By Jay Williams
We humans love to personalize and customize our things, whether turbocharging your muscle car, getting a custom paint job for your chopper, getting a special cover for your iPhone, or simply changing the wallpaper on your computer screen. One of the great things about modern firearms is the degree to which one can modify and personalize them. Red dot sight or 25-power scope with 34mm tubes and the latest magical lens coatings? Check. Smooth carbon fiber hand guard or aluminum quad rail for mounting all your gadgets? Check. Drop in, two-stage, 5-pound trigger or traditional, multi-piece, 1-pound, single stage? Check. Bare stainless steel or the latest indestructible high-tech baked-on coating? Check . . .
All these changes, however, go only skin deep. To own a truly one-of-a-kind gun, you need to choose every component yourself and build it from the ground up. If you want to save money, just buy a gun off the shelf. If, however, you want a unique, personalized, custom piece that no one else on the planet has, then you’ve got to do a custom build.
Why Do a Custom Build
There are multiple reasons to do a custom build. Some of the reasons are: a longer barrel, a shorter barrel, a very high-quality barrel, a wildcat caliber, a special muzzle brake, no muzzle brake, an aftermarket receiver (whether AR, bolt-action rifle, or 1911), a custom stock, an extra-light carbine, or a big, heavy target or tactical rifle. There are myriad choices, and researching what’s available and making your own decisions are half the fun. If you buy a cookie cutter gun from a manufacturer, you’ll have the same gun as the next guy…booooring. If you want a gun that no one else has, you’ll need to do a complete custom build.
How Complete a Build to Do
As far as what a “complete build” means, there are several degrees to which you can be involved. The easiest and the one which requires approximately no skill is to choose all the components and simply send them to a gunsmith. This applies to an AR, a bolt-action rifle, or a pistol such as the 1911. The cheapest route will be to choose components that the gunsmith can simply assemble. One notch up the custom and cost scale is to choose components that require machine work or hand fitting.
For example, you could send your ‘smith a barrel blank for your new rifle for him to chamber and possibly re-contour, or a 1911 frame with oversize rails for hand fitting of the slide. If you’ve chosen a good gunsmith, he’ll ask you questions about your build and be happy to discuss all phases of the process as you ponder what you want to do with your new baby, how you want it to look, and which components to buy to fit your particular needs and desires.
The next rung up the involvement ladder is to assemble your own gun. Without skills and tools, you’ll probably be buying a complete upper (if building an AR), or one that a gunsmith has at least partially built. Again, if you’re building an AR, you can assemble your own lower with some basic tools and a modicum of skill. If you’re building a bolt-action rifle, you might be able to mount the barreled action into a chassis system yourself, ask the manufacturer of your chassis of choice. If you’re building a 1911, you can buy the right parts and just assemble them yourself. Some basic tools and skills will help, but you don’t need to be a rocket scientist. If you want to be more involved with a 1911 build, some basic tools like a Dremel, some files, and a jig or two will let you fit the slide to the frame, fit the beavertail grip safety to the frame, and do a trigger job.
For the ultimate degree of involvement, you will need a mill, lathe, an assortment of other tools, and some serious skill or the willingness to develop skill by building a crappy gun or two and possibly ruining some parts. For a rifle build, if you buy a barrel blank, you’ll need a lathe to chamber it, thread it, and finish the muzzle appropriately (crowning and possibly threading it for a muzzle device). For a 1911 build, you’ll use a mill to cut frame rails (for an 80% receiver, for example) and sight slots, shape the lower lug of the barrel, and accomplish various and sundry other tasks. You’ll want files, fixtures, jigs, and lots of other neat-o tools. As far as I’m concerned, building your own guns is an excellent excuse to buy scads of nice shop accoutrements. Tools are like guns, you can’t have too many.
The top rung in the world of do-it-yourself gun building? Buy a block of aluminum or steel, clamp it to your mill, and go crazy. Well, I guess the top rung would really be to do some digging, throw your ore into a smelter, combine that with your favorite alloying elements, and pour your own billet. I’ll throw at least one overused colloquialism into this article at this juncture and say that that’s beyond its scope.
How to Start
The hardest part of all this might just be taking the plunge. If you’re hesitant, there’s really no need. I strongly encourage you not to make excuses, but just to do it. Don’t have regrets in your life! The first step is deciding how involved you want to be.
