The AR revolution might be petering out a little, though political rhetoric and alarmist news coverage of issues such as pushes for increased gun control, militarized police forces, Ebola outbreaks, and acts of terrorism could start the buying frenzy all over again in a moment. And though the unprecedented sales levels are cooling, demand remains high compared to the days before the AR became the hottest gun on the planet, and the attendant market of related gear and accessories continues to be strong.
Despite flat sales, one segment of the AR market that is holding steady or even picking up steam appears to be the build-your-own DIY AR. Tactical rifles based on the AR-15’s modular design are screaming for upgrades and customization, and due to the Mil-Spec nature of the platform and the wide availability of parts and components, it’s only natural that a do-it-yourself crowd similar to the hot rod car culture has developed as the popularity of the AR has grown.
Initially, the DIY approach mostly consisted of taking a basic rifle and upgrading it with premium parts and accessories in order to get a high-performance gun without paying top-shelf prices. Often, the upgrading would occur over time as the gun owner found the time and money to devote to the project. Piece by piece, an entry-level plinker could be transformed into a maximum performance competition gun, a customized hunting gun or a tricked-out tactical head-turner.
As the market grew, more guns reached the hands of gun owners, and more parts and accessories became available, the amateur AR gunsmiths began expanding into building new guns from the ground up. Again, many times this was a result of wanting a custom premium gun without paying custom premium prices. But increasingly it began to encompass gun owners who wanted to build their own for the fun of the experience as much as for any other reason.
The fact that an AR’s lower receiver is the serialized, official registered “firearm” that requires government regulation and background checks means that everything else that makes up an AR — including the upper receiver, the barrel, the stock, the trigger and every other component — is simple and easy to legally acquire through a wide range of ordinary channels. This means that, for upgraders and custom builders of modern sporting rifles, the sky’s the limit.
The 80/20 Principle
A more recent trend among custom AR builders is the practice of building off-the-books guns. Generally, this is accomplished by acquiring what’s called an “80 percent lower,” a partially complete lower receiver. The remaining 20 percent of the work needed to turn it into a functioning lower requires special tools and skills. This means that the unmodified 80 percent lower is, legally speaking, nothing more than a hunk of metal. Many refer to them as “paperweights.” No firearms regulations apply to them, because they aren’t firearms.
Performing the final 20 percent of the work that transforms the paperweight into an actual lower receiver requires special tools and skills, but it isn’t particularly difficult. Tools, including jigs to help the builder finish the work, including drilling and milling, are easy to find. The work must be performed by the owner of the would-be gun. Laws vary by jurisdiction, but there isn’t generally a restriction against building your own firearm for your own personal use. Restrictions on the types of guns allowed to be owned and the use of those guns still applies, and it’s vital that gun builders are well-versed in what they can and cannot do.
Once the 80 percent lower has been worked and altered into a lower receiver, all the normal methods of building or upgrading an AR apply. Assuming the work was done correctly, virtually the entire world of AR parts and accessories is now available for use on the home-built lower receiver.
The Sound Of Silence
Nationally, new laws, new interpretations of existing laws, and the striking down or changing of current regulations are making the purchase and use of firearms suppressors easier and more widespread than ever.
While there are plenty of off-the-shelf guns ready for suppressors, the growing popularity of this market segment will obviously translate to the DIY market as well. For AR builders, this means threaded barrels, adjustable gas blocks, and chamberings for suppression-friendly cartridges. Daniel Defense’s cold hammer-forged barrels are built in Black Creek, Georgia, to DD’s exacting standards and are available in a wide range of lengths and configurations with various gas porting options in standard 5.56mm and in .300 Blackout.
Though many suppressors are designed with the ubiquitous .223/5.56x45mm in mind, longstanding unhappiness with variations of the military’s standard round has led to the development of many other intermediate cartridges, each conceived to address one or more of the 5.56’s shortcomings. One of the leading alternatives for suppressed shooting is the .300 AAC Blackout (7.62x35mm). It means to combine .30-caliber hitting power with optimal performance in suppressed fire within a package that mimics 7.62x39mm ballistics out of a short-action AR-compatible gun and standard AR magazines at full capacity. Many AR builders will be considering this chambering for their new rifle project or for a new custom-built upper to mate with their existing lower.
