Tech Spec: V20N1

By Rick Vasquez

“80% Receivers” Myths and Truths


In the world of firearms there are many unique firearms and many techniques in which a firearm can be made. A modern trend in the manufacturing process of firearms is to use what is called an “80% firearm receiver,” which is a partially complete casting or metal form that resembles a firearm. Recent opinions and rulings from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) have created controversy on whether or not it is legal to make firearms from these items. In the following article, we will dispel the myths and elaborate on the truths of the laws and regulations pertaining to these so-called 80% firearms receivers.

What is an 80% receiver?

For ATF regulatory purposes there is no such thing as an 80% firearm receiver. It is either an item that is not classified as a firearm or an item that has reached a stage of manufacturing in which ATF can classify it as a firearm. It is ATF’s responsibility, based on statutes and previous classifications, to subjectively determine if an item can be classified as a firearm. Additionally, all machining processes are not required to be completed to be classified as a firearm. When a laymen thinks of a firearm they think of a weapon that can be loaded with a cartridge mounted in the hand or shoulder and fired. Also, it can be a weapon completely dis-assembled and the weapon is a bare receiver with all of the correct mounting holes to assemble a complete firearm. On the other hand a partially complete casting can neither be loaded to shoot nor assembled with components to fire a shot. So what is it called if it’s incapable of function as a firearm as defined by conventional standards?

Historically the basis of where this “80% receiver” concept originated is twofold. First, manufacturers are always trying to find ways to save money in the manufacturing processes. If a manufacturer could purchase a partially complete firearm casting or forging from a metals distributor they could cut cost by reducing their manufacturing time and personnel. Second, hobbyists want to tinker and make their own firearms from scratch. So if they could start with an object where specialized tools were not needed they could make their own firearm. To ensure that castings they were making were not firearms, these manufacturers began sending casting/forgings, or machined objects in various stages to ATF to determine if they had not been completed minimally enough so as to not be classified as firearm.

To understand the basis of these classifications it is imperative to understand what is defined as a firearm under federal statutes and the basis for ATF’s classification. A firearm is defined under Title 18, United States Code, section 921(a)(3) as follows:

(A) any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive;
(B) the frame or receiver of any such weapon;
(C) any firearm muffler or firearm silencer; or
(D) any destructive device.

Such term does not include an antique firearm. To understand the classification of these partially complete castings/flats, and for simplicity they will from here forward be called an “80% receiver”.

When a person or industry wants a formal classification of an item related to firearms it is sent to ATF’s Firearms Technology and Industry Branch (FTIB). Using the definitions of firearm in the Gun Control Act, The Code of Federal Regulations and previous classifications FTIB will render an opinion on whether the item submitted is a firearm or not. Two of the main portions of the definition of a firearm used in an opinion are: is it readily convertible or has it reached a stage in manufacturing in which it could classified as firearm receiver. It does not have to be complete to be regulated as a firearm receiver.

These items are submitted to FTIB and the technicians evaluate the items for ease of converting to fire a cartridge or in the case of 80% receiver, could it be converted to a firearm receiver with basic hand tools and a limited amount of time. These are critical opinions because of the regulations governing the commerce of firearms. Often FTIB is criticized for the opinions they make on the classification of an item. If FTIB is too rigid in their analysis they are criticized by the firearms industry and hobbyists. If they are too lenient in their opinions then they are criticized from the legislatures. Generally, as can be seen by what has been called an 80% receiver the technicians at FTIB are more than fair. Once an opinion has been gained that the item is not regulated as a firearm and it can be sold and distributed as an 80% receiver, a non-firearm.

Types of 80% receivers

There are many types of 80% firearms being marketed but we will focus on the two which have created the most impact, and that is the AK type and the AR type. Many manufacturers of these items do not receive an opinion from ATF and simply make their 80% receiver based on ATF opinions other manufacturers have posted online, or simply cut certain areas of a casting and call it an 80% receiver. For AR 80 percenters there are solid castings that are equal to a solid piece of aluminum with no machining completed, just poured or cast into the shape of an AR receiver. Then there are a variety of partially machined castings identified as 80% receivers. In the AK family there are raw channels in the shape of an AK receiver without any machining, frame flats with all of the necessary holes drilled in that can be bent into the shape of an AK, and channel centers that replace the center of an AK receiver. These are the 80% receivers that have been classified by ATF as non-firearms and can be sold without any transfer requirements. Of course there are the 80% receivers being marketed that are actually classified as firearms.

