November 23, 2020
By Vincent L. DeNiro
Gadget — noun, gad·get | \ˈga-jət \: an often small mechanical or electronic device with a practical use but often thought of as a novelty.
I love gadgets and have for a very long time. Electronic gadgets, camping gadgets, car gadgets, kitchen gadgets, firearm gadgets, survival gadgets, and whatever else type of gadget the inventors of the world come up with. In 1975, I got a digital watch for Christmas. Back then, LED digital watches were serious pieces of jewelry and set in gold-plated cases and bands which cost at least a couple of hundred dollars (this was before the mass-produced Casio LCD digital watches, which came out a few years later). My wind-up Timex of years earlier worked just fine; remember “Takes a lickin’ but keeps on tickin’”? But I wanted that futuristic, lit-up, red-color LED digital, SPACE: 1999-type display watch that would mysteriously change numbers to tell time. And it even showed the date if you pushed a button! Things like this today would entertain kids today for about five seconds, but back then, they would have you walking around showing everyone your micro bank-clock sign display on your wrist. Yes, a bit of a novelty, but with practical applications.
Other things that got me excited back then were compact Super-8 film movie cameras (Remember Fotomat? If you are under 40, look it up.), crystal-controlled handheld police scanners (sold at jewelry stores at the time), portable shortwave radios, Swiss Army knives, and firearms. I got my first AR-15 in 1978 (or 1979, not really sure). It was a Colt SP1 and one of the coolest features to me was the compartment in the stock where I could store survival supplies like a small pocket knife, first aid items, Ohio Blue Tip Matches, water purification tablets, snake bite kit, pen light, or a small compass (eat your heart out Ralphie!). I just left the cleaning kit, which was meant to be in the stock, at home, in the basement, next to my Hoppe’s No. 9.
All those things could be found in my bedroom back in the 1970s, along with copies of Guns & Ammo magazine and Shotgun News. I just liked gadgets that were compact, as well as things that had multiple purposes, like Swiss Army knives. Sometime in the 1980s, I got an AR-7 rifle, which was/is the granddaddy of semi-auto survival guns. The Kel-Tec series of SU-16 rifles is like the Swiss Army knife of the modern gun world, and it seems that they were designed specifically for survivalists, preppers, adventurers, and outdoorsmen.
I became familiar with the SU-16 more than 15 years ago. At the time, we still were under the unconstitutional 1994 domestic “assault weapons” ban (in effect from 1994–2004), whereby no semi-auto firearm with a detachable magazine could be manufactured with a folding, collapsing or telescopic stock, a bayonet lug, threaded muzzle, flash hider, etc. (if it had a pistol grip and was detachable magazine capable). This ban also prohibited magazines larger than 10 rounds from being manufactured for civilian sales. Nothing was available via import either, as President George “No New Gun Laws” Bush, Sr. pushed for the ban on all imported “assault weapons” back in 1989, after only being in office for a month, due to the Purdey shooting in California. On the federal level, magazines over 10 rounds and semi-auto guns with all of the features of a modern military-styled firearm were grandfathered, so you could keep, buy, and sell them — these magazines and guns were known as “pre-ban.”
Newcomers to the firearm world would have to stick to newly made modern sporting rifles (MSRs), unless they wanted to shell out about four times the price for a “pre-ban.” A new AR-15 was made with a non-collapsing stock, no bayonet lug, non-threaded barrel, or with a muzzle brake welded on, and would come with a 10-round magazine — these guns were known as “post bans.” If you wanted to buy a civilian-legal/pre-ban 20- or 30-round magazine for it, the price usually started at $50, which was a little chunk of money 20 years ago — about $77 in today’s money. Installing a folding or collapsing stock on a post-ban rifle would be a felony during this time. Unfortunately, a few states enacted a ban similar to the federal one when the federal law expired in 2004, and then made their laws even more restricted in recent years.
Along comes George Kellgren, the owner and chief engineer of Kel-Tec, with his SU-16. Mr. Kellgren has been a firearms designer for many decades. (My first Kellgren-designed firearm was an Interdynamic KG-99 pistol that I acquired around 1984.) So, how did he get around the 1994–2004 domestic “assault weapons” ban with the SU-16 rifle series? He came up with a way to fold the SU-16 in half so that the fire control group folds with the stock and is therefore separate from the bolt and upper receiver. This way, it cannot fire in this compact position, but can be stored just as if it had a folding stock — now that is a legal gadget! Technically, it is dissembled, so transporting this rifle also met many restrictive state guidelines for firearms transport. This is another benefit and not really a hindrance, as the rifle can be made ready to fire in seconds. Sure, it could not fire from a folded position like a Ruger Mini-14 with a folding stock, but it could be packed away like one. This first model became known as the SU-16 among gun aficionados, and the current version of the first model is designated as the SU-16A.
