The AR-15 platform gets a lot of attention and for good reason, it is one of the most reliable and versatile firearms ever created. Home defense, distance shooting, long and short-barreled rifles are all possible with a single AR-15, which is why it’s one of the most popular semi-automatic rifles available today.
Invented by a renowned team of engineers who were looking to change the dynamic of what constituted small arms at the time, the gun has gone on to be known and respected around the world.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, Colt was the only game in the AR-15 market.
This started to break in the 1980s as others like Eagle, FN, and Olympic entered the field. Today, just about every modern rifle maker who produces semi-autos will have an AR of some sort in their catalog. We spent some time with a few of the better ones floating around.
Comparison of the Best AR-15s
What to Look for in a Quality AR-15
1. Quality Receiver Construction
The fundamental thing to look for on an AR receiver is the construction – specifically the kind of aluminum used to craft he two halves of the rifle:
- 7075 aluminum’s primary attribute is its strength. It’s not as corrosion resistant as 6061, but 7075 has tensile strength on par with steel.
- 6061 aluminum offers a blend of durability and natural corrosion resistance. Doesn’t offer 7075’s strength, but it offers a more workable material.
Forged vs. Billet: Further, while forged receivers are standard in AR production, some gun companies make their own billet receivers in-house, milled from a raw block of aluminum.
Most billet receivers have thicker walls and are harder to get into a military-spec due to the machining process behind them but are preferred by those using heavier rounds with a bit more spice such as .350 Legend, .277 Valkyrie and 6.5 Grendel.
Polymer and composites have been used in lowers by companies like Omni and New Frontier, which is a whole different story.
Are you Looking for Mil-Spec or Commercial?
Mil-spec as a Minimum
One of the biggest appeals of the functionality of the AR-15 platform is that, if all of the components are made to a single specification, they interchange, no matter who assembles the gun. Feed ramps, iron sights, triggers, and gas blocks all just work.
Said baseline specification is typically that set by the U.S. Army, which is just referred to as “Mil-Spec” in the industry.
Keep in mind this spec itself has evolved over time, with what was considered “in-spec” for 1965, naturally no longer the standard today.
Of course, none of these mill spec requirements obviates the need for regular care and feeding by way of cleaning and repair.
Current standards for the M4 are what is generally considered to be the *minimum* acceptable for use, with many AR makers today concentrating on making guns that are better than Mil-Spec, with tighter tolerances.
For instance, a standard Mil-Spec trigger on an AR will typically break anywhere between 6- and 8-pounds with a good bit of creep, which is fine for most uses, but crisp trigger packs and tighter single and two stage triggers by companies such as CMC, which are standard with some builds, break as low as 2-pounds.
2. Appropriate barrel length
When the AR-15 rifle was first introduced in the 1960s, the standard barrel length was 20-inches, and the 5.56 NATO caliber ammunition of the day was ballistically optimized for that span.
Today, loads such as M855 are widely available and still deliver optimally in a 20-inch barrel.
Since the early 1990s, the widespread adoption of M4 style carbine barrels, which for military and LE use ran just 14.5-inches, had led to many common ARs today having a default barrel length in the 16-inch range.
This choice is backed up by extensive barrel-length studies that found the “sweet spot” for common 5.56 loads to be in this range, although standard-length (20-inch) barrels deliver more velocity, thus imparting more energy to the bullet.
Even with that, there are custom hunting and target uppers that stretch out to 24- and even 26-inches. Beware, though, when using the long boys as harmonics issues start to come into play since longer barrels by nature will have more vibration.
Short Barreled 5.56 Performance
On AR pistols, the minute the barrel length starts to plunge below 14.5-inches, 5.56/.223 ballistics will begin to rainbow downward, shedding velocity with every inch dropped in barrel length.
Short barreled SBRs and pistols in standard AR chamberings also suffer from extensive muzzle flash due to unburnt powder and have a reputation of being “rowdy” on the range. Nonetheless, manufacturers market 5.56 barrels as short as 4.75-inches in overall length.
The whole concept behind a rifle comes from the fact that such firearms use a “rifled” barrel rather than one that is smooth, such as in old school muskets or shotguns.
Optimal Twist Rates
Rifling in the U.S. is measured in the number of inches it takes to fully rotate a bullet moving down the barrel.
- A 1:10 twist rate means that it takes 10 inches of barrel to impart a full spin of the projectile.
- A 1:7 twist rate requires 7 inches of barrel to spin the same projectile.
Heavier bullets benefit from tighter twists
Bear in mind that a looser twist will benefit lighter bullets while heavier bullets will perform optimally with a tighter one.