All Photos taken by RV

A raw casting is a solid piece of aluminum molded into the shape of a firearm. The vast majority of raw castings being marketed are for AR type firearms. These castings are very inexpensive and manufacturers with advanced CNC machinery purchase these to make a complete AR type receiver. They are generally not purchased by the home builder because they require time consuming milling operations.

80% percent receivers are not as easy to complete as you may believe. Many of the major cutting operations are completed on an approved 80% receiver. Generally you need at the minimum a desk top mill/drill and a set of receiver guides to ensure all of the holes you drill are aligned, and all the metal required to be milled out is correct. Remember, in accordance with ATF instruction any cutting, drilling or milling on this 80 % receiver makes it a firearm. (ATF letter of instruction https://www.atf.gov/content/contact-us/pressroom/receiver-blanks-Q%26As)

Generally an AK Channel is a channel bent and shaped as an AK receiver. It does not have any holes or dimples because ATF counts dimples as holes. A person would glue a sticky back template to the channel then drill out all of the holes necessary.

The 80% AK flat can be bent with bending guides readily purchased on the internet. There are not any specialized tools other than a hydraulic press needed to bend one of these flats. All assembly holes are in proper location. Once a flat is bent into the shape of an AK receiver it becomes a firearm; THIS IS A FIREARM!

Can I make my own firearm and what are the regulations?

Many questions and urban legends come up when an individual without an FFL starts thinking of making a weapon for himself. Is it legal to complete an 80% receiver into a firearm? And what other concerns should I have in building a personal firearm such as placing marking? The answer is: it is absolutely legal. Under Federal regulations an individual can make any firearm regulated by the Gun Control Act (GCA) without a license or authority from ATF. The GCA regulates all firearms but generally sporting firearms are what a person is going to build for personal use. Additionally there are no marking requirement for an individual to mark a firearm made for personal use which is regulated solely by the GCA. However, Firearms regulated by the National Firearms Act (short barrel rifles, silencers, etc.) can only be made when authority has been granted from ATF through the proper application to make a NFA firearm.

The marking requirements under the GCA are found in the Statute and in the Code of Federal Regulations. These requirements do not tell you that an individual does not have to mark a personal use firearm but it tells you who must mark a firearm and how. This is the statute or the law and does not indicate an un-licensed person has to mark a firearm he makes for his own use: Title 18, U.S.C, section 923(i) Licensed importers and licensed manufacturers shall identify, by means of a serial number engraved or cast on the receiver or frame of the weapon, in such manner as the Attorney General shall by regulations prescribe, each firearm imported or manufactured by such importer or manufacturer. (Page 23 firearms regulations guide)

The additional marking requirements are found in Title 27, Code of Federal Regulations, § 478.92 How must licensed manufacturers and licensed importers identify firearms, armor piercing ammunition, and large capacity ammunition feeding devices? (a) (1) Firearms. You, as a licensed manufacturer or licensed importer of firearms, must legibly identify each firearm manufactured or imported as follows: (i) By engraving, casting, stamping (impressing), or otherwise conspicuously placing or causing to be engraved, cast, stamped (impressed) or placed on the frame or receiver. 1 The regulation expand the requirements and explain that a manufacturer and or importer must apply the manufacturer/importers name, model if assigned, caliber or gauge and city and state where the manufacturer is located. Add country of origin for an imported firearm. (Page 50 firearms regulations guide) Once again the regulations found in 27 CFR do not require a firearm made by an unlicensed individual to be marked in any manner. If you decide to make a firearm for personal use ensure there are no state restrictions on the firearm you intend to make prior to beginning your build.

