All too often, I hear someone describe an AR-15 as being high quality because the upper and lower fit together tightly, and the finish on the receivers matches perfectly. Often, much attention is lavished on the rich, deep black anodizing of the receivers (Strangely, these same people are perfectly okay with dremeling feed ramps through that same perfect black anodizing. But I digress). Unfortunately, much of this comes from magazines such as Guns & Ammo. I just skimmed a few recent AR-15 articles, where fit and finish was mentioned before function, and more prominently as well. Disappointing, but not surprising.
But am I saying that the popular definition of “fit and finish” is detrimental to performance? Yes. Well, partially. While some who never really use their rifles may prefer an incredibly tight upper and lower fit, I find that being required to use a hammer and punch to drive out the takedown and pivot pins is a real pain, and may be an impossibility on the range. I’ve also encountered upper receivers that were so “tight” that they would not accept a bolt carrier. I’d rather have a rifle that was easy to disassemble and will accept all properly sized components. To me, a little slop is a good thing.
As for finish, most people seem to forget that the primary function of a finish on a firearm is to protect it from the elements. While a perfectly black, glossy finish might look pretty, it’s no more protective than a flat gray anodize on the upper and a flat black anodize on the lower. If the weapon is to be actually used for its intended purpose, then the finish will wear, and the metal itself might get dings. The AR-15 I own with the highest round count – which has had over 3000 rounds fired through it in one week, with no malfunctions – has mismatched receiver finishes and rattles a little bit. Many would reject it immediately without pausing to consider its more important attributes. Others might recoil in horror at another AR-15 I own, which has been “refinished” with four different colors of Krylon. In summary, while an attractive, even finish is nice to look at initially, it has no relation to the quality of the rifle underneath, and won’t be pretty for long if you don’t baby the weapon.
If the weapon is not going to be used in a harsh environment, if the only thing at stake is a Saturday afternoon at the range once a month and propping up the wall of the gun safe the rest of the time, then function is welcome to take a backseat to fit and finish. Just don’t confuse fit and finish with quality or reliability.