The Choices Can Be More Challenging Than The Actual Build.
As I write this, I think back to January, 2020. Life in the United States was normal. The economy was booming, and citizens were going about their business and living in relative peace. At that time, the news outlets were just starting to talk about a strange, new virus taking hold in China.
The media and politicians were telling us that COVID-19 was nothing more than a severe case of the flu and that we had nothing to fear from it (as a famous comedian is fond of saying, “Here’s your sign”).
I had long wanted to build an AR15 pistol but continuously put the project off. At that time, ammo, guns and parts were cheap and plentiful. However, with red flags of impending trouble popping up on the horizon, I decided it was time to start building.
Building an AR15 has been described as “LEGOs for adults.” In many ways, this is a fairly accurate assessment: Unless you’re installing barrels or fancy rail systems, building an AR is a mostly plug-and-play proposition that requires only basic tools and simple instructions.
While I’ve been an armorer on the AR platform for many years and have all the tools needed to assemble everything from barrels and gas blocks to rail systems and match triggers, I took a simpler approach.
It’s difficult to build a rifle to meet your needs if you haven’t defined what they are. Start by asking yourself what you want the weapon to do. From there, decisions about barrels, stocks, optics and other options will become much easier to make.
For this build, I determined that I wanted an AR that would be as compact as possible without giving away too many of the ballistic advantages that make the AR15 such a formidable self-defense tool. Besides being compact, my weapon needed to be reliable, rugged, accurate and well-suited to self-defense and the defense of others. I also wanted to keep costs at a reasonable level.
So, with these goals in mind, it was time to select parts.
The starting point for every AR build is the lower receiver. The lower is the part that carries the serial number and is legally considered to be “the firearm.” As I write this, all other components of the AR15 system can be ordered through the mail and don’t require government paperwork.
I got a lower receiver from Palmetto State Armory. These receivers have a reputation for being high quality, meet military specifications and are very affordable.
When the receiver arrived at my FFL, I wasn’t disappointed. The finish was evenly applied, the markings were well-executed, and everything appeared to be within specifications. Palmetto offers a large variety of lower receivers, with most of the variation coming from the engraved markings.
With the decision made to keep this a simple build, I then began a search for a barreled upper receiver.
It’s long been my opinion and belief that the only barrels suitable for “duty-grade” rifles are those made from 4150 steel, feature a chrome lining and have chambers cut for 5.56mm NATO ammunition. The 5.56mm chamber assures that the rifle will feed and chamber everything from military surplus ammunition to all manner of .223 Remington commercial ammunition. The chrome lining increases the surface hardness of the barrel and resists excessive heat, allowing it to have a longer service life and increased reliability.
However, chrome-lined barrels are more complicated and expensive to produce, and the lining process can be inconsistent, which would lead to decreased accuracy potential.
While all my previously held beliefs about duty-grade barrels still hold true, significant progress has been made in making unlined barrels with the properties of a chrome lining. Nitride barrels come with many names from many manufacturers: “Melonite,” “ni-corr,” “blacknitride” and “tenifer” all refer to the same basic process. “Nitriding” is a chemical process that permanently changes the molecular structure of the steel surface to which it’s applied. It’s not a lining and can’t be removed by anything short of removing metal. The nitride process makes the steel incredibly hard and heat resistant and reduces surface tension.
This is a chemically induced process, so bores and chambers can be cut to precise dimensions, thus increasing accuracy potential. This is a much simpler process than chrome lining, making nitride barrels cheaper to produce. And, over the course of the past few years, personal experience with rifles featuring nitride barrels has proven to me that they can be every bit as tough and reliable as their chrome-lined counterparts.
With all this barrel technology swirling in my head, I decided to use a barreled upper receiver with a nitride barrel.
Palmetto State Armory offered a complete AR15 pistol kit that included a MIL-SPEC upper receiver barreled with an 11.5-inch, 5.56mm, NATO nitride barrel made from 4150 steel and a lightweight, free-floated handguard of its own manufacture. Included in the kit was a nitride-finished bolt carrier group and a lower receiver parts kit that included the trigger, springs, detents, buffer tube, buffer and an SB Tactical SBA3 pistol brace.
Building the Gun
All the requisite parts were assembled, so it was time to put them together.
If you’re not installing barrels, gas blocks and rail systems, assembling an AR15 is a relatively quick and simple process. A set of punches, a small hammer and a stock wrench are all that’s needed to get the job done. There are many specialized tools made to make the job easier, but they’re not essential to the task.
Because part of my “day job” is to provide armorer services for a police department, I have all the tools needed to make the job quick and easy. In addition, entire books have been dedicated to the ins and outs of building an AR15, and YouTube is filled with countless videos regarding the intricacies of each step of the process.
All that information is readily available, so I won’t go into the step-by-step process here. I will, however, give you some basic advice that should serve you well in whatever project you undertake: Research the process you’re about to take on. Read the guides and watch the videos that’ll give you a clear understanding of the process.
