Best AR-15 Buyer’s Guide 2017: How to Choose Your First AR-15

There’s a perfect AR-15 out there for you and we’ll help you find it.

By the time you’re done with this guide, you’ll know everything about how the AR-15 works and how different configurations affect performance.

And that’s how you’ll find the best AR-15 for your specific needs.  And of course, we’ll have some specific recommendations on brands and models based on our own experiences.

Aero Precision AR-15 Variant
Aero Precision AR-15 Variant

*UPDATED* 2017: New companies, left-handed models, and featureless models.

Want a sneak peak?

Here’s our best AR-15 rifles list across all budgets:

  • Daniel Defense: DDM4 V3, DDM3 VV5, DDMA1
  • Bravo Company: Mod 0, Mod 2, Recce 14/16
  • LaRue: PredatAR
  • Colt: LE6920
  • Smith & Wesson: M&P 15
  • Aero Precision: AC-15M

We’ll cover them soon…so what are you waiting for?  Let’s get this rolling!

Why the AR-15?

Typical AR-15
Typical AR-15

The AR-15 is one of the most popular sporting rifles for many reasons.  Here’s what we think are the top three:

1. Used by the US Military

Special Forces Beard Guy
Special Forces Beard Guy

Or rather, it looks like the M4’s and M16’s used by the US military.

The civilian AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle compared to the automatic/select fire capabilities of the military versions.

That means one press of the trigger is a single PEW! instead of a fully-automatic where a single press of the trigger will be a continuous stream of PEW! PEW! PEW! until you let go.

Admit it, there’s a little coolness factor in holding the symbol of America’s might.

2. Shootability

AR15 Parts Diagram
AR-15 Parts Diagram

The AR-15 is very light recoiling when chambered in its native 5.56x45mm round.  And is also very ergonomic when compared to other popular rifles such as the AK-47.

3. Modular Design

The AR-15 consists primarily of two large segments, the lower receiver and the upper receiver, which can be swapped out in a matter of seconds.

AR-15 Lower Receiver
AR-15 Lower Receiver
Larue Upper Receivers
Larue Upper Receivers

The AR-15 can fulfill roles such from a long range precision rifle to a close quarters combat (CQB) carbine by just switching out the “upper” and mating it with the “lower.”

Only the lower is the serialized firearm so with one lower you can have several uppers to fulfill any role without additional paperwork.

5.56 vs .50 Beowulf
5.56 vs .50 Beowulf

The lower holds the trigger mechanism and for the most part, you can swap out the upper for even different calibers, from the .22LR to the .50 Beowulf.

Mall Ninja AR-15
Mall Ninja AR-15

There’s also tons of aftermarket products to customize the look, feel, and performance of your AR-15 to match your personality and intended use.

However, there’s a prevailing stigma (especially online) of putting too much possibly unnecessary stuff on your gun, and making you a “mall ninja” or being too “tacticool.”

In my opinion, it’s your gun and your money, so do what you want to do as long as it’s still safe and legal.  But…the above AR might have gone a little overboard!

Still with me?

AR-15 History

Origin

More Common Bullet Calibers
More Common Bullet Calibers

Eugene Stoner developed the AR-15 as a lightweight 5.56x45mm version of the 7.62x51mm AR-10 while working at Armalite during the 1950s.  The lighter bullet enabled infantrymen to carry more rounds.  And that’s always a good thing!

Naming Conventions

M16 Vietnam
M16 Vietnam

In 1959, Armalite sold the AR-10 and AR-15 rights to Colt.  The “AR” actually stands for “Armalite” and not the common misconception of “Assault Rifle.”  After some tweaks, Colt introduced the M16 which was select fire (automatic) and mostly had a 20″ barrel.

M4 Carbine
M4 Carbine

The M4 came about in the 90’s and had a 14.5″ barrel with a carbine gas system.  Carbine just means that it has a shorter barrel than the rifle version and can either be pronounced “car-BEAN” or “car-BYNE,” but my preference is for the bean version.

The AR-15 is the civilian semi-automatic version of the select fire M4.  1 press = 1 PEW!

Colt owns the rights to “AR15” and “AR-15,” so most other manufacturers have slightly different names, but the general public still refers to the general pattern as AR-15’s.

Now, one big question coming up…

AR-15: Build or Buy?

For a first AR-15, we would heavily suggest buying a complete rifle from a reputable manufacturer.  Or at the very least, get a complete upper (Guide to Best Uppers) and build your own lower.

It eliminates a lot of possible headaches by having a solid warranty behind your gun.  Plus, if you’re just starting off, you probably don’t know what you like/want, so I recommend just just going with a standard configuration.

A factory gun doesn’t cost that much more than building your own (and nowadays it’s likely less), and you’ll get a much better resale value if you ever decide to part ways (or upgrade).

