Thursday, February 23, 2012

2012 AR15 Budget Build (The $500 "FrankenRifle")

With the current state of the economy here in the U.S., nearly everyone is cutting back on spending.  Unfortunately, many of us are cutting back on "luxury items" like firearms, ammunition, range trips, accessories, and generally all aspects of recreational shooting.  Since our target audience is a widely varied group of enthusiasts across a wide range of economic groups, we wanted to take some time to help bring the epitome of sport shooting into the hands of those with limited financial means.

In recent times, prices have come down a bit on AR15's, most notably the Palmetto State Armory AR15 kits, which contain everything (short of a stripped lower) needed to build your own AR15, all for around $500.  Sure, there are other options out there, some cheaper, but the PSA kits have made quite an impact, and they are building quite a reputation.

That said, I'm going to attempt to build a functional, reliable AR15 rifle for less than the cost of this kit.  I will be compiling some parts lists, including price info, in the coming weeks.  This will obviously not be a "nail driver" or a match-grade rifle, but that's not what we're after.  Reliability is the end goal.  This rifle will feed ammo reliably, eject without mangling the brass, cycle properly, and not malfunction during normal use.

It must be noted, at the $500 price point, this isn't going to have high-quality optics mounted on it, it won't be loaded down with accessories, it's going to be a basic rifle.  We are even considering using one of the many polymer lower receivers on the market.  The parts used will be all new parts, nothing used or "leftover" from other builds, because honestly, this is my first AR15 "build", the others have been purchased assembled.  At a $500 price point, you are getting a functional AR15 chambered in 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington at the same price as the same in a dedicated .22LR setup.

In the interest of full disclosure, the cheapest parts I've found are as follows:

  • Lower Receiver:  Palmetto State Armory Lower          $79
  • Lower Parts Kit:  PSA Lower Incl. Trigger Group       $50
  • Buttstock:  Mil-Spec 6-position buttstock/buffer tube   $49
  • Complete Upper:  PSA forged upper 16"                     $309
  • Bolt Carrier Group:  PSA BCG (complete)                  $80
  • Charging Handle:  DPMS Charging Handle                $15
  • GRAND TOTAL:                                                        $582
As you can see, this is a difficult task.  The reason for a complete upper rather than purchasing separate parts, is that a complete upper if assembled from parts would cost more than a fully assembled upper assembly, and I just can't come close to the same price point without cobbling the thing together with parts from different manufacturers.  Not to mention, assembling an upper requires tools (barrel wrench, barrel blocks, vice, etc.) that would add to the overall cost of manufacture, and the point is to keep the price as low as possible for the average enthusiast.  Assembling the parts isn't a bad option, and you could get the $499 kit from PSA and buy a $79 lower receiver, essentially building yourself a $578 AR15 from a well-known manufacturer, which may well be the better option.

I will be monitoring the stores and online retailers for lower prices on these parts, as well as examining additional options that haven't been considered yet.  My ultimate goal is to get this thing build for under $500 total, not including FFL Transfer fee (for the lower) and shipping costs, but the more I research this project, the more daunting the task seems.  Any suggestions will be well received, and I will be more than willing to answer any questions about the process throughout this project.

Updates will be posted periodically, as well as some new and exciting reviews that are in the works.  We are currently working on a lower receiver for the CMMG .300AAC Blackout upper that we tested at the range last weekend, and we should have a couple new pistols to review within the coming weeks.  Again, as I've mentioned before, due to budget constraints, the AR15 build that is the topic of this article will be a long-term project, completed as funds allow.  

To ask a question, just leave a comment below, or if you prefer, send an email to us at and your questions will be answered as quickly as possible.

3/2/2012 UPDATE:

After doing some further research, it appears that our options are quite limited if we want to even come close to the $500 limit.  Here is the updated parts list:

  • Lower Receiver: New Frontier Polymer Lower           $79
  • Complete Upper:  PSA forged upper 16"                     $309
  • Bolt Carrier Group:  PSA BCG (complete)                  $80
  • Charging Handle:  DPMS Charging Handle                $15
  • GRAND TOTAL:                                                       $483

As you can see, this is MUCH more cost-effective, and will allow us to at least purchase a magazine or two to feed some ammo through the rifle.  The beauty of using a Polymer Lower is that the cost is substantially less than buying a Stripped Lower, Lower Parts Kit, and Buffer Tube/Buttstock separately, since the Polymer Lower includes all of this.  It is truly a "plug-and-play" complete lower, which, in addition to keeping costs low, also helps keep the weight down, and increases the ease of assembly. This will not, however, allow for any type of accuracy, since we are using a PSA flat-top Upper, which does NOT include any kind of rear sight.  Luckily for us, however, almost all of the Palmetto State Armory complete upper receivers come with a standard fixed front sight post, so we only need a rear sight to complete the package, which can usually be found relatively inexpensively.  Just for the sake of this project, I'll toss in 2 of the least expensive GI magazines I can find, and a simple rear aperture sight to finish things off.
  • Magazines: 2x Magpul Pmags @ $15/each                 $30
  • Sights: Mil-Spec Detachable Carry Handle                 $18
  • New Grand Total:                                                       $531
$531 for a fully-functional AR15 rifle, complete with 2 magazines and iron sights, is no small feat.  We are going to try to knock the price down even more, I'd like to see the grand total WELL under $500, but I think we are already off to a great start.

