Reader ninjaTED writes
Some time ago, I decided that I wanted to own, (and more, to build,) an AR-15. This was a gradual decision, and one that encompassed many different factors, both economic and philosophic.
I own several firearms, each with a purpose. I have a shotgun for home defense and another to shoot trap; a .22 rifle for marksmanship and plinking and introducing new shooters to firearms; a Mosin-Nagant for historical reasons and SHTF; and others, each with its own niche in my cabinet. But I decided that I wanted to own – and even more, to build – an AR-15.
It was a decision that encompassed many different factors, both economic and philosophical. The overriding reason was my sense that owning a modern sporting rifle was an essentially patriotic act. The way I see it, owning one would affirm my commitment to being an American.
An AR is the rifle that would be used to defend my neighborhood, my community, my country if necessary. I have had the greatest good fortune being born in, for all its flaws, the greatest country in the world. Owning an AR – the quintessential modern musket — and becoming well-regulated in its use and manual of arms may, one day, be the way that I can repay my debt to my country.
At the same time, I became aware of a great dissatisfaction for the way that certain sections of American society were treating some of their most patriotic citizens. I am a New York resident, and after the passage of the SAFE Act, I began to really pay attention to the uselessness and disingenuousness of gun control laws.
As an act of civil disobedience, I became more and more convinced that one day I should become the owner of a so-called “assault weapon.: Even more so, I decided that my assault weapon would be unserialized, not background-checked, and unregistered. I’d built from an 80% lower without the blessing or permission of the powers that be in Albany. By owning it I would, and now do, proclaim my essential liberty and freedom.
Alas, life has a way of intruding. I’m a classical violinist by profession, and sell real estate on the side. With various budget constraints and schedule issues, the AR project was put on hold again and again. Just as I would think, “Hey, I have the money for that lower,” the brakes on the car would crap out, or we’d remodel the living room, or put in a new sliding glass door, etc.
Slowly but surely, though, I began to gather the parts and tools I needed. A surprise call for a wedding quartet gig paid for my lower receiver. An apartment rental commission check had enough left over for the drill press I needed to mill it. Finally, just this past summer, an unexpected call from a local opera company paid for the lower parts kit and a complete upper. And playing for a production of Cabaret at a local college covered the Thordsen stock, several magazines, and an initial supply of ammo.
I began the build by milling the lower. It was purchased from Polymer80.com, one of their G150 Phoenix 2 lowers which comes with a milling bit, three drill bits for the trigger pins, safety hole, and trigger slot, and a little baggie full of parts specific to the polymer lower. (The grip screw has an extra nut, and the bolt catch uses a different pin and a set screw.)
I fired up my new drill press, put the lower in the jig and had it whipped out in half an hour.
I actually got kind of paranoid about it. I’m pretty good with my hands; I’m a martial artist when I’m not shooting and playing the fiddle, and I’ve carved all of my own training weapons. I’m slowly renovating my old-ass house, and doing a pretty good job. (Suck it, Bob Vila.)
But I realized I was about to use an unfamiliar power tool on an unfamiliar medium (I’ve never worked with polymer before,) in a job requiring extremely tight tolerances. So, I did what I usually do in these situations; I turned to YouTube.
Polymer80 has a very good how-to video online; I opened up the laptop next to the press and watched each section several times before doing it myself. Even so, I nearly screwed it up. After hearing the guy say three times “Make sure the end of the mill bit is level with the top of the jig,” I dutifully set my table height so that the mill bit was even with the top of the lower, and nearly drilled right through the bottom of the fire control pocket.
Thank heavens Polymer80 puts a reference line on the mill bit, and I had the presence of mind to keep an eye on it. After that, though, it was mostly smooth sailing.
I found it easier to use the mill to cut horizontally through the pocket rather than plunging out semicircles of material as the video recommends. I’m pretty sure this was due to my cheap press, which had a tendency to rattle when plunging. YMMV. But I got to the end of it, and it looked fairly good.
One side of the safety selector hole was a little ragged, and they’re serious when they say to be careful when milling near where the safety detent spring goes (a little hockey tape fixed that goof,) but I’d give my first 80% lower a solid B+.
The next few days were busy enough that I didn’t want to start on assembly. I really couldn’t help myself while talking to friends and colleagues, I kept bringing up my new project even though I’d decided to keep it to myself. It was illustrative, though, of some of the ignorance of firearms, firearms laws, and general legal knowledge in the wider public.
“Hey, I’m building an AR-15!”
“That’s full-auto, right?”
“Oh, yeah, you can only do that in Texas!”
That was one of the guys at my martial arts center. I ended up explaining the NFA and GCA and how state laws applied to my situation. He was shocked to learn that you couldn’t have a grenade launcher on an AR-15 in New York, but can in many other states.