Where To Skimp And Where To Spend
Often, one of the goals of a self-built gun will be to save a little money while assembling a quality firearm. While this used to often mean getting a decent gun at an affordable price, AR prices are coming back to earth due to competition in a saturated marketplace and demand leveling off. As a result, DIY guns are increasingly used as a way to build high-performance shooters for middle-of-the-road prices or to build the perfectly customized gun for a specific purpose, such as multi-gun competition or hunting. When looking to build for rock bottom prices, there are a lot of options out there, and if the builder is willing to do the research and find the right parts, guns can be built for amazingly low prices.
Of course, builders cannot totally escape the “you get what you pay for” aspect of the free market, and a gun slapped together with nothing but cheap components is going to shoot like a hot rod assembled from junk drives. The gun is only going to be as good as its weakest link, and if that link is in a critical place, the results will be disappointing. Just like when building your own street rod or high-performance computer, the builder needs to know where a few bucks can be saved and where every penny spent will matter. A car builder won’t cheap out on a carburetor or transmission, and a computer builder won’t elect to save a dollar or two on the CPU or video card — not when performance and reliability matter.
In a like manner, gun builders will be hesitant to pinch pennies when it comes to critical parts for a gun they want to rely on. For performance AR builds, the keys will often be the barrel and the bolt carrier group. It’s hard to overcome shortcomings from subpar barrels and bolts, and even the sweetest-looking gun sours fast when it can’t hit the target.
Triggers, too, will get a lot of consideration for some extra dollars among the knowledgeable. As the point where the shooter directly connects with the shooting, the right trigger for the job can make the difference between good and great. While standard Mil-Spec triggers can get the job done, upgrades such as the Timney AR-15 Skeletonized Trigger not only boost the quality of the build and the accuracy of the gun, but they also combine many of the small components into one drop-in unit for easy building and maintenance.
This isn’t to say that top-notch components are always called for. Though a good barrel is almost always called for, budget will often dictate that great is bypassed and good will have to be good enough. Most of the time, this will be okay.
The differences between very good and great won’t be evident to most shooters, at least not to the point of being the limiting factor. Pros building a gun for use in competition where money and reputations are riding on the line will, obviously, spare no expense on their equipment. But most recreational and defensive shooters will be looking for quality that gets the job done without breaking the bank.
Though polymer lower receivers are often dismissed as too cheap for serious shooters, the new Omni Hybrid metal-reinforced lower receiver from American Tactical is designed to combine the lightness of polymer and the strength of metal in a low-priced package for AR builders. It incorporates an enlarged trigger guard and a patent-pending inter-lock hammer and trigger pin retainment system.
An advantage of the build-it-yourself route is that it’s easy to save a little today on a basic barrel, for instance, and upgrade to an expensive match-grade unit when the money becomes available. Other components, like triggers, are even easier to upgrade, as drop-in units ready to go out of the box can be swapped in quickly and easily.
Despite the AR’s modularity, someone with an off-the-shelf gun might be hesitant to tear things apart in order to upgrade a gas block, but someone who built the thing from the ground up will have the knowledge and confidence to go at it with gusto.
It wasn’t long ago that ARs were a rare sight, at best, in the hands of hunters. The past few years, however, have seen the number of ARs used for varmints, predators, hogs, and big game explode. Much of this has to do with an expanding selection of ammunition and with the de-tacticalization of ARs intended for hunting. Bayonet lugs, barrels stepped for grenade launchers, and tactical rails covering every exposed surface are unnecessary to most hunting applications and are aesthetically displeasing to many hunters and traditionalists. Fortunately, the same modularity that makes an AR a great weapon for soldiers in the combat zone makes the AR platform readily adaptable for any mission, including trips to deer camp.
A recent development in the tactical rail market which should appeal to those building hunting guns is the new KeyMod system. It’s a new attachment design that delivers a low profile and clean look while retaining the ability to mount nearly anything nearly anywhere. The CMMG RKM handguards are available in a number of lengths and have a standard Picatinny-style tactical rail running along the top and KeyMod slots at the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock positions.
Building long-action ARs is a bit trickier than building their short-action cousins. The lack of a standardized Mil-Spec means that many components simply won’t fit right or work together at all. This is problematic for DIY AR builders, but it doesn’t stop the upgrade and customization process. A little more care is required to make sure components are compatible, and the range of options isn’t nearly so wide, but big ARs are still ARs — and as they become more common, the number of upgrade parts and accessories will continue to expand.
