Outlaw Gunsmithing 2 – Going Mobile [guest post by outlaw gunsmith]
Synopsis: Having written about how I “made” my own AR-15 lower receiver using a curiously shaped paperweight and a helpful CNC operator (see the post “Outlaw Gunsmithing” for full details), this is the next in that series, which will include some more detail (and a number of photos of the process).
It is possible to buy the unfinished lower receiver over the internet, but finding a local machine shop with the proper CNC program might be a bit of a problem for some people. I decided to test the claim that the receiver could be finished using only a set of special toolings and an inexpensive (<$70) drill press. So, I bought another receiver blank, purchased various cutting tools and an appropriate jig and tried to finish the receiver at home. Unfortunately, I was not able to complete the work with just a drill press. After thinking about it, I decided to try and bring homemade receivers to the masses, so I got some much more expensive high-powered machinery and successfully finished the receiver blank. The interesting thing is that while the drill press method does not work, the machinery I bought fits reasonably well in a car, so the whole shebang is mobile. For less than the cost of the receiver blank, the jig and the tools, I can come to someone’s house and give them the opportunity to make their own AR-15 lower receiver. More information at the bottom of the article. Details after the jump.
In the post “Outlaw Gunsmithing,” I describe a process where a person can buy a so-called “80% lower receiver,” which is, in essence, an uncompleted AR-15 lower receiver that still needs to have the area for the trigger assembly, sear and hammer milled out of the aluminum before it can be used as an actual lower receiver. The important point about these 80% receivers is that they are not covered by Federal law, since they are not actual lower receivers. There is no conceivable way that the unaltered 80% lower can be used in a firearm, so there is no restriction on the transport, sale, possession or transfer for these items. They can be bought and sold with no paper trail. In addition, Federal law permits a person to manufacture a firearm for their own use as long as they do not sell or redistribute the finished firearm (in this case, the finished lower receiver).
So, some people got together and started selling these 80% receivers, and then held “gun parties” where people who own one of the receivers can pay a fee to use a CNC milling machine to finish the receiver so that it is a fully functional firearm. As long as the machine operator makes the owner of the receiver push the button to actuate the milling machine, the owner of the receiver is the one making the firearm, so this process complies with Federal law.
I availed myself of one of these services in order to get a couple of lower receivers. There is, however an alternative method that I also found interesting. For those people who don’t have a friendly CNC milling machine operator in the neighborhood with the program needed to make the cuts to transform the 80% lower into a complete lower receiver, many places also sell a set of jigs that can be attached to the 80% lower and purportedly allow someone to finish the receivers them self using only a drill press, the jigs, and some cutting tools.
I was hoping to be able to write another post for Jeff describing thos process with pictures, so I bought another lower receiver from my local source, got his set of jigs and some cutting tools, then proceeded to experiment.
First off, the jigs are very well made and fit the receiver blank very tightly. The jig consists of several pieces, a set of side plates that fit around the receiver blank and also provide the guides for drilling holes through the receiver for the trigger assembly and safety pins. There are three plates that are bolted on to the side plates in order to guide the efforts of cutting the material out of the center of the receiver blank to allow placement of the lower receiver internals. One plate is a guide to drill large holes in the blank to remove the majority of the metal from the trigger pocket, one plate is used to allow the finishing of the pocket, and the final plate is used as a guide to cut the trigger slot in the bottom of the receiver to allow it to protrude below the bottom of the receiver.
Here is a picture of the jig set:
Here is a picture of the unmilled receiver blank:
The side plates are positioned using the holes that hold the takedown pins for the upper receiver. The kit comes with two pins that slide through the holes of the receiver, locating it securely in the side plates. Then, there are two hex head bolts that hold the receiver in place. They travel through two holes pre-drilled in the receiver and screw into the plate on the other side. Once these are tightened down, there is no physical way for the receiver to move from the side plates. Altogether, the construction is quite sturdy and once the pieces are fastened together, they do not come apart. There is one small issue, however. The rear positioning pin that is used to align the receiver and the side plates so the hex head bolts can be screwed down actually passes through the area that is to be machined in the process of hollowing out the trigger assembly area. If you forget to remove the pin before you start machining, you might cut the pin accidentally, which would ruin the jig for further use. So, before doing any work on the receiver pocket, you need to remove the rearward initial positioning pin.
