I would like to talk about some of my personal project builds. The intent of this post is not so much a “show and tell” as it is a discussion of what decisions I made, why I made them, and how they affected me as time went on.
This article is about my very first AR-15, which I dubbed “Ascalon.” The name comes from the legend of St. George, who slew a dragon with a sword bearing the same name.
It could also have been a spear, the legend is unclear when it comes to those pesky dragons.
To get this out of the way, no, I don’t really name my rifles and refer to them like that. I just find it easier to separate different projects and concepts by name for administrative purposes. Most of the time, this rifle is simply known as the Recce.
The Origin Story
Turn back the clock to 2010. I was a few years into my military career and about to pin on the next rank. At that point in life, I owned an M1A, M1 Garand, and a 1911. Shooting was mainly a special occasion thing for impressing friends at social gatherings.
To be honest, I spent the bulk of my free time playing a lot of video games. My “genre,” if you will, is shooters. This was back in the era of Call of Duty: MW2.
At some point that year, I told my girlfriend (now wife) that I wanted to get more involved in shooting sports. To put it bluntly, I realized that spending huge amounts of time playing video games was not building any practical skills. It was a time waster. Shooting, I thought, would at least give me something to focus on and master outside of the house.
Prior to that moment, my experience was pretty thin. During my senior year of college, a good friend bought the first AR-15 I’d ever fired. It was a DPMS AP4, and he picked it up shortly after the expiration of the 90’s era assault weapons ban (AWB).
By 2010, when I decided to commit, a lot more companies had sprung up selling rifles. Message boards told me that DPMS was “budget grade” and “not up to par.” The same applied to other popular brands I knew of, such as Bushmaster, Olympic Arms, and
But I also kept seeing other brands favorably mentioned: Noveske, LMT, BCM, and more.
Doing My Homework
I like to buy nice things. It’s not that I need the best, but I want to know that any shortcomings are my fault and not the weapon’s.
Discouraged that all the brands I knew about weren’t going to cut it, I started reading everything I could possibly find. While on 24-hour alerts underground, I used downtime to scour message boards like AR15.com and M4carbine.net. Books regularly accompanied me on my alerts, with Kyle Lamb’s Green Eyes Black Rifles being a particular favorite.
I read, and learned, for months.
On the advice of “the internet,” I organized my plan. I was going to save money by purchasing individual parts over time and then assembling it when I was ready. The whole thing went into motion when I purchased a Spike’s Tactical stripped lower receiver from a local shop.
I would later find out that I didn’t really save anything, and in fact spent more money than I otherwise would have. But I’m getting there.
The goal was a “do-all general purpose SHTF” rifle.
In 2010, I only had a vague notion of the recce rifle concept. I was far more influenced by flashy-looking photos and the zombie apocalypse mentality.
Of course, I also wanted it to look super cool on message board photo threads. I even went so far as to ask an engraving company about redoing the safety selector markings to something ridiculous.
I never went through with it, thankfully.
A lot of the choices I made stemmed from consistency in the logos and branding. I wrongly assumed that it would make a difference in resale value.
To match the lower, I picked up a Spikes stripped upper and a 10″ Spikes BAR handguard. The rail was actually manufactured by a then newly-formed
The barrel was, and still is, a Centurion Arms 16″ Lightweight CHF model with a factory-pinned gas block. Monty, the founder of Centurion Arms, used to offer a 1 MOA guarantee on this barrel when properly assembled and using Mk262 ammo. He doesn’t promise that anymore due to variability in assembly quality, but it’s still a very accurate barrel.
The bolt and carrier came from BCM, the flash hider was an AAC Bl
The buffer was the ST-T2 model, which I do not recommend.
Finally, the trigger was a Geissele SSA.
I assembled the lower receiver myself but had the upper assembled at a local gun shop. I watched the guy assemble it and, frankly, never trusted his work.
It looked badass and shot well. I was happy with it but learned a few lessons along the way regarding tooling and parts. Those lessons came back to help me in later builds.
Including the optic, the project ended up costing me nearly $3000 in parts, tools, and shipping fees. As I said, I thought I would save money by doing it piecemeal but reality went the opposite direction. The only positive thing was that I could spread the cost out over the better part of a year.
I thought it was all worth it when I took my girlfriend (now wife) to the range and she shot it for the first time. After much hesitation, she squeezed the trigger, paused, and fired again. A huge smile spread across her face and she declared, “I want one!”
That moment right there was the start of my second project, the lightweight KISS rifle I suggested in my guide for first-time buyers.
