P320 Entry: The Joy of a Custom Build

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.

Conclusion

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.

comments

  1. avatar Lolinski says:

    I don’t know about you guys but I am always annoyed when people assemble a gun and say they built it.

    Building means making the parts from scratch and assembling them. Assembling is just that, putting parts together.

    Maybe I am just weird like that. I hope I am not the only one.

    1. avatar Kory says:

      My kids “build” LEGO bricks, they don’t say that they assemble them. They assemble them once, break them down, and then they build custom creations from that point forward. I would say that the same applies to ARs. I think you meant to say, they do not “create” or “manufacture” ARs.

    2. avatar John says:

      I’ve been “building” computers from components since I was a kid. I don’t think I’ve ever called it “assembling”. I look at firearms the same way. Getting hung up on the terminology of it seems kinda besides the point.

    3. avatar Tex300BLK says:

      I disagree completely. Assembling, to me, means buying a “kit” of matched parts from the same manufacturer and putting it together to have the same thing you could have bought. All the thought into what you want to do has been done buy whoever spec’ed the parts for the kit.

      Building means spec’ing each part based on a desired end goal. I wanted a carbine/fighting rifle to carry around the ranch. I didnt want to pay for SBR or have a pin welded barrel so that meant 16: barrel. Still wanting a lightweight gun that points naturally and quickly I looked for every place I could save weight. I spent hours researching which parts I would want. Which manufacturers make good part, etc etc. Where to spend big $$ and where I could go with a generic or bargain part.

      I will 100% say I BUILT my AR15 and wont sit around and be lectured by someone else who thinks because I didnt pour my own billets and mill them myself that I merely assembled it. Building to me means identifying a specific purpose and then gathering the precise combination of parts needed to fit that purpose.

      You dont tell someone they assembled a race car because they went out and bought a factory built car off the show room and then bolted parts to it… its the same deal, the parts a racecar builder chooses fit the desired purpose (ie short track, time trial, drag racing, etc etc etc), in the end they have something that anyone could have built, yes, but it is unique because the builder picked the parts so that it suits the specific purpose the builder chose.

    4. avatar KB Dave says:

      From dictionary.com

      build [bild]
      verb (used with object), built or ( Archaic ) build·ed; build·ing.
      1. to construct (especially something complex) by assembling and joining parts or materials: to build a house.

      “Build” seems to be the correct thing to say.

      1. avatar Lolinski says:

        Guess I was wrong. It happens.

    5. avatar bontai Joe says:

      So a carpenter assembles a house, unless he mills the logs and manufacturers his own plywood? A mason has to make his own cement blocks and fire his own bricks from clay he molded with his own hands? That’s a pretty strict interpetation of the word “build”. My personal use of the term “build” is anything I where I have to modify materials to make something. For me, “assemble” would be when I buy a box of widget parts from Widget, Inc.and pour ’em out on my desk and follow the instructions to make a complete widget.

    6. avatar Jay Williams says:

      As I explained in the article, there are various degrees of building a gun.

    7. avatar MarcusAurelius says:

      Are you required to bake your own bricks if you “build” a building? Forge your own rebar? Mine your own sheetrock?

    8. avatar Ben Joseph says:

      I agree. With parts readily available for “assembly”, there is certainly a difference from an actual “build” where one machines parts, hand-fits components, and uses a reamer to chamber the barrel and to adjust headspace. Most that “assemble” can’t do this sort of work, but can source components that work off-the-shelf into their firearm.
      Someone used a car as an example. Again, a big difference between “building” where components are fabricated, from simply buying components from a parts supplier and installing them as assemblies.
      If I take my firearm apart and put it back together, does this mean I “built” it?

  2. avatar cmeat says:

    could have been writing about redecorating a powder room for all i learned. at least no assumptions were made.
    i counted the word ‘if’ sixteen times.
    on the other hand, with an ak there are estimated one hundred million just exactly like it.

    1. avatar Lolinski says:

      You can customize an AK, you just have to be creative and/or know a machinist.

  3. avatar styrgwillidar says:

    It’s a lot like building a computer. You understand everything that went into it a lot better, you ensure it will do what you need— and prepare it for upgrades later. Makes it much easier to troubleshoot and make decisions about trade-offs. As you get into it, you start to understand what all the different specifications mean and which ones are important to you.