Now, to the other gadgetry of the original SU-16A. The handguards split in two and can be opened to form a built-in bipod. (These two halves are spring-loaded to open up.) Very cool! I prefer to shoot a rifle off of a pack or sandbags, but there are times when a bipod is very handy. The great things are that the bipod takes up no extra room, is not adding extra weight, is not hanging off of the gun when not in use, and is not at risk of being lost like most detachable bipods; the best thing is that it serves two purposes. The SU-16C also has these types of handguards.
The next cool “outside of the box” thinking comes in the form of magazine storage. The stock of the SU-16A can hold either one spare 30-round magazine or two spare 10-round magazines. Even if you only want to buy 30-round magazines for your semi-auto MSR-type rifles, having a couple of 10-round magazines stored in your stock is great for shooting off of a bench or prone. The SU-16C model is my favorite of the series, and although the SU-16A is very similar, there are some differences.
The SU-16C has some other features that make this model unique in its own way. I will start off with my first impressions and then talk about the differences in a few of the models.
The SU-16C is a semi-auto, gas-operated rifle chambered in 5.56 x 45mm. It features a detachable magazine (its magazine well accepts all STANAG magazines), fold-over takedown feature, and folding stock, which the standard SU-16A does not have. A threaded muzzle is in standard ½x28 pitch and comes with a thread protector. Handguards are as described previously: two halves, which are spring-loaded and deploy as a bipod. Sights are peep at the rear, adjustable for windage, and an AR-15-type front sight (hooded for protection) is adjustable for elevation. A five and three-quarter-inch Picatinney rail is molded into the receiver. The manual safety is of a simple cross-bolt design. Its stocks and receiver are made from polymer, while the bolt assembly and barrel are steel. The barrel twist rate is 1:7 inches, and the barrel’s length is 16 inches.
The SU-16 is light at only 4.7 pounds and very point-able, that is, it is very well balanced and comfortable when shouldered. I would have to say that it is the most comfortable rifle I have shouldered in a very long time when in the standing shooting position. The iron sights are exactly where I want them in this position. The length of pull is good for me, but I can see that someone shorter than me may feel that the length of pull is a bit too long; I’m 6'2". The protected magazine release is reachable and easily
manipulated for magazine changes, but I have an issue with the magazine which is provided.
The 10-round polymer magazine provided is a Kel-Tec-manufactured magazine which does not drop free — it also does not remove easily. Also, there is a channel on both sides of the inside of the magazine well which raised ribs, on both sides of this magazine, slides into. I am not sure of the reason for this, as the design does not allow this magazine to work in rifles which accept AR-15-ype magazines. If this design were reversed, with the channel on the magazine and the raised ribs on the inside of the magazine well, it may make sense but only if Kel-Tec were complying with some law somewhere which stated that standard AR-15-type magazines (especially those over 10 rounds) couldn’t ever be used in the rifle, but this is not the case. However, if these raised ribs were removed, I don’t think the magazine would fit in a standard AR-15 mag well anyway as the floor plate would bottom out on the mag well and the magazine would not insert all the way. On an AR-180B, the magazine would fit with this modification as the AR-180B’s magazine well is not as long.
What about other magazines? I had no problem with any other magazines being inserted, including those from Daniel Defense, Thermold, Orlite, Tapco, Lancer, Magpul, Troy, and GI-type. All worked just fine in the SU-16C, and most dropped free.
The stock deploys from a folded position just by pulling it down and opening it up until it is locked. A spring-loaded lever on the backside of the grip area of the stock is pressed downward, and that will unlock the stock for folding. When it is folded, the bottom portion of the butt-area is inserted about a quarter inch into the rear portion of the bottom of both handguards.
Now, to the folding stock problem due to magazines. That doesn’t seem to make sense, but with a “thinking out of the box” rifle, almost anything is possible. If any magazine other than a flush-fitting five- or 10-round magazine is inserted, the stock will not fold completely, or open if folded, unless the magazine is a standard GI-type magazine. If a magazine has any raised ribbing on the outside body or a large floorplate, the opening in the under-folding stock will not allow the magazine to pass through.
At the time this rifle was designed, there weren’t a lot of polymer M-16-type magazines available like there are today, except for Thermold, Orlite, Eagle, and maybe a couple more. Since it was designed during the domestic “assault weapon” ban years, there were a ton of “pre-ban” GI M-16 magazines floating around as surplus, so these magazines have no issues with the folding stock.
There is a remedy, I believe: just file the opening to accommodate the bigger width of the polymer magazine of your choice, as long as the magazine body or floorplate is not too wide. The SU-16C will fire with any polymer magazine, as-is, with the stock opened. However, the only polymer magazines that I could insert in the rifle, with the stock folded, were from Magpul and Daniel Defense, and it took a bit of wiggling to get them in. Magazines from Lancer, Orlite, Thermold, Troy, and Tapco would not get past the ribbing and/or magazine stops. For the range, or for shooting with the stock open, those or any reliable magazine will do just fine, but if you want the option of shooting and reloading with the stock folded, stick to GI-type magazines or carve out the stock. After all, survival is about having options.
