For those in the AR 15 community, the term “mil-spec” gets tossed around so frequently that it often comes across as the end-all be-all of builds and parts qualifications. But is mil-spec really that important? Well, as with everything AR related, it really depends. The AR 15 is known for its spectacularly modular design, which most owners love because it means nearly infinite possibilities for customization—which begs the question of why mil-spec parts have become such a huge focus for owners and manufacturers alike. Is going mil-spec for your AR 15 actually that important?
We’ve discussed this before, but it feels pertinent to offer a clarification. Yes, we acknowledge that for an AR to be truly mil-spec, you’d need to get it directly from either Colt or Fabrique Nationale d’Herstal (FNH), the two manufacturers currently under contract to produce the M16 for the U.S. Military. While it’s possible to get the appropriate license and pay the hefty fees to purchase an M16, it’s not really a common occurrence. So, generally speaking, odds are slim that any AR being marketed as mil-spec is truly mil-spec.
That being said, there is a difference between an AR meeting the fully-technical definition of mil-spec and being an AR made to military specifications. Because, while it’s fairly restrictively difficult to get a hold of a true M16, it’s easier to get a copy of the manual put out by the Department of Defense that sets forth the guidelines for each of the military-use firearms. So, one of the reasons you’ll see so many parts labeled as mil-spec out there on the market is because many parts manufacturers have made parts or uppers that meet the same specifications listed in that D.O.D. manual for the M16. For the purposes of this discussion, when we talk about parts being mil-spec, we’re talking about anything made to the same standards, not completed firearms from Colt or FNH.
One of the biggest reasons mil-spec is the standard by which all AR parts are generally judged is because mil-spec is what came first. The AR 15 started as a rifle commissioned by the U.S. Military to improve upon and replace previous options, and was ultimately accepted and given the designation M16. The commercially available version, the AR 15, didn’t become available to the public until years later. So, in the broadest sense, mil-spec set the standard for AR 15 parts because it was the standard. Now, there are myriad options for customization, but mil-spec continues to be the starting point for so many AR owners.
Of course, just because something is labeled mil-spec, that’s not necessarily a guarantee of quality so doing your own research is important. The manual for the M16 is available and provides all of the dimensions, materials, finishes, and tolerances for each part. So, if you want an AR 15 that meets that standard, you can absolutely find the right parts.
It does, to an extent, and that extent is primarily excellent quality components. The point in favor of mil-spec is the level of quality set forth by the D.O.D. In order for an M16 to be acceptable under the military production contracts, each component of every firearm has to meet some pretty exacting specifications. The reason mil-spec continues to matter in the civilian sector is because mil-spec components are going to strive for those same standards. Of course, since the D.O.D. isn’t checking every part sold commercially, a part being called mil-spec doesn’t guarantee that same level of quality.
The other point to consider is that the M16 was designed for a pretty specific purpose: combat. Because commercially available ARs have a different set of uses, such as home defense or range time, owners will have a different set of needs. When choosing between mil-spec and non-mil-spec components, consider whether a part is the best quality and price, and whether it will serve the purpose you want it to. What works for someone using an AR 15 for hunting may not work as well for someone who’s interested in competitive shooting.
Quality AR accessories is what we offer here at RailScales. Shop online for the best forend grip, handstop, and rail grip options and experience the difference our parts can make!