Build Or Buy Your Next AR ?

When I first started shooting AR’s I was more than satisfied to buy one off the shelf. In the last few years I was leaning more and more toward building my own. What I really wanted was an AR that I built using parts I thought to be some of the best on the market. I also wanted the satisfaction of building it with my own hands and the feeling of accomplishment that goes with it.


Many shooters I’ve spoken with about this subject have been leery about taking a project like this on. I can understand that but if there was ever a rifle that begged to be built by a shooter it’s the AR-15. You can look at an AR much like a large lego set. If the parts are manufactured of quality materials with the proper tolerances, as they should be, it’s just not terribly difficult. Of course before you take on the task of building an AR you need to do your homework.

If you have a friend who has built several AR’s they can help you get started and ensure you avoid some of the common mistakes first time builders encounter. Another source of knowledge can be found in some videos that feature well known gunsmiths. You can watch them through then go back and reference the parts you’re working on. AGI (American Gunsmithing Institute) has an especially good selection of videos on building an AR as well as other relevant topics concerning the AR.


Before beginning the build you need to research the materials and tools you’ll need to do a good job and not struggle in performing a task with inappropriate hand tools. This information can also be found in these AGI videos. Some of the tools needed you probably already have while the others can be purchased for right at $100 depending on brand and where you purchase them.. I’ve always relied on Brownells for any gunsmithing tools I’ve needed. Their staff is knowledgeable and the prices are reasonable.

After you’ve done your research and have the tools you’ll need on hand it’s time to start thinking about the parts you want to use to build your ideal AR. You may have some idea already of the brands and models you prefer. For the remainder talk with those people with experience in building an AR. You can also glean information from those same videos you’ll be using as a reference in building your rifle.


Like everyone else I have my preferences in brands and models of uppers, lower receivers, barrels and the other major components. There are a good number of quality parts manufacturers out there so if you choose other brands that’s fine. The point is to build using the parts you like and feel are high quality. One bit of advice is to purchase quality not just what’s inexpensive that you feel you can get by with. You’ll end up spending more replacing these inferior components than you will buying quality to begin with.

In this build I purchased my lower receiver from Coronado Arms. You may not have heard of Coronado as far as AR’s are concerned but they make a very fine line of custom bolt action rifles and have for some time. All guns and parts are designed and made in house. The owner, Curt Chastain designs all the firearms the company makes. Coronado started out in the black rifle business by introducing the receiver I used on this rifle. They also sell their own brand of AR rifles.





The Coronado CA15 lower is machined from a billet of 7075 T-6 aluminum with a hard coat anodized finish. The magwell is broach cut with very precise lines. Everything about this lower shows extreme precision and quality which was confirmed not only by measurement but how perfectly it mated to the upper receiver. I’ve never seen another lower that was as precisely manufactured as this one. That and well it’s just a very handsome lower. All of the internal parts from the trigger group to the pins holding it in place were snug with no play. Still it’s very easy to separate the upper and lower without having to use a punch.



One thing you’ll notice in the photos is how closely the upper and lower receiver fit. There is a very fine line between the two which is uniform all the way around. There is no rattle or play between upper and lower. All the magazines I’ve used have no play yet eject easily. The magwell is also beveled making magazine handling easier. I highly recommend this lower for a build or replacement.I’ve honestly seen none better.

The next part I chose was the upper receiver. I chose the VLTOR MUR-1 with the forward assist. When I purchased it the shortage was still on and the model with the forward assist was all that was available. The reason I bring this up is the doubt I have that a forward assist is even needed. I can’t remember the last time I used it.


As I mentioned the fit with the Coronado lower is about as perfect as you can ask for. The VLTOR upper has a thicker wall than most, which is a good thing. When you have a good upper and lower fit along with the thicker walls on the MUR you have a stiffer rifle with greater accuracy potential when mated with a good barrel.

