October 09, 2023
I love learning about new companies. It usually means someone has introduced something new or revolutionary, or they’ve figured out a way to do something better or more efficiently. Davidson Defense is the perfect example of figuring out how to do something better and more efficiently. Not to be confused with Davidson’s Gallery of Guns, Davidson Defense has actually been around for a number of years, specializing primarily in parts kits along with practically any part you can think of for many different firearms. The company was founded by Garth Davidson, who got his start selling optics at trade shows. He created Davidson Defense for online firearms retail and grew it to include an entire host of brands which include Delta Team Tactical, MMC Armory, Mercury Precision and more.
While you can find just about anything you might want, from barrels and triggers to muzzle devices and sights, most head to Davidson Defense for its parts/build kits. Technically, Davidson Defense doesn’t actually manufacture parts themselves. How it works is they create a standard for a part, then they source it accordingly to that spec. What that means is a parts/build kit can be created at an incredibly affordable price because they can be assembled from different manufacturers’ parts, provided they meet the required specs set by Davidson Defense. It also means that they will actually have products in stock more often instead of waiting on one part holding up the line.
Davidson Defense also specializes in assembly. Their team works together to come up with different built kit ideas, then they create a list of acceptable parts from preferred manufacturers to be used in their expert assembly. These kits can exist on both ends of the price spectrum. A premium kit will see premium parts, and a budget kit will have budget parts. Regardless of the professional level of the parts/build kit, you can get exactly what you want. The kits can ship for home assembly, but Davidson Defense has created a corner market for kit assembly. I’ve always been a proponent of assembling your own AR-15 to get exactly what you want. I rarely purchase an off-the-shelf AR myself, but many people are not comfortable or don’t have the tools to assemble their own AR. For a small, added fee, usually around $20, the assembly team at Davidson Defense will build it for you, which adds a lot of reassurance that it will function properly. For a $50 fee, they will build and shoot the gun or upper to guarantee function and performance.
Davidson Defense Sidewinder
While Davidson Defense has done parts kits for years, they have only recently started offering complete firearms. Featured here is the Sidewinder 16.5-inch AR-15 chambered for 5.56 NATO. Off the bat, there is a lot to like about this rifle. I don’t normally start with the price, but it’s hard to beat the $550 sale price at the time of this publication. That price comes again from Davidson Defense’s ability to source quality parts and streamline the assembly process, making a much more affordable package that still maintains decent quality.
If you haven’t figured it out, the Sidewinder name comes from the rifle’s dual, side-charging upper receiver. Davidson Defense isn’t the first to launch an ambidextrous side-charger, but it’s one of the nicer models I’ve used. The upper receiver itself is anodized and built from billet 7075-series aluminum and is compatible with any standard AR lower receiver. Instead of a charging handle, there is a screw that fits where a traditional charging handle would sit, and it does need to be completely removed to take out the bolt-carrier group (BCG). It’s strange to look at the side of the rifle and see completely through it, but it doesn’t have any direct affect on the rifle’s performance.
Indirectly, though, it’s important to remember that double the cuts in the upper receiver also means double the access point for dirt and debris. The Sidewinder is right-side-only ejection, and the slot of the left side of the upper is only large enough for the left-side handle to reciprocate. There are no dust covers, so it’s important to remember to keep the BCG clean and debris-free for operation, though that can be said for any firearm. Finally, of course, the upper receiver has a standard section of Picatinny rail for mounting optics. I figured out pretty quickly that it’s better to pull back on the charging handle to chamber a fresh cartridge instead of using the bolt release, if you’ve kept the left charging lever attached to the BCG. Slapping the bolt release results in a piece of metal slamming into your hand as the BCG moves into battery. The dual charging handles unscrew easily enough from the BCG, but I found I actually enjoyed a charging handle on the left side (I’m right-handed). However, it does make using the bolt release impractical, but I don’t consider that to be an issue.
Speaking with Wyatt Heaton of Davidson Defense, he told me the dual charging handle upper is most popular with hunters and “AK guys” looking to buy an AR-15. Hunters like the .350 Legend model since it’s much easier to manipulate and charge the rifle in a tree stand or an enclosed blind, and AK guys wanting a 5.56/.223 AR-15 like the “familiarity” of the controls. I simply found it to be a refreshing change of pace from a standard AR. Other than the charging handles sticking out the side, it’s a standard, no-frills BCG. Once the handles unscrew, it takes apart the same and could even work in a traditional AR without the handles attached. For long-term storage, I’d recommend leaving the handles attached simply to not lose them.
