Building a Cheap-to-shoot 5.45×39 AR-15
Major Pandemic 05.28.14
What would you say if I told you that you could shoot your AR-15 as inexpensively as a .22LR, but without a .22LR conversion? A shooter would be lucky to find .22LR ammo less than 14 cents a round and .223 ammo for less than 35-50 cents a round. More than a few fellow AR-15 enthusiast have suggested AR-15s converted to shoot inexpensive $.16-$.20 per round Russian Surplus 5.45×39 ammo packed in steel food-like canisters (commonly referred to as a SPAM cans).
With 5.56/.223 ammo being around 46 cents a round and surplus 5.45×39 being 20 cents a round, you easily save $260 for every 1,000 rounds, which will pay for most 5.45×39 setups easily in 1,000-2,000 rounds. I built two 5.45×39 AR-15 builds to highlight what to look for.
What is Needed to Convert an AR-15 to Shoot 5.45×39 Surplus Ammo?
Only two changes are required to your standard 5.56/.223 AR-15, but two others are recommended. You will need a 5.45×39 chambered barrel and bolt. Depending on bolt design, an “enhanced” firing pin is usually included, but Ballistic Advantage uses a standard firing 5.56 pin and proprietary bolt design.
Other recommended upgrades are an extra power hammer spring to deliver more reliable ignition on the very hard surplus primers and purpose built 5.45×39 AR-15 magazines that will load a full 30-rounds.
My personal favorite hammer spring has become the Hiperfire 24, which delivers excellent trigger feel with a best in class hammerfall that detonates most stubborn of 30-year old primers.
Most polymer magazines AR-15 magazines will feed and function perfectly, but they will only allow around 20-rounds to be loaded before feeding issues occur due to the tapered case design of the 5.45×39 round. Milpec steel and aluminum 5.56 mags were also tested but were shown to decrease feeding reliability and overall capacity considerably. Stick with polymer mags. Dedicated 5.45×39 AR-15 magazines are available but very hard to find.
The conversion process is simple if you have built an AR-15 before. Swap out the barrels, move the gas block and tube over onto the 5.45×39 barrel, reattach the handguard, and swap out the bolt and firing pin in the existing bolt carrier group. If you have the right tools, the conversion can be done in about 15 minutes.
5.45×39 Build #1: USTactical (Mark Hill) Liquidation Barrel & Model 1 Sales Bolt
At the time of Build #1, finding 5.45×39 barrels was a challenge, but in my haste I found a GunTrader listing for 1:9 twist stainless steel USTactical overstock/liquidation barrels being sold for only $130, and was pleasantly surprised with a decent looking stainless 16” barrel.
I also put a $93 order in with Model 1 Sales for a complete 5.45×39 bolt assembly, including a .064 enhanced firing pin. The bolt arrived quickly and looks exactly like a standard bolt but with a firing pin that protrudes a bit more than a standard firing pin would. Beyond the custom parts, the bolt and barrel totaled $223 ($130 Barrel, Bolt/Pin $93), which could be easily justified in the first 1040 round Spam can.
Several Spam cans of 5.45×39 surplus were sourced from Palmeto State Armory and hit the range. The build fed perfectly, functioned perfectly, fired perfectly, and delivered one hell of a smile on my face as cases poured from the ejection port. There was the occasional round every other magazine that appeared to have a good primer hit but did not ignite, but re-feeding those bad rounds fired every one. Those random duds let me work on my jam clearing drills.
That all noted, what the barrel also did was keyhole every damn round into the target at pretty much any range. Interestingly, it held a decent plinkable 2” group at 25-yards, which just destroys pop cans and still delivers about 4-6” groups at 50-yards. Let me tell you that a 5.45×39 round flying sideways is unbelievably destructive.
Of course, bullets are not supposed to fly sideways, and that means something is horribly wrong with the barrel or ammo. The seller noted that that sales were final, so my advice is be careful where you purchase.
My build used a very low profile Fortis gas block, YM Chrome M16 carrier, Geissele Mark IV ultralight forend, Fortis upper, Anderson Manufacturing lower, Barnes Precision parts kit, YHM flip up sights, ALG trigger, and Anderson Manufacturing flash hider, charging handle, carrier, and gas tube. In the end the build was well equipped and fun to shoot.
Despite the keyholing and accuracy issues, I would do this build again even with the bad barrel. It has been a BLAST to shoot, plink, and train with from a tactical training perspective at shorter distances. I use it for doing close range sub-25 yard drills where accuracy is not paramount but where round counts add up very fast. The barrel delivers 2”-25 yard groups and essentially a single ratty hole at shorter distances. It is not an accurate 50-100 yard barrel, but for high round count repetitive training, despite the accuracy and keyholing issues it is an awesome training setup that perfectly matches the operation and recoil of my regular AR-15s.