AR-15 Build Your Own Kit
AR-15 Build Your Own Kit

However, there’s something very satisfying about building your own “franken-gun” or “M4-gery,” but we recommend doing it for a 2nd or 3rd AR-15.  It’s not terribly difficult (I think of it as adult Legos) and you’ll get to choose every component in your gun.

But we think you’ll make better decisions after spending time with a factory gun first.

If you’re curious, check out our How to Build an AR-15 Lower Receiver and Upper Receiver articles just to see your future.

Next we dive into the various parts of the AR-15 before putting it all together and recommending specific combinations based on your intended use.

Barrels

We begin the breakdown of the AR-15 system by covering the various characteristics of barrels (the thing that bullets come out of).

Still with me?  Now the real fun is going to start!

Barrel Chambering

AR-15 Chamber
AR-15 Chamber

The barrel chamber means the part of the barrel where the cartridge sits before firing (ie, what ammo it can shoot).

Since this is a beginners’ guide, we’ll focus on the most common 5.56x45mm NATO and .223 Remington.  There’s tons of other chamberings from .22LR to .50 Beowulf, and a slew of new .30 caliber offerings.

The 5.56 is the more common choice compared to .223 for home defense and general plinking since it gives “looser” tolerances and can withstand the higher pressures of the 5.56 round.

Here are some general safety guidelines for using different cartridges in different barrels:

  • With a 5.56 barrel, you can shoot BOTH 5.56 and .223
  • With a .223 barrel, you can ONLY shoot .223
  • Hybrid chambers such as Wylde are for specific precision purposes but can shoot both

Barrel Length

AR-15 Different Barrel Lengths
AR-15 Different Barrel Lengths

Federal law states that the minimum barrel length of a rifle must be at least 16″.  This includes muzzle devices, such as flash hiders, muzzle brakes, or compensators.  However, if the device is to be included in the length, it must be permanently attached.

For example, you can have a 14.5″ barrel and pin/weld a muzzle device at least 1.5″ long to make it compliant.  Please note, there are some state/local laws that might govern the types of devices allowed, and even having a 14.5″ barrel might be illegal without appropriate paperwork.

Therefore, we recommend beginners get at least a 16″ barrel so they can switch out muzzle devices to their liking.  Most common lengths include 16″, 18″ and 20″.

So which one do you choose?

AR-15 Barrel Length Velocity, SA Defense
AR-15 Barrel Length Velocity, SA Defense

Having a longer barrel doesn’t necessarily mean more accuracy.  You can get plenty of accuracy out of 16″ since it is shorter, and therefore stiffer and less susceptible to barrel whip (movement of the barrel during shooting).

However, a longer barrel gives you higher velocity since there’s more room for all the powder to burn.  And faster moving bullets gives the environment less time to affect the trajectory of the bullet.

The average 16″ barrel is good for up to 400 yards, but after 300 yards, the standard 55gr projectile becomes more susceptible to environmental factors.  For longer distance, you would want a heavier and longer projectile such as 62gr, 77gr, or 80gr bullets.

Lastly, there’s also the issue of portability…shorter barrels are easier to move and weigh less.

So many things to think about!

Barrel Twist Rate

Cannon Rifling
Cannon Rifling

Another number you’ll see when looking at barrels is the twist rate of the rifling.

This is denoted as 1 x number (1×9) which means “one twist per 9 inches”.  In general, the longer a projectile, the faster the twist is needed (a smaller number in the twist since that means one turn happens in a shorter length).

Below is a great chart to show you the ideal bullet weight for the twist of a barrel.

Bullet Weight vs Twist, Shooters Log
Ideal Bullet Weight for Twist, Shooters Log

The most common AR-15 twist rate is 1:9 since 55gr is the most commercially available while the most common mil-spec twist is 1:7 since they need to stabilize longer/heavier tracer rounds.

Barrel Material

There’s a lot of numbers and scary sounding words out there when related to barrel material, and we’ve done our best to simplify it:

  • 4150: Steel used in mil-spec barrels
  • 4140: Steel with 10% less carbon than 4150
  • Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium, Chrome Moly, or CMV: Same as 4140
  • Stainless Steel: More accurate but shorter lifespan
Stainless Steel Barrel
Stainless Steel Barrel

For the average shooter just go with the 4140/CMV.  Unless you’re firing full-auto a lot, you probably would not reap any benefit from 4150.  Except a lighter wallet…but that probably doesn’t count as a benefit.

Barrel Lining

Chrome Lined Barrels
Chrome Lined Barrels
  • Chrome Lined: Coating that makes your barrel last longer at the price of a slight decrease in accuracy.  You’ll see a gray ring around each end.
  • Ferritic Nitrocarburizing (FNC): Also known as Tennifer, Melonite, or Nitride.  Treats the surface of the barrel instead of a coating for possibly better accuracy but with additional cost.
  • None: No coating.