Standard-action ARs, on the other hand, are limited only by the imagination. Those building a hot rod for hunting will likely spend a little more on the critical components, often opting for a longer, better barrel than someone looking to race through a 3-gun stage, for example. Better triggers and stocks with adjustable cheek risers and other ways to fine-tune the fit will be more affordable, because many of the tactical do-dads won’t be needed and every penny can be put into making that one shot on opening day.
DIY AR Pistols
For years, AR-based pistols have languished as a sort of unwanted stepchild in the tactical market. Easy to make by those who already built ARs, the guns were offered by many manufacturers but never really caught on with the shooting public. While they were sometimes used by professionals as a personal defense weapon, the general consensus was that the AR pistol was an invention in search of a necessity. They were heavy and unbalanced, shooting an overpowered intermediate cartridge, and completely incapable of being carried concealed; interest hovered between very little and none.
Recent innovation and decisions by the government, however, have suddenly made the AR pistol not only a viable choice, but one of the hottest segments of the tactical market. And as interest and demand in the AR pistol have grown, so has the enthusiasm of the build-your-own community.
The Sig Sauer SB15 Pistol Stabilizing Brace is a device which attaches to the AR pistol’s buffer tube and the shooters arm to allow easy one-handed shooting. When it was introduced, many observers expected it to be ruled illegal by the ATF, but it was cleared for use on pistols. Suddenly, the AR pistol was not only easier to handle, but it was also pretty cool.
Other manufacturers have followed with similar products. Additionally, the ATF has stated that even if a gun owner uses an AR pistol in a way for which it wasn’t intended, say, using the buffer tube or attached accessory as a shoulder stock, it would not change the classification of the pistol to a short-barreled rifle. Other manufacturers are now producing braces and other buffer tube accessories for AR pistols.
Commercial ARs are required to have barrels at least 16 inches long, but AR pistols have shorter barrels, usually 7 or 10.5 inches. And though many gun owners would like to own a short-barreled rifle, the cost and delay often keeps them from acquiring the necessary tax stamp. The AR pistol, however, can be built and used as such legally and immediately. If the pistol owner decided to pay for and wait for an SBR tax stamp, a new buffer tube and shoulder stock can be used to convert the pistol to an SBR.
As noted, there is no shortage of AR pistol options available from a wide range of manufacturers. But many consumers, particularly those with an eye toward an SBR conversion in the future, will be attracted to the DIY approach and the ability to fine-tune a build to exactly what’s desired. Rock River Arms offers its LAR-15 A4 pistol in complete upper halves with either a 7-inch or 10.5-inch barrel. The uppers include the bolt carrier group and charging handle assembly. Of course, pistol barrels can be purchased separately, as well.
Though AR pistols share many parts in common with AR carbines and rifles, there are a few differences that need to be kept in mind. First, the buffer tube is a different size. To qualify as a pistol, a firearm cannot be ready to accept a standard shoulder stock. Since AR carbine stocks simply slide on to standard Mil-Spec and commercial buffer tubes, AR pistol tubes are a different size.
Additionally, the requirements for AR pistol receivers need to be watched with care. First of all, when sold as a separate item, since receivers are generally marked as “Other” on form 4473, the restrictions default to the tougher pistol requirements, making sales of lowers to those under 21 not possible. Pistols can be built on receivers, later converted to rifles, and then converted back, but once a receiver begins life as a rifle, it can never be converted to a pistol. As always, firearms regulations and restrictions vary by jurisdiction and change over time. Be sure to keep up with your local laws and new developments in the constantly shifting world of gun control.
Just The Beginning
Once the homebrew gun is completed, it’s just another AR in the sense that all of the infinite options are available and all the opportunities to upgrade still exist. Optics, for example, won’t be treated much differently on a home-built gun than they would be for an off-the-shelf gun. Whatever is needed and affordable will be bolted on, and when needs or budgets change, a swap will be made.
If anything, the DIY AR owner is going to be quicker to make a change or to experiment with alternative options. It was the urge to tinker with the AR’s modular design that led to the decision to build in the first place, and many builders won’t be satisfied for long after they’ve built their gun. There’s always a better trigger, a new stock and another front sight that needs to be tried.