Assemble the best, most appropriate tools for the job, and take a thorough inventory of parts prior to starting the job. Following these guidelines, along with keeping your work space clean, well-lit and organized, will go a long way to a rifle build that’s free of frustration.
After all the parts of this project are assembled, it’s time to test the firearm’s function. A basic function test can be done immediately after the build is complete. This’ll ensure that the bolt carrier group moves freely, the trigger operates normally and the safety functions as it should.
Note: This process begins by ensuring there’s no ammunition in your work space and that you have a safe direction in which to point the firearm.
With an unloaded gun pointed in a safe direction, engage the safety and pull the trigger. If the hammer doesn’t fall, disengage the safety and pull the trigger again. If the hammer falls, release the trigger and reset it by pulling back on the charging handle. Pull the trigger again and hold the trigger to the rear while pulling back on the charging handle. With the hammer reset and the trigger still held to the rear, release the trigger. You should be rewarded with the click of the hammer disengaging from the interrupter and re-engaging with the sear. Pull the trigger one more time to ensure the hammer falls properly. Finally, insert an empty magazine with the bolt closed on an empty chamber. Pull the bolt to the rear and ensure the bolt catch is engaged by the empty magazine. If all is well, now you can head to the range for a live-fire test.
Tuning the Gas System
An AR15’s direct impingement system is very simple but requires some attention to detail to ensure it works properly for optimal functionality and longevity.
Start by taking your rifle to the range with some quality ammunition and at least one magazine. Put your rifle on a rest and create an imaginary “clock,” with the muzzle pointing at 12:00. With your clock established, you can fire live ammunition, paying attention to the ejection pattern. If your brass is ejecting in the 12:00-to-3:00 range, your rifle is over-gassed and is ejecting brass more violently than needed. This might increase reliability, but it will also increase felt recoil and speed up wear on the firearm. Brass that’s ejecting in the 3:00-to-4:30 area shows a well-gassed firearm that’s tuned for optimal reliability. Brass that’s ejecting in the 4:30-to-6:00 range is under-gassed and will indicate issues with reliability.
Addressing gassing issues with a rifle can be accomplished by increasing or decreasing the reciprocating mass of the bolt carrier or recoil buffer or by adjusting the flow of gas from the barrel to the bolt carrier. Unless your rifle has an adjustable gas block, changing the mass of the moving parts will be your best option. This can be done quickly by selecting buffers of different weights. Choosing a lighter-weight buffer will have the effect of increasing the gas flow and can address a rifle that’s under-gassed and having issues with extraction and ejection. Choosing a heavier buffer will have the effect of decreasing gas flow and will address violent ejection and accelerated parts wear.
Part of the beauty of the AR15 platform can be found in its ability to be easily customized. As a result of more than 50 years of military, law enforcement and civilian service and refinement, there isn’t a single part of this system that can’t be enhanced or modified.
BAD-Enhanced Single Side Safety Selector
While the standard MIL-SPEC safety lever is perfectly serviceable, I wanted one that was a little easier to operate. The Battle Arms Development safety is dimensionally similar to stock, but it sits away from the receiver just enough to make it easier to get a purchase. The difference is subtle, but noticeable. This is a drop-in replacement part, so installation couldn’t be simpler.
BCM Gunfighter Medium Charging Handle
Bravo Company is one of the premier manufacturers of premium-grade AR15 rifles and accessories. Its Gunfighter charging handle has been the choice of armed professionals for many years. It provides a larger gripping surface, allowing easier operation under stress without being so large as to be cumbersome.
Spikes Tactical Tungsten Buffer
Standard MIL-SPEC buffers house free-floating steel weights inside the buffer body and come in a variety of weights. The Spikes Tactical Tungsten Buffer is filled with tungsten powder, as opposed to steel weights. This creates a “dead weight” system that doesn’t shift inside the buffer housing. While it has no effect on the operation of the rifle, it serves to deaden and smooth the recoil impulse.
VG6 Precision Epsilon Muzzle Device
The barreled upper receiver I chose was delivered with a standard A2 birdcage flash hider. Dollar for dollar, the old A2 is probably one of the best muzzle devices you can put on an AR15. However, I wanted to try something different.
The VG6 Epsilon is designed from the ground up to provide enhanced muzzle control and recoil mitigation. The effect of the Epsilon makes for a muzzle with virtually no rise and almost no felt recoil, translating to fast follow-up shots and increased accuracy. This added control comes at the price of increased muzzle blast and felt concussion. Nevertheless, adding the VG6 CAGE accessory helps reduce some of that felt concussion at minimal cost to effectiveness (and it’s something your shooting partners will be grateful for!).
When I set out to build this gun, I wanted a firearm that would be compact, powerful, accurate, reliable and effective at reasonable defensive distances. I envisioned this build to be used primarily between 0 and 100 yards, but I also wanted it to have the ability to reach out to 300 yards if needed.