Additional Parts

For a charging handle I bought a Bravo Company medium “Gunfighter” model. Along with the charging handle I used a BCM bolt carrier group (BCG) as well as a BCM bolt. I’ve been switching between an ERGO stock and a Magpul STR. The current rail system is also from ERGO in the two-piece configuration. I’ve also been using a Parallax Tactical Gen2 13″ slim rail. One good thing about this rail system is it uses any Magpul add on rails or any other Magpul rail accessory. The trigger group is a two stage Wilson match tactical.



The barrel is of course one if not the most important part in your rifle. I’ve chosen a Bravo Company 16” M4 SOCOM. This barrel has a 1/7 twist, which works well with heavy or lighter bullets. This barrel has a chrome chamber and bore with a manganese finish. It’s also MPI and HPT tested. With a price of $269 it’s a lot of barrel for the money.

There are other parts, which have nothing to do with the overall quality or function of the rifle. They are rather a matter of personal choice. Optics as well as the pistol grip and iron sights fall into this category.

As I mentioned earlier there are many choices out there in a market flooded with all of these parts. I feel these I’ve chosen are among the very best. My advice is take your time. Talk with other AR enthusiast as well as doing your own research. Finally enjoy what you’ve accomplished in building your rifle and practice often. I can promise you’ll build more than one rifle once you complete the first.

One thing I realized I left out was the sling in Ranger green. These slings are handmade by US Veterans. The quality is fantastic. Each vet signs their name to each sling. Each sling comes with a certificate signed by the veteran who made it. Cost is $120 but well worth it considering the quality and the fact it supports these fine men.

Recoil website






Phil White

Retired police officer with 30 years of service. Firearms instructor and SRU team member. I still instruct with local agencies. My daily carry pistol is the tried and true 1911. I’m the Associate Editor and moderator at TFB. I really enjoy answering readers questions and comments. We can all learn from each other about our favorite hobby!


  • gggplaya

    I think the only part that people can actually screw up is dimpling or pinning the gas block. So if you are building and a bit leery, just make sure the barrel is pre-dimpled or get the gas block pinned from whereever you buy the barrel. The rest goes together fairly easily provided you have the right small investment in tools.

    • Lining up the gas block can be a bit trying unless you take your time and get it lined up correctly. That goes for the ports in the gas tube and the gas ports in the barrel.
      About the worse that can happen is it won’t cycle but then you have to undo your work and start over most likely with new parts with the exception of the port itself. That and make sure the gas port is the correct size,

      • gunslinger

        i was lame. got a complete upper for my builds. (but hey, on sale from PSA i couldn’t pass it up)

        figured it’d be a fun build for daddy and daughter.

        • That’s great getting your daughter into it.

          • gunslinger

            Too bad it’ll ne a few more years. Time to stock upbon ammo though

          • They grow to darn fast so it won’t be long:-)

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            You’ve still got it right about starting now. Phil is correct about them growing up so fast that you won’t realize where the time goes. Wishing you and your little one the best of times together.

        • DiverEngrSL17K

          Gunslinger, i sense a wonderful and poignant story behind your comment. How we understand and relate to one another is what makes the difference in the end. I hope you will both have the sort of relationship and closeness others only dream about.

      • El Duderino

        I found a pencil and a ruler was all that was needed to do it right.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    Very good article with plenty of basic common-sense advice, Phil — thanks!. Even experts and professionals need to be occasionally reminded about common-sense practice.

    If I may, I’ll add one thing more — it is equally important to make sure that the parts one is using are not only of good quality, but that they also match properly. Top-shelf components by themselves are of little use if they don’t synchronize and work correctly as part of the whole. Blueprinting is therefore as vital as selecting quality individual parts. Do your research, talk to others with prior experience, learn to sort hard facts from personal biases, take plenty of measurements, and always use the right tools!

