Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Houlding Precision Custom AR15 Review

Houlding Precision Custom AR15 Review

There comes a point for an AR owner when he has bought or built all the basic and upgraded ARs he needs and it is time for a real honest to goodness finely made AR15 with all the bells and whistles.  This is, I suppose the equivalent of having a set of top end Ping or Nike golf clubs custom fit to you, springing for that once in a lifetime Westmancott bespoke suit, or for the audiophiles purchasing a $15K EMM pre-amp.  In essence, you want a custom built AR which has not been cobbled together with your own hands or based on the preconceptions of a marketing focus group.

You want a modern AR firearm version made with love like the old Italian shotguns and like grandma Pandemic used to do (it was a Mosin Nagant in her day); with skill and experience. Most importantly you want to hand a list of requirements to someone and be handed back an exceptionally made custom rifle. This is the sweet spot of Houlding Precision.

Earlier this year, I realized I had a safe full of well over a dozen AR15s, some beaters, some for fun, and a few that were component wise stratospherically expensive, however none would I consider as made custom tailored specifically for me.

100% of those rifles at one point or another have been created, modified, or tuned by yours truly, however it was time I had some help from a visionary/artist to develop what I personally would consider the ultimate carry/sporting rifle.

Todd Houlding, owner and founder, definitely understood my needs as he listened to me pontificate during our discussions/gun fitting about I liked this but not that, which generally centered around stuff that works versus stuff that just looks cool.  We all like a little bling, however it damn well better perform. Trust is a tough thing when dollars are involved, however on a second follow up call, he already had compiled my list and asked that I just trust him. He offered an option of providing him a list of parts, however he noted that he may deliver more value and performance if I just let them make the part selections.  I am a bit of a control freak, however I have put my trust in artist to make me beautiful art for the wall, so why not this? Big deep breath and understanding we would have a grey and black theme, I let out the words “Sure, surprise me”.

Todd asked in return that I sit patiently and tell the story of what they do, how they do it, and why.  Fair enough, we verbally shook hands and I patiently waited for a couple months for his production and suppliers to spin up to the company’s relaunch after Todd and his wife completed the buyout of his partner. Todd noted he was also finishing up some larger orders, and unfortunately, was a bit backordered until his suppliers caught up. The wait was worth it.

Houlding Precision, previously named “Houlding Kaufman Ironworks, Inc.” has been around for a while. In fact the business was originally started way back in the late 1800’s and early 1900s by farmers who began repairing farm equipment; definitely a plowshares into swords story. Hit the fast forward button and generations later, Todd Houlding and his previous partner Tom Kaufman continued to transform the business from a machining company to producing some firearms products in 2010.

Todd wanted to move the business’s focus squarely into custom firearms and ultimately bought out Tom Kaufman.  Today the company is named Houlding Precision and focuses on producing the best custom tailored AR15s available. Todd designed the logo to honor his grandfather’s military service in WWII and is actually the nose art from his grandfather and crew’s B-17 bomber. I think the logo adds a little retro cool to the rifle.

I have tested a number of different AR manufacturers builds and they are all for the most part about the same; some better, some worse. The reason is that AR15 parts are all made by a very small select number of OEM manufacturers which everyone buys their Grade A,B,C..etcparts from. Some OEM manufacturers deliver what are considered the premium of the industry with parts believed to be either better or deliver more features than standard grade parts. Houlding focuses on utilizing these premium OEM manufacturers but can use any parts customers specify.

Once you have the parts in hand the next focus is what type of AR manufacturer the company wants to be. Some simply assemble price leading basic rifles and others to various degrees produce select parts in house, apply finish machining or finishing to deliver your choice of A, B , or C Models.  In the AR world there are only a few manufacturers such as Houlding Precision who are producing custom tailored rifles to your likes and needs.  These rifles are exponentially more refined than 99% of the other package/model A, B, or C rifles on the market. Depending on your needs, the resulting AR15 from Houlding Precision can range from a solid LEO patrol rifle to one of the most custom guns you can imagine. Amazingly this rifle is not the most custom rifle that Houlding has delivered to customers, but it is perfectly tailored to me.

With several dozen AR15s passing through my hands in the last two years, I have seen and learned what works and what is just tacticool. Some of my believes are that an 18” barrel is optimal, mid-length and rifle-length gas systems operate and deliver lighter recoil and faster shooting, compensators are loud but make for a soft shooting AR, Geissele makes some of the best triggers, stainless or cold hammer forged barrels, light weight is preferred, ...etc. 

I have bench focused tack drivers and do not need any more, what I wanted was a light, fun, accurate shooting rifle that was stone cold reliable with heavy grain’ed 5.56 Nato rounds - in essence a personalized and custom patrol rifle. It should be something that was fun to train with, but capable enough for 3-gun type competitions. What they delivered was everything I wanted in a custom tailored rifle in a way I never would have imagined flipping through my MidwayUSA catalog.

