So, you decided to get an AR-15. Good decision! You will not be disappointed. Now, should you build it yourself or buy it off the rack? I mean, it’s a grown-up version of Legos, and called “Barbie for Men” for a reason. (Though I know some women building their own AR-15s.)
Off The Rack: The case for buying your AR-15 off the rack of the LGS (Local Gun Store):
- Warranty. If a factory warranty is important to you, then buy an AR-15 off the rack of your local LGS. Start slapping parts together yourself, and you might just void any and all warranties, even if the parts all come from the same manufacturer. Be sure to check the fine print. At best, you’ll be managing multiple warranties, and be subject to vendor finger pointing.
- You Almost Can’t Go Wrong. The AR-15 is currently the most popular rifle in America. There are so many reputable, quality manufacturers producing AR-15s that it’s hard to find a bad one, at almost any price point. Stick with a well known name brand with a good reputation for quality, and you should have a reliable AR-15.
- Fit and finish. Vendors that manufacture parts and assemble complete rifles in-house can control more variables. This theoretically allows them to produce parts with tighter tolerances for a better fit, and more consistent finishes in terms of color, parkerizing, anodizing, oil, cosmoline, etc. There might be slight fit or finish variations if you build your own with parts from different vendors. Additionally, and without getting too detailed, there are mil-spec and non mil-spec (aka commercial) grade AR-15s, and AR-15 components. If you buy a quality AR off the rack, don’t lose any sleep over the distinction. If you build your own, pay attention to what you order as mil-spec and commercial parts aren’t always interchangeable. Buffer tubes and buttstocks are the prime example.
- One nice thing about the mil-spec designation, is that it’s an industry wide reference standard. This standard gives one confidence that a collection of mil-spec parts from high quality vendors will successfully fit together, and function reliably.
- Simplicity & Time to the Firing Line. It doesn’t get much easier or faster than, walk in, lay your money down, and walk out with a fully assembled, AR-15. Good-To-Go. Pick one in-stock and you can be target shooting in just hours. Choose to build, and you could be waiting on parts for months, and months, and months… With a build you need to source every part yourself, and if you don’t do your research, some parts that come standard on a fully assembled AR-15 can be easily overlooked. Good examples are things like the lower parts kit (LPK), the Bolt Carrier Group (BCG), sights, charging handle, magazines, etc.…
- Friendly LGS Charisma & Customer Service. Some things just can’t be bought over the Internet or through a catalog, like good banter with the LGS counter guy. Seriously, if you are new to shooting, or to the AR-15 platform, there is something to be said for being able to bring your rifle back to the store. Support and advice might not be as easily forthcoming with an Internet or catalog based build.
- Cost. Like the stock market or the price of gold, AR cost is currently in flux.
Before December 2012, making the decision to build or buy an AR-15 on cost alone was almost a “no-brainer”. Basic AR-15s were in the $800-900 range. There was almost no way build one of similar quality for less, especially when you added in the cost of the specialized tools necessary. Higher-end AR-15s, like the Stag 3G, were in the $1,400 range, and an outstanding value at that! (I priced that Stag 3G part-by-part, and couldn’t build the exact same rifle for less.)
Then tragedy struck. Politicians and the media reacted (illogically in many cases). Ban fears peaked. AR-15 demand rose sky-high. The law of supply and demand sent prices through the roof. That was if you could find one. For an 8-12 week period, an AR-15, (any AR-15), was literally worth more than a few ounces of shiny yellow metal. In gun stores across the country there were none to be found. (That $1,400 Stag 3G jumped to $2,600 – >$3K. Plain Jane ARs owned the $1,400 – 1,600 price point.) At the height of the run on ARs, it easily became more cost effective to build your own, even though the price of parts also went up, and even with the added cost of the specialized tools.
Thankfully, as of mid-summer 2013, cooler heads are starting to prevail. Prices are coming down, almost hitting that point where it’s again more cost effective to buy off the rack. Though the AR-15 may never be as affordable as it was before November – December 2012.
The case for building your own AR-15:
- Ya Get What You Need. You Get What You Want. Nothing you Don’t. When you build your own AR-15, you’re not paying for parts you’re going to replace, and it’s common for AR-15 owners to make changes to rifle form and/or function.
For example, young shooters and shorter stature folks need a shorter length of pull, (the distance from the end of the buttstock to the trigger). Likewise, people with smaller hands tend to prefer smaller, thinner pistol grips. The opposite is usually true for taller folks. With that in mind, a collapsible buttstock (where legal so know your state laws), or a different pistol grip will allow you to better fit the AR-15 to your body. It’s also likely that in the never ending quest for accuracy, you’ll drop in a new trigger or install a free floated handguard. You might want fold down backup iron sights (BUIS), or those fancy offset versions. (Hot-rodding ARs is hugely popular.) When you build your AR-15, instead of just getting, (and paying for), whatever the manufacturer chose to include on an off the rack rifle, you can hand pick every one of the parts to meet your requirements and wants.
- Higher Quality Parts for Your Dollars. You won’t save money building an AR-15 over buying off the rack, even at mid-summer 2013 prices. However, for the same money, you will likely end up with a better overall rifle, made from higher grade components. (Do not skimp on parts If you build your own.)
- Knowledge is Power. Put it together bit by bit, and once done, you’ll know exactly what each part does, where it goes, how it fits together, and how the whole rifle works. The knowledge you gain by building an AR-15 yourself is empowering, rewarding and practical. You’ll learn solutions for commonly known conditions. For example, there is usually some level of play between the upper and lower receiver groups. This is normal, and should not affect reliability or accuracy. However, for those seeking near perfection, there is an under-a-dollar, O-ring fix that eliminates this play. Likewise, all guns are mechanical devices. At some point, on any mechanical device, somethin’s gonna go. When this happens to your rifle or one of your buddies’, you’re gonna be the guy who knows how to fix it. Same at upgrade time, you’re the guy that’s going to help. When you build your own, you start to become a Go-To, Subject Matter Expert.
- Satisfaction & Pride. Like anything else, there’s a certain sense of personal satisfaction and pride that comes from building your own AR-15.
- Custom Cool Factor. In addition to everything listed above, though no less important, when you build your own AR-15, you end up with a completely custom rifle, built to your liking, tastes and fit for your purposes. You’ll have something unique. Certainly something you can’t just pull off the rack at the LGS. That’s cool!
Anyway, that’s my take. Let me know what you think. Did you build your own or buy one?
Be Aware! Be Prepared! Be Safe!