For example, in the world of ARs using .223 Remington/5.56 rounds a 77-grain bullet performs better from a rifle using a 1:7 twist than one with an old-school 1:12 rate, with the latter being better for light bullets such as 55-grain loads.
Today, 1:7 and 1:9 twists are common while 1:8 offers a better barrel life and is the optimal twist rate for the widest range of bullet weights, covering 55- through 77-grain.
Bullet Weight & Optimal Twist Rate
- 40-Grain = 1:12 Twist
- 55-Grain = 1:9 Twist
- 62-Grain = 1:7 to 1:8 Twist
- 77-Grain = 1:7 to 1:8 Twist
- 90-Grain = 1:7 Twist
3. Barrel profiles
When it comes to barrel profiles, ARs range from 10-inch shorter barrels seen on AR pistols and SBRs to 24-inch long toms on some custom precision guns.
Generally, weights will run from thin “pencil” types to heavy bull target barrels, with a sweet spot of around 16-inches being the norm and giving optimal ballistic performance for the 5.56/.223 round in most scenarios.
This is a good example of the modularity that makes the AR-15 so great.
Barrels also fall into one of three general “profile” types– lightweight, government, and heavy. Ironically, the hallmark of the early AR-10 and subsequent AR-15 was a very thin barrel as the gun was developed by a company that was a subsidiary of a big player in the aviation industry, one in which every ounce mattered.
Such barrels still have a place these days as the steel barrel– particularly on a firearm with aluminum receivers and plastic furniture– accounts for a lot of the total weight. Therefore, the lighter the barrel weight, the lighter the gun.
Today such traditional “pencil” barrels would be seen as being lightweight as the Army, once the AR-15 was adopted and fielded in Vietnam in the 1960s, found that heavier barrels were more desirable to their needs. This is because a thin barrel, although lighter for the soldier that must carry it, also heats up rapidly in use, a factor that will shift the point of aim/impact after even a modest number of rounds without cooling.
Today, the slightly beefier barrel is referred to as having a “government profile” as it has more steel than a lightweight pencil barrel but falls short of a target barrel.
When it comes to heavy profile barrels for ARs, Colt’s original H-BAR was designed for match target competitions and was introduced in 1986. Taking this to an extreme are full bull barrels such as Criterion’s 24-inch model, meant for precision varmint use and similar applications. Cutting down on weight, heavy barrels that utilize carbon fiber sleeves or extensive fluting keep rigidity and accuracy at a distance while trimming the ounces. However, such options come with a corresponding expense. We talk more about this in the section on barrel contouring.
4. Barrel Material
Most ARs in circulation today have barrels made of 4140 CMV steel, which is fine for general use. Barrels advertised as Mil-Spec will usually be made of stronger MIL-B-11595-E CMV or 4150 steel. Premium match barrels will usually be of 416/410 stainless.
- 4140 indicates the barrel contains 40% carbon content
- 4150 indicates the barrel steel has a carbon content near .50%
A black nitride finish is typically seen on entry-level barrels and is a little cheaper than manganese-phosphated hard chrome, which is on nicer barrels, with the latter lasting longer, especially when using heavier bullets.
5. Barrel Linings
In terms of barrel linings typically seen on AR-15s, and for that matter most rifles, the two most encountered are nitriding and chrome-lined, both of which make the barrel harder and more durable than steel alone.
Nitriding/Meloniting/Armorniting are gas nitrocarburizing processes that change the surface properties of the barrel itself– inside and out– while chrome lining adds a layer of metallic chromium material to the surface of the barrel’s interior and chamber.
Whereas chrome lining dates to at least World War II, being common originally on military rifles due to its heat resistance properties, Nitriding et.al is a more modern process and is easier (and cheaper) to apply as well as having the side effect of protecting the entire barrel, including the exterior.
With that, don’t confuse chrome-moly or chrome-moly-vanadium (CMV) barrels– which are made from alloy steel that includes mixes of chromium-molybdenum and/or vanadium– with a carbon steel barrel that has been chrome lined.
6. Types of Barrel Forging
Rifle barrels all begin life the same way– as a piece of high-quality steel bar stock, be they Chromoly, CMV, carbon, or stainless-steel varieties. What comes next is shaping and milling down to produce the desired sized barrel blank which is then processed to produce the internal rifling through a center-cut bore.
This is accomplished by either cold-hammer forging (CHF), cut rifling, or button rifling.
