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. It’s my go-to rifle for almost any shooting activity home; defense, distance shooting — you name it.
Both 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.
In this Article:
Here is my list of the best AR-15 rifle options for 2021. I’ve listed all 21 best choices in terms of value, performance, reliability, and cost.
Click on the name to head straight to the product page and check prices or skip ahead to read the entire list.
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 the 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. It 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 are 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 work.
Said baseline specification is typically 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, 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 through cleaning and repair.
Current standards for the M4 are generally considered 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 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 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
ARs range from 10-inch shorter barrels seen on AR pistols and SBRs to 24-inch long toms on some custom precision guns when it comes to barrel profiles.
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 an 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 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 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 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. I 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 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. It is a little cheaper than manganese-phosphate 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. Still, 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 more efficient, 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. It 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 the 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. In contrast, DI systems are common and universal to the type as long as the same gas system length is retained and is 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, then 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 various 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.
These days, the most common optics choices for tactical/practical AR carbines are 1x (no magnification) red dots starting with Holosun’s 510c or 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 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 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. While they are lightweight and easily replaced if broken, the problem with all of these 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 why the name?) works to push down the muzzle during firing, curbing rise. When using a compensator, one thing to remember 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 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 add 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 I 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, I think the PSA hits the sweet spot of value and performance.
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 which you can read more about in our DDM4 V7 review.
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 improvement 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.
11. Rock River Arms
Colona, Illinois Rock River Arms has been making budget-friendly ARs for years, and their LAR-15 is a sub-$1,000 AR that’s at home hitting steel or taking down prairie dogs. The RRA LAR-15 comes with a 16-inch Chrome Molybdenum Steel barrel capped with a classic A2 style birdcage flash hider.
The forged A4 style upper receiver pairs nicely with the RRA lower, and overall the package represents a solid budget AR. I like the inclusion of the Hogue pistol grip and the bayonet lug, really keeping the classic M4 feel.
I don’t love (but are decidedly common on entry-level ARs, let’s be honest) are the drop-in handguards – which don’t have any kind of a rail system and the lack of an iron sight in the package. The RRA stock is also bare-bones, but some guys like it that way. I would have appreciated more of a comb to nail the cheek weld, but c’est la vie. Overall the LAR-15 gives you a good idea of what a well-built budget AR can look like, perhaps without some of the bells and whistles that come on pricier models.
12. Stag Arms
Stag Arms budget-friendly AR, the Stag 15 AR-15 includes a 16-inch 1-7 twist barrel with a chrome lining and a Manganese Phosphate coating, capped with an A2 style birdcage. The receiver is forged 7075 T6 aluminum and hard anodized, making it light, durable, and on par with much more expensive ARs in the receiver department.
One thing that I really liked was the removable carry handle — which enables you to either use the A2 iron sights, which many folks like or swap out the carry handle for an optic and co-witness the FSB via the flat-top upper Picatinny. The drop-in handguards aren’t anything to write home about (I would prefer an M-LOK rail and a full-length Picatinny), but this is a solid choice for a mid-range rifle and notably includes Stag’s Infinite Shot Guarantee.
This warranty guarantees the barrel for the rifle’s life, covering not only the barrel replacement but shipping both ways. Plus — the warranty is transferable, which is hard to beat.
13. Anderson Manufacturing
Kentucky’s Anderson Manufacturing — lovingly referred to as the “Poverty Pony” in AR circles — is well known for lowers that cost less than a dinner for two. Still, their complete rifles are also solid performers. They manufacture all their components in Hebron, Kentucky, which helps them pass the savings onto you.
Their AM-15 is a fantastic budget AR with a 16-inch 4150 Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium Steel barrel that ends in an A2 style flash hider.
Despite what many folks would consider a “low expectation” rifle, the AM-15 runs a forged aluminum receiver that has been anodized, and the 1-8 twist barrel is parkerized, making for a gun that will hold up well over time. Some of the more subjective aspects — like charging handle feel — aren’t as polished as more high-end guns, but the Anderson is a reliable firearm that may very well win you over in time.