If you just want the ‘smith to take care of the build, then your first step is picking one to build your gun. When choosing a gunsmith, make sure to get feedback from others who have used a particular gun smith before having him build your gun. Contact him and go over the details. Tell him what you want to build and get his feedback and input.
One thing I want to point out is that you cannot be in a rush when you’re doing a custom build. Even if you have all the money up front, it can take months just to get the components. For example, I use Lilja barrels for all my custom rifle builds, both AR and bolt-action builds, and unless you’re ordering a common barrel (i.e., one they typically stock), it can take a few months just to get it. If you’re buying the parts as you can afford them, it might take you over a year to scrounge everything together before you even begin assembly. Nevertheless, the journey is fun. After you send all the parts to your ‘smith, you might have to wait a good while longer, depending on how busy he is.
If you want to do some or all of the work yourself, you’re less reliant on someone else. The build might go more quickly since you’re not constrained to moving at someone else’s pace. On the other hand, it might take longer if you’re learning as you go and having to purchase the tools and practice the skills.
If you go this route, you’re more confident and probably more knowledgeable to begin with. You might not need anyone else’s advice regarding which components to choose, but I would highly advise that you take advantage of online forums and the vast brain power available therein. There really are some sharp cookies who are willing to give free advice on the net, including professional gunsmiths. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, their advice will be invaluable. Moreover, there are some good YouTube videos which show both how to do things and how not to do them. Both can be helpful.
About The Guns
If you’re wondering about the guns in the photos, here’s the scoop.
The first one is what I call my AR-10 Heavy or sniper rifle. It’s chambered in .308 and has a barrel by Dan Lilja in Montana. The receiver is by Mega Arms, here in Washington State. The scope is a 4.5 to 14 Leopold with a Horus H-27 reticle. It’s got a Jard trigger with a pull of just over 2 pounds. The sound suppressor is an AAC Cyclone. Other parts are: BCG by Fulton Armory, foregrip by JP Enterprises, buttstock by Magpul, and scope rings by TPS.
The gun was built by Mark Hunt of Dick’s Gun Repair in North Carolina. Mark is a super nice guy and will talk your ear off. He builds a mean gun, to boot. I figure this gun’ll shoot around 1/3 MOA. I’ve gotten some pretty darn tight groups at 200 yards. My wife, who is quite new to shooting (an interesting story in and of itself) just the other day shot prone for the first time and over 200 yards for the first time. At 600 yards, she got a couple shots in the X ring and a couple more in the 10 ring. At least half her shots were within 1 MOA at 600 yards. I was sure proud of her. Click here to see more photos of her.
The next one is what I call my AR-10 Lightweight. It’s actually about 9.4 pounds with sights, sling, and a metal 20-round magazine. To go lighter in a .308, I think you’d need a barrel shorter than 18 inches (which is the barrel length on this gun) and thinner, which would just hurt sustained fire performance. This gun also has a Lilja barrel, Mega Arms receiver, Fulton Armory BCG, and JP foregrip. The butt stock is a Rogers Super Stoc and is possibly the lightest and toughest collapsable stock out there. The trigger is a Wilson TTU, but it’s a bit heavy for my taste (a bit over 5 pounds, I think), so I’m planning on switching it out for another Jard.
Last is my first 1911 build. It’s got a Caspian frame and slide, a Bar-Sto barrel, and a variety of other parts mostly by EGW and Ed Brown. I fit the frame to the slide, fit the lower lug on the barrel, fit the beavertail grip safety, and did all the trigger work. It took a lot of effort and is still a work in progress. As you can see in the photo, I’m currently checkering the front strap. No mill, no jigs, just me and a checkering file. Lots of work! It’s been a great experience and I’m already working on my second build, and have parts on hand for my third (a 10mm 1911 with a high-capacity titanium frame). If you’re interested in doing something like this, check out my complete series of videos documenting this build. I posted everything, including some pretty serious mistakes I made along the way.
To some of us, just buying a gun off the shelf is blasé. We have to swap out the sights, do a trigger job, or give it that special paint job. The ultimate expression of creativity is controlling and being involved in every single component used in and decision made during the build. You can be involved to whatever extent you choose, from simply selecting all the parts and telling a professional gun smith what you want all the way to casting and machining parts, then fitting everything by hand. The result will be a unique gun. There will exist none other like it. The journey might be tough, but it will have been an enjoyable one, and the end product will be something you can proudly show off to your friends and gun buddies and which will perform at the highest level.