By Scott Powers
Due to the continuing reader interest in the AR15 rifle, I have been roped into producing the following Four Part article. I will cover the AR15 Match Service Rifle, the AR15 Tactical Carbine, the AR15 Tactical Rifle and close it all up with a short piece on how to built an AR15.
I hope to include all the options but I am sure I will miss a few. If I do, it does not indicate that the overlooked part is a bad one. There are just so many on the market one has a genuinely tough time keeping track of them all and deciding which is the way to go.
Herein lies one reason why the AR15 is such an excellent base rifle to choose when looking for a good close to medium range tactical rifle as well as an excellent base for long range target shooting, a High Power rig or a varmint rifle. The amount of gear on the market boggles the mind. It ranges from the silly to the sublime. There are cheap $30 tactical scopes that only a fool or an ignoramus would use and there are no nonsense products worth every penny. I will try to highlight the basics with this article in an attempt to give you, our readers, an idea of what you can do and what you can expect from your AR15.
So YOU want to built an accurate AR15? Maybe you can not quite afford to do it all at once, or you are reluctant to pay the premium for a custom rifle. Not to worry. Everything you need to roll your own AR is readily available and easily procured. The truly great thing about the AR is its modular design. You can use your current rifle to create another of excellent accuracy, or you can order all the parts to build a rifle from scratch that will be almost as competitive as the top of the line custom rifle. Only your imagination is the limit. You may not believe me when I tell you that it is possible to build a match grade Service Rifle for as much as half the price of a custom built rig, but this is true. How can this be? The basic design of the AR15 is such that it lends itself to easily done modifications. As well, it is a very accurate rifle to begin with. A top smith can supremely tune the AR and by all means, he will manage to wring out a little more accuracy. But the difference might be measured in a few thousandths of an inch! Your half moa rifle might not be as accurate as his .2 moa rifle, but you probably will not be able to tell during a High Power match!
First off, you have to choose what it is you want to build and why? As this website deals exclusively with tactical rifles, I will touch on these as well as High Power rifles. All other uses stem from these anyway, so while I may not mention a varmint rig or Space gun, everything listed here applies. A flat top tactical rifle, with a different scope, can easily do second duty as a varmint rifle.
Building an AR15 is pretty basic. While I won't say any idiot can do it, my wife might beg to differ. All it takes is a little common sense, a few simple tools and two specialized tools that any AR owner should have anyway. The specialized tools are inexpensive and readily available from most parts houses selling AR15 parts. You will need a barrel nut wrench, a torque wrench, a barrel/action block to hold the upper receiver in a vice, a pair of needle nose pliers, an X-Acto knife, a screw driver, a hammer and a center punch (Flat Tipped). If you are building a free float tube equipped AR, you will want the Free Float tube wrench instead of the regular barrel nut wrench. Oh, and an old M-16 armorer's manual helps, but is not a must have. Get it anyway as it will help you through the process and has good trouble shooting tips. You can get by with less, but these tools will make life a lot easier. My first AR was build using nothing more than a hammer, 16 penny nail and a screw driver. I do not recommend that but it can be done! The specialized tools are the Barrel wrench ( either Free Float tube type or standard ) and the barrel/action block. I will go into more detail below.
Type of usage:
Dedicated Sniper Rifles.
High Power Rifles.
I will start with the last first as this is most applicable to the average citizen.
The High Power rifle.
Each passing year sees more and more AR15s on the line at High Power matches. Why? The AR has many advantages over the M1A, which until now, has been the traditional king of the line. The AR is not particular about bedding. It has none to spoil. The AR is light of recoil and is a joy to control during the Rapid fire strings. The AR holds its zero indefinitely unless treated VERY badly. It is indifferent to the elements. Humidity, rain, cold. Nothing seems to bother it much. It can be sloppy and still shoot well. In short, when compared to the rifle it replaced, it is totally versatile and can take the hard knocks. The fact that it has remained for so long the main service rifle of the United States says much about its design - nothing better has come along in 30 years. The M1A only lasted a few years before being replaced. It is essentially an M1 Garand with a 20 round magazine. 1930s technology at its best. But the best reason the AR is taking over the line is accuracy. A tuned M1A seldom matches an AR15 for pure accuracy. With the introduction of long bullets of high ballistic coefficient, the little .224 bullet has finally reached the 1000 yard line! It can compete and hold its own against the best .30 caliber 168 grain bullet on the market.