This rifle is a great choice for those who already have an optic picked out, as it includes a flat-top rail on the upper.
One thing I would like to see is some FSB, as the AM-15 does not have a front sight, but if you’re running an optics, it’ll do the trick. Also, the drop-in handguard does not have accessory rails, a common reality with sub-$700 ARs.
14. Aero Precision
Aero Precision almost certainly has the most receivers in circulation, and Enhanced Series Upper Receiver is incredibly popular. Their complete rifles are just as reliable and impressive.
This Aero M4E1 is chambered in .223 Wylde, which gives you the option of running 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem. The 16-inch barrel has been bead blasted and is made from 416 stainless steel, and when paired with the low profile gas block and a mid-length gas system, runs as smooth as rifles costing considerably more. It’s a fun rifle to shoot.
The receiver is Aero’s Gen 2 lower, which boasts a flared magazine well and has a tension screw to keep the play out of the upper and the lower. I would have preferred the inclusion of iron sights and– given the flexibility of the .223 Wylde to shoot the longer-ranged .223 Remington — a muzzle brake of some kind, as the A2 feels out of place with the rest of the rifle’s build quality.
The addition of the Magpul STR Stock is great, as you get both a comfortable comb angle and storage for things like batteries to keep your optics running.
The M4E1 is set up to be a perforant hunting rifle, so a scope on top of the ample Picatinny rail would be more appropriate. The lightweight M-LOK handguard keeps weight down while providing room for all the accessories you could want to take into the field.
Israeli Weapons Industries (IWI) is no stranger to doing things their own way. From the space gun Tavor TS12, to the bullpup X95, Tavor 7, and “Hebrew Hammer” Galil Ace — IWI has a tendency to bring unique guns to market.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the Zion 15 is that it’s decidedly familiar — both in that it’s the first IWI firearm to be built and produced in their Middletown PA HQ, and that it’s decidedly mil-spec — you can use all your classic AR accessories or components. It’s a classic AR that has a lot to offer and IWI’s record of producing military-grade firearms means the Zion is built on a proven lineage.
That said, this isn’t just “another AR” — IWI packs a lot into an $800 rifle. The Zion uses a 16-inch 4150 Chrome Moly Vanadium HB steel barrel that’s made by long-distance experts Bergara. One of the major pluses to this rifle is the barrel profile, which they call the SOCOM profile — slightly heavier than a standard M4 barrel — which will aid in heat dissipation. The inclusion of the mid-length gas system softens the recoil nicely, ensuring the longevity of both the rifle and your shoulder.
I would have loved to see basic irons included but this is an excellent rifle — and who doesn’t have a spare set of BUIS sitting around?
16. Diamondback Firearms
This year’s Diamondback’s DB15 has been totally redesigned, and if you simply add up the price of the components they incorporated into the new gun it’s easy to see how much value they packed into their new AR.
The inclusion of the 1-8 twist 16-inch 4140 Chrome Molybdenum Steel barrel, forged 7075 T6 aluminum upper and lower both cerakoted in flat dark earth, an adjustable Adaptive Tactical EX Performance stock, and one of the most aggressive muzzle brakes I’ve seen on a factory rifle in years, it’s easy to see that Diamondback aimed this rifle squarely at those of us who want to spend around $1,000 on an AR without the need to upgrade it. The new DB15 does that in spades.
Many AR enthusiasts are happy to spend $700-$800 on a base gun, and slowly add better components over time to build or customize the rifle. That’s not something you’ll need to do with this gun — you buy it from the factory with all the bells and whistles you want.
17. Wilson Combat
Wilson Combat’s Recon Tactical is a bit of a sleeper in the AR world. It’s been around for a few years and doesn’t get the press of newer, shinier kit. That said, those who own this rifle swear by it. It’s accurate, reliable, and light – at just over 6.75 lbs.