- Cold-hammer Forging: without getting too much into the weeds, CHF barrels are made by forcing a rifling-shaped mandrel through the center of the blank while at room temperature then stress-relieving at a higher heat afterward. This produces a strong, uniform rifling that is accurate and will outlast most other rifling types, making it preferred for rifles intended for hard or extended use, such as for military contracts.It is a process that also scalable and is commonly seen in use with barrel makers like FN who crank out thousands of barrels from raw stock every month.
- Cut rifling is a time-honored but also time-consuming process in which a bored barrel blank is inserted into a rifling machine then “cut” out thousands of an inch on each pass. It takes a while to make such barrels, which makes them more expensive, but it is worth it as barrels that utilize cut rifling are typically capable of delivering precision results downrange. For this reason, many custom gunsmiths favor cut rifling for their barrels.
- Button rifling gets its name from the process in which a tungsten carbide “button” is attached to a steel rod that rotates precisely to produce the twist rate as it is pulled through the bore of a barrel blank by a hydraulic cylinder, thus producing the grooves inside a finished rifle barrel.
Like the CHF process, button rifling is a cold-forming process that requires the stress-relieving of the steel afterward, followed by lapping to make the rifling uniform after that step. As CHF tends to be a more efficient process, especially with the right machines, and cut rifling is more accurate, button rifling has largely been replacing but is still seen in some legacy barrels.
7. Barrel Contours
While introduced with a standard barrel, AR-15s have evolved to a host of other barrel contours to match the needs and desires of the user.
Starting with the M16A2 in the 1980s, this morphed into the government– and later M4 and SOCOM– profiles which started beefily then tapered to a thin barrel under the weapon’s handguards, had a cutout for the M203 40mm grenade launcher to attach, and ended with a beefy muzzle to give the sight post/gas port a stable base.
This medium weight contouring helped trim unneeded ounces from the steel while meeting the utilitarian checklist intended for the gun. Heavy target, partial bull, and full bull barrels, particularly when mated with the appropriate free-floating handguards, have a more uniform straight wall profile.
When going for a lighter contour, such barrels can be turned down through exterior fluting, dimpling, or the like which maintains interior bore diameter and barrel strength while removing excess weight.
8. Bolt Carrier Groups (BCGs)
The heart and soul of the AR-10/AR-15 is the bolt carrier group or BCG. The BCG, in common direct gas impingement models, consists of the actual carrier itself– the largest part in which the rest of the components either ride on or attach to– the bolt assembly in the front, the gas key held to the top of the carrier with two screws, the bolt cam pin, firing pin, and firing retaining pin.
The typical bolt assembly further breaks down into the bolt itself, the ejector with its spring and roll pin, the extractor with its pin and spring, and a trio of gas rings.
When the AR is fired, the gas system bleeds out a portion of the propellant exhaust via a gas port on top of the barrel and feeds it back to the gas key atop the BGC, filling the chamber made by gas rings at the base of the bolt assembly which forces the bolt carrier itself against the recoil spring. That rearward motion twists the bolt on the cam pin, unlocking the chamber.
When the spring reacts to the bolt carrier, pushing it back into battery, the bolt picks up the next cartridge in the magazine and pushes it into the chamber as the gas key realigns with the gas tube running atop the barrel, waiting for the next shot. The process needs a tightly sealed and aligned gas system for this to work as advertised.
What to look for in a BCG
A good checklist to look for is in the material used, with 8620 steel being mid-shelf, 9310 and Carpenter 158 steel considered more top shelf, and those made of S7 tool steel the good stuff kept behind the counter.
This doesn’t mean that 8620 is garbage, as it is the baseline grade that is considered Mil-Spec, but keep in mind that better grades of steel will hold up longer.
BCGs will also carry a certification, or at least they should, to show the bolt itself is high pressure tested (for shock-resistance), shot-peened (for strength), and magnetic particle inspected (for integrity), tests listed as HPT, MPI, and SP.
9. Gas systems
Every autoloading AR-15 has an action that is gas-operated, meaning it uses exhaust gases from the spent propellant to work the bolt.
- Direct Impingement: while the direct impingement system, or DI, is the system that Eugene Stoner first used on his AR-10 in the 1950s and remains standard for the AR today, piston systems are a more recent addition to the gun’s history. In Stoner’s original system, gas is bled from the barrel through a tube into the bolt carrier group’s gas key to cycle the action.
- Piston Systems: In a gas piston system, the gas is still funneled from the barrel but instead of running down a tube to push the gas key, it drives a piston which pushes an operating rod into the bolt carrier group to work the action.
