Almost a decade ago, I sought out Neil Batelli at Gun Gallery to build my very first AR…which is still my go-to “bet-my-life” defensive carbine. While Neil was almost 1,000 miles away, there were few more knowledgeable about building a reliable Noveske/Knight’s hybrid 300 Blackout SBR the way it needed to be done.
Fast-forward to today…while Gun Gallery itself is a small retail location in Florida, for those in-the-know, the location still carries a tremendous amount of clout when it comes to selling quality, reliable firearms.
To learn about Gun Gallery and why many consider it a firearms mecca where there’s “no cheap crap” allowed, we turned to manager/gun guru, Neil Batelli. We discuss his insights into the AR platform, clone builds, RECCE rifles and his participation in a wide variety of rifle shoots.
Q: Neil thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start from the beginning and tell our readers a bit about you and what Gun Gallery is all about.
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: I didn’t get into guns until a little bit later in life…I grew up in the northeast and there was not a lot of guns around. But I got into it after a guy I knew got involved in the gun culture and the gun community. I always think back to how lucky I was. He was turning me on to good guns, good training and good resources for information right away. When I wanted to learn about guns he was giving me videos from Ken Hackathorn and Gunsite Ranch…this was back in the early/mid-90s.
I see people now just getting into the gun culture and the gun community every day and man, it’s amazing how many pitfalls there are and how many potential wrong turns there are out there.
Florida Defensive Carbine Club
I moved down to Florida in early 1999, and one of the first things I did when I got here, I was not involved in the gun stores or anything yet…I started the Florida Defensive Carbine Club.
Actually, it was me and the guy who got me into guns. I was up in the northeast and he was down here in Florida, and I was ready to try something new. He invited me to come stay down here, he got me my first job here, and both of us started this rifle club.
That club is still together today. We’ve now been shooting rifle matches for the last 19 years. That club is also how I got the job working at the Gun Gallery.
A guy who was managing the store came out to one of the matches. He had seen a couple of the rifles that I put together and he liked them. Then he asked if I worked at a store and I said “no”…He asked if I wanted to come in and work part time. Part time turned into full time, and full time turned into managing, and managing is where I am now. I’ve been there since 2002.
Q: I’ve always felt like Gun Gallery was way ahead of the curve when it came to seeking out excellence. Can you talk about why that is?
Gun Gallery was not always the way it is now. It took a while for it to transform from your average “trying to carry a little bit of everything” store to where it is now, where we really only carry (for the most part), guns and gun accessories for military, law enforcement, and self-defense style shooting. That works for a lot of people, and a lot of people that doesn’t work for.
If a guy comes in and he wants a quail gun or a trap gun or something like that, there’s not a single thing to show him. But if you like to do that other type of shooting, there’s a lot to see.
“No Cheap Crap”
People ask where Gun Gallery came up with the slogan “no cheap crap” and only carrying quality items. Well, I think it was only after Pat Rogers died…it started with him.
I have been to around ten of his classes, and the very first class I went to, I had a Bushmaster M4 with an A.R.M.S. rail system on it. And, man…Bushmaster and A.R.M.S. were two companies Pat Rogers did not like.
The Influence of Pat Rogers
Pat was not a guy who would just say he did not like something. Instead, he had this huge binder that just had logs of malfunctions he encountered in all of the classes that he was doing. He would see these specific things happen to these specific guns time and time again…he’d see that no, it’s not just a lemon. Rather the company had built a history of poor quality standards and poor quality assurance. Anyway, that’s where it started, but I don’t think I realized it until after Pat had died.
Q: Can you talk about your history of building rifles at Gun Gallery? Before I ever built a rifle myself, I recall shipping a box of parts over 1,000 miles to Gun Gallery’s doorstep based on your reputation.
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: We certainly don’t build as many as we used to, but we still definitely do that. I think the reason we don’t do it as much is because there are a lot better out-of-the-box options now.
Anyone who’s been to the store, in the back of the store on the right wall, it’s just a huge wall of upper receivers that are already built with quality brands, with quality rails, with quality bolt groups, etc. So, a lot of it is already done right from the factory. So, it’s a little bit easier to get something quality right out-of-the-box than it used to be.
It used to be that you got a stock gun from whomever it was and you decided what rail you were going to get, what sights you were going to get, etc. There really wasn’t the options that are out there now. And honestly, I think one of the biggest places to offer that was Bravo Company. Today, they’re one of the biggest brands for us, and I know we’re one of the few places that is lucky enough to be direct with them and have access to all of that stuff.
You were one of the very few stores that had Knight’s Armament stuff too…and this was a while back.
