In the Land of AR Builds, What Is Worth the Price?

For many years… ahem, decades… I was primarily a handgun guy. I viewed handguns as carry tools for self-defense and long guns as tools for hunting. This was not a deep philosophical belief. It was more that I really had not started to think about firearms outside of my day-to-day life, which was fully supported by a first-world infrastructure.

As my level of preparedness started moving out of short-term (less than a week) events and I started to deeply dive into the realities of self-defense situations in emergency situations, long guns became redefined in my worldview. However, this redefinition from hunting tools to also home defense and long-term preparedness tools primarily impacted my views on shotguns. This was due to my not owning any AR-15s or similar rifles. All my rifles owned up until that point were larger (or smaller) caliber hunting rifles.

My First AR-15

Now, the best way to get me to buy something is to threaten my ability to buy it in the future. For example, I had no interest in owning a Hummer, until they announced they would be discontinued. I do recognize this trait in myself and try not to fall prey to it. I still do not own a Hummer because I know I do not possess a solid skill set in repairing it, should the need arise.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I was certain Hillary Clinton would win. So, when I stopped into a local gun store and saw they had a “Hillary Clinton AR-15 Special” which was a Smith and Wesson M&P-15 chambered in 5.56, a total of 10 magazines, and 500 rounds of 5.56 ammo all for a great price, how could I resist? Thus, I bought my first AR-15.

Smith & Wesson M&P 15 and Colt AR builds
My first ever AR purchase, a Smith and Wesson M&P-15 is still my primary training gun, though I have switched out the stock and grip to Magpul and most recently added an optic. My wife enjoys her civilian Colt M4 even as she has replaced many of the internal and external parts.

Since that time, I have added many more AR-15 and similar rifles to my collection. The original S&W M&P-15 had joined the Glock 17, and Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun as my primary guns stored around the property. Though I now own multiple AR-15s, for the most part, they are stock ARs with a few add-ons. I appreciate the ‘adult Legos’ nature of the AR-15 platform but I have not gone deep down the path of modification or ground-up assembly of an AR. I have mostly replaced single parts such as the bolt, dust cover, grip, or stock on existing rifles or added parts such as optics, scopes, lights, or suppressors. And though I have bought a couple of cool uppers, I always paired them with a pre-built lower.

Then something changed. I wanted to build an AR-15 from the ground up.

When my son joined the U.S. Army, I was immensely proud, but I also know his tendencies run towards doing what is required, but not much more. Knowing this I asked him how I could motivate him to pursue more opportunities within the Army. To my joy and surprise, he responded with one word, “guns.”

We worked out a schedule of potential training he could pursue and what firearm I would gift him for completing each one. So far this has been working and he has already added two firearms to his collection. The next hurdle for him is Sapper school, for which he wanted to build a custom AR-15 from the ground up. Although we both had the skills to do this, neither of us had a good background in how to proceed. Fortunately, I have a lot of ‘gun guy’ friends. I got a group of ‘AR guys’ together over lunch to discuss what to look for and think about if planning to build a ‘Frankenstein’ AR from the ground up.

two people with ar builds
My son, currently a combat engineer in the 101st Airborne stationed at Fort Campbell, is a frequent visitor to our home range showing us his techniques with his rifle. His most recent request was to have us build an AR from the ground up.

Overall Considerations for the AR-15 Build

My ‘panel’ of experts included purchasers in the industry and users from law enforcement. The primary consideration they mentioned was the intended purpose of the rifle. This drives many decisions such as the need for accuracy, ammo chambered, and barrel length. Before moving on, we settled on self-defensive use at moderate to close range (chambered in 5.56, accuracy at long ranges not a key consideration, and a relatively shorter barrel allowing use in smaller spaces).

The second overall topic was the lack of resale for most ‘Franken-ARs.’ The ability to customize an AR to make it exactly what you want is a huge plus, but it is very unlikely you will be able to get the amount you spend back out of it, compared to re-selling a stock AR-15. Many FFLs, when buying a used AR, only give an offer based on the value of the upper and lower. Any additional parts or expenses are not accounted for in the price offered or the price it will then sell for. I can attest to this as I once bought a highly customized AR-15 and only paid for the used cost of the upper and lower. Likely, close to $1500 dollars of extras were not accounted for in the used sell price.

gun store display wall of AR-15s
If you are solely looking for eventual re-sale, building an AR-15 out of different companies’ various premium parts is probably not a great investment.

Parts and Pieces 

Once parameters were set, the discussion went immediately to the starting blocks of the AR-15, the upper (bolt, chamber, and barrel) and the lower (receiver, trigger, magazine well). It should be noted that everyone agreed that the gains for putting more money into uppers and lowers past a base level of function were a diminishing return. The more you spend the less you get back out regarding actual performance. That is not to say much more expensive uppers and lowers do not have advantages, just that those advantages may be relatively minor compared to the additional cost.

When it came to uppers the main takeaways of this conversation were that most match-grade uppers are going to provide the needed quality. Higher quality bolts are mainly a function of finish with nitride or chrome being suggested as a good balance of cost for easier function and cleaning. Everyone agreed that, if possible, buy a second bolt for quick repairs under unpleasant circumstances. For barrels, the
group agreed on a nitride finish with a 1:8 twist rate for general use. Finally, there was agreement for a threaded barrel and a suppressor over a muzzle brake.

When the discussion turned to lowers, there was more disagreement, but there were still some general takeaways. First, it was agreed that the lower needed to be aluminum. As far as parts beyond the trigger, there was no clear agreement beyond the advantages of an ambidextrous safety. For triggers, there were two main options. The single-stage non-adjustable trigger was preferred for running and gunning. Two-stage triggers were preferred for better precision shooting.

Final suggestions included a self-contained buffer tube, Magpul furniture (stock, grip, etc.) a mid-length / medium profile gas system, and a free-floating M-LOK handguard. Some of the companies recommended included Aero Precision, Primary Arms, Fail Zero, Geissele, Larue, and BCM. For defensive and medium to close-range engagement, there was agreement on either no magnification with a reliable red dot optic, or moderate magnification as a secondary and movable option designed to work in conjunction with a non-magnified optic.


Have these discussions made me into someone ready to build any AR-15 for any purpose, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of every single part in my head? Absolutely not. Do I feel like I have a better starting place and certain keywords to use in online searches as I build an AR with my son? Yes. My hope in this article is to give that same baseline to readers considering building their own AR.

Indoor training with AR builds
The sky is the limit on what you can do with your AR-15. Though still a mostly stock S&W M&P-15 underneath, my apocalypse gun is currently set up with an IR laser and IR light emitter for use with night vision.

Everyone must start somewhere. If you have already added an AR or two (or more) to your collection there is no time like the present to move on to the next level. Decide what specific use you have in mind for your personal rifle and start exploring websites. Compare costs, advantages, and fit to meet your needs. A final note, there is also nothing wrong with paying a little more for a cool logo, or a part by a recognizable name. Just recognize that you are likely paying just for the name, but if it is for your rifle there is nothing wrong with that!

Notes: Thank you to Mark Welter and Joshua Imel of Indy Arms Company for their direct assistance with this article.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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