Personal defense rifles and ammo: immense demand, but a shrinking supply


Over the past fifteen months I’ve written several articles about what I call the “personal defense rifle” or PDR:  namely, an AR-15 carbine or its equivalent.  They appear to have been well received.  I’ve helped a number of friends upgrade their PDR’s to current standards, and advised several more what components to buy to build their own.  Fortunately, the AR-15 platform lends itself to assembly and/or upgrade by moderately skilled users.  It’s one of the simplest, easiest-to-work-with platforms out there.

With the immense demand for such rifles over the past year, sparked by security fears over the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with increased urban unrest and political uncertainty, there have been a number of effects on the market.  For a start, of course, suitable ammunition has become almost impossible to find at reasonable prices.  This time last year, I could still buy bulk 5.56x45mm ball at 30 to 35 cents per round.  Today, it’s plus-or-minus a dollar per round, in either 55gr. M193 or 62gr. M855 versions;  more specialized ammunition (e.g. Mk 262 77gr.) is rather higher.  I’m very grateful I built up my ammo stash when I did!  I haven’t had to buy any.  When you consider that a minimal (I say again, minimal) ammo reserve for a PDR would be 500 rounds per weapon, and more likely 1,000, that’s a very expensive proposition to build up today.  It can cost as much as the weapon itself.

I mentioned last year that one could build or buy multiple upper receiver groups for an AR-15, chambered for cartridges other than 5.56x45mm.  I mentioned 300 AAC Blackout, the Russian 7.62x39mm and other options.  Some commenters didn’t like the idea, regarding it as a waste of money that could be invested in more “standard” ammo instead.  However, given current ammo shortages and stratospheric prices, an alternate-caliber upper becomes a much more viable and economical proposition.  For example, Russian-manufactured 7.62x39mm is still available at about half the cost per cartridge of US 5.56x45mm, if you shop around.  A 7.62x39mm AR-15 upper receiver group, including barrel, bolt carrier group, etc., can still be had for plus-or-minus $500, or you can build your own (if you can find the necessary components – discussed below) for slightly less.  That makes the ammo-plus-upper costs a much more reasonable proposition compared to 5.56x45mm;  and once you’ve paid for the upper, the cost of future ammo purchases drops by half compared to US cartridges.  In fact, I’ve been able to pass on some of my 5.56x45mm stash to others who need it, in exchange for 7.62x39mm ammo that I can use for practice.  They save money, and I can still train effectively.  What’s not to like?

(A quick note:  some AR-15 uppers chambered for the 7.62x39mm or 5.45x39mm Russian cartridges have exhibited quirky behavior with some ammo brands.  Some rounds – sometimes as many as 50% – have not fired due to hard primers.  A very easy and low-cost solution to that problem is Black Rifle Arms’ slightly extended AR-15 7.62×39 | 5.45×39 Enhanced Firing Pin.  It’s only $10.99, and in my rifles has completely eliminated the problem.  Shooters who use steel-cased 5.56x45mm ammo [which I don’t recommend, but which may be all that’s available right now] have also reported success with it.  I highly recommend it from personal experience.  The company also sells an enhanced power hammer spring, if required.  I’ve found it useful in particularly difficult cases to combine the spring and the enhanced firing pin.  The combination is just about foolproof, in my experience.)

In recent months I’ve found it more and more difficult to buy the components I and my friends need.  I suspect the reason is threefold:

  1. A lot more people are upgrading or building their own rifles in the face of a critical shortage of new-production guns on the market, thus increasing demand;
  2. Manufacturers are diverting components they would normally have sold as parts, into producing more complete guns for the more profitable retail market;
  3. Many manufacturers are uncertain of what will happen with proposed gun control legislation from the Biden administration.  They can’t afford to be left holding stocks they’re no longer allowed to sell;  therefore, some of them are not producing as many components and/or rifles as before, until they have greater certainty about their future.

Whatever the reason, high-quality critical parts such as bolt carrier groups, barrels, etc. have become hard to find.  Some of my favorite suppliers will still list up to a hundred or more examples of particular components, but when you narrow your search to those actually in stock, they have few or none on hand.  Budget components are more easily available, but those aren’t always up to the standards knowledgeable users require.  (A cheap AR-15 will shoot into the mil-spec 5 MOA standard at 100 yards, but not necessarily into the 2 MOA minimum which many shooters, including myself, require;  and its lower-quality components may not hold up as well as higher-quality parts under the stress of extended use.)

Small parts (particularly in combinations like a lower parts kit or LPK) are also more difficult, and more expensive, to source.  I’ve spent a fair amount of money on buying several of each component that I consider critical, and sorting them into a compartmented storage box, so that I can find what I need when I need it.  If legislation makes replacement firearms and/or parts more difficult to source, I want to have sufficient reserves of both to reduce that risk.  I highly recommend that you do so too.  At a minimum, I suggest you keep the following spares on hand.  Examples have been linked from Midway USA, but there are many alternatives out there.

If you have multiple PDR’s, consider increasing the spares you keep on hand.  For a more comprehensive list and discussion, see The Intrepid Reporter’s comments hereLanguage alert:  he can be profane at times, but he knows what he’s talking about.

(I’m in the process of sorting my spares into compartmented storage boxes, as illustrated by The Intrepid Reporter here.  However, I’m taking the additional step of putting all the small components into ziplock plastic bags, then putting the bags into the compartments.  Have you ever seen what happens when you drop one of those boxes, and the lid bursts open?  Yeah.  BTDT.  Never again!  I’m also numbering every compartment, and numbering the bag that goes in that compartment, to make recovering them easier.)

