Wednesday, November 26, 2014

AR-15 follow-up #2

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'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.



The Raving Prophet said...

The AR is a fun platform because it's so user accessible. Unlike the AK, no need for expensive jigs or riveting. It all just bolts together.

If you're going to go all AR fanboy (I say this tongue firmly in cheek, so please take no offense), BCM and Magpul are two darned fine companies to fanboy for. I've never once been let down by any product I've bought from either of them.

If you want a really nice upper that feels great, try the 16" midlength gas lightweight profile barrel upper. The rifle I built on that upper (with all Magpul furniture, too) feels wonderful and well balanced.

Angus McThag said...

Want to break your brain? 6061-T6 was milspec originally. It's a good example showing that the milspec can be revised. 7075-T6 is the later spec from experience in Vietnam, and the changeover happens right about when the X gets dropped from M16.

PapaMAS said...

The complexity of the AR platform is why I stayed away from it. The military trained me as a user on the M16 and M4, so I can strip it and clean it and put it back together. So, I thought maybe I could maintain an AR. But, anything more than that quickly got into the same kind of experience you had: a whole world full of conflicting opinions; small parts easily lost or broken; non-standard parts; and, not much in the way of a trusted guide. I didn't want to become a gunsmith just to own a particular firearm. That's kind of like having to become a certified auto mechanic in order to drive a car.

Keep up the good work, Peter, and thanks for the info. Oh, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!