A thousand miles west of Connecticut's "Gun Valley" --home of S&W, Savage, Mossberg, Marlin, and others -- you'll find America's "AR Valley." It's in Illinois and Iowa, near the Rock River and the Quad Cities, and is home to five major AR-15 makers; Armalite, Springfield Armory, Les Baer Custom, Lewis Machine & Tool, and Rock River Arms. They're all clustered around the Rock Island Arsenal, home of the U.S. Army Armament, Munitions and Chemical Command, which is responsible for small arms R&D and purchasing for the military. These gunmakers have been building rifles as fast as they can since last fall. Even before Election Day, the prospect of a Democrat in the White House put gun owners in a panic buying mood. Gunmakers saw this phenomenon when Bill Clinton became president, and they thought they were ready for a similar boom in demand. Says Rock River's Steve Mayer, director of Law Enforcement and Government Sales and New Product Development: "We were ready for an upsurge in sales. We weren't expecting a tidal wave. We were getting 2000 orders a day." Now, almost nine months after the election, demand is finally slowing down, but AR 15s remain the hottest commodity in the shooting sports today. They are accurate, infinitely customizable, good for hunting, target shooting, and tactical use, and just plain fun to shoot. My son John and I visited Rock River Arms (rockriverarms.com) recently to see how ARs are put together. Here's a slide show of what we found:. Phil Bourjaily
Rock River Arms was founded 11 years ago by two brothers, Mark and Chuck Larson, who worked out of a garage. It has grown steadily ever since and now employs 85 people. Our tour guide, Steve Mayer, oversees sales to Law Enforcement and the government. Although Rock River produces guns for various government agencies, the majority of their sales are to the civilian market. In this photo he’s showing John the features of a Tactical CAR A4. The 40 or so rifles on the wall are examples of packages RRA offers, but customers can make up their own configurations, using countless parts substitutions – sights, rails, stocks, barrel length and contour, and more. Rock River will also add accessories like Surefire flashlights and red dot sights. Said John: “It’s like a Build-A-Bear Workshop with guns!” Phil Bourjaily
Rock River doesn’t make many parts on site. They design and spec parts, then receive them, perform inspections, finish them, assemble them into rifles and ship them out. Here’s a shot of the buffing and blasting room, where raw forgings become finished parts. Phil Bourjaily
Assembler Mike Larson makes flip-up front sights. He is the brother of owners Chuck and Mark Larson. We also met their father and one of their sons working at the plant. Rock River is truly a family business. Phil Bourjaily
These boxes of carrier groups — essentially the bolts of the rifles — show a few of the countless chambering available for the basic AR platform. Once you own a lower half (the stock and receiver) you can buy upper halves (barrel, carrier group, and gas system) in all kinds of chambering and interchange them freely. One company even offers a .410 shotgun upper half. Phil Bourjaily
Components are measured and tested as they come in to the plant, and at various stages during production. This flash hider is being tested for hardness. Phil Bourjaily
All of the little subassemblies – sights, gas blocks, carrier groups, safeties, and so on — come together at the stations where the upper halves and lower halves are put together. Here Assistant Shop Supervisor Matt White assembles the upper half of what will be a National Match target rifle. The silver tube running along the top of the barrel directs gas from the gas block to run the action. Phil Bourjaily
During the upper half assembly, these headspace gauges are used to check the dimensions of the chamber. The bolt of a gun should close over the green “go” gauge but not close over the red “no go,” which is slightly oversized. Cartridges can rupture, sometimes dangerously, in an oversized chamber. Phil Bourjaily
Rock River offers the choice of a standard trigger or a two-stage National Match trigger for serious target shooting. A two stage trigger is the preferred style for military rifle competitions such as the famous National Match at Camp Perry, Ohio. Pulling a two-stage trigger, you feel slack as the trigger moves a short distance, then a light, clean break. Here, Assembler Joe Brown checks the weight of the trigger pull by hanging a 4 1/ 2 pound weight from the trigger. If the weight doesn’t trip the trigger, he will file the trigger sear to lighten the pull. Phil Bourjaily
Assembler Michele O’Leary puts the final pieces into a lower half of what will be an Elite Comp model, one of the package guns RRA offers. However, this lower half could also be matched to an endless combination of barrel lengths, barrel contours, handguards and calibers. Phil Bourjaily
The completed lower half, ready to be matched with an upper half. Phil Bourjaily
Rifles, tagged and ready for test firing. All of these have been custom built according to customer specifications Phil Bourjaily
In the shipping area, parts come in, guns go out. I had heard from friends of mine in retail that demand for ARs was slowing. I asked Mayer if that was the case. “A little,” he said. “Now we hear that rifles are actually sitting on dealers’ shelves for a few hours or even a day before they’re gone. Earlier this year, guns never even made it to the shelves before someone bought them.” Phil Bourjaily
Every rifle is sighted in and test fired before it leaves the factory, and someone has to load the magazines. That would be Finisher Tom Hart. The Maglula bench loader he’s using snaps 20-30 rounds into a magazine in an instant. It sells for $400, but if your job is loading magazines all day long, it’s worth every penny.
Several times a day, Assemblers and rifle testers Joe Carlton and Donny (aka “Lucky”) Sullivan load this van with rifles and take them out to the range. This is Joe, shooting from the back of the van. Every rifle with sights is sighted in, and then test-fired for function. They shoot at least two magazines through the fully automatic guns. Phil Bourjaily
Who says semiautomatics aren’t accurate? One reason for the popularity of the AR platform is that these rifles shoot. The tiny group above was shot with a .308 last spring. Phil Bourjaily
80s TV fans: ever wonder what the inside of the A-Team’s van looked like? Probably a lot like this. Phil Bourjaily
John and I helped test rifles. Here’s John, with a Tactical CAR UTE2. Notice the oversized winter trigger guard, originally designed for police officers who needed to keep their hands inside warm gloves but still be ready to shoot in cold weather. It works perfectly for winter coyote hunters as well. Phil Bourjaily
Why are these men smiling? Silly question. The rifles are accurate, they don’t kick, and the ammunition was free. Phil Bourjaily