“Don’t you have to register it?”
“Not if it’s a featureless build, which mine will be.”
“No, I mean you have to register all guns, right?”
“Oh, right, just the ones with big clips.”
That was one of the other agents in my office. I ended up explaining the SAFE Act and the Sullivan Act, which requires handgun registration in NY. She was surprised to learn that in most other states, 30-round magazines come standard and aren’t considered high-capacity.
“Wow, you’re not going to come in and start shooting us up, are you?”
This was one of the guys in the office next door, who happened to be around for the previous discussion. I asked him if he was afraid of me coming in and killing everyone with a machete? He looked confused and said no.
“But Bill,” I said, “You know I’m an advanced black belt in Filipino martial arts, and we train with machetes, among other scary bladed weapons. Why weren’t you nervous before?” “Well, you’re a nice guy, you wouldn’t do that,” he said. “Bill,” I said, “I’m still the same guy, and firearms ownership does nothing to change that. Frankly, I’m a little hurt that you would think so.” Bill, to his credit, apologized. But the hoplophobia runs deep in some and it can be hard to change.
Beginning the assembly process, unpacking the parts from the Palmetto State Armory kit, (1:8 twist, nitrided barrel) and spread them out in groups. Lastly, I put up the laptop and fired up YouTube, this time to the Build Explore Learn channel’s AR-15 Assembly/Build Instructional video. It’s lengthy, but it’s very detailed and easy to follow.
I began with the easy bits; the magazine catch and the bolt release lever. The mag catch went in just fine, but the bolt catch…. The roll pin didn’t seem to be the right length, and the setup of the actual lower receiver was different from the videos.
I hesitated, and hesitated, and finally remembered, wait, wasn’t there a little baggie of extra parts that were Polymer80 specific? And darned if there wasn’t a proprietary bolt catch, pin, and an extra set screw to hold it all together. A few minutes later it was in and I was on to the trigger group.
The fire control group went together just fine, but it was a little tight in the lower. A few minutes with a Dremel Tool took care of that. Then the safety, takedown pins, pistol grip, adjustable stock…
I’m a New Yorker, remember. In place of the pistol grip and adjustable stock I have to use something else, a Thordsen Customs FRS-15 stock that takes the place of the grip and stock. Along with replacing the A2 flash hider with a bare thread protector (properly pinned and welded), and Dremelling off the dreaded bayonet lug (safety tip: sparks from said Dremelling will set your desk on fire if you’re not careful; ask me how I know!), this makes my rifle a “featureless” build and, according to New York State, no more dangerous than, say, a Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle or an M-14, which, as we all know, only shoot rainbows and happy feelings.
Once I got the Thordsen stock on, it was time to mate the upper and lower receivers. I was pleasantly surprised to find the fit was extremely good with no perceptible rattle between the upper and lower. Everything, in fact, fits very well on this rifle except the safety selector; as I mentioned above, one of the drilled holes was a little ragged and the selector switch doesn’t rotate perfectly. It works, though, and that’s really the only thing that isn’t as tight as I’d like.
Off for a live fire test! I loaded up some ammo, headed off to the nearest state land, and started slingin’ lead downrange!
This may come as a shock, but New York is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to guns. New York City and the surrounding area are, of course, extremely hostile to the Second Amendment and gun ownership in general. My brother lives in NYC, and he’s pretty much limited to a trap gun or a deer rifle, provided he’s only got five -ound mags and registers it.
Outside of the NYC metro area, attitudes change. After passage of the SAFE Act, many jurisdictions, police chiefs, and county sheriffs have actually declared that they will not enforce it. Most counties between the New York/Albany corridor and Buffalo are fairly sympathetic to the gun culture. And then there’s Buffalo, and the surrounding Erie County.
Here, it takes upwards of a year for the paperwork for a pistol permit to be approved, while in neighboring Genesee County it takes weeks. There are few public ranges, and no public outdoor ranges in Erie County. You can shoot on private land, but it’s illegal to shoot on public land.
So, I had a choice. I could drive out to Genesee County, where there’s a public outdoor range. It’s a good hour away, though, and always crowded and unsupervised. While 99% of the shooters I’ve met there are great people who take safety seriously, there’s always one jackass lasering people and generally being an unsafe wiener, and I didn’t want to deal with that while testing a new gun. So, I went for door number 2.
My dad lives far enough into the sticks that occasional gunfire isn’t out of the norm. As long as it doesn’t go on too long or too loud, the neighbors don’t complain. Indeed, they’re more likely to stop by and see what we’re shooting that day.
An AR-15 is louder than my better half’s Marlin 795, or my dad’s black powder musket that usually gets shot in the backyard. But I figured that 20 rounds would be more than enough to test basic functionality and safety without annoying the neighborhood.
