Do we embrace change, or do we get comfortable with uniformity? Making big changes in life is not always easy. Change tends to be more of a gradual force rather than the on/off-switch approach most people assume, and the firearms industry is no different — especially when it comes to AR-15s. The consensus has been to stick with what works well enough, then sell a ton of them. Think back to grade school where you didn’t want to be different or the oddball, unless you liked getting beat up at recess. Now fast-forward a few years (OK, maybe decades) where the AR market is the new playground. The few different ideas that have come about were initially treated like a third grader with cooties.
The horizon is changing. Companies are coming around and accepting change, and others still are pushing the envelope. Contrary to any image we may have of a community filled with engineers and machinists, this isn’t an exact science. Many innovations are developed and fine-tuned, only for the market to realize they were remedying a problem that wasn’t there.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is Cobalt Kinetics. Having only been in business a few years, they’re a relatively new company with their own ideas about how rifles should be made, and they’re bursting into a market where aesthetics are based on the teachings of Henry Ford, i.e., you can have any color you want as long as it’s black. Or maybe burnt bronze if you’re a daredevil. They’re banking on visionary styling, exceptional fit, and, now, some innovative technology when it comes to how the gun is operated to set them apart from the rest. While the Star Wars look might not be everyone’s cup of Bantha milk, at least it’s something different in a world of monochromatic clones.
Evolution is a cruel bitch. The weak will be culled, the losers trampled, and the successful triumphant. We can only assume this is where Cobalt Kinetics got the name for its latest iteration of the AR-15. The Evolve is the company’s crack at making a rifle geared for the three-gun competition market, where losing ideas get killed quicker than Mexican mayors.
Big grins all round. After all, this looks like the imaginary, futuristic guns we used to draw in middle school. It seems to be something out of a sci-fi movie or Lord of the Rings brought to life to rule over all other firearms. The design is unmistakably different and challenges people’s notion of what ARs should look like. Upon seeing this rifle we’ve had a few people ask, “Is that a real gun?” To which the answer is always, “Nope, it’s on loan from the Death Star.”
Holding the rifle, you can immediately tell it’s not a parts gun, but a quality tool that’s had a lot of inspiration and care lavished on it. All components line up perfectly. You have to look closely to see where one part starts and another finishes. We’re pretty sure you could convince a newbie that it’s all one piece.
The Evolve has been purpose built for the competitive shooter and has a list of features that many competitors didn’t realize they needed. Once they get passed in the rankings, they’ll figure it out.
The most novel feature of the rifle is the proprietary Cobalt Advantage Reloading System, or C.A.R.S. for short, because everyone knows you can’t have a great innovation without a catchy acronym. The idea behind this system is to reload the gun in the most efficient way possible, shaving tenths of a second when the shot timer is running. Here’s how it works.
The first step in the system happens when the last round in the magazine is chambered. At this point the receiver knows the magazine is useless and ejects the empty mag from the gun. This feature takes you back in time to the World War II-era, via M1 Garand en block clips. It evokes stories of G.I.’s throwing empty clips on the ground, mimicking the distinctive sound to trick the enemy, and we can only assume the polymer AR-15 magazines of today wouldn’t make a loud enough ping.
The second part of the system locks the bolt back once the last round is fired. No big change there, you may think — don’t all ARs do that? In the great tradition of daytime infomercials, wait, there’s more.
The final phase is the most useful part of the system. When the empty magazine has been ejected and the bolt has been locked back, inserting a fresh mag sends the bolt automatically forward, chambering the next round, essentially taking care of all aspects of the reload with that single action. The only thing you have to bring to the party is the loaded magazine.
As with any piece of technology, there are advantages and drawbacks. Being a control freak when it comes to my guns, I want to be in the driver seat with all aspects of functionality and it’s here that a weakness is exposed if you rely on the gun to make your decisions for you. As a competitive shooter, if you wait till the magazine is empty to reload, you’re wasting precious time — stuff a fresh mag into the rifle when you’re doing something else, like moving! The particular stage you’re shooting dictates where and when to do the reload and more often than not you’re dumping a partial mag. Who has time to count rounds exactly, Dirty Harry style? Did I fire 29 rounds or 30? Am I feeling lucky, punk?
