Editor’s Introductory Notes: This is a three-part article.
Consult your state and local laws before buying any 80%-complete lower receivers.
Proceed with caution. Remember the eternal rule of machining: You can take metal away, but you can’t put it back.
I recommend buying the Easy Jig 3. Or, if you plan to complete a large number of lowers, then invest in a Ghostgunner 3. Once you’ve completed all of your lowers for your family, you will probably find a private buyer who is willing to pay you 90% or more of your purchase price for your Ghostgunner. The advantage to him will be that he is buying it with no paper trail.
With the 2020 presidential election just weeks away, it seems timely to revisit the subject of finishing an 80% complete AR lower receiver. There have been nice articles in SurvivalBlog relating to this subject in 2014 by JAG in 2017 by Tupreco, and in 2018 by Hugh Latimer. There are new laws and tools to discuss since these articles have been written.
What are we talking about?
An 80% lower receiver is an unfinished version of a stripped 100% finished lower receiver. It is not a firearm, it cannot be used to fire a projectile without significant machining operations, it doesn’t have a serial number, and it can be shipped directly to your home without a background check or going through a dealer who possesses a federal firearms license. There is no FFL transfer fee. You get the privilege of doing the mechanical work on this chunk of metal or plastic to make it a functional firearm.
It takes quite a bit of planning and time to complete this project. You will do research into materials needed including the 80% lower receiver itself, tools to do the machining, lower parts kit to make the lower fully functional, a barreled upper receiver, bolt carrier group and charging handle. You will read all the instructional materials that come with your jig and watch videos from the jig manufacturer and others who have kindly recorded their experiences and given their assessment of their project for your benefit. The cost of doing this is not insignificant. So, what do you get out of it? You have the basis for a very flexible firearm that has bypassed the usual paperwork trail; a firearm that has never been registered or purchased subject to a background check. You learn a new skill, not only to build this firearm, but you learn how to install and remove parts and repair and replace parts if something breaks or isn’t functioning. You will have pride in building a high-quality firearm that can last potentially for generations. You may be able to build a custom firearm not available commercially at any price.
Who can do this?
You are entitled to build a firearm for your own personal use without being licensed as a manufacturer if you have no intent to sell or distribute the firearm. People have built their own firearms for generations. There is no limit to how many you can make for your own personal use. It is required that you have your own tools and equipment to accomplish the machining tasks. You cannot borrow the tools, or have a build party where everyone comes and shares a CNC machine, or build one for someone else.
Don’t do this if you are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm for any reason.
The election cometh
Prior to the last couple of presidential elections, gun sales have risen. This year we’ve seen it again, dramatically. There are significant shortages of firearms, firearm parts and ammunition. Demand for 80% lower receivers has also risen, along with some of the tools needed to finish them, and parts to finish a complete AR rifle or pistol. These 80% lower receivers are on the target list for the anti-Second Amendment gun grabbers. In the usual manner, these are vilified and called “ghost guns”. Must be because ghosts are really scary! Several state laws have been passed to ban sales of 80% complete receivers.
California requires you to apply to the California Department of Justice for a background check and serial number, which must be engraved on the lower receiver prior to machining. Connecticut also requires a background check and generally prohibits the sale or transfer of unfinished frames and lower receivers without serial numbers. Same with New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. They can’t be shipped to New York either.
There is huge pressure mounting on Congress to take some action on 80% receivers. The American Bar Association and Bloomberg’s group have long papers urging action. A bill was introduced in July in Congress: H.R.7468 – Stop Home Manufacture of Ghost Guns Act of 2020. This regulates machines that could be used to finish lower receivers. They are targeting CNC machines and 3-D printers. How about jigs and routers?
Folks, I know we have heard many times that the sky is falling, but you have to develop your own opinion of what new restrictions could be on the horizon in 2021. There is mounting pressure for action at the national level. It could be requiring serial numbers, banning their sale or import, background checks or more. Watch for news or actions over the coming year regarding actions taken to further infringe on the Second Amendment at both the federal, state and local levels! You might want to consider ordering lower receivers and tools now, as many are backordered, and have them on hand before 2020 ends.
