By Nick Saiti Photos
By Straight 8
What would you do with a million dollars? The freedom to choose without the hindrance of a budget is something few people get to experience. Initially this was the charge I received for this article. Build a good all-around AR-15 from the Brownells catalog. This is going to be a walk in the park. I finally have the opportunity to put together a dream gun. I wonder how heavy thermal scopes are?
Then came one of the weightiest words in the English language, “But.” You can build a range-ready rifle, but you have a budget of $3,000; range ready, meaning everything needed to shoot including optics. Come on! Suddenly, all the visions I had of lights, lasers, night vision, and satellite dishes were circling the drain.
Now there are parameters. To help things along, a starting point was given. Brownells has partnered with Bravo Company Manufacturing to offer a “near complete rifle.” The BCM AR-15 OEM RECCE mid-length lightweight 16-inch rifle is basically an AR-15 without a handguard or buttstock. The thought behind this is to give the shooter the choice to add their preferred accessories and create a semi-custom rifle.
Shooters have been piecing together guns since the birth of gunpowder, or at least since I started shooting. Which is pretty much the same thing. The process usually consisted of scouring the land for the perfect parts then fastening it all together. It’s a medieval process involving forges, anvils, and lengthy beards. Anyone who has tried to install takedown pins knows what I’m talking about. After everything is said and done, there’s a feeling of fulfillment in putting a gun together versus buying one off the shelf. Whether this is real or not is inconsequential — it’s the feeling that counts.
The first step is purpose. Every shooter knows there is no such thing as an “all-around” rifle. You need a separate firearm for every activity. It’s like playing a round of golf with only one club. Technically it can be done, but it won’t be pretty. You simply can’t make it through life with just one gun. This is what I have convinced my wife of anyway, and she doesn’t even play golf.
The Balancing Act
The three most important parts of an AR are the sights, the barrel, and the trigger, with reliability as a given. When these components are covered you can handle most situations within reason. The tricky part of this build was to find the balance of good and good enough, while staying within the budget. There are key areas in which you just can’t cut corners. The BCM rifle is a great foundation for a solid build. Functionality always takes precedence over aesthetics. The upper and lower receivers are both made from 7075-T6 aluminum and are Type III Class 2 hardcoat anodized. The bolt is at Mil-spec standards, being both high-pressure tested and magnetic particle inspected. Basically, they are harder than trigonometry. These parts can stay.
The biggest concern with the BCM setup was the barrel. This is the part that is most responsible for the accuracy, and if you can’t hit what you’re aiming at, what’s the point? The barrel is 16-inch, chrome-lined, lightweight profiled, with a mid-length gas system. The lands and grooves make one rotation every 7 inches. This is good news for heavier bullets, but might not pan out for the lighter stuff. For now the barrel is on probation.
The rifle comes with a slew of BCM upgraded parts. The mod 4 charging handle is solid and has little flex with one-handed manipulations. The mod 3 pistol grip, oversized trigger guard, and QD endplate just made the cut. The PNT trigger broke at a decent 4.5 pounds, but when it comes to triggers, decent isn’t enough. The “stock” trigger is the first casualty of the build.
The JP EZ trigger comes with the necessary trigger parts along with anti-walk pins, different-weight springs, a safety, and everything needed to install. The beauty of this trigger is its adjustability. The factory rates these as being from 3 to 4.5 pounds, but I have felt a few that have gone off at a whisper. As this is going to be an all-around rifle the weight was set at 3 pounds, not going crazy light and still having a short, positive reset. This is the one part that takes some care and understanding to install. Graciously, JP included a how-to DVD to walk me through.
Now to the parts that are nonexistent. I don’t put much stock in buttstocks (pun almost intended), as they are just a place to shoulder the rifle. The important concern is to get a good cheek weld and the length of pull that you need. Adjustable stocks are usually a bit heavier than fixed. Giving up the adjustability for a few ounces doesn’t make sense in this situation. The Magpul adaptable carbine storage (ACS) stock is a comfortable adjustable unit that has storage to boot. More importantly, it doesn’t break the bank.
To the front !
