Bing! A text message came through on my phone. “Dude, is this a good deal?”
I looked at the incoming photo – it was a screenshot from the Palmetto State Armory daily sale mailing list. I knew it well. The mailer also shows up in my inbox on a frequent basis. This particular photo showed a bargain that would have been inconceivable even a year and a half ago: PSA’s “Freedom Rifle Kit” – a complete flat top M4-pattern AR-15, sans lower receiver, rear sight, and magazine(s) for $299.99 – with free shipping. The Freedom Rifle Kit included a completely assembled upper receiver (with 16” M4-pattern 1/7 twist barrel, fixed tower front sight with bayonet lug), charging handle, full-auto bolt carrier group, complete lower parts kit, buffer tube, and collapsible stock. For three hundred bucks. To his door. Heck yeah, it was a good deal – for a first-time AR guy.
by Drew, contributing writer
Before long, my research turned up a local dealer who had Anderson stripped lower receivers for $48 each, and I had a spare Windham Weaponry flip-up rear sight I loaned him until he could find a suitable replacement. All added up, my buddy was officially rolling with a brand-new M4 for a shade over $350.00 when you add sales tax for the lower. Factor in the $50 or so for an decent flip-up rear sight like a Magpul MBUS, and he’ll be into a perfectly serviceable AR-15 for $400, give or take.
Now, said buddy falls firmly into the “just wanted an AR to have one” category. Granted, he may shoot some coyotes with it, but mostly, this particular rifle will probably mostly be a range toy, something to dig out and show buddies, maybe blow off rounds at the sandpit. For these reasons, I felt 100% comfortable green-lighting the project for him. It was perfect for what he wanted to do. Palmetto State Armory and Anderson aren’t really considered to be the highest-end stuff, and are often maligned by AR snobs looking down their noses… but these budget offerings are perfect for what my buddy realistically will do with his AR.
My question was: how would an AR-15 pieced together at absolutely-rock-bottom-AR-market-glut prices stand up in the accuracy, reliability, and usefulness departments?
The “Peak AR” Phenomenon
“Peak AR” is a term that may have been coined by one of our contributing writers (and SHTFblog founder) Derrick James. Jarhead Survivor and I had met up with him at a pub for lunch, and we were discussing the market glut of ARs and AR-related products.
“I know!” Derrick said, chuckling. “Are we at Peak AR yet?” It was a play on words referring to the concept of Peak Oil, in which the oil production capacity of the global community reaches its maximum production capacity, at which time demand and consequent production drop (or almost stop) due to maximum supply and minimal demand.
As of right now, we have gotta be close to Peak AR. After the tragic 2012 Newtown school shooting and high-capacity firearms were feared to soon be outlawed, the gun world started snapping up anything AR related. I remember being in the middle of an AR-15 build at that time, and suddenly all the parts I’d planned and budgeted for simply vanished, or had prices gouged out of proportion. Everyone wanted some, and manufacturers who would never have considered building an AR jumped on board the train and started cranking out AR-platform rifles to meet the rush in demand and to cash in on the phenomenon.
Related article: AR-15 Magazine Management Strategies
It didn’t help when it looked like Hillary Clinton would become president in 2016. Again, everyone feared outright gun bans, so people who already had one or two ARs bought more, possibly to bury or plan to sell at a profit later. AR output was cranked up even more!
Fast forward to mid-2018. Trump took office and fears of another firearms ban abated. Nobody is really buying ARs, since everyone who could already has two or three. Demand crashed. Anyone making AR-15s tried to dump their stock. Prices crashed on almost everything AR related. It’s a magical time, and we’re at, or close to, Peak AR. Even after a couple “scares,” there will probably be no better time to build an AR platform rifle than right now, if you’ve ever wanted to. Just sayin’. Back to our subject rifle.
As Cheap an AR-15 as You Can Get?
When the Palmetto State Armory Freedom Rifle Kit arrived on his door, my buddy wasted no time getting the Anderson lower and hoofing the parts to my door for assembly. We brought the kit down to my man cave, played some tunes, and I proceeded to school him on the ways of the AR lower assembly.
