It seems like an age ago, but I got my first AR-15 in September 2019. With the exception of a couple of states in the Union, most of us on the firearm journey are bound to encounter Eugene Stoner’s famous invention in some shape or form, and quite a lot of us get our hands on one. Its cultural, historical, and political significance can be as complicated and burdensome as one makes it to be, and ultimately it’s hard to argue that the AR isn’t “America’s Rifle.”
Basic Be Basic
The AR platform is about as “open source” as a firearm design can get (with a nod to the AK-47; I’m not forgetting you), and thanks to a set of consistent design specifications almost anyone with the relatively lo-tech machinery can crank out AR parts and complete rifles. Some folks make ‘em better than others, some folks make ‘em cheaper than others, and other folks just make ‘em. Palmetto State Armory seems to have made its mission to make reasonably affordable, performant, and reliable (with “reasonably” being open to interpretation and flame wars) AR’s by Americans, for Americans.
In the hindsightedly mellow, Before Covid (B.C.) days of 2019, I ordered PSA’s “Freedom Rifle” for around $450. It’s a no-frills, basic AR-15 with a 16" barrel. It’s so no-frills, that I had to supply my own rear sight which I just happened to have handy.
Admittedly I hadn’t shot the AR much, as my go-to range is primarily for handguns. I’ve taken it to a Liberal Gun Club range day (and realized how difficult it is to see, let alone shoot, something at 100 yards… astigmatism, etc.) and to PSTC’s “rifle night” on a Thursday or two. I’d learned enough about operation and maintenance from the usual sources (peer/village wisdom and YouTube) to have at least half a clue on how to be safe with and around it. And that was about it. It’s unabashedly loud, more expensive to feed than 9mm firearms, and not as convenient to practice. And so it sat quietly locked up for a while.
Not Quite Putting the Blunder in Blunderbuss
Earlier this year I started tinkering with AR pistols which are admittedly strange creatures of the gun world. They’re not really concealable in any practical, daily sense, while their attenuated barrels severely short change any ballistics advantages of a rifle cartridge. Furthermore, the ergonomics of the stabilizing brace are (to me anyway) absurdly awkward outside the intended use case of addressing accessibility concerns. Oh, and they’re even louder and more obnoxiously concussive than rifles, which means that even fewer gun ranges will tolerate folks blasting away with these things.
And they’re a lot of fun for all those reasons.
Anyway, long story less long, I started frequenting Threat Dynamics for the FFL transfers on the pistol lowers, and I eventually signed up for the “Intro to AR Rifles” class, because I have an AR rifle, so I might as well as get mildly competent with it.
Uppers and Lowers in ARs (Oh My!)
In a broad brush stroke, one can describe the AR-15 as consisting of an upper receiver assembly and a lower receiver assembly. While it may not necessarily make the most intuitive sense, US law considers the lower receiver - or simply, the lower - to be a “firearm,” and thus requires the buyer of said lower to fill out paperwork and pass a background check.
The upper assembly contains the barrel, chamber, bolt, optics, and so on, and that can be purchased without a background check. With important legal (i.e., minimum barrel lengths depending on the classification of the lower as either a rifle or a pistol) and mechanical (e.g., can’t put a 9mm upper on a 5.56/.223 lower) exceptions, you can swap out uppers with your lower, and vice versa.
All that superfluous exposition leads up to the decision to buy a whole, new complete upper assembly, because I didn’t like the handguard and the front sight of the Freedom Rifle. Yeah, it’s kind of a pain to try to attach things like forward grips and lights to the M4 handguard, and it’s also possible to swap out the handguard for something more attachment-friendly. But PSA had a sale that week, and I couldn’t resist.
So, here we are with a completely new upper receiver assembly, along with a Vortex Crossfire red dot optic, weapon-mounted light (plus green laser), and backup sights. The stock has been replaced as well with a Pepto-Bismol pink unit - the last one on hand at the shop. I figure so much of the firearm world is drab, so why not add a touch of color?
Some Minor Adjustments
Right before I took the AR class, I added a forward grip and repositioned the light to the side.
The “banana” magazine arrived a tad late for the class, but I do make a point of bringing it with me to as many range outings as I can.
It’s rather hard to see in this photo, but the bolt carrier group was upgraded with a “premium” BCG which I’m led to believe uses better materials than the “standard.” I do not imagine this would have much impact on the operation of the firearm for me, but it was on sale and so on.
Magnify and Amplify
The next addition was the Sig Sauer Juliet 3 Micro magnifier which, as the name suggests, makes the blurry target at 100 yards just that much less fuzzy. There’s scads of content on the Interwebz on the pros and cons of red dots and magnifiers versus the LPVO (low power variable optic). In fact, learning about optics and firearms will involve many hours of navigating a minefield of rabbit holes.
While there are conflicting opinions online (I’m shocked, really?!) as to the necessity of zeroing the magnifier after you zero the red dot, I learned that yes, you do need to zero the magnifier after you zero the red dot.
Not At All Final Form
And here’s where we are at the moment. The Vortex Crossfire has been replaced with a Vortex Sparc, and the nubby forward grip has been replaced with a suitably sober colored vertical handle. Not pictured here is the CMMG .22LR conversion kit which is basically an easily swappable bolt carrier group that allows you to use the lighter (and cheaper) rimfire cartridge in a 5.56/.223 AR. Sure, ballistics and accuracy go out the window with that kind of hack sorcery, but it’s close enough at indoor pistol range distances where you can now practice with a smaller ammo tab.
Actually, here’s the conversion kit installed in the AR. Note the shiny, shiny metal, which makes it easier to spot in the wild (along with the uniquely characteristic magazines that go with the conversion kit).
To Be Continued
I’m sure the folks at Open Source Defense have more comprehensive and better articulated thoughts on the flexibilities and dynamics of a crowd-managed technology platform like the AR-15. Whether it was initially designed to be or not, it has evolved into a firearm system that allows a plethora of customization and personalization. I’ll very likely be adding and replacing bits on this rifle as needs and whims see fit, and that is so totally up my mechanical engineering alley.