AR-15 Building Tools Part I

For The Well Equipped Home Shop.

If anyone wants to work on firearms, of course it would be wonderful to have a complete and detailed gunsmithing shop. I’d like to have a hydraulic automobile lift here to help me change the oil in my vehicles also. Barring that, there are a few essentials needed to complete most accessible projects for the ambitious AR-15 owner.

The first necessity is a good vise mounted to a good workbench. So that’s one and two. Anytime “someone else” can hold the parts it’s easier and more efficient to complete a task. I mount up a receiver or assembly whenever I can prior to wrenching on it. Even something like optical sight installation is evermore easier with the rifle components held securely.

The vise should have a minimum of 4-inch opening, and 6 is better. I have been very disappointed with some I’ve purchased at the major-brand tool centers (those places where reversing forklifts beep at you incessantly while you shop). A good quality vise can be found at a true mechanic or gunsmith’s supply. It will cost more, but it will be worth it. It’s true you might not stress a vise building AR-15s like you might in other mechanical areas, but it takes a surprising amount of force to retain a receiver block against the leverages of barrel installation. A vise that runs smoothly open and closed, and doesn’t come apart or loosen with use, means that the tool functions perfectly: There’s no complexity in employing it.

I won’t offer suggestions in workbench construction because I don’t think I’ve ever built two the same way, and there are good ones for sale also. If you also use the bench for reloading equipment, I’ve found it’s a huge help to secure the bench to a wall in addition to the support from its platform on the floor. Some sort of cushioning covering in one area is wise, and there are bench-top mats also. It’s usually necessary to back a roll pin installation with wood, but the mat helps keep scratches and scrapes in check.

This is a doozy. Brownell’s Multi-Vise is angle adjustable and very reliable.

If you’re going to do a barrel installation, which is a decidedly worthwhile reason for all these tools, you’ll need at the least two major items. I talked about this recently on an article on the thing itself, but it’s fast to rerun down the item list. First is a way to secure the upper receiver, a go-between. There are clamps and inserts, and I prefer the inserts. A clamp-style has a cutout area that encases the exterior of the upper on each side; this is then secured in the vise. It’s like a mold of an A2 upper on each interior piece, and also has a piece that fits in like the bolt carrier.

The insert style is sculpted to occupy the interior of the upper, pins into place through the receiver pinholes, and then is set and secured into a vise. The reason I prefer the insert is because it’s usable with any form of upper receiver. It’s also simpler and a little easier, literally, to work around. Derrick Martin designed this style of retainer and there’s no damage possible when it’s used correctly.

Barrel nut wrenches are designed to fit among the “scallops” on the barrel nut outside, and is a fully necessary tool for installations. The best I’ve used, when I can use it, has full circumferential contact. I say “when I can use it” because this wrench has to be slipped over the muzzle end of a barrel to have engagement; that’s not possible unless the front sight housing is removed. Otherwise, there are other style wrenches that can get a grip directly from the side of the barrel nut. I get the ones with a 1/2-inch socket spot for attachment to a torque wrench and breaker bar. There are some with a built-on handle, but they are not going to see much, if any, use by a rifle builder.

This is daggone handy: a lower-receiver fixture from Brownells. It is so much easier to work
on anything when you have both hands free, especially installing triggers.

Here’s a “clamshell”-style upper clamp. It works fine, but is
limited to a conventional upper receiver. Many of the aftermarket
parts have different external features.

Don’t rely on the likewise built-in cutouts on the “multi-purpose” tools for extension tube and flash suppressor wrench flats. Just get an appropriate sized “real” wrench, or even an good quality adjustable wrench, and get the right fit for the job.

I use a 1/2-inch drive torque wrench for barrel installations. I like the “click” type. After a few barrel installations, you’ll see that precision honestly isn’t important. As long as it will show when you’ve reached minimum needed for adequate retention, it’s very often going to take more to get alignment correct.

A purpose-built set of pin punches is very necessary. Specialty roll pin punches and roll pin starter punches can’t be substituted by flat-end punches. And nails don’t work at all. A roll pin punch has a little nib that fits the pin end; a starter punch encases a portion of the exterior of the pin to secure it against starting, kind of like a fence post driver. A complete set isn’t cheap, so you might only need to get ones for the jobs you wish to do. A tap hammer is the right tool to power the punches, and I like the brass-headed variety to avoid scars when you miss the punch. It happens.

There is need for a couple of quality screwdrivers. Buttplate screws and grip screws are much easier to manipulate with a driver that fits the slot. Best is to replace a grip screw with hex head screw. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of need for a screwdriver set. A collection of Allen wrenches is always necessary primarily for aftermarket parts installations.
Next time we’ll look at some of the smaller indispensables that round out a builder’s kit.

This insert-style upper receiver fixture is usable with virtually
any AR-style upper, and there’s no chance of unwanted movement.

Accuracy Speaks makes the best barrel wrench, if its use applies
to your project. It has to slide over the muzzle.

Here’s a “universal” wrench that works the barrel nut, flash suppressors, and stock extension.

Roll pin punches are a must have to manage these peculiar pins.
They’re spendy, so buy them as you need if you’re on a budget.

By Glen Zediker

Shameless Self-Promotion
The preceding is a specially adapted excerpt from The Competitive AR-15: Builders Guide, a book by Glen Zediker and Zediker Publishing. For more information, please check out or call (662) 473-6107.

200 South Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

Accuracy Speaks Inc.
3690 N. Usery Pass Rd., Mesa, AZ 85207
(480) 373-9499

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