Bear Creek Arsenal .350 Legend Upper: 300 Rounds Later

The AR-15 is the rifle of choice for sports shooting and personal defense, but it is also increasingly popular for hunting. Yes, you can hunt with an AR-15, and for some shooters, it is the most practical option. While a stock AR chambered in 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington is suitable for deer at closer distances, sometimes you need a round with more thump. Indeed, some state hunting laws require a larger-caliber round. Thankfully, changing calibers with the AR is as simple as purchasing a new upper receiver and new ammunition. Uppers vary in configuration and pricing, the latter of which makes an upper from Bear Creek Arsenal attractive. Bear Creek makes countless uppers for the AR platform in a number of calibers at a price that is much less than going out and buying a new hunting rifle. As I went down the rabbit hole of outfitting the AR-15 for hunting on a budget, I came across the Bear Creek Arsenal .350 Legend upper receiver and had to give it a test run.

The Bear Creek Arsenal 350 Legend Upper Receiver

Bear Creek Arsenal makes about three dozen upper receivers built around the 350 Legend round. Barrel lengths range from 10.5 inches to 20 inches, and barrels are M4 or heavy-weight, finished in either black nitride or stainless steel. Each sports an M-LOK handguard and an M4 dustcover, charging handle, and forward assist.

I opted for a 20-inch stainless steel heavy-barrel upper that, I hoped, would give me the most velocity and the least amount of recoil and blast compared to shorter barrels. The barrel is 416R stainless and uses a 1:16 twist rate. It sports a 1/2×28-inch threaded muzzle and wears a five-prong muzzle brake for recoil reduction. Although being 20 inches would qualify it as a full right length, it uses a carbine length gas system under a 15.25-inch black anodized aluminum handguard.

bear creek arsenal 350 legend on s&w lower
The BCA 350 Legend Upper is mounted on my S&W M&P lower. The optic is a Sig Buckmasters 3-9×40 rifle scope.

The upper receiver itself is billet 7075 series aluminum with an M4 flat-top rail. That rail is paired with a section of rail stern and aft on opposite ends of the handguard. With all this rail, you can mount an optic, set up iron sights, or both. The guts of the upper include a right-side actuated charging handle and a BCA bolt carrier group that is black nitride-finished and made of 9310 steel.

bolt carrier group and charging handle
The bolt carrier group of the BCA upper is nitride-coated and well-staked.

Bear Creek Arsenal states that the .350 Legend upper will fit any mil-spec lower receiver, but you may experience reliability problems if you mount it on non-BCA lowers. While it is possible you are a BCA rifle owner already, I imagine that most of us will want to convert what we have, and chances are, it is not a Bear Creek Arsenal rifle. In my case, it is a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II in 5.56 NATO with a TriggerTech 3.5 lb. aftermarket trigger.

bear creek arsenal upper
The BCA upper is fully featured with a forward assist, brass deflector, and dust cover. The machining, inside and outside, is excellent, although there are still visible mill marks between the forward assist and the charging handle.

Installing the BCA upper was as easy as pulling two pins, taking off the 5.56 upper, and putting the BCA 350 in its place. The installation took less than a minute, and the upper locked up tight to the S&W lower. It also functioned flawlessly in the shop. After mounting a Sig Buckmaster 3-9 rifle scope, I wrangled some .350 Legend ammo and headed for the range.

More on the 350 Legend

350 legend ammo
I used mostly Winchester 145-grain FMJ rounds but tested 120 rounds of various hunting ammunition.

In recent years, states that allowed only shotguns and muzzleloaders for deer hunting began to loosen their laws to include straight-wall rifle cartridges. In addition, .22 caliber centerfire rounds are illegal. The .350 Legend killed two birds with one stone when Winchester debuted the round in 2019. It met the straight wall and caliber regulations. The 350 also shares the same rim diameter and overall cartridge length as the .223, so it could work with AR actions and magazines with only a barrel change to the larger .35 caliber. However, the case length of the .350 is 1.71 inches, while the bottlenecked .223 is 1.76 inches.

Loads for the 350 Legend range from the 160-180 grain range with an advertised velocity of 2,100 to 2,300 feet per second, putting it in the same realm as proven big game rounds like the .30-30 Winchester or the .35 Remington.

On the Range with the Bear Creek Arsenal .350 Legend

To give credit where credit is due, Bear Creek Arsenal makes a wide variety of upper receivers and complete rifles in numerous calibers. Not all applications and not all shooters cotton to having a base 5.56 NATO or 7.62 NATO rifle. Their .350 Legend upper comes in a number of variations at prices hovering around the $300 range. This represents an excellent value for the AR owner who wants to get ready for big game hunting. Although it seems well-machined and well-thought-out overall, all that it has going for it is for not if it does not run when you pull the trigger. BCA has a mixed reputation for reliability. Many users who use their products report either high round counts and no issues or issues early on. To put the BCA .350 Legend upper to the test, I ran 300 rounds through the rig, and, in the end, I came away surprised.

bear creek arsenal 350 legend shooting
Terril prepares to engage a 300-yard gong with the .350 Legend.

