With a fully assembled and functional lower, the actual firearm, as far as the US government is concerned, is complete. Almost all of the determinations of caliber, power, size, and aesthetic are a function of the upper. For this portion of the build I was once again turning to a number of different manufacturers for a variety of different parts. The beauty of the AR platform lies truly in its modularity. Any parts that are labelled as Mil-Spec should be dimensionally compatible. True Military Specifications are a post for another time, however the term has evolved in context to mean a set of dimensions and tolerances that allow for interchangeability of parts between any number of manufacturers.
The basic assembled component of an AR-15 upper consist of:
- Upper Receiver
- Upper Parts Kit
- Forward Assist
- Dust Cover
- Gas system
- Gas Block
- Gas Tube
- Muzzle device
To start things off on this half of the build is an Anderson Manufacturing A3 style stripped upper receiver. Similar to the lower, this part is just the anodized aluminum body and framework to house all of the functional components of the rifle. It serves mostly as an attachment point for other components. The A3 style only has a flat Picatinny rail system over its entire length, instead of a fixed carry handle like an A1 or A2 mode. The stripped upper requires some construction, but not nearly to the extent that was involved in the lower. A complete upper parts kit generally consists only of a forward assist and dust cover assembly. Interestingly enough, a number of rifles are being built and sold now that have neither of those items, which actually makes them rather unnecessary for a functional gun. Since my upper was designed to house them, however, I needed to include them.
My upper parts kit ended up being just as much a mutt as the remainder of my rifle. The dust cover is an Enhanced Ultimate Dust Cover from Strike Industries. They have been putting out quite a few really interesting parts lately for the AR-15, and are really worth keeping an eye on. It is a polymer dust cover that comes pre-assembled and includes an tool-free spring loaded hinge rod for easy attachment. The forward assist is an even nicer piece. This small part’s purpose is minor, simply used after charging to manually guarantee that the bolt has entered fully into battery. Mine comes from a small company called Forward Controls. It is their proprietary Low Drag Forward Assist that is designed specifically with lefties in mind. Combined with an ambidextrous charging handle its purpose would be to prevent forcible removal of your fingernails as you manually charge the weapon from the right side, if you are so inclined. I’m not personally a southpaw, so these benefits are somewhat lost on me. I do however still get to enjoy the bling of polished titanium. Is titanium really necessary for a forward assist? Nope. Sure does look good though.
The biggest purpose for the upper is to attach the barrel. This build’s barrel is a 16” Ballistic Advantage BA Hanson profile Stainless Steel barrel from their premium series, chambered in .223 Wylde with a 1:8 twist and set up for a mid-length gas system. Woah. That’s a lot of technical jargon going on there in one sentence. Let me quickly try to clear some of it up.
- Barrel length is a personal decision based on the intended purpose for your gun. I wanted a portable, general purpose rifle that wasn’t specialized for any specific task. This pointed me to the 16”. It’s the shortest barrel I can use on a rifle without requiring an NFA tax stamp or building it as a pistol
- The BA Hanson profile references a proprietary barrel shape offered by Ballistic Advantage. They claim its shoulderless design serves to minimize barrel whip and increase accuracy. Since this is still my first go around, I can’t speak to that yet, but perhaps in the future.
- The .223 Wylde chambering references a particular chamber shape that, if I understand things correctly, combines the dimensions of a standard .223 Remington and the 5.56×45 NATO rounds to more accurately fire either cartridge interchangeably.
- Barrel twist refers to the rate of spin that barrel rifling imparts on a bullet to give it stability. A 1:8 twist will spin the bullet 1 full revolution in 8 inches of travel. I’m not an expert on the intricacies of various twist rates and their effect on different bullet weights. Once I know more it’ll probably be the subject of a whole separate post. For now I found the 1:8 to be widely considered to be an excellent average option.
- The gas system is really not much more than a tube that connects between a port around halfway down the barrel and directs some of the expanding gasses back into the upper to cycle the action. Choosing a gas system length is fodder for another entire post, another day. Suffice it to say that there are 4 lengths of gas system. Rifle, Mid, Carbine, and Pistol. There are some recommendations as to which system to use with what length barrel, but I doubt there are too many barrels manufactured for a completely mismatched gas system. I went with Mid because it was recommended as probably being a little easier on the action with my 16” barrel.
The in-depth details of the barrel alone has the potential to spawn quite a number of other articles down the line. I’ll quite likely get into those further as time progresses, but for the time being, let’s leave it with the basics. Of course, along with the barrel I have a nice low profile gas block, and a mid-length gas tube.
Since you don’t want to just put your hand directly on the barrel when you’re visiting the range, some handguard is needed. Mine also came from Anderson Manufacturing in the form of one of their new EXT free float forearms. This was in a matching mid-length setup, but by design it requires a low profile gas block since it is designed to extend over that section of the barrel. Thankfully those come standard with most options from Ballistic Advantage. Anderson’s EXT line also come with a proprietary barrel nut. This barrel nut is much smaller than most, because it doesn’t include the notches or holes that you have to carefully line up to properly route your gas tube. This went a long way in making the barrel installation run more smoothly than anticipated while reading up on the subject. The Anderson EXT series are handguards that only come stock with one full-length rail on the top. Optional 1913 Picatinny rails in varying lengths are available for attachment later, if you so desire. This saves weight, bulk, and aggressive profile over a standard quad rail, though it doesn’t offer nearly the versatility or modularity of other platforms like MLok or Keymod.
Lastly, the assembled portion of an upper must include some form of muzzle device (assuming your barrel has a threaded crown, 99% of them do). Originally, I assumed I would simply have a basic military style birdcage flash hider, but once I started looking into all the options available, I knew I couldn’t stick with that unless it was absolutely necessary. After plenty of go arounds however, I ended up with what might potentially be the single most visually unique muzzle device on the market today. The Dragon SpitZLead from Ordained Arms. This is, as far as I can tell, the only fully sculpted muzzle device available. Most muzzle devices are purpose designed to either reduce visible flash and dust signature (flash hiders), or to counteract the recoil of the gun (compensators/brakes). The Dragon SpitZLead doesn’t actually fall into either of these categories. Its intent is purely aesthetic. Admittedly, those same extreme aesthetics might not be for everyone, but I’m completely infatuated with it.
That looks to be all the parts. Guess I should make sure I’ve got all the necessary tools to begin construction.
Parts in this article:
Upper Receiver – Stripped upper receiver Provided by Anderson Manufacturing
Dust Cover – Ultimate Dust Cover Assembly Provided by Strike Industries
Forward Assist – LDFA Provided by Forward Controls Design
Barrel – Premium Series BA Hanson Provided by Ballistic Advantage
Handguard – EXT Mid-Length, Free Float Kit Provided by Anderson Manufacturing
Muzzle Device – Dragon SpitZLead – Provided by Ordained Arms