AR-15s are the gold standard of rifles for a reason. They’re affordable, they’re trustworthy, and, most of all, they’re customizable. If you can dream it, you can AR-15 it.
While many parts and customization kits come with tools you need, having the right tools on hand will open you up to a whole new world of possibility. This article will cover a lot of the standard tools that every new gunsmith and AR-15 fanatic ought to have on hand.
Getting the Right Tools and Supplies in Place to Work on Your AR-15
I’ve always believed that with the right tools, anything is possible. But I’ve also never needed an excuse to start another tool collection!
The fact of the matter is, when it comes to customizing your gun there are plenty of mods & kits that will allow you to take your AR-15 to new levels without ever having to invest outside of the kit itself. But if you really want to learn your weapon inside and out and have full control over the direction you want to take the project, then having the right set of tools is the only way to go. By having the right tools in your toolkit, you can choose your mod materials based on what works best and not be limited by construction details.
The tools in this kit are, in my opinion, essential to one task or another. But that doesn’t mean they’re all totally necessary. If you have no intention of swapping out your barrel, you probably won’t need a barrel vise block, for instance. But it never hurts to have that option available!
I’ll include info about several useful tools and cover what types of jobs they’re good for. There are a few good all-around tools that I feel are essential, like the armorer’s wrench, and a few that are for specialty projects as well.
Customizing your AR-15 from butt to barrel is a great adventure. Each of these tools will unlock (sometimes literally) a new aspect of the AR-15 to customize. This covers everything from specialty wrenches specific to gunsmithing to some tools you may already have on hand, like needle-nose pliers. Consider this an extension of your existing tool set if that helps, otherwise
The armorer’s wrench is one of the few things on this list that I’d say is essential for any new gunsmith to own. Partly I recommend it because a good armorer’s wrench is an excellent multi-tool that will perform as many as a dozen functions. If you’re looking for a way to test the waters and see how much a few tools can expand your AR-15, start here.
There are a few different types of armorers wrench. Make sure to find a good multi-tool-style wrench, such as Brownell’s or Wheeler Engineering. These multi-tool armorer’s wrenches can handle everything from barrel removal to buffer tubes to pretty much anything that might need to get wrenched. A good armorer’s wrench should enable you to almost completely disassemble your upper without any help.
Our Pick: Brownell’s AR-15 Armorer’s Wrench
Vise and Vise Blocks
A vise & vise block are both essential tools for keeping your upper receiver steady while you clean or work on it. The vise is the most important aspect, as often you can get away with using the vise without a vise block in order to steady the AR-15 gentle without risk of damaging any of the hardware.
Vise blocks, while somewhat optional, are very helpful for making your work a bit easier, and also ensuring you won’t damage any parts of your receiver. They create a firm hold without threatening to bend or scratch up parts. They’re pretty much essential in any build that’s going to require you to apply torque to any part of the receiver.
Takedown/Pivot Pin Tool
Takedown/Pivot Pin tools are an inexpensive life-saver for lower receiver jobs. When you use a punch to remove detent pins, 10 times out of 10 they end up flying across the room and disappearing on the floor, never to be seen again.
Pivot Pin Tools contain a special punch and a rotating “catcher” that allows you to safely remove the pins and catch them without sending them flying.
Beside the pivot pin tool, it will be helpful to have a set of roll pin punches for removing the roll pins from around the trigger. The pins in the lower receiver are often the biggest sources of annoyance in a build.
They’re easy to bend or dent, and often installed in places that are sensitive to scratches, scuffs, bending, or even snapping. A good set of punches will make your life a lot easier and take the natural shape of the AR-15 pins into account.
Our Pick: Starrett - #565 Pin Punch Set
Having a good mallet is the other helpful part of detent removal and replacement. Most good gunsmiths use a small brass hammer which is light, accurate and unlikely damage the receiver itself. A heavier, sturdier hammer may run the risk of damaging your equipment.
Our Pick: Commando Miniature Ball Pein Hammer
Screwdriver and Needle-nose pliers
Screwdrivers and needle-nose pliers are probably tools you have laying around that will be good to keep on hand for gunsmithing. They’ll help you hold things like detents in place while you replace or remove them, and keep you from crushing your fingers in the process.
Our Pick: DOWELL 9 Small Homeowner Tool Set
AR-15s are best kept “wet” for maximum efficiency. They need to be well-lubricated or else you’ll start to get metal-on-metal grinding and things will eventually lock up. Everyone has their secret lubricant they like to use–everything from multi-ingredient home brews to commercial products.
Part of the importance of keeping your AR-15 lubed is that it will extend the lifetime, but also allow you to stretch the periods between cleaning a little bit. When looking for a good commercial lube, look for ones that advertise some kind of cleaning capabilities. These products will help manage any unwanted particles that might otherwise damage your AR-15.
Our Pick: M-Pro7 070-1453 4oz 7 Lpx Gun Oil
Like any well-loved piece of equipment, cleaning is an essential part of maintenance. Having a good cleaning kit on hand is a no-brainer. There are tons of great pre-made AR-15 cleaning kits on the market, or you can assemble one yourself with the best of the best.
At the very least your cleaning kit should contain brushes, bore snakes, and cleaning rods matched to your caliber rifle. You’ll also probably want a mat, some rags, and various brushes to help with the cleanup process, as well.
Our Pick: Otis AR-15/M16 MSR/AR Cleaning System
Small Plastic Tray
Once you’ve got all these parts together… Where to keep them?
A good old-fashioned tackle box (or toolbox in that style) can’t be beat for storage and organization, in my opinion. If you get a pre-made gun cleaning kit, you may end up with a box big enough to store the extra tools you have on hand.
The other useful part of having a tackle box is having a spare, removable tray on hand to help you keep track of parts as you disassemble and reassemble your AR-15. Some of those parts are really dang small and easy to lose track of. A plastic track can help you keep track of where they went and where they need to get back to, too!
Getting a gunsmithing toolkit together isn’t so much different from your usual toolkit, and there’s a lot of crossover. So really there’s no reason not to! For such a tiny investment in tools, you’ll have virtually endless capabilities for customizing your AR-15.
Most of these tools, especially the armorer’s wrench, will get you a ton of bang for your buck. Set aside a little space for your toolbox and a clean space to set up your vises and you’ll be working towards making your old AR-15 into something brand new in no time.