What does it take to get started?
First, you need to purchase your 80% complete lower receivers. Choices include the AR-15 platform (5.56 x 45mm, .223, and many other calibers), AR-10 (7.62 x 51mm, .308, and many other calibers) or AR-9 (Glock compatible). They can be 6061 or 7075 aluminum or polymer. Some are raw silver aluminum, anodized black aluminum or cerakoted in many different colors. Some are billet and some are forged.
Prices on AR-15 lowers run from about $40 for uncoated, to up to $100 for black anodized and $130 for cerakoted. AR-10 and AR-9 lowers typically run about $30 more, each.
Next, you’ll need tooling and safety gear. I am going to review the use of the Easy Jig 2 from 80% Arms. The multi-version which will do the three types of lowers mentioned above, was priced at $290. Add to that a kit of drill bits and an end mill for $50 and extended drill stabilizers $30. For this project you also need a router, around $100, eye and hearing protection, and a few miscellaneous things like painter’s masking tape and lubricant. And a corded 3/8” or 1/2” variable speed electric drill.
80% Arms and 5D Tactical just introduced new jigs called Easy Jig 3 and Router Jig Pro Multiplatform, respectively. They look very similar to each other and are both priced in the $290 – $300 range and also require a $50 proprietary end mill. There are now videos of the Easy Jig 3 and the Router Jig PRO Multiplatform on their websites. You can see the difference between these and the Easy Jig 2. Refinements have been made and the setup and milling are slightly different. The tools used besides the jig and end mill are the same. Unfortunately, these are both backordered up to 8 weeks at the present time. (Be aware that when looking at the Easy Jig 3 in the 80% Arms website, that the reviews currently posted are for the Easy Jig 2). There are other jigs on the market, and some of them are less expensive.
For completeness I’ll mention that there are CNC machines that automate much of the finishing process. The newest CNC machine I’m aware of is the Ghost Gunner 3 at Defense Distributed, priced at $2,200.
Another method of finishing lower receivers is to use a drill press and milling table that allows movement in the x and y directions, where you move the lower receiver in its jig across a fixed position end mill. Pricing on this method varies greatly, but quality equipment is very expensive.
My decision to proceed
While I have experience with hand tools, drills and saws, I did not have any experience machining (milling) metal. As I looked at the options and the results people achieved with the various methods of finishing an 80% lower receiver, I decided that the Ghost Gunner machine was too pricey, and I was very concerned about using my drill press to do the milling steps.
Looking at several videos on using the Easy Jig 2, both from the manufacturer and YouTube reviewers, led me to believe I could finish my lowers with the best possible results using this technique. There is no question that it is more expensive to finish an 80% lower receiver than to buy a stripped 100% finished receiver. You certainly have money spent on tooling and many hours of research and labor invested. I was worried that I would mess up at the beginning and damage or destroy the receiver. I did make a few mistakes and I’ll share them with you so your project will go even better than mine did. However, all the receivers I finished worked well when the lower parts kits were installed. The areas milled out look so nice, I had people ask who did the milling for me. It’s actually hard to believe it can look so professional even on the first attempt.
The following is a review of the Easy Jig 2. I have no relationship with 80% Arms other than being a paying customer. I liked the product very much. Their documentation is great. I read everything that came with the jig several times, watched all the videos I could find, and followed each step as meticulously as possible. I stopped after each step and reviewed the documentation as I proceeded. There is no award for doing this fast. Working slowly and meticulously results in the best final product. The education I received and the high-quality finished AR-15 lower that may last for generations – that’s priceless!
Please don’t read this review and think it is complete information to do this project. I will hit the high points and give you enough overview to decide if it’s in your purview to tackle this project.
(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)