    I learned an awful lot about triggers. I started the year with no ARs, now I’ve got three and my brother has one. All different uppers as well as triggers. (running a stock PSA in my brother’s– the one that came with his build kit was defective, locked up on the disconnect so we replaced it with another PSA trigger left over from one of my builds. An ALG Combat in my M4gery, a Geiselle Match trigger (right now I have the DMR springs, but it came from Midwestpx with all three sets- Service, DMR and Match) and the last one has a Rock River Arms two stage match trigger). A lot of youtube videos on installing them. I did the first one without any special tools. The Geiselle came with a slave pin and a pin installation tool that makes things much easier, look for their videos on-line.

    BTW- if you’re interested in doing an 80% and really learning a lot in the process it can be done with a good jig, hand power drill, and a hand power router. Ensure you’re monitoring that your router is holding the depth setting on your initial cuts so you can get that resolved before you finish off the deepest pass.

  4. avatar Tex300BLK says:

    +10000000%

    I just finished my first build, and will probably never buy an already built AR pattern rifle ever again. My build is nothing special but I tried to spend where appropriate and save where less needed. What I ended up with is a super light carbine that will put a entire magazine into a bar coaster at 50 yards using just a front rest and iron sights. Yeah it rattles a little but it points as naturally and quickly and is extremely quick on transitions. I have put close to 500 rounds of garden variety ammo without a single stoppage through it so far. Did I save money? Not a ton. When compared to the rifle I modeled it after $ for $ Im maybe ahead $200 or $300 but that doesnt account for my time but itt was such a rewarding experience and my father (ex military) jokes that I probably know more about the AR platform after 2 months building the thing than he does after carrying one around and taking care of it for the better part of a decade.

    My next project is going to be a bit spendy, but the goal is to go for broke on an ultimate precision 6.5Grendel DMR style rifle. I have a .308 bolt action so I probably wont ever step up to an AR10 platform (although this said before I have finished the next build). You can get 90% of the the performance of a 308 from the Grendel at intermediate range and out to 1000 you are better off with the Grendel, and you get a lighter rifle than the AR10 to boot. My wife just shakes her head when the postman comes to our house with boxes now 🙂

  5. avatar LongBeach says:

    I like that AR, even if the front sight is on backwards.

    1. avatar Jay Williams says:

      D’oh! I don’t think I’d ever seen a photo of that sight mounted on a gun. I like things to be correct, so I’ll flip it around (although I doubt that it’ll make a difference).

    2. avatar Jay Williams says:

      I actually like the way I have it mounted as my thumb falls right on top of the big pad when I grasp the fore grip. Magpul told me that it’s fine either way (which I assumed already). So, gonna leave it.

  6. avatar ToddR says:

    My summer-2014 project is to “outfit” a base .308 into a pimped-out tactical bolt action ego-stroking man-toy. When I started this project, I knew nearly nothing about the technical workings of a bolt action rifle. I now know more than I could have imagined and I’m inching my way to the finish-line.

    I picked up my Savage model 10 heavy barrel last night. I’m putting iron sights on it for year one, so as to learn precision shooting old-school. Next up, learning about chassis systems. Currently, I know that they exist and that is about it.

    Nice article.

  7. avatar sophia says:

    I’ve really enjoyed building a rifle for 3gun. I started last year at the height of the panic and shopped the sales. I started with PSA complete lower and Red X complete upper for about $600. It easily shoot sub-MOA groups at 50 yards. Not bad considering how much ARs were going for last year.

    Since then, I’ve swapped out the front rail for a Troy Alpha Battlerail and a low profile gas block, the A2 flash hider for a Miculek compensator, and the stock trigger for a CMC trigger. I originally replaced the stock buffer with a H2 buffer and liked the way it reduced recoil, but I wasn’t happy with the Magpul MOE stock because I couldn’t get a consistent cheek weld. I replaced the Magpul with a ARFX A2 length stock which improved indexing but changed the felt recoil. I want it to shoot like it did with the H2 buffer, so I’m trying out a Rubber City reduced mass BCG with and adjustable gas key.

