is also going to take more than just your bare hands, so that should be a clue: leave that part alone.
Now, I’d love to regale you with chronograph results, but one of the peculiarities of chronographs is that they are all really annoyed with measuring shotshell velocities. The regular chronos, with skyscreens, have an annoying habit of losing the covers, screens and screen legs to stray pellets or wads. Been there, done that, no need to buy yet another set of plastic parts. My Labradar works with shotshells chronographing as long as the wad stays together with the pellets long enough for the radar to get a good signal bounced back. As soon as the pellets come out of the wad, the mass of varying velocities are too much, and it just says, “No go.” What I have found, when I have managed in the past to get some results, is that the shotshell makers are a lot more accurate (some might use the word “honest”) when it comes to the speed of their payloads. And trimming a barrel back from eighteen inches to fourteen inches isn’t going to take a lot of speed off of the pellets. So, knock perhaps ten percent off of the listed velocity, to get an idea of what your VRF14 delivers. As far as patterns go, that is more a matter of the wad used, than choke, these days. And a modern buffered-buckshot 12-gauge load is going to be a tight enough pattern that you will have to aim.
With all of that info, what then is the VRF14 good for? Besides being more fun than the law allows in some puritanical jurisdictions? As a defensive firearm for close-distance use, it would be difficult to imagine something with more horsepower than even a low-recoil 12-gauge shotshell. And the compact size means it is easier to store. With its box magazine, you can have a loaded magazine handy, and an empty VRF14, and get it loaded in a few seconds. You won’t have to worry about a tube magazine spring taking a set, being left loaded for periods of time.
And if you ever had any doubts about the utility of a laser sight, the VRF14 is now the poster child of “This is when you install one” because the VRF14 and a good, strong laser, are a perfect pairing.
How Is That Possible?
Those familiar with the ins and outs of firearm regulation will have already gotten the news, but the VRF14 fills a niche in Federal regulations that covers shotguns. Specifically, the Gun Control Act of 1968 defines what a “firearm” is. The National Firearms Act of 1934 defines what a “short-barreled shotgun” is. The VRF14 and other shotguns like it follow the letter of the law for both definitions, in that it is a firearm, but it is not a short-barreled shotgun (SBS). So, no shoulder stock, never had one, and equal to or longer than the minimum overall length as described by the NFA/34. A narrow niche, but a viable one, and thus we have the VRF14. How can manufacturers do this? Simple, it is a bedrock principle of the law that the law means what the words say. So, if the law says longer than this, or shorter than that, are the defining characteristics, than that’s what the law says. A tape measure is the final arbiter, not someone’s opinion of “That looks wrong.”
Gas-operated firearms need a particular volume of gas, at a given pressure, in order to function properly. The volume and pressure differences between a light target load of 2¾ inches and a buckshot three-inch shell are outside the limits of any one setting. The gas port is at a fixed location, and given diameter, on any barrel (even when there is more than one port) and so designers have few options. It is possible to design a self-throttling system that bleeds only as much gas as it needs, and then cuts off the supply, but that usually takes more room than a shotgun, or shotgun-derived firearm, have available. As a result, Armscor provides two pistons and two recoil springs, so you can assemble the configuration that will work with the ammunition you desire.
Lest you think this is a new problem, John Moses Browning, in his classic Auto-5 shotgun, provided a way for shooters to tune the recoil system to the power level of the shotshells they were using.
Armscor VRF14 12-Gauge Shotgun Specifications
- Type: Hammer-fired semi-automatic
- Caliber: 12 gauge
- Capacity: 5+1 rounds (9 & 19 round magazines available)
- Barrel: 14 in.
- Overall Length: 26 in.
- Weight: 6 lbs. 3 oz.
- Finish: Blued steel, polymer
- Sights: Folding front and rear
- Trigger: 5 lbs.
- MSRP: $599
- Contact: 775-537-1444, Armscor.com
Want an Armscor VRF14 in 12 Gauge?
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