“Made with love” or “created from a passion” are not phrases you hear often in the firearms industry; typically it is all about production. Cylinder and Slide in Nebraska is one of those “passion & love” companies and I believe Houlding Precision is as well.

There was definitely a level or craftsmanship that went into building my rifle which is far more than just a bag of parts bolted together. The Troy Alpha Rail marries up perfectly to the Houlding Precision Billet upper receiver as if it were a monolithic design.  The lower and upper receivers fit perfectly with no wiggle, but are not too tight; an obvious attention to the thickness that the Cerakote would add and compensating for that so the fit does not bind after finishing.  The muzzle brake is properly clocked and the crush washer is perfectly centered. The gun has been test fired numerous times to assure function and even included a little ziplock bag with the rounds used during testing and who fired them.

The rifle was also delivered perfectly 25M/300M zero’ed. Zeroing seems like a little thing, however to me, I tells me who is just bolting parts together and who is really taking real pride in the complete rifle manufactured. Within my first magazine of Hornady Steel Case Match 77gr rounds, I was hammering the 2’x3’ 300 yard gong with just the Magpul open sights. It also makes the first magazine a whole lot more fun once you realize you can hit anything you are aiming at.

Houlding Precision utilizes Cerakote’ing to deliver a more personalizable and durable AR15 which can get wild compared to my fairly subdued silver/grey finish on my receivers and barrel. The company was a huge hit at the 2012 SHOT Show with its custom Cerakoted camo finishes, which are about as wild as it gets.  For this gun, I was not looking for a battle rifle or a bench target gun, but something I could run and gun for fun with that would look a whole lot different than the other guy’s rifle.  The silver/grey Cerakote finish makes for an eye catching look contrasting against the black Magpul furniture and Troy forend. The Cerakote aesthetically looks great, however most importantly it provides extreme environment protection to your components, increased surface hardness, and increases overall operating lubricity. Houlding is now doing all their own Cerakote in house, which means they are not just coating ARs, but anything else their customers want.

I have to mention the weight because it is unbelievably light. The full length tapered 18” Daniel Defense barrel used delivers a stunningly light AR and in fact it tips the scales lighter than almost any of my 16” rifles.  Paired with the light Troy Alpha Rail the entire gun weights only 7.15lbs which is very light indeed for a feature loaded 18” barreled rifle. Swap to a Ace Ultra-light stock and you could probably shave another 3/4lb-1lb from that weight.

CUSTOM LOGO & SERIAL NUMBER - Along with all the other features I am about to mention, Todd wanted to showcase Houlding Precision’s custom milling capabilities as well.  Generally on the right non-serial numbered side the magazine well is left blank, however they now offer the option of adding in their Bumble Bee logo or your own custom logo for a setup fee. One of the most popular custom logo options is to have your military branch or unit logo milled into the right hand magazine well. 

I delivered them a high resolution vectorized version of my personal “4” logo. Four has been a lucky number for me, a favorite number, and as the destructive force I naturally am, my wife generally refers to me as the “fourth horseman of the apocalypse”...so 4 is “my number”. Houlding Precision took my logo and masterfully milled it into my receiver and even delivered the gun with the serial number “4” for a true one of a kind build.

BILLET RECEIVERS - Even without a custom logo, the Houlding Precision 7075 billet lowers and uppers still scream custom.

They have integrated an extended trigger guard, provides a enlarged flared magazine well with knurled front grip, a US flag on the underside of the trigger guard, buffer tube reinforcement, as well as a few other little tweaks including selector switch stop styling, and carrying over the Bee logo onto the upper receiver. 
They are notably just a bit beefier than a standard forged upper/lower with a enough style that it is apparent it is something unique.

Houlding mills in the T-markings on the upper receiver’s picatinny rail and adds their bee logo on the upper receiver as well. They topped off my upper with a BCM Gunfighter charging handle to speed up operation.

Todd also was listening when I noted I swap uppers around a lot. They used quick release pins instead, to allow me to break down the gun with gloves and without tools.

BOLT & BARREL - Although every Houlding Precision rifle is custom made to the owner’s specifications, Todd chose to use a Daniel Defense BCG and Barrel for my build because of my strong, light and durable requirements. Daniel Defense slogan is “Lighter, Stronger, Better” which fits as it is one of the top premium AR part manufacturers in the world.  Their parts are regarded as some of the best/most durable in the industry due to extreme testing demonstrated by the renowned Tac TV host Larry Vickers. 

