Part 2 of the AR 15 build posts.
This post lists every part and special tool I ordered and received, why I chose it, and my impressions once I got it.
In all cases below, I have included the link to the actual item I purchased, and I’ve also listed the price I paid at the time, all purchases having been made during the month of July 2015.
I have learned from hard experience before placing an order to check the price on Amazon for the same or similar item and read reviews. Frequently Amazon has the same item for less, yes even gun parts and tools, and if you have Prime free shipping like we do that’s free money right there.
My intent on choosing what to build for my AR-15 went something like this;
I wanted a fully functional AR-15 chambered in .223 Remington that was built from Mil Spec or better parts, especially the barrel and upper receiver. I wanted solid metal receivers instead of composites, a mid-length barrel/handguard/gas system because I don’t like the increased gas system pressures of a carbine length but I do like a shorter overall system than the base rifle I am familiar with from the service. I also wanted to start with a vertical hand grip and a sportier style handguard than the default tube, but I didn’t want to go full into floating handguards due to the additional cost. I also wanted a flattop SOCOM style upper receiver with full picatinny rail without any carrying handle because I intend to mount a red dot scope as the primary sight. And I always thought the carrying handle was stupid. I’ve never known anyone to actually carry their weapon by the damn thing.
The key points of this build were an AR-15 on a very low budget but a fun looking and shooting rifle with full functionality.
There is always plenty of time to upgrade later, a bit at a time. I have definite ideas on where this can go, but also where I’d like to begin.
Future changes to this build include removing the A2 front sight and replacing it with a low profile gas block or a gas block with mounting rail for a folding front sight, replacing the MOE vertical grip with a 7 slot polymer rail and a combination vertical grip and bipod, or even replacing the vertical grip altogether and mounting a 45 degree grip and an independant folding bipod towards the front. Also look towards eventually upgrading to good optics with a quality red dot sight and secondary flip-to-side magnifier. Definitely things that can be done later and to look forward to researching.
One intentional decision I made was to NOT buy a rear mechanical sight. At the time I ordered all of my parts, I couldn’t tell if the upper receiver / barrel combination from PSA would come with a rear sight to match the A2 front sight post, and I didn’t want to buy stuff I didn’t have to. Now that I know it did NOT come with a rear sight, I will have to look for a modern flip-up rear sight to add on later, which I feel is critical for when the red dot scope fails. For now it’s cool, but I’ll be looking for a reasonably priced rear sight very soon.
Going ‘Tommy Tactical’
I know there is a certain amount of ‘Tommy Tactical’ fun that goes along with a lot of AR-15 custom builds. The desire to add all sorts of doodads to a rifle just for the sheer love of gadgets.
Kind of like sticking a spoiler and mag wheels on a Yugo.
I personally prefer clean minimalist weapon designs that emphasize form and function. If something is on the rifle, it should have a definite purpose that fills a need.
That being said, I’ve got a flashlight mount because damnit why the hell not, it’s my only AR-15. I want to do SOMETHING to customize it.
I could have gone with a laser pointer, but unless the beam itself is visible in daylight, I don’t think they add anything. It’s not like I shoot from the hip hoping to see a red dot on the target to tell me where the rifle is pointing, I aim.
But a flashlight, that’s just tacky enough to scratch the tactical widget addon itch. Which I suppose explains the desire to mount a plastic green fluorescent flashlight in the thing, because if you’re gonna go tacky, go the full monty. Fuck halfway measures.
Yeah, I don’t think the green plastic flashlight is going to make it to the actual range, I don’t have the balls to uncase the rifle in front of other people with that thing stuck on there.
A black aluminum flashlight on a mount, that will be okay. Tacky, sure. But hey, live a little. I always wanted one of those things. Pew! Pew!
You know I’m raising my son right when he looked at the flashlight mount, looked at me and said, “Really, dad? Really?”