One thing it’s not is cheap — coming in at about $2,400 for the fluted barrel version.
This rifle comes in two barrel lengths, 16 and 18-inches, both of them 1-8 twist Wilson Combat match barrel, and topped with a Wilson custom muzzle brake.
Both receivers are machined from solid billets of aluminum that come in a hardy anodized finish, which continues on the anodized handguards. This model comes with a custom stock and pistol grip, making it an excellent fighting rifle that looks to match. I would have liked to see a threaded muzzle device for adding a can, but this is a proven rifle that will serve you for years straight out of the box.
18. Bravo Company Mfg
BCM is an incredibly well-respected brand amongst AR fans, and the RECCE-16 builds on what made BCM so popular. They make all of the components — from the barrel to the BCG to the furniture and uppers — and most importantly, they provide the specifications and details behind these rifles.
It can be difficult to know what exactly an AR’s components are composed of, as details can often be in short supply. Not so with BCM — you know what you’re getting. They’re proud of what they build, and it shows in their work.
On top of that, BCM is a government contractor — they make fighting rifles for people who stake their lives on them, so they have some of the highest standards in the industry. Whatever rifle you’re looking for, the qualities & functionality the RECCE-16 puts on the table should inform what you look for in any rifle. It’s that good.
Not only does the 16-inch 11595E Certified Steel barrel give you the accuracy you’d want, but the KMR handguard is surprisingly thin — in a good way — that keeps weight to a minimum while giving you the rigidity you need up front. It’s locked to the receiver with a unique BCM locking system, designed to respect barrel harmonics while giving you all the room for accessories you could want. The black anodized receivers are forged from 7075-T6 aluminum and are built to last through hard use.
We’d have loved if BCM threw some irons in the box with it, but chances are if you’re buying this rifle with great features and furniture, you already have a preferred optic you plan to use
It’s certainly possible that you’ve never heard of Grant’s Pass, Oregon’s Noveske, but they have been a premium AR maker for longer than most new shooters have been on the planet, and they were the first to truly uproot Colt as the premium name in the AR game. They don’t have an assembly line — their rifles are hand-fit by passionate gun builders, who both shoot and know rifles better than you or I could ever hope to. They’re a small shop that has had an outsized impact in the black rifle world, which tragically lost their founder John Noveske in 2013 but continues to carry the torch without compromise.
The Light RECCE Gen III uses a RECCE-appropriate 16.1-inch 1-7 twist, chrome-lined proprietary barrel made in Oregon from the same steel that the military uses for M249 barrels, so it’ll deal with whatever abuse you throw at it.
At the end of that barrel is a threaded cherry bomb muzzle device that’ll make it easy to quiet the rifle down with your favorite can.
Both the upper and lower receivers are Novekse’s proprietary designs and are some of the best-loved in the industry.
This model comes with built-in iron sights, which I love. One thing I’d swap out is the A2 style pistol grip – -I prefer something meatier in hand, and it doesn’t fit with the quality found elsewhere on the gun. Personal preference more than anything: this is an excellent rifle.
20. Barrett Firearms
Barrett likes to make awesome guns — and they’re constantly reworking their rifles to make them better and better. The REC7 is no different. The latest model, the REC7 DI, or Direct Impingement, shaved off 4 ounces off the previous model with a reworked handguard (which Barrett makes in house.)
It sports a 16-inch chrome-lined 1-7 twist barrel, and long gone is the A2 flash hider from the previous REC7, replaced with which ends in a 3 prong flash hider. The machined 7075-Tc aluminum receivers are light and good-looking in their bronze cerakote, gray, or black.
I love that this rifle comes not only with sights, but high-end Magpul furniture, replacing the A2-style pistol grip of the previous iteration. Barrett has really built a complete package with the REC7. I would have liked to see better suppressor compatibility, especially considering the REC7 is available in .300 Blackout, but this is still a truly outstanding AR.