The Sidewinder’s included lower receiver is pretty standard and uses a KAK Industry lower parts kit, which is not ambidextrous (KAKIndustry.com). It’s a standard right-hand operation for the safety, mag release and bolt catch, and it uses an A2-style pistol grip, which is perfectly comfortable for shooting. The trigger was a pleasant surprise, measuring four pounds, 12 ounces over 10 pulls with my Wheeler Professional Digital Trigger Gauge. It was pretty smooth overall and had a clean break, far surpassing my expectations for a $550 off-the-shelf AR. Does it compare to a Timney? No, but it definitely beats my expectations for the price. Like the upper, the lower is constructed from 7075-series aluminum and is hardcoat anodized. It’s engraved with the Davidson Defense logo and is a great no-frills, standard AR lower receiver that gets the job done.
Mercury Precision Satellite Barrel
If you research Mercury Precision, you won’t find a lot of data. It’s another sub-brand of Davidson Defense, which is responsible for procuring quality parts for builds. Mercury Precision sets a standard and base requirement for a part, in this case a barrel, then it’s sourced accordingly. Barrels may come from different barrel manufacturers, but they must meet a certain standard. In this case, the “Satellite” barrel for the Sidewinder is 16.5 inches long and is chambered for 5.56 NATO with a 1:7-inch twist rate. The Davidson Defense Satellite barrel has some pretty sweet specs. They’re built from 4150-series chrome moly vanadium (CMV) steel in the classic government profile, not too heavy but not too light. A 4150-series CMV barrel is great steel. The addition of vanadium is appealing for wear and corrosion resistance and makes for a longer-lasting barrel. Satellite barrels also feature a QPQ black nitride finish, which also greatly adds to the strength and resistance of a barrel and also gives it a glossy appearance.
The Satellite barrel has a standard .750-inch gas port, and it uses a mid-length gas system. The barrel is threaded standard 1/2x28 and comes with a KAK Industry Big Hole Brake. It’s a nice, large brake with upward-venting holes to help minimize muzzle rise. The Big Hole Brake is heat-treated with a manganese phosphate coating for durability, and it adds 1.75 inches to the overall length and weighs 2.43 ounces. All-in-all, it’s another nice addition for a $550 AR-15. Overall, Mercury Precision sets some pretty high standards for a barrel. The Satellite barrel is also available as a standalone part, and it’s priced at $90 at the time of this publication.
Over the barrel is a 15-inch M-LOK handguard also sourced by Mercury Precision. The DreadNought model featured on the Sidewinder is machined from 6061-series aluminum and is a free-floating design. It mounts with two screws over the barrel nut and is packed with M-LOK accessory slots. The top portion of the handguard has approximately two inches of Picatinny rail over the barrel nut, then a section of M-LOK slots and a one-inch Picatinny rail section at the front for iron sights. The Sidewinder also includes a nice set of Trinity Force High Density polymer flip-up style iron sights pre-installed on the gun. The DreadNought handguard is well designed and is comfortable in the hand, and it has a nice, sleek design. It looks good, which I’d argue is more important these days if you want to set yourself apart from other ARs in the market.
Working to the back of the gun, the Trinity Force Cobra Stock MK2 was probably my favorite feature on the Sidewinder. It’s remarkably comfortable, and it is a feature-packed rifle buttstock. The multi-position locking system is super easy and fast to operate. It’s incredibly tactile and smooth, too. The Cobra stock has quick-detach (QD) sling attachments on either side, but the Sidewinder also has an ambidextrous sling-adapter end plate for hook-style sling attachments. The Cobra stock uses an oversized cheek rest, which is comfortable when standing, kneeling or prone. The oversized design also allows for two unique battery compartments inside the stock. They have a rubber, water-resistant seal to store tube-shaped batteries for electronic accessories on the gun. I greatly liked the aggressive buttpad, which has an angled design optimized for plate carriers. There is a lot of personal preference that goes into deciding on buttstocks, but I struggled to find anything I didn’t like about the Cobra MK2, and it’s available from Davidson Defense for only $20 at the time of this publication.
It’s hard to find any major issues with the Sidewinder. The dual side-chargers goes down to personal preference, but the rest of the gun is pretty standard AR design. No, Davidson Defense didn’t technically make every part of this gun themselves, but they’ve mastered acquiring good parts at great prices. Also, their assembly process is a well-oiled machine, which is no small feat. It doesn’t matter what parts you use if they aren’t assembled correctly. To whomever assembled this Sidewinder rifle, I say great job and thank you. Now, with all the main components out of the way, there is one last question. How does it shoot?
When I try out a new AR-15 rifle, I like to run it dry for approximately 100 to 200 rounds. ARs generally like to be lubricated but running them dry during my initial break-in process helps identify where the metal rubs most during operation. Once I identify the parts of the BCG that have the most wear, I apply an appropriate amount of lubricant to those spots. However, the Sidewinder did not like to run dry at all. I tried a few different ammos to get started, and each one would have a failure to feed after a few rounds fired. Don’t be alarmed, though! Once I applied some lubricant to the BCG, I didn’t have a single operation issue over the course of about 200 rounds. Provided the Sidewinder is properly lubricated, it more than meets my reliability expectations.
