by Bob Grundman
Special to L. Neil Smith’s The Libertarian Enterprise
“Pick up a rifle and you change instantly from a subject to a citizen.”
— Jeff Cooper
I‘ve often been told something like, “You don’t need an AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine!” The words vary, but the message is the same. If the speaker is a serious person with an open mind, I’ll often direct them to Massad Ayoob’s blog over at Backwoods Home magazine. Mr. Ayoob has repeatedly made the case for civilian ownership of the AR-15 for home defense and for other purposes.
In my mind, however, I wish that I could take the person back with me to 11:00 PM on a Wednesday night in the mid-1990s, when I crouched in the dark, holding a five-shot .38 Special revolver as three large men attempted to kick in my front door. I held a cordless phone in my left hand and had to try several times before I successfully punched 9-1-1 into the keypad. As I talked with the police dispatcher, I silently prayed that five .38 wadcutter rounds from a 2-inch barrel would be enough to stop the assault on my home. The men gave up after about five minutes of kicking my steel front door, and the police never came to the house. About 30 minutes after the incident, a police cruiser drove slowly down the street but never stopped.
If this happened today, I would be holding an AR-15 rifle with a red dot sight on top and a full-capacity magazine in place.
In these uncertain times, many people recognize that they need a firearm to defend themselves and those they hold dear. An AR-15 in 5.56x45mm caliber (also called 5.56 NATO, or simply 5.56mm) is an excellent choice for defensive purposes.
Unfortunately, at the time of this writing, the United States has an anti-gun, anti-freedom person in power in the White House. The current administration wishes to disarm the American people, and they are focused on the AR-15 rifle. One can presume the reason they desire to disarm us is so that the government can do things to us that they can’t do while we are armed.
Under these circumstances, I would advise anyone who has been contemplating the purchase of an AR-15 to do so without further delay. Better yet, you can take advantage of the rifle’s modular design to put together a gun that both meets your needs and that costs less than a similar rifle that is bought “off the shelf.”
One of the best features of the AR-15 is that it can be separated in a few seconds into two halves. The “lower” centers on the lower receiver, which in the United States is the part with the serial number—in effect, the lower is “the gun.” Contained within the lower receiver is the “fire control group,” which consists of the hammer, trigger, and disconnector, along with some other parts. It also contains the safety, the magazine catch, and the bolt release. Also part of the lower assembly is the buttstock, which contains the recoil spring and buffer. The “upper”—even though it does not carry a serial number—is the most important part of the gun. It includes the upper receiver, the barrel, and the bolt carrier, along with some other components. The upper is where the pressures of firing are contained. It also includes the parts that determine if your rifle is accurate or not.
The beauty of this design is that the upper and lower can be purchased separately. Buying the upper and lower separately and putting them together (this “build” takes less than a minute!) will generally save about $100 over a similar AR-15, purchased as a complete firearm.
Buying upper and lower halves individually also allows you to spend your money where it really matters. You can save some money by buying a basic, complete lower assembly with a quality, forged lower receiver (I favor Aero Precision for their quality and prices, though there are other brands that are also good, including Palmetto State Armory and Anderson Manufacturing). This lower purchase will be treated as a firearm. It will have to be purchased via a dealer with a Federal Firearms License (FFL), and you’ll have to fill out a Form 4473 and pass a background check. A complete, basic lower will run from a low of less than $150, up to maybe $300 or $350.
The complete upper is more important, and more costly, but bargains are still easy to find, as well as very high quality uppers at good prices. Buying a separate upper allows you to make some choices. You can choose between the “USGI” type, with a fixed, A2-style front sight “tower” and two-piece handguards, and the more popular, one-piece, free-floated handguard, generally set up for attachment of accessories. Both types work well, and both will deliver more accuracy than the average shooter is capable of. If long-range shooting is planned, then the free-floated handguard is generally a better choice.
Other options in uppers involve the barrel and bolt carrier group. There are different rifling twists available, as well as barrel and bolt steels, gas system lengths (carbine and mid-length are generally the most popular), and a variety of finishes for both barrel and bolt carrier. This is more than we can address in a brief article, but many good websites help shed light on these questions. On YouTube, the Mrgunsngear channel is very helpful, and he has recently released an AR-15 buyer’s guide that helps with barrel questions.
Let’s look at putting together a budget AR-15, as well as a “hard-use” AR. The budget gun is a good starter AR-15, for a person who wants to do some casual shooting or maybe take a class or two. Once you’ve confirmed that it’s reliable, this budget AR makes a great general-purpose rifle, from home defense to plinking to use in local matches. The “hard-use” AR-15 is for someone who plans to do a lot of shooting and who wants a rifle that is at the top-tier in long-term durability and reliability.
For a budget AR-15, I recommend a Palmetto State Armory AR15 Freedom Classic Lower—frequently on sale for just $129.99—plus the Palmetto State Armory 16-inch Carbine Length 5.56 NATO Classic Freedom M4 Upper (complete with charging handle and bolt carrier group) – $279.99. Total cost: $409.98.
Buying this upper and lower separately saves you around $100 over a complete rifle, plus both the upper and lower come with free shipping. The complete lower has to be shipped to a licensed FFL dealer near you, where you’ll do the paperwork and pay the fee the dealer charges for receiving a firearm. Shop around, as the fees can vary wildly from dealer to dealer. The upper is considered just a gun part. It can be shipped directly to you.
My pick is an “M4” upper, with USGI-type handguards and a fixed, A2 front sight. The rifling twist is 1 turn in 7 inches, so you can use heavy bullets for long range, but 55- and 62-grain, or even lighter bullets will still be fine for practice and training. If you want something different, PSA offers a variety of complete uppers. Just be aware that some may not include a charging handle or bolt carrier group.
I recommend PSA as one of the best “bang for your buck” companies for AR-15s, whether a complete rifle, AR-15 parts, complete lowers, or complete uppers. Their prices are very hard to beat, and I’ve never had a problem with any purchase. You can buy complete AR-15s in this price range from other companies, but not with PSA’s track record.
The hard-use AR-15 is a very high quality AR, intended for maximum durability, but for a mid-range price. Once you know what works for you, you may want a super-reliable rifle for a rainy day.
My choice is an Aero Precision M4E1 basic, complete lower – $259.99, with a simple A2 pistol grip and M4 stock. I would complete the gun with a Bravo Company Manufacturing “M4” complete upper receiver assembly with 16-inch hammer-forged barrel barrel and mid-length gas system – $689.90. Total: $949.89.
This is one of the “secrets” among AR-15 aficionados. Build or buy a good quality lower with a forged receiver. Pair it with a very high quality, complete upper, and create a high-quality, ultra-reliable AR-15 for the price of a mid-range rifle. A complete Bravo Company rifle comparable to the “build” described above sells for about $1,350.
Bravo Company Manufacturing has a reputation for excellent quality control and materials. It is one of several companies making high-quality AR-15s. Buying the most important part of the AR from BCM or a similar company allows us to save by using a good quality, mid-range lower.
One of the best reasons for starting with a basic AR-15 is to test it—and yourself—through use in the field, in training, etc. This will help you to find out what you need from a rifle. My preference is for a light, very simple AR with nothing that I don’t need. Your mileage will probably vary.
If you don’t have an AR-15 or some other semiautomatic rifle—and you’ve been thinking of buying one—the time to act is right now. Inflation, government regulation, supply chain shortages, and other factors could make things more difficult in the near future. Don’t forget to also stock up on a supply of magazines and ammunition when you purchase your rifle.
References & Links
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