Although the stock will open or fold with a standard GI-type magazine, I did not find any magazine that would drop free with the stock folded, so one may want to open the stock up a bit anyway, even if he is using GI-type magazines. This could be important, as the SU-16C is very comfortable to fire with the stock folded. Where or why would one do this? In a bug-out scenario by vehicle, the SU-16C fits very comfortably on one’s lap when driving. If you had to fire out of a car window in a defensive situation, it is easily done with the rifle, in part because of its light weight and comfortable grip area of the stock.
The bipod can be deployed by first making sure that the stock is not folded, as the stock is locked inside the handguards when folded. To open up the bipod, depress one of two tabs located on both sides of the handguards, and push them rearward at the same time. This will allow the spring-loaded handguard halves to open up so you can push them forward, and there you go — instant bipod! If you don’t pull these tabs back in unison, then only one half of the bipod leg/handguard will open. The bipod measures about 9¼ -inches from the bottom of the barrel. While this is not an ideal length for all shooting positions, it will work for some.
The charging handle is of a trapezoid shape, which I found to be very comfortable, using a few different hand positions to operate it. Since it is a reciprocating charging handle, it can be used during stoppages by hitting it forward to chamber an un-chambered round or by kicking backward to get out a jammed round or case. I think that there was a lot of thought placed into the shape of this handle for those two reasons, as well as the fact that it deflects cases.
So, what’s the trigger like? In one word: fantastic! The trigger travel and reset can only be measured in millimeters, maybe two of them. Although the trigger pull measured six pounds and one ounce (for an average of three pulls), it sure felt a lot lighter. This is also due to the great fitting of the hammer, sear and trigger. I wish that many of my other rifles had a trigger break as good as this one.
Since “survival gun” certainly fits this rifle’s description, I wanted to see how it fits in one of my bug-out packs. The larger one I have is a Kelty Red Cloud model 5600, which has 5,600 cubic inches of storage, so it is a large backpack. The open carrying of rifles, shotguns, and handguns is legal in Ohio, but concealed carry can only be done with handguns and a CCW license. If I want to pack a loaded AR-15 pistol in my bug-out kit, then it is perfectly legal to do so with my license, but a loaded, concealed long arm is a “no no” here.
With the SU-16C, as stated earlier, I have the option of folding it in half, and since the fire-control group becomes detached from the upper receiver, the rifle is considered inoperable and disassembled. In this configuration, the SU-16C measures 235⁄8 inches, which is not that long, but it isn’t something that would fit well in a medium-sized pack, or at all in a small pack. I also cocked the hammer back in this configuration as it sticks out when forward and would easily snag on other items in the pack if I had to pull out quickly.
One thing to mention, the takedown pin on the rifle is very tight — so tight that it had to be drifted out with a punch and hammer. This pin is also not captive, but there is a spring-loaded retaining wire to help hold it in, which is handy when storing the rifle folded in half to prevent loss of the pin, but the spring is not very strong. A quick fix would be to open up the holes in the lower receiver and the holes on the upper receiver’s lug. I would also replace the pin with a quarter-inch-wide pin with locking ball bearing and key ring that you can find at hardware stores. The key chain-type ring would also give you something to pull and could be used to carry needed item. As you can see from the photos showing this configuration, there are spaces created when the rifle is folded, so items can flow into these areas in a backpack, which may make the rifle harder to remove in a hurry.
Kel-Tec SU16C Rifle Specs
- Caliber: 5.56x45mm
- Weight Unloaded: 4.7 lbs.
- Magazine Capacity: 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 or more (AR-15 compatible)
- Overall Length: 35.5"
- Length: Stock Folded: 25.5"
- Length: Folded in Half: 23.5"
- Barrel Length: 16”
- Twist Rate: 1:7"
- Trigger Pull: 6 lbs.
- MSRP: $794.55
- Contact: KEL-TEC CNC Industries, Inc., 1505 Cox Road, Cocoa, FL 32926, Tel: 321-631-0068, KelTecWeapons.com
I began my shooting evaluation with some plinking, which is my favorite kind of shooting. Rapid fire was very controllable, even with the light weight of the rifle, and this is without any muzzle brake or compensator. Even with “old eyes,” I was able to use the steel sights and quickly nail multiple steel targets at various distances from 30 to 50 yards. One thing that is noticeable is muzzle flash, due to the lack of a flash hider, but this is not a problem that eight dollars for an AR-15 flash hider can’t fix.
