Wring big fun from a small-budget smallbore part 1: here's how to build a pair of cost-effective .22-cal. AR-15 pistols.
As a writer for a national magazine 1 have a responsibility to write about subjects that reflect the interest of readers. For the last several years the most popular firearm has been the AR-15 family of weapons. Never in the recent history of the firearms hobby has there been a gun that so dominated the industry. Today, for better or worse, the gun world seems to revolve around the AR-15. It seems like readers can't get enough AR-15 articles. I have written over 125 SGN articles over the last 10 years and 27 of them have been on AR-15 type firearms. It seems like I have covered the building of about every type of AR-15 that personally interests me. Until recently I figured I would not be writing any more AR-15 related articles (although there are several more in the publishing schedule awaiting publication). Recently while viewing a Web page about fellow AR enthusiast projects, I saw something that interested me. These projects were AR-15 pistols in .22 Long Rifle rimfire. The projects presented on that Web page ran the gamut from mild to wild and expensive to incredibly cheap. I decided I would need a .22 AR pistol of my own. I also decided to turn my personal project into yet another SGN AR-15 article.
The question would be on what type of pistol to build and feature in my article. Over the years I have followed--to some extent--what readers say about my projects. There seem to be two opposing viewpoints about my projects. Some say my projects are too hard while others say they are too easy. Some also say my projects are too expensive while others question "why is this guy so cheap?" This got me to thinking that perhaps on this article I could try to please both factions at the same time. This means that for this project I would be building two AR pistols. One will be very easy to build but all of the factory-made parts will drive the cost of the project higher. The other project will be very inexpensive yet the cost savings will be paid by way of extra labor fabricating inexpensive parts. Readers who decide to take on this project can combine the two projects to make their own as easy or hard as they want and they can decide just how much work they are willing to do to save money.
While one project will be more expensive than the other, that doesn't mean that I will be frivolous in my spending. My cheap nature will not allow it. I will still be searching out the best prices for the expensive project as well as the less expensive project.
Since both projects will be .22 Long Rifle versions of the AR-15, there will be one part common to both projects: .22 Long Rifle conversion units. These conversion units replace the standard bolt carrier assembly in an AR-15 and allow easy conversion to .22 Long Rifle. These conversion units allow you to create a real AR-15 in .22 Long Rifle rather than just making a gun that externally looks like an AR-15. All you have to do is install the conversion and a .22 Long Rifle magazine and you are ready to go. On the other hand, if you are starting from scratch, a better method is to make your AR a dedicated .22 AR-15. A dedicated .22 Long Rifle AR-15 features a barrel made specifically for .22 rimfire and does away with the ability to change back to .223/5.56 NATO. You can still use the lower half of the gun for either caliber but the upper will be for the specific caliber. A dedicated .22 Long Rifle AR-15 is typically more accurate and functions somewhat better than a converted gun. The projects featured here will be dedicated guns. The .22 Long Rifle conversion units for each type are slightly different. A conversion unit that fits in a .223/5.56 gun features a chamber adapter that fits into the chamber to fill in the larger chamber. A conversion unit for a dedicated .22 Long Rifle gun does not have this adapter. This type of conversion simply features a collar that fits on to the end of a dedicated .22 Long Rifle barrel.
There are several brands and formats of AR-15 .22 conversion units on the market. One of the most popular and highly regarded conversions is made by CMMG (www. cmmginc.com). Full retail price direct from CMMG for a conversion with one magazine can be as high as $259. Because I search out all the bargains I can find, I have never paid full retail for CMMG conversions I have bought in the past. The most I have ever paid was about $150. Fortunately, for these two projects, I got by for even less.
I attend the Knob Creek Military Gun Show and Machine Gun Shoot (www.machinegunshoot.com) twice each year. At this very large show many of the big names in AR-15 parts attend and sell their products. SGN advertisers such as J+T Distributing, M+A Parts, Model 1 Sales, SARCO, DS Arms, and others offer their wares at prices at or below the prices advertised in SGN. This is also the place where these companies sell limited quantity items, production overruns, customer returns, cosmetic defect parts and other items that normally are not listed in their catalogs. This means you can find some real bargains at this large show.
One of the big-name AR companies that routinely set up at the "Creek" is CMMG. Since I needed a couple of their .22 conversion units, I searched them out to see if they had any bargain-priced conversions. Despite their catalog prices, I found a bargain on .22 conversions. These discounted units were used conversions that had been used for product and quality control testing. While used, they were in very good condition other than being a little dirty from use. They were being sold without packaging and had one used magazine attached to the used units. As used units, they were being sold "as is" but due to the high quality of CMMG products I had no concerns. The price was only $80 each! This was about a third the cost of- a new unit so I jumped on the deal. They had types for dedicated .22 projects as well as units with the chamber adapters. I prefer stainless conversions but they only had one left so I bought one stainless and one Parkerized version.