Piston systems are inherently cleaner, as the gas doesn’t enter the chamber in the same volume as in a DI system. This can keep an AR running much longer in high-use situations as it both runs “cooler” and doesn’t fill the chamber with burnt propellant and carbon fouling with every round.
On the downside, piston systems add an op rod and spring to the gun in addition to the piston itself, all of which can break or malfunction.
They also are more expensive on average and require a piston-specific BCG and gas block, whereas DI systems are common and universal to the type as long as the same gas system length is retained and are easily maintained.
The mystery of making Eugene Stoner’s original DGI gas system of operation work properly over the years has been muddled by follow-on generations of AR gas systems of various lengths to fix assorted issues.
Shortcomings of the AR gas system
In a nutshell, the nature of using hot, spent gasses from fired rounds to cycle the action means the systems need maintenance (not something that was shared with the boys in Vietnam when the M-16 first made its debut.) It was famous for jamming from the littlest dirt.
An under-gassed (or under-maintained) AR-15 will cause short-stroking of the bolt and result in jams or failures as well as the user taking brass to the face. A shortcoming like this cost far too many boys their lives on the front line when the forward assist turned a jam into a useless 1-shot rifle.
A properly gassed AR hums like a sewing machine and eject brass almost directly to the right of the gun’s port.
Over-gassed guns will kick brass well forward of the ejection port and lead to more fouling in the action, making the gun run dirtier (and taking more time to collect your brass if not using a brass catcher.)
10. Gas Block Selection
The intersection of the AR-15’s gas operating system is the gas block. Positioned and aligned securely over the gas port at the top of the barrel, it joins the gas tube, which in turn bleeds gas back to the BCG. There are four different types of gas blocks: adjustable, front sight, low-profile, and railed.
- Adjustable gas blocks, most used with piston guns, can be tuned by the user, typically with an Allen wrench. This can be advantageous as it allows the gun to be dialed to run reliably across a variety of loads and when using a suppressor.
- Front sight gas blocks (or FSBs) are the “old school” one-piece fixed unit with the forward-leaning “A” front sight post commonly seen on M16s, M4s, and traditional ARs. They also typically have a bottom-mounted bayonet lug for those times when you want to bring a knife to a gunfight.
- Low-profile gas blocks, typically small enough to be used under today’s popular free-floating handguards, are the smallest and, by purpose, most unobtrusive blocks.
- Railed gas blocks have fallen out of use in recent years but were extremely popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, typically serving as a “donut” with early free-float handguards instead of an old-style front sight gas block. They used a Weaver or Picatinny rail system for accessories and/or front sights.
Adjusting for Overgassing
Commercial AR-15s are often a bit over-gassed which gets a lot of grouching in online gun forums. This is something that is needed to help blast out cheap Russian-made steel-cased cartridges (Wolf or Tula et.al).
It’s also useful for ensuring cycling even in the face of poorly maintained AR-15s with loads of build-up. Speaking of that Russian stuff, the main thing to remember on ammo selection besides bullet weight is to look for non-corrosive loads.
A lot of military surplus rounds, such as Eastern European and 1980s Chicom loads, were brought in to the U.S. for cheap and stacked deep but they used corrosive propellants and primers, something even the Russians have moved away from recently.
While you should always clean any gun after firing before returning it to storage (check out our AR-15 cleaning kit guide for recos) corrosive ammo will take an especially tough time on your chamber and breech face, leaving a rusty, crusty mess behind for those who failed to maintain their weapon.
11. Scopes & Optics
When Colt first started making the AR-15 in the early 1960s, it came standard with the integrated rear sight/carrying handle as part of the upper receiver.
However, within just a few years, low-powered 3x and 4x fixed scopes with 20mm objective lens and 1-inch tubes were being offered, complete with a special foot mount that dovetailed into the top of the carrying handle and secured with a downward oriented bolt through the handle top.
By the 1980s, flat-topped A2 models with detachable carrying handles appeared on the market, opening the AR world to the use of more standard optics. Today, except for a few “retro” designs which specifically include fixed carrying handle/sights, all ARs are flattops with Pic rails for optics and sights.
The most common optics choices these days, for tactical/practical AR carbines, are 1x (no magnification) red dots starting with Sig Sauer Romeo 5s and moving up to EoTechs and the like, providing quick target acquisition. Magnification can be added easily to these on the rail behind the red dot, for instance with Sig Sauer’s Juliet series, which can be flipped to the side when not needed without losing zero.