Bear Creek Arsenal 350 Legend: Magazine Machinations

I am a stranger to the .350 and have a lot to learn. But as a shooting product, I found the Bear Creek Arsenal 350 Legend upper to be problematic early on. During my first shooting session, I found myself compensating where the upper left me behind. During my first range session, the upper ran, but the magazine I walked in with did not.

I fired at a series of targets at 50 yards and was able to get sighted in and had no issues firing or ejecting the rounds. I did find that the 10-round PMAG would warp when loading more than one round in, so I was reduced to using the rifle as a single shot. Later, I observed that the fatter .350 rounds were pushing against polymer reinforcing ribs in the magazine. The solution: grind the ribs away or switch to a stronger aluminum mag. Despite this initial setback, I could stack five rounds of Winchester White Box 145-grain FMJ into under one inch at that distance.

Undeterred, I bought a few aluminum magazines, including a Duramag .350 Legend 10-rounder and a standard Duramag 30-round AR magazine. These did not warp, and the bolt carrier readily fed. However, finding a load that would consistently feed and be accurate at longer distances proved to be a challenge.

duramag 10 round 350 legend magazine

Shooting Impressions

I ran a total of three hundred rounds through the Bear Creek Arsenal .350 Legend Upper. The lion’s share of the ammunition was Winchester White Box 145-grain FMJ loads, but a plurality was Hornady hunting loads, including the American Whitetail 170-grain soft-point, Custom 165-grain FTX, and Subsonic Sub-X 250-grain loads. With the rifle zeroed at 50 yards, I moved out to 100 and went for groups.

Off the bench, recoil with most of the ammunition was moderate, and it is tempting to compare it to other, more established cartridges. If I had to guess, the felt recoil on the shoulder and movement of the rifle felt like a tried and true .30-30 Winchester load. After shooting some of this ammunition across my chronograph, I began to understand why. The Hornady American Whitetail and Custom ammunitions left the 20-inch barrel at over 2,200 feet per second. It was not unlike a .30-30 170-grain load going at the same velocity. Recoil was milder with the Winchester FMJ and almost unnoticeable with the Sub X loads, which clocked in at only 1,014 feet per second.

bear creek arsenal 350 legend accuracy
Best accuracy and reliability were achieved with the Hornady American Whitetail 170-grain soft-point load.

Bear Creek Arsenal Grab Bag: Accuracy and Reliability

The Bear Creek Upper is capable of one-inch groups from the bench at 50 yards, with the Hornady Custom coming in a bit wider, with a two-inch, five-shot group. Going out to 100 yards was more dramatic. The American Whitetail 170-grain load grouped a respectable and useable two inches at that distance and hit my point of aim. The Hornady Custom load’s performance decayed to a five-inch group that favored six inches higher than my target. The Subsonic rounds that were on at 50 yards had dropped seven inches at 100 yards with a group that measured eight inches—yikes!

bear creek arsenal jam
Aside from its pet load, the BCA upper would average three failures to go into battery per 10-round string. The recovered cases had noticeable dings at the mouth.

It was also evident that the American Whitetail load was the one that this upper preferred. On this unsuppressed upper, the Subsonic loads were not strong enough to jack the bolt rearward. I had to eject each round by running the charging handle and try to reload by letting it go. The buffer spring operated sluggishly, and the bolt never cleanly picked up a round. The ammunition consistently hung up on the feed ramp before going home. The Winchester and Hornady Custom loads ejected forcefully, but I could not get through a magazine without a failure to go into battery. With the Whitetail load, I never had a failure to feed or eject. But without fail, on the last round, the charging handle releases itself to smack me in the nose.

This pattern did not change after a thorough cleaning. I even swapped out the Bear Creek bolt carrier group for the Smith & Wesson group from my M&P 15 Upper without any improvement. While the BCA upper shot well with its pet load, so well I could keep grapefruit-sized groups on steel at 300 yards, it was a hint of joy amidst frustration.

Bear Creek Arsenal 350 Legend: A Flaw in the Slaw

Bear Creek Arsenal makes more upper receivers than any other firm than I can think of. Some are conventional, while others are ambitious in terms of caliber and design. For its price, I was impressed by the quality of the workmanship and the materials used. But what mattered on the inside was more important. The .350 Legend round will feed from AR magazines and can use a standard 5.56 NATO bolt carrier group. But as I learned in real-time, it takes more than a barrel change to make the .350 viable for your lower receiver. First, not all AR magazines will work with the visibly fatter, straight-walled .350 as it does with bottlenecked .223 rounds. The slightly shorter case length of the .350, combined with the inclusion of a standard feed ramp, led to a solid hour of malfunction clearance drills.

A matter aggravated by a reciprocating, non-reciprocating charging handle, and mixed accuracy. Even Bear Creek Arsenal admits that their upper is best set up for BCA lowers and may malfunction with certain lowers and magazines. But on a platform famous for its interchangeability, that dog does not hunt, and it doesn’t explain the other issues. While I was able to get a pet load that brought the most accuracy and reliability out of the BCA .350 Legend Upper, it was also easy to see how a new AR-hunter could be put off by it.

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