“Should I buy or build an AR-15?” Log into any internet forum or Facebook group about the AR platform and you are bound to stumble across people asking if they should buy a factory gun, or build one themselves. With the multitude of parts available and the ease of working on the AR platform, this question is one that has been raging for decades.
So, what are the pros and cons of assembling a rifle instead of buying one from a manufacturer? Can you save money by assembling one yourself? This article, the first in a two-part series, should hopefully help clear up some of the confusion and highlight the answers many people are looking for.
Build or Buy an AR-15 – Buying a Pre-Built AR-15
In determining if you should build or buy an AR-15, we will start off with buying from a manufacturer or a shop. When buying direct, all the assembly, the parts, the trouble shooting, and everything else should be handled before the firearm gets to you. By buying a pre-built gun, you get a product that is going to be covered by a manufacturer’s warranty and built to the industry standards before you ever touch it.
Depending on the brand you buy, these warranties, quality control processes, and overall quality of the gun are going to be the major benefits of buying something already assembled. Finally, this will give you something that is ready to go out of the box and will require minimal investment of time to tweak and get going.
What are the downsides then? Well, the first is going to be that the industry is facing their highest demand in a long while, so availability may lack. Additionally, trying to keep up with the demand, quality control has taken a hit across the board (though any company worth supporting will still handle any issues without hesitation). Buying something also locks you into a configuration that the manufacturer decided, unless you want to spend more on parts and change them out/have someone change them out for you.
The last major potential drawback is based upon which company you choose to buy from…companies with solid training, stringent quality control practices, and employees that care about the product they put out will deliver products that show their level of scrutiny more times than not.
On the other hand, companies that care about quantity over quality will often have products that fall short due to lack of training or care from their employees, lack of proper quality control, and a warranty that leaves customers spinning the tolerance lottery any time they have parts replaced/fixed.
There are companies that do their best to focus on making quality guns that are built to the proper specifications, and run through stringent quality control processes, so that they function at a high level of reliability. Great examples of brands adhering to this mindset are going to be Bravo Company, Sons of Liberty Gunworks, Sionics, and much larger companies like VLTOR, Knight’s Armament, and FN. All of those named will be doing things like properly porting barrels, using parts made from the proper materials, focusing on individual inspection of pieces rather than batch testing, and more.
The reason these companies have components and guns that are often times as different as night and day when compared with some of the competition is the level of care and thought put into them at every stage of the manufacturing and assembly process. It may not seem like a huge deal, but if you look at a castle nut on a factory gun, the staking (or lack thereof; with the exception of Knight’s Armament who use a different class of threading) is a pretty great indicator of the level of quality and care put into the product.
Build or Buy an AR-15 – Building an AR-15
Building your own gun is a whole journey that can be taken. Building allows the gun to be completely tailored to your needs. It is the ultimate customization option, as you are the one selecting all the parts. Part selection can sometimes run you less than it would for a factory gun as well, especially if you keep an eye out for sales. Consumers that can fight off the instant gratification urges can find some amazing deals out there. There is also a level of understanding the platform and how it operates by assembling yourself, but it does come with its own set of complications.
Sons Of Liberty Gun Works M4 Complete Lower w/ LFT & A5 System
As you determine if you should build or buy an AR-15, you need to honestly ask yourself how much are you prepared to invest in building your gun? That might sound contradictory considering I just said people can save money on parts. The investment is not just a financial one, but also how much time you must be prepared to devote to assembling, troubleshooting, and more.
If your bolt-carrier group isn’t properly staked, do you have the tool and knowledge to fix that? Do you know what to look for to tell if the threads on your barrel are done properly? Can you tell from looking at a lower if the machining was done correctly? If you are assembling things yourself, if you cross thread a screw or bind a spring and detent, do you know how to fix the issue?
Financially, beyond buying parts, you will have to invest in tools. I have put out a list several times, and I know Chad from School of the American Rifle has a list broken down into tiers, but there is a minimum investment you’ll be forced to make. This assumes that you want to assemble your gun following proper industry practices and meeting the proper specifications upon completion.
To achieve this, you will need a minimum of $500 to dedicate to just tools (this could be slightly less if you find sales or buy things second hand). It is not just grabbing a cheap armorers wrench, a hammer, and holding it between your legs to get the gun together. There are many tools that the average gun owner is not even aware of that are needed to avoid cutting corners. Obviously, the more guns you assemble over time, the less this cost is a burden, but for one, does it make sense to buy everything and end up paying more?
For starters, there is a bare minimum investment of tools you’ll need to do things properly. First and foremost, you need a vice to hold the parts you are working on; additionally a clamshell block, a mag well block, and a reaction rod of some sort are going to be required. You cannot achieve proper torque on a part without this (and a torque wrench, so add that to the list as well). I have read stories of people trying to hold things between their knees or clamping them onto various surfaces, but that is just asking for specs to be off and problems to arise in the future.
You will need an AR armorer’s wrench that can handle castle nuts, barrel nuts, and muzzle devices, or a specific wrench for each one. A good set of roll-pin starter punches as well as roll-pin punches will be needed for various installations, and a set of center punches will be either mandatory or highly useful depending on the parts you select (some companies like Aero have started using hex head screws in place of some pins). There are many other tools you will need, and this was not meant to be an all-encompassing list, but merely a sampling to open your eyes to what is needed so you don’t balloon out a roll pin or sheer off the ear of a barrel nut.
Let’s say you buy your parts, you get all the tools you need, but you lack the knowledge of how to do things, what then? Well, many people will say learn as you go! That’s all well and good, but where do you turn for your info? What videos can you trust in a world full of schilling and paid for info? What happens when you do assemble things, and something isn’t working? How do you troubleshoot it? You’ve picked out a bunch of parts but didn’t know about the tolerance stacking issue, how do you address that?
Build or Buy an AR-15 – Conclusion
Please understand that it isn’t my intention to sway you from doing things yourself. There’s not many things more satisfying than building your own AR-15. Assembling an AR yourself can give you a great understanding of the platform, how the parts fit together, and how they all work as one system. Assembling your own AR will allow you to better work on it in the future for cleaning, changing out parts, and diagnosing some issues. I do, however, want you to understand that these guns are not Legos as many people claim them to be.
There is a level of knowledge and understanding needed, there is an investment in tools that will be required, and you do suffer some other consequences. Many companies will not warranty parts if they are improperly installed (this will vary wildly depending on the company). Some parts are in higher demand than others, so are you willing to wait for that special part you want to come back in stock, sidelining a build until it happens? What happens if you break or lose a part while assembling, do you have backups on hand? The answers to those questions are why some people choose to pay for an assembly service from an established armorer or company.
Part two of this series will address just that topic. Until then, weigh your options on building vs buying. Can you find a complete gun that you want or are they unavailable? Are you able to carefully select parts that will work together, or will it turn into a troubleshooting nightmare? Do you have the tools necessary for success, or were you planning to cut corners? How much is a warranty worth to you? All these questions and more matter when you are trying to figure out which path to take.
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