But that’s a separate article.
In late 2011, I started competing in local matches with Ascalon. Shortcomings became apparent. The rail, which was wide enough to encompass a suppressor, was a little too wide. It was also only 10″ long because I thought the exposed gas block look was really cool. Well, it looked cool, but I wanted more real estate for my hand.
After building the second rifle, I came back to update this one.
With some corrections in mind, I started planning Version 2 in 2012.
Firstly, I replaced the wide BAR, which literally stood for “Big Ass Rail,” with a much lower profile Samson Engineering model produced for Rainier Arms. Since the Samson used the standard AR-15 barrel nut, the whole upper had to be reassembled again. I used the opportunity to go to another well-known gunsmith in the area.
The whole stock assembly came off as well, replaced with the newly-released Vltor A5 buffer tube, buffer, rifle spring, and EMod stock. I also swapped out the Magpul MIAD for a BCM Gunfighter grip.
I eventually replaced the AAC Blackout flash hider with a BCM Gunfighter Compensator. Since I used this more for competition than fighting, a comp made more sense. The thing was also brand new on the market, and well…I like to tinker with new stuff.
I originally mounted the TR-24 on an ADM 1.93 “High” mount. This raised the 1-4x optic to about the same height as a lower 1/3rd red dot. It worked fine for fast run and
In all, these changes took the rifle from 9 lbs to 8.2 lbs.
As I got into more precision shooting, I replaced the TR-24 with a Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×32. My exact scope is discontinued now, but the one I linked to is the current version.
A short piece of 1913 rail under the front of the rail left me the option to use a bipod.
Lastly, the Geissele SSA to another rifle and I installed an SD-E instead.
Version 2.0 of this rifle felt more lively and streamlined in the hands. I used it this way for several years before the next iteration.
The biggest issue I ran into was the scope. I’m a big fan of the PST 2.5-10×32, but it was too much magnification for such a light rifle. Everything was fine as long as I was shooting prone or from supported positions, but as soon as I tried to go positional, it just wouldn’t settle.
On to Version 3.0
The next round of changes happened in 2015. This is the current iteration of Ascalon, and the changes were relatively minor.
The Samson rail was nice, but I didn’t care for the propriety mounting system. Attaching anything to the rail meant bolting on segments of 1913 rail and then whatever I wanted to mount went on top of that.
It was about this time that direct mount solutions like
This was also shortly after I bought my Elcan SpecterOS 4x. If you recall from that review, the Elcan never mounted securely to the Spikes upper receiver due to some dimensional issues. So when I received the KMR-A, I also picked up a stripped BCM upper receiver. Once again, I had the upper re-assembled using the same barrel and guts, but with the new receiver and rail.
I also installed an SSA-E trigger and moved the SD-E to an as-of-yet unfinished large frame AR project. That thing has been sitting unfinished in the save for five years and counting.
Yet Even More Findings
The Elcan now stays more or less on this rifle. The fixed 4x magnification works well with the low profile front sight. In fact, I actually removed the backup sights altogether. The whole thing is a nice light package that shoots well, so long as I use good ammo.
And that’s the rub, really.
Going all the way back to the beginning with Version 1.0, this rifle has always struggled with underpowered ammunition. Shooting cheap PMC bronze .223, particularly in cold weather, usually results in short stroking and other gas-related issues. When I ran it through an MVT course using cheap bulk ammo, it started choking by the end of the first day.
Using full-power military spec ammo always runs just fine.
I attribute that to the Centurion barrel, which Monty designed explicitly for the Mk 262 cartridge. Keeping it well-lubricated helps, too, but I honestly lost a little faith in this rifle after that happened.
The Final Results
Ascalon, my recce, will always hold a special place in my heart as “the first” AR in my collection. But, to be honest, it’s the one I shoot the least these days.
For serious defensive training and potential use, I prefer the lighter and simpler rifle I later built for my wife (that’s #2 in the collection) and suggest as the Minimum Capable Carbine.
For sheer fun, I much prefer my 20″ DMR/M16A5 rifle or the 18″ KISS configuration (rifles #3 and #4, respectively).
Ascalon sits in this kind of gray area where I know it can do things pretty well, but it doesn’t make me go “wow” as the other ones do. It has, by far, undergone the most revision of every weapon in my safe.
At this point, I can’t even estimate how much money I’ve spent on it over time.
Perhaps I need to get it out to the range and do something it would shine at, like a DMR course of fire or a recce match.
Over to You
Maybe you have a similar story for your “first.” How did that turn out? Do you still have it and use it?