Finally, note the proposed legislation outlawing so-called high-capacity magazines, particularly for PDR’s.  (They’re not actually high-capacity, they’re standard-capacity for such weapons, but semantics mean nothing to the anti-gunners.)  If you don’t yet have at least a basic load for each of your rifles (that’s 7 magazines, one in the weapon, six carried on your person) you should remedy that now, while it’s still legal to do so.  More would be better.  (I recommend at least ten mags per defensive rifle, and at least five per defensive pistol.  Remember, these things can break, or wear out, or get trodden on, or dropped, or otherwise lost.  I strongly suggest you buy more than those minima, if you can afford it.)  I think the legislation is likely to pass, so buy what you need now if you don’t already have it.  There may never be another (legal) opportunity to do so.  (Also, make sure you have enough magazines for all the cartridges your PDR’s may shoot.  For example, 7.62x39mm cartridges require dedicated magazines, and won’t feed or function well out of 5.56x45mm magazines.)

If you haven’t yet bought sufficient firearms and ammunition for personal and family defensive needs, you’re way behind the curve.  Uncle Sam is about to give you and your family another round of stimulus money.  May I suggest that a good, reliable handgun, a personal defense rifle, and sufficient ammunition, magazines and spares for them, would be a worthwhile way to invest it?  Sadly, given the unrest and rioting of the past year and what looks to lie ahead, I think we may all need them before long.



  1. First AR I built from a stripped lower took me a day and a half from component parts to a fully functioning lower. Last one about 45 minutes.
    Start with a clear well lighted workspace, a few spare parts (springs and detent pins in particular). Highly recommend a strong magnetic pickup tool close to hand for retrieval of said small parts as they are known to fly off to places unknown at the slightest encouragement.
    Am finding it worth my time to check with all my usual on line vendors as certain components will suddenly become available briefly. In the last month or so I've managed to grab 2k of 115gr 9mm slugs, 4k 55gr .223 bullets, 1k .380 brass, and a complete lower parts kit including grip and control group.
    Primers on the other hand cannot be found in quantity for love nor money.
    Had an interesting discussion just last night with an old machinist friend as to how difficult it would be to build a small batch primer operation. He's an old tool and die man, and my training is in both Industrial and Systems engineering.

  2. Up in this neck of the woods, MA it's tough to find reasonably priced AR's (surprise!).

    Mini-14's are available and will likely be the route I go. Ammo 5.56/.223 is running about $0.75/rd online and private sales but it's out there if you want to pay.

    I was late to the game so I gotta pay.

  3. Agree with everything you said but I'll add that you didn't mention the effect of lockdowns and "social distancing" on manufacturing and production. Hard to keep running at full capacity when half your workers aren't allowed to come to work and those that are there have to be kept separated.

    I feel sorry for those struggling to find ammo but I also remember having this discussion multiple times over the past twenty years and the answer to why someone would only have 50 rounds was never well thought out. The only ammo I've had to buy in the past year was 9mm and that because I bought my first 9, a SIG M18.

    Thanks for the link on organizing spare parts. I'll be reading that. It's always bugged me that I have a bin full of spare parts. I "know" what they are all for but if it's been years since you worked on something that knowledge may not be as readily accessible as you might like when the time comes.

  4. Tam has previously noted that magazines are a fungible, and more is always better.

    Cheap trick for AR (or other bitty-parts-want-to-fly) assembly: get a large clear plastic bag, and work inside. (Hopefully your bag is thick enough to resist the spring-launched detent; if not, at least thick enough to slow it down some.)

  5. Appreciate the links Peter… great points all, and I actually never thought of running a Rooskie 7.62×39 AR personally. My main concern with it is the 'filth factor.' Most of the cheap DotMil surplus Rooskie 7.62 fires really dirty burning powders, and have a LOT of residue. This's seriously contraindicated with the gas impingement system… the Armalite design is much less tolerable of crappy powder, which is why the Vietnam Era initial issue rifles had so many problems.

    That was one of the big secrets of the M-16 issues… the DoD contractor, who made the ammo for the M-16s tested with one powder, and switched to a cheaper, more crud producing one, that invariably led to jams and issues in the field. Just part of the issues, but a critical one.

    An AR-K as I call 'em, if using surplus Rooskie rounds, will need double the cleaning n'loob to keep running.

  6. @BigCountryExpat: You're right about the "filth factor", but I clean my AR after every session, using plenty of brake parts cleaner, etc. to flush out the crud. By doing that, it's not been a major problem for me. I imagine, if you let the crud build up, it would rapidly become one!

  7. I'm currently running a 7.62×39 upper from Bear Creek Arsenal and I find it more accurate than my .223 upper. I did have to replace the firing pin to get it to function with steel case ammo.

    I have noticed recently that the worst of the shortages seem to be easing – ammo is more available, especially 9mm and .223, and prices have dropped a little. My LGS just dropped the price on their 9mm from $30 a box to $25 a box, and raised their daily limit from 100 to 200 rounds.
    I'm seeing AR kits online from $450; the same companies were charging $700 when they had any stock at the peak, and I'm seeing more LPKs and other parts available at pre-pandemic non-sale prices, for example Anderson LPKs for $48.

  8. A 5 MOA rifle will still land lethal shots on a human target at 200 yards. Kyle Rittenhouse could have made good commies with a 20 MOA rifle at the near-contact distances from which he engaged his attackers. A 2 MOA rifle is nice but if you need to arm yourself in this time of trouble don't shy away from an entry level mil spec.

    Instead of a 7.62×39 AR, I suggest getting an AK. No faffing about with enhanced firing pins and variant magazines and other oddities, and two rifles are more useful than one rifle and a weird upper.

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