Accuracy has proven to be good, with groups ranging from 1.5 to 3 inches at 100 yards with quality ammunition. Precision shots out to 100 yards are no problem, and hits in the vitals of a silhouette out to 300 yards are easy, as long as I do my part. The 11.5-inch barrel ensures the ammunition keeps enough velocity to be effective at all chosen distances.
To date, I have put approximately 3,500 rounds through the firearm—with no malfunctions. It’s easy to carry, easy to shoot well and shoot well quickly, and it isn’t overly complicated. Overall, I’m thrilled with it.
Hopefully, you’ve found some value in following my journey to build this firearm and will find inspiration to create something that fits your needs.
When I consider a long gun for fighting or defensive purposes, I have only three requirements for accessories: a sling, an optic and a weapon light.
As I was building this firearm, I considered a variety of different weapon lights from SureFire, Streamlight and Inforce. However, just days before I was planning to make a purchase, Olight introduced the Odin, a brand-new tactical weapon light designed specifically for long guns. I liked what I saw, so I decided to take a chance on it.
The Odin is a 2,000-lumen light with an advertised maximum throw range of 300 meters. It’s rated IPX8 for waterproofness and was drop-tested to 1.5 meters. It has a maximum runtime of eight hours on a full charge of its rechargeable 21700 lithium-ion battery.
While the battery can be quickly removed and replaced, it’s designed to be recharged while inside the light body via its proprietary magnetic tail cap charger. The magnetic tail cap also accepts an included quick-detach, pressure-activated tape switch. For users who don’t like tape switches, the light includes a protected stainless steel tail cap. The tail cap provides easy access to a 300-lumen “low” mode, as well as “momentary” and “constant-on” activation. I prefer to use the light without the tape switch and have found that activation and use of the tail cap switch are extremely well-thought-out and intuitive.
The Odin utilizes a body-mounted stud that allows it to interface with all SureFire Scout light mounts, as well as the included quick-detach, lockable mounting platform.
To date, the Odin on my firearm has been subjected to more than 1,000 rounds of muzzle blast as a result of its proximity to the VG6 Epsilon muzzle device. It’s never faltered or failed.
Primary Arms Compact Prism Scope
The Primary Arms SLx Compact 1X20 Prism Scope-ACSS-Cyclops was introduced several years ago and was affectionately nicknamed the “poor man’s ACOG.” A 1X prism scope, it was designed to provide the durability and reliability of an etched reticle with the speed and ease of use of a red-dot.
Incorporating an etched reticle means that the Cyclops doesn’t need batteries to be effective. The ACSS reticle can be seen in any environment in which there is sufficient ambient or artificial light. The Cyclops does, however, offer reticle illumination.
As I write this, Primary Arms is introducing new emitter technology that gives the Cyclops a daylight bright reticle with the option of a green or red reticle illuminator and up to 17,000 hours of illumination on a single battery.
While the Cyclops is delivered with its own mount, it’s fully compatible with any mounting system designed for the Aimpoint Micro series of optics, giving the user a huge number of mounts to choose from.
Because it’s a prism optic, the Cyclops employs an adjustable diopter, thus allowing users to tune reticle focus to their own eyesight. This is a godsend for people with compromised eyesight who might otherwise struggle with a traditional red-dot.
The Cyclops has been torture-tested by both professionals and “Internet warriors” looking for a spectacular failure to show on social media. It’s been dropped, launched, run over and submerged to ludicrous depths well beyond its rated capabilities. This sight has prevailed through everything that’s been thrown its way.
It’s because of all the attributes listed here, combined with the spectacular auto-ranging ACSS reticle design, that the Cyclops has become my go-to optic-of-choice for a firearm that just simply has to work, no matter what.
Sly Tactical TR-1 Weapon Sling
A rifle without a sling is like a handgun without a holster. A quality sling is an essential part of every long gun and can be a very personal choice.
The Sly Tactical TR-1 Weapon Sling was developed in a collaboration between Sly Tactical and USSF Sergeant Major (retired) Karl Erickson. Building on the popular Sly Tactical QCS convertible sling, the TR-1 replaces the front quick-detach stud with a side-release buckle. This buckle includes a proprietary thumb tab and allows the sling to be released from the weapon, even when under extreme tension and in compromised positions.
The TR-1 is a convertible sling, meaning that it can be used in either two- or single-point configurations. When using the sling in its two-point configuration, a T-handle adjustment tab assists in providing smooth, stable length adjustments for working around barricades, changing firing positions or storage. Unclipping the HK-style snap hook and clipping it into the built-in D-ring instantly converts the sling into a single-point configuration for times when weapon retention is of paramount importance.
The TR-1 is built with U.S.-made, MIL-SPEC Class 1 nylon, U.S.-made, MIL-SPEC Class 1 thread and U.S.-made, heavy-duty acetyl tri glides and quick-release buckles. It’s available in a variety of colors.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the MARCH, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.