Then after I mounted all the pieces of the upper together including the flashlight, he grabbed it and pretended the flashlight was a raygun, holding it by the vertical grip and saying “Pew! Pew!”
See? SEE?!? That’s exactly what I’M saying!
He makes me very proud.
On to the actual parts;
Retailer – Arsenal Arms Group, Osseo, MN. They are brand new, and haven’t yet finished building their e-commerce website. I found their lower receiver listing by following the Armslist website for Minnesota for several months.
The lower receiver is the foundation of an AR-15 build. It is the only piece of the rifle that is directly controlled under Federal Firearms License regulations because it is the piece that has the weapon serial number etched into it. In order to purchase one you need to follow all FFL rules and regulations. If you purchase one through the internet for mail order, it has to be shipped directly to someone in your area with an FFL license, and there is almost always a fee that you will need to pay to an FFL holder to do this. The fees vary and there is a website you can visit to find FFL holders by region so you can see the people near you that have one you could ship to. It doesn’t have to be a brick and mortar retailer, many private citizens obtain their Federal Firearms License and operate out of their house, and charge nominal fees of anywhere from $25 to $100 to receive a shipped firearm for you.
Because of these rules, you can purchase the lower receiver as part of a finished rifle, as part of a complete subassembly like a finished lower receiver, or as you see in the picture below, which is what is called a ‘stripped lower receiver’. It’s the lower receiver without any parts whatsoever. The point of buying one of these is to get the only serialized item done locally as inexpensively as possible, and purchase everything else over the internet at the best prices you can find.
This particular lower receiver is made by Anderson Manufacturing, and they have an excellent reputation for quality. I was specifically looking for a locally obtained lower receiver so I wouldn’t have to pay shipping or an FFL transfer fee for it, so I spent some time watching Armslist for Minnesota, knowing that many small dealers list items there. This showed up, and I jumped on it. At $69.95 for it I felt I was getting an excellent deal for an aluminum milled receiver, and after close examination and measuring it’s everything I could hope for. Perfect finish, excellent tolerances so far, and when I match it up with my upper receiver it fits smooth and snug. Couldn’t be happier with it so far.
Retailer – Palmetto State Armory (online)
This is what makes this a build suitable for a novice. By purchasing a complete upper receiver and barrel assembly, I eliminated having to purchase and assemble individual parts for the bolt carrier group, gas sytem, forward assist and dust cover. I was intending to get each item individually, and I’d even already purchased a stripped upper receiver, but then Cassie (my wife) found this, and it was so perfectly suited and at such a great price I ended up returning the stripped upper and getting this.
This kit even came with the complete lower parts kit you need to finish your stripped lower receiver, the adjustable stock and the pistol grip (which often but not alwasy comes with the lower receiver parts kit).
Basically, if you bought a stripped lower receiver, a magazine and this upper receiver/barrel assembly you would have everything you’d need to have a fully functional bare bones rifle except for the rear mechanical sight. All the rest of the parts below this are accessories for customizing the build and aren’t strictly necessary to go shooting.
The quality of all the parts in this from PSA have been outstanding. I installed the magazine release catch and some of the trigger assembly to the lower last night and they’re great. I also installed all of my replacement parts on the upper assembly like the handguard, and everything fits perfectly. This really is very nice.
The reason I chose this particular complete assembly from among the others available were for the flattop SOCOM style rail top, which I like for mounting a red dot or scope, the mid-length handguard and gas system, and above all else the melonite metal treatment of the barrel. There are many different metal finishes and treatments available, and one of the more common upgrades is chrome plating the barrel. From what I’ve read, I actually prefer melonite as a metal treatment as it is an actual metallurgical change rather than a surface plating, and helps provide better protection against corrosive ammo than a non-treated barrel.
Other reasons for choosing this one are the forward assist and dust cover, which not all upper receivers have.