I started with a single round in the magazine, then two, then seven. The rifle performed flawlessly, albeit much more loudly than I anticipated. (Thanks, Andrew Cuomo, for making me take off the A2 flash hider! Those big fireballs are awesome!)
Weirdly, the recoil didn’t bruise my shoulder, the brass shell casings didn’t disorient me as they flew past my face, the smell of sulfur and wanton destruction didn’t make me sick, and the explosions didn’t give me a case of PTSD. On the contrary, for at least an hour after firing the gun just a few times, I had the giggles.
My dad tried it out and had a great time. It was hard to hit the cans we had set out, mostly because I hadn’t had a chance to adjust the reflex sight I mounted on the top. We had to use some Kentucky windage and walk the shots in on target.
After we were done, we realized that we’d hit much more often than we’d thought, but the rounds had gone through the tin cans without moving them at all. We ended up going through 40 rounds and had a blast.
After getting home, I took the gun apart and cleaned and checked it. As I cleaned it, I reflected on the journey. In the process of building my AR-15, I taught myself the ins and outs of milling, fitting, and basic gunsmithing for the AR platform. I learned the relevant state and federal laws relating to so-called ‘assault weapons’ and firearms in general. I also reinforced the philosophy of self defense and firearms ownership.
Maybe more important, I was able to correct a lot of bad information held as ‘fact’ by a lot of different people, and hopefully bring some fence-sitters closer to being in the Second Amendment camp.
I have a few more things to do, notably deciding on a custom serial number. (AR2016HillarySucks? ARShallNotBeInfringed? MYL1TTL3A55AULTW3AP0N? Post your suggestion in the comments!)
Since then I’ve put 360 rounds of various types through it, including American Eagle 5.56 and .223, Hornady .223, and Tula .223. No feeding issues of any kind thus far. Accuracy is ~3 MOA from a lead sled at 100 yards with a cheapo red dot, and is more than adequate for any foreseeable purpose.
I feel that I’ve reached a point of completion and the rest is polishing and fiddly bits. All in all, this was a pretty successful project.
Lower: Polymer80 G150 Phoenix 2 lower kit ($80)
Upper: PTAC 16″ Mid Length 5.56 NATO 1:8 Nitride Rifle Kit, includes lower parts kit ($399)
Stock: Thordsen Customs FRS15 NYS compliant ($139)
Thread cover, welded ($15)
Magpul rear pop-up iron sight ($20)
CenterPoint Tactical Open Reflex Sight ($25)
Magpul 10-round magazines, NYS compliant ($13)
RATINGS (out of five stars):
Price: * * *
It’s hard to argue with a complete rifle for $480, especially when it includes the satisfaction of knowing it’s YOUR rifle; you built it, tuned it, and made it what it is. Where the stars come off is for the extra NYS compliance costs. The stock, thread cover, etc., cost nearly $175 extra, not to mention that every 30 rounds of magazine capacity costs me $27 more than it should due to “high capacity magazine” laws.
Ergonomics: * * *
I grew up with shotguns and more traditional rifles, so the Thordsen stock, while visually goofy, feels pretty good to me. Luckily the length of pull is close to what is comfortable for me naturally; my Dad, who is shorter, has no options. Thanks, Gov. Cuomo.
Fit and Finish – Lower: * * * * *
I built the thing, of course it’s five stars. Suck it, Lancer. Seriously though, the Polymer80 lower was straightforward to mill and assemble, and all the parts, (except the safety which is my fault,) fit tight and work perfectly.
Fit and Finish – Upper: * * * *
For the price, it’s good enough. The only part that doesn’t fit seamlessly is the handguard; the two halves don’t meet perfectly at the delta ring. The included parts kit is perfectly serviceable. The trigger isn’t a Geissele, but it’s not my Mosin either.
Accuracy * * * *
I know 3MOA isn’t exactly a tack driver, but it’s enough for whatever I might want to use it for. If I need to hit a gnat’s eye at 100 yards, my fiancee’s Marlin 795 is available. (Seriously, the thing puts bullets in a single hole at 100 yards off a rest. She must have got the best one ever.)
Reliability: * * * * *
I was more than pleasantly surprised that my home-milled and assembled rifle has gone through 350+ rounds without a single failure.
Freedom Augmentation Quotient: * * * * *
For those looking for a literal way to join the well-regulated militia while giving a symbolic bird-flip to the political overlord class in Albany, (or Sacramento, or Trenton, or Boston, etc.,) you really can do no better than an AR built from an 80% lower.
Overall: * * * *
If you get a chance to do this, do it. There are few things more satisfying than building something yourself, and a rifle is a great thing to build, period. For AR beginners like me, Polymer80 and Palmetto State are great places to get the necessary parts without breaking the bank.