In this industry, everyone wants to buy the highest quality products. However, in reality most people simply buy what they can afford. Our biggest sellers are not $1,200 ARs decked out with the latest gadgets. By a huge margin, our top sellers are the least expensive guns we can ship out. This is a simple fact of capitalism. Most major gun manufacturers tweak its assembly processes to reduce cost, thereby increasing profits. More plastic means less money required for investing in materials. You might notice that it is becoming more difficult to find a modern duty pistol that isn’t made of 50 percent polymer.
The AR platform is no exception. Traditionally, much of the AR is already plastic. However, recent developments are pushing the limits of AR design, and the polymer lower receiver is now commonplace. Many shooters will scoff at a polymer lower, but I think it shows some degree of promise. New Frontier Armory produced some torture test videos to show its plastic product, the LW-15, isn’t a junky ill-fitting gun part. Additionally, American Tactical Imports produces its Omni lower which has realized good deal of success on the market, despite a few wavering reviews on its ability to pair with mil-spec uppers. Since only a handful of owners reported problems, you can probably assume there was an out-of-spec run that made it past quality control.
The biggest question people have with polymer AR lowers isn’t usually the fit of the product, it’s the durability. In the 1980s, GLOCK faced significant market resistance due to the perception that plastic guns could never work. Today, GLOCK is the most popular choice by police departments around the world. The early versions of M16s had plenty of detractors both inside and outside of the Army’s weapons program. Much of this stemmed from the partial plastic construction. High-ranking brass were accustomed to large, heavy, .30-caliber wood and steel rifles that felt more substantial.
When you study the AR lower closely, you’ll notice the only part of the component that could face any real stress is where the buffer tube screws in to the receiver. If a polymer lower was going to fail, it would be there. While the recoil of a .223/5.56 NATO is minimal, that part of the lower still bears a significant physical load. Part of the reason polymer pistols work so well, is the lack of a buttstock component. Imagine a GLOCK pistol with a metal tube screwed into the back of the grip, which feeds into a buttstock. Much of the recoil force would cause stress on the point where the two components meet. That part of the AR lower has a similar role and there have already been a few broken polymer lowers floating around the Internet. Since we weren’t there to witness how they actually failed, we won’t know if this was caused by normal use, or by someone mounting a .50 BMG upper on a polymer lower and whining about it breaking.
My polymer lower comes in next week. If it breaks, then I’m out a little over $35. However, I really don’t think that is going to happen. We aren’t going to throw it around and run over it with a truck. The job of this rifle will simply be to shoot .223 downrange, and that’s all I expect out of it. While I wouldn’t consider using a polymer lower AR as my SHTF gun, I think the low cost and reduced weight make it a viable option for training or for a first-time owner. We’re going to see a lot more polymer lowers in the future, hopefully they’re up to the task—time will tell.