The reason I went with a mid-length gas/handguard system I mentioned briefly above, but one thing I wanted to repeat was how the chamber pressures and weapon responsiveness can change based on the length of the gas system and gas tube. The way this rifle system cycles is by diverting part of the expanding gas going down the barrel into a small hole in the barrel hidden inside the front sight assembly. The gas goes up the ‘gas block’ which is part of the sight, and into a thin gas tube that runs above the barrel and feeds back into the receiver. That gas pushes the bolt carrier group back, ejecting the empty casing and recocking the weapon. the bolt carrier group, being pushed back against the buffer and buffer spring inside the rear buttstock, then gets sprung back into position peeling a round off the top of the magazine and seating it in the chamber ready to fire.
What this all means is, the further down the barrel the gas port is, the lower the gas pressure being pushed back to the bolt carrier group. A short carbine length gas system has the shortest distance for the gas to travel, meaning much higher gas pressure flinging the bolt back into the buffer spring, and that can mean harder recoil as well as higher overall chamber pressure.
To adjust for this, you’re supposed to match up the buffer spring stiffness and buffer itself (which comes in different weights) with the length of the gas system you’re using so you get the bolt throw right; not too light or it jams, not too heavy or it recoils harder than necessary.
From what I’ve read, a mid-length gas system provides a nice middle ground between smooth recoil and chamber pressure. This means any accessories I get have to be sized for a mid-length system. And if I choose to replace the buffer or buffer spring later, or replace the front sight gas block, I need to make sure I match them up correctly.
There is another alternative, and that is to replace the gas system completely with what is known as a gas piston system. It uses the gas to push a piston to move the bolt carrier back instead of sending the gas directly into the rear chamber. It results in a MUCH cleaner weapon, because the dirty expanding burnt gunpowder residue isn’t flooding your chamber with every round fired. But… the retrofit kits for gas piston systems are expensive, and this is a novice build on a budget. That will be a project for next year, probably.
Retailer – Cheaper Than Dirt (online)
Magpul PMAG Gen 2 AR-15 magazine (x2) – $12.30 each
Not much to say here. From everything I’ve read, these magazines by Magpul are outstanding quality and are certainly cheap to buy. I got two for less than a single BX-25 magazine from Ruger cost for my son’s 10/22.
When it came time to look at options to replace the drop in front handguard that came with the complete upper kit, I decided to try the MOE system by Magpul. There are two ways to go with the handguards, drop in or free floating. Free floating are considered inherently more accurate, and a better option. To install them, however, requires dissassembly of the barrel, removing the flash suppressor and gas block assembly so you can get at the ring where the barrel enters the upper receiver. And you also need an upper receiver action block to mate everything up perfectly, and of course the special tools and torque wrench. It’s definitely the best way to go long term, BUT. My M16A2 in the Marines didn’t have free floating handguards, they were the drop in design, and I consistently shot high expert at the rifle range every one of the eight years I was in. I figure chances are the drop in handguards are going to be just fine.
I chose the Magpul MOE system because I like the lines of it. I don’t feel the need for a full quad rail system, because I know I’m not adding a ton of stuff to it. A mounting point for a vertical grip at the bottom and the option of adding other rails as needed seems prefectly legit. And it got good reviews for the heat shield after lots of firing even for a polycarbonite light weight system. And, hey, cheap.
I mounted this last night, and aside from some fiddling for a minute it went in perfect, and now that it IS in it’s nice and snug, extremely solid. Looks great too.
I only intend to mount one accessory, a flashlight, and the vertical MOE grip doesn’t need an additional rail. So I only bought one of these. I may get another later if i want to add a bipod. Or see if there are MOE bipods that don’t need a rail.
Magpul MOE vertical hand grip – $18.95
This handgrip, again designed specifically for the MOE handguard system, has monted on very securely and is very comfortable and has solid quality. Overall I’ve been delighted with the quality of all the Magpul parts I’ve purchased, they’re all perfect.
This one, I’ll be honest, scares ths shit out of me.
