In the first installment of “So you want to build an AR” I talked about the tools you’ll want when building an AR. This time around we’re going to touch on planning. Why? It will save you money and head aches. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, its that having a direction for a project is key.
I’m going to try to keep this short as this isn’t an overly complicated or technical topic. In fact, it’s only as complicated as you make it. Often times simplicity is key. I’ll share the method to my madness and hopefully that helps you come out with an AR better built for what you plan on doing as well as saving you money in the process.
Lets face it. Building and then rebuilding a gun gets expensive… ask me how I know.
The intended use.
I get asked all the time about building AR-15’s. The questions never end and that’s okay. I enjoy building them and I enjoy helping people build them even more. Often times when confronted with questions on the topic, I answer the persons questions with a question of my own. What do you plan on using your gun for?
The most common answer I get is home defense, fun at the range, and I don’t know. Going into a build, its is important to know what you want out of your gun. It will dictate how you use it and what you put into it. I cant tell you how many times I’ve had a parts list dropped on me that were full of high end race gun parts, but the intended use included home defense. You need to know what you’re going to use it for in order to choose the appropriate parts.
Choosing the right parts might not be easy for some one new to guns, AR’s, or self defense/home defense in general. I often have to remind people that just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you’ll successfully defend yourself and that often how the gun is used is far more important than what goes into it. That’s a topic for another post and also the reason why we train.
In the end, only you can decide the intended use of your gun. It could be anything though. Home defense, 3 gun, long range shooting, precision matches of some sort, hunting, plinking, ect. are just a few of many directions people go.
I hate war gaming. It has its uses, but ultimately it often gets taken too far and you end up in a never ending spiral of what ifs. So war game lightly my friends. Keep it simple. The goal once you determine your intended use is to figure out the likely situations you might encounter and what would be appropriate for those situations.
Its good to keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for another. Looking at other peoples builds is fun and its a good way to get ideas, but keep in mind that certain things might not work for you. What do I mean? Builder #1 lives in a neighborhood and Builder #2 lives in the boonies, both want to build home defense rifles. These rifles might look very different.
Builder #1 may have over penetration concerns, prefer a shorter barrel, have different requirements for optics, and may prefer a to not keep a sling on his rifle. Builder #2 probably will use his rifle to defend his animals on his land as well as his home, require a longer barrel, magnified optics such as an LPVO, perhaps he might prefer a different caliber, he will probably make longer shots, and might want to use a sling to retain his gun while he does things on his land.
It really doesn’t end there though. While you might think a gun for plinking and a gun used for 3 gun would be similar, you’d be mistaken. Often times race guns are tuned to their ammo, lighter weight, and are very specifically setup because shaving off fractions of a second is important to be competitive. Ultimately, again, only you can can determine what you need based on your intended use.
But what about….?
Like I said, most people tell me they want to build their guns for home defense and fun. Often times they want their home defense gun to double as a fun gun. That is perfectly fine so long as it excels at its primary function. If you only have one rifle, in my opinion, it is probably best to build a well rounded rifle that gravitates toward your main goal.
If you’ve got a reliable rifle, by all means go nuts with crazy builds. I find that’s often not the case for a lot of people. So the “do it all rifle” tends to be the direction I like to steer people. What do I mean? I’m talking about something reliable, in a common caliber, that is user friendly, and checks the boxes as a defensive rifle. If you only have one AR, then you can not go wrong if you head in that direction.
So what does this look like for me? It looks like my dissipator. It might not look like that for you though. I often suggest something with a 16″ barrel, mid gas, something that is lighter weight, has a good weapon mounted light, and a reliable optic. I also suggest staying away from gimmicky crap. If it sounds neat, then it probably doesn’t belong on your rifle.
Steering clear of adjustable gas blocks, light weight bolt carriers, fancy buffers, and other doo-dads is something I often advise for a well rounded gun. Why? These parts have their purpose and when used in a race gun they are awesome. Often times those parts can also cause issues with reliability though. It can be a double edged sword. They might also take some know how to get tuned properly.
Quality is key.
Good quality parts are the key to a reliable gun. Yes, I do have a PSA kit gun and no I have never had it fail me. Does that make it quality? No. It is not smooth, it is WAY over gassed, and it is generally unpleasant to shoot compared to all of my other rifles. Everything about it is rough, down to the take down pins.
I’m not saying to go bankrupt over your build. You should never do that. What I am going to tell you is that there are areas where you definitely should not skimp on dropping your hard earned cash. The bolt carrier group and barrel are the two areas that you should never cheap out on. It will affect the accuracy and reliability of your gun. When it comes to the important parts, steer clear of no name brands and companies with less than stellar reputations.
It might seem obvious that a barrel will affect accuracy, but how that barrel is gassed will also affect reliability. Over gassed guns are harder on parts, recoil harder, and might be harder for some people to shoot. Lets face it, if it feels like you’re shooting a suppressed gun and you don’t have a suppressor on it, then you’re probably also crying because you hate your newly created money pit…eeerrr gun. On the other side of that token, you may struggle to get an under gassed gun to run reliably or function well with lower powered ammo.
The same goes for your BCG. It will determine how reliable your gun is. There is a lot to talk about as far as BCG’s go and I’ll dive into that when I cover upper receivers. The point is that you need to know where its appropriate to shave off cost and not cut the quality of the important parts. When it comes to those important parts, buy once cry once. Again, I’ll cover that later. I’d do it now, but its a long topic and honestly it would be irresponsible of me to half ass that one.
A little example.
