Is the Polymer Lower a Good Idea?

By CTD Rob published on in Firearms, Reviews

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.

ATI Omni

ATI Omni

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.

ATI HD16

ATI HD16

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.

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Comments (120)

  • BD Cooper

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    #76 Metal dashboards when Bye Bye because they caused major injuries even in minor accidents.

    #78 Carbon fiber and aluminum are both stronger than steel by weight but not by volume so thats a truly bad comparison.

    How about doing some real life tests like drop testing in hot and cold weather. Beat both up like they owe you money and see if they are still safe to shoot.

    Sooner or later someone is going to come up with a polymer that will make metal in weapons obsolete. I’ll wait until until that day comes along. Armys working on ceramic barrels so one day even rust will be obsolete.

    Reply

  • Mark

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    The video of aluminum vs. polymer lowers when subjected to deflection testing is an obvious attempt to confuse people. What should have been tested is the LOAD that the lowers can withstand before failure. A polymer will deflect much more than a metal because in an engineering sense, it will deflect much more than a metal will at an identical load. So what if the polymer deflects at 25 pounds while the metal fails at 100 pounds … it’s apples and oranges.

    They may be good products – I am not saying they are or aren’t. Just that the testing is less than honest.

    Reply

  • Frank

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    If you had a problem with a “polymer” lower or upper please tell us what it was so that we are informed. What I have noticed here is that polymer is talked about as if it is all the same stuff. Nothing could be further from the truth. Carbon fiber is way stronger than steel and much lighter. On the lower end of “plastics” there are some cheap materials that are not worthy of being used for anything worthwhile. There is a lot of apple and orange comparison going on here and that is not helpful.

    Reply

  • Will Johnson

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    Mosin guy, I completely agree. Things change, products evolve, new technology is created. Closed mindedness is fine, but you will be stuck in the past while the world moves forward. I am sure when people started making these metal objects that fire projectiles, there were people who frowned on that and decided to keep using their spears and arrows. They died.

    Reply

  • Mosin Guy

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    #74 Reply to “Brown”. I have three of the New Frontier polymers. The first one I bought has had more than 500 round through it. With a 42 round mag as fast as I can pull the trigger it works as well as my M&P. I guess there are some polymers that fall apart like any others but then again, you get what you pay for. I paid $109 shipped and no tax. With a lifetime warranty you can’t go wrong. I like quality and name brands as well; however, the polymer is here to stay and whatever might be wrong with them now will be made right as time goes on. Being an older fellow, I remember cars with metal dashboards and was so disappointed when they started making them with synthetics (plastics). Where are the metal ones today?

    Reply

  • David Weller

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    Hey Brown, how about being specific about what brand you had (each company makes theirs differently) and what they did when you complained about it. It’s quite unbelievable that you shot 50 rounds, had it break, then just, I dunno, threw it away.

    P.S. – Plastic isn’t Polymer. That’s like saying pressboard is oak.

    Reply

  • Brown

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    The threads that hold the buffer tube in stripped out after about 50rds. Stock fell off and parts went everywhere. I was very dissatisfied. Don’t waste the money on a plastic lower.

    Reply

    • dubbz

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      Okay “Brown” – which company and which year of production? I made the ” mistake” of lubing and test firing my New Frontier complete lower mached at first to a BCM upper from one of my other AR carbines( it now has a low budget but satisfactory PSA mid length mated)

      What happened was to be expected- the buffer tube came loose, causing the buffer tube detent to fly into the fire control group and ” stop” the gun from firing( the looseness also caused the BCG to nick the detent and shear a 1mm piece off the pin); this was AFTER firing 150 rds of federal xm193 and wolf ammo, of which 50 rds was fired in rapid succession!

      But what it didn’t do was strip the area where the buffer tube was affixed.

      I replaced the buffer detent pin, applied loctite and then STAKED the plate into the castle nut- no more backing out, nothing “stripped”.

      Unless you have the skill of a Century Arms International factory worker, you cannot “simply” break these polymer uppers with normal handling and maintenance- before ” permenantly” locking up my buffer tube to my polymer lower, I unscrewed and re-attached the buffer tube( a commercial spec one) and even tried affixing several extra mil spec buffers and a troy and magpul ctr stock- no stripping for polymer chipping.

      A friend who is a police officer and former marine armorer showed my how rushed and haphazard assembly can strip even aluminum upper( he fixed a friends DPMS lower by dremeling it out and inserting a threaded washer- you’d never know from the work he did, even though he advised our other friend to just go buy another stripped lower and cannibalize the trigger group from the damaged dpms lower)

      I have discovered in the last 25 yrs of professional and civilian firearms use, that impatients, and inexperience create most of the problems.

      Not saying a polymer lower will not fail before an aluminum one will( according to some industry insiders, a forved aluminum lower will fail before a billet lower will..) but I believe that mishandling causes more of the problems than product defect.

      If its a New Frontier lower I up you sent it back for replacement. ATI Omni polymer lowers supposedly had serious flaws and failures- send those back as well

      Reply

  • Doug

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    I have many of the same reservations for rifle polymer lowers, even though I own a glock. I purchased the glock mainly because of its ease of use (no external safeties to master).

    They do have their advantages.

    The polymer lowers are lighter, and if proven to be not quite as reliable as the aluminum lower then they would be a good weapon at home, and maybe back at camp and chow hall where they wouldn’t get fired as much. Usually at camp, at least at mine, the weapons are not put through the same rigors as they might be in the field, such as in the middle of the forest or desert, but where you still might need a rifle along with a sidearm.

    Even if I had an ar with a polymer lower and an ar with a standard aluminum lower, I would train with the heavier weapon to start with and incorporate the lighter weapon as time progressed. This way I could use either one and it wouldn’t be inconvenient to carry the heavier weapon. Plus, there isn’t a great difference between the two rifles, at least when I have carried them. After several hours in the field, both can seem to get heavier.

    Brown, could you please expand on what happened to your ATI omni lower?

    Reply

  • Brown

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    I had one of the ATI omni lowers and it didn’t last 2weeks. It’s JUNK!!!!!

    Reply

  • Beard

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    I would certainly be open to the idea by taking in reviews like this, commentary from a website or community’s users and weighing the idea of taking a loss like this writer did for my own research.

    I don’t care of it’s plastic, polymer, steel or whatever – if it fires on the first shot and on the second, if needed, it has done it’s job. I’m not looking for a TEOTWAWKI / SHTF situation with something like this, it’s clearly intended to eliminate weight

    Reply

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