I bought it because cheap. NO OTHER REASON. I fully expect it to implode after the first shot when the recoil of the AR chambering a .223 round hits it. $30 for a red dot sight is so dirt cheap it can’t possibly be good. Amazon reviews said it was great, all gun forums I read say it’s a piece of crap.
BUT. It’s $30. If you go by the gun enthusiast recommendations, you could easily spend more on your optics than the entire rest of the weapon system. EASILY spend more. It’s a lot like digital cameras and DSLR cameras and all of that mess. Some people will tell you a $125 point and click is fine, others will insist that if you don’t have the $900 Canon DSLR you’re screwed.
I got my son a red dot reflex sight for his Ruger 10/22 and he loves it, I love it, it works great. But it only has to deal with the recoil of a .22 long rifle, not a full sized .223 Remington. You add that constant hammering shock to an optic and you’ll see how well it holds up. It may look fine on the bench but you can’t know until you’re on the range.
Regardless, I bought this because it was $30 and you never know, maybe I won the lottery that day and got one that will last me. Or maybe it will crack apart after the second round. If there is any one piece of this entire build that I’m embarassed about (aside from a certain tool purchase I made) it’s this. This optic is… well, I have no justification for it other than cheap.
I hope like hell I’ll be able to tell you that actual experience with it at the range turns out to be wonderful. I really do.
Meanwhile, I continue to read optics reviews and worry.
Retailer – Amazon.com
This cute little offset mount for a flashlight is pretty cool. It seems to have mounted on to the rail extremely well, for a quick disconnect it was easy to adjust and seems solid, and it is gripping the 1″ diameter black aluminum bodied flashlight I attached to it very well. I did not yet use blue loctite on the threads because I’m still not sure I’m going to keep that flashlight in there.
NcStar AR handguard removal tool – $8.84
This. This is… don’t buy this. Just… just don’t. This tool purchase goes to prove that yes, I am a dumbass and can be swayed by reviews even when I absolutely fucking know better. Dumbass.
From everything I read, it’s supposed to be very hard to pull the handguard drop in retaining ring back far enough to remove and install your handguards, so you need a tool.
Protip – in 8 years in the Marines I never once saw a tool for this. That should have told me something, and it DID tell me something, and yet I somehow decided to second guess myself and wonder if ring spring tension somehow tripled over the last decade or more I’ve been out.
It turns out it did not.
Roll pin punch set, 9 pieces – $13.99
I’m very happy with this tool set. The lower receiver has a lot of roll pins that need to be hammered in, and while I had plenty of punches I did NOT have a set that went down to the very smallest of sizes needed.
Aim Sports AR15/M4 combo wrench tool – $19.97
The upper receiver kit came with an adjustable stock that has a castle nut, and if I ever decide to replace the barrel, install a free floating handguard or replace the flash suppressor or gas block I’m going to need this one special combo tool, so i decided to just buy the damn thing now.
I checked, and it does fit the stock castle nut and upper receiver barrel ring holes perfectly.
All the parts in my planned layout;
That fluorescent green plastic flashlight in the picture, that’s my little joke. I would LOVE to have the balls to mount that sucker and uncase that at the gun range just to see the look of horror on uptight gun snobs faces. But my son won’t let me. :(
The final tally;
Rifle cost – $585.21
Special Tool cost – $42.80
Impressions so far;
Every single damn part I’ve bought has not only met but exceeded my expectations of quality. Things are nicely finished, perfectly coated, mate well without slop and generally are just kick ass.
It doesn’t matter how nice it looks or goes together until I get it assembled and to the range, but at the bench it looks great.
And then there was this damn tool.
The fiasco – exhibit ‘A’. That stupid handguard removal tool.
Look at that thing.
I present to you the barrel, the tool, and the handguards I took off without the tool in about 3 seconds. Just… if you have any upper body strength at all, don’t buy this stupid damn thing.
I’m so embarassed I bought that damn thing.