We also ended up getting hooked up with Knight’s Armament. I think I was over at AR15.com from about 1997 or so…and their vice-president of something (Military Operations), Dave Lutz was always on there. I remember I had bought a RIS II rail, which was one of their earlier free-float rails. I got it in and I posted a review of it. Now, I loved it…but I mentioned that there was a scratch on it and he got in touch with me. He was my first “in” at Knight’s Armament.
Also, through AR15.com, I began talking to Kevin Boland…that was my second, next “in” at Knight’s Armament. Knowing those two guys helped us be able to carry some of the Knight’s stuff from very early on. Some people complain that Knight’s Armament products are not everywhere, but, man, they are a lot easier to access than they were in 2002, 2004…
Q: I’m curious, what sort of things do you look for in a rifle?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: I’m just a regular guy. I’m not a police officer, military or someone who has ever had to have my life depend on a rifle. I’ve never had to use a gun for self-defense and I hope it stays that way. But what I look for is quality control steps that companies take…Not cutting corners…Caring about performance more so than price. But at the same time, it’s not like price is not a factor.
“What Sets Some Guns Apart”
With ARs, we’re kind of coming out of this now, but when I first started getting into ARs in the mid-90s to mid-2000s, there were not a lot of brands available. And a lot of the consumer market was not really aware of what quality control steps would go into a gun and what set some guns apart from others. And for me, and for lot of the consumer market, that changed when Rob of Tactical Yellow Visor came out with a list. Do you remember that?
I do not, but I’d love to hear about it.
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: Basically, he came out with a list that had all the big manufacturers of AR-15s at the time. He had all the quality control steps that companies could perform. And if a company did it, they got an “X”, and if they didn’t…they didn’t get an “X”. And, it was very revealing how different companies did quality control to their rifles.
Checking Every Box
You had Colt, which basically checked every box, BCM was really new to making guns, but they checked every box, but from there, it just went down and down and down. You’d get to the bottom and you’d have DPMS, Olympic Arms, Rock River Arms…and they’d have almost none of those boxes checked. And that was a really big eye opener.
I thought it was a very useful tool, but at the same time, it almost became maybe overused. Because you would have companies come out with guns that would check every box, but they were almost doing it only because they wanted to have the box checked. They kind of missed the point.
“It was a turning point”
That’s why you would get the gun that had a 4150 steel barrel, had the castle nut staked, and had the gas key properly staked but the barrel nut was hardly torqued on, they would send guns without a gas tube…they were really just building the guns to check the boxes…So, the list kind of went away, so I’m not surprised that a lot of people have not heard of it. But for me, it was a turning point in looking into how companies made their guns. So it’s important for me to find companies who care about the products that they’re building for people who care about the products that they’re buying.
I’d like to chat about “clone builds” if we could. We get a lot of very basic questions about these builds and I know you have experience, even so far as having the occasional clone specific shoots.
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: Clone guns are basically replicating rifles that are standard military configurations. There’s many different levels of it. Like a Mk12, for instance. The Mk12 was the first clone gun I ever got interested in, and the reason I got interested in it was I was on AR15.com back in the early 2000’s…there was a poster there, and everybody thought it was Dick Swann from A.R.M.S.
“The first gun I built myself”
No one could ever say if it was, and he certainly never said if it was, but a lot of people suspected it was him…but this poster leaked this picture of this new configuration rifle that the military was going to start using. I don’t recall if it was just called an “SPR” then or if it was called the Mk12 (Mod 0) yet, but I saw it and man, was it awesome. I want to build something just like that…and it was the first gun I built myself.
But for me, that’s what it was all about. It was just such a cool looking gun that eventually, 15-18 years later has now become a part of history. But people build all different types of clones for all different types of reasons.
For me, I don’t really care what the reason…I’m just happy to see people come into the gun community, especially if it is good, quality made stuff that they are seeking out. Even more so if they are out shooting those guns.
“I want new people”
So, I don’t care what the reason is, I want to see it. I want to new people coming in, especially young people. And it’s very true that a lot of people are very interested in clone rifles. I see people who are getting out of the military and they want to build a gun like the one they carried.
There’s people who really just collect stuff. They have a collector’s mentality. Clone rifles really are something fun to collect. And as these guns get older and older, the authentic, real parts to use are becoming harder and harder to get, and it drives the value up, sometimes more than I care to pay for it, but there’s always somebody out there who might.
It’s just an interesting segment of the gun community that I enjoy. I don’t certainly have all the clones, but I certainly have the ones that I like.
Q: What would be some of the more popular clones that you see at Gun Gallery?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: The Mk12 is definitely one of the most popular ones, although it’s probably not the most popular one because it’s expensive and it’s getting more expensive because the authentic parts are becoming harder to find.