So you want to get into the High Power game, but can not afford to purchase an accurized Service Rifle due in part to all the other equipment requirements needed for this game. This is OK. Frankly, you could use any old AR to start, and upgrade it as you go. This is why the AR is so great. You can replace parts as needed and as the budget fits. I competed for a year without a free float tube. I went from Marksman to Expert in three matches this way, so obviously not being equipped with state of the art didn't matter. The idea is to learn to shoot well, no matter how basic the rifle. You can add accuracy improving enhancements as your skill improves. At first, you will not be able to shoot as well as the standard rifle anyway, so take your time building the ultimate Service Rifle rig.
If you are starting from scratch, you will need to purchase a post ban lower receiver. In a way, this is a good thing as you will not need to worry about flash hider tension which does have an effect on accuracy. ( The AMU found that a flash hider screwed on HAND TIGHT is the best in terms of accuracy. Too tight and it will distort the bore and affect accuracy. ) A quality post ban barrel with a target crown is a good thing, no matter how odd it may look at first glance! This eliminates the flash hider completely and allows one to keep a close tab on the condition of the crown. Avoid those staked on post ban muzzle breaks! You can never service the crown, clean it or even see it with these things! Either go with no muzzle attachment or stick with a pre-ban military flash hider on a pre-ban gun. A real case can be made that no muzzle attachment is the most accurate anyway, as it will allow the gasses to expand evenly as the bullet leaves the muzzle.
The lower receiver can be purchased from many sources. My two favorites are Bushmaster and Armalite. Both make excellent lowers at reasonable prices. There are other companies also. Check around comparing quality and price. Do not be hung up on a name. Especially do not be hung up on a Colt. This is like Nike. You are paying for the name but getting no extra performance for the money. A good lower receiver will run between $100 and $120.
With lower in hand, you will need to order a complete rifle kit from one of the many outlets doing this business. My favorite is M&A parts. Model 1 Parts and Sun Valley are also in this business. Armalite and Bushmaster have kits too, but you will pay quite a bit more of these and in the case of Armalite, you may have to wait longer to get them. Frankly you get little extra for the money when compared to the other parts houses. On the plus side, going with either Armalite or Bushmaster parts may make the rifle easier to sell someday as some people prefer these two companies over others. My impression is that they ALL rely on outside contractors and you might be getting the same upper no matter who you purchase it from. Do not worry about the upper not matching the lower exactly in finish. Having a two tone rifle affects accuracy not a bit. Also let me address here the issue of receiver play. Many people are under the false impression that the slop between the upper and lower receiver on the AR15 affects accuracy. It does not. At least not in the manner in which you might think. You can put this one firmly into the realm of operator error. Guys think this makes a big difference and they shoot lousy accordingly. There have been many efforts to tighten up the receivers, but the accuracy gain is infinitesimally small for the effort. I once met a guy who would not open his rifle up for fear that it would not have the same zero when closed! He was going to attend a match and didn't want to upset the rifle after zeroing it. I almost busted out laughing at the poor sap as he was suffering under some seriously false impressions. And he was Manic about it! You can pop the AR receivers apart all day and nothing is going to change. Must I say it again? There is NO bedding to spoil! Back to the project.
When you order the complete kit you will be getting all of the assemblies needed to finish your rifle. BUT you will ask to have some of these deleted from the order. This is imperative if you plan on building a top flight competition rig.
