Knee-jerk reactions are common in the firearms community. They may be the most common basis for the “opinions” of many shooters, from neophyte to expert. Often expressed with zero forethought, study, or even knowledge, they are prolific and hormonal. It’s the basis for most social media—opinion without substance. One of the most persistent reactions, which is in fact a judgment quietly couched in a question, is “who needs premium/custom/expensive guns?”

Every aspect of the firearms industry is subjected to this slight, from pistol to precision rifle. The AR (and most commonly the AR-15 specifically) a prime target. Rising from complete obscurity to rock-star status in a relatively short time makes it an easy mark. It is the most customized rifle offered to the general public. CNC machining makes it pretty simple to manufacture and tweak, and the accessory market is unmatched. Assemblers putting together pieces and parts from various suppliers can build them pretty easily. Builders with CNC machines can go from hunk of metal to work of art in days. It keeps custom ARs at the fore of rifle manufacture, crossing every market (hunting, target, competition, professional use) with no real change in sight.

Firearms have been customized since they first came into existence. Its always been a part of the market, and always will be. Even during low overall sales periods, custom firearms remain popular. There is always someone who wants a one-off build. What exactly makes a gun “custom” or “premium?” And most importantly, are those custom guns even worth their (often high) prices? Let’s break the “custom” AR world into three groups, and examine them one by one.

Custom builds

One of the starting points for many custom-built ARs made from scratch.
One of the starting points for many custom-built ARs made from scratch.

Being different is part of American DNA. Whether it’s a car, house, furniture, painting, or just about anything else, we enjoy owning something that is unique. In the firearms community, this manifests in the form of gunsmiths who turn simple ARs into artwork. Some of their work is purely aesthetic, but other times it’s very practical.

Builders like Dave Lauck of D & L Sports, Inc. have been building rifles from bare metal for years. Dave often builds things from scratch on a lathe or mill. His rifles are unique creations as much as they are “builds.” There aren’t many people like Dave left, due to the prohibitive cost of both manufacturing and buying such guns. But they offer the purchaser truly custom builds, rather than “just” assembly.

Early pioneers in the custom AR industry include Les Baer Custom and Wilson Combat. Less than satisfied with existing designs, they machined their own receivers from bare forgings. They were less about volume, and more about quality. Handguards and accessories meeting their needs were designed and built in-house. Barrels were custom made, with custom profiles and lengths. Built one at a time by experienced gunsmiths, they took accuracy to new heights. At one time they were the only custom AR builders around, and the foundations they laid helped propel and popularize the industry. Companies like Larue Tactical and JP Rifles took the custom idea and ran with it, building some of the most accurate, reliable, and trusted ARs on the market. Some still use forgings, but the ability to CNC machine from billet has birthed a new type of build.

A Wilson Combat rifle in .458 SOCOM.
A Wilson Combat rifle in .458 SOCOM.

Advances in CNC machining allow small builders to start from scratch and create new rifles using advanced machining techniques. No longer hampered by a need to buy materials in numbers or use manufactured receivers, it’s now possible to design and build from scratch, one at a time.

Seekins Precision is a great example of this, starting with borrowed machines building parts, they are now a premier builder and parts supplier for custom ARs. They provide the basis for many custom rifles. Christensen Arms makes their own receivers, barrels, and internals, and they specialize in the use of carbon fiber. Companies like Jesse James Firearms Unlimited push the machining limits. Jesse builds guns with a strong emphasis on customization. Each of his builds is effectively a one-off, using the CNC machine to create rather than copy. His celebrity status certainly does not hurt, but his builds are very interesting, and way outside the norm. You just would not see them without ground laid by the innovators in the industry.

Custom builders offer personalization, attention to detail, and innovation. They specialize in purpose, look, or design. If you’re looking for a tack-driving machine, you cannot go wrong with a Wilson Combat, Larue Tactical, JP Rifles, or Les Baer AR. Want something more like a work of art than a “build?” Look to the Dave Laucks and Jesse James of the industry. Costs range from high to stratospheric, just like any hand-built item. If money is an issue, you are not shopping for a Rolls Royce, Ferrari, Maybach, or Bugatti. Similarly, these rifles are not for everyone, but for some they are the only choice. Just be patient, in some cases wait times are measured in years.

