The spike in popularity of the AR-pattern rifle can likely be attributed to a variety of factors, but one undeniable reason these lightweight semi-autos are so celebrated is their incredible modularity. One visit to a gun shop or online outdoor retailer will show the endless array of aftermarket parts, with upgrades available down to the smallest detent spring or magazine release button.
This modularity allows owners to trick out their rifles however they please, turning conventional carbines into refined rifles. Moreso, those seeking a completely custom rifle from the ground up can build the AR of their dreams piece by piece, as opposed to buying a stock, out-of-the-box rifle.
We’ll take a look at some of the pros and cons of the (sometimes heated) built vs. bought discussion.
With so many parts options readily available, would-be AR owners can configure their AR from scratch, purchasing each component individually and assembling their rifle at home.
No compromise: You get the rifle you want, with nothing you don’t need. Rather than buy a manufacturer-stock rifle and spending more on the parts you truly want to add on later, building your rifle gives you the features you’re looking for, and you’ll likely be stuck with fewer unnecessary extra parts when you’re done.
Armoring experience: One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with your AR is to disassemble and reassemble, learning the intricacies and minutiae of the system. Building an AR gives owners an education in how the rifles are constructed and how they operate, which can come in handy when it comes time to replace parts or help a fellow AR owner in need with quick fixes. It’s no replacement for skilled gunsmithing, but it’s definitely a valuable set of skills to have. Even if you’re not quite ready to buy a stripped lower receiver and break out the roll pin punches, options exist to get a more customized setup than an off-the-rack rifle may offer. Many manufacturers and retailers offer separate complete lower and upper receivers, so buyers can mix and match brands, barrel configurations, and even calibers (depending on compatibility) to produce a unique AR without needing to dig into advanced armoring techniques.
Special delivery: If you purchase a new rifle online, you’ll need to have the firearm shipped to a local Federal Firearms License, or FFL, holder for them to run the appropriate background check before releasing the firearm to you. If you decide to build a rifle from the ground up, the parts, from the barrel to the buffer tube, fire control group to the upper receiver itself, can be shipped directly to you. However, to obtain the lower receiver, it must be cleared through an FFL dealer before you take ownership. The same is true at a gun shop; many shops offer a variety of rifle components you can purchase in-store and take home to work on your rifle, but the lower receiver – stripped or complete – requires transfer through an FFL.
Watch your wallet: While building your AR can sometimes produce a capable rifle for less money than a factory stock gun, it can also wind up becoming a money pit if you’re not clear on what you want, keep opting for add-ons, premium or competition-grade components, or changing your mind mid-build. It’s great to be able to selectively upgrade components as your requirements demand, but what could’ve been a $600 project can turn into a $1,500 behemoth if unplanned.
It’s not a toy: Building an AR provides a fun, educational and rewarding experience for those who commit to the craft. However, always remember that these are powerful firearms and require serious attention to detail and patience during assembly. Barrels need to be properly headspaced, barrel nuts need to be torqued accurately, gas blocks require precise fitment, gas tubes must be aligned with gas ports and fit cleanly into bolt carrier gas keys, etc. If you’re not completely sure how to safely and correctly assemble your components into a functioning AR, definitely visit a gunsmith. Haphazardly slopping an AR together could result in injury or worse – you need to know what you’re doing. Worth keeping in mind, those seeking to learn gunsmithing from certified instructors can do so through NRA Gunsmithing Schools, for which more information is available at http://gunsmithing.nra.org.
Tool time: As assembling ARs requires precise measurements and tolerances, you’ll need specialized tools to properly get your rifle together, something you’ll need to factor in when pricing your setup. To properly build your rifle from stripped receivers, you’ll need an armorer’s wrench, a set of roll pin punches, a level, a vise and receiver vise blocks, a torque wrench, screwdrivers and more. While you’ll benefit from having these tools around regardless whether you build or buy and get tremendous value from them in the future, the initial investment of collecting these essentials can add a significant amount to the bill for a first-time builder.
While building gives license to construct a custom creation to turn heads at the range, modern manufacturers offer more options than ever, and through their diverse product lines can often deliver a rifle that meets or far exceeds the demands of the customer, right off the bench.
No hassle: Buying a stock AR-pattern rifle that meets your needs is the easiest, quickest way to get into modern sporting rifles. Manufacturers offer hundreds of configurations, and with solid research and advice, most shooters will be able to find a rifle they want and get it on the range without having to take the time to piece their firearm together.
Trust the experts: Buying an AR rather than building gives owners peace of mind that as long as the operator follow instructions (read your manuals!) when using their new firearm, it’s going to work as advertised. Manufacturers are in the business of gunsmithing, and know what they’re doing when designing and assembling rifles. They have the tools, equipment, processes and expertise to construct a safe, functional firearm, so you can focus on shooting. For those with no armoring experience, this is certainly a consideration when it comes to safety.
Fitment and compatibility: When building, you have the option of picking components from different manufacturers. However, that assumed flexibility may not always come through, as some components have varying tolerances and dimensions, and may not fit or work properly with all parts. While AR systems generally share interchangeable pieces, you may wind up with parts that just don’t work together. Buying a complete rifle ensures the components fit together properly and work as advertised, taking out the guesswork and potential of making costly mistakes for prospective buyers.
Plain Jane: Buying off the shelf will give you a functioning, ready-to-shoot rifle, but depending on what you choose, you may feel underwhelmed at the features it offers. You can always upgrade parts as you go to give you the custom gun you want, but that costs more money and time, and could potentially wind up being more expensive than if you had built from scratch in the first place.
Not all ARs are created equal: While buying manufacturer-complete rifles ensure you’ll get a firearm that’s designed to fit and fire correctly, you may find some stock guns won’t accept aftermarket upgrades or replacement parts. Some manufacturers use proprietary components, like barrel nuts, handguards and gas system elements. If you want to be able to add on extras or swap out gear as you go along, do your research before settling on a complete rifle.
Cashed out: As discussed, manufacturers offer endless options in the AR market, offering models complete with modern rail systems, drop-in trigger assemblies, bundled optics and advanced stock systems to create high-end, performance-driven firearms. While this is an easy way to get a top-shelf rifle without picking components piecemeal, it also is just as easy to dig your way into a hefty bill. Building allows users to construct similarly capable weapons where they have complete control over which components and brands they opt for, allowing them to also choose where and what to spend extra on to get the desired result. Also, if time isn’t a factor but cash flow is, building allows users to spread out their purchases over time and patiently construct their gun, which may be a better option for aspiring AR owners on a budget.
Every AR buyer and owner is different, and has a variety of factors that will drive their decision to build or buy and AR, be it budget, time, experience, demands or other reasons. Regardless of whether you go for a reliable stock gun, or roll up your sleeves and start building a masterpiece, always keep safety first, and consult a professional gunsmith if you run into any issues or problems. As always, NRA Certified Instructors are available to provide world-class training and education to shooters of all disciplines.
Need more information about training with your AR? Interested in shooting in a match? The NRA America’s Rifle Challenge, presented by Daniel Defense, lets owners of America’s most popular new rifle platform develop and showcase their AR skills. Visit http://arc.nra.org for more information about training courses and matches.