It’s hard to dispute that the AR-15 is America’s favorite rifle. Most major manufacturers make an AR variant, and the platform is modular. Everything from the trigger guard to the bolt can be replaced with a ‘better’ or more expensive or more complicated part. For some gun owners, this ease of customization leads to assembling a complete rifle from a pile of parts. So, should you build an AR-15 rifle (or pistol, or ‘firearm’) or stick to buying a complete one off the shelf?
We generally recommend buying complete rifles. Yes, it looks more expensive on paper. If you just want a solid, working AR, buy a complete gun from a top-tier manufacturer known for reliability. (So much for burying the lead.)
That said, we’re not opposed to you building your own gun. If you just enjoy making or assembling things or want to better understand the rifle, go for it. We are calling out the trend of poorly assembled AR-15s and carelessly installed “upgrades.” While it’s easy to find deals on cheap parts, there’s no way around paying for quality.
A reliable AR-15 comes down to about three things: good quality parts, proper tools, and attention to detail. When you look at the price tag, this is what you are paying for. Consider the following items before you decide whether to build a gun or buy one.
- Buy good parts. High quality parts will last longer and work more reliably. If you know and can check the critical dimensions as well, that is ideal. Manufacturers can purchase or make large quantities of parts and check the parts using tolerance gauges. If it’s out of spec, the part should not be used.
- Use the right tools. Anything involving the castle nut, gas block, handguard, or barrel nut is likely to need special tools. Handguards usually come with proprietary adapters and call for a torque wrench. You will need armorer’s blocks to support the receivers against crush or collapse while you’re using a wrench. You’ll need a shop vise to hold most armorer’s blocks. If you are using completely stripped parts, you’ll need some additional hand tools. Manufacturers use these tools constantly, but it’s not very practical for a single build.
- Pay attention to details. Know proper torque values and read the directions! Most threaded parts will have a torque rating provided by the manufacturer. If something sticks or feels incorrect, don’t muscle through it. Some parts are supposed to be staked to prevent loosening. Using thread locker instead of staking can later make removing the part needlessly difficult. Not staking can result in the part coming loose while shooting.
- There is a fourth item to consider: warranty. Factory guns can break, but in many cases they carry a warranty. This can save you a lot of money and frustration on any problems that arise with the gun. Most or all of the problems with factory rifles we have seen have been resolved at NO COST to the customer – the manufacturer paid shipping both ways and fixed the issue.
We realize that some of you will still want to buy a base gun and upgrade it – that’s fine! There are some configurations and features that are just not factory offerings. We do have armorers to install those parts if you’d rather not, and we’re available to answer questions beforehand.
Finally, if you are thinking about an AR-15 purchase, all firearms are on sale for 10% off through this Friday, December 1. Several primo options from Daniel Defense and Primary Weapons Systems are on the wall, as are Armalite, Springfield, Smith & Wesson, and others. We’ve had no better sale this whole year.
We’ve got maybe one more post in our Basics series to publish this year. If we don’t get to it before the end of December, we wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, or whatever would bring you the most joy. Thanks for reading!
We’ve seen a lot of ARs break down, whether on our own range or away at a class or competition. These are all problems that go beyond a jam or incidental malfunction – think armorer-level fixes here. Many, but not all of these were modified or customized aftermarket.
Here’s the short list:
- loose barrel nut
- loose gas block
- loose barrel extension
- trigger pins and springs installed incorrectly
- missing, damaged, or incorrect detents, springs, or fasteners
- wrong size buffer tube
- parts not staked
- thread locker in lieu of staking
Each of these problems has to do with parts, tools, or attention.