Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Gearing up for a SBR build

**As I wrote this post, I realized that it touched on many confusing MA laws and wanted to write a disclaimer that in no way should my post here reflect as legal advice or are setting legal implications and that I encourage you to reach out to a qualified attorney for legal advice.

I applied for a Class III SBR (Short Barrel Rifle) Tax stamp back in late December of 2011 and doing what everyone does (specially here in MA where we reportedly have the slowest person on the job reviewing the applications), waiting....and I mean a long time......

For those unfamiliar, The National Fire Arms act (NFA for short) was passed through congress and enacted in 1934 to define a class of firearms that at that time were used by notorious gangsters and the ilk and was designed to mitigate the 2nd amendment by restricting guns defined in the NFA as federally controlled weapon configurations. The NFA was effective at removing dangerous weapon configurations such as short barreled shotguns (or sawed off to the layman) from the average person and required (where legal in the applicant state) to apply for a one time federal tax stamp per weapon type the applicant wished to possess. The NFA effectively makes possession of the types of firearms listed therein to be a serious felony without the tax stamp and created another law to lay down during the mid to late thirties against those notorious gangsters by making the Thompson Machine gun, or 'Tommy gun' as it is better known to be multiple counts of a felony just for possessing it without the proper tax stamps.

Aside from being a business, there are two methods to applying for a Class III Tax stamp, one of which is more complicated to initially setup but easier to maintain long term and that is the method that I chose. I set up a legal Trust where the NFA firearm will be 'owned' by and it removes a bunch of nasty possible side effects of Class III ownership. First, it removes the requirement for a police chief sign off (which I hear that the BATFE is doing away with) and if you live in a firearm restrictive state like MA, that can be a difficult first step). Another thing that it helps with is the instance where you want to go shooting with friends and if they want to shoot the SBR, I can temporary grant access from the Trust to be able to legally handle the firearm, otherwise the situation creates a felony as the Tax stamp for individual applicants are specific to the applicant but a Trust can have temporary members within the Trust.

The application process as a Trust requires additional paper work, but not that much more considering the number of forms that have to be filled out to begin with. With the paper work is sent a check for $200 for the tax stamp fee, and I had to setup a checking account for my Trust to make the purchase records consistent. When I set up the account for the Trust at B of A, I said to the B of A employee plain checks... Thanks to the stellar customer service and how well they clearly listen to their customers, I got the mixed sample pack instead and not one of them looked, well; not stupid as seen below.

Thanks a lot, B of A

I received a letter from the DoJ recently but it unfortunately was not my tax stamp but a letter stating that I missed a duplicate form (since my submission was triple checked by myself as well as my attorney, it's not that we missed it but the DoJ lost it, likely behind some file cabinet by now) and that I would need to send back the duplicate signed along with the original that the DoJ sent back to show which form was 'missing', which at least was helpful. Talk about a let down and more waiting to be had.

In the interim, it's specification and design time. I've already decided to build this SBR on an AR platform but some decisions remain to be made. Aside from the short barrel, what to do with the build? And how short of a barrel? Gas or piston driven? So many things to consider when building one up so let's start with the lower receiver but before we get to that, some laws specific to Massachusetts that will affect my decisions.

I live in Massachusetts, while I like living here it is a very restrictive state when it comes to firearms. Massachusetts copied the Federal Assault Rifle Ban of 1994 which was passed during the Clinton administration and it created definitions for what an assault rifle was made up of. It was a ten year long ban which was sun-setted during George W.'s administration but the ban's definition is what Massachusetts copied for it's own laws of what an assault rifle is made up of and what MA residents can and can not have on a assault type rifle, which unfortunately clearly describes and points out AR platforms and we here in the commonwealth must abide by what is considered by many to be one of the most superfluous and ineffective, even possibly hazardous gun law to have ever existed.

