My First AR-15 Walkthrough: Tools of the Trade

With my parts acquired, it was time to dive in. My original plan was to create a video series that illustrated my freshly learned techniques with this, my very first build. This plan was…ambitious, to say the least. When it came time to build, I found myself plagued with A/V equipment failures. This was, of course, my first lengthy foray into detailed video production. Prior to this, I’ve only created a few short intro videos that have been uploaded to YouTube, and all of those were of a far less finicky nature. Unboxing a new flashlight, or quickly expounding a weaponlight’s shortcoming are insignificant next to creating a detailed instructional video for building a rifle. In the end, I found myself completing the build with only a fraction of the process successfully captured. Beyond that, I had another issue. You may have discovered it already, but remember, I was entirely naive about this concept only a few short months ago.

I watched video after video, read post after post, downloaded tutorials and instructions, and generally boned up on the methodology necessary to build an AR-15, however I still had literally no experience actually doing so. Now, I would term myself as generally mechanically adept, but I am in no way a prodigy of any sort. Despite not having any fear of new mechanical activities, and at least a basic understanding of proper technique using most hand tools, I still occasionally find myself behaving like a remedially educated troll when wielding a hammer. This can sometimes show in the finished products I produce.

I wanted this time to be different. I wanted to make sure I took my time and didn’t let impatience get the best of me. This project was for SCIENCE! For POSTERITY! I wanted to become a resource for other beginners like me. The problem was, I still WAS that beginner. It was time to check that inflated sense of self worth at the door. I still needed schooling.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that building an AR is particularly difficult. In fact, I believe it is quite the opposite. It’s a task I managed (correctly, I believe) on my first attempt. What I am saying though, is that it’s not that easy to LOOK like you truly know what you’re doing, when you haven’t got any experience at all doing it yet. There’s a big difference between accomplishing something, and looking like an instructor while doing so. That being said, in lieu of instructional videos of my own, I’ll link you to some of the most helpful resources I’ve found. I still intend to be a resource in my own right, however, but it is going to take a different form. I’m going to list out the unique discoveries that I’ve come across during my build and hopefully save you some time and frustration in yours.

First, a reminder. I’m using some excellent pieces in this build, many of which have been provided to me by excellent sponsors. In today’s construction, the lower itself is a basic stripped lower purchased from Anderson Manufacturing. The buffer tube assembly is a piece sent by Anderson as well. The Enhanced Lower Parts Kit and an upgraded T2 Heavy buffer were provided by Spike’s Tactical. You should definitely go check out both of their stuff, and if you get the chance, tell them I sent you.

Before I got to the actual build, I researched. A lot. I watched so many videos they all began to run together. I read so many articles I don’t even remember half of them. There is a lot of information out there about this. In the end, there were a few specific places that helped me the most. First off, I watched my way through this video series on The Shooter’s Log a dozen times or so (remember, I was intending to be good enough to instruct you myself). and secondly, I printed out a physical copy of this guide from AR15.com to keep handy next to my impromptu work bench. Really between these two items, I had enough information to completely construct a functional AR-15 lower receiver. Of course, it helped that the Spike’s kit worked so nicely too.

When I was working my build, I tried to use as few specialty tools as I could. This was not the best idea. It is possible, but there are definitely a few things that make the project much less of an ordeal. First and foremost, get a good set of punches. Ideally, these will be roll-pin punches that have a good centering nub on the business end to keep them from slipping and marking the receiver. Something like these punches from Amazon would work very well, but you may be able to find others. As far as marking is concerned, use tape. Lots of it. I personally used rubber electrical tape, but I’ve seen a number of other options used to similar effect. Taping around your work makes it far more likely that you’ll end up with a beautiful looking rifle, instead of something that an inexperienced clod banged together in the kitchen. I also picked up a nice small non-marring mallet to help drive pins. Unfortunately, the only version I found locally just had two different plastic ends, preventing it from being too terribly useful for difficult-to-drive parts. I would recommend getting one with a brass end, at least, though if you tape well enough, a lightweight steel hammer will function just fine. Also helpful would have been a set of roll-pin starter punches. These dedicated punches hold the tiny pins in place much better than needing 3 hands for a pair of needle nose pliers, the punch, AND a hammer. Speaking of pliers, I personally found a small set of pliers to be an invaluable resource. These were both to help with holding pieces, but also they functioned in place of the mallet and punch to pinch or guide a pin into a hole, rather than drive it in by impact force.

While it is possible to assemble a lower receiver without a vice, having done so, I can’t recommend it. Before I build any more rifles, I’m going to make it a priority to purchase a quality vice, and build a decent workbench on which to mount it. The advantages of having a stable, ergonomic work surface cannot be overstated. What ended up taking me over 3 hours could possibly have been cut down to 2 or less with a good bench and vice. This, even counting my inexperience. Also, along with a vice, something is needed to actually attach the lower, instead of trying to clamp directly onto the aluminum. Generally this is a vice block that sits in the magazine well and holds the lower in place. After looking around however, I’m personally quite intrigued by the Magpul BEV, which functions not only as a lower vice block, but also an adequate method of securing an upper for assembly. I’ll definitely be looking into this further. In a pinch, I suspect an empty magazine might suffice, however I don’t know what kind of damage might be inflicted in the process. I managed to complete the lower build entirely without the vice, though. I just used a solid work surface and a couple small blocks to brace the lower any time I needed to apply rapid kinetic persuasion.

Of course, if you want to buy a full set of everything you might need to build an AR-15, I’m not going to stop you. I’m only trying to share my experience. Once you have a selection of these tools ready at hand, it’s time to actually begin construction. I guess that’ll have to wait for another post.

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