After buying the used conversions, I decided to look over the rest of the CMMG display. I got lucky and found another big bargain. They were offering a large pile of non-standard AR-15 barrels. Some were cosmetic defects, quality control rejects, or incompletely machined barrels. It was there that I found a dedicated 11-inch .22 Long Rifle barrel that would be perfect for my high priced/easy build pistol. This barrel was a discontinued version that featured a different profile than what CMMG now sells. It was completely finished and looked to be a good barrel despite its $80 price, which was about $100 under normal price.
While these parts would be used on the higher priced pistol, there is no reason to spend more than necessary. Between these two parts, I saved more than $250. This would leave more money for other items and help keep the high-dollar project from being prohibitively expensive. If you spend like a drunken sailor, the project can become ridiculously expensive. Bargains are out there for everyone; you just have to search them out and jump on them when you find them.
I would still need another .22 barrel for the two projects. For the low-cost pistol, I wanted a barrel even lower in cost than the bargain-priced CMMG unit. In this case, I would be using an incredibly low-cost option that I have used on past .22 Long Rifle AR-15 rifle projects: a lightly used Ruger 10/22 barrel. Replacing stock Ruger 10/22 barrels with target barrels is a very popular project, so there are a lot of 10/22 "take off" barrels for sale cheap. I routinely see 10/22 take off barrels priced from as low as $15, so I searched one out at some local gun shows.
I only had to visit a couple shows before I found a used barrel for my project. One big benefit to using a 10/22 barrel is that they are already chambered in .22 Long Rifle. While you could utilize any inexpensive barrel blank for this project, a chambered 10/22 barrel makes the barrel portion much easier.
A Ruger 10/22 barrel will in no way fit an AR-15 receiver, but it will be excellent material to use to make an AR-15 .22 Long Rifle barrel. Anyone who has a metal lathe and some basic lathe operation skills will be able to easily turn a 10/22 barrel into an AR-15 .22 Long Rifle barrel. At this point, I am sure some readers are saying they can't build this project because they don't have a lathe or the skill to run it.
Well, do you think I was born atop a lathe with the skill pre-loaded in my brain? Anyone with basic mechanical skills can learn to operate a lathe. I bought an old lathe at a garage sale back in the 1970s for $50 and picked up a lathe book and taught myself. You can, too. Used lathes today may cost as much as $350-$500, but this cost can quickly be recouped in savings on just a few projects.
In this case, making an AR barrel from a 10/22 barrel will save about $200. A few cost-saving jobs like this will pay for a used lathe. Making my own guns has allowed this poor SOB to have a gun collection way beyond my economic status.
With the barrels and conversion units purchased, I would now need two AR-15 lower receivers. The lower receiver is what the government considers to be "the gun" and therefore needs to be purchased from a FFL-holding gun dealer. You will have to make out a form 4473 and have a background check run to buy this part, even though most would not consider it to be a gun.
Before I go on to describe what receivers I chose for this project, I need to address some of the legal aspects of using AR-15 receivers for pistol projects. You cannot legally use an AR-15 rifle receiver to build a pistol. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATFE) has very specific rules on what defines an AR-15 rifle or pistol receiver and how they can be used.
Failure to obey these BATFE regulations can result in one committing a federal felony that is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Under BATFE regulations one cannot use a rifle receiver to create a legal pistol. Using an existing rifle receiver to build a pistol creates what the BATFE calls a short-barreled rifle. Creating a short-barreled rifle (SBR) without prior BATFE approval is illegal and subject to the same penalties as creating an illegal machine gun.
There are legal means to create SBRs, but that is beyond the scope of this article. An AR-15 rifle receiver is generally defined as any AR-15 type receiver that has at any time (first time assembled) been assembled into a rifle format firearm. This means you cannot use an existing rifle receiver to make a pistol. To be legal you must use an AR-15 pistol receiver or a "virgin" AR-15 receiver that has never been assembled as a rifle.
Note that there is somewhat of a "gray area" concerning "virgin" or new AR-15 pistol receivers. A stripped receiver cannot technically be classified as a pistol or rifle until it is assembled into one format or the other. Some AR parts sellers offer bare AR-15 pistol receivers for sale, but if it has never been assembled as a pistol it technically can't be a pistol. A virgin receiver is just that, a virgin receiver. It is not a rifle or pistol until it is assembled into one form or the other. When you buy a stripped receiver, it is listed as "other" or "receiver" on the form 4473 since as a bare receiver it is not a pistol or rifle yet.