There are a couple of factors when searching for a handguard. First, it needs to be long enough to get a stable grip on the gun and also not to rest the barrel on any surface resulting in shots off target. Real estate is important. You want to have enough room for future additions, i.e. lights, lasers, and bipods. The Samson Evolution series 15-inch handguard fit the bill. This unit does not offer M-LOK or even KeyMod attachments, but has its own proprietary system for installing rails. While this unit doesn’t have some of the bells and whistles of others, it gets the job done and is most likely the easiest to install.
Insert irony here. The least expensive item on the list has the biggest effect on the shootability. The DPMS Miculek compensator has three large baffles that work hard to direct gases up and away from the rifle. The comp can be rotated to tune it for the most effective redirection of muzzle energy. The general consensus is to rotate the comp to the 1 o’clock position to compensate a righthanded shooter’s hold.
A small, powerful, and rugged light is a definite necessity. Imagine trying to investigate that bump in the night without a light. The Streamlight TLR-1 Hl weaponlight fits these criteria perfectly. Made out of shock-resistant aluminum and producing a whopping 800 lumens, it is hard to beat this little gem, especially for $140.
The budget keeps popping up like the boss inquiring about TPS reports. All of the scratching, skimping, and frugality were not in vain. My plan was to save as much money as possible on everything else so I can splurge on the optic. The Vortex Razor HD 2 was the goal, but alas the numbers just didn’t add up. Unless I could figure out a way to shoot without a buttstock or handguard I was out of luck. So I had to settle for the Leupold VX-6 1-6 power scope with a CMR2 reticle. I say “settle,” only because the price is a little less, but this scope gives every bit as much as the Razor HD 2 and in some places more. It’s a true one-power scope, meaning it can be used as a red dot optic. Although the illumination is not quite daylight visible, the clarity of the glass makes up for it. All this and it weighs in at a mammoth 10 ounces less than the Vortex. The only thing better than the quality of this scope is the full lifetime warranty that comes with it.
When I started shooting rifles the scope was one of the places I looked to save money. After traveling that road, I never want to go there again. There is absolutely no substitute for quality glass. Go to any precision rifle match. I dare you to find a scope that costs less than the rifle.
Now that the scope is selected, a suitable mount has to go with it. I can’t seem to think of the right words to convey to an intruder that they should hold on while I tighten my scope mount. That would be embarrassing. Warne makes a quality product that has been tested through the rigors of competition. This is a good place to finish the build, “But.” Brownells is the one-stop shop for every gunsmith and serious shooter I know. I imagine it like Santa’s workshop, with gun elves scurrying about franticly with firearms and ammo all around them. In the hustle and bustle, things get overlooked and the Warne mount was out of stock at the time. I chose an Aero Precision Ultralight SPR mount. This has everything I need in a mount that’s rigid and lightweight.
I rack this up to the cost of having one place where you can build a gun from the ground up and not have to leave the confines of your living room. It’s a far cry from the old days where you would run up your phone bill tracking down parts from the farthest reaches. With Brownells the farthest you might have to go is to the mailbox.
There were a couple of honorable mentions on the parts list. If I just had a little more money an adjustable gas block and a throw lever for the scope would have made the cut. I had to remind myself that this was not a dream build, but an exercise in budgeting.
On the Range
Now to reap the rewards of all the work, I finally get to shoot this thing! I ran a few run-and-gun-style stages, and as I suspected the AR was flat. In shooting, as opposed to my singing, flat is a good thing. With all the lightweight parts, the gun was very balanced and easy to swing. A common selection of ammo was used in testing accuracy. The worst 100-yard group was accomplished with 55-grain XM193 at 1.367 inches, and the best group with Federal 69-grain SMK at 0.657 inch. This lay to rest my probationary concern of the barrel’s accuracy.
Separately, the parts for this build hardly raise an eyebrow, but combined they present a rifle of unexecpected capability. This is the closest you can get to an “all-around” rifle, holding its own in any situation you can throw at it. It would be a stretch to take it on a hunting trip, but game has been taken with lesser guns. In the end, this is a scenario I didn’t expect — “good enough” parts came together to make a great gun.