Buying your First AR-15 & Why Quality Matters with Neil Batelli

Neil Batelli shoots at a Quantified Performance match…Photo @hothbrass365

Neil Batelli’s passion for quality firearms, proper build techniques, and his love of shooting has inspired AR enthusiasts worldwide. More than a decade ago, based on reputation, I sought out Neil Batelli to buy my very first AR-15…which is still my go-to “bet-my-life” defensive carbine.

Now Neil is expanding his reach with the recent launch of 2A-Fulfillment.  We recently reached out to Neil (and co-owner Tom Spooner) to discuss valuable lessons and actionable advice from his decades of retail experience, and how those new to teh world of ARs can avoid expensive mistakes.   

Q: Neil, thanks for taking the time to chat.  Since we last spoke, it seems you’ve started a new project.  Can you elaborate?

Neil Batelli – Since we last spoke, we started a new business called 2A Fulfillment, based in Jacksonville, Florida, in March of 2022, and it’s been a dream come true, as it is allowing myself and co-owner Tom Spooner, to do things we had always dreamed of, while expanding our reach to a broader audience outside of just our region.

An upper you don’t see everyday….

We offer custom AR builds, optic mounting, and installation services.  Anything you get from us, we will install it, and do so correctly.  We can put everything together for you and have it ready to shoot when you get it.  While something like a pin & weld would cost extra, everything else is done for no additional charge, and typically we can have a same-day turnaround.

Finally, we continue to have shooting and training events throughout the year.  We have plenty of both regional and traveling instructors that come down.  We’ve been hosting instructors for a decade now.

Q:   What is the biggest mistake you see consumers make when they are looking to purchase their first AR?

Neil Batelli – Throughout the years, I have repeatedly seen the customer who wants something nice, yet has no intention of ever really using it. On the flip side, I will meet folks who are adamant about getting to classes and shooting matches but don’t want to invest in quality items that will give them the most out of what they are putting into their shooting experience.

I try to explain that if you are going to be shooting a lot, you need to spend the extra money.  What you purchase does not have to be an unusual amount of money. However, it would help if you paid the extra to buy from a company that intends for you to use their AR like that.

If you are someone looking to purchase your first AR, there is some work that you need to do on the front end. You cannot buy the first or cheapest thing that you see. As you look into buying a rifle, you need to ensure that the company is using the proper materials to build with, not only the barrel and bolt, but everything.  Not only should they be using the proper materials, but they also need the proper techniques to assemble everything to work right out of the box.  

Tom Spooner – I advise looking for a gun built in such a way that it should probably last a lifetime, and if you have to replace some expendable pieces, it is not that big of a deal.   I’ve seen things happen too often over the years during classes.  Someone will bring out an AR and experience failures, and when we look at that person’s gun, it is from a company that is first interested in putting out large quantities of product for the lowest possible price.

I think there’s a lesson in there.  Not only do you need to slow down, take the time to research what you are buying, but if you are building, you need to take your time, buy quality products, and make sure you are putting things together in the right way.  “Good enough” is not the proper approach when it comes to buying or building an AR-15. 

At the same time, any company sending products out the door should take the time and care to ensure all parts are installed correctly so that the buyer does not experience any type of failure. Companies like Knights Armament work hard to ensure everything is put together correctly. 

One of the things that I have always appreciated about their company is that they frequently try to identify problems on parts and wear items that you would see on a high round count gun. They try to make them stronger to extend their service life even further.

BCM has done an incredible job having a high-quality control level, ensuring that things are built right and specs are proper, and once things are put together, they run correctly. Another one we like is Centurion Arms.  Monty LeClair is using fantastic barrels, doing stuff like keying the gas block, building and improving rails…

Sons of Liberty Gun Works has the same approach, and it seems that they are almost fanatical, in a good way, about the materials they use…things like what kind of barrel steel are they using?  How are they coating their barrels?  How are they being assembled?  How much torque are they using on the barrel and castle nut for the receiver extension?  They’re paying attention to specs like that and ensuring things are done correctly. 

There’s an important lesson in there for customers who are looking to buy an AR.  It would help if you took the time to understand why things like that matter and why they are worth seeking out. Educate yourself, and be realistic about what you expect from your purchase.

As a consumer or someone looking to buy perhaps their first AR, it can be confusing, and I’ve seen that confusion manifest in poor decisions that lead to regret.  Yes, these guns may look similar, but that does not mean they are the same.  Unfortunately, many companies in our industry are not interested to the extent that others are.  That disinterest tends to manifest in guns that fail at inopportune times. The time and frustration this causes has a price tag, and that should be factored into a purchase of an AR.

Q: New products and new AR companies are constantly coming out; how can someone determine what is worth their time when buying their first AR-15?