21. Black Rain Ordnance
This well-made rifle from Black Rain comes with a 16-inch 4150 Chrome Molybdenum Steel barrel, which is partially fluted toward the front and terminates in an A2 style birdcage.
One of the real surprises with SSP is what Black Rain calls their SLM handguard, which has a nice, narrow profile and is incredibly easy to point. It also sports two rail sections on the upper and end of the handguard, making the central portion of the rail even smaller and easier to handle.
The receiver, made from forged aluminum, comes in either anodized or cerakote, depending on what you would like, and is kitted in Magpul furniture. Another selling point on these is the in-house trigger, which pulls at about 3.5 lb and is super clean.
I’d have loved if the barrel was fully fluted (the bottom portion is a lighter profile to save weight — some guys may hold that against the SSP) but it’s about 7.75 lbs with scope and mag, so the weight savings is certainly there.
In 1955 the Army was looking to replace its long-in-the-tooth service rifle, the M1 Garand, and were considering two alternative options – the Springfield T-44, which was little more than an updated version of the Garand, and the T-48 – version of the 7.62×51 mm FN FAL.
ArmaLite, a subsidiary of the Fairchild Aircraft Company, produced a candidate rifle for consideration, with executive presidents Paul S. Cleveland and Richard S. Boutelle exploring innovative new ways to use the technology brought about by the aviation industry to create firearms.
Their initial goal was to focus on creating sporting rifles for the commercial market with the hopes of catching the interest of the military leaders to generate DOD business. Still, shortly after establishing the company, Armalite was invited by the U.S. Air Force to submit a rifle design to replace their survival rifle, which won the favor of Air Force top brass and ultimately became the MA-1 Survival Rifle.
The success of their work with the military prompted Armalite to abandon the commercial market and instead build guns for Uncle Sam.
Stoner’s Modular AR-10
The company’s top firearm designer, Eugene Stoner, worked with George Sullivan – both an Armalite founder and a chief patent counsel for Lockheed (who was also a life-long tinkerer working on some of his ideas in his own garage) and Chares Dorchester, one-half of Armalite’s founding duo, to create a 7.62 NATO-caliber battle rifle for an Army small arms test, the AR-10 (ArmaLite Rifle Model 10 – “Armalite Rifle” being the “AR” in “AR-15” – not “Assault Rifle” as is often erroneously claimed.)
This new design used a two-piece aluminum receiver, the latest technological advancements in plastics and alloys, and an action that incorporated a direct impingement gas system rather than some sort of piston.
It was also decidedly light at just under 7 pounds when empty.
The receiver could be made from lightweight aluminum because it locked into a steel extension that attached the barrel rather than directly to the receiver itself. Furniture was also crafted from futuristic plastics rather than the solid wood grips and forends that marched through the trenches of multiple World Wars.
The AR-15 Rises from the Ashes
While in the end, the AR-10 wasn’t adopted after those early tests — few were a fan of the charging handle design, and the Army elected to go with a more traditional design that was developed by the military in-house — Stoner’s direct impingement gas block 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.
The Different Types of ARs
1963: Enter the M-16
The rifle known today as the AR-15 has gone through a number of iterations over the years, starting with Eugene Stoner’s original AR-10, the patents and rights to which were purchased from ArmaLite by Colt in 1959. Eventually the U.S. Air Force became interested in the futuristic lightweight carbine and began buying a select-fire version of the rifle by 1961, a move the Army and Marines soon followed, with their AR-15 version of the gun later designated as the M16 in 1963.
Design features of a traditional M-16 include (from muzzle to buttstock) a three-pronged flash hider, 20-inch slim-profile barrel, extended handguards, a rifle-length gas tube & buffer tube, as all as that classic fixed stock.
1966: Enter the Consumer AR-15
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.
1992: Enter the M4
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.
