Do You Really Need a Rifle Gunsmith?
If you’ve decided to dive into the AR-15 world or have decided that you really want a custom AR-15 rifle, you might not be sure where to start. Most of my AR-15s were purchased as complete rifles, off the shelf from manufacturers. Although I do have one custom rifle, I built it several years ago, so I decided to ask a local rifle gunsmith what the state of industry is today.
John Scandale is the man behind Keystone Accuracy, a custom rifle shop located near Philadelphia, PA. Keystone Accuracy is best known for building match rifles and developing products for precision competitions, including true left-handed variants, but also works on and builds rifle platforms for all sorts of other uses.
John’s initial response surprised me: go ahead and buy a complete rifle or the parts needed to build one or modify a manufacturer’s rifle to my preferences. Because of the “jigsaw puzzle” nature of the AR platform, there are so many options that the combinations are endless. While I could work with a gunsmith to help me narrow down what I want, it’s very likely that he or she wouldn’t know everything that’s available today because there are new products and parts coming onto the market every day.
Custom gunsmiths can provide some preferred options based on their personal preferences, but if you have other ideas, they might have to do some research anyway. That’s not to discount their experience – after a while, a gunsmith will probably have seen a lot of ideas come and go, and they might remember how that cool new part you’re interested in failed in an earlier iteration you didn’t know about. But at the end of the day, you may do just as well buying a production rifle from a manufacturer.
You should also know that if you want to use your shiny new AR in competition, a gunsmith might be able to help you but ultimately, you are responsible for making sure your equipment is compliant with the rules just as with any other equipment. Because John is an avid NRA High Power competitor, he’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what works in that game, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will know how that one part you really really want included in your custom build will affect whether you can meet the equipment requirements, or how it would fit in with rules for other competitions.
However, there are also great reasons to hire a custom gunsmith for your new AR-style rifle. That experience I mentioned a few times already? If you like other builds your gunsmith has put together and you’re willing to go along for the ride, then you might benefit from their expertise. You’ll also benefit from their knowledge of things to look for and be careful about with the nuances that can go into assembling parts of an AR together. Plus it could take you weeks of a few minutes here and there to build your own custom AR, not to mention the frustration of trying to figure it all out. It’s certainly doable, and rewarding when it’s done right, but there’s something to be said for paying to avoid that hassle for some of us.
Gunsmiths also have the workspace and tools. It’s not unusual for a first AR build to lead into a second, third, or fourth – the joke goes that if you find an extra takedown pin, you’ll need to buy all of the parts to build a rifle around it. Not everyone has the space or budget to accommodate that, though, and it might be worth a little more to you up front to have someone put together your build or add modifications to your off-the-shelf rifle, rather than do it yourself in your apartment with makeshift tools.
And finally, you might need to go to a gunsmith for some very specific parts whether you have them complete the entire rifle for you or not. For example, Keystone Accuracy makes barrels from barrel blanks, allowing the customer to choose chambering, profile, and other features like having a flash hider machined directly into the barrel instead of mounted later. John can also machine custom uppers, like the left-handed upper with a right-handed charging handle that just made it onto my Christmas wish list.
Are you in the market for a new AR-style rifle? Planning on building it yourself, buying one complete, or some mix of the two? Tell us about it here!