There are thousands of companies out there which sell ARs and AR components. There isn’t a question of if someone can find a specific, generic part but the quality of that part. Today the prices of manufacturing equipment are relatively low and it’s not uncommon to find a company ‘making’ components out of garages or small warehouses.
However, even the large companies are making inexpensive parts at questionable prices. When Palmetto State Armory (PSA) can offer a complete upper receiver with BGH, CH, and MBUS sights for $270. They also currently offer complete lowers finished with a Magpul stock for $160. So pricing like this it begs to have items questioned in overall quality.
Why are they inexpensive to begin with?
Well, it’s pretty simple to follow the concept of supply and demand. But when it comes to companies that support the 2nd Amendment it’s not uncommon to see lower prices just out of pure principal. PSA is said to be: “Arming America” and it has been successfully making the popular AR15 platform both affordable and easily customizable for quite a while. With the quantity of units produced the supply is readily flowing even when things are routinely out of stock.
Many argue that the company cuts corners on material quality or sourcing methods. This may have some validity, but it has been shown that they source many parts from some of the top leading industry manufacturers. As they continue to grow, they have added new, proprietary items with low cost for consumers. There still remains the question of raw-material procurement. Some companies, like Hardened Arms, offer competitive pricing and can also tell you exactly what mine their raw materials come from.
If everything is mil-spec, why the big fuss?
Mil-spec will only refer to the overall measurements and general materials used, however that is constantly changing as new materials are being integrated. Polymer produced lower receivers will have the same fire control measurements and holes as an aluminum lower receiver. There are a lot of small additions to a mil-spec receiver –specifically lower receivers – that can turn an ‘okay’ receiver into an ‘excellent’ receiver when manufactured from the same materials.
- Magwell flare
- Additional hand placement grooves in front of magwell
- Lower parts upgrades; like a trigger, ambidextrous safety selector, or anti-walk pins
- Final fit inside magwell
- Reinforcing material between fire control pocket and rear takedown pin
- Forged vs billet vs cast receiver
- A380 vs 7075 T6 vs 6061 T6 aluminum
- Additional engraved markings
- Overall finish
There is a lot that goes into a decision on what lower to choose. With so many companies producing and selling their own unique spin on the ‘mil-spec’ variant it’s easy to lose track. But we’ll focus on the simple, run-of-the-mill, bare-bones receiver options; in which Palmetto seems to have found pride in.
Ultimately, a lower is a lower is a lower. If the measurements and material are adequate there should be no issues. No lower will outperform another lower in its ability to hold the trigger system and magazine in place if they are made correctly.
What about the other components?
PSA has begun to make their own barrels and still sources their chrome lined barrels from FN. They have never hidden where they get their products from, unlike many competitors. But secrets in manufacture are good and do drive the industry in an upward motion. Each and every component that goes into producing an AR is pretty standard. But here is where most consumer are divided over quality of a product. There is a large focus on several key component that are instrumental to overall function: barrel, bolt carrier group, and handguard.
There are additional items to look into like the gas block, charging handle, muzsel device, and sights. Each of these particular items makes the use of an AR easier, but they do not drastically change the overall use of an AR – sans gas block and muzzle device – in their stock mil-spec forms and most can be easily changed.
Many options come with a barrel depending on the intended use. Since most companies use standard gas port in the desired length a system setup (pistol, carbine, or rifle) it comes down to the finishing. These specialized barrels don’t really mix with budget rifles.
There are several barrel finishes to consider, in terms of accuracy and look. Stainless steel, chrome lined, Chrome Moly 4150V, nitride and phosphate.
- Since stainless steel barrels have less finishing they tend to be lower cost and have great accuracy, but their life use is short.
- Chrome lined barrels have a real coating which wears down with use. These barrels will last a long time for an average user but there can be accuracy issues.
- Chrome Moly 4150V is really the type of steel used to make the barrel but can also come uncoated. These barrels may be prone to more rust issues but may also come chrome lined. It’s all up to how much money the company wanted to save in production.
- Nitride barrels seem to do the ‘go-to’ option and hardened the steel while making it brittle. These barrels also have great accuracy and life.
- Phosphate (parkerized) is just the exterior finish and can be stainless steel, chrome moly 4150V, or chrome lined on the inside. Obviously, the issues with life and accuracy apply.
Bolt Carrier Group:
Bolt Carrier Groups (or BCGs) are often overlooked when determining overall quality of a rifle. The finishing, like barrels, can determine the overall lifespan of the BCG. There are also Mil-spec, fully-auto, and semi-auto version and each are quite popular. The only real difference in construction is that the semi-auto version had less mass near the read of the BCG. Theoretically, a fully-auto and mil-spec BCG must stand up to more abuse and therefore have more material. Neither are better or worse and semi-auto BCGs are just as durable.
There are also different steel options. Let’s stick with the fact that Carpenter 158 steel would be a good average in terms of usable steel. Anything with specialized coating would not become budget friendly. Aluminum, titanium, and hybrid materials are more to reduce weight and come with a hefty price tag.
As far as coatings go, Phosphate is quite common in budget ARs and not something we could easily recommend. It can lead to jamming due to the rough texture, dirt build up, and needs a significant amount of oil to run properly. This may be one of the deciding factors when making a choice about a budget AR. A nitride BCG in C158 steel is really a perfect option.
There is too much to talk about when it comes to handguards. Some like quad-rail while others prefer slim rails. Some prefer MLok while others prefer KeyMod (no one likes KeyMod). Even still, some prefer M4 carbine handguards while others like the handguard to be free-floating.
What should be more concerning is the quality of fit and production. You can always find something you like to look at later. A good initial fit and construction is key to a comfortably handled rifle. Companies like Seekins Precision started by making high quality fit and finish handguards. Since then they have grown and are producing their own rifles to very high tolerances and standards.
Hardened Arms produces all their own handguards and make some mean looking ones. But, in their quadrails there are screw attachments which can easily come loose when using the firearm. This can mean the firearm is uncomfortable to handle or even dangerous. Proper maintenance will always prevent issues.
Even Midwest Industries produces a lot of handguards which will float around the barrel. Some look downright bad ass while other are purely utilitarian. But again, a nice design or look does not mean the firearm itself is less functionable.
Really, any well affixed handguard will do the task and do it well. In the case of carbine handguards; they do not usually come with Picatinny rails and are there purely for safety from the barrel and proper handling.
The real issue is:
No matter the company the internals are going to be pretty close to the same. Small changes in metal placement may make it easier to insert the mag but that doesn’t mean it’s less capable. The real issue is: *drumroll* fit, finish, and quality control.
Companies like PSA save costs and send out so many rifles it’s easy to have a lot of turn over or hire people without experience in assembling rifles. The proper torque, overall fit of the pins, and perfect alignment are the most essential component to any firearm. Without having proper quality control items can go out without a properly torques barrel nut and come loose after 50 rounds. Likewise, a misaligned roll pin can wreak havoc on the fingers and hands of a user.
The most often overlooked rifles are the budget friendly rifles. Fit and finish are a qualifying component of any high-end rifle and expected to be evident in every area. But for these budget friendly, entry level rifles it’s all too common to have major issues because of simple quality control. That, in turn, can ruin the reputation of a company. The materials aren’t necessarily the issue (sometimes they are).
It’s not a bad idea to get a budget friendly rifle or gun. They are a great starting point, even if you are upgrading every major component along the way. A BCG, charging handle, flash suppressor, grip, handguard, optic, gas block, and barrel can all be changed out. But anyone who received a low-cost AR should carefully look over the materials, quality, and assembly to avoid issues.