Systema Professional Training Weapons: M16-A3
by Wallace (of Ez Company)
|| -Systema Evolutionary Design
-Variable Hop-up Adjustment
-Real Bolt Stop Action
-Metal Body Standard
-One Piece Barrel design
Introduction Have Systema made airsoft history? Only time will tell. However, one thing is certain: their recently released masterpiece will meet any of your expectation with room to spare. In my opinion, this rifle (with no reservation whatsoever) is the best-ever-made electric airsoft gun known to men. Its top notch construction quality, realism, and reliability far suppresses any other mass-production AEG out on the market, easily justifying it as the new king of all AEGs.
Background My relationship with the Systema AEG started at the 2003 Annual IACP Conference, where I first met Ms. Kumi Yoshida, CEO of Systema. My first hands-on experience with their prototype was excellent, leaving me with good impression on the quality and unique design.
Casual conversation also reveled that Systema intends to market this AEG as law enforcement and military training tools, echoing with Pikachoad's 2003 Shot Show report. However when asked about the civilian market, it seemed to me that they were not adverse to the idea of selling it to the general airsoft skirmish community either. Since then I've been keeping in touch with Systema for their development progress, as well as possible opportunity of importing it to the United States.
Fast forward to 2004... after numerous communications with Systema, on February 5th the long-awaited Systema "PTW" (Professional Training Weapon) finally arrived at my office. Communication from Ms. Yoshida indicated that this is a "pre-production sample", however it is "complete" and will be pretty much identical to their final production version.
In addition, she also requested me to withhold any information until the official release date (hence the delay on releasing this review). Nonetheless, in my best knowledge this is the only Systema PTW in the United State as of this writing. However I would expect US distributors to be getting their shipments anytime now, probably right after Systema fulfilled their commitments towards their Japanese and far-east distribution network.
Construction and Build Quality
The first thing you will notice about the Systema PTW is its excellent build quality. The moment I picked it out of the box, I can already feel its body's rigidity being so much better then Tokyo Marui or even ICS M4s (the later comes standard with metal body as well). Every piece of the gun fits together so perfectly that they practically demonstrated Systema's high level of commitment in quality control.
In addition, Systema seems to target many of the TM M16's weaknesses and specifically addressed them with their PTW. The most obvious improvement has to be the metal body: made of die-case aluminum, this is probably one of the best metal body yet. Due to the new gearbox design (more on that later), Systema was able to reduce the overall thickness of the body while still maintaining a thick and study outer wall on the receiver.
Although I am not sure why Systema used aluminum instead of steel as material of choice, my guess is that they wanted to keep the weight as close to the real-steel M16 as possible. It may come to a surprise for you, but most of the terminally upgraded TM M16/M4 with metal body and upgraded gears weight MORE then their real steel counterpart. For example, my TM M4A1 (with battery but no magazine) tips the scale at almost 8 lbs, whereas a real steel U.S. Military M4A1 weights merely 5.9lb unloaded. In comparison, the Systema M16-A3 weights about 7.5 lbs, the exact weight of the real-steel M16-A3/A4. If steel is used for construction they would've exceeded the weapon's weight by a long shot.
The second noticeable improvement is the one-piece metal barrel, likely designed to rid the infamous "barrel wobble" problem so common on TM M16s — for good. Most TM M4 owners will install a reinforced metal outer barrel soon after their metal body upgrade (myself included), and in this case Systema had done both for you already, straight out of the factory floor. Although I am still hesitate to proclaim that Systems's solution "works" (at least not until there is enough users field-test the PTW), it nonetheless is a welcome improvement and seems worthy for the trial.
Finally, the plastic parts used in the PTW is also of better quality then other AEG parts. All plastic components in the Systema PTW are fiber-reinforced, meaning they will take a lot more abuse then traditional TM parts. No more cracked stocks or lose/flexing front hand guards! Kudo to Systema on making every piece of the gun substantially more durable then the competitions.
All in all, don't take my words for it and try to hunt one down and see it for yourself. I am sure you will be pleased with its quality just as I do. Last but not least, once I field-test the sample (its still cold in Ohio...) I will update with more information as to how it stands up to everyday use and abuse.
Realism Ok finally we are getting to the guts of the review. For all these time you've probably heard enough rumors of it, and you've probably asked yourself many times already: What does it gives me that I CANNOT get from upgrading an TM M16? Well, good question and I once asked myself the same over and over again. And when I found my answer, it was quite obvious: realism.
