The AR-15 is the most popular rifle in America. It is also the least well understood. In the press, and in the more hostile corners of our politics, AR-15s are routinely cast as egregious superweapons, the extraordinary potency of which has been made possible by the advent of modern precision engineering. “There is no way,” those who would see the gun banned like to say, “that James Madison would have been okay with this.”
I disagree with this assessment, not least because, armed with just a hammer, a vise, a wrench, a set of hex keys, a couple of punches, and a video I found on YouTube, I just built two at my kitchen table.
It is difficult to overstate just how customizable the AR-15 is. Indeed, properly comprehended, the AR-15 is not so much a type of gun — in the way that, say, the Colt 1911 or Remington 870 are — as it is a weapons platform, on top of which a wide variety of different guns can be assembled. With the exception of the “lower receiver” — the mechanical heart of the weapon, and the part that the federal government legally considers a “firearm” — every single element on the AR-15 is swappable and modifiable, which, for a beginner, can be quite bewildering, but which helps explain why the platform has grown in popularity the way that it has. Before starting assembly, I was obliged to decide upon a stock, a buffer tube, a buffer spring, a buffer, an endplate, a castle nut, a pistol grip, a magazine, a selector switch, a bolt catch, a trigger, a hammer, a trigger guard, a set of takedown and pivot pins, a charging handle, a bolt-carrier group, and, depending on how involved I wanted to get, either an already-assembled upper receiver or the various parts that make one up. And this was before I got into the optional elements, such as sights, optics, bipods, and bottle openers (no joke).
Scouring the Internet during my initial investigation, I discovered just how far some builders have taken their customizations. I found a model decked out in Seattle Seahawks colors, replete with the number 12 on its Magpul PMAG magazine. I found a model that perfectly resembled a waving American flag. I found a model that looked like the weapons carried by the imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars. I even found a model decked out in the style of the Japanese cartoon character Hello Kitty. For a gun that, like the Model T Ford, is famous for being black, the AR-15 is as protean as firearms get.
To fill this demand, an enormous network of parts companies has sprung up across the United States. Want a set of takedown pins with your initials printed on the ends, or a forward assist cap featuring your company logo, or a dust cover with “Come and Take It” engraved on the side? Easy. Want your lower receiver painted red, or the state flag of Wyoming lasered onto your magazine, or “We the People” machined into a handguard? No sweat. Want every single visible part of your rifle to be a different color, such that it begins to resemble Austin Powers’s plane? World’s your oyster. If you can think it up, somebody on the Internet is probably doing it. And if they’re not, they will be tomorrow.
My plan was to build a classic all-black gun as my test case, and then to branch out with a slightly more interesting two-tone model for the second build. For both guns I used a combination of customized, bespoke parts that I sourced myself — including a lower receiver that I paid a local dealer to cerakote in olive drab green (ODG), a set of ODG “1776” takedown pins, and an ODG buffer tube with the Second Amendment’s text engraved on its side — and a collection of high-end, best-in-the-industry parts that were provided to National Review for the purpose of this piece by Bravo Company Manufacturing and by Magpul Industries. (Bravo Company Manufacturing provided the two top-end 5.56/.223 upper receivers and bolt-carrier assemblies, and Magpul provided the stocks, sights, trigger guards, and magazines.)
Throughout the building process, I was repeatedly surprised by how easy it all was. As a chronic tinkerer who, in the last year, has rewired much of my house, upgraded a golf cart so that it might be usefully driven on local roads, and learned more about KitchenAid dishwashers than I ever wanted to know, I was waiting to hit some sort of wall — perhaps even be forced to ask for help. But I never did. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t use the wrong tool or the wrong springs. I didn’t misread an instruction. I didn’t hit the wrong part with my hammer when rudely distracted by a bee. It just worked. The first gun took me an hour and a half. The second one took me 30 minutes. Had I built a third, I daresay I could have knocked it out in 25. In the space of couple of hours, I went from looking at all the pieces that were laid out on the table as an alien might look at a disassembled clock, to thinking, “I wonder what would happen if I changed that . . .”
And here’s the thing: That “if” will inevitably become “when,” because, if I want to, I can swap everything out again. The last time I went to a gun show, I was relegated to playing the interested spectator, gawking stupidly at all the adornments on display. Next time, it’ll all make sense. I am admittedly new to this game, but I am left with the suspicion that one no more “finishes” an AR-15 than one “finishes” a Jeep Wrangler. The lines between fixing, upgrading, and maintaining are so thin as to be meaningless. The process is the point.
Which raises an interesting political question: With all this knowledge out there and all these parts in circulation, how do the likes of Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris think they are going to ban, or even regulate, the AR-15 in the future? It is true, I suppose, that I didn’t “build” my guns so much as I “assembled” them with the help of a good number of professional manufacturers. And yet, given the improvement in 3D-printing technology and the growth of inexpensive drilling-and-milling equipment, it would not be too difficult to replace most of the components in a pinch.
Back in 2013, Magpul responded to the state of Colorado’s decision to ban magazines that could hold more than 15 rounds by prioritizing any orders from Colorado that came in before the deadline, a move that it termed the “Boulder Airlift” and promised would “bring much-needed gun supplies to freedom-loving residents trapped inside occupied territory.” This was a welcome move, and one that would likely be repeated were other governments to try to effect a ban. But perhaps even more important than the widespread willingness to flood “occupied territory” is the fact that the blueprints for the AR-15 are a matter of public record and it is possible to construct one in a matter of hours. Type “How to Build an AR-15” into Google, and you’ll find hundreds of results. That isn’t going away any time soon.
Nor should it, for there is something admirably egalitarian about the most popular rifle in America also being the easiest to build, alter, and maintain. George Orwell once wrote that the “rifle on the wall of the labourer’s cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy.” Later he observed that “when the dominant weapon is cheap and simple, the common people have a chance.” The AR-15 may not be the dominant weapon in America, but it is certainly cheap and simple, easy to repair, commonly owned, and customizable to a fault — a boon to Madison’s “advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation.” For now, that’s about as much as one can ask for.