5.45×39 Build #2: Ballistic Advantage Barrel, Bolt, and Extra Power Spring
I began searching for an accurate 5.45×39 barrel, and I landed on the website of BA – Ballistic Advantage. BA has been an OEM manufacturer to a number of firearms manufacturers around the country for some time. Unlike many 5.45×39 barrel manufacturers, Ballistic Advantage believes the round needs a faster 1:8 twist barrel, and BA also does something different on their bolt.
The Ballistic Advantage barrel received would be considered super premium grade. It features a flawless external finish, mirror internal bore, match recessed crown, full melonite coating, and Fail Zero Barrel extension. It is a gorgeous barrel for $255, and far above the quality of the other 5.45×39 barrel I picked up on the cheap.
BA also goes the extra mile to assure reliability of the bolt and ignition with a custom designed bolt which uses a standard AR-15 firing pin. They do this by specially designing the bolt, which allows a standard AR-15 firing pin to strike deeper into the primer for positive ignition, versus needing an extended firing pin.
To assure absolutely positive ignition, they also include an extra power hammer spring in the barrel, bolt, spring conversion kit. Only two rounds have failed to fire in the 2,000+ rounds in this build, but on Build #1 with the Model 1 bolt and extended firing pin one in every 200 or so rounds failed to fire. The Ballistic Advantage setup is significantly more reliable. I later found out that much of this was due to the extra power hammer spring.
$255 – 16″ Hanson 5.45×39 Barrel (Extra Power spring included), $85 – 5.45×39 Bolt Failzero Coated. Total Investment for the Ballistic Advantage conversion was $340.
Unlike the cheapo liquidation barrel that hurled bullets sideways downrange, the BA barrel performed amazingly well. A smile curled on my lips as my first quick three-shot sight-in group delivered a .5” group at 27-yards with all round holes. The next couple groups shrank even smaller to around .25” while finishing up the sight in with the Eotech optic setup. It was obvious this barrel is a shooter, and even at 100-yards it still delivered sub-1.25” groups with the Eotech. The groups shrank further with a higher powered optic. Look for a future article on the surprising long-range accuracy of the Ballistic Advantage 5.45×39 barrel.
Knowing that BA had a very well regarded reputation, I decided to go the extra mile with premium upgrades including using the “naked” un-anodized American Spirit Arms upper and lower receiver set, AXTS/Rainer Arms ambi-charging handle, Fail Zero carrier, Ace Ultralight stock with a custom tied paracord tube cover, AP Customs 15” Carbon Fiber forend, Houlding Precision Curse Muzzle Brake, and a Barnes Precision parts kit. I topped it all off with an Eotech Sight and 3X multiplier combo. Sure, it’s not a cheap build, but if I am going to shoot a lot, I want to have a lot of fun in the process. Plus I can convert it back over to a 5.56/.223 anytime.
The entire build is extremely light, and it’s so custom it screams to be shot a lot. How could you not want to hammer rounds through it? It is amazingly accurate with just standard cheap surplus 5.45×39 ammo and with the muzzle brake, rifle length buffer, and mid-length gas system it delivers a soft shooting tuned 3-Gun style AR-15.
The question many will ask is whether they should lay down the initial investment for the surplus 5.45×39 conversion.
Looking at cost savings, if you are a casual shooter that only shoots a few hundred rounds a year with your AR, then a conversion will not pay out for you unless you are just curious about the round. On the other hand, if you do dump 1,000s of rounds downrange, a 5.45×39 conversion can pay for itself in your first $380–2,080 rounds worth of 5.45×39 surplus ammo. After that, you’re saving money with every round.
Beyond the cost savings, the 5.45×39 round is just as powerful a round as the .223 Remington or 5.56 Nato round. Arguably it is more efficient from a defense perspective, and with the Ballistic Advantage barrel and bolt, it can also be just as accurate, all for less than half the price per round of .223/5.56.
The only real downside is that 5.45×39 surplus rounds are corrosive. This sounds scary, but keep in mind I have pushed over 2,000 rounds through a non-anodized ASA receiver in Build #2. Aluminum is one of the most reactive metals and should show pitting quickly, but I do not have a spot on the receiver. The main reason I have had no damage on any parts is that a simple but thorough Windex or soap and water bath after you return home neutralizes the corrosive issues. Follow the bath up with a compressor blow-off, clean the bore as usual, and spray down the surfaces with WD-40. Really no more than you should do with any other gun. Following a religious cleaning regimen right after shooting will assure a long lived barrel and internals.
Sources for Build #1
- Anderson Manufacturing Lower Receiver Flash Hider
- Geissele Mark IV Forend
- YHM Sights
- Barnes Precision Machine lower parts kit
- Fortis – Upper Receiver
- Young Manufacturing Carrier