All these versions of the AR shared a common purpose — improve on the original design. An M4 configuration is shorter than a standard M-16 (technically an A2 configuration with a shorter handguard, shortened barrel, and relocated gas block) and builds on the XM177 and CAR-15 rifles that looked to pack more mobility and capability into the M-16 chassis.
Likewise, the AR-15s of today have morphed away from the original 1960s bench line to keep up with the times, many incorporating a variety of M4 features.
M4 design features include the now-standard birdcage flash hider, 14.5-inch barrel, shortened handguards with rail support, improved feed ramps, flat-top receiver, and an adjustable length, six-position stock.
Why the AR-15 Today?
By its nature, the AR-15 is lightweight and modular.
The military has fielded 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.
Changing from a compact pencil 16-inch barrel to another with a 20-inch HBAR will take under a minute, and you can easily change out buttstocks, pistol 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”.
One Lower to Rule Them All
Couple this modularity with the fact only the lower receiver is serialized and you can build many ARs from a single lower without any additional paperwork. You
Building an AR to match your needs – either a personal defense pistol in .300 Blackout and paired with a red dot sight, .223 Wylie rifle, or long-range upper like the .224 Valk to bring out the potential in your big game hunting, AR-15 rifles give you a platform that can get it all done.
This has had the side benefit of allowing owners whose guns are “banned” under 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.
With the slate of aftermarket support, you can take your AR in whatever direction you want when it comes to colors, accessories. and overall configuration.
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.
This tremendous market means there are many fantastic manufacturers creating niche products designed for every need – everything from small brands knocking out updated mag releases to Magpul’s military-embraced furniture, there’s a product out there for every need.
Added to this are AR-15 and AR-9 style pistols, which are all just branches of the family that are increasingly in demand and generating new product innovations on the daily.
More than 5 Forges
A popular trope among the AR-15 community, as the market has exploded in the past 15 years and now includes dozens of top AR-15 companies 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 – even the best AR-15s are 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 finished AR-15s.
The saying is that “all the AR receiver blanks come from just five forges,” setting up a strawman argument that all AR-15 upper and lower receivers are fundamentally the same when it boils down to it.
Brands & Manufacturers Add Value
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 for quality producers like Aero Precision, River Rock Arms or Bravo Company to move from the basic aluminum blank to a finished product.
Each gun maker utilizes its 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. We cover buffer tube kits and adjustable gas blocks if you’re into gunsmithing.
Compared to precision bolt guns or collector pieces like Al Capone’s favorite .45 Auto, an AR is, in general decidedly affordable. Entry-level options will often cost less than $700 and generally keep under the $1,000 price point, and for that level of investment, you’ll get a perfectly functional AR often with MOE furniture and some solid BUIS.
Moving into the middle-tier gets you into the sub-$2,000 range, which often includes lighter materials, more custom furniture, and one or two bonus features.
Spending more than $2,000 will get you a premium AR that often includes piston-driven systems which run cleaner and cooler than a standard DI system.
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
How we selected these products
When reviewing guns or gear, we get our hands on as many products as possible, but there are times when certain products or categories are a real challenge — be it availability, cost, or simply a lack of resources — we can get stymied going hands-on with all the potential candidates. Plus, the AR category is massive, so rather than present a never-ending list of all the ARs on the planet we selected those which we felt best represent the price points laid out above — giving you a solid representational list to serve as a jumping-off point for your own research (you are going to do you own research, right?)
To avoid disappointment or steering you in the wrong direction, we bolster our own experience with conversations with experts, comb through reviews on retailer sites & sales data, review industry publications, other blogs, and otherwise surface the best information available.
We aim for all thriller, no filler, as they say.
Given the size and scope of the AR world, finding the best AR-15 for you can be intimidating, especially when you’re looking for your first AR or starting 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, whenever one of my friends wants recommendations for choosing an AR-15, I always recommend doing your homework and making 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. I recommend buying a complete rifle, make sure it’s 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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