The Best AR-15 Rifles

Who makes the best AR-15 rifle?

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. Here are a few of the better ones floating around.

Quick List: The Top AR-15 Rifles for Any Shooter

Palmetto State Armory PA-15

Palmetto State’s PA-15 mil-spec AR-15 uses standard components, and pairs a 4150 Chromoly 16” barrel with a classic A2-style flash hider and melonite finish for some throw-back goodness.

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. All-in-all PSA continues to use its massive component infrastructure to deliver fun, high-quality products, and their PA-15 is no different.

Colt’s baseline M4 series gun, the LE2920 is one of the most encountered rifles in the trunk of police cars from coast-to-coast.

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.”

Daniel Defense DDM4

The company that made AR rail systems popular has been an all-up AR maker now for a generation. Their DDM4, especially the V7 series gun, uses a government profile barrel and is dripping with M-LOK slots.

Daniel Defense is a fan of heavy phosphate coatings and hardened steel gas blocks, which gives their guns a one up on the competition when it comes to durability.

Best AR-15s - DDM4 Close Up
Up close and personal with the DDM4

FN M4

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.

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.

Best Ar-15s - FN M4 Carbine
The author's personal FN M4 rifle

LWRCI

Specializing in the black rifle game, LWRCI is seen by many as an upper-tier builder.

Their IC DI series guns cost a bit more than some of the competitors but the build-quality, to include fluted spiral barrels with free-floating rails, is hard to beat.

Ruger SR556

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 their ARs are both decent and decently priced.

Sig Sauer M400

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 features such as a Magpul SL-K stock, polished trigger, ambi controls and a 16-inch stainless barrel for a price that is much more affordable.

Smith & Wesson M&P-15 Sport

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.

Windham CDI

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, and Magpul furniture, they are ready to go right out of the box.

History of the AR-15

In the 1950s, ArmaLite, a subsidiary of the Fairchild Aircraft Company, was exploring innovative new ways to use the technology brought about by the aviation industry to create firearms.

The company’s top firearm designer, Eugene Stoner, created a 7.62 NATO-caliber battle rifle for an Army small arms test, the AR-10 (ArmaLite Rifle Model 10), which used a two-piece aluminum receiver and an action which incorporated a direct impingement gas system rather than some sort of piston.

While in the end, the AR-10 wasn’t adopted after those early tests– as the Army electing to go with a more traditional design that was developed by the military in-house– Stoner’s design was soon modified and scaled-down by ArmaLite engineers Robert Fremont and Jim Sullivan to use a 5.56mm NATO round and the AR-15 was born.

Best Ar-15s - AR-15 from 1962
This early Colt AR-15 model was tested by the U.S. Army in 1962. The service eventually adopted the carbine as the M-16

With the patents and rights to the new gun purchased from ArmaLite by Colt, the U.S. Air Force became interested in the futuristic lightweight carbine and began buying a select-fire model of the AR-15 by 1961, a move the Army and Marines soon followed, with the gun later designated as the M16 by 1963.

Soon after, the rifle entered the consumer market as early as 1966 with Colt selling it as the semi-automatic AR-15 Sporter, which cost $194 when first introduced, a figure that adjusts to $1,500 in today’s dollars.

Best AR-15s - Colt's 1966 consumer ad
Colt Firearms debuted the AR-15 on the consumer market in 1966, a model later referred to as the SP-1. Colt still makes select-fire variants for law enforcement and military use as well as semi-auto ARs for the consumer market.

Since the gun’s debut during the Vietnam War, the military has gone through several generations of Mr. Stoner’s carbine, moving to the M16A1, XM177E1, M16A2, CAR-15, M16A4, M4, and M4A1, among others.

Likewise, today’s AR-15 has morphed away from its original 1960s bench line to keep up with the times.

Why the AR-15 Today?

By its nature, the AR-15 is lightweight and modular. Just as the military was soon fielding various models of the platform over the years in both shortened “Commando” varieties as well as heavy-barreled rifles geared for precision marksmanship at longer ranges, then dropped the carry handle for a flat-top to accommodate optics and added accessory rails along the handguard for everything else, the consumer “black rifle” market and evolved side-by-side. 

