Lauded for its ease of customization, the AR-15 has become a wildly popular assault rifle among civilian gun owners. It was so popular that not even a decade-long ban on assault weapons could keep it from finding its way to gun enthusiasts. As of this writing, it’s estimated that one in five firearm purchases in the U.S. is an AR-15 or a similarly-styled weapon.
With this particular rifle a dime a dozen in the current firearms market, some enthusiasts feel like making their own AR-15. The rifle’s modular nature means anyone skilled enough with hand tools can assemble one. Nevertheless, the advent of the DIY AR-15 might as well have spawned two camps—the ‘build’ and ‘buy’ trains of thought.
This article will delve deep into the pros and cons of both options. For the record, though, it isn’t intended to sway you into either camp; the right choice is still a matter of personal preference.
Building An AR-15
Taking up firearms as a hobby is undoubtedly pricey, let alone owning an AR-15 fresh from the gun factory. The price tag for the rifle ranges from USD$500 to upwards of USD$2,000—minus the ammo, gun permit, and accessories. Such costs can deter people from getting into the hobby, so they opt to make their own AR-15 at home.
Fortunately, blueprints aren’t a closely-guarded industry secret, and the market’s rife with sellers that offer the right parts. The building process starts by selecting the upper receiver that’s proper for the style of AR-15 you desire. A few examples include:
- A1 – for building an AR-15 in the style of a Vietnam War-era M16
- A2 – for building an AR-15 for use in shooting competitions
- A3 – for building a civilian copy of the versatile M4 or M16A4
- Flattop – for building an AR-15 intended for hunting varmints (varmint rifle)
A DIY AR-15 is also an option for gun hobbyists who tend to find legal restrictions a bit of a hassle. Provided they build an AR-15 strictly for their personal use, they can put together one using parts like an 80% lower. As its name dictates, this piece is only 80% complete and lacks the necessary components to function, so gun legalese doesn’t consider it a firearm yet.
Of course, as with any attempt to save costs, custom builds come with several downsides. It’s not unusual for builders to end up with MIL-SPEC or military-grade parts, which generally don’t go with civilian-grade ones. If this setup somehow produces a working AR-15, it might not work as well as you may hope.
Building an AR-15 may also be problematic in states with laws against ‘ghost guns’ or firearms that lack serial numbers. So far, less than a dozen states and Washington, D.C. require privately-made firearms to sport serial numbers to help with law enforcement. Some states even outlaw the sale of unfinished receivers unless it complies with regulations.
Buying An AR-15
Nothing beats the quality control and peace of mind a manufactured AR-15 brings for some enthusiasts. This model has been in production for 60 years, initially designed to give the American soldiers in Vietnam a fully-automatic response (later known as the M16) to the enemy’s AK-47s. Improvements and technological advances over the years have made the rifle more reliable.
First-time gun owners generally go down this route, as their lack of experience means building their own rifles is out of the question. It may not come cheap, but every purchase of an AR-15 comes with a manufacturer’s warranty. While some parts in custom-made ARs may carry warranties, the guarantee for a completely-built AR extends to the whole weapon system.
In some cases, the more avid enthusiasts (especially veterans or active military personnel) feel that the store-bought rifle may not have the features they like. As the owner studies and uses their rifle, they gradually gain experience to the point they can be confident about building their own (though going to an expert gunsmith is another viable option).
Buying an AR-15 is the only option for people who reside in states with laws against ‘ghost guns,’ but the legal obstacles don’t end there. Even though Americans can legally buy an AR-15 before legally buying beer (18 years old vs. 21 years old), they still have to undergo stringent background checks. Building their own often provides a workaround to this obstacle.
There’s no right or wrong answer in this debate; it all boils down to the aspiring AR owner’s circumstances. As a rule of thumb, experts recommend building when you’re an experienced owner and buying when you’re about to own your first firearm. They also said it’s still essential to follow the law regardless of the option.