Bill Wilson — in the form of Wilson Combat — has been hugely successful in the business arena. He started out selling custom 1911 parts at a time when such things barely existed in the marketplace — if you needed a custom part for your 1911, most of the time a gunsmith had to make it.
But many people don't know (or have forgotten) that the main reason why people initially bought Bill Wilson's products is because he was what the military likes to call a Subject Matter Expert. As one of the best pistol shots in the country (using 1911s he worked on himself) he won numerous national and regional titles, and represented us on the U.S. Team at the World Shoot. So it was assumed (and rightly so) that he knew a little about making parts for the pistol.
Since those early days, Wilson Combat has expanded into the long gun market as well. Bill Wilson has continued putting out popular, high-quality products, and Wilson Combat has steadily worked with well-known experts including Ken Hackathorn, Ernie Langdon, and most recently Paul Howe.
Howe spent 20 years in the U.S. Army, 10 of those in Special Operations, and retired as a sergeant major. Howe was a Sgt. First Class in SOF-D (Delta Force) in Mogadishu in 1993 during the incident chronicled in the book (and movie) Black Hawk Down...so he knows a few things about rifles intended for serious situations.
Howe has made a name for himself in the states as a firearms trainer on top of his military experience. He has worked closely with Bill Wilson and the gunsmiths at Wilson Combat to produce the Paul Howe Tactical Carbine.
In Howe's own words, "Were I to have the choice of only one gun, this is the gun it would be. I could do short, intermediate and long range work with this one rifle. It is like having one golf club to play the entire course."
The base rifle is a Wilson Combat Recon model. Chambered in 5.56 NATO, it features a 14.7-inch fluted stainless steel barrel with a 1:8 twist. This twist has been found to be the ideal rate to stabilize bullets from 35 to 77 grains.
The barrel has a mid-length gas system, which when compared to a carbine-length gas system has been shown to reduce bolt speed and subsequently wear as well as providing a softer recoil impulse. The rifle is supplied with a non-H-marked buffer.
Wilson's Accu-Tac flash hider is permanently attached to the end of the barrel to meet the minimum barrel length requirement. I have some previous experience with the Accu-Tac. At first glance it appears to be very similar to the AAC 51T Blackout, but closer examination reveals a lot of work went into the complex angles.
Externally it does resemble a Blackout, but internally it bears a lot more resemblance to the most effective flash hider on the market, the Smith Vortex. I found the Accu-Tac to be as effective as the Vortex, while looking better.
The barrel is freefloated underneath a 10.4-inch Wilson T.R.I.M. (Tactical Rail Interface, Modular) rail. This aluminum handguard has a continuous MIL-STD-1913 top rail, and threaded holes for accepting rails at 3, 6, and 9 o'clock. The rail has QD sling swivel sockets at the rear on either side of the rail.
The first time I ever examined one of Wilson Combat's T.R.I.M. rails, I was surprised. The handguard looks substantial, and it is, but it is much lighter than I expected. All of the sharp edges have been removed from the rail. The factory mounted a Wilson Combat 10/2 Quick Detach Swivel Attachment halfway down the handguard on the left side. This provides an additional spot to attach a QD sling. The handguard also comes with one 2-inch rail section, installed at the factory at the 9 o'clock position near the end of the handguard.
Between the fluted barrel and lighter than expected handguard, the rifle handles very well and balances over the magazine well. Wilson Combat advertises that the rifle weighs 7.5 pounds. Maybe it does with some of the optional accessories attached (more on them in a bit) but the rifle unloaded, wearing its iron sights tipped my scales at just 6 pounds 4 ounces.
The first thing anyone will notice about the Howe Carbine is the finish. Wilson has been applying the Armor-Tuff finish on rifles for some time, and the finish on this rifle has a special camouflage pattern. The base color resembles the current favorite FDE (flat dark earth) but seems a shade darker, as it is noticeably darker than the polymer FDE grip and stock.
Over the base color is a hand-applied camouflage pattern of green and rusty red, with what looks like the outline of small branches. The end result is a pattern that should work as well in desert environments as I found it did in Michigan woods. Wilson Combat also states that the finish reduces the rifle's IR signature. The finish has been applied to all of the exterior metal parts on the rifle except the buffer tube and the lower receiver pins/controls.