Yes, he launched some detents – I fortunately had spares. I got to show him the workings of the AR, describe differences between entry-level kit parts and higher-end parts I had on a couple of my rifles, and discuss upgrades that were useful and not over-the-top outright wastes of money. I had a Magpul STR stock and single-point sling adapter kicking around, and we threw them on while we were there. We had a great time, and he was positively thrilled with the end product and total experience. His words, “I never thought it would be so easy!”
And really, building AR-15 lowers IS pretty easy if you have the right tools and pay attention to detail. These Palmetto State Armory lower parts kits are a great way for the beginner to get started in the AR-15 build world for not much money, and use the rifle as a baseline to figure out what improvements to make.
A Slight Catch
While fully functional, the reason PSA stuff is so inexpensive is because it’s mass produced to (sometimes barely) meet Mil-Spec (military specification) standards. While this means that all parts must theoretically meet a minimum quality and tolerance level, it definitely does NOT mean high-end:
- Receiver-to-barrel mating surfaces may be out of square.
- The upper and lower receivers will likely not meet perfectly.
- They might rattle a little bit when assembled.
- Finishes may be inconsistent, and polishing/surface preparation will have the bare minimum of work performed.
- Trigger pulls will universally be terrible.
- Bolt carrier keys may be badly or inconsistently staked.
- Threads may be marred, or other minor manufacturing defects may be present.
I’m not saying all of this WILL happen – I’m just saying that when you order items like these, you have to remember that you’re receiving low-bidder high-volume stuff made to cater to a low-budget audience. If that fits your bill and it’s what you want (or need) to do, rock on and more power to you – enjoy your build!
That Whole “Reliability” Thing
But will a less expensive gun fail before a more expensive gun? Aye, there’s the rub. It’s nothing you can answer definitively “yes” or “no” based on a sum of a gun’s parts. YouTube hero IraqVeteran8888 ran this very same upper kit on a full-auto lower on one of his meltdown videos, and successfully ran 440 rounds continuously on fully automatic before the gun caught on fire and the gas tube melted. Four hundred and forty rounds. Just shy of fifteen 30-round mags.
That may not seem like much of a round count before a gun cooks itself to death – but you have to remember that (let’s be honest here) almost nobody running one of these guns in any scenario will: A) have it on a full-auto lower with a giant pile of pre-loaded mags kicking around, and B) run through those magazines as fast as you can on rock ‘n’ roll, using it like a belt-fed squad-level machine gun.
The huge, vast majority of people purchasing a PSA Freedom kit might perform crowd-pleasing semi-auto mag dumps or even play with a bumpfire stock at a sandpit – but on a whole, these guns will usually be serving up semi-rapid, occasionally aimed fire then (hopefully) cleaned and maintained. Under these conditions, a PSA AR-15 will last much, much longer than just 440 rounds – you should easily see many thousands of rounds through a Palmetto State Armory carbine before you need to start replacing or upgrading stuff.
Even hypothetically using an AR-15 to defend a hypothetical bug-out location in a hypothetical post-apocalyptic SHTF event – where one may indeed have a bunch of hypothetical mags ready to go for defending against a hypothetical threat: if you shoot so rapidly and so often that your gun cooks itself to death, you better have a priest behind you handing you a spare rifle along with your last rites, because something definitely went wrong with the plan somewhere. Even Rick Grimes didn’t rip through 440 rounds attacking a Saviors outpost (The Walking Dead is still a SHTF metric, right? No? Sorry.), so you’re probably theoretically in good shape regarding your inexpensive AR’s round count lifespan.
Putting ‘em Where They Count
Non-mechanical disaster struck when my buddy brought his new AR to the range. Being along in years far enough that his eyes have decided to stage focus mutinies, by buddy found that his shiny new AR’s iron sights were just a big blurry mess. He ran a few rounds through it, then went home after ensuring it functioned. We started chatting about solutions the next day.