ATF Ruling 2015-1

Because of the frequency that ATF has seen 80% receivers made into firearms and used in trafficking schemes, ATF posted ATF ruling 2015-1. This ruling has redefined the definition of a firearm and the definition of manufacturing. FTIB wrote in its previous opinion that once an object was approved as an 80% receiver any modification even as simple a drilling an indexing hole would turn that 80% receiver into a firearm. Possessors of these 80% receivers would drill or mill a hole then according to ATF it became a firearm. These new firearms were then taken to gunsmiths or machinists and completed on professional machinery. With ATF ruling 2015-1 this process has now been classified as a manufacturing function. If you take an 80% receiver to your gunsmith to complete they will be required to be licensed as a manufacturer, mark it with all required markings, and then transfer it to you to complete all transfer requirements. This ruling has not been challenged but signs indicate it will be challenged in the near future.

Making and selling firearms without a license

There are those who believe they have found a niche in which they can make and sell firearms from 80% receivers to make a few dollars. Though the regulations authorize a person to liquidate a personal collection without a license, the act of intentionally making firearms for sale requires a license. The regulations specifically state that if you are manufacturing firearms for the purpose of commerce you must be licensed: Title 18 U.S.C. 922(a)(1)(A) It shall be unlawful - for any person - except a licensed importer, licensed manufacturer, or licensed dealer, to engage in the business of importing, manufacturing, or dealing in firearms, or in the course of such business to ship, transport, or receive any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce. The regulations also defines a manufacturer as: 18 U.S.C. 921(a)(10) The term “manufacturer” means any person engaged in the business of manufacturing firearms or ammunition for purposes of sale or distribution; and the term “licensed manufacturer” means any such person licensed under the provisions of this chapter. This is a fairly broad net that a person can be caught in if they are making firearms without a license and then selling the firearms. If you make 1 firearm with the intent of selling it for profit you could theoretically be charged with manufacturing/dealing without a license.

As previously stated there is no restriction for selling personal weapons nor is there a time limit that you must have possessed a weapon before it is sold. However, FFLs are restricted on the time limit of transferring a personal weapon they transferred to themselves from their license. The regulations in 27CFR, section 478.125a, restrict a dealer from selling firearms from his personal weapons collection until it has been in his personal records for 1 year (Page 66 firearms regulations guide). There have been incidents in which ATF personnel have told individuals that if they made their own weapon they could not sell it until they possessed it for one year. This is incorrect as there is nothing in the regulations or statutes in which this is stated. That being said there have been several cases brought against individuals because they either did not understand the regulations or they disregarded the regulations. If you intend to make and sell firearms you must be licensed and you must abide by all regulatory requirements such as marking firearm and keeping good books.

What are the issues created by making unmarked and distributing unmarked firearms from 80% receivers?

For the personal firearm builder that likes to tinker there is no issue. A few of these unmarked firearms made by hobbyists enter the market annually. The larger issue that has brought scrutiny on these homemade firearm is the trafficking of unmarked AR and AK type firearms made from 80% receivers. Criminals do not abide by firearms laws and their misuse of firearms creates notoriety for the law abiding citizen. Firearms made from 80% receivers have become a weapon of choice for traffickers.

Traffickers are continuously attempting to acquire firearms to maintain control of their drug market and area of operation. Continuously using straw purchase techniques and purchasing used guns is a time consuming exercise. What if it were possible to set up a facility to purchase 80 % receivers both AK and AR type, purchase parts that have no control or regulations, and begin making their own firearms? This has happened and will continue to happen. There have been many major investigations by several law enforcement agencies on organized operations making thousands of AR and AKs that were either already delivered or being made to be delivered to trafficking organizations.

Everything about making a firearm without regulations is not unique to the tinkerer that wants to create their own weapon. It is also point of interest to the trafficker that wants to acquire firearms that are untraceable or are easy to acquire. From personal observations this is not hype on the misuse of these homemade firearms. In my previous experience I had the great opportunity to support U.S Law enforcement and foreign law enforcement in identifying firearms used in criminal activity both in the U.S. and throughout Central America, Mexico and Colombia. These homemade firearms are becoming prolific in each of these countries.


If a person is interested in making a firearm for personal use you are well within your rights to do so. When you decide that you want to make firearms to sell you should ensure you understand all Federal and State regulations prior to beginning your endeavor.

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V20N1 (January 2016)
and was posted online on November 20, 2015


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