What are the best AR-15 Lowers?
The bedrock of every AR-15 is the lower receiver. These unassuming bits of aluminium form the foundation onto which an AR-15 will be based, and ultimately help it reach its full potential. Of course, some lowers will cost you less than a Ulysses S. Grant, while others will set you back the cost of a budget pistol.
We’re here to help you understand why – and ultimately arm you with the information needed to select the right receiver for any AR build.
Quick List: The Best AR-15 Lowers
We could not have Anderson and Aero on here without at least giving a nod to Palmetto State Armory, who have probably sold more standalone aluminum lowers than those two companies combined.
With that being said, PSA is definitely seen as a “value” or “budget” maker, but that doesn’t mean they produce junk. For those looking for a general-purpose, introductory, or common-user lower to utilize for a build, Palmetto will probably have it in stock and ready to ship.
Probably the benchmark maker in the AR lower game, Aero makes both complete and stripped lowers with a variety of finishes and a great warranty to back up their work– although you will probably never need to use it. Best yet, they are affordably priced, running typically around $75-$100 for a stripped lower, while at the same time maintaining a stellar reputation.
They don’t turn heads, but they don’t get rocks thrown at them either, and for good reason: they work.
Ah, the old “Poverty Pony” of Kentucky. Anderson Manufacturing probably sells the most inexpensive yet functional lowers of any other company in the U.S. as their typical price point runs about $50 on a stripped lower, often less if you can catch a deal outside of a threatened gun ban or election cycle.
With prices like that for a 7075 lower that is (usually) inside mil-spec, it is hard to go wrong and they offer a stellar reason to stay away from 6061 and polymers. A more standard AR-15 lower is hard to find.
Battle Arms Development
A functional work of art, BAD makes billet 7075 lowers that are super strong yet lightweight, with the company often claiming the mantle of “best receiver on the market”. On the downside, you have to pay to play and BAD ambi billet lowers usually run the cost of six or seven forged lowers from Aero or comparable makers.
Bravo Company Mfg., based in Wisconsin, has increasingly made a name for themselves in the past decade both with complete AR rifles and pistols as well as a wide range of lowers. Their in-demand stripped lowers, crafted from 7075 forgings, are legit while their complete lowers are easier to come across.
As a bonus, BCM offers dozens of different custom lower engravings covering everything from Gadsden flags to the USMC’s EG&A.
Black Rain Ordinance
Black Rain Ordinance is best known for its rifle offerings, but they also make both complete and stripped lowers. Their forged black anodized SPEC15 series is the flagship for the latter type and is ready to drop in a lower parts kit to put it into service.
If Anderson and Aero are mid-shelf lower manufacturers, Texas-based F1 Firearms is squarely on the top shelf. If you are OK with a wait time for fulfillment and have the room on your credit card, though, picking up one of their UDR series billet lowers will set you on the path to having an AR that others will envy.
Skeletonized and made to strict laser-verified tolerances, do not let the light weight fool you, these lowers are intended for a premium rifle.
Hodge Defense is not a household name outside of the AR world, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that is because they aren’t good at what they do. On the contrary, they make some of the highest quality ARs on the market and their Mod 1 stripped lowers are about as perfect as you can get when it comes to forged 7075 aluminum.
Precision machined billet 7075 lower? Check. Tension screw? Check. Flared magwell for faster reloads with a wide range of mag types? Check. Type III anodizing and an integrated trigger guard? You know that’s a check. All these are reasons to look into one of Noveske Rifleworks’ Gen III lowers.
Radian Weapons Systems has one of the best fully-ambi lowers on the market in their AX556 series lower. A billet 7075 design, it incorporates a left/right-side magazine release paddle along with an extended dual-action bolt catch that allows right-handed operators the ability to lock the bolt to the rear without taking their strong hand off fire control. Plus, they just look great.
Hitting the scales at 10.9-ounces, the SP223 lower by Seekins Precision deletes traditional roll pins for custom screw-in dowel pins, allowing the user to leave their punch set in the toolbox more. Made from 7075 billet aluminum, the SP223 is stripped but comes with Seekins’ enhanced bolt catch and ambi release.
Spikes Tactical has been in the lower game for a minute, specializing in forged 7075 mil-spec receivers that are higher up the shelf than a lot of the mid-range competitors. Further, they have a variety of themed lowers that, while they can sometimes be cringeworthy, offer the side bonus of great deals on slower-selling models. The standard Spikes’ Spider-marked lower is always a winner.
The Magic of the AR System
Once just a niche “plastic” sporting rifle for Colt fans, the AR-15 platform over the course of the past 60 years has evolved to the point where it is truly one of the most versatile firearms ever designed. They can be rifle, pistol or shotgun.
Disregarding wildcat rounds, they can be chambered in more than 50 calibers ranging from the rimfire .17 HMR to the bruising .50 Beowulf. Modern rail systems, running from beefed-up Picatinny/Quad and stripped-down VLTOR Key-Mod to Magpul M-LOK, allow virtually any accessory to be fitted to enhance the user’s performance.