Realism is easier said then done, and its even more difficult to define. As real as the current generation AEGs get, they've always left something to be desired. Granted airsoft can never be "real" (after all it wasn't designed to kill), but we embrace their similarities in physical properties and operation. To nobody's surprise, the Systema PTW gives you more in both aspects then TM had ever offered.
On the physical property side, beyond the weight similarity with its real-steel counterpart, it is most noticeable that Systema has produced a rifle that is much closer (if not identical) in dimension and design as compared to the real steel, even down to the retention mechanism of the receiver pin. Case in point, TM (and hence ICS or CA) M16s are notoriously "fat" - that in order to accommodate the gearbox/motor they have to use a wider-then-real receiver and pistol grip on their AEGs.
In comparison, the Systema PTW's width is of much closer resemblance of the real M16. You can clearly see how much wider an TM M16 is from this picture. It may not sounds like a big deal to you, or you may even prefer the wider pistol grip of the TM variant; however when your life could be on the line and you are practicing to ensure your very own (and others) existence, every detail counts. Exact handling characteristic is critical to law enforcement and military trainings, as enough comments had been made regarding TM M16s "felt different" then the officer's actual duty weapon.
Back to physical properties, there is another piece of dimension that is worth mentioning: the magazine. In case you haven't noticed yet, all TM magazines are shorter then their real-steel counterparts. However, the Systema magazine is almost exact in dimension with real-steel mags. The picture on top of this page is a perfect illustration: On the bottom lays a loaded 30-round real-steel M16 mag, then comes Systema's version on the middle, and finally my battle-proven TM hi-cap stacked on top. If you ever got annoyed by TM mags being "lose" on your black hawk vest, this is your answer. Again you may not think its a big deal, but for professional training it is critical that everything handles and feels the same, and the magazine is no exception.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning that all accessory mounting points are identical to real-steel M16: True mil-spec flat top receiver and full interchangeability with real-steel hand-guards. That means any real-steel rail-based accessories like the ACOG or cantilever mount for AimPoints will fit right-on, as well as all the KAC hand guards such as the RAS-II and RAS floating barrel conversions kits. That's just excellent news for all the hardcore airsoft enthusiasts!
Operations Well, enough about physical similarities? Here comes the part that I personally think was the biggest improvement on the PTW: operation. To kick it off, this is the first AEG that stops firing after last round leaves the barrel, and the only AEG that always cycle the gearbox when you pull the trigger.
Impressed? I was. In detail, each Systema magazine has a follower that triggers a switch in the body to cut off power to the gearbox whenever the magazine is empty. Because of the follower design, it doesn't matter if you load 5 rounds or 50 rounds into the magazine (which is rated at 120rd by the way), the gun WILL stop firing after you clear the mag.
This is of particular importance on training because you cannot expect the trainee to use the dry-fire "sonic signature" as an indication to change his/her magazine, particularly for professional training facilities where a police department might schedule to come in only a few times a year. In addition, instructors can choose to pre-load only 30 rounds of BBs into each magazine to simulate the actual weapon's capacity, and together with realistic rate of fire it even mimics how fast one might run out of rounds and needed to reload in a stressed environment. Beyond that, once you've inserted a fresh magazine you will also have to hit the bolt-release button, which resets the circuitry, to ready the weapon - again just like the real-steel. Can you say mil-sim??
Furthermore, Systema had designed a circuitry that will always complete a "cycle" whenever you tap the trigger. Besides the realistic aspect (when have you seen a real gun half-draw the piston but didn't fire if you tap the trigger too lightly?) this is quite interesting to me as it is well-documented that on TM AEGs, "tapping" on the trigger trying to squeeze out only one round (especially in full-auto mode) can be hazardous to your gearbox. In many occasions this had forced me to switch to semi before I want to "sharp shoot" someone from a distance; although its only a minor annoyance I like the fact that now I can leave the PTW in full auto and still squeeze out a single round EVERY TIME I wanted to, without any worry of gearbox damage! Moreover, this design feature also eliminates the "spring-compression syndrome", whereas depends on how you fire the last round your TM AEG's piston could be half-way pulled back leaving the spring compressed. If you store your gun without firing it in semi-auto at least once, prolonged compression of the spring will effectively weaken it and cause performance degradation. ICS combat this problem by making their forward assist button as a "release" switch (which basically just kick off the anti-reversal latch), Systema combat this problem by never allowing it to happen to start with. This really shows that they've put a lot of thoughts into designing this gun, as well as their "no-expense spared" mentality in making it.
