An Exercise in Buying a Custom Upper

AR-15 upper

I am a reloader. As such, I have a bit more flexibility in the cartridges I choose to own and shoot. I am not opposed to owning a caliber that is better at what I want to be done even if it doesn’t come close to passing the “Walmart” test.

Here’s how the Walmart test works: Can I go to any (gun-friendly) Walmart and have better than an 80% chance of finding ammo for my gun?

You might not find the grain weight or brand you want, but you can get something that works.

If you own an AR-15 in 5.56, you easily pass this test. If you own a .458 SOCOM, you probably don’t.

If the cartridge happens to be a 6mm wildcat based on the 6.5 Grendel case, you are so far away from passing, even Internet ammo sites look at you cockeyed.

In that vein, eighteen months ago, I started the process of finding an AR-15 cartridge that would be an excellent hunting choice capable of ethically taking medium game animals out to 400+ yards and a flat shooting paper puncher out to at least 700 yards.

Here’s what my experience buying a custom upper was like.

ar-15 with ammo
Buy a custom upper is ultimately a satisfying experience for some.

The Cartridge

There were many twists and turns in my research. Many things seemed great, but turned out to be vaporware or Internet myths. I did find a cartridge that had significant traction in the wildcat community and it did all the things I wanted, however.

The cartridge would launch a 105-108-grain 6mm bullet at 2800+ fps from a 24″ barrel. This has vastly superior ballistics to the off-the-shelf “competitors” in the .224 Valkyrie or .22 Nosler.

With the best BC 90-grain Valkyrie as the comparison (90-grain Berger VLD), my 6mm Fat Rat upper shoots an 18-grain heavier bullet at least 200 fps faster. At 800 yards, this means 120 #/ft. more retained energy and 10″ less drop.

I am using a very good bullet in the 6mm wildcat (Hornady 6mm 108-grain ELD Match), but I chose to forgo some BC to avoid the finicky nature of VLD projectiles. I also don’t want to have to re-zero when I switch from hunting to paper punching.

ar-15 custom upper
A close up of the 6mm Fat Rat upper.

The Company

There are two companies selling what are effectively the same cartridge. The more well-known option is by (within the community) a well-known shooter. He uses a gunsmith company to produce complete uppers and complete rifles to his specs.

These rifles command a premium price and by all accounts are a top-shelf offering… when you can get one made.

The second option is a company that has a different name for the “same” round. There is a slight difference in neck diameter, to remove any need for neck turning and some other gun geek details. Otherwise, they are “the same.”

This outfit does not require the purchase of a complete rifle, although they make them. Their business model caters to the DIY builder wanting to build from components while having flexibility and saving a bit of money.

I originally attempted to work with the first company. Over a three-month period, I sent them five emails. In these emails, I asked specific questions regarding the cartridge and how to purchase an upper—as well as specifics on the needs of the lower to mate it to.

None of these emails were responded to. I did manage to find and get in touch with the gunsmith company. They were quite helpful on the technical aspects and gave me a different phone number to try to place my order. I called three times and finally got a return call.

The family member with whom I spoke was extremely helpful and knowledgeable. We spoke for at least 30 minutes. His goal was to make sure I was getting what I wanted. My cell phone dropped the call, before being able to complete the deal.

In the next month, I made at least three follow-up calls, to no avail.

The Company, Take Two

At that point, I moved my attention to the other company, Accurate and Reliable Rifles. The owner, Lee Wells, always answered or promptly responded to my calls. In the third round of communication, I initiated an order for a complete upper.

Some of the various hardware bits needed to reload the wildcat round and the final configuration of the upper were not finalized with that order. Some fine-tuning was still needed and a few things came up during the process that changed a few of the details.

This is very typical for a custom upper job. After several rounds of figuring out the finer details, we had a plan and a due date. I paid in advance and the wait began for my 6mm Fat Rat.

Inevitable Delays

Three weeks into what was supposed to be a six-week wait, I received a call regarding the side charging stripped upper. They were redesigning the upper from scratch to eliminate the rear charging handle.

This change would strengthen the lower and eliminate the rear gas blow-by when used suppressed. This seemed like a good idea and I signed off on the delay. It was also going to add three weeks to the project time, but I like communication and I like improvements.

The new agreed upon shipment date arrived. By the terms of the purchase, I should have received an email with tracking information to show shipment. My life was very busy that week, so I don’t have a chance to call during business hours.

I followed up the next week, only to find out that the production of the new lower ran into a snag and was three weeks behind. This was the second of four production delays that would set the project back 13 weeks.

After the third delay, Lee did offer to thread the muzzle and mount a muzzle brake for free, as a way of apologizing for the continued delays.

ar-15 close-up
The finished product.

Worth the Wait

I realize in the world of custom guns, this is small money and a relatively short delay. Even in the world of factory releases—Kel-Tec, I’m looking at you with the CMR-30 and three years—11 to 15 weeks behind is actually moderately ahead of the curve.

This fact just means many in the gun industry have more technical savvy than they have marketing sense or realistic workload predicting skills. There are, of course, positive examples.

We will redeem Kel-Tec, as their KS7 was not even announced until they had more than 1,000 units ready for shipment. In that case, they fulfilled the maxim of “ALWAYS under promise and OVER deliver.” Other companies would be well advised to do the same.

For some, the hassle of a custom upper will greatly outweigh the simplicity of 85-90 percent performance from an off-the-shelf solution.

Those of us who own a Dillon 650, two Square Deal B’s and a couple of single stage presses probably fall into the custom upper category, at least part of the time. If, for no other reason (and despite the complaining), we like the challenge.

Have you bought a custom upper before? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments below.

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (6)

  1. There are now lots of things that fail the Wal-mart test. The article was written and scheduled for publication before Wal-mart went full potato and failed the liberty test.

  2. My first foray into reloading was a wildcat based upon the 25 WSSM cartridge, which fits in an AR 15 magazine and magazine well. Called the 30-25 WSSM, it was a .308 caliber version of the 25 WSSM. I had D-tech in Minnesota make the upper for me. Had a really good experience with D-Tech, great communications, though there were delays. Because of the short oal afforded by the AR 15 mag well, my 30-25 was limited on using the heavier .308 caliber weight bullets; however it loved 150 grainers, and would launch them at 3000 fps out of the 24 inch barrel. And with short 180 grain bullets like the Speer Hot-Cor and Nosper Partition Protected Points, I got similar energy results, though slower speeds of course. Basically it was a hot 30-06 out of an AR-15. Olympic Arms later came out with their 300 Ossm, which was virtually identical, and is still available today from Olympic. The ammo they offer is rated at 3050 or so pfps. The round is a SAAMI – spec round as well.

  3. 5.56 fails the “Walmart test” too. Since Walmart has turned against law abiding gun owners, you better buy your AR in .270 or .30-06 if you want to get your ammo from them.

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