I used various magazines, including old GI-type, Daniel Defense, Magpul, and others previously mentioned, without a hitch. I then took the rifle into my workshop and bore-sighted a Bushnell Incinerate optic. I really like the Incinerate for many reasons, including the fact that I have an astigmatism and, with some optics, I see a double dot, depending on how I look through the glass. I do not have this issue with the Incinerate, and being over 50, I usually need an optic to shoot well in most cases. Plinking with the Incinerate was a lot of fun, and I didn’t encounter any malfunctions with ammunition from Wolf, Winchester, or whatever else I had in my ammo box.
Now I was getting interested in a little precision shooting and curious to see how accurate this rifle was, so back to the workshop to bore sight a Burris Fullfield 30 4.5x-14x 42mm scope, which I would set to 14 power. I really like to lock my scopes down but I was a bit I cautious as I didn’t want to tighten the mount on the polymer P-rail to the point that I would damage it. I used my best judgment and continued on. I would first set up at 50 yards with ammunition from Pierce, Tula, and Winchester, in all different bullet weights. I would shoot three five-shot groups and then take an average. After getting situated on my portable bench from Knothole Designs, I noticed that I could not get a comfortable or solid cheek weld. No matter how I moved around, adjusted my sandbags, or planted my feet, I just could not get comfortable getting a proper sight picture. This is due to the low height of the stock’s comb. Medium-height rings were the lowest I could use, otherwise the bell of the scope would bottom out on the rifle. I was really in need of a cheek rest, but I wanted to begin shooting with the rifle as-is.
Knowing that I may have some issues getting the rifle locked up, and that there may be some unavoidable human error factored in, I decided to include group measurements with and without the outside shots/flyers. I began with 55-grain BT-FMJ from Pierce. I ended up with an average of 1.79 inches, with the best group at 1.55 inches. The best group without the flyer measured in at just under an inch.
Next up was the Winchester Match 77-grain FMJ, and I was really curious as to how this ammo would print. This ammunition shot very consistently with an average of .94 of an inch, with the best five-shot group at .64 of an inch. The best group without the flyer measured in at .52 of an inch. Nice ammo!
Last on the list is the stockpile/shooter-grade, 62-grain ammo from Tula. This one averaged a little over two inches, with the best group at 1.37 inches. The best group without the flyer was 1.1 inches. This rifle is chipmunk-capable at 50 yards, so I was very satisfied. I did not care for the 10-round Kel-Tec magazine, as it always had to be yanked out of the mag well. Although it did not malfunction, I set it aside and continued the bench shooting with a 10-round, aluminum magazine manufactured by D&H Tactical, which dropped free.
Before I set up at 100 yards, I noticed that the thread protector was “walking” off as it did when I was plinking. As stated before, this is an eight-bucks fix with a flash hider and split washer. Although this adds a little more than an inch to the rifle, it’s probably worth the extra length. I chose the most accurate ammunition for 100 yards, the Winchester Match 77-grain FMJ, which ended up shooting a 1½-inch group. Great ammunition and an accurate rifle.
I thoroughly enjoyed shooting the SU-16C, due to its fantastic trigger and accuracy, but if I were going to use this as a bench gun with a large scope, a makeshift cheek rest would have to be fabricated. I think that I will stick to short scopes, red-dot optics, and its fixed sights when shooting this rifle. The 14x Burris was used just to see how well I could shoot with it and its accuracy potential.
For cleaning and maintenance, the SU-16C comes apart easily. First, remove magazine and ensure that the chamber is clear. Next, open up the bipod/handguards as previously described. Remove the takedown pin, and fold the rifle. Then, take hold of the recoil spring tube located directly above and parallel to the barrel, and rotate it clockwise until it stops. (The recoil spring tube also houses the piston rod.) This allows the bolt and the spring tube to be moved rearward so that the bolt handle can be pulled out. Once that is done, tip the whole assembly downward, and the bolt with recoil and piston assembly can then be taken out through the bottom of the upper receiver. Very straight forward and simple.
Things I am wanting? In addition to what was already mentioned, the SU-16C lacks any sling attachments, but with some modifications, this can be done. I would love to see a compartment for storage, although much of the space is very limited. A compact semi-auto .22 conversion would be a great accessory (Kel-Tec: hint, hint), although one can purchase a .223 to .22 LR single-shot chamber adapter from MCA Sports (907-248-4913) to have an emergency ammo option or for taking small game without a lot of noise. That item is the same size as a 5.56 shell casing and could probably be stored somewhere in the stock area with a modification.
All in all, this is a great self-defense, hunting, and survival rifle, which has some great out-of-the-box features. The SU-16C is also accurate and seems to be very reliable, although my testing was very limited to only a few hundred rounds. So, if you are interested in adding a rifle to your collection that goes perfectly with your survival supplies, the SU-16C is it.
Kel-Tec SU-16C Accuracy Chart (Three Five-Shot Groups Fired Per Type)