Here is the unmilled receiver blank with the side plates on:
Here is the receiver with the drilling guide plate in place:
Once the side plates are in place, it is time to start the drilling process. We drill three 3/8″ and three 1/2″ holes in the receiver blank. These holes will remove about 60% of the metal we need to take from the receiver. One of the guide plates is a plate with six holes in it, 3 3/8″ guild holes and 3 1/2″ guide holes. The rearward two 3/8″ holes need to be drilled to a depth of 5/8″ and the forward 3/8″ hole as well as all of the 1/2″ holes need to be drilled to a depth of 1 1/4″. This was a very easy operation to perform, and it was quite simple for me to drill out the areas marked on the guides.
Here is the receiver blank with the holes drilled and the guide removed:
The second guide shows the shape that the final pocket needs to be. The idea here is to replace the drill bits with end mills, and finish removing the rest of the material in the pocket that was not removed using the drill bits. This is where I ran into trouble. The problem is that in order to remove the material cleanly, you need to be able to slide the receiver back and forth on the work area. In the first place, unless you are using some kind of traversal mechanism, the piece is going to jump around, possibly damaging the piece or causing injury to yourself. Second, as I will discuss a bit later, a drill press is NOT designed for any kind of lateral pressure, and it can destroy the machine or again, result in injury. This is where the process broke down for me. I was simply unable to get the cuts working properly using only a drill press.
Here is a picture of the drilled receiver with the second guide plate for the cuts in place.
At this point I was a bit stumped. So I did some more research and discovered that what I really needed to complete this sort of activity is a milling machine. When I think of a milling machine, I usually envision a monstrous CNC machine that runs using special programs. However, there are a number of machines that are used for smaller jobs. I was able to find a (relatively) inexpensive manual milling machine that was large enough to complete the cuts to the receiver. When I say “inexpensive,” I am speaking of in relation to other milling machines. The cost of the machine was about 25x the cost of a basic drill press. Another advantage of this machine is that it is small enough to be transportable, although not easily. That will come into play a bit later.
For those of you that are new to the world of manufacturing, allow me to explain the difference between a milling machine and a drill press. A drill press is a machine that is designed to remove metal in a single axis, the z-axis, or straight up and down. In other words, it is designed to punch holes in things. For this reason, a drill bit only has cutting edges at the very tip of the bit. The deep grooves running the length of the bit are not cutting edges, but are there to permit the metal drilled from the hole to travel the length of the bit and be expelled from the work area.
A milling machine, on the other hand, is fully capable of acting as a drill press, but it also allows the work area to be traversed in both the x-axis and the y-axis. This means that a tool can travel downward some depth, like a drill, but then the piece can be traversed left and right and towards and away from the operator. A drill press head is not strong enough to withstand the stress of the transverse forces that horizontal cutting places on the machine, which is why the milling machine is built to much more robust standards and is so much more expensive. The tools used on a milling machine, commonly called “end mills” look like drill bits with flat ends. However, unlike a drill bit, they have cutting edges that run the length of the tool, and the end portion of the tool cuts a flat cut, rather than a pointed one like a drill bit. The cutting edges allow both vertical cuts, like a drill press, and in addition, horizontal cuts.
In order to allow for smooth cutting on a piece, a milling machine has a traversable work area. While the work table on a drill press is stationary, the mill has controls to move the work area forward and backward and right and left. The piece is usually fastened to the work area using some kind of vice, then the cuts are made by moving the work table up, down, left, right, forward, and backward.
Once I had the mill set up and the piece fastened in a vise, the work went quite smoothly. I was able to cut out the pocket for the trigger area with very little trouble, and I was even able to leave it with a very smooth finish. This is not particularly important from a point of view of functionality, but it does make the final product have a more professional look.
Here is a photo of the receiver with the trigger pocket milled out. Note that the pocket has a nicely smooth finish:
So, with the acquisition of the milling machine, the process of completing the receiver went quite smoothly. This was at best a Pyhrric victory, however. My original purpose was to try and finish the receiver using tools that someone would likely have in their garage or could acquire cheaply from someplace like Harbor Freight, so having to resort to an expensive milling machine ultimately branded this attempt as a failure. However, as I was contemplating the issues, it occurred to me that the setup I used to finish the receiver was something that would fit in a car. Which led me to the idea of a mobile outlaw gunsmithing service.
What I am proposing to do is this: I am prepared to bring my equipment to a place, along with the 80% receiver. Once I am there, I will set the machine up and get everything ready, and then I will guide you in the process of finishing the receiver. You will be the one actually turning the wheels of the machine, so you will be the one making the cuts, thus you will be the person who is creating the receiver. Once the receiver is finished, you will have a fully functional AR-15, identical in almost every respect to one that you would order from a gun dealer.
