Over the past fifteen months I've written several articles about what I call the "personal defense rifle" or PDR: namely, an AR-15 carbine or its equivalent. They appear to have been well received. I've helped a number of friends upgrade their PDR's to current standards, and advised several more what components to buy to build their own. Fortunately, the AR-15 platform lends itself to assembly and/or upgrade by moderately skilled users. It's one of the simplest, easiest-to-work-with platforms out there.
With the immense demand for such rifles over the past year, sparked by security fears over the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with increased urban unrest and political uncertainty, there have been a number of effects on the market. For a start, of course, suitable ammunition has become almost impossible to find at reasonable prices. This time last year, I could still buy bulk 5.56x45mm ball at 30 to 35 cents per round. Today, it's plus-or-minus a dollar per round, in either 55gr. M193 or 62gr. M855 versions; more specialized ammunition (e.g. Mk 262 77gr.) is rather higher. I'm very grateful I built up my ammo stash when I did! I haven't had to buy any. When you consider that a minimal (I say again, minimal) ammo reserve for a PDR would be 500 rounds per weapon, and more likely 1,000, that's a very expensive proposition to build up today. It can cost as much as the weapon itself.
I mentioned last year that one could build or buy multiple upper receiver groups for an AR-15, chambered for cartridges other than 5.56x45mm. I mentioned 300 AAC Blackout, the Russian 7.62x39mm and other options. Some commenters didn't like the idea, regarding it as a waste of money that could be invested in more "standard" ammo instead. However, given current ammo shortages and stratospheric prices, an alternate-caliber upper becomes a much more viable and economical proposition. For example, Russian-manufactured 7.62x39mm is still available at about half the cost per cartridge of US 5.56x45mm, if you shop around. A 7.62x39mm AR-15 upper receiver group, including barrel, bolt carrier group, etc., can still be had for plus-or-minus $500, or you can build your own (if you can find the necessary components - discussed below) for slightly less. That makes the ammo-plus-upper costs a much more reasonable proposition compared to 5.56x45mm; and once you've paid for the upper, the cost of future ammo purchases drops by half compared to US cartridges. In fact, I've been able to pass on some of my 5.56x45mm stash to others who need it, in exchange for 7.62x39mm ammo that I can use for practice. They save money, and I can still train effectively. What's not to like?
(A quick note: some AR-15 uppers chambered for the 7.62x39mm or 5.45x39mm Russian cartridges have exhibited quirky behavior with some ammo brands. Some rounds - sometimes as many as 50% - have not fired due to hard primers. A very easy and low-cost solution to that problem is Black Rifle Arms' slightly extended AR-15 7.62x39 | 5.45x39 Enhanced Firing Pin. It's only $10.99, and in my rifles has completely eliminated the problem. Shooters who use steel-cased 5.56x45mm ammo [which I don't recommend, but which may be all that's available right now] have also reported success with it. I highly recommend it from personal experience. The company also sells an enhanced power hammer spring, if required. I've found it useful in particularly difficult cases to combine the spring and the enhanced firing pin. The combination is just about foolproof, in my experience.)
In recent months I've found it more and more difficult to buy the components I and my friends need. I suspect the reason is threefold:
- A lot more people are upgrading or building their own rifles in the face of a critical shortage of new-production guns on the market, thus increasing demand;
- Manufacturers are diverting components they would normally have sold as parts, into producing more complete guns for the more profitable retail market;
- Many manufacturers are uncertain of what will happen with proposed gun control legislation from the Biden administration. They can't afford to be left holding stocks they're no longer allowed to sell; therefore, some of them are not producing as many components and/or rifles as before, until they have greater certainty about their future.
Whatever the reason, high-quality critical parts such as bolt carrier groups, barrels, etc. have become hard to find. Some of my favorite suppliers will still list up to a hundred or more examples of particular components, but when you narrow your search to those actually in stock, they have few or none on hand. Budget components are more easily available, but those aren't always up to the standards knowledgeable users require. (A cheap AR-15 will shoot into the mil-spec 5 MOA standard at 100 yards, but not necessarily into the 2 MOA minimum which many shooters, including myself, require; and its lower-quality components may not hold up as well as higher-quality parts under the stress of extended use.)
Small parts (particularly in combinations like a lower parts kit or LPK) are also more difficult, and more expensive, to source. I've spent a fair amount of money on buying several of each component that I consider critical, and sorting them into a compartmented storage box, so that I can find what I need when I need it. If legislation makes replacement firearms and/or parts more difficult to source, I want to have sufficient reserves of both to reduce that risk. I highly recommend that you do so too. At a minimum, I suggest you keep the following spares on hand. Examples have been linked from Midway USA, but there are many alternatives out there.
- A complete lower parts kit;
- If your LPK doesn't already include them (some don't), add a spare hammer and trigger, complete with all parts - I recommended good-quality, low-cost triggers last year;
- A spare bolt for your weapon, complete with all parts. If you can afford it, consider an entire spare bolt carrier group (essential if you own multiple PDR's, IMHO, along with at least one bolt in every caliber they shoot), as well as a bolt repair kit and a spare firing pin.
If you have multiple PDR's, consider increasing the spares you keep on hand. For a more comprehensive list and discussion, see The Intrepid Reporter's comments here. Language alert: he can be profane at times, but he knows what he's talking about.
(I'm in the process of sorting my spares into compartmented storage boxes, as illustrated by The Intrepid Reporter here. However, I'm taking the additional step of putting all the small components into ziplock plastic bags, then putting the bags into the compartments. Have you ever seen what happens when you drop one of those boxes, and the lid bursts open? Yeah. BTDT. Never again! I'm also numbering every compartment, and numbering the bag that goes in that compartment, to make recovering them easier.)
Finally, note the proposed legislation outlawing so-called high-capacity magazines, particularly for PDR's. (They're not actually high-capacity, they're standard-capacity for such weapons, but semantics mean nothing to the anti-gunners.) If you don't yet have at least a basic load for each of your rifles (that's 7 magazines, one in the weapon, six carried on your person) you should remedy that now, while it's still legal to do so. More would be better. (I recommend at least ten mags per defensive rifle, and at least five per defensive pistol. Remember, these things can break, or wear out, or get trodden on, or dropped, or otherwise lost. I strongly suggest you buy more than those minima, if you can afford it.) I think the legislation is likely to pass, so buy what you need now if you don't already have it. There may never be another (legal) opportunity to do so. (Also, make sure you have enough magazines for all the cartridges your PDR's may shoot. For example, 7.62x39mm cartridges require dedicated magazines, and won't feed or function well out of 5.56x45mm magazines.)
If you haven't yet bought sufficient firearms and ammunition for personal and family defensive needs, you're way behind the curve. Uncle Sam is about to give you and your family another round of stimulus money. May I suggest that a good, reliable handgun, a personal defense rifle, and sufficient ammunition, magazines and spares for them, would be a worthwhile way to invest it? Sadly, given the unrest and rioting of the past year and what looks to lie ahead, I think we may all need them before long.