    • Thank you sir I appreciate it. I’m glad you liked it. I certainly agree with your observations. Even quality parts can sometimes mismatch with others for various reasons.
      I really wanted to make sure the readers chose the right tools before beginning a build. It not only keeps you from getting very frustrated but keeps the builder from making errors and having to replace expensive parts.
      That’s 100% percent correct planning and making sure you have the knowledge and correct tools applies to any build or repair.

  • Excellent write up. Really does a good job of showing people who are on the fence that building one of these is really nothing to be scared of!

  • Ben 10

    you forgot the part where you can have a no-serial number lower made from an 80% lower, but you have to make one yourself and you need a machine for that, but still, its a good option.

  • schizuki

    The Black Friday week deals at various online vendors are so good that it’s a no-brainer to build, especially with complete uppers available at stupid-low prices. I got into AR’s with a S&W Sport, which is a fine rifle, but I had my heart set on a midlength. Picked up a Spikes Tactical middy upper for $400 on a Black Friday sale. Put it on the S&W lower, perfect fit. That left me with a perfectly good S&W upper, so of course I got a Stag stripped lower and built it with CMMG parts and a carbine buttstock kit (total cost $250). So, I could have built the middy for only $650. The only special tools I needed were a lower receiver block, a roll pin punch set and an AR combination tool. Fun project – I did most of the assembly at two in the morning in my bathrobe when I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.

  • Rob

    I concur. Kudos on a very nice piece Phil…thanks for introducing us to Coronado …maybe the future subject for an On Target Hawaii story! See you at SHOT.

  • El Duderino

    Please don’t be one of those “exposed gas tube” guys I see at the range, with the carbine handguard and mid-length tube.

    Still a bit intimidated by my 80% AK receiver. Not quite sure what parts to buy…

    • Exposed gas tube? No mine has a carbine gas system and a carbine handguard.

      • El Duderino

        No — your build is great. But I see far too many that are done wrong. It’s actually pretty hard to screw up an AR build using new parts!

        • Ok I gotcha. Yep I’ve seen them as well and yes it’s hard to foul up. Like I said do your homework.
          I actually saw a company at SHOT this past January that messed up and was showing a mid length barrel and a carbine handguard. They thought it looked neat!

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            Yes, I believe it was the Battle Rifle Company of Texas. I remember the huge reaction from TFB readers and contributors after Andrew Tuohy’s painfully honest evaluation of their products, including one rifle set up exactly as described.

            BTW, I think BRC is still in business with newer variations on the AR platform. Hopefully, they have learned from this experience and improved their offerings.

          • Thats it alright. Those guys really were different. I hope they have improved. We’ll see in a few weeks.

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            I sincerely hope so too, both for their sakes as well as everyone else’s. As you said, we shall see.

          • They don’t seem to have changed much

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            Thanks for the update, Phil. I really hope the apparently similar outward appearance belies a real and functional internal change for the better, otherwise I’ll have to say that BRC simply does not deserve a second ( or third ) chance if they continue in the same vein.

          • I agree. The photo above shows some gaudy colors on the lower. They also went backwards saying it’s a 16 inch barrel on their website when the barrel is much shorter. Only the flash suppressor is longer to make it 16″. It’s like the old XM177 from Vietnam.

          • DiverEngrSL17K

            Yes, I can see that from the photo. It doesn’t seem to presage too well for BRC, making a statement like that in the face of the obvious. Please let us know what you find out concerning their offerings at SHOT — the information would be much appreciated.

        • Cymond

          The whole ‘exposed gas tube’ things drives me crazy, too. Unfortunately, the free-float handguard I want will expose about a half inch between the handguard and the A2 FSB. I’m considering buying a longer rail and having it cut to the exact length or having a slot cut in the top of the handguard so the FSB can protrude up through it.

  • Michael

    Just bought my first stripped lower, debating if I should build a pistol or a rifle.

    • It’s whichever you think would work for you right now. The build is the same for the most part.