Todd selected the Daniel Defense M16 Bolt Carrier Group which is shot peened, MPI tested, features an extractor booster, chrome lined, and has a properly staked gas key. Generally I do not believe there is much difference between a AR15 and M16 bolt from a functionality perspective if the gas pressures are properly tuned (with the right size gas vent in barrel). However I do believe, where possible, you should use the Bolt Carrier Group  the barrel maker designed the barrel around for optimal reliability and accuracy.

The Daniel Defense Mid-Length barrel is CHF (Cold Hammer Forged).  CHF barrels are considered the premium of barrel making method and are used almost exclusively for machine guns and military weapons. 

The Cold Hammer Forging of barrels is accomplished through intense hydraulic pressure applied at opposing angles by carbide steel hammers. During the hammering process, a mandrel is inserted into the bore while the carbide steel hammers shape the barrel around the mandrel creating the chamber, the lands, and the grooves. In addition to the aforementioned benefits, the Cold Hammer Forging process creates a defect free bore and the most consistent chamber possible. The result is CHF barrels are known to produce the most accurate, longest lasting rifle barrels obtainable - fitting for a custom rifle such as this.

Houlding Precision could have used any barrel, however they went with this barrel because of Daniel Defense’s S2W (Strength to Weight) ratio profile which is from my testing about the best compromise available if you want a lighter weight build without sacrificing strength and accuracy.  The 1:7 twist 5.56 chambered barrel is heavy phosphate exterior coating or Salt Bath Nitride finished, MP (Metal Particle) tested and then once on site at Houlding Precision was Cerakoted. Honestly, I never would have thought about using this barrel, nor did I request it, but this is what happens when you leave Houlding Precision to do what they do best.

GAS BLOCK - Low profile gas blocks weigh far less than forged front sight bases, however VLTOR has an even lighter option with additional cuts to reduce weight further. These little tweaks add up and are the reason I suggest you talk with Houlding Precision on your next build. I certainly get around the AR community, however I never would have thought using the VLTOR gas block to drop a little extra weight. Another nice touch.

FURNITURE & ACCESSORIES - Although I did not specify it, Todd knew I have a long-term love for all things Troy, and the Troy rifle-length Alpha Rail forend is one of my favorite rails made.  It is light, has a slim handguard and still allows me to attach a rail here or there as required.  From a looks perspective, the black Troy Alpha Rail and Magpul furniture delivered a nice contrast from the silver/grey Cerakoted barrel and receiver.

Magpul is recognized as the company that made AR furniture cool, comfortable and functional again. Todd minimized weight while maximizing features and used the Magpul ACS-L (Adjustable Carbine Stock -Light) which uses a secondary friction lock to provide a rock solid stock without any wiggle or rattle. Magpul Gen II flip up sights and grip were installed to complete the furniture.

The original Houlding Precision lower receiver had QD sling mounts integrated into the receiver, however in their most recent updates they have removed those mounts in favor of a Noveske’s combination Single Point QD sling mount and buffer tube retention plate.  

A simple idea from Noveske which delivers elegant function and engineering. Houlding’s use reduced the bulk and milling cost of their original lower receiver design while retaining 100% of the functionality.

TRIGGER & COMPENSATOR - I now have three ARs with Geissele triggers and you can bet that I will continue to use them in other builds.  The Geissele SSA and SSA-E triggers are factory tuned and non-adjustable and are all you will ever need unless you are expressly building a dedicated National Match rifle.

Non-adjustable is good in this case, because it will never fall out of adjustment, and prevents the user from improperly tuning the trigger. Let’s face it, I doubt 99.9% of use can turn a trigger better then Bill Geissele. Todd dropped in a Geissele SSA trigger which delivers a superb fast shooting rifle with a trigger that breaks crisply like a glass rod.

The mid-length gas system coupled with the PWS muzzle brake delivered a stunningly soft shooting gun.  In fact it was so soft that I double checked to assure it did not have an adjustable gas block installed. The credit to that near complete lack of recoil goes to the mid-length gas system, Daniel Defense’s properly sized barrel gas vent hole and the hellishly loud but amazingly effective PWS muzzle brake. 

If people don’t notice the gun when it exits the case, they sure as hell will when I start shooting - I would have it no other way for this rifle.

PACKAGING - These days everyone is making rifles and although most are concentrating on the rifles they usually overlook the marketing and packaging side.  

In some cases, this means I have received rifles wrapped in plastic bags and dumped into generic hard gun cases or standard brown cardboard boxes.  It also seems the omission of an owners manual has become commonplace for many manufacturers as well, but not Houlding.