You do not want the standard 1:9 twist Heavy Weight barrel most companies offer. These are generally Chrome Lined barrels of military grade. Chrome lining is not the most accurate option and several companies sell button cut or broach cut non chrome lined barrels. Olympic Arms, Krieger, Obermeyer to name a few. You can also go with a stainless barrel. Expect to pay from $190 to $450 for a quality match barrel. Olympic Arms barrels run around $225. Krieger runs closer to the upper end of the price scale. They all shoot well, so you have to decide where your priorities are. I went with the Olympic match barrel on the theory that I would pay less for my first barrel and burn it out while learning the High Power ropes. I had thought that by the time I was good enough to notice, the barrel would be worn out and I'd replace it with a more expensive Krieger. To my surprise the Olympic barrel was incredibly accurate. When this one is finally worn out, I may get one again!
You do not want the stock trigger group but you might take it anyway, as spares are good to have. The stock trigger can be tuned, but the final result is seldom worth the cost. Do not, and I MEAN DO NOT try to tune the stock trigger yourself. Unless you are a very experienced smith, you will ruin it. Between a buddy and myself we are responsible for ruining about four trigger groups. The best you can do with a stock trigger is to polish the surfaces smooth. Do not try to change the angles. You'll just end up making the rifle double fire or not fire at all. Leave the stock unit alone and go after-market. These are a quantum leap in feel and reliability. There are several good after-market options. Armalite offers a two stage trigger, tunable for weight. It retails around $150 to $170. The two stage Krieger-Millazo is a very popular trigger group for around $230. JP Enterprises offers an excellent single stage trigger that can be tuned below three pounds for $125. This is one of my favorite triggers. It can be tuned for zero creep and zero over travel. I have mine set to the NRA High Power required 4.5 pounds. I like this trigger a lot as it is so versatile. You can use it in a tactical rifle, High Power rifle, or plain old plinker. It is not hard to install and the directions are easy to follow. I feel single stage triggers are better than two stage triggers for some uses. A case could be made that the two stage is ideal for High Power but both its cost and longer travel bothered me as the lower receiver I have sees multiple use. Having a two stage trigger for tactical carbine did not appeal to me. Of course, this is subjective. I "grew up" in the infantry using a single stage trigger in an M16A1, so it is what I am used to. The JP is so crisp, you can not help but love it. All I can tell you to do is visit a match and try to dry fire a two stage. It may be exactly what you need and want. I can tell you that the single stage is great, but until you have tried both, you will not know which you'll prefer. They both have advantages.
You do not want the stock Rear Sight Assembly. You have several options here. Armalite offers an excellent National Match rear sight assembly. Smith Enterprise does also. BE WARNED: Some people are selling standard service rifle rear site assemblies as NM. They are not. To be truly NM, the elevation screw can not be the cam system you find on the stock rear sight body. It must be a fine thread. This allows very repeatable adjustments in half moa increments. Also, the windage can be made either quarter or half Moa by utilizing an extra detent ball in the windage knob. Order the quarter moa site and remove the extra ball if you prefer half moa windage. The Armalite NM rear sight is easily changed and is a good value at $75. When ordering from M&A parts or any of the other parts houses, grill them on which NM rear sight they are using. Chances are it is a stock military body with a small aperture. Tell them you do not want that. Get a full blown match sight. Armalite is a good option as is Smith.
In addition to these three items, you can special order several other parts as needed. I recommend a NM front sight. This is a front sight post that has been milled down very thin. Depending on your eyesight, you might prefer the thicker stock A2 front sight post. Armalite has this for about $10. A free float tube is a must if you plan on using your sling a lot. I went a year without this and did very well, but I was extra conscious to not use too much sling tension when getting into a shooting position. The free float tube will allow you to tighten up as much as you like without bending the barrel of the rifle. There are several very good DCM legal free float tubes. Do not confuse these with plain free float tubes found on varmint and tactical rifles. The DCM legal tube actually goes under the stock service rifle hand guard, maintaining the original lines of the Service rifle. You may see a little more accuracy out of this product. You are after all totally floating the barrel, an accepted accuracy trick. I saw my 600 yard slow fire ammo go from a .6" average @ 100 yards to a .3" to .4" 100 yards group simply by installing this tube. Expect to pay about $125 for a DCM legal tube. I went with Armalite but there are equally good options out there.