    • Cymond

      Build a pistol if possible. Go read ATF 2011-4 very, very well and make sure you understand it yourself. In short, if you build a pistol first then you can convert it into a rifle later … and then back in to a pistol at will! If you build a rifle first, then it can NOT be converted into a pistol (it can only become a SBR).

      Alternatively, you decide you want an SBR. If you do, then build a pistol first and file a Form 1. You can possess it and shoot it as a pistol while you wait for the Form 1 to be approved. That means you can perfect it before it’s an NFA firearm.

  • iksnilol

    I hope this doesn’t count as advertising but PSA has blemished lowers for 50$ each.

    Might be a good start.

    • No you’re ok. We’ve had some that are obvious ads but in this case you’re just trying to pass along some info for other readers. That’s encouraged by the way:-)

      • iksnilol

        Oh, its nice i’m in the clear. Just wanted to pass this on since I can’t take advantage of it, somebody else might.

    • Kyle Willey

      Seconded. I have picked up a few lowers at that price from them. These really do just have a few minor cosmetic blemishes from where two rubbed up against each other or something. My FFL also does DuraCoat and he cleaned up all of mine for no charge.

  • Tyler M.

    Me and my Father are big into building. We’ve built three different AR’s and are working on a fourth. It’s incredibly easy and is so much cheaper. The AR’s we build might run you $1000+ at a shop but we can build them for <$550. Currently we each have our own personal ones, then one configured for a slide fire (a fun gun) and are now working in a DMR 24in one.

  • Dieterich

    So what’s up with only a front BUIS? If you can’t run the back you might as well save the weight and not even run the front. It won’t do you any good anyway.

    • The second scope pictured sits to low to clear a front sight. I’m testing that scope more than anything else.
      I do use the rear sight with my usual Leupold 1×4.

  • David Moran

    Built my first AR last year and will never buy a complete. Just too damn satisfying. Picked up a DPMS pattern lower the other day and will be building a .308 this year. Also have an AK receiver blank on the way so I can take advantage of an 80% build without the need for heavy machinery.

    • I sure agree with that, it’s very satisfying to look at that completed rifle. I enjoy learning just for the sake of new knowledge and making an AR fits the bill and it’s a lot of fun!

  • NxSW

    One thing you don’t mention is the importance of deciding as early as possible in the process what your main objective for the AR. I’ve found that the massive number of part combinations available through an unending number of different vendors makes it easy to spiral out of control in the selection process. Pick a few “no compromise” features for your particular use, and then identify a few areas that truly are not important to you to upgrade.

    For me, I wanted a good quality close- to medium-range weapon with a mid-length gas system and a front sight that was coupled directly to the barrel. I also set a challenge for myself to keep the weight as light as possible. What that meant is that anything with a heavy barrel was unnecessary, I was perfectly happy with a standard A2 handguard, but I went ahead and got a very nice set of Troy sights (fixed front mounted on a rail-height, single-rail gas block, and folding dioptic rear), along with a nitride BCG to help with cleaning and longevity.

    I love this setup so far, and I would encourage everyone who actually has a build budget to resist the temptation to build the “perfect” multi-mission rifle right out of the gate.

    • kevinp2

      I am interested in a light weight build as well. What parts did you use for your upper receiver assembly?

      • NxSW

        I actually went the easy route and bought a complete upper from Alpha Shooting Sports: When they ran a Black Friday sale for that assembly, plus nitride BCG upgrade, for just $360 I just couldn’t beat it. Probably the only thing I didn’t get was a nitride barrel, but unfortunately they were out of stock at the time.

        The total rifle weight (sans sights/mags) came in right at 6lbs.

    • DiverEngrSL17K

      I agree — a good, practical, common-sense approach with some real thought behind it!

  • kevinp2

    Nice! What is the weight of the completed rifle? Unloaded and without the sling?

  • Alex Nicolin

    … or pick your parts, and have a professional armorer build it, instead of buying all the needed tools.

    • allannon

      You can, but you can also DIY it. That’s the great thing about ARs: options.

