Two Letters Re: Building Your Own No-FFL AR From an 80% Complete Receiver

Dear JWR,
Regarding the recent article by “Nomad”: I strongly urge all AR-15 owners to get an 80% complete lower receiver, even if you do not finish it now.  [Under American jurisprudence,] if gun confiscation comes, the only thing that must be turned in is the stripped lower receiver.  The BATFE recognizes that the stripped lower receiver constitutes the firearm as it contains the serial number.  The rest IS NOT a “firearm”, by their own regulations.  With the non-registered (as per regulations, again) lower receiver, you can build a fully functioning AR-15 that is not on their books. – Carl X.

The letter on building your own AR-15 with a 80% receiver prompted me to write. I work for an FFL, and have lived through the four panic buying periods since Bush the First’s”Assault Weapons” import ban.

First: Unless you 1) work a sub-minimum wage job, and/or 2) live in a part of the country where licensing fees, FFL fees or the like are huge, then completing a ‘80%’ receiver is not worth the time. Even with the new polymer 80% blanks will take 1-2 hours to finish unless you have a real machine shop to work with.

Just before Christmas, several online sources were selling fully finished aluminum AR-15 receivers for $57 delivered to your FFL. Add in the $25-$40 FFL paperwork fee, and it’s at best a wash to spend hours finishing your 80% receiver. And if your Dremel slips, then you’re buying another receiver blank.

You also need to be aware that the term ‘80% receiver’ is made up by the industry and has no legal standing with BATF. I would strongly suggest that you ask for a copy of a determination letter that the manufacturer of the 80% receiver should have asked ATF for, that states that in the opinion of BATF, that the part you are purchasing is in fact not legally a firearm. If the manufacturer does not have, or will no provide you with a un-redacted copy of such a letter, stay away!

It is entirely possible that BATF, in the absence of such a letter, may make an determination that the 80% receiver was in fact too close to a full 100% receiver for BATF’s liking, and retroactively ban them, turning your receiver into contraband subject to summary forfeiture.

Second, the price of AR-15s is about to plunge. It’s done the same thing after every single panic in the past 30 years. We received a mailing from a lesser known AR-15 manufacturer before Christmas offering a package of 25 units of a basic AR-15, CAR, A3, 16″ bbl, for $599/each. This week that same package is offered at $499/each with shipping included.

Currently the only part of the AR-15 platform that is still in short supply is the bolt carrier group, and some trigger/hammer parts. Low end for Bolt Carrier Groups is currently running about $120. In normal times the low end for these units will be in the $70-ish range. So expect a drop of ~$50 for completed uppers in the near future, and $10-$20 drop on lower receiver parts kits.

The desperation indicated by manufacturers trying to push product out the door at low ball prices, indicates to me that these companies are sitting on a mountain of product that they built for the perceived demand. Now that that demand has subsided, the fire sale that will likely happen in late spring when these companies start to go bankrupt after failing dump their inventory, will bring the retail price of basic AR-15’s down to close to the $500 figure.

In addition, the 11% FET that is due on completed guns, can be avoided by the manufacturer if they sell the lower receiver and parts kits separately.

If you want to finish a 80% receiver blank for reasons other than economic ones, then the above does not apply to you. However, do be on the look out for SHOT Show specials (mid to late January) on parts kits and uppers and, perhaps, complete rifles.

Good shopping and happy new year. – C.

JWR Replies: There have been a lot of electrons spilled in cyberspace about the legalities of AR “build parties.” You are correct about the term “80% receiver.” In the eyes of the BATFE, what you hold in your hand is either a paperweight or a “firearm.” The point at which the former becomes the latter is fairly arbitrary, and it is frightening to think that the threshold (and enforcement thereof) is up to the whims of un-elected bureaucrats. (Just ask the folks at KT Ordnance, in Montana. They had huge legal bills, before they were exonerated.) To be on the safe side, some erstwhile “80%” makers are now selling “60%” lowers. Regardless, these incomplete lowers represent a good opportunity for people to exercise their Constitutional rights with privacy.

I think that some readers must have missed the key point of Nomad’s article. The primary goal is not just to save money. Rather, it is to free ourselves from the clutches of an increasingly paternalistic government. In many states it is now illegal to buy “firearms”–even used ones from private parties living in the same state–without filling out government paperwork. For folks in those states, I recommend that you do indeed “roll your own” AR-15 and AR-10 lower receivers. In all other states where you still have some privacy: Unless you are a tinkerer, I recommend that you simply frequent your in-state gun shows and pick up a half-dozen stripped or complete AR lowers whenever you find them for sale at reasonable prices on the tables of private parties, with no paperwork. Someday your children and grandchildren will thank you for your foresight!