Real round counts will differ based on a lot of factors (heat, environment, your definition of “accuracy,” etc), but you can expect around 10-20k before you have to re-barrel.

You still there?

Barrel Testing

Good, here’s some more acronyms manufacturers will throw at you.

MP HP Tested Barrel
MP HP Tested Barrel
  • MP: Magnetic Particle tested, basically x-raying the material to see if there’s any hidden cracks or voids
  • HP: High Pressure tested
  • None: No testing.  You get what you pay for.

You might run into the use of “batch tested” which really doesn’t mean much.  The manufacturer may test 1 out of 10 barrels or 1 out of 100K barrels.  For a home defense rifle, we recommend getting a barrel that is both MP & HP tested.

You know…just in case.

Barrel Forging

  • Cold, Hammer, Forged (CHF): Process that creates a more durable barrel
  • Barrel, Forged, Hammer (BFH): Same as CHF
  • None: No extra process

CFH and BFH reduce accuracy a little but you gain a much more durable barrel.  If you plan on shooting thousands of rounds a year, it might be worth the extra cost and push you towards a 20k+ round count.

Barrel Contours

Shape and thickness of the barrel which will have a decent effect on the overall weight.  And if you haven’t seen this quote yet on forums…”ounces equals pounds and pounds equals pain.”

AR-15 Barrel Contours
AR-15 Barrel Contours
M4 Barrel Contour
M4 Barrel Contour
  • CAR (Colt Automatic Rifle): Just a specific family of AR-15/M-16 rifles from the 70’s. Now just a general term for carbine-length rifles before the advent of the M4.
  • Heavy (Bull): Stiffer and heavier but more accurate.  Can take a lot of heat before shooting groups start to suffer.  Normally used for precision builds.  .936″ in diameter.
  • Medium (Government or M4): All around balance.  M4 contour has a cutout for grenade launchers.  .750″ in diameter.
  • Light: Lighter but more susceptible to heat from rapid firing.  .625″ in diameter.

For the average plinker, Medium or Light barrel contours will work great.

Barrel Feed Ramps

This is an integral part of the upper receiver and you want it to be a proper match with your barrel.

M4 Feedramps, AR15Barrels
M4 Feedramps, AR15Barrels

Jury is still out whether or not they help reliability, but the main thing is to match up the ramps with your receiver.  If you’re buying from the factory, this should not be a problem.  But you still might want to check.

AR-15 Gas Systems

Now that you’re a pro with AR-15 barrels, we’ll go into the gas system.

There’s two major types, Direct Impingement (DI) and Piston.  DI is the original design while piston only really became popular within the last few years.

Direct Impingement vs Piston

An AR-15 works by directing the hot gas behind the bullet into the gas tube (where the triangular front sight block is above) which then uses the gas to either move a piston, or send it directly back (direct impingement).

However the force is applied, it makes the bolt unlock, move back, expel the spent casing, and strip a new cartridge into the chamber.

The vast majority of AR’s are direct impingement instead of piston.

Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement vs Piston
Direct Impingement vs Piston

Pros of Piston:

  • Cleaner since dirty gas is vented away
  • Should be more reliable in bad environments (water, dust, etc)

Cons of Piston:

  • Costs more than traditional DI system
  • Weighs more and puts weight in front
  • Proprietary parts unique to each manufacturer
  • Less accurate

Unless you’re needing to shoot coming out of water or in very dusty environments with limited ability to clean, a direct impingement system will work fine.  If that’s you…here’s our review of the Best AR-15 Piston Uppers.

With proper maintenance, a DI AR-15 is a very reliable weapon and what the military uses.

Direct Impingement Gas System Lengths

The gas system length refers to the distance to the gas hole, or where the triangular “front site base” or FSB sits on each barrel above.

The rifle length gas system is traditionally used for 18″ or longer barrels, but there is the oddball “Dissipator” model which has a rifle length system on a 16″ barrel.

AR-15 Gas Systems Barrel Lengths
AR-15 Gas Systems Barrel Lengths

For 16″ barrels, the primary choice is between carbine and midlength gas systems.

Carbine vs Midlength vs Rifle Gas Systems on 16 Barrel
Carbine vs Midlength vs Rifle Gas Systems on 16″ Barrel

We believe the midlength has the advantage since it allows a longer sight radius if using a front sight base (which doubles as a sight).  It also gives you more possible handguard/rail space since the handguard goes from the upper receiver to the front sight base.

It should also theoretically offer a smoother/softer shooting rifle since the increased distance will allow gas pressure to lower before going back into the rifle.

But, this is influenced by a lot of other factors including gas port size, buffer, and spring combinations.