Howe selected a Daniel Defense fixed front sight tower for the rifle. This sight should be a familiar sight to AR fans, as it is very popular. It features a serrated face and a standard front sight post adjustable for elevation.
The rear sight is a Wilson Combat Quick Detach model. It is pushbutton-activated and locks in place when up. While I think this is inaptly named (it is secured to the receiver rail by an Allen-head screw and not especially quick to detach), Howe chose Wilson Combat's CSAT version for this rifle, which he helped develop.
The CSAT rear sight has some unique features. In addition to a standard large aperture, the CSAT features a second flip-up that features a smaller long-range aperture that enables the shooter to engage targets out to 300 yards, if his shooting skills are up to it. Above the long-range aperture is a .095" notch for use in point-blank-range shooting, like the sights of a handgun.
I found that its proximity to the eye means the notch gets fuzzy, but that is not a problem. The protective wings on either side of the front sight fit just inside the notch of the rear and allows for quick and accurate target engagement to 25 yards and beyond, although Wilson Combat recommends zeroing the notch at 7 yards. It is click-adjustable for windage, with each click moving bullet impact 1/2" at 100 yards.
The rifle comes with a six-position collapsible Rogers Super-Stoc in flat dark earth. This stock has a hard rubber buttpad and features several slots for mounting slings as well as a QD sling swivel socket accessible from either side. The stock has a locking lever on the right side which, when engaged, removes all the rattle and movement from the stock.
The pistol grip is a BCM Gunfighter. This grip has a more vertical angle than the original A2 pistol grip. This provides for a more natural grip angle if you are running the rifle with the stock collapsed (or nearly so). There's an oversized aluminum trigger guard as well.
The Paul Howe Tactical Carbine has been equipped with one of Wilson Combat's Tactical Trigger Units (TTU). Officially this version is the TTU-H2 (Paul Howe model) and retails separately for $269.95. It has a two-stage pull, with full travel (take-up and break) required for reset. It is advertised as having a 4.5-lb pull, but in my experience Wilson triggers always run lighter than spec.
Even though this model features full Mil-Spec weight springs, the trigger on my sample broke crisp at 4.25 pounds, with about a third of that weight being the take-up. This is a drop-in cassette trigger assembly, and the hammer features a half-cock notch to prevent the rifle from going off if it is dropped.
The bolt and bolt carrier in the rifle have been finished in NP3. Not only is this coating very corrosion resistant, it has very high lubricity. As a result this makes cleaning the rifle much easier, and the rifle will run reliably for a longer time.
The magazine is a 30-round Lancer L5AWM. Many consider the Lancer the best of the polymer magazines, as it features steel feed lips that reinforce the top and keep it from spreading if left loaded for long periods. The magazine supplied with the rifle was translucent, but Lancer makes opaque versions in various colors (including FDE).
I prefer the look of the Magpul stocks to the Rogers, but overall really liked the look and feel of the rifle. The only thing that surprised me was the lack of an oversized charging handle. The part on the Wilson Combat carbine was pure Mil-Spec...when nothing else on the rifle is. In addition to their pistol grip, BCM produces the Gunfighter Charging Handle which is the standard against which all improved/aftermarket charging handles are judged.
Wilson Combat sells the Paul Howe Tactical Carbine by itself, or as a kit with Howe's preferred optic, mount, sling, and light to make the rifle tactically complete. With the kit you get Wilson's 30mm AccuRiser scope mount, Leupold VX-6 1-6x scope with Firedot reticle, Streamlight TLR-1 HL weaponlight, and a Vickers Combat Applications sling with push button swivels.
The VX-6 is a relatively new offering from Leupold. It is a 1-6X (x24mm) variable power scope with a 30mm tube. This model has the Firedot reticle — push the rubber button on the left turret and a red dot appears in the center of the relatively plain duplex crosshair reticle. With the red dot on, the scope can be used at 1X just like an Aimpoint or other red dot scope at CQB distances — keep both eyes open and hit the target as fast as you can pull the trigger.
