By Brian Sheetz, American Rifleman
Adaptability—it is likely the foremost reason the AR has become America’s universal modern rifle platform and is unquestionably a serendipitous byproduct of the gun’s modular design and space-age construction. It also meshes perfectly with American shooters’ penchant to own something a little different. When it comes to building an AR from the ground up, modularity means it can be easily tailored from the start, or modified after the fact, to suit the specific, often evolving, requirements and tastes of all manner of users.
In fact, a do-it-yourself build is perhaps the only way to end up with exactly the AR you want. At least that was the conclusion I came to and the reason for this project. My aim here is not to retrace every aspect of the AR-building process in step-by-step fashion—that has already been covered elsewhere—rather it is to suggest how to approach the process and to convey a few of the tips I learned along the way that might make it less stressful the first time around.
I admit that the AR rifle platform had never been my favorite, but even as a lifelong fan of the Garand-based gas guns, particularly the M1A, I could no longer resist the accuracy, parts availability and adaptability inherent in the AR’s modular design, or its long military pedigree. So, I decided that, starting with an ordinary AR flattop upper and standard lower receiver, I would build an all-around rifle suitable for target work, hunting and self-defense—within the limits of the .223 Rem. cartridge. A carbine might have been the more popular choice, but therein lies the beauty of such a project—you build the gun that suits your needs and preferences despite what the masses are doing. Regardless of your reasons for going the built-it-yourself route, however, the first step should be to decide what role or roles you intend the finished rifle to perform. For example, a dedicated close-quarters self-defense carbine will call for an entirely different set of components and design parameters than a long-range varminter. Either choice is entirely valid and easily achievable, though, given the myriad choices in available components.
One company has simplified the process of building your own AR like no other by stocking what is likely the largest selection of AR components—1,500 individual parts from 175 vendors at last count—ever warehoused under one roof. That company, Brownell’s of Montezuma, Iowa, has a nearly 75-year track record of supplying the gunsmithing trade and consumers with the best available firearm components, tools and advice. And, despite its enviable reputation for old-fashioned customer service, it is not in the habit of getting behind the times. So a few years ago it constructed a dedicated website, ar15builder.com, for the express purpose of allowing its customers to virtually configure their own ARs using its vast inventory of receivers, barrels, stocks, fore-ends and other components. I tried it and found it enjoyable and helpful for learning about the various components, their compatibility and their prices. I also viewed the company’s DVD, “How To Build an AR-15” and read the book The AR-15 Complete Assembly Guideby Walt Kuleck with Clint McKee from Scott Duff Publications. All of that pre-build activity better prepared me to discuss the build with suppliers and to perform the final assembly.
After forming a few gut feelings about the direction I wanted to go with the rifle and jotting a short list of questions, I picked up the phone and called Brownells, asking to speak with one of its more than 14 staff gunsmiths—all of whom, by the way, have built at least one AR. When Mike, a self-described “M1911 man” who had nevertheless built somewhere between six and 10 ARs, came on the line, I proceeded to pepper him with my thoughts, concerns and questions, and he was able to walk me through them in short order.
In completing the build illustrated here, my first, I found one of the most challenging aspects of the process was thinking far enough ahead when selecting specific components so that subsequent choices would be compatible and complementary. Each choice brought with it the somewhat agonizing opportunity to stick with the plan or to deviate for some reason that I may not have considered earlier. As a result, I ordered the parts in three or four separate shipments over a period of several weeks and simply set them all aside in a box to begin assembly at a later date. What you’ll find on p. 72 are descriptive vignettes of each of the resulting subassemblies and/or specific components that I believe lent the rifle its unique identity.
When the time came to assemble the rifle, I found that it went together quite easily because of the familiarity I had gained with its operation and construction by watching the video and reading the book. In addition, all of the parts were delivered as-advertised—properly packaged and complete. I simply took my time and worked only as far as the parts, tools, time and my patience allowed. But when the time finally came to assemble the completed upper and lower assemblies, I realized that any certainty about whether it would hit the mark I had established in my mind would come only after I fired the first shots.
After checking headspace with “go” and “no-go” gauges, I gathered some ammunition and took it to the range where I cautiously fired the first round. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the gun cycled and chambered the second as it should. After shooting a third time I went downrange and was pleased to find a cluster of holes in the target about the size of a dime. There were a couple of failures to fully chamber during the break-in process that followed, but the gun has since run without a hitch and continues to turn in excellent accuracy, particularly with the heavier bullets for which the barrel was designed.
If asked to describe the AR that resulted from this project, I would characterize it as a “special purpose rifle”—compact and quick-handling enough for short-range self-defense use yet endowed with enough true rifle characteristics for moderately long-range shooting. One unanticipated result, an all-up weight of 12 pounds, 12 ounces, is about the only disappointing aspect of the build. But after the shock of the scale’s revelation wore off, I decided that for a rifle with such a stout barrel profile, quick-release optics, metal back-up sights, a metal fore-end and a bipod the weight was justified—of course that won’t stop me from attempting to prune it a bit by looking into upgrades such as a lightweight integrated optic mount.
In the end, the gun’s overall configuration, features and capabilities are exactly what I sought at the outset months earlier. Although the total build cost—including the scope, rings and bases—was in excess of $3,000, it is in line with fully-equipped top-of-the-line rifles. Plus, the gun shoots well and provides the feel and performance I always wanted from an AR but couldn’t seem to buy outright. Also, the experience of building it from scratch gave me a much greater understanding of the AR’s design and construction and far greater respect for America’s most popular rifle.
Next, the components