Performance You might be asking this question by now: as good as it may have sounded so far, how does it performs? This is probably one area that will stair the most debate in the close future. I think if I have to sum it up in one word, I would say "better". If you look at pure performance indices, the Systema PTW does not present a quantum leap in performance as compared to properly upgraded TM AEGs. However it does brings some noticeable area that "up the ant" on TM quite a bit.
Before I get into the detail, please keep in mind that this is based on a pre-production sample . Final production version WILL have different statistics, and once I get my order I will update this. So, with that in mind lets look at some vital statistics:
|| Systema M16-A3
|| Colt M16-A3
|| Safe / Semi / Full
|| 385FPS / 0.20g BB
|Rate of Fire:
|| 760RPM / 7.2v 2400mAh
860RPM / 8.4v 1300mAh
|| 120rd (rated)
A couple notes: I was told that the production version will comes with a "1J spring" which means anywhere between 280-330 FPS. There is rumor that Systema will ship a different version for overseas consumption however communication from Systema suggested otherwise. Until retailers on the state-side receives their order its hard to tell which is true. However one thing is certain: this pre-production sample had clearly indicated that the gearbox design can handle substantially more then the "1J spring" - there is noticeable wear and tear on a few parts of this sample I received, but even so and with close to 400FPS output there is no sign of wear on the gears at all. The gun also sounds very "clean" and "effortless" with its current setup, unlike TM guns where you can feel and notice the gearbox/motor working overtime to handle an 400FPS spring. Not to mention all this was only powered by a 7.2v battery pack. With that in mind, along with the solid construction I would not be surprised if the gearbox is designed to withstand 500-600FPS full-auto continuous firing out-of-the-box.
Secondly, it is quite amazing to have such a high rate of fire using only a 7.2v battery pack. As you've noticed a 8.4v 1300mAh battery pack will push the ROF up to 860, and by guestimate a 8.4v 2400 pack can probably reach the 900 RPM mark using this current setup. One can only imagine the insane ROF using a 9.6v 2400mAh pack, which will fit in the stock... Granted this is no "BB hose" as I've had a 1200 RPM M4 using a 12v battery pack, but compare to a similarly upgraded TM gearbox the new Systema design shows to be quite a bit more efficient
Finally, for the skirmish community it is definitely a good thing to learn that Systema adopted the "mid-cap" design and offers 120 rounds "rated" capacity on their magazines. The cost of their magazine is also very reasonable as well, with estimated street price around USD$40 each. Although I was able to squeeze in 142 rounds before it refuses to accept any more, I am not sure if there is any adverse effects on the magazine this way (over-compress the spring??). In addition, my magazine seems to prefer "smooth" surface finish as compared to the sand-blast type - the Excel and Maruzen BBs I have tends to jam inside the magazine whereas TM BBs feed smoothly and perfectly. This is probably something that can be easily fixed by a quick spray of silicon, however for as "dry" as my magazine looks (i.e. Systema never really sprayed any silicon on it when they were testing this gun), I have a feeling that if the right BBs are used the magazine will never needs lubricant. Last but not least, I'd also like to mention that the final 2 rounds of BBs will NOT feed into the gun - the follower will trigger the cut-off after the third-last BB leaves the barrel. So if you want to simulate the 30rd-per-mag setup of the real-steel, you should load 32 rounds into each magazine instead.
Take-down Procedures It probably comes to no surprise that one of the major benefit of the Systema PTW is the ability to field-strip / field-upgrade the gun. However, to be honest Systema might be a little late to the party - with substantially less money you could've get an ICS M4 with similar upper/lower receiver and two-piece gearbox design. However where Systema shines above ICS is that they've completely redesigned the gearbox and personally it is a much more elegant solution as compare to ICS's "saw a TM gearbox in half" solution.
In simple terms, breaking down the gun involves removing the rear receiver pin, pull the upper receiver up, and voila. Once the receiver is opened, you can remove the cylinder unit by simply pulling the charging handle. Sadly this also represent one aspect that Systema could not mimic the real steel's operation - with the receiver closed the charging handle only pulls back about 1 cm before it stops. However I suppose nothing is perfect and some compromise has to be made...
Furthermore, the Systema design has a few other improvements over the ICS version. First, there is a heavy duty ball bearing on the lower receiver that locks on to the cylinder when the receiver is closed. That means even after the receiver pin is removed, their upper and lower receiver will NOT separate by itself like a real-steel or ICS M4.
Also, after you close the receiver, the ball bearing will lock the upper/lower receiver in place making the job of re-inserting the receiver pin a piece of cake.
