2015
02.15

A long-running project I’ve been tinkering with occasionally over the years has been machining an AR-15 lower receiver from scratch (or more precisely, a raw 0% forging).  I’ve made a fair amount of progress thanks to the excellent video done by Frank Roderus (which is a great machining tutorial even if you have no interest in firearms) as well as the Ray-Vin machining tutorial.  However, it’s really slow going, and I’ve made a few small mistakes.  Completing an 80% lower seemed like a good way to feel like I’ve accomplished something and would be a nice CNC project.

Drilling the holes for the takedown pins, selector, hammer and trigger pins, etc. is pretty straightforward after planing the top surface of the forging.  For an 80% lower, the takedown pin holes are already drilled and you can just use a drilling jig to drill out the holes on a drill press.  Call me a purist, but I still prefer just putting the lower in the mill vise as above, indicating from the front takedown pin hole, and drilling the rest of the holes with positions called out with the DRO.  The jig is invaluable for the various milling operations, though.

While the jig works great on the big manual mill, I can’t exactly clamp it into the diminutive vise on the CNC Taig, so I needed to determine a way to secure the fixture to the Taig table.

The 10-32 tapped holes on the A2Z tooling plate I use are spaced at 1.16″ intervals, and it turns out this spacing could be accommodated by the CNC Gunsmithing jig I use.  I drilled a line of holes for 10-32 clearance on the right jig half, and three 1/4″ holes on the left jig half (I used larger holes on one side to allow for slight differences in receiver thicknesses).  The magwell and trigger guard still stick out from the bottom of the jig, so I use a par of 1″ square bars on either side to raise everything up.

Generating G-code was pretty straightforward – I used HSMExpress to generate a path for the upper ’shelf’ and a second path for the rest of the pocket.  Yes, I tend to make Z-steps very shallow, but hogging out material with a 3/8″ endmill with a fairly long length of cut is quite a bit for the Taig to handle, so I try to keep all the cutting lightweight, even if it means really long cycle times.  This was my first attempt to use HSMExpress, and I had no idea how well the toolpaths would work, or if the mill would suddenly take off on its own and carve a giant trough through the piece, turning a $70 part into 62 cents of scrap metal.  If only I had some sort of cheap plastic version for proving out the setup…  Quick, to the 3D printer!

I took a standard AR lower CAD model and filled in the FCG area to simulate an 80% lower.  I made sure to print the part with sparse infill to save plastic and time, but I still needed a way to have a ’solid’ FCG area to provide material for the mill to actually cut.  I cut an opening over the FCG area and mixed up a batch of West System epoxy (I wish every hardware stored carried bulk epoxy supplies – luckily I live near one) loaded with a whole bunch of talcum powder.  I could have used some other filler, but I went with talc specifically to give minimal wear on the cutting tool – many common epoxy fillers can be quite abrasive (to say nothing of the fiberglass, carbon fiber, etc. that generally constitutes the matrix of a composite material layup).  I poured the epoxy/talc mix into the FCG area and let it sit overnight to cure.  In retrospect, I should have tried doing a vapor treatment on the part first, as the epoxy seeped out the sides a bit, but it wasn’t enough to affect the part’s purpose.

After reaming out the takedown pins, I was able to mount the printed 80% lower in the jig bolted to the Taig’s table.  I ran my generated program, and it worked great!  Right up until the very end, when the mill plunged right through the rear of the bolt catch area.  Precisely the sort of thing I wanted to test for, so it was all worthwhile.  I made a few adjustments to the G-code and ran the program through again to make sure that nothing else looked awry.

After that, I switched out the printed plastic lower for my partially completed 0% lower.  This showed me some other issues I hadn’t anticipated, specifically that the endmill liked to bog down in the aluminum.  I hit STOP right away, turned off the spindle power and took a step back to ponder.  The 4-flute endmill was probably not the optimal tool for this pocketing operation, but I had gone with it to increase rigidity due to the long tool length required.  The default toolpaths were also using climb cutting rather than conventional paths – this should result in less power required, but I’ve had bad luck before with climb cutting on the Taig and wanted this pocketing program to ‘just work’ even if sub-optimal.

With those changes made to the program and the purchase of a 2-flute endmill, I felt confident enough to subject a purchased 80% lower to the gauntlet.  One thing that proved very helpful were a pair of 1/4″ ground drill rods from McMaster-Carr that I could slide through the takedown pin holes in the left jig plate all the way through the holes in the lower.  This helped keep everything perfectly aligned while tightening down all the screws, and then I also used the rod to indicate in my X-axis position with an edge finder.  Make sure to remove the rear rod before starting the machining operation, though, as it sits right in the area to be machined.

Gripping a WD-40 sprayer in one hand, and Shop-Vac hose in the other, I exhaled deeply, turned on the spindle, and hit the green Start button in Mach3.  This operation makes a lot of noise, and I worried that something would seize up eventually, but my revised toolpath (I used a slightly different step-down path between Z-levels as well) seemed to do the trick.  When the program finished and the spindle fully retracted, I had no unintended cuts on the part and a nice, bright, shiny FCG pocket.

After washing it off, I installed the FCG components and did a safety check (make sure it will not fire if the safety is engaged, make sure the disconnector is working properly, etc).  Everything functions perfectly!  I’ll do a bit of identification engraving on the lower, and then it’s time to start picking out anodizing colors…

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