The AWB (short for Assault Weapon Ban) defines that a semi-automatic rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has two or more of the following features;

Folding or telescoping stock
Pistol Grip
Bayonet mount (completely illegal in MA)
Flash Suppressor
Grenade launcher

To make it worse for MA residents, if the barrel has threads and you intend to use a muzzle break on it (because we can't have flash suppression here in this state if you want to use a pistol grip), it must be pinned and welded in a fashion to make the muzzle break a permanent attachment. On a side note, the only upside to this is that according to federal statue, a pinned and welded muzzle break is considered part of the barrel so one can have a 14.5" barrel and weld on a 1.5" muzzle break to make a total of 16" with the break and considered it be a legal rifle length and not a short barrel rifle which requires a tax stamp. If you live in MA and have a detachable magazine AR, welcome to a pistol grip only for an option.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The federal AWB was passed September 13th 1994 and anything manufactured before that date are colloquially know as 'pre-ban' items and are grandfathered in; meaning that the federal AWB does not govern anything made before that date. The most common thing that MA residents seek are pre-ban 30rd magazines because they are considered to be legal to possess in MA. That's right, any 30rd magazine manufactured after the AWB date is illegal to possess but anything before is fair game and this is where I think that the law is hazardous. MA would rather you use 20+ year old magazines than new ones if you wish to have a high capacity magazine.

Now that we have established the concept of pre-ban and post-ban as manufacturing date before or after Sep. 13th 1994, there are other items that fall into this category and that would be an AR lower receiver. The BATFE defines the lower receiver to be the firearm, making the lower receiver of an AR to be the actual firearm and everything else around it as components and this is good news for MA residents, this means that a pre-ban lower receiver will let me attach just about any accessory to my build since it is a pre-ban firearm by legal definitions.

I sought out a pre-ban AR lower receiver and found one manufactured by Colt in 1973, a Colt SP-1. The lower has what is known as the large take down pin, the SP-1 colts at that time made small and large front take down pin lowers and this is how Colt prevented civilians from making a military weapon by making it so that only a large pin hole upper receiver could mate to the lower. The modern day workaround has two methods, add material by welding and tap the hole again, or use an adapter pin which is threaded in and has a small (mil-spec) diameter in the middle part and the outer parts to fit that of the large pin hole on a SP-1. I went with the latter as the former method would weaken the lower and affect it's durability.

Large pin adapter


Slip fitted to lower to demonstrate fit

With the pre-ban lower in possession, first thing to do is to clean it up. I unfortunately do not have any photos before the cleaning but I can say that the lower was seriously dirty but in great shape but as with anything from that long ago, needed some TLC. I stripped the lower down to the receiver only and saved safety selector, waffle paddle, and mag release assembly but jettisoned everything else to be replaced or upgraded. I decided to have it refinished and why not use a modern method to refinish, there has been advancement in gun coating technology since 1973. Cerakote is a ceramic based paint type application that is heat cured and was developed specifically for use on firearms. Instead of investing in more tools to do this myself, I decided to drop off my lower to have it done elsewhere. I chose Business End Customs in Tewksbury MA and must say that the pricing is fair, turn around reasonable and the quality of finish superb.

Lower Cerakoted, fitted with Magpul MOE Enhanced Trigger Guard

To remain compliant for my SBR application as a Trust applicant, I need to etch my Trust's name onto the lower receiver along with where the Trust is established. I decided to get it laser etched as it is minimally intrusive to the alloy of the lower receiver and for that service, I went to GNW International in Woburn where I met Harry Gao. Harry is not only the sole proprietor and technician at GNW but is also the Ph.D. that designed and sells desktop laser etch devices that are CNC operated. We got talking shop and Harry allowed me to see the laser in action (with proper eye protection) and I have to say that it is an incredibly cool process with a hint of an ozone smell during the process. The only unfortunate thing was the scheduling of the laser etch and the Cerakote, since I wanted it done sooner rather than later, I had to etch it after the Cerakote which means having to blacken where it was etched....there are number of products available at sporting goods stores and gun shops for this job and I touched it up at home.