    • NxSW

      Considering “all the needed tools” comes to basically an armorer’s wrench ($15-$40); punches ($15); a few typical hand tools (and you’ve already got those, right?); and, if you really want to get fancy, a set of action blocks ($40), you’re not exactly talking about breaking the bank. Plus you have them for the next build, too.

    • NxSW

      But now that I think about it, I would love to have friends like you. They could buy all the parts and pay me a small amount for the fun of putting together an AR. Win-win!

      • gunslinger

        Thats an interesting idea. I remember hearing that renting out work space amd tools to complete an 80% lower was a no go as the rental space would be the manufacturer even though you did the work.

        In the strictest sense would building your buddys rifle be kosher with the feds? Whay if you were paid? Built for free or barter/trade?

        Just curious.

        • NxSW

          I’m no legal expert here, but considering the lower receiver is the ATF registered part regardless of whether it is assembled or not, I don’t know why the labor (paid or not) would draw any attention. Especially if the aforementioned buddy hung out for, say, the lower receiver assembly, and drank a cold beverage. Then it’s just a couple of friends working on a project together.

          Like I said, not an expert legal option…

    • The tools come out to just under $100

  • Seth Hill

    I plan to assemble one myself, eventually I want to build one (looking at mills and lathes). I would love to be able to get to the point of building all my own firearms, maybe build new versions of some old guns (SVT40, Makarov, SVD/Dragunov, etc.)

    • The thing is Seth those tools and all the others you’ll need are very expensive. Unless you’re willing to commit to it long term I’m not sure it would be worth the investment.

      • Seth Hill

        I plan to commit to it long term, also I view it as a hedge against bans, etc. and if there were to be a collapse in the future due to economy, etc. True the cost is a consideration, if you only do it for say 1 gun, but spread it across a number of guns and the ability to create your own prototype design or even as a launchpad to a new business.

        Also, the machines can be used for other things, parts for my vehicles, etc. I try to not own anything that can not be used for multiple purposes.

  • mcducky

    What is that extra lever above the trigger guard on the lower receiver?

  • Aaron E

    Great article Phil. I’ve been preparing myself to do a build as a tutorial for my sons. The more I look into it though, the more I want to make a rifle from stripped lowers up, and make one of quality parts. Making your own tac-driver is a very rewarding proposition.

  • big daddy

    Good write up. I passed on trying to build one, I was lucky to find a great guy close to me that builds them. So many parts even though Mil-spec need a little massaging to fit. So far I have only one rifle that is a factory one, a DDM4V5. It is exquisite, the fit and finish is great and it’s very accurate, better than I am at shooting. That is my bench mark, it’s not necessary to buy the best, buy what fits your needs. I like ambi-selectors so I put them on all my ARs. So far I have the DD and a put together PSA kit. The PSA kit was great, I’m glad I had him do it, there were some issues with the LPK, he had to replace a few parts, upgrade and the trigger did not work that great. He did a trigger job and it’s smooth as silk, almost as good as the Timney on my 9mm AR pistol. So I would gladly have an experienced AR guy do it rather than learn how, no need for any more work, I have enough to do. I just want to shoot them. But it is a great feeling to build something and then use it, whether it’s a gun, a car, a plane, whatever. Personally I’m past that point I just want to go to the range and expend large amounts of ammo.

  • brain007

    I really like the photographs, it really excites me a lot.

  • orly?

    Does a database exist showing which lowers mate best with which uppers?

    Or am I better off asking through forums on my intended build?

    • No not that I’m aware of. A forum other than is not the type of advice you should use.
      I’d call some of the custom builders from a Google search. They can tell you pretty fast.

  • Alex

    While I’ve built some guns in the past I’ve found that buying a complete rifle and replacing parts was more economical. No more building guns from the ground up for me.

  • zeta

    New version of the Lego for big kid !