When it comes to furniture, there are folding stock kits, collapsible M4-style kits, an ocean of stabilizing braces for pistols, and even fixed wood options. And it all starts with a lower.
Aluminum? Polymer? 6061? 7075?
First off, construction is key. The two-part receiver design of Eugene Stoner, first pioneered on his ArmaLite AR-10 back in the 1950s, incorporated the use of early lightweight aircraft-grade aluminum as ArmaLite was a subsidiary of California-based Fairchild Aviation and benefited directly from their manufacturing processes. Since then, while Fairchild has long since been delivered to the dustbin of history, aluminum has remained the standard for AR upper and lower receivers.
These typically come in two grades, 6061-T651 and 7075-T651, with the latter being preferred as it is nearly twice as strong when it comes to tensile and yield strength for very little difference in weight. The primary benefit of 6061 is that receivers constructed of such material are more corrosion resistant than 7075 while running slightly cheaper– but only slightly. While there’s an opportunity to save money it’s generally not worth the reduction in durability.
Speaking of cheaper, polymer lowers can cost even less, and often hit the scales at even lighter in weight than aluminum offerings. They aren’t exactly new to the market, with pre-Remington Bushmaster, Plum Crazy, and CavArms producing them going back to the 1980s.
However, they do have a reputation of being a bit more fragile, especially when it comes to breaking the rear buffer tube threads and developing cracks at the pivot points. While current polymer lower makers such as New Frontier Armory have redesigned pivot and takedown pin areas in addition to a beefed-up their polymer recipe to fortify the failure points on past designs sold by other companies, in the end, the choice to run metal or plastic is up to the user.
Billet or Forged?
Aluminum lowers, going past the 6061/7076 material argument, also come in either billet or forged varieties. The short story on a forged receiver is that it is produced by compressing/hammering a heated platter of aluminum alloy together and then machining the resulting stamping out into a working lower.
Meanwhile, in the case of a billet lower, it is constructed by milling one out of a single piece of an aluminum block.
While the forged receiver is easier to machine, requiring fewer steps to finish and thus making it cheaper to make, billet receivers, as they are born from a solid block of metal, have a reputation of being stronger and can be made more exotic–traits especially desirable in high-end builds. However, on the downside, billet receivers sometimes need more hand fitting of parts as there is not a “MIL-STD” when it comes to billet lowers.
Then there are cast aluminum receivers, with molten metal poured into a mold, with the result being a product which generally has a less than stellar reputation as it on the soft side metallurgically speaking. There are instances of homebuilders casting their own lowers from recycled pop cans, which is an interesting DIY project, but in general, cast receivers are best avoided.
Purpose Drives Selection
Going back to the best-selling point for an AR platform, the versatility of the design allows users to build a gun from the receiver-up with a dedicated purpose in mind. For instance, the gun could end up being a .300 Blackout pistol with a 10-inch barrel optimized for home defense with a backup purpose of hog hunting in thick brush.
This could point to using a factory fresh AR lower, preferably aluminum in construction, that has never been part of a firearm before, to keep square with the ATF’s “pistol” classification.
In another example, someone intending to build a “plinker” rifle to mate with a dedicated .22LR rimfire upper receiver but isn’t looking to drop a lot of coin could elect to use a polymer lower to create a gun that will likely run (well) south of 6-pounds while not breaking the bank.
A third example would be of someone seeking to build a .224 Valkyrie precision rifle. Using a 224V upper with a 20-inch 416R stainless barrel and a 6.8 SPC mag, a good mil-spec 7075 lower could work, but the builder would be better off taking a step up to a nice billet lower with a built-in tensioner screw to help reduce upper/lower wobble and yield a tighter fitment.
Stripped or Complete?
The difference between a stripped lower and complete is obvious.
Have we mentioned AR versatility? When it comes to the choice of internal lower parts, triggers, grips, buffer tubes, and stocks/braces, there is a kaleidoscope of options available for the AR builder.
For ease of construction, complete lowers will be good to go right out of the box, just add a complete upper, bolt carrier group, and magazine, then function check and make sure it is lubed, and you are good to go.
This is especially appealing for first-time builders. Should you decide to, say, swap out a mil-spec hammer, hammer spring, disconnector, trigger, and bolt catch pin for an aftermarket drop-in trigger assembly as an upgrade, that is something that can typically be carried out later in under an hour with the help of a YouTube video. Don’t end up liking it as much as you thought you would? Swap it back.
For those looking to craft a gun from the bare receiver up, a stripped lower receiver is the way to go, allowing individual selection of LPKs and triggers, tubes, stabilizers, or the inclusion of an ambidextrous bolt release or custom selector markings.
This is appealing not only to AR snobs who will debate the finer points of a Timney Calvin Elite trigger compared to the Triggertech Adaptable trigger but also to those looking to build on a budget as oftentimes generic LPKs with standard no-name “military” grips and triggers can be had at value prices, sweat equity required.
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