He obviously needed an optic. Fortunately, he had a spare Bushnell 3x-9x hunting scope kicking around, so he wanted to install that on the rifle. He was starting to consider hunting with the rifle, so he was pretty enthusiastic about the scope idea. We looked at mounting options – he was on a very tight budget – and finally decided on the Nikon two-piece scope rings. He was looking at one-piece bases, but we discerned that the two-piece ring system would offer us more flexibility in mounting the Bushnell, and any other scopes he might want to run in the future.
He ordered the rings next paycheck, and I mounted it all up for him one evening after work. Easy upgrade, made easier by the M4’s flattop railed upper receiver.
Yeah, the glossy Bushnell was kinda big and looked a little out of sorts on the businesslike AR, but it fulfilled his needs and met his budget. Winning.
Winning, that is, until he found a kid selling an AR-oriented el cheapo Chinese fixed 4x scope with an illuminated reticle. The tacti-cool 4x went on as quickly as the Bushnell could come off, and my buddy admitted he thought it looked cooler…and the glowing reticle helped his failing eyes. He was tickled pink, so to each his own.
Back at the Range
The next time at the bench, he was able to slap the trigger and group American Eagle M855 green-tip ammo into about 4” at 50 yards. He was pretty happy, knowing he wasn’t a great shot and that it was essentially military surplus ammo. I told him the 1/7 rate of twist barrel might not be doing him any favors with the light bullets, either – but the gun performed exactly as he expected at his skill level.
Since I put the rifle together with him, he has had a neighbor of his (who had a surplus of cast-off, no longer used AR-15 parts) upgrade the upper for free to a stainless 1/8 twist .223 Wylde chambered barrel with a free-floating Midwest Industries rail. He loves it, since it “looks all badass” and it still shoots, well, 4” groups at 50 yards with him behind the trigger. Guess sometimes it ain’t the arrow, it’s the indian.
I was able to get behind the wheel and get groups of about 4” at 100 yards from the bench, gritty trigger and all. Not great for a tuned high-dollar AR-15, but not bad for 350 bucks. However, after several hundred rounds through the gun, my friend with the PSA/Anderson rifle combination has happily reported zero malfunctions with the gun. The inexpensive Palmetto State Armory package has performed well for its cost level, and has demonstrated itself to be a notable starter point for upgrades down the road.
Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts?
But is sourcing pre-made entry-level AR-15 parts kits worth it? Do they perform to a level reasonably high enough to justify not going out and sourcing high-dollar alternatives? Well…that’s the real question, isn’t it?
From what I’ve seen and experienced with Palmetto State Armory guns, and a couple other assembled rifle manufacturers like DPMS and Anderson guns, I’m going to take a deep breath, clamp my eyes shut, and say…yes. Throw rocks all you want, but for someone just starting out in the AR-15 world, these inexpensive kits are really a great place to test the waters without going into serious debt. Our subject rifle met all the goals set before it, at a reasonable price point, and continues to perform to its owner’s satisfaction.
Staying inside this envelope, Palmetto State Armory kits and those of its ilk are really a pretty good way to go if you’re not expecting a match gun or long-term survival gun. So if you’re just starting out or can only afford to part ways with $400 or less, shrug off what the snobby high-end AR guys will tell you and try the PSA kits. They’re a great way to learn the workings of an AR-15 platform and they can be upgraded just as easily as a $1,500 Daniel Defense AR-15.
However (and this is a damned big “however”), if I knew I needed this gun to defend myself, and/or I had just a few more bucks to spend – even to the $500-600 mark, I would ditch the cheap scope and look past the tempting inexpensive kit offerings, and take full advantage of the current market glut to look for a used Windham Weaponry, S&W M&P-15, Bushmaster, maybe SIG Sauer, or similar upgraded, higher-quality AR-15 to keep for when the going gets tough.
The few extra bucks buys you better tolerances, improved quality control with better parts materials, and generally an overall better-performing gun….probably better accuracy too. With firearms, and AR-15s in general, you usually do get what you pay for. Keep that in mind.
Let’s hear what you have to say – are cheap AR-15s worth your time, or a great place to start? Sound off in the comments below!