Items you do not need.
I often see supposed NM parts that do little to enhance accuracy. They might be nice looking, but they do not seem to make a difference in terms of the total accuracy of the firearm they are installed in. One example is the Bolt Carrier Group. There are several NM bolt carrier groups on the market and they will cost you a pretty penny. But I seriously doubt you will see a reduction in group size. The AR is a loose weapon. It rattles. It sproings. It makes funny noises. But when the bolt locks into the chamber, it is square enough to work and work well. The stock Bolt Carrier groups is totally acceptable for Service rifle matches. Save your money for a good barrel. Another item that gets people confused is the screw in apertures on some NM rear sights. These are nice items to have as you can pick one to suit your specific eyesight, but do not expect to go to a match and swap these out in an attempt to combat lighting conditions. There is just not enough time. Nor is this needed. If you understand the basics of marksmanship and how light plays with you sight picture, you will never need to change the aperture. Remember, do not get hung up on brand name. I prefer mil-spec parts and do not care who the outlet is. Just as long as the parts are NEW, I am satisfied.
To break down the High Power March rifle cost for you I will list the major items needed to complete a rifle, minus tools.
Lower receiver: $120
True Match grade barrel: $225
DCM Legal Free Float Tube: $125
NM Rear Sight: $75
NM Front Sight: $10 (optional)
Trigger group: $125 to $250
Complete Rifle Kit, minus Barrel, Rear Site and possibly Trigger group: N/A.
It all depends on the deal you cut with the Parts House. A complete AR15A2 kit from M&A parts goes for $375. Subtract the stock heavy 1:9 twist chrome lined barrel (-$125), and the Rear sight assembly ($35) and the total would be $215. Your total not including tools is $895 not including shipping.
Add to that a Turner sling at $45. This is a must. For your efforts you should be able to shoot handloads into .75 or less. My rapid fire load holds .6 to .75 with cartridges designed to fit into the magazine. My long range slow fire load will go into .3 to .5 with bullets seated out too far to fit the magazine. You can ask to have the barrel maker send you a barrel with the chamber cut short to allow you to seat long bullets into the magazine, thus allowing you to use the 80 grain VLD type bullets in the magazine. I didn't bother. I probably should have as eventually I will want to do this. Also, when ordering a barrel, consider the twist rate. 1:9 is a good all around rate. It will handle 50 grain bullets as well as some 75 grain bullets. If you plan on shooting at very long ranges you will want to use the Sierra 80 grain bullets. This will require either a 1:7/8th twist or a 1:8 twist barrel. The 1:8 is sufficient. The military 1:7 barrel is too fast and generally wears out sooner from the friction this high rate of spin causes. The 1:8 barrel is probably the best choice for High Power. I chose the 1:9 twist and am limited to the Sierra 69 grain HPBT or the various 75 grain match bullets for high power matches. This bothers me not a bit as my local matches have little wind to deal with and thus far I have not needed the 80 grain bullet. Still, I would be hard pressed if I ever made it to Camp Perry for the National Matches. A day without wind there I am told, is impossible. If you are even remotely serious about competition, get the 1:7/8 or 1:8 twist barrel.
This ends the first part of this article. We eventually plan on listing all the phone numbers and addresses for the various reliable parts outlets. Parts two through four shall follow shortly. In closing, do not short change yourself and your abilities. You can build an AR with only a modicum of skill. Common sense is the biggest asset. If you did not have any of that, you wouldn't be visiting this website, now would you?
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