Earlier this month I appealed for help to readers who were more familiar than I with the AR-15 rifle, and followed it up a week later with a report-back. This post provides more feedback in terms of what I've learned. In particular, I want to give a shout-out to three companies whose products and/or support have been absolutely outstanding. They've made my life much easier. (In case you were wondering, I've not been asked or paid to mention them. The same goes for products I name: some were donated by other shooters, and I paid for the rest out of my own pocket.)
My biggest problem in helping those who brought their 'problem child' rifles and carbines to me is that I know firearms in general, but I'm not an AR-15 guru (or, at least, I wasn't one at that time). I started to educate myself about the platform, whilst at the same time appealing to my readers for information. Thanks to all of you who contributed to finding solutions.
I'm a former military man, whose life once depended on understanding the weapon(s) issued to him and keeping them functioning under all sorts of interesting (!) circumstances. I rapidly became frustrated because I wanted to learn the AR-15 in the same depth, but initially found few online resources that experience showed to be authoritative. Two that became my 'go-to' guides were AR15.com's series of articles, guides and manuals about the AR-15 (and other rifles), and also its weapon-specific forums covering anything and everything its members want to discuss about the AR-15. Click over there and look through the list of what's available. I'm sure you'll find useful information.
I looked through the many, many videos available on YouTube and elsewhere concerning building, modifying and repairing the AR-15. An awful lot of them can only be described as 'crappy'. I wasn't impressed. A number of people suggested I order the American Gunsmithing Institute's DVD titled "AR-15 Rifle Technical Manual and Armorer's Course". That was good advice. The video's an overview and component-level breakdown of the weapon, very comforting to someone like me who wants to know how the floggletoggle goes into the thingumajig, or which doohickey to use to thread the taddle through the whatchamacallit without screebling the flibbertigibbet. Highly recommended to all AR-15 novices who want to learn about their rifles in detail. (I can see I'm going to have to buy more of the many AGI DVD's about other weapons. If this one's any indication, they'll be very educational.)
In analyzing the problems my students were having with their AR-15's, I learned a lot about the different components used by various manufacturers and had the chance to compare them. To say I'm unimpressed by some of the 'cheaper' rifles out there (or, at least, their choice of parts) is an understatement! I now have a box of components that have been discarded and replaced by something better. I learned a lot in the process, of course, which was useful reinforcement to the education provided by the AGI DVD mentioned above. I've also learned (the hard way!) how important it is to have a spare parts kit on hand, as well as the right general gunsmithing tools and AR-15-specific armorer's tools. They made life an awful lot easier.
Something that stood out was the difference between mil-spec ("military specification") and civilian hardware. Almost uniformly (you should pardon the expression), the mil-spec stuff was tougher than the civilian (with a couple of notable and honorable exceptions, as you'll see in a moment). In particular, where I found constrictions or other problems with upper receivers (mentioned in my first feedback report), it became clear that the aluminum used to make the parts concerned was thinner and/or less strong than it should have been. Investigation led me to two articles concerning the difference between 6061 and 7075 aluminum alloys (click on those links to learn more about them). Briefly, 7075 has almost twice the tensile strength of 6061, and is used by the makers of a lot of quality AR-15 parts for that reason. It was also cited as a factor in a Military Times 'torture test' of AR-15 stocks to see which performed best under stress. I therefore replaced the defective parts with others, made to mil-spec and using 7075 aluminum whenever possible. I hope they'll hold up better.
Two companies' products stand out from the crowd, as does their customer support. I value parts that perform as advertised and don't give trouble, and no-nonsense, no-bull advice that doesn't waffle but gets right to the point. Both companies provide them.
- Bravo Company has a very high reputation for the quality of their firearms and components, and my experience with them bears it out. They've sold me top-notch gear, and my e-mails asking questions have been answered promptly and efficiently. They come highly recommended by the top instructors in the business, many of whom have extensive military experience. Works for me. Bravo Company is now #1 on my list of AR-15 parts suppliers. They're more expensive than some, but you get your money's worth from them.
- Magpul has an equally stellar reputation for high-quality aftermarket accessories that replace (and sometimes significantly improve upon) original equipment on AR-15 rifles. (I note that many manufacturers, including Colt, now offer Magpul accessories on upgraded, more expensive 'editions' of their rifles.) I've tested a lot of aftermarket add-ons from a number of manufacturers in recent weeks, and only Magpul's have worked first time, every time. All their parts fit and functioned precisely as advertised. That's worth gold to me, and therefore Magpul is now my #1 supplier for AR-15 aftermarket accessories.
I've also got to give a shout-out to Oleg Volk, who very generously handed me a large crate full of AR-15 stocks, handguards and what have you, and invited me to help myself to whatever I wanted. He's generous to a fault to his friends (among whom Miss D. and I are honored to count ourselves), and I couldn't have tackled some of the work without him. Thanks, Oleg!
I'm still learning, and enjoying "mixing-and-matching" parts and accessories across various rifles and carbines as I learn what makes them tick (or not tick, as the case may be). Slowly but surely I'm standardizing around stuff that works well across all platforms, and discarding bits and pieces that prove less reliable. It'll take a couple of months yet, but by the end of that time I'll have built and/or rebuilt half a dozen AR-15's, and should know the platform well enough to do the next one in my sleep.
Thanks again to everyone who offered advice. You've been a big help.