Another popular one is the Mk18…but there’s a few different configurations of that. M4A1s in various configurations are also popular. In fact, they might be the most popular just because the parts are a little easier to come by. If you cannot find the authentic part, there is a fairly suitable alternative that is readily available. You can do a 14.5” gun that’s pinned, and that’s pretty acceptable. Most people who really like cloning don’t really like to see the 16” ones, but you can do those as well.
“Some of them are harder to do”
But as far as these configurations, some of them are harder to do than others. The Daniel Defense RIS series of rails…I don’t know when it was, but they stopped selling those separately, and we’ve gone through peaks and valleys as far as availability, and of course price varies with that.
Right now is not too bad of a time, as I have seen more of them available, but that’s a really popular one…it’s the M4A1 Block II. That would be a 14.5” carbine length barrel with that RIS II handguard, either the M4A1 version, which is a solid 12” rail…or the FSP version, which has a cut out for the front sight post. Either one of those are pretty popular. And there’s a variety of stocks and optics you can put on there.
Q: Where can people go to learn more about clone builds?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: There are places you can go online that have extensive build lists as far as stuff that you need. I think a really good one has been clonerifles.com.
Q: Can you talk a bit about your shoots?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: We try to have as many shooting events in our area as possible. I mentioned earlier the Florida Defensive Carbine Club shoots. We do rifle matches that use some pistol every last Sunday of the month, and we’ve been doing that for 19 years now. We’ve also started doing scoped rifle matches where people are using their Mk12s and their RECCEs and things like that.
Aside from the matches, we also always try to get some of the better and well known instructors who travel. We’ll try to bring them here….Larry Vickers and Pat McNamara come every year. Kyle Defoor comes at least twice a year. We’ve had Frank Proctor, Kyle Lamb from Viking Tactics…I shouldn’t keep naming names because I am going to forget someone that I shouldn’t, but we try to have these classes to shoot.
Then we have casual shoots…like the clone shoots. We’ve had Mk12 shoots, we’ve had H&K shoots. It’s just a time where enthusiasts of these different guns can get together and have a good time at the range. It’s like I mentioned before. Anything we can do to get more people into the gun community and especially the shooting portion of that gun community, that’s really what we want to do at Gun Gallery. We want to see people out there having fun with these guns and shooting, and getting their friends and family into it as well.
Q: Finally…you’re in a gun store often enough I guess I should ask, what gun or build type are you really liking right now?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: I’m really liking these new mini-RECCEs. People who are really into the details of cloning probably wouldn’t consider a RECCE to be a clone. I’m not one of those people so it’s hard to speak for them, but I would think clones are only officially designated guns that have specific parts that were issued together.. RECCEs really were not like that…they were sometimes put together with what was around or what was needed.
“Another Branch From the Same Tree”
The name is short for “reconnaissance” and it’s an AR, typically…that usually has some type of magnified optic on it. Usually a low powered optic…but that’s the thing with a RECCE…there’s no official parts list so you have a bit of latitude as far as what you build. And then Mini-RECCEs are just an extension of that. It’s not really not an official gun at all. That’s just another branch from that same tree. But with the development of ammunition – ammo has gotten better and better over the last ten, fifteen year or so – that the guns can do more out further.
“You Couldn’t Miss”
As an example, I was just at Kyle Defoor’s scoped carbine class with a little 12.5” gun with a Nightforce 1-8x…shooting out to 700 yards. That was as far as the class went. And once I found out the hold, I tried to go 3 for 3, and I did. 5 for 5…I did. 8 for 8…I did. You couldn’t miss with this little 12.5” gun (laughs) shooting at 700 yards at a reduced size silhouette target. So, it’s impressive what the guns and ammo can do. It’s also very impressive what the scopes can do. There’s been a lot of advancement in the scope market that have helped these guns.
“I can bring the same gun”
But you can have a short little 12.5” gun…11.5” in some cases, which are good for everything from shooting inside of a vehicle to shooting out to out to 700 yards, maybe less…maybe more. It’s a pretty awesome “do just about anything you can think of” gun. It’s not the ideal gun for those long ranges but they do a pretty good job and that’s why I’ve been fascinated with them lately. Again, if somebody is teaching a vehicle class where you’re shooting inside and around cars all day, or if someone is teaching a scoped rifle class where we’re shooting out to 600-700 yards…I can bring the same gun. It pretty much does everything.
Q: If people want learn more about what you’re up to, what’s the best place to do so?
Neil Batelli, Gun Gallery: You can get a good a feel on what we’re doing at our Instagram and Facebook pages. We’re trying to put updates on those pages pretty much every day.