The 6X magnification will allow you to identify and engage targets out to the practical limits of the .223/5.56 cartridge, which is beyond the shooting ability of most people.
The battery-powered dot has 10 visible settings, and pushing the button cycles through them. Hold the button down for three seconds and it shuts off. Push it again and the dot turns on at the last setting. It comes with a black rubber bikini scope cover. Suggested retail on this scope is $1,249, although online you can find it for less than $1,000.
As the rifle came from Wilson Combat, the Leupold scope was already in the AccuRiser mount, which was treated to the same camo pattern as the rest of the rifle. This mount is machined from bar stock but not as heavy as it looks because it has a lot of lightening cuts — it only weighs 8 ounces. The top of the scope rings are secured to the base by eight Torx screws.
This is a QD mount with a triangle-shaped knob for tightening down the base to the rifle. The knob is big enough that the mount can be tightened and loosened by hand, without needing any tools. The locking plate is spring-loaded, so there should be minimal loss of zero if the scope has to be removed and replaced in the field, although I did not have an opportunity to test how much zero shift there was.
Also included in the kit is a Streamlight TLR-1 HL weapon light. This unit has an integral rail mount and can be mounted on handguns or anything else with a rail. From Wilson it was attached to the 2-inch rail section on the handguard.
This light has a toggle switch at the back — twist it one way for momentary on, twist it the other for steady light. Simple is good when it comes to weaponlights. It also has a strobe function that can be programmed. This is a very bright light at 630 lumens, and very impressive — I was surprised to see that it cost only about $125 online.
When it came time to head to the range, I brought my two boys along. Not just because they enjoy shooting, but because if it is possible to break something, they'll figure out a way.
While climbing up and down a steep hill with the Howe Carbine (he wanted cool photos for his Facebook page because, you know, girls) my teenager somehow managed to rub the rifle against his body enough to unscrew the protective rubber ring around the eyepiece.
As he handed the rifle to his brother, the ring fell off into the dirt — luckily I was right there to see it, as I was the only one who noticed. "How did you do that?" I asked him. In response, I got (you guessed it) a shrug.
Other than the minor scope ring issue (or maybe it's a teenage boy issue) the rifle performed flawlessly, and both boys remarked at how soft it was to shoot. Mid-length gas system ARs are soft to begin with, and once you add the weight of a weapon light, scope, and mount, muzzle rise was nearly non-existent. We were shooting the Wilson Combat Howe carbine alongside a 6-pound 9mm AR (which is straight blowback), and the 9mm had more recoil.
I had a number of long guns with me during that range trip, and hands-down my boys liked the looks of the camo Wilson Combat rifle the best. Appearance isn't everything, but it's not nothing...
Accuracy was excellent, with several of the loads tested running under 1 moa. The crisp and relatively light two-stage trigger of course helped with that. It is very tough to shoot a rifle with a heavy/gritty trigger accurately. The Leupold wouldn't be my first pick in scopes, but it is a very sound choice at a competitive price.
As compact as legally possible, more than accurate enough for any need, very cool-looking, and completely reliable — that was my experience with this rifle. However, the Wilson Combat Paul Howe Tactical Carbine retails for $2,600. The optional kit adds another $1,300 to that. For just about everybody in this country (including me) that's a heck of a lot of money.
At a recent media event I was talking with a bunch of other writers about the Howe Carbine and other high-end ARs. We could all build custom ARs for ourselves for less money than what the Howe costs...but the fact is many people do not have the knowledge, inclination, and/or time to do so.
They don't want to have to research handguard lengths or scope reticles or trigger groups. Whether you're talking guns or stoves or TVs, there are always those people who would prefer to just hand their credit card to a salesperson and say, "What's the best XX out there? Order me one."
And when presented with several choices, they will go with a brand name they recognize and associate with quality products. For those people, confidence in the product and the convenience of one-stop-shopping is more important than the price tag.
With the Wilson Combat Paul Howe Tactical Carbine, you've got a world-renowned custom gun company collaborating with a Delta Force veteran on an end-all, be-all tactical AR that in my opinion is as close to what it claims to be as is possible. But be prepared to pay for what you get.