One of my mother's uncles had a laconic response to a proposed gun ban in long-ago New Jersey. "Doesn't matter. We'll build our own." His comment came back to me after my wife gifted our son (and me) a jig for completing an unfinished AR-15 lower receiver. Like my great uncle, we built our own.
Making personal firearms is legal under federal law, if that matters to you, although local rules vary. Finishing "80 percent" receivers is a popular way to take advantage of that leeway, since the roughed-out blocks of polymer or aluminum—shaped like the part of the AR-15 rifle that contains the hammer, safety, and trigger, but solid where those parts should fit—can be purchased without the paperwork required for buying a firearm. It's a modern take on my great uncle's hobby, eased by jigs that guide drill bits and end mills for finishing the project.
My wife gave us the 80% Arms Easy Jig, one of several competing products. Having done this just once, I can't tell you which is best, but the Easy Jig got the job done, and it includes clear instructions to complement the online video.
First, we drilled the pilot hole needed to start milling the pocket for the fire control group (basically, the hammer and trigger). Despite plenty of oil, my drill press kept binding. I repeatedly had to use a corded hand drill to back out the bit, which came in a package of tools also purchased from 80% Arms, before resuming. Eventually, the bit won the battle.
Attaching the end mill from the toolkit to a router and milling out the pocket was easier than anticipated. With lots of patience, we took turns removing layers of aluminum. Molded into the jig are gauges for incrementally extending the end mill, but our router unlocked a couple of times, cutting deeper than intended. Fortunately, that never happened when it mattered. We learned to anticipate such slips by feel so we could tighten the router.
Next, we drilled holes for the hammer, safety, and trigger, using bits from the toolkit. The included bubble level helped horizontally orient the receiver relative to the drill press.
Because we focused on finishing a lower receiver, for the rest of the build we used a parts kit from Palmetto State Armory. For guidance, we turned to The AR-15 Complete Assembly Guide by Walt Kuleck and Clint McKee as well as the online Ultimate Visual Guide from Pew Pew Tactical. The book walks you through the process, while the well-illustrated Ultimate Visual Guide suggests workarounds for some specialized tools. An inexpensive gunsmithing punch set proved indispensable.
At first, the safety wouldn't slip into place. When I probed with the drill bit, I discovered that the holes on each side of the frame were just a hair out of alignment. A slow turn of the bit in the drill removed a whisker of aluminum, and in the safety went.
"It's simpler inside than I expected," my son, Anthony, told me as he installed parts and figured out how they make the firearm function.
Building a rifle "won't make you an AR-15 armorer, but it will make you a more knowledgeable owner," Kuleck and McKee note. "In short, if you build it, you'll know how to repair it."
That's a reminder that too many things in our lives might as well be magic given our limited understanding of how they work. We can't demystify everything, but examining a few things important to us enriches our knowledge while giving us more control over our lives.
To find out if our new rifle would go bang, we went to the local range. Anthony got first dibs. Yes, our home-built AR-15 works as intended!
Unfortunately, the Biden administration sees political advantage in tightening rules on DIY firearms. Anything that can "readily be converted" to shoot, according to extremely subjective criteria, may soon be identified as a firearm under regulatory revisions proposed by the administration. But even the proposed revisions leave room for hobbyists to make their own guns, just as my great uncle did long before 80 percent receivers existed.
Anthony eagerly anticipated the answer he would offer to the inevitable "What did you do this summer?" questions at school. As for me, I'm more prepared than ever to rebut control freaks' demands for tighter restrictions the same way my great uncle did: "Doesn't matter. We'll build our own."