A gun coming with a case is a nice feature, however there is something a bit more special when you walk into your FFL dealer to pick up your gun and there is a large high grade pristine white box covered with the Houlding Precision Bee Logo. 
The pride of ownership starts there and also shows me that these guys are taking pride in what they are making and not just jamming it into a brown box. Honestly the packaging would give Ruger and S&W a run for their money if you were looking at a stack of the boxes on the shelf. Open the box and your rifle will be nestled into die cut foam with a safety lock, bound manual, the function test shells, a Magpul 10-round P-Mag, a dummy/snapcap round, and NRA information.

As you would expect with all premium AR components, with over a 1000 rounds of various Hornady steel and brass cased ammo, random tins of surplus ammo, and even some handloads, I have yet to see a malfunction.  Generally I can get most ARs to malfunction with 62gr Herters rounds as I have found them just a little under spec, however I even had no issues with this ammo.  Functionally this is exactly what I wanted.

Accuracy generally comes at the price of a more finicky nature and more barrel weight. For this build anything that can hold 1 MOA (or around 1”) at 100 yards was perfectly acceptable. I would love to say this Daniel Defense CHF barrel was drilling dime sized groups, but it didn’t, even with a big Nikon Monarch 8-32X scope attached. My best groups all hovered right around the 1” mark so I definitely have other rifles I would reach for to punch tiny groups, however that was never my intent for this rifle.  I just wanted consistency and reliability which the rifle delivers on. If you want a tack driver, Houlding can use a match grade barrel instead.

As you will notice though, the barrel was were very consistent and less sensitive to the ammo used, which is great from my perspective. I was thrilled with the rifle’s ability to consistently hit the 300 yard 2’x3’ gong firing at a pretty rapid pace with open sights. On the bench I was even able to fairly regularly hit clays on the berm at that distance with just the Magpul sights. The gun definitely maintains the ability to deliver MOA levels of accuracy.

223 REM 55 GR HP STEEL MATCH                                1.2"
223 REM 55 GR GMX® SUPERFORMANCE                  1.3"
223 REM 75 GR BTHP MATCH                                        .95"
223 REM 75 GR BTHP STEEL MATCH                            .95"
223 REM 75 GR TAP® FPD                                               .85"
5.56 NATO 55 GR GMX SUPERFORMANCE                    1.1"

If you want a less expensive shirt, car, or set of golf clubs, then walk on in to a discount store and go nuts.  The same goes for AR15’s. There are less expensive AR manufacturers out there if you are just wanting a budget rifle, but that is not what Houlding Precision is about.  Houlding is about having a AR custom tailored to you, your needs, and your wants. That could range from a less expensive patrol rifle to something wild. They delivered an AR15 which fits my desires perfectly and then adding in all the extra little touches that made the pride of ownership that much better.  

Personally this rifle would have looks a lot different and not been as good if I would have defined all the build specs. With the exception of Houlding’s own gorgeous upper and lower receivers, I did not impose any “brand” and just let the gunsmithing artists work from my notes.  Of course Todd himself oversaw my build, however he noted that is nothing special and is involved in every build. The result was use of a number of manufacturers which were not top of mind for me but delivered details I would have missed if going at it on my own. PWS, Noveski, Daniel Defense, and BCM are all names I know and respect, but they all came together in the rifle in a way I would have overlooked; this is why you work with pros. Houlding Precision can work from a list of parts and has access to almost any AR part, so if you have your heart set on something, chances are they can include it in a build. I recommend just letting them loose after you give them some guildlines.

If you have never had a set of custom clubs made for you, been fitted for a custom shotgun, or had a suit tailor made, then this very similar experience is hard to explain. You are not buying a model A, B, or C and pulling it off the shelf, nor are you just saying “give my extra rice on my burrito platter”, you are buying a personalized firearm which others may appreciate, but fits your wants needs and desires of an AR perfectly. 

I have a Liberty Safe full of firearms, however this is the one I seem to be reaching for over and over again; it is super light, fast handling, has almost non-existent recoil, and is accurate, but most of all it was made with love, just like Grandma Pandemic used to make.

VLTOR Low Profile Gas Block

Daniel Defense BCG
Daniel Defense CHF 18” Mid-Length 5.56 1:7 twist Tapered profile barrel
BCM Gunfighter Charging Handle
Geissele 2-Stage SSA trigger
Magpul ACS Stock
Magpul Grip
Troy Alpha Rail
Noveski Single Point Sling Mount
PWS Compesator
Magpul 10-Round Magazine
Cerakoted receivers and Barrel
Quick Release Pins
Custom billet upper and Lower receivers
Real packaging, manual, and materials
gun lock
Test shells fired by Todd Houlding
Perfectly 25M zero’ed 300M zero

Houlding Precision Firearms



Stugotz said...

What was the final price on this build?

Major Pandemic said...

This build was around $2000 with the custom milling.

Unknown said...

Is this company still around? I can't seem to find them online

Major Pandemic said...

Houlding was purchased by Faxon