I keep an older Leupold Vx3i 6.5-20x50mm scope in a Seekins Precision MXM cantilever mount for general AR testing. It’s way more scope than this rifle needs, but it’s an easy one to swap between Picatinny rails. Plus, I like a bit more magnification to really see what a barrel can do. For a budget rifle, I selected a string of budget loads that would be a good match for accuracy testing. Accuracy was exactly what I expected for this gun. The groups didn’t blow my socks off, but they were perfectly acceptable. Velocities were also in the expected range. All five loads shot right at 2,900 feet per second (fps), or they were just shy. From a 16-inch factory barrel, you’re not going to see much faster velocities from affordable factory ammo.
The Sidewinder liked Hornady’s 55-grain Frontier FMJ ammo the best, shooting a best group right at one inch. The Sidewinder’s least favorite load was Aguila’s 55-grain FMJ, measuring in at a 3.6-inch best group. Moving to 200 yards, groups opened up just a bit, but it was easy to stay on the six- and 12-inch steel targets. At 300 yards, the Sidewinder was still grouping center mass on some steel IPSC targets with only a slight adjustment for drop. All-in-all, this is right around a two- to three-MOA rifle at 100 yards, and that’s a more-than-fair expectation for the gun’s price point. The KAK Big Hole Brake performed admirably, directing muzzle blast primarily upward and keeping the muzzle down. I ran a few double-tap drills on some steel targets at 50 yards, and it was easy to keep the Sidewinder on target. From a Caldwell Stinger adjustable rest, the Sidewinder hardly moved, and it was quite comfortable unsupported thanks to the Cobra MK2 buttstock.
The Davidson Defense Sidewinder would be an excellent tool for teaching new shooters or those unfamiliar with AR-15 rifles. It’s size, weight and adjustability will fit most people comfortably, and it’s low-recoiling nature won’t shock first-timers. For general plinking, I’d throw on a 1-4X or 1-6X low-powered variable optic (LPVO). The Vortex Strike Eagle line or Bushnell AR Optics line has some great affordable options that would be an excellent match for the Sidewinder. A red-dot sight would also be a great optic choice. There are more and more affordable red dots hitting the market, and the pre-installed Trinity Force flip-up irons are already set up to co-witness through a red dot.
While you can certainly make it work, I wouldn’t recommend a side-charger AR-15 as a primary defensive rifle. Since the Sidewinder likes lubricant, along with its dual-cut nature, there are more opportunities to introduce potentially malfunction-inducing debris into the upper receiver. If you are looking for a defensive rifle, Davidson Defense has extensive traditional upper receiver offerings that would be better suited to a defensive role. As a teaching and plinking rifle, the Davidson Defense Sidewinder is fantastic!
When you factor in every variable, Davidson Defense has truly overdelivered on the Sidewinder. This is a $550 AR-15, but it has a lot of features
I often don’t see on $1,000 ARs. My biggest complaint is that it doesn’t have an ambidextrous safety or mag release. Since the upper is an ambi design, I would’ve like to see more ambidextrous features. That would truly make this a great gun to introduce new shooters to basic fundamentals; you never know when a lefty will show up! It’s an easy fix, though, and Davidson Defense has several ambi lower parts kits on the website. Even if the Davidson Defense Sidewinder isn’t for you, they have dozens of other parts kits or guns to choose from. Whether you want to assemble a new AR-15 yourself or have their experienced staff take care of it for you, Davidson Defense is a great place to start for your next budget AR.
Davidson Defense Sidewinder Specs
- Type: Direct-impingement, semi-automatic
- Cartridge: 5.56 NATO
- Capacity: 10,n20, 30 rds.
- Barrel: 16.5 in., 1:7-in. twist
- Overall Length: 37 in. (extended), 33.5 in. (collapsed)
- Weight: 6 lbs., 13 oz.
- Stock: Trinity Force Cobra stock MK2
- Finish: QPQ Black Nitride
- Trigger: 4 lbs., 12 oz. (tested)
- Muzzle Device: KAK Industry Big Hole Brake
- Sights: Trinity Force High Density Polymer Flip-up irons, Picatinny rail
- MSRP: $550
- Contact: Davidson Defense
About the Author
Jack Oller is a U.S. Army veteran, having served in the Military Police with one deployment to the Camp VI Detention Facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has extensive firearms training from military and civilian schools and is a passionate shotgun shooter and hunter. Jack has an English degree from Illinois State University, and he started his career in the outdoor industry as Associate Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine. After Gun & Ammo, he worked as Brand Manager for Crimson Trace and now is the Digital Editor for Firearms News.
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