Second, Systema's new gearbox design allow them to changed from the "dual-tab" design of the TM/ICS guns to a much more solid and reliable single-tab design. In detail, all TM and ICS guns have two "tabs" on each side of the upper receiver. These tabs, after inserting into the lower receiver will have their holes aligned for the receiver pin to lock them in place.
If you are a long-time AEG smith, you will know how many people had broken these tabs, mostly on plastic TM bodies (but I've also seen numerous occasions that even the metal body's tab had broken off). Even the new ICS two-piece gearbox cannot be excluded from this issue. However Systema has taken the real-steel approach, and allocated some really beefy chunks of metal around the receiver pin locking points so it will be pretty damn hard to break these.
Finally, since Systema's new gearbox completely eliminated the need for a tapplet plate, there is no fear of breaking that either. On the ICS M4, the tapplet plate is the "weakest link" in that if you do not release the spring tension by using the forward-assist before you crack the upper receiver open, its piston will fly forward breaking the tapplet plate right off. This is a non-issue with Systema because... in the Systema PTW, there is no tapplet plate!
Upgrade Paths As of this writing there is yet an official announcement how Systema will handle upgrades. As I had mentioned before, the gearbox is clearly designed to handle a lot more then the stock "1J spring", but it is unsure what it takes to get the gun to your preferred level of performance. Ideally one would only need to take the cylinder unit apart and replace the internal spring with your preferred unit, since everything else is already up for the task... however as hard as I've tried I CANNOT unscrew the cylinder cap!
Right now all I can think of is two possibilities - the threads of the pre-production sample could be glued tight (red loctite?) for unspecified reason so it cannot be removed, or that Systema would rather make you buy an entire cylinder kit (with pistons, nozzles, etc. pre-assembled) for each velocity you want. On a pure business sense, the later is highly probable because it represents a major continuous revenue source for them. However, as badly as it may sounds, if you think about it their approach actually make a lot of sense — anyone who can afford this rifle will most likely want to keep a complete cylinder set for each velocity level anyway, so they can simply swap out the cylinder on the field to bring the rifle from CQB to woodland to sniping. If they are willing to price the cylinder kit reasonably, I would think most owners will be happy to avoid the trouble and rather buy the "drop-in" replacement/upgrade and be done with it. However all these are purely my conjecture that will need to be confirmed and verified from Systema.
Finally, another point worth mentioning is that in order to access the gearbox you would need to remove the bolt release first, and the pin that secure the bolt release onto the metal body is next to impossible to remove. Again this might echoes with Systema's claim that their PTW's gearbox is NOT designed to be user-serviceable, and if the very unlikely situation of broken gears arises you will have to send the rifle back to Systema for repair. Again until I receive the official response from Systema this will be yet another unknown.
Compare To... Before we round up the review, lets look at some direct comparison between the Systema PTW, a real steel Bushmaster AR-15, and the TM M4A1. I am sure you would be interested in the result...
Note the "enlarged" size of the TM pistol grip. As far as I know of, the Bushmaster has a slightly wider grip then mil-spec M16, and that Systema's slightly narrower grip is in closer resemblance to the mil-spec M16. Most people who had handled the Systema rifle also told me that it feels identical to the military M16 grip. Furthermore also notice now the TM body is considerably wider then both; as a matter of fact a TM mag is so thick that it won't fit in either the real steel nor the Systema's mag well, not to mention people had had a lot of problem fitting the real steel "Redi-Mag" onto a TM body. However these are both non-issue on the Systema rifle: the Systema magazine will even slide perfectly into the real steel mag well, although it will not lock in place caused by the extruding BB feeder on the top of the magazine.
Here is a closer look of the collar with the front hand guard removed. Notice the attention of detail here and the exact replication of the real-steel collar. Even the gas tube is faithfully replicated, the only thing Systema didn't have is the heat-induced discoloration on the front tip of the gas tube. Excellent jobs here. In addition, the butt stock is, for all intensive purpose, identical to the real-steel part. The Bushmaster stock seems to have a lighter gray finish to it, as compare to a black military stock. However Systema's external dimension on the stock is dead-on.
Here comes one disappointing sight - literally. Systema's front sight assembly looks practically identical to the TM front sight (I wonder if that is actually a TM part), as compare to the much more rugged real-steel front sight. However their size, shape, and finish on the metal body is another dead-on perfect replication. Picking up the two gun one after the other, their surface finish on the receiver is so close that I can bet you even an experienced rifleman could mistaken the Systema as being a real-steel M16.