    For optics, I started out with no name iron sights, then a Primary Arms red dot. The red dot worked ok at 50 yards or less, but with my eyesight I needed magnification so I swapped it out for Nikon P-233 which works for me up to 200 yds.

    The decision for each upgrade was based on what I needed to compete in 3gun. The Troy rail replaced a carbine length cheese grater in order to shoot more effectively from barricades and ports. The compensator and reduced mass / adjustable gas key BCG help reduce felt recoil. Combined with the CMC trigger, I can get faster follow-up shots on target. The A2 length stock fits me better than an adjustable stock and I can index consistently. All these modifications helps me shoot faster and more accurately, which is important in a sport scored on time.

    Are there better purpose built 3gun rifles? I’m sure there are many much better than my Franken-AR, but working on my own rifle provides me with an intimate knowledge of how it works and how I can make it work for me.

  8. avatar mike says:

    “If you buy a cookie cutter gun from a manufacturer, you’ll have the same gun as the next guy…booooring.”

    True that. But looking at it from another big picture angle, a custom build also ends up doing the same exact things as the cookie cutter guns: shoot the same ammo, sounds the same, generally feel the same, the standard procedures of handling the pistol/rifle are basically still the same. Same, same, same….

    Custom builds are mostly about personal satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, love for the hobby, tweaking specific specs, etc. If I want to be truly different from any other shooter near me…. I’ll just slap on a silencer, or better yet, whip out that legal machine gun. Or best of all, the machine gun WITH the silencer. Can’t be more different than that…even if I didn’t build the can or the MG.

    1. avatar Lolinski says:

      Trust me, a cookie cutter gun doesn’t sound the same if your custom one has a 9 inch barrel.

  9. avatar Edward Zimmerman says:

    people make it sond so easy,i wish i hadthe knowhowto do it,i planto by the book and try to learn.

    1. avatar Jay Williams says:

      It’s not necessarily easy, but even the best pros had to learn. When you’re all done, you’ll be glad you did it and you’ll be proud of how much you learned.

      1. avatar Lolinski says:

        Lot of guides to help you out are available on the internet. Also you can ask people, just start a thread on a gun forum.

        I would also recommend PSA (Palmetto State Armory) parts, since they are cheap and work well. Extra cheap are blemished parts, though some don’t like them due to how they look.

        1. avatar styrgwillidar says:

          Yep. Watch a lot of the videos on-line to pick up techniques and learn lessons the easy way from somebody else’s experience, vice the hard way of making the mistakes yourself. Do your research and understand the critical/safety items as opposed to the cosmetic. Like headspace, proper trigger operation in contacting/releasing the disconnector on an AR. As for threads, there are dozens of them on various forums covering everything you’d want to ask.

          Most folks building ARs buy completed and Test-Fired uppers as that covers most of the critical/safety issues. PSA is a good source, but there are a lot of others depending on what you want. Read the reviews on line for other folks experience with various suppliers.

  10. avatar M. Fox says:

    Just beware the evil “bug” you might catch if you plan on building your own. I only ever thought I would have one M4gery and one AK. Now I have eight M4geries and five AKs. Yes, the “bug” even hopped species, such that you can get a rivet jig and a hydraulic press to start doing your own work. At least I know I will have many rifles to pass on to my children when they come of age!

  11. avatar Gray05 says:

    If anybody is considering building an odd caliber AR, check out the forums at 308ar.com. A great community with lots of knowledge.

  12. avatar Mark N. says:

    I milled an 80% lower just to thumb my nose at Sen. De Leon’s “ghost gun” nonsense. It isn’t as pretty as a store bought stripped receiver, but it was fun. I had intended to stop there, my political statement complete. But once you have one piece…I couldn’t stop. I did not buy all the parts I wanted (e.g., a CMC trigger, settling for a one step upgrade for now), but have been acquiring a piece here and a piece there. PSA provided the parts kit for the lower (other than the trigger), and recently I obtained the upper receiver I wanted. I purchased a melonite 18″ H Bar barrel, but could not find one with a target crown in stock. The fore end is on order along with the gas block and tube. Next month, the disposable income will buy the BCG, and the following month, hopefully the optic, neither of which I have selected yet. It has been lovely, something I had never imagined doing. And the fun thing is that if I decide I don’t like a particular part, I can change it.

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