I am trying to gauge how much interest there is in a service like this. The cost for a receiver made this way is, unfortunately, going to be higher than the cost of a receiver that you get through a regular FFL, because the unfinished receivers are actually almost the same amount as a cheap finished receiver, and of course, there are my costs for travel, tools, and everything else. The upside is, of course, that you have a workable firearm that has no paper trail attached to it. This might be of particular interest for people living in states like Colorado that are trying to criminalize ownership of AR-15 style weapons.
One thing I was thinking about trying to do was to set up group buys where people who were local to one another or at least could be reached along a particular route from Southern California (where I am located). My idea was to judge the interest among Protein Wisdom readers, and set this up through Jeff. To help sweeten the deal, I would give Jeff a cut on each sale, to help him keep Protein Wisdom running.
Once I can gauge the interest in the deal, then we can start talking about price. There will be a rock-bottom $200 per receiver fee that I will need in advance, since I have to purchase these from a supplier. On top of that, I am thinking of a service fee in the range of $150 for my time and travel. However, I am flexible on the service fee, and I am willing to cut a deal to people who get together to do multiple receivers at one time. So, for example, if you can get 10 people who all want to get a receiver done at the same time, I will work with you guys so that we can reduce the service fee.
My original idea was to see if a bunch of Colorado folks would be interested in this, and if we could get a number of them, we could have a gun party somewhere in the vicinity of Denver, perhaps, since I know that Jeff is in that general area. Given the direction the Colorado legislature is going, it might be a good idea to do something like this sooner, rather than later.
There are a lot of further options here, also. I can easily get complete upper receivers, as well as parts kits to complete a bare lower receiver. None of these things are restricted items. So, for some extra money up front, I can get you as many bells and whistles as you want for your new toy.
Anyone who is interested in something like this should contact me at email@example.com and we can discuss what you want, where you are located, and when I can come by. For anyone in the SoCal area, I am happy to travel from San Diego to Santa Barbara at any time. For people outside that area, I will need to coordinate so I don’t have to burn all my money just in travel feels to do a single receiver.
Thanks for your time. If you have any general questions, feel free to leave a comment.
Jeff’s addendum: Perhaps the best way to get this rolling is to get volunteers out of the pw readership from various parts of the country who would be willing to spread the word and set up one of these gun parties in their area. If you belong to a range, sell the idea at the range to the range owners, who I’m sure are having trouble getting AR-15s to stock — and so this would be a great service to both their members and to the spirit of the 2nd Amendment. I’ve also found fire departments tend to have an interest in these things.
Another option is to advertise on Craig’s list in your area. The more people you get, the cheaper your fees — and I’m sure outlaw gunsmith would probably say that if you got, say, 20 people to show up for the party, your own lower would be either discounted or free.
This is an idea I’d like for other bloggers with a fidelity to the 2nd Amendment to push. Outlaw Gunsmith will then have new areas of the country and new readerships he can reach, and together, we can poke a finger into the eye of these cowardly opportunistic legislators who are hoping we’ll quietly disarm.
Even were Colorado to pass some ridiculous ban on “assault weapons,” we can easily take a road trip to just over the border into Wyoming. Or Kansas. Or Utah. Or New Mexico.
Please, if you have a Twitter account, do retweet this to everyone you know who has an interest in firearms and the 2nd Amendment. This is a way to build your own weapon, legally, and put it together how you like it. And at a cost that will be determined, ultimately, by your own choices — and a low upfront cost that will yield you a legal AR lower.
If you comment at other gun-friendly sites, link this post in the comments there.
A gun dealer friend of mine recently got 10 New Frontier Armory AR-15 lowers in stock (no trigger), and they sold out before he even had a chance to advertise them. Someone simply heard he’d managed to find a few. Poof. Gone in seconds.
So Outlaw Gunsmith and I believe this is a great way to go mobile with the 2nd Amendment, assert a natural right, arm ourselves with the same weaponry local police, the FBI, (and many government employees from the various bureaucracies) are allowed to carry, and meet like-minded individuals in our various locales — itself a networking benefit that could yield important results somewhere down the line.
Thanks in advance to all of you who agree to volunteer. We need not feel helpless. We only need to get creative.
Pass it on.
Oh. And outlaw!