A single-tube fix for this would be to use a Low Power Variable Optic, or LPVO, which adjusts quickly from 1x on the low end to 6-, 8-, or even 10x on the higher end. Examples of good LPVOs that provide both short- and long-range solutions in one optic are the Vortex Razor Gen III or the Sig Sauer Tango 6, the latter of which has been adopted by the Army for its new Squad Designated Marksman Rifle.
Stretching things out, Pic-railed flattop ARs can use virtually any rifle scope provided it is coupled with the right mount and rings. As the cardinal sin of mounting a long-tubed optic on an AR is to split the mounts between the upper receiver and handguard– which would create a drifting zero and prove grossly inaccurate– one-piece AR mounts with a single rail base are the way to go when doing this.
Keep in mind that, when going this route, there are several scopes on the market today with a built-in bullet-drop compensator (BDC) optimized for 5.56 NATO characteristics.
Free-floating vs Fixed
Eugene Stoner’s system of using fixed plastic or fiberglass handguards around the thin, lightweight barrel of his early AR-10 designs continued for the first couple of decades of the AR-15/M16s life.
This was supplemented by two-piece handguards held in place with a cap and delta ring system and incorporated internal heat shields between the handguard and barrel to prevent melting in heavy use.
- Drop-in Handguards: So-called drop-in handguards, often with rail systems, started appearing in the early 1990s and offered a more up-to-date replacement for the old A1 and A2 style fore-ends. The problem with all of these, while they are lightweight and easily replaced if broken, is that they attach to the barrel directly, which affects accuracy, especially as accessories are mounted.
- Free-floating Handguards: More common today are free-floating handguards on the forearm, a feature seen even on AR pistols. Free floats attach to the barrel nut instead of the barrel itself and are more modular than fixed handguards, often carrying Key-Mod and M-LOK slots for accessories and Pic rails for optics at the 12-, 3-, 6-, and 9-o’clock positions. Further, since the barrel is free from the furniture, its harmonics are not affected by the handguard, aiding in maintaining accuracy.
Handguard length on AR platforms typically varies with the length of the firearm’s gas system. For instance, Pistol length is under 10-inches as AR pistols must have at least a 4-inch system, Carbine length gas systems run 7-inches, Mid-Length 9-inches, and Rifle-Length 12 inches.
This translates into M4 handguards for carbines which are 7-inches long, Mid-Lengths which are between 9 and 11-inches, and rifle length which is generally anything over 12 inches.
13. Muzzle Devices
The variety of muzzle devices on the AR series of rifles and pistols have grown and evolved over the years, moving from the basic three-prong device seen on early ArmaLites and Colts to encompass just about everything today’s user can imagine.
They can be broken down roughly into compensators, flash hiders, muzzle brakes, and suppressors. Of course, several devices check multiple boxes.
- Compensators are designed to vent leftover propellant gases upwards at the muzzle that are no longer needed to impart spin and propulsion to a just-launched bullet. The compensating action (see the reason for the name?) works to push down the muzzle during firing, curbing rise. One thing to remember when using a compensator is that these can have a “chimney” effect that the user needs to be aware of, especially when using a forward C-grip where the support hand’s thumb could work forward towards the top of the compensator.
- Flash hiders, also called flash suppressors, work sort of like a steel ice cream cone stuffed into the muzzle. With solid sides and a large, open cone facing directly outward from the muzzle, it shields the user from most of the visual flash seen during the firing process. This is especially helpful with short-barreled rifles and pistols which are notorious for spitting fireballs. On the downside, they do not curb felt recoil and, if anything, make the muzzle flash seen by others looking back towards the user more prevalent.
- Muzzle brakes typically have ported sides, horizontally to the left and right, to vent leftover propellant gases. Why? This helps with felt recoil, hence the “brake” part of the term. On the downside, brakes generate a gas blossom to the sides of the shooter which can kick up debris and dirt, especially in a prone position, and increase the firearm’s sound signature, which may not make you friends on tight, indoor shooting ranges.
- Suppressors, first patented in 1909 as a safety tool to curb the 165dB noise spike of a gunshot to a less damaging level, are great for hearing protection and can help both the user and those around them avoid permanent auditory damage and tinnitus. Besides the obvious safety benefits, they can also help with adding a little extra velocity to and accuracy on target and act as a true flash hider. On the downside, they are highly regulated, requiring a tax stamp and extensive NFA paperwork. Further, suppressors are only legal for consumer use in 42 states.
The most encountered trigger type on AR-15s is the good-old GI “Mil-Spec” pack. A single-stage trigger that can vary between 5.5 and 8.5-pounds, they have a lot of “creep” on the take-up before they break but perform well enough, are cheap, and reliable.