What about coupled magazines? These are clearly out, as the rifle will dump your second, coupled mag without any warning. When going prone, you often have to use the magazine as a monopod, which leaves no room for the mag to fall out of the gun. Proficiency usually wins over technology.
At this stage, we proceeded to write off all the benefits of the C.A.R.S. system until we thoroughly dissected them, then coming to the head-slapping realization that it doesn’t change the “normal” operations of the AR. It simply adds another layer of functionality. You can still handle the aforementioned scenarios by using it like a standard rifle (except possibly for the use of coupled magazines), but the system is there if and when you need it. It acts as a cushion of efficiency.
After spending time behind the trigger the benefits started to become more and more appealing. The automatic dropping of the mag doesn’t make the action of reloading any faster. What it does do is wipe away the time it takes the operator to realize a reload needs to happen. Liken it to emergency braking in your vehicle — almost half the time it takes to stop comes from recognizing that you have to stop. We consistently achieved sub two-second reloads with this setup.
One other major innovation of the Evolve is its buffer system. Unfortunately there’s no snappy name for it, but as this is a preproduction gun there’s still time. Instead of the usual setup, this one’s made out of polymer and is adjustable for weight by unscrewing a cap and dropping in different-sized inserts. Running hotter ammo would mean using a heavier buffer, so this not only saves the time and space of replacing a standard buffer with heavier or lighter ones, but it allows the user to fine-tune the rifle to his preference.
The other big touch Cobalt Kinetics put on this gun is its proprietary muzzle brake that, if you excuse the pun, is a break from normal offerings. It’s a linear design with all six ports on the sides. There are no top ports, going against the grain of popular design and in use, it seemed to work just fine. It’s louder than a Metallica reunion and flatter than Taylor Swift.
Even without these innovations the rifle stands tall on its own. The other parts read as a wish list of components that any AR guy would be enthralled to put on his gun. The lightweight 18-inch carbon fiber–wrapped barrel is from PROOF Research, and it’s fitted with an adjustable gas block to further fine-tune the gun. The long handguard features M-LOK attachment slots and has quick detach holes for a sling. The AXTS ambidextrous Raptor charging handle fits right in and is arguably one of the best on the market. AR Gold makes the trigger, which breaks clean at about 2. pounds. This was the author’s first experience with this trigger and it might not make it back to the manufacturer — hope they don’t notice. The 45-degree safeties did take some time to get used to and while they might not be your first choice, they didn’t hinder anything.
The overall feel of the Evolve is well balanced and is one of the most solid feeling ARs this scribe has shot. There’s no play between the upper and lower receivers, as with most production ARs, and the handguard fills the palm well. The fixed, rifle-length stock can’t be adjusted like many other competition rifles, but after a couple of dry-firing sessions it felt right at home.
After running a few three-gun–style stages we did experience a few hiccups with the C.A.R.S. system. The magazine was always ejected just fine, but bolt lock-back was inconsistent— sometimes it wouldn’t lock back at all. Tearing it down, we noticed that the receiver was bone dry. Slathering it in oil seemed to fix the problem, and it seemed that you’d need to keep it wet in order to maintain reliability. After that it ran like a top. In recoil, it’s flatter and softer than any rifle used as a comparison, including tricked-out three-gun rigs — exactly what you want out of a competition rifle.
OK, so it’s got what it takes to perform in hoser stages, but can it smack those 500-yard plates? In accuracy testing, we tried really hard, but could not find any ammo that would shoot a bigger group than 1 inch at 100 yards. The best it turned in was with 77-grain Federal factory ammo at 0.569 inches, and the worst group was 0.916 inches with XM193. These are better than average groups, especially from a pistol shooter like yours truly.
When it comes to firearms we’re way more interested in the way they shoot than the way they look, Instagram notwithstanding. There’s an ongoing joke in the competition world — after a crappy run you can console yourself that at least it looked good on video.
This rifle looks good on camera, but it shoots even better. Flat, soft, and accurate, but as with all high-performance items, it needs some attention and preventative maintenance. Owning a Ferrari is more work than owning a Toyota, but the reward, one can only assume, is worth the extra work. Cobalt Kinetics has enlisted the assistance of two of the top shooters on the three-gun circuit, Kalani Laker and Keith Garcia, to refine the Evolve, so we’ll see how they perform in competition this season, and if the rifle can live up to its potential.