Custom assembly

A Red Creek Tactical rifle in action.
A Red Creek Tactical rifle in action.

Most custom ARs are assembled from parts purchased from other manufacturers, not built from scratch using in-house parts. Unlike other rifles, the AR lends itself to assembly by hand. It can be done with minimal tools, no machinery, and various degrees of effort. Often completed by experienced builders, these rifles are the largest segment in this market. Each rifle is built one at a time using high-quality parts and accessories.

GA Precision (GAP) is a prime examples of an AR assembler using quality parts built to custom standards. Companies like Robar and Clark Custom are examples of proven pistol builders assembling some extremely solid ARs. Small shops working out of their garage or home like Red Creek Tactical are sprinkled all over the country. Most use quality parts, assemble each rifle one at a time, and bring years of experience to the mix. Rifles are built for competition, self-defense, law enforcement, and military or contactor use. Some offer specialty coating along with different calibers and configurations.

Custom-assembled rifles offer the ability to get just what you want using the most popular parts. Some have favorites they use, but most will build what you ask them to. You get to pick receivers, hand-guards, stocks, triggers, and accessories. Built to meet your needs, they do exactly what you want. Barrels of choice with match chambers and custom contours can be utilized. Custom coatings with camo or other personal patterns are popular. Custom engraving or other personalization make it yours. You get an attention to detail most manufacturers cannot provide. Parts are hand-fit to tight tolerances. Rifles can be tuned to operate with specific ammunition or for use with suppressors. Some of the best running rifles ever used come from these gunsmiths.

Price can be higher, and each rifle is built one at a time, so you are probably going to wait several months—especially if it is a one-man show. If you are not patient, don’t waste your time. Most “problems” come from extended or unrealistic wait times. Getting exactly what you want will not come overnight. The Internet is riddled with complaints about custom shops not delivering “on time.” Be patient and understand you get hand-assembled perfection. If you are an “I want it now” type, you need to buy from the next group.

Custom-quality manufacturers

The author putting rounds downrange with an LWRCI carbine.
The author putting rounds downrange with an LWRCI carbine.

There are a few mainstream companies that offer rifles built to custom standards. They’re typically smaller companies that offer one or more rifles assembled to higher standards.

Based on my own personal experience, a few Bravo Company rifles meet or exceed the standards of some custom-assembled rifles. The same is true with LWRC International and Barrett Firearms. Attention to detail on all has been superb, coatings expertly applied, and fit and finish tight and precise. Most were designed, built, and sold to very demanding government contractors. There are more companies like these, but those are just a few that I’ve personally tested.

With one of these guns, you may save a bit of money over a custom-assembled rifle, but generally not much. Quality is not cheap, but you gain availability. Most are off the shelf, if not, wait times are measured in days or weeks, not months or years. “Factory”-level customization is minimal to non-existent, but they offer the best components and most current designs. They work well with most ammunition, exhibit almost precision accuracy, and will last a couple of lifetimes. Like all things mechanical, a bad apple slips through, but most meet the highest standards short of a truly custom assembly. The problems that do occur are generally taken care of quickly with no fuss. For some this is the best of both worlds: you get custom quality with the warranty and backing of a major manufacturer.

Bringing it all together

The author shooting the Barrett REC7.
The author shooting a Barrett REC7.

Need is an overused and under-defined word when it comes to guns. It’s either used to tell you what you should buy, or explain why someone else should not buy something. So who “needs” a custom AR? Anyone who wants one!

If you have a “need” to appreciate art, custom design, and a rifle that is a one-off, then custom-built rifles are perfect. Just like a Bugatti, it gets the job done, just with a ton more style.

Custom-assembled rifles also meet just about any need. Whether it’s a 3-gun match, varmint hunt, precision competition, or just happy time at the range, they will do it. You get top quality, attention to detail, and a personal touch with less wait and often less cost.

If you’re unwilling to wait or pay for rifles custom-built or -assembled, but want expert fit, outstanding quality, and proven usability, then custom-quality ARs are perfect. They are easier to get and last a lifetime. They are perfect for duty or professional rifles.