Neil Batelli – It’s a lot easier for consumers to hear about new brands than ever before. There are a lot of new brands coming out.  What we notice with a brand like BCM or the other companies I mentioned is that many more people ask about them without being prompted. 

New brands always come out, and we need new ones, especially ones that are putting out what I think are excellent quality, solid basic rifles. These rifles may not have a lot of extra features, but they are well-built, reliable rifles right out of the box…rifles that you can trust to take to matches and classes and trust your life to.  From my perspective, there are not many brands in that space.

The challenge comes when we do see new brands arise that could potentially fill that space, we might only see people who are sponsored or influencers talking about that brand. All brands have that to some degree, but if I only see sponsors talking about that new brand, I try to wait until they break away from just that corner. 

I prefer to see those guns start showing up, performing well, and being problem-free at matches, classes, etc.  When I see that occur, that’s when I would consider picking up that brand.

Q:  We see a lot of discussions around caliber selection for someone new to ARs…more than there should be.  What’s your perspective on that when buying your first AR-15?

Neil Batelli – If this is a general-purpose gun, my recommendation is almost always 5.56/.223 when buying your first AR-15.  There have been few exceptions to that, and that comes down to situations where shooters are facing very long-distance shots. Short of any specific circumstances, 5.56 checks a lot of boxes.

Customers should also take some time and research what type of ammo they will be running through their gun, especially if this is an AR they will use for home defense/defensive situations. In the same way that very few people today would carry ball ammo in their defensive handgun, your rifle is much like that.  You want to purchase a premium round for those defensive situations. 

Meanwhile, at the range, full metal jacket ammo will be fine.  Regarding brands, I usually tell people that if they’ve heard of that brand of ammo, it’s probably going to be okay. If you run into a problem with a reputable company, they will stand by it if it is shown that ammo is the issue.  If you haven’t heard of it, perhaps do a bit more research before you commit to purchasing.

Q:  Any other things we can do to be better customers?

Neil Batelli – The “just as good as” syndrome is prevalent. It’s an attitude that I think people need to steer themselves away from. It’s very likely not “just as good.” If someone is online or at a store looking to buy their first AR-15, from ten feet away, these guns look almost exactly alike if you don’t know what you are looking at, yet the price on one versus the other could be double or triple.   

New buyers often have difficulty understanding that the cheaper gun may have an inferior rail with a poor method of attaching to the barrel nut, made of inferior materials with an inferior finish, sitting over a 1/9 twist barrel with a carbine length gas system that has a set screw gas block, not Loctited, nor is the barrel dimpled.  There are so many things that a gun that looks the same as a more expensive one is missing that make it a lesser choice. 

Tom Spooner – I hope that if you’re looking to purchase an AR, you take the time to learn about what makes a quality firearm and understand that it will be worth the premium to get a gun built by a company that cares.  This does not mean you have to break the bank, but it does mean a bit more money and effort. Take the time, and do the research, and understand what you are purchasing.

Q:  There’s another side to the equation, and that would be the retailer.  What part do they play in educating customers who are there to buy their first AR-15?

Neil Batelli – You’ve got to go out and shoot. You can have somebody who has been around guns their entire life, but if they are not out there shooting, they will not see these failures, malfunctions, and shortcomings.  Shooting guns is the only thing that will expose those issues.

I started paying attention to these things when I attended some of Pat Rogers’ classes at EAG Tactical. He would have a gear discussion at the beginning of every class. He would see and document failures, and time and time again, they could be traced back to the things we’ve discussed in this interview.  The failures were so frequently related to companies who were not paying attention to the materials they used to build the guns and their methods to assemble them.  Once you start using a gun from a company like that, the failure rates increase dramatically.   There’s just no way around it, not when you compare it to those companies who went in with the approach to build an AR properly, with the proper materials.

Tom Spooner – If you want to be in the industry, you don’t have a very deep well to draw from unless you’ve been out there shooting and seeing these things. A part of why we started 2AF is to be a resource to counteract bad information.  We want folks to contact us if they have questions or cannot discern differences.  Call or email; we’re happy to review differences and help people make good decisions.

Neil Batelli (left) & Tom Spooner (center) with Invoice #000001…a local officer with a KAC CQB upper

Q:  One more question…We get asked a lot about what’s a good “budget” rifle.  I’ve always respected your judgement, so I must ask, is there a gun that has impressed you as far as quality for price?

Neil Batelli – For an entry-level gun, one that I have been comfortable recommending that matches that description is from IWI.  They have the Zion-15.  Those have been pretty good, as far as I have seen.  The brand is not new, but those guns are relatively new to the market, so it’s tough to give a very experienced opinion.

Still, from what we’ve seen over the past few years, they are worth a look, especially for a just north of 800-dollar gun.  You get a mid-length barrel and a full-length handguard.  It’s a basic trigger, charging handle and safety, but you get the B5 Systems stock and grip.  They seem to have good features and are well built while being affordable.

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