The first time I ever visited a gun store in California, I was surprised at how popular the AR-15 platform is there despite the state’s ludicrous and arbitrary restrictions. Although rifles like the Ruger Mini-14, FightLite SCR, and Kel-Tec SU-16 innately lend themselves to state compliance, ARs are just so desirable that Californians will install all manner of bizarre components like fin grips and fixed magazines just to be able to use them. Speaking from experience, it’s a very easy platform to work on and you can have a lot of fun doing it—provided you know what you’re doing. If you’ve always wanted to start building and modifying your own AR-15-type rifles but were discouraged by that last caveat, one of the most important tools you need is a book like Gunsmithing the AR-15: The Bench Manual by Patrick Sweeney.
While no book or video can ever serve as a complete substitute for hands-on training and experience, Sweeney’s Gunsmithing the AR-15 series comes close. Each of its multiple volumes covers the care and feeding of your rifle at a different level of complexity, all the way from a basic field-strip and cleaning to parts selection and complete assembly. Volume 1 is an introductory guide for new owners who simply want a comprehensive resource on proper care and preventive maintenance; volume 2 covers complete disassembly; volume 3, The Bench Manual, is a reference guide for armorers; and volume 4 delves deep into which parts to choose and why.
In my professional opinion, The Bench Manual is by far the most useful book in the series. The first book is ideal for first-time owners and those who shoot infrequently, while the second and fourth serve as supplementary sources for information a serious builder should already know. I know I speak for every armorer when I say that a written reference guide like The Bench Manual is a crucial resource to keep in your workspace in case you need to refresh your memory on how to install a specific part or diagnose bizarre malfunctions. I’ll let you in on a dirty secret of mine: I’ve installed so many triggers that I’ve lost count, but every single time I do it, I find myself checking back in Sweeney’s book to make sure I don’t install one of the springs backwards.
Like a dictionary for a writer, no matter how experienced an armorer is, he or she should have a written guide on hand for reference just in case. Don’t think that you don’t need one just because you’ve been building guns for years. Even if you work for a law enforcement agency or security company and only have to deal with one set configuration of rifle, you will still benefit from the photographs and explanations of rare types of failures and how to rectify them.
Of course, no book is perfect, and I do have a handful of minor gripes with the Gunsmithing the AR-15 series. First, the printing quality isn’t the best. These are all paperbacks made with cheap paper; although mine still have all their pages, my copy of The Bench Manual is already beginning to yellow slightly around the edges after only a few years. Second, the illustrations are all photographs, with no line-drawing diagrams. For certain delicate operations, it would help to have step-by-step technical drawings showing where each part should be at different times in the assembly or disassembly process. Third, because these books only cover user- or armorer-level work, they shouldn’t have “gunsmithing” in the title. I’d love for Sweeney to write a fifth entry with the complete technical data package for the AR-15 and explanations on how to perform various gunsmith-level machining operations on the platform.
All in all, despite its minor flaws, Patrick Sweeney’s Gunsmithing the AR-15 is an excellent series with books for shooters of every knowledge level. As stated above, volume 1 would make a good gift for a first-time AR owner, but The Bench Manual is an absolute must-have for anyone remotely serious about working on the platform at an armorer level. It includes all the information you need to fully assemble or disassemble an AR-platform firearm from scratch, all the way down to the pins and springs. You can pick up a copy for $34.99 on the publisher’s website at GunDigestStore.com or from other online and physical bookstores. I bought mine at my nearest Barnes & Noble in the section with books about sports and outdoorsmanship.