Any custom-built, -assembled, or -manufactured AR is going to exceed most normal requirements for such guns. None of them are cheap, but most will outlive you and your next two generations. Just like anything else, it is about you and what you want. For some it’s custom, and that is exactly how it should be!

Images by David Bahde

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6 thoughts on “Are Custom and Premium ARs Worth Their Price Tags?

    1. Just to be historically accurate, Lloyd Disantis of RND MFG in Colorado was the first to manufacture high end billet AR platform rifles with us (JP) being the second. This was back in the mid 90s. We just took it a lot further on the quality control and internal technology. LB saw me at the 1994 Single Stack Classic as we worked adjacent tables. When he saw what I was doing, he came back the next year said he was going to build rifles. A couple years later, he arrived. I give Les credit for changing the price paradigm (due to his extensive distributor/dealer infrastructure with the pistols) on these rifles and convincing the dealers that people would pay more for a high end rifle. We had no luck with dealers at that time as they could not imagine anyone paying more than $600-$800 for an AR15 type rifle. Like Dillon Precision, we went customer direct and were extremely successful selling customer direct. Once LB “opened the door” on the dealer side, we acquired many stocking dealers. Wilson came along much later and we supplied all the fire control parts to Bill for some years for his fine rifles. I really appreciate the mention as we often get ignored.
      John Paul

  1. In my humble opinion any AR that you buy in a store is an overpriced firearm. I build my own and save hundreds of dollars in the process that can be used for more important things like ammo for instance. Now, keep in mind that I am strictly talking about the .223 / 5.56 variation and not the .308`s and the like. Having attended the NRA convention in Nashville and Indy, it amazes that there are so many companies out there touting that their AR platform is different from the guy selling his own “better” version across the aisle. How many ways can you build the same gun? That is the key point too, they are the same gun that I can build for about $450 on average in about an hour. I have built 4 AR`s and not one of them has failed me ever. The last one I built for a friend after he bought all the parts new locally or online cost a whopping $408! He has over a 1000 rounds through it and not one issue, period. You can brag about your Colts, Wyndhams, Rock Rivers etc. I`ll keep my money in my pocket, thank you very much, and have a whole lot more fun shooting all the ammo with the cash I had left over to buy it with!

  2. I agree. Buy about ten lower receivers and build what you want. I have built 6.5 grendels and have been very pleased with the outcome versus commercial prices.

  3. I`m right there with you Thomas. The funny I heard at the NRA show from one of the small time AR builders was that there were something like 90 or so of them in Indianapolis in 2014 and by the NRA show in Nashville in 2015, over half of those guys were out of business because people just aren`t going to pay thousands of dollars for a gun that can be purchased right now as low as $450 assembled or in pieces and you build it yourself. If you buy an assembled AR for $500 or less, you have plenty of cash to hot rod it however you want and still be at a lower price than buying a name brand, overpriced .223 / 5.56 variety. People are figuring this out very quickly. There are tons of parts on Ebay and the prices are so far below some of the manufacturers that you just can`t ignore them anymore. The guys that kill me are the ones you see at gun shows trying to unload their $600 AR that they paid $1500 for during the “Obama`s coming after your AR” scare a couple of years ago. They fell for the panic, and got hopelessly burned because of it.

  4. A word of caution on “custom” firearms … in production runs, there is enough volume to hit all the corners of the manufacturing window. With custom firearms, we rely on the firearms builder to know enough and to care enough to avoid issues and focus on quality. Sometimes that works well, other times not. For example, I wanted an AR-15 that would, without question, be better than me so I could work and work until I got really good. So, I bought a Les Baer IPSC Match, put a decent scope on it and a Magpul PRS stock. All total, well over $3 grand. But, it really is accurate, delivering about 1/4 MOA all the time. On the other hand, the magazine was dusty and dirty when it arrived, never had been cleaned, much less tested. The bolt had been dipped in some heavy oil and was dripping. It wouldn’t feed right because the magizine was poor and the recoil spring was too strong. Calls and emails to Les Baer were ignored, etc, etc, etc. Not to moan, but some of the big names that you’d expect customer service from are more into ego and profits than great products and happy customers.

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