  • Andrew

    So, I just bought my first AR today. It is an RRA Operator III and I got it for 970$ plus tax. This includes two mags and flip up sights. I have been told by several of my friends which are avid shooters that I got a good deal on it. I can’t help but think if I had done more research and bought some of the components myself, I could have saved a few hundred bucks.

    HOWEVER – All I did today was walk into a store, pick a gun, and went to the range with it. The hassle free experience is well worth it to me, since I’m just buying my first AR15. As far as getting into higher grade parts and accessories…. I’m going to have to say that I just don’t know whether or not I’ll ever be able to take full advantage of them. I’m not a professional shooter, I don’t hunt, I’m not in law enforcement. I bought the gun with the adjustable stock to use it indoors and at the range, that’s it.

    Would you put yourself through 2-4 weeks wait, assemble it yourself, and deal with possible complications from mismatched components, just to save 200$?

    Some people like the DIY experience. For my top hobby (cars) the act of building brings great satisfaction (and some times better results).

    Just my .02.

    • Well building isn’t for everyone. We all have different reasons for getting into our sport. I just get a ton of satisfaction from building something myself and using all the parts I like. I never honestly expected to save a lot of money.

  • Leigh Rich

    If you do a search at this time you can pick up a base AR 15 for only about $600. Cheaper than building. They you can customize it with after market stuff…
    Now this could all change if Obama starts his attack on guns again.

  • Brian Fulmer

    Great high-level overview in your writeup.

    Perhaps a future article might emphasize the reality that a personal build will likely not save money vs. an off the shelf “on sale this week” build. What a personal build WILL do is start you out with exactly what you want, without creating a pile of barely used AR parts cluttering up your garage.

    Mass produced models will have compromises in component selection that wouldn’t make it into a personalized build (triggers, for example). When you do upgrade that commercial unit, all those discarded parts start to really add up. Some folks have been known to justify using that parts pile for another build, but having a whole AR’s worth of non-optimal parts is heading the wrong direction!

    The other aspect is that when you cobble together your own AR’s, figuring out what a malfunction is and how to fix it is no big deal. I’ve seen many stoppages at our range that had everything to do with unfamiliarity and nothing to do with the rifles themselves.

    Brian in CA

    • Agreed and that would be a good basis for a future article. I’ve actually seen guys that has enough extra parts to build 95% of a new gun!
      Most people change a good number of parts as soon as they purchase an AR. By the time you add the price of the gun and extra parts you can build your own from the best parts.

  • Kai

    That’s a nice looking rifle, Phil! But I think I’m am going to buy my first AR and wait to build one after I become more familiar with the platform.

  • ColaBox

    Good thing about an AR is that its so customizable, bad thing is that its so customizable. There’s always something new you wanna put on it.
    If only there were no NFA restrictions, then that 10.5 barrel would be mine…one can dream I suppose.

  • Paul White

    Are there sites or resources about building a bolt gun? I see a lot of AR build guides but honestly, ARs seem more complicated to build and I’d like to start with a bolt action rifle…

    • schizuki

      AR’s are incredibly simple to build. A bolt gun isn’t. Just look at the barreling procedure for each.

  • derfelcadarn

    If I won an AR in a contest I would swap it for a real rifle.

  • Justice

    Budget should also be a main consideration when deciding either to build or buy a complete rifle. If you decided to build a sub-$1k Carbine, you may end up with a $1500 AR build when you could’ve bought a complete rifle from Colt or BCM for less.

    My suggestion is to set your purpose and budget accordingly, and take into account the cost of tools as well.

  • CommonCents

    what kind of labor charge does a typical builder/gunsmith charge to build a custom AR?

  • larry2012

    Thank you, Phil, for this informative article. If nothing else it has alerted me to the importance of pre-planning the build and paying close attention to details I otherwise would may have passed over. The one part of the discussion I didn’t see (or missed) is the cost comparison of building an AR-15 as opposed to buying one off the shelf. Any thoughts on that?