Anyone who’s been in the retail gun sales business during the last decade has probably noticed the rapid growth of the AR-15-style rifle and carbine market. The pricing and availability for such rifles has followed the political ups and downs of the country, but the demand has remained very strong — so much so that the AR-15 has been referred to as Americ’s rifle, and is one of the most commonly sold rifles in the retail market.
Being an old timer in the business, I can recall when the 20-inch-barreled version of the AR-15 was about the only choice consumers had. Shortly thereafter, a 16-inch-barreled carbine version came out and offered consumers a more compact collapsible stock version of the AR-15. However, both featured integral carry handles and high-mounted, military-grade iron sights.
Iron sights did not keep people satisfied for long, and a 3X carry-handle-mounted riflescope was brought to the open market. Unfortunately this created an even higher optical sight line over the already high iron sight line of the standard rifle. That was unacceptable to knowledgeable shooters who wanted a more reasonable trajectory pattern in the common-use distances out to 250 yards.
In the 1970s I began customizing AR-15 rifles, starting with improving the optical sight line. First came chopping off the integral carry handle and mounting a one-piece Weaver base to the upper receiver and to the remaining front and rear uprights of the removed carry handle. It was crude by today’s standards, but effective. The custom modification allowed the riflescope to be brought down much closer to the bore line, improving the close- to medium-range trajectory pattern of the 5.56mm cartridge. It worked great for varmint and action shooters of the time.
When the AR-180 came onto the civilian market (a semi-automatic version of the military AR-18 similar to the AR-15), it could be fitted with what became known as a flat-top Weaver rail. It was a simpler process, as the AR-180 had no integral carry handle to cut off.
Fast forward 40 years to 2015 and you can see where the AR-15 market is today. Nearly every manufacturer of AR-style rifles has a flat-top Weaver and or Picatinny rail version of upper receiver rifle, carbine and now pistol versions of the AR-15. This gives shooters a lot of options for mounting sights and optics.
In addition to the flat-top upper receiver with mounting rail, modern AR-15 handguards come with anywhere from one to six full-length Picatinny rails to mount even more accessories to the rifle. Some people have taken accessory mounting to the AR to a point where they have changed it from a lightweight and handy carbine to a bulky, overweight, cumbersome, sharp-edged, over-accessorized firearm. Do your customers a favor and give them some logical guidance in keeping their gear practical.
What about retail sales of accessory items for the AR-15 rifle? To put it mildly, the accessory market is huge. Simply browse the tables at the SHOT Show and you will see hundreds of accessory items for your AR-15 customers. What consumers need and want, and what you should stock in your store for them, depends on their usage of the rifle. Are they police, military or citizen shooters? Needs might be similar, yet they also might vary.
Defensive shooters will want weapon lights, lasers and combat optics. Competition shooters might want specialty sights, slings and shooting mats. Varmint shooters might want heavy barrels, bipods and high-magnification optics suited to best accuracy on small targets at distance. Big-game hunters might want some of the larger-caliber AR-style rifles to use on their next hunting trip.
The simplest way to get your retail customers what they want and need is to form business connections with reputable AR manufacturers and specialists. This way you can get your customers everything from pistol-version ARs all the way up to large-bore hunting ARs. A reputable manufacturer will back up their work if any problems arise, and this will allow you to stay in a simple retailer relationship with the manufacturer and your customer. This will be the least headache position to be in; being a vendor of a manufacturer’s product to your retail customers.
However, some people might have the idea of their business becoming an AR-15 custom gunsmithing operation. This is a serious leap to take. First of all, BATF considers many gunsmithing operations to fall under the category of firearms “manufacturing.” This will require you to upgrade your FFL license to an “07” manufacturing license, and this is just for semi-auto and lesser firearms.
If you have ideas about becoming involved with select-fire firearms, then you will have to be approved to re-license to cover them. For some people, all this extra licensing activity might end their thoughts about moving forward on becoming an AR-15 manufacturer or custom shop. If not, then after the correct licensing is granted, move on to step two.
In order to become a custom gunsmithing operation or manufacturer, you will need skilled and experienced personnel. If you don’t have it and can’t get it, do not move forward. Contrary to what some might say about working on AR-15s being simple, experienced gunsmiths know ARs can actually have some serious gremlin issues. Any mistakes in the gunsmithing arena can create dangerous product liability issues, injuries and lawsuits. It all makes being a simple retailer seem much more attractive.
If you have highly skilled and qualified AR-15 personnel on staff, then you are in a much better position to move forward. What equipment will your shop need to support a custom gunsmithing operation? The question to that question is: “How far do you want to go?” A full-scale custom shop will require substantial machine shop equipment and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Probably more than the common retail operation will want to invest.
On a smaller scale, there are many more basic and handy AR-15 shop tools on the market today. Rifle vices; handguard tools; AR wrenches; sight adjustment tools; cleaning gear; optic mounting cradles; squares; and zeroing lasers all will make your life easier when a customer comes in and wants some help doing some light custom work to his favorite AR-15. This will allow you to offer local customization services to your clientele so they do not have to send their rifles back to the manufacturer.
Do not get out of your comfort zone when it comes to customization services. If you are not sure about how to do a project safely, pass on it and refer it to a more experienced service center. It is always a good idea to only stock the custom and accessory products that you are capable of installing. This will keep you from having a customer who decides to try to pressure you into performing work beyond your experience level.
The list of accessory items for the AR-15 is long, so there should be no problem keeping you busy with projects for your customers that you feel comfortable doing.
The bottom line is your retail operation does not have to invest in full-scale machine shop equipment to provide AR-15 services that will be desired by your customer base and profitable for your business.