Of course, there are some extra charges I'm not including here.  Shipping & Handling, FFL Transfer fee (for the lower receiver), taxes, etc., aren't being included here, because let's face it, everyone touting Palmetto State Armory's Complete AR15 "Kit" doesn't include those costs in the price either.  Not to mention, we will be combining shipping on everything we can.  Not to worry, though, as we will openly share all of the costs involved in this build when it is completed.  We will be looking for sales on parts we need, free shipping when available, and I'm even going to try to talk my local gun shop into completing the FFL Transfer for us at a discounted rate, in exchange for some free publicity on the Internet, mostly due to the sheer amount of money I spend in their establishment on a weekly basis.

More updates to come, including some pictures of the parts that will be ordered relatively soon.  We are hoping to have a complete rifle within a month, and we will be sure to share pictures, Range Reports, and even a few "torture tests" to show you how well our "Franken-Rifle" fares against some heavy use (and abuse) both on the range and off.  Stay tuned, this one is going to be fun!

3/13/2012 UPDATE:

Not much in the way of updates, but I did want to share a minor detail that is going to help cut the cost here.  Instead of the PSA upper receiver, we have found the Cold Hand Arms upper receiver, which is built using a Del-Ton upper and a Mossberg 16" barrel.  The total cost for the upper receiver is $299, which knocks another $10 off our most recent Grand Total.  We've also given it some thought, and while 2 PMAGs may be just what the Doctor ordered, we are cutting it too close to our goal, and one mag will suffice to get us started.  This is going to cut another $15 off of our Grand Total.  We are always looking for additional ways to drop our price even more, so if you know of any prices that are lower than what we've listed this far, please let us know!

  • Complete Upper:  CHA 16" Upper         $299
  • Magazine:  1x Magpul PMAG                $15
  • Newest Grand Total:                               $506
This is a lot closer, but we still need to cut the cost a bit more to cover shipping charges, FFL Transfer Fee for the Lower Receiver, and any other unexpected costs that may pop up along the way.  Between shipping and FFL fees, I'm expecting our total cost will increase about $80, depending on whether we can combine shipping on some of these items or not.  Overall, if we can cut our total price down to $420-$440, I think we may be able to make this happen for under $500.


  1. While I understand the desire to be <$500 all included, what are you sacrificing to make that price point?

    Are you missing out on a markedly better component that would leave you =$500 before fees?

    Texan_Eagle_Scout @ XDTalk
    Good luck with your build.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Our goal here is to see if it can be done, and what the drawbacks of a sub-$500 AR15 rifle are. Once we finish the build and get some time at the range, we will make some decisions that will likely raise the price point of the build, but most likely net better results. This will work twofold, in the sense that it is a usable rifle (with it's own limitations, of course) that just about anyone can afford to build, but we will also provide some options to upgrade the rifle at a later point to function more reliably and without as much risk of failure. I'm not sold on the polymer lower receiver yet, so I'm sure that will be the first thing to go when it comes time to start the upgrade process. There may be a few things in this budget "Pile of Parts" that are worth keeping, and this build is intended to highlight the positives AND negatives of such a cheap rifle.

    This isn't going to be my personal rifle, I've got a Spike's Tactical ST15 M4 LE Carbine for personal use, this "budget build" is going to be used solely for evaluation. We will also be comparing the "FrankenRifle" to a complete PSA kit that costs around $600 to build, which will help determine if the cost savings are really worth the sacrifices made to get to that point.

  3. I wouldnt mess with CHA. I ordered an upper from them and they charged my credit card the next business day and as of today, still havent shipped the upper. I sent an email two days after ordering the item and I got one email response sayng it would ship the next day. It is now four days after ordering and the order still shows pending on their website. I placed one phone call and it went right to voicemail. Maybe I am impatient, but seeing as everything else I ordered for the rifle on the same day has either arrived or is in transit with a tracking number, I think I should be a little concerned.

  4. Thanks for the warning, we will look for alternatives to the CHA upper receiver. Due to several large changes in my personal life (work related), I have been forced to put this project on hold until things improve.

    If you would like us to send an email or make a phone call to CHA for you, we will gladly try to help out any way we can. Shoot us an email with the details of your order, and we will see what we can do to get a straight answer from CHA, although I don't really know if they would give us any more information than you have gotten from them at this point.

    Let us know if anything changes, and we hope everything works out for you with CHA. If you feel like sharing about your experience, we would gladly post it on the site for others to see. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. CHA did come thru. I was told that they had an expired credit card on file with UPS and their account was frozen while they provided a current one. I did receive my complete upper and say it atleast exceeded what I expected for the price of $398. Havent fired it yet, but a gun shop manager / AR fanatic of mine looked at it and gave his opinion that it was indeed an M4.

    Here is my break down:

    Parts: $638.27

    S&H: $40.59

    FFL fee: $37.19 (tax)

    Total $716.05

    There were certainly parts that were less costly, but some of the issue at this time is alot of places are "OUT OF STOCK".

    I am happy with it. Now on to a .308 build and then a AR Pistol.

  6. Thanks for the update! It's great that CHA pulled through, but I would think the communication would have been a little better. Either way, I'm glad you were able to get your build finished!

    Keep us updated on your .308 and AR Pistol builds, we love keeping up with projects.