The cheap way to build an AR-pattern rifle
So, you want to build an AR-15 but you want to do so one the cheap, without a lot of trouble? This is your step by step guide.
This guide makes a few assumptions. Firstly, it makes the assumption that you are looking for a very basic AR-15 for hunting, self defense, target practice, etc. While the principles discussed here will give you a foundation for assembling any kind of AR you want, we’re going to focus on the economy user that is willing to take a middle-of-the-road list of requirements in return for the most economical solution. If you want to shoot matches with this AR, you will find it lacking. If you want to do long range shooting, you will find it lacking. If you want to add a bunch of gadgets (lights, sights, bi-pods, etc.), you will find it lacking. However, if you just want to get into an AR pattern rifle for around $500 (at the time of writing, these are highly variable depending on the political climate at the time), this is your guide.
Option #1 – Buy an already built bottom barrel AR
This is the easiest solution for those who just want to find a cheap AR, buy it only and start driving rounds down range. The prices have fallen a lot since the meteoric rise after the Aurora Shooting the the Sandy Hook Shootings. While even bottom end ARs were selling for $1500 plus, they’re now down to a more reasonable $500-700. Watch the deal sites as I covered in my “Click and Bang” article and you will find new deals coming up daily. For someone who has never owned an AR before or is new to guns in general, this is the quickest and easiest way to get from “I want an AR” to “I just shot my AR”.
Option #2 – Assemble your AR-15 from pre-assembled components
This is generally how I’d recommend that you start if you are either new to the AR platform or you don’t have time to do a build, but still want to save some bucks on your build by buying it in two halves (upper and lower) and piecing it together. While the lower has to ship to your FFL (and you’ll pay taxes and FFL fees on it), the uppers can ship directly to you. After all, only the lower is considered the “gun” part of an AR build, and thus needs to go through an FFL.
This also allows you more flexibility in what you want to build. Let’s say you want the cheapest lower you can find. You can get into a polymer lower (the New Frontier AR-15 lowers that Joe Bob’s sells are actually not bad if you’re on a budget) for around $110 shipped (and get a free t-shirt!). Pay your FFL (say, another $30) and then source a low cost upper with bolt carrier group and charging handle for around $300 (watch the sales at Palmetto) shipped direct to your house. There you have it, a $450 AR-15. When the parts arrive, push your takedown pins out with your fingers, line up the upper to the lower, snap into place and you’ve got a ready-to-use AR-15 at a slight discount over the pre-built ones. The savings is minor but there’s a lot of fun in picking the lower and upper separately, as you can have a bit more control over what components you want this way. However, if you really want to go custom, I’d recommend Option #3.
Option #3 – Assemble your AR-15 from a kit
This is more for those with a knack for putting things together and a basic tool set and understanding of how an AR platform rifle works. There’s tons of great books out there on the subject, and I followed the David Strauss book, “Build Your Own AR-15 Rifle” for my first two builds. Once you’ve done one or two, you get the hang of it and it goes together pretty quickly.
You want to start out with a parts kit, either by buying one of the many pre-packaged parts kits out there or by piecing together what you need, one part at a time. For the novice, I highly recommend the pre-sorted kits. What you don’t want is to be a spring or screw or nut short of your build and be stuck with several component sets in partially constructed order. After all, small parts lose themselves often!
The kits I’ve used most often are the ones from Palmetto. They make building an AR lower from a kit a relatively easy task. You can ship the parts kits directly to your house, only having to get the 95% lower sent to an FFL. The 95% lower is one where all of the holes and finish work is done to make it a “firearm”. All you have to do is fit all the little parts together (using the book as a guide is a time saver) and make small adjustments. As above, the upper components can be shipped to your house. The real advantage of this, more than anything, is for buyers who want something specific. For instance, I once built a WYLDE barreled rifle in 24″. I wanted something really long and accurate to hunt coyotes and varmint with. I also wanted a Giselle two stage trigger, one with a lower weight trigger pull and a step-style engagement so I could time my shot against my breathing, ensuring that my biological imperatives weren’t the weak part of this weapon’s system. There’s no kit out there that comes with all of that, so I ended up buying a lower parts kit, saving the stock trigger, buying a custom stock (I wanted one that was a little longer than most and easier to fire prone) and did it all myself. Took about 4 hours. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done and now I feel incredibly accomplished by it, much like learning to stick shift or bowling a perfect game.
Option #4 – Assemble your AR-15 from an 80% lower (advanced tooling knowledge required)
Here’s your one word of caution: I don’t advise you do this unless you’re really proficient with how AR based rifles work, have access to a tool shop, understand tolerances and how to measure for them, know how to use drilling and cutting jigs and don’t mind throwing away money if you mess this up (and you likely will, as I killed three 80% lowers before I got one right). This is really for the shooter who either wants to have a completely unregistered firearm (and that’s your business, but I advise against it) or who really wants to face a fun engineering challenge or who really, really can’t afford a 95% lower or FFL fees. This is a very small percentage of you, but I’ll leave it here so I’m no omitting anything. If you want to go the 80% route, here’s a video to show you the basics.