Most standard lower parts kits, which include everything needed to get a stripped lower receiver in working order, include a GI trigger system. While effective, they can be irritating for those who prefer a more predictable trigger break.
Drop-in preassembled replacement trigger packs can easily upgrade ARs and provide a more repeatable trigger pull, replacing creep with crisp. A good example is the CMC Single Stage, which is offered in both 2.5-pound and 3.5-pound pull weights, which can be had for around $100.
Double stage triggers have a mechanical change to the hammer, sear face, catch, and springs that creates a pull cycle that includes first a light take up to bring the catch to tension, then a clean release when the trigger breaks. These triggers are smooth and, while a little costly at about $200-$300, are worth it when precision accuracy and long-range shooting are concerned.
Another thing to keep in mind on trigger packs is the choice between more common curved triggers and flat-faced triggers. While some drop-in packs will come with flat-faced triggers installed, companies such as Bullmoose offer flat-faced replacements for curved triggers that are compatible with the Mil-Spec parts kits.
15. Build or Buy?
When it comes to the AR-15 platform, it really has evolved over the years to become the gun that, barring a simple slam fire shotgun or some sort of touch hole musket, is the easiest to construct.
Subcomponents such as the upper and lower can be bought, married to furniture and internal parts/BCG, then assembled by a person with little firearms knowledge into a working firearm in an evening at a kitchen table with few tools.
Going deeper into the weeds, for those with confidence in their ability, 80 percent lowers can be drilled out (it’s even possible to make your own receiver via 3D printing or other means), barrels can be mounted in uppers, and small parts installed in a gun owner’s garage with basic hand tools and some specialty devices such as barrel wrenches.
All this flexibility allows the hobby builder to mix and match to create a truly custom gun to fit lifestyle choices, personal preferences, or intended purposes. While commercial off-the-shelf guns can sometimes get close to scratching the same itch, depending on the chosen options you may be better off building your own and (trying to) save some coin and learn some things in the process.
Plus, the more time invested in your AR, the more it means to you, right?
On the other hand, if time is short, and for many it is, the “good enough” of a factory-made complete rifle has a straightforward appeal.
At the end of the day, although AR-15s and their cousins have a lot to offer, they do come with some strings attached.
First off, while they are firmly the most popular of the “black rifles,” this buys them the lion’s share of criticism from politicians, zealots, and low-information voters influenced by the former.
They were one of just a handful of guns regulated by name in the first “assault weapon” ban in the country, California’s Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989. With ARs perennially in the hot seat, proposed regulations targeting them at the local, state, and federal level on these are common.
Currently, seven states and the District of Columbia, along with several local jurisdictions in Illinois, have nominal bans on AR-15s in their normal configuration. For gun owners in those areas, that is a rock-solid barrier to entry in the AR game that, while it can be navigated in some circumstances by modified or “featureless” guns, is often daunting and, worse, frequently changes. What may be legal today could very well be illegal tomorrow, regardless of the concept of grandfathering.
Sure, it can be argued that such laws are always doomed to fail, but this is a factor that keeps more traditional “looking” sporting rifles such as the wood-stocked Ruger Mini-14 in steady production.
Another sore point with some is the fact that moderately-priced bolt-action guns are often more inherently accurate at distance than an AR. For instance, you can pick up a Savage Axis II in 6.5 Creedmoor— a $500 rifle– and, adding a $150 optic, make 1,000-yard shots with a basic skill set.
That’s a tough bar to meet with an AR of the same price point. In a counter to that argument, it is hard to run a bolt-gun in home defense or a 3-Gun match.
A blinking red light that turns some away from the AR world is just how massive it can seem when looking in from the outside at times. This is the 2020s.
Just two generations ago, our grandfathers had to serve in the military as part of the draft and grew up hunting and target shooting, often in school-league bullseye matches. In short, they spoke gun fluently.
Today, the primary exposure youth get to firearms is often in first-person shooter games. For adults inexperienced with “real life” firearms, trying to buy their first AR-15 is met with a dizzying array of choices from manufacturer to caliber, to size and purpose, often with just a video game knowledge to fall back on.
When you start adding options from furniture and accessories and things can get very confusing, very quick.
And let us be honest guys, a lot of online AR-15 groups and forums are not very tolerant to newcomers looking to take the plunge. Food for thought.
17. Availability issues
It’s no secret that it’s a challenge to get your hands on the AR you want these days. Between the Coronovirus pandemic, social unrest, the election of Joe Biden, people like Kyle Rittenhouse endlessly cycling through the news, a massive influx of new gun owners (the NICS reported nearly 40 million background checks in 2020 alone — a nearly 30% increase over 2019) and a bizarrely protracted ammo shortage in the U.S., it seems that everyone is sold out everywhere, all the time.