The modularity of swappable AR-15 parts (like being able to swap out entire upper receivers for different roles and at different price points) – such as moving from one with a compact pencil 16-inch barrel to another with a 20-inch HBAR in under a minute – coupled with the ability to easily change out buttstocks, grips, and handguards with no more assistance or prior experience needed than a YouTube video, has made the AR-15 the equivalent of “legos for grown-ups”. 

This has had the side benefit of allowing owners whose guns are “banned” under oppressive state gun laws to modify their AR to a compliant or “featureless” format that is still legal with little more than some research into basic AR-15 reviews or what AR 15 buying entails.

Today it is estimated that more than 18 million such modern sporting rifles are in circulation among America’s gun owners, a figure that is perhaps underestimated but nonetheless points to how popular the AR platform has become. Added to this are AR-15 and AR-9 style pistols, which are all just branches of the family that are increasingly in demand.

5 Forges!

Best AR-15s - The splintered _A_ forge mark seen on this FN M4 upper receiver
The splintered "A" forge mark seen on this FN M4 upper receiver shows that the raw component was made by Anchor Harvey Aluminum, a popular forging company that is widely used in the firearms industry by gun makers large and small. It is, however, still an FN upper as the latter company machined and finished it into final production.

A popular trope among the AR-15 community, as the market has exploded in the past 15 years and now includes dozens of big-name AR-15 manufacturers along with scores of smaller ones, is that deep down inside, all the rifles have the same heart. There is no “best budget AR-15” out there – they’re all cut from the same aluminum cloth, so to speak.

This is because most manufacturers take pre-made aluminum forgings and, after milling them out to finished upper and lower receivers, add barrels, internal parts, and furniture to produce a finished AR. The saying is that “all the AR receiver blanks come from just five forges,” setting up a strawman argument that all AR-15s are fundamentally the same when it boils down to it.

Best AR-15s - Unfinished AR lower and upper forgings
Unfinished AR lower and upper forgings

This is wrong in several ways, as there dozens of forges– not “just five” although some forges do produce blanks for numerous AR makers at the same time– and it takes a good bit of work to move from the basic aluminum blank to a finished product with each gun maker utilizing their own engineering specs and practices, finishing and QC methods to craft a final product.

This tooling, such as making sure the bolt carrier group is open enough, the threads for the receiver extension/buffer tube are square, the lugs and pivot holes are within spec, and that flashing is cut away properly, is what makes a good receiver.

The fundamental thing to look for on a receiver is not the forge marks but the construction, with 7075 aluminum being stronger than 6061 aluminum, and in the quality of the finished product.

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.

Mil-Spec is Mil-Spec, Bro

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. 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 by companies such as CMC, which are standard with some builds, break as low as 2-pounds.

Barrel selection

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.

Rifling in the U.S. is measured in the number of inches it takes to fully rotate a bullet moving down the barrel, thus a 1:10 twist rate means that it takes 10 inches of barrel to impart a full spin of the projectile.

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 gives a better life than and is about the best all-around 55- through 77-grain.

Best AR-15s - This lead lapped, 1_7 416R stainless steel barrel
This lead lapped, 1:7 416R stainless steel barrel is ideal for use with 77-grain ammo.

When it comes to barrel profiles, ARs range from 10-inch stubbies seen on pistols and SBRs to 24-inch long toms on some custom precision guns and have weights that run from thin “pencil” types to heavy bull target barrels, with a sweet spot of around 16-inches being the norm.

This is a good example of the modularity that makes the AR-15 so great. 

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.

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.

Bolt Carrier Groups (BCGs)

Best AR-15s - Bolt Carrier Group
A Bolt Carrier Group

Perhaps the most important part of the AR platform when it comes to performance and reliability is the construction of the Bolt Carrier Group or BCG. As with many things black rifle, there are dozens of companies that spend big money developing the next, greatest BCG and will let you know all about it.

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.

Gas systems & steel cases

The mystery of making Eugene Stoner’s original DGI 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. 

In a nutshell, an under-gassed 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 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.

Commercial systems are often a bit over-gassed which gets a lot of grouching in online gun forums but is something that is needed to help blast out cheap Russian-made steel-cased cartridges (Wolf or Tula et.al) or ensure cycling even in the face of poorly maintained ARs 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, 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.

Conclusion

Getting into the world of ARs can be intimidating, but – in the end – when choosing an AR-15, just do your homework and get a good one. Then get another!

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MICHAEL CRITES is el jefe around here. He writes about guns and gear.

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