Thanks Harry!

Yup, slab side Colt lower!

With the lower receiver looking like new and having met regulatory compliance, I finally get to move on to the fun part of the rifle build portion. First thing I decided on was rifle platform. There is the age old debate of AR vs. AK and both weapon systems has it's advantages but when it comes down to it, it is whichever one you are most familiar with. To those of you that prefer the AK; I have nothing against them, I just prefer the AR and am used to how the firearm operates. This is much like the Cannon vs. Nikon debate where there just isn't a winning side but just like it, it typically comes down to which you learned on first and/or which you are more familiar/shoot better with. To be fair if you are wondering after reading this so far, my ideal upper receiver that is not only durable but combat proven and really blows away both AR and AK would be a HK416 if I were to stay on 5.56 NATO and FN SCAR-H for 7.62 NATO (and yes I know the FN is designed to multi-chamber).

Outside of weapon system familiarity, the AR's I built in the past have been simply durable. I'm not saying that my builds are all that but stating that anyone can build them and with good results. The first AR I built, I ran it for a year without cleaning the bolt, bolt carrier group or fire control group and fed approximately 15,000 rounds through it without a single failure and it was a standard gas impingement system with all that awful fouling that the AK folks seem to heavily concern themselves with. Don't get me wrong, I agree with less fouling with the piston driven system that is the AK (see previous paragraph about my preference for the HK416), I just want to point out the durability debate seems a bit lopsided here. Yes, it is true that AK's seem to have survived the worst conditions thrown at it and before the comments start, let me say that I am simply not interested in the debate and I listed the debate topic here as something that you will come across during a build decision and is meant to illustrate that fact and what I want to drive to is this again; go with what you are familiar with and can shoot well.

Moving on to barrel length as this is what the post really is about: the short barrel. I settled on a barrel length between 10.5" out to 11.5" and the reason for the decision in the length is ballistics. After studying the 5.56 trajectory with a known load and bullet weight, I can extrapolate the round's performance per barrel length and found that anything shorter than 10" have kinetic energy issues out past 200 yards and I want to be able to hit steel targets and still knock'em down at that distance. My main reason for the short barrel is the hopes to save a few seconds around obstacles on a 3-gun or any practical shooting course where the course or competition rule allows a shorter barrel. Speaking of the 5.56 NATO round's ballistic performance, I settled on a 1:7 twist barrel as the 1:9 seems to not spin the bullet all that well on a barrel shorter than 14.5" and most optics expect a 1:7 twist rate as they are developed for the military who typically use a 1:7 twist rate.

With the shorter barrel I am going to have less weight which is nice but this also means that there will be more muzzle rise, with that and also the want of durability in mind, I want a chrome lined and a heavy profile barrel. After much searching, I settled on a barrel from Stag Arms which is chrome lined, made of 4150 steel and is a 1:7 twist rate, hurray. The only problem is that they do not sell the short barrel by it's self but that's ok, I need an upper receiver and all I really need is a mil-spec upper receiver which Stag Arms upper receivers are, so upper shopping is collaterally done as well. Hurray x2.

I have a feeling that some of you with multi-thousand dollar AR's are scoffing at the Stag upper receivers being so cheap but consider who the OEM for Stag is what they produce and for who, I am confident in my decision. Besides, I am not here to buy the most expensive brand but am looking at material and workmanship. Now, if I had infinite budget, you bet your ass I would be ordering form LaRue, or cut down a barrel on a HK MR556A1 upper receiver kit down to 10.5", or have Knight's Armament build out my dream upper with the Triple Tap (muzzle device produced by KAC is made of Inconel, which is so dense and rapidly work hardens that machining the muzzle device breaks several end mills and other tooling during fabrication and is the same material used as blast baffles) since we are talking infinite budget here....

Back to reality and actual budget constraints, I plan to swap out parts on the Stag Arms upper but seeing how long this post is already, we will cover that along with the lower receiver parts in another post.

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