Since I’ve kind of talked about a lot of stuff here and I’ve been perhaps a little vague, I’d like to give an example. It will shed some light on my thought process and hopefully help you in developing your own.
I’ve got a game gun, a home defense rifle, and a long range gun. I want a home defense capable rifle that falls into the category as something similar to a dissipator, only shorter. I’ve set the intended use. Home defense and training. I’ve also determined that I want something short and dissipator like.
Lets tackle the home defense aspect. What variables are there? Light levels are a big one. Low light shooting is likely and I don’t want to accidentally sling lead at loved ones, so a good light is a must. It is absolutely critical that you can identify what you are shooting at. Just as important is a way for me to easily actuate the light as well as the light placement. A light is an item I don’t like to skimp on.
For me a sling is a must. Why? If I need to provide medical attention to some one, go hands on with some one, or perform any number of tasks that require both hands, then I need to be able to do something with my rifle. I don’t want to put my rifle down in some cases. So a sling lets me retain my rifle on my body. Not to mention it aids in shooting stability, but that probably wont factor in as far as home defense. On top of that, I need a ranger band or bubba strap to keep my sling contained while my rifle is stored. Lets be honest, I wont be operating out of any vehicles where my sling could get snagged. That doesn’t mean that retrieving a secured rifle wont result in a loose sling snagging on everything around it.
Reasonable weight is key. The shorter barrel will help, but so will a lighter profile barrel. If you’ve ran a rifle all day, then you know a heavy rifle will fatigue you quickly. Especially if you’re not in good shape. Most of your weight can usually be shaved off via your barrel and hand guard. The weight up front is what I tend to consider the most important to cut as it greatly affects the balance of the gun and how quickly you can point the gun without over driving it.
Those are all important considerations. Then there’s the dissipator like portion that limits the parts available to me.
A 12.5″ mid gas barrel fits the bill for dissipator proportions and similar operation. It will also limit you on hand guard options, as to be dissipator like will also require a FSB. In order to get the gun to function reliably it might require playing with buffers and carrier weights, however, to keep reliability the only deviation in the carrier that I’d make from milspec is probably going with a semi-auto carrier and only if I need to. I’ve got tons of spare parts sitting around though, so finding the winning combination of parts is only a matter of swapping around spare parts that I already have on hand. You might not have that luxury though.
On top of this, I’d be looking for the best quality barrels I could find that fit the bill. As far as BCG’s go, I’d be looking for a mil spec BCG that is at the very least magnetic particle inspected. I’d prefer something that is mill spec at a minimum as well as high pressure tested and magnetic particle inspected. I’d also want the upgraded extractor, o-ring, and spring in the bolt. I’ll talk more about all of this when I cover upper receivers though. We’ll really get into the weeds when I start breaking things down in terms of individual components in a later post.
Those are the essential operating components of the rifle that typically effect reliability. None of those things are things that I would skimp on. The rest such as stocks, grips, muzzle devices, triggers, ect, I’d budget out. Of course I’d pick things that made sense, but at the same time these items are less critical and if I put a BCM stock or a Magpul CTR on the rifle as opposed to say an LMT SOPMOD, then I wont be too heart broken and it wont effect the function of the rifle. Still, I’d steer clear of things that are gimmicky.
As far as the upper and lower receivers go, I wouldn’t get horribly hung up on getting incredibly nice stuff if I had a strict budget. I still would swing for something like Aero Precision, but here’s a little secret. If the upper and lower are in spec, then they’ll work. If they aren’t then you may experience malfunctions or tolerance stacking that could lead to malfunctions. I’m not going to judge some one who bought an Anderson lower. If its running, then its running and they saved themselves a few bucks. Typically when I see rifles that are having issues, then its due to other things. Not an out of spec upper or lower. I’d just stick to name brands here, but they don’t have to be the best of the best.
Optics are an interesting topic. There are a lot of good lower cost options that I wouldn’t be afraid to run. I could settle with a Holosun to hold me over while a saved for an EO-Tech with a magnifier. Rear irons would probably be something on the nicer end as I am still not willing to give up my irons. After all, all of us EO-Tech guys really value a good set of irons and we also stay practiced up on them just in case.
The end result.
Ultimately the end result will be different for every one. For some one like me who has numerous guns for various things, the planning process is more to save money and get a rifle that does one thing well. I get the gun I need for the task at hand without having to do as much rebuilding down the road. After all, I’ve taken a lot of variables into consideration and on top of that I have a ton of prior experience to use as direction. I’ve already got a lot of my bases covered though, so if I don’t get it right, then its not like my only rifle is down. No, I still have a few purpose built rifles that are setup like serious work guns. It affords me a lot of wiggle room in how I approach projects.
You might be new to this and probably wont have the same luxury of multiple guns or the wealth of experience. The purpose of this post is to get you thinking. Its to steer you in the direction of the gun you need. After all, if its your only gun, then it does kind of have to do it all. It needs to run like a top. Even if its not your only AR, you probably don’t want to hemorrhage money on a failed build. So hopefully this helps you think through your builds and avoid some pit falls.
In the next couple posts I intend to break down both the upper and lower receivers and go over their individual components. I’ll cover what I tend to look for in parts and really get into the weeds as far as component specs and what may or may not make each individual part desirable. All this will culminate in how to successfully put an AR together. I also plan on touching a couple of topics that I get asked about a lot as well. I say this as a sort of heads up. This is a lot to cover and its going to take some time to do it. As far as a time frame goes, expect this all to culminate some time early next year. I’ll try not to keep those of you interested waiting too long. In the mean time, I’ve got plenty of other stuff coming. Stay tuned!