The most common and easiest way of getting an AR-15 pistol receiver is simply to buy a stripped virgin receiver from a FFL-holding gun dealer. Once you assemble it into either format, said format will be its designation for life. If you buy a stripped receiver and build it first as a rifle, it should always remain a rifle. If you first build it as a pistol, it should always remain a pistol. This way you don't have to worry about legal technicalities.
Just remember the saying: "Once a pistol, always a pistol," and "Once a rifle, always a rifle." This will keep you out of trouble. I specifically do not recommend buying a used AR-15 pistol receiver, since you cannot really be sure of its past classification.
If a trace on the gun by law enforcement shows that the receiver was originally sold as a rifle and you used it to build a pistol, you would be in possession of an illegal SBR.
For my two projects, I purchased two stripped virgin receivers through my local FFL-holding gun dealer. Most gun dealers don't carry stripped receivers so you' may have to special-order them. At the present time (summer 2015) AR-15 parts are at record low prices, so the receivers will not be a major expense as long as you are a frugal shopper.
For my higher-priced project, I wanted a unique receiver that was styled significantly different than a GI part. I chose the ATI (American Tactical Imports) Omni Hybrid polymer lower receiver. It's stylized and features molded-in-place metal inserts for strength. A lot of AR builders criticize and dislike polymer receivers, and some of their criticisms are valid. Cracking at the rear of the receiver is a well-known issue. The designers at ATI addressed this issue by molding in metal reinforcements. This gives the ATI Omni Hybrid receiver enough strength that I have no concerns about using one for my projects.
An AR-15 receiver is not a highly stressed part, and if it's designed correctly, there is no reason a polymer receiver can't be adequate. Low manufacturing cost makes this receiver very inexpensive. A while back, I ordered three of them from an online source, and only paid $37 each, which included shipping cost.
I am not a big fan of polymer gun parts, but they're the wave of the future, so I have made up my mind to accept them as long as they perform adequately. I think 10 years from now, most AR-15s will feature polymer receivers, just as most of today's handguns use them. My low-cost/ high-labor project would feature another brand of inexpensive lower receiver. Recently the firearms accessory company TAPCO has begun offering their own brand of receiver along with their line of other AR-15 parts. The TAPCO AR-15 receiver is a traditional forged aluminum GI-type receiver.
They are advertised as GI-spec, and I recently purchased three of them from Cope's Distributing for only $34.95 each. Some AR enthusiast will immediately dismiss a TAPCO receiver as some low-cost/low-quality receiver since TAPCO products tend to be very low-cost. This receiver is not actually made by TAPCO, which contracted with one of the largest makers of AR-15 receivers to make their private-label units. This GI-spec receiver is just as good as many other brands. The only difference is the name on the side of the receiver. Later I will look deeper at the TAPCO receiver.
With the lowers for both projects sourced at bargain prices, it was time to obtain a couple upper receivers. For my low-cost/high-labor project I went extremely cheap. DSA is primarily known as a maker of high quality FALs, but a few years ago they got into making AR-15s. DSA purchases their 7075 aluminum upper receiver forgings from outside sources but machines them in-house. In the course of machining hundreds of receivers per day, they generate a few quality control rejects. These may have dimensional issues or cosmetic defects that keep them from being sold as first-run product.
Rather than throwing them away, they toss them into a big tub and then sell them at shows like Knob Creek. They are offered as "you fix them" specials, and the price is very low, usually $15 each or two for $25.
While many are too bad to be fixed, you can root through the pile and find a few that can be easily repaired. I can spend a little time correcting problems to save a lot of money. I normally buy a couple every show. For readers who can't utilize this low-cost option, all is not lost. Many AR-15 parts vendors such as JSE Surplus, Cope's Distributing, Palmetto State Armory and others routinely offer cosmetic defect receivers for sale at very low prices.
I have bought a lot of cosmetic defect upper receivers over the last several years for $30-$40 each. The bargains are out there; you just have to look for them. Most of the cosmetic defect receivers (both uppers and lowers) have such small defects that you have to look really hard just to see the minor imperfections.
For my easy build project I wanted a first-rate ready-to-go receiver. Because I was using the stylized ATI Omni Hybrid polymer lower receiver, I decided to use the ATI Omni Hybrid upper. It's styled to match the Omni Hybrid lower receiver. It's also made of polymer, with metal inserts to strengthen it. This receiver is priced at $40 and can be ordered direct from ATI through their web site (www.americantactical.us).
The threads on the front are in the form of a metal insert that is molded in place. While the threads should be able to accept the same amount of torque as a metal receiver, keep in mind that the insert is embedded in polymer. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and I recommend using less torque on this receiver than an all-metal receiver.
Next time (10/20 issue): Beginning the easy-build .22 pistol.
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|Date:||Sep 20, 2015|
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