Rest assured, AR manufacturers are cranking out guns just as fast as possible. But in 2021, rather than simply plucking one off the wall, you’ll likely need to sign up for an email notification as to the stock status from the gun you want.
Have you cash handy or clearance on the credit card – because when you receive the email notification that the rifle you want is in stock you’ll need to act fast.
Such is life for gun enthusiasts in 2021.
The Best AR-15s Reviewed
1. Palmetto State Armory PA-15 (Best Value)
What we liked:
- Solid availability
- Great price point
- Lots of PSA products to choose from
- 1:7 barrel twist rate is good middle ground
What we didn't:
- There are higher quality builds available
- Not a drastic improvement over previous gen PSA ARs
A quality (and available) workhorse AR
Palmetto State’s PA-15 mil-spec AR-15 uses standard components, and pairs a 4150 Chromoly 16 inch barrel with a classic A2-style flash hider and pistol grip, carbine-length gas system and melonite finish for some throw-back goodness.
Beyond the components, PSA owns the production behind these ARs , so there’s generally always a few in stock, which is a rarity given the surge in demand for ARs (and firearms in general) over the past year.
Flaws worth noting
Our main issue with the PSA is its carbine-length gas system paired with the 16-inch barrel which tends to over-gas the gun.
Sure, you’ll be able to power through the cheapest ammo available (and given recent trends *cheap* is probably the wrong word), but we found it produced a forward (2 or 3 o’clock) ejection pattern out of the box.
Not a killer, but something that we’d like to tune out to get it humming like a Singer.
A fun, functional middle ground
The 1:7 twist rate barrel gets 62 & 77-grain ammo to the target in a tight group – but also performs well with 55 grain.
As with all classic A2 flash hiders, there are no ports on the bottom so you’ll avoid kicking up dust when firing prone.
All-in-all PSA continues to use its massive component infrastructure to deliver fun, high-quality products, and their PA-15 is no different. Sure, there are higher quality, better-designed ARs out there, but for a first AR or a 5th, we think the PSA hits the sweet spot of value and performance.
Getting rounds in on the PA-15
2. Daniel Defense DDM4 (Premium Option)
What we liked:
- Incredible build quality
- Ultimate in reliability
- Mid-length gas system makes for softer shooting
- California compliant options
What we didn't:
- Heavy trigger break
- Vertical grip
A top-tier AR if there ever was one
The company that made AR rail systems popular has been one of the best AR producers now for a generation. Their DDM4, especially the V7 series gun, uses a government profile barrel and is dripping with M-LOK slots. We’ve run Daniel Defense guns for years now, and they’ve proven their reliability time and time again.
The kind folks at Daniel Defense were kind enough to send me one of their DDM4s to spend some quality time with.
Daniel Defense is a fan of heavy phosphate coatings and hardened steel gas blocks, which gives their AR-15 rifles a one up on the competition when it comes to durability.
I’ve put a few hundred rounds through this test rifle, and it hasn’t complained once. Beyond reliably chewing though Sellier & Bellot 55 grain M193 like a champ, the DDM4 spits brass at a near-perfect 4 0’clock from the shooter. I can hear casings landing on one another behind me after a few rounds. It’s just a remarkably well-tuned rifle.
Availability... about that
Despite the current inventory & availability crunch (Daniel Defense has not been immune to limited inventory), they’re still meeting demand pretty consistently, so if you can’t find the gun of your choice in stock sign up for their newsletter alerts and before long you’ll be at the front of the line.
3. FN M4 Carbine (Lightest Weight)
What we liked:
- FN’s M4 carbines are military-grade
- Deep AR expertise
- Standard rifle of the U.S. Army
What we didn't:
- 16″ barrel is your only option
Best known for their SCAR-series rifles, FN has also been one of the biggest players when it comes to making M4/M4A1 carbines for the military for the past two decades and consistently delivers thousands on open contracts every year.
Yes, this is exact same rifle used by U.S. troops across the globe (giggle switch notwithstanding).
Their semi-auto M4 Collector Series guns, with a 16-inch, 1:7 chrome-lined barrel, is about as close as you can get to the Army’s standard rifle on the commercial market without talking to a recruiter.
