As I write this, I think back to January 2020. Life in the United States was normal. The economy was booming, and citizens were going about their business and living in relative peace. At that time, the news outlets were just starting to talk about a strange, new virus taking hold in China.
The media and politicians were telling us that COVID-19 was nothing more than a severe case of the flu and that we had nothing to fear from it (as a famous comedian is fond of saying, “Here’s your sign”).
I had long wanted to build an AR15 pistol but continuously put the project off. At that time, ammo, guns and parts were cheap and plentiful. However, with red flags of impending trouble popping up on the horizon, I decided it was time to start building.
Building an AR15 has been described as “LEGOs for adults.” In many ways, this is a fairly accurate assessment: Unless you're installing barrels or fancy rail systems, building an AR is a mostly plug-and-play proposition that requires only basic tools and simple instructions.
While I’ve been an armorer on the AR platform for many years and have all the tools needed to assemble everything from barrels and gas blocks to rail systems and match triggers, I took a simpler approach.
It’s difficult to build a rifle to meet your needs if you haven’t defined what they are. Start by asking yourself what you want the weapon to do. From there, decisions about barrels, stocks, optics and other options will become much easier to make.
For this build, I determined that I wanted an AR that would be as compact as possible without giving away too many of the ballistic advantages that make the AR15 such a formidable self-defense tool. Besides being compact, my weapon needed to be reliable, rugged, accurate and well-suited to self-defense and the defense of others. I also wanted to keep costs at a reasonable level.
So, with these goals in mind, it was time to select parts.
The starting point for every AR build is the lower receiver. The lower is the part that carries the serial number and is legally considered to be “the firearm.” As I write this, all other components of the AR15 system can be ordered through the mail and don’t require government paperwork.
I got a lower receiver from Palmetto State Armory. These receivers have a reputation for being high quality, meet military specifications and are very affordable.
When the receiver arrived at my FFL, I wasn’t disappointed. The finish was evenly applied, the markings were well-executed, and everything appeared to be within specifications. Palmetto offers a large variety of lower receivers, with most of the variation coming from the engraved markings.
With the decision made to keep this a simple build, I then began a search for a barreled upper receiver.
It’s long been my opinion and belief that the only barrels suitable for “duty-grade” rifles are those made from 4150 steel, feature a chrome lining and have chambers cut for 5.56mm NATO ammunition. The 5.56mm chamber assures that the rifle will feed and chamber everything from military surplus ammunition to all manner of .223 Remington commercial ammunition. The chrome lining increases the surface hardness of the barrel and resists excessive heat, allowing it to have a longer service life and increased reliability.
However, chrome-lined barrels are more complicated and expensive to produce, and the lining process can be inconsistent, which would lead to decreased accuracy potential.
While all my previously held beliefs about duty-grade barrels still hold true, significant progress has been made in making unlined barrels with the properties of a chrome lining. Nitride barrels come with many names from many manufacturers: “Melonite,” “ni-corr,” “blacknitride” and “tenifer” all refer to the same basic process. “Nitriding” is a chemical process that permanently changes the molecular structure of the steel surface to which it’s applied. It’s not a lining and can’t be removed by anything short of removing metal. The nitride process makes the steel incredibly hard and heat resistant and reduces surface tension.
This is a chemically induced process, so bores and chambers can be cut to precise dimensions, thus increasing accuracy potential. This is a much simpler process than chrome lining, making nitride barrels cheaper to produce. And, over the course of the past few years, personal experience with rifles featuring nitride barrels has proven to me that they can be every bit as tough and reliable as their chrome-lined counterparts.
With all this barrel technology swirling in my head, I decided to use a barreled upper receiver with a nitride barrel.
Palmetto State Armory offered a complete AR15 pistol kit that included a MIL-SPEC upper receiver barreled with an 11.5-inch, 5.56mm, NATO nitride barrel made from 4150 steel and a lightweight, free-floated handguard of its own manufacture. Included in the kit was a nitride-finished bolt carrier group and a lower receiver parts kit that included the trigger, springs, detents, buffer tube, buffer and an SB Tactical SBA3 pistol brace.
BUILDING THE GUN
All the requisite parts were assembled, so it was time to put them together.
If you’re not installing barrels, gas blocks and rail systems, assembling an AR15 is a relatively quick and simple process. A set of punches, a small hammer and a stock wrench are all that’s needed to get the job done. There are many specialized tools made to make the job easier, but they’re not essential to the task.
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