Finally, a look at the rear receiver pin - Systema even puts in the exact retention mechanism from the real steel so you can never lose your pin while field-striping the gun. There is a small spring-loaded pin that keeps the receiver pin locked when closed, as well as preventing it from falling out of the gun entirely. Excellent design from the real-steel manufacturers, and excellent replication from Systema!
Drawbacks? By now you might be asking "hey how much did Systema pay you to write this review??" That being said, even though it is indeed an excellent rifle there is nonetheless some shortcomings. One major disadvantage of the rifle is obviously cost, for every Systema rifle I can purchase 4x TM M4 or 3x ICS M4. For many people it is just not worth the high admission price.
In addition, it is instantly noticeable that the selector switch is being very "soft" and uncommunicative. You wonder a lot if the gun really is in semi or not. I hope they will fix this problem in the second production run, as it really distracts from the high-quality feel of the weapon. Moreover, the fact that the charging handle does not extend can be consider a step backward from the TM AEGs design, even though it is the most logical "integrated" tool that can be used to remove the cylinder.
Lastly (and some will argue with me over this): Systema moved the hop-up adjustment from the TM design (easily accessible via the ejection port) to a set-screw style that requires you to remove the magazine and use a hex key. Many hard-core airsofter will tell me that a set-screw design is much more accurate and consistent that they will prefer it more then the TM's hop-up design (which, tends to work its way lose all the time). However, considering the "quick swap" feature of their cylinder, such difficult-to-access hop-up does seems to defeat the purpose. Why give you the ability to change the cylinder in less then a minute, only then to force you to remove the magazine, grab your tool, make hop-up adjustments, insert the magazine, test fire, then repeat until its done? I hope they would be able to eventually update their hop-up unit so it can be easily adjusted via the ejection port.
Conclusion So, have Systema made airsoft history? Well, as I said earlier only time will tell. Should you go out and buy one of these today? That's up to you but I hope my review can help you make that decision.
In my opinion, the "best bang for your buck" airsoft gun will definitely have to belongs to something else — for example, one of those shinny-new ICS two-piece gearbox full-metal M4, even with full Systema internal upgrades and TN barrel, should only set you back no more then USD$600 and will go a long way for your airsoft needs. However, if you want the best of the best, or requires hard-core level of realism, there is nothing in the world of airsoft that can even approach the uniqueness or faithful reproduction this rifle offers. From the excellent design and build quality to the replication of every fine detail of a real-steel M16's operation, Systema has definitely set a new benchmark for every electric airsoft guns to look up to.
||Excellent Build quality
||Exact replica of mil-spec M16 in all aspects (dimension, weight, operations etc.)
||Fully compatible with most real-steel accessories
||Extreme realism - e.g. weapon stops firing when magazine is empty, bolt
release must be pressed, etc.
||Circuitry design ensures every trigger pull results in a full cycle
||Simple take-down procedure
||Quick-removable cylinder set for field-upgrade and repair
||Minimized future investment needs and upgrade messes
- comes with top quality gears; no need to get reinforced body parts
- no major disassembly needed to upgrade, e.g. no more flying spring-guides.
- still highly upgradable as internals are designed to handle much higher stress
||Comes standard with "mid-cap" magazine design (120rds)
||Efficient new gearbox as compared to TM
||High admission cost - estimated street price in excess of USD$1,000
||Selector switch feels "soft"
||Charging handle does not operate
||Front sight looks and feels cheap
||Hop-up adjustment difficult to get to
||Limited selection (Only M16A3 and SR-16 is offered initially)
||Limited user sevicable parts inside
Outlook Now that Systema has entered the AEG race, what and how will it really affect us? One thing that instantly comes to mind is the pressure it puts on other AEG manufacturers - what if Systema's product is vastly successful hence allowing them to produce in larger quantity thus lowering their production cost?
If the Systema PTW can be offered at a more competitive pricing (say $600 to $700), it will seriously invade TM's market share especially in the mid- to high-end skirmish community — where durability, performance, and cost are often valued together and are equally important. On the other hand, even at its current price point I believe Systema's class-leading design and functionality can still create pressure and competition within the AEG market, and the end result will only benefit the skirmish community. Finally, at the very least, it truly is exhilarating for me to learn that someone is finally willing to think outside the box and is brave enough to re-invent the AEG formula, bringing us such an exciting product. Knowing that more models are in the work (SR16-M4/M5 and even MP5), there is really no telling how much Systema will be able to push the airsoft technology curve. However one thing is certain: it is definitely heading to the right direction.
written by Wallace (of Ez Company)
Links: Systema Japan