4. Springfield Saint Victor (Most Innovative)
What we liked:
- Solid upgrade over base SAINT rifle
- Flat-faced trigger
- Smooth-top handguard
What we didn't:
- Tough to get your hands on one
- Lack of Picatinny rail up top
From the M1A/M14 to the AR
Cleverly taking on the old U.S. Army’s defunct Springfield Armory name in the 1960s and making a name for themselves with semi-auto M1A variants of the classic M14, Springfield Armory, Inc. has been around the block when it come to ARs.
An improvent over the base SAINT rifle
The Saint Victory builds on SA’s impressive SAINT rifle with a full-length 15″ M-Lok riddled free-floating handguard, mid-length gas system, a nickel boron coated flat-faced trigger right out of the box, and a B5 SOPMOD stock that incorporates a QD sling mount and ergo cheek weld.
5. Colt LE Carbine (Most Classic)
Something of an old-school design, it has classic rounded handguards which can put a crimp in the plans of those who want to hand a dozen accessories from their gun, but the LE6920 screams “Mil-Spec” with its 16 inch barrel, fixed front sight and Magpul MBUS BUIS.
6. LWRCI IC DI AR-15 (Premium Runner-Up)
Specializing in the black rifle game, LWRCI is seen by many as an upper-tier builder.
7. Ruger SR556 (Budget Runner-Up)
Long known just for pushing their Mini-14s and Ranch Rifles as an AR-15 alternative for the past 40 years, Ruger recently decided to grab a slice of that sweet, sweet AR pie directly with their SR556 series.
With deep pockets, well-established CNC factories, and good company philosophy, the folks of the Black Eagle have done a good job in playing catch up and the Ruger AR 556 is both decent and decently priced.
8. Sig Sauer M400 (Best Rifle & Scope Package)
While Sig will gladly sell you a high-end rifle that costs well above the $2K mark, they also make a gem known as the M400 which brings quality Sig Sauer features such as a Magpul SL-K stock, polished trigger, ambi controls and a 16-inch stainless barrel for a price point that is much more affordable for your average Joe Beercan.
9. Smith & Wesson M&P-15 Sport (Best Entry-Level AR)
Back when revolvers were the main game in handguns, Smith & Wesson never tried to put Colt underwater by over-building their guns, but they did offer wheel guns that brought 99% of what Colt did to the table and for less money.
About a decade ago they applied the same concept to the AR-15 by bringing their M&P15 line to market. Priced affordably, they hit all the high points you look for in a basic AR.
10. Windham CDI (Also Great)
Rising from the ashes of Bushmaster, Windham Weaponry builds great ARs and their CDI gun is no exception.
Using a 11595E steel barrel with a 1:9 twist, a free-floating M-LOK aluminum rail system, adjustable stock and Magpul furniture, they are ready to go right out of the box.
Value Brands (> $1,000)
- Palmetto State Armory
- Rock River Arms
Middle-Tier (> $2,000)
- Aero Precision
- Sig Sauer
- Smith & Wesson
Premium (< $2,000)
- Bravo Company
- Daniel Defense
- Lewis Machine & Tool
Getting into the world of AR-15s can be intimidating, especially when your looking for your first AR or if you start down the long road of building your own from an AR build kit (which, depending on where you live, may save you a decent amount of change — we’ve heard horror stores of up to an 11% tax on long-guns. And you thought ammo was getting expensive!)
In the end, when choosing an AR-15, do your homework and make sure your rifle is designed for your needs – be it a big game hunting rifle, long-range precision, close-quarters work, or something in between. Buy a complete rifle, make it a good one – then get another!
- NRA Museum, Colt AR-15 Rifle
- National Park Service, U.S. SUBMACHINE GUN XM177 “COMMANDO”
- NRA Museum, Guns of Vietnam and Desert Storm
- Defense Standardization Program, FAQs
- Accurate Shooter, Barrel Rifling Process
- Nathan Schueth, 4150 Carbon vs 416-R Steel
- Otai Steel, 9310 steel vs 8620
- Stag Arms Blog, Commercial vs. Mil-Spec Buttstocks
- Peter Luff, Troops in Afghanistan get new lightweight rifle magazines
- Howard Precision, Difference Between 6061 and 7075 Aluminum
- FBI.gov, NICS Background Checks By Month/Year
- Wikipedia, Ammo Shortage in the U.S.
- NPR, Kyle Rittenhouse Trial In Kenosha Killings Delayed Until November
- NRA Blog, How to Pick the Right Round For Your AR-15 Barrel
- SADJ, Barrel Length Studies in 5.56 NATO Weapons
- Ballistics by the Inch, 5.56 Ballistics by Barrel Length
- KAK Industry, 4.75″ AR Barrel
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