Gas Blocks

Low Profile Adjustable Gas Block
Low Profile Adjustable Gas Block

For the majority of this article, you’ve been seeing the front sight base (FSB) style gas block which combines the front sight with the gas block.

We recommend this style for beginners for the ease of already having a front sight, robustness (the FSB is pinned to the barrel), and cost efficiency of a non-free-floating barrel (don’t worry, it’s coming up).

You can also choose to grind down the FSB to fit a free-floating barrel later.

Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11
Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11

However, there are many AR-15’s that now offer low profile gas blocks that enable a factory install of a free-floating barrel.  Some of these gas blocks are also adjustable so you can choose just the right amount of gas to make your rifle/ammo combination run smoothly without unnecessary recoil.

Handguards

AR-15 Midlength with Magpul MOE
AR-15 Midlength with Magpul MOE

Front sight blocks almost always force you to utilize non-free-floating handguards.

This means that the two-piece handguard touches the barrel at the FSB and can add some inconsistency in force that makes it slightly less accurate.

But for non-competitive shooters, you’ll be fine with a non-free-float.  There’s some aluminum variations, but most are polymer which still work great and are more affordable.

The above Magpul MOE Handguards for Carbine or Mid-Length still allows you to add Picatinny rails on the slots to attach accessories, or use their new M-LOK attachment system directly.

Picatinny rails are the golden standard of rail attachments and look like raised rectangles.  Below is an example of a “quad-rail” since there are Picatinny rails on all four sides.  They are pretty heavy though.

Troy Drop In Quad
Troy Drop In Quad

And of course you’ve seen the free-floating handguards for low profile gas blocks.  This allows more consistency in your shots since there’s nothing touching the barrel along the handguard.  Those usually cost $100-200 more but allow tons of rail space.

If you can’t wait to see handguard upgrades, check out the Best AR-15 Upgrades Guide.

Now for some serious stuff…

Bolt Carrier Group (BCG)

How the BCG Works

Essentially the engine that runs the AR-15.  The bolt is housed within the bolt carrier and together they make up the bolt carrier group (BCG).

AR-15 BCG
AR-15 BCG

It moves back when you pull the charging handle back.

Charging Handle and BCG Labeled
Charging Handle and BCG Labeled

And when you let go of the charging handle, the BCG moves forward, strips a round out of the magazine, and puts a round into the chamber.

When you pull the trigger, the hammer releases and strikes the back of the firing pin which is also in the BCG.

The firing pin hits the cartridge’s primer which sparks the gunpowder and sends the bullet down the barrel.  Then the gas system comes into play.

Watch it below:

Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG

The BCG comes in semi-auto (SA) and full-auto (FA) varieties.  Having a full-auto BCG does not instantly make your gun automatic.  Normally it is used to slow down the cycling rate due to its increased mass (see the right ends of the BCG’s below).

Note that they should be overall the same size but the bottom FA is shrunk in the picture.

AR-15 Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG
AR-15 Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG

The full-auto has a shroud to protect the firing pin from hitting the hammer during re-cocking.  You can see the right-most BCG has more of the firing pin exposed and less weight on the bottom, making it a semi-auto version.

BCG Shroud, AR15
BCG Shroud, AR15

It doesn’t really matter which one you get, but most higher-end manufacturers will put in the FA BCG.  Most guns are over-gassed so they can run a larger variety of ammunition, so the additional mass and firing pin protection are advantageous.

What do I mean by over-gassed?

In an ideal world the gas block would send back the bare minimum amount of gas to move the BCG back so it can eject the spend casing and strip another round.

However, there’s the problem of weaker ammo which would produce less gas, and also the crud that accumulates and can slow everything down.

Therefore manufacturers usually let a much larger amount of gas cycle through to brute force through the issues.  A heavier BCG and shrouded pin minimize the negative effects of a lot of gas.

BCG Coatings

One of the newest crazes is to have coated BCG’s that are supposed to make them easier to clean, require less lubrication, and run longer between cleanings.  Nickel boron is the flavor of the week along with Titanium Nitride, Hard Chrome, and Black Nitride.

Nickel Boron BCG
Nickel Boron BCG

If you’re running your gun hard constantly or use a suppressor which deposits more gunk back into your BCG, you might benefit from a coated BCG.  Otherwise, keep your regular BCG clean and lubed and it will run just fine.

Other

Buffer Tube

Mil-Spec vs Commercial Buffer Tubes
Mil-Spec vs Commercial Buffer Tubes

This comes up more when you are building a lower from scratch.  Just go with Mil Spec instead of Commercial since it is stronger.  Also make sure to match up the carbine/rifle lengths according to your barrel.

Triggers

Mil-Spec AR-15 Trigger
Mil-Spec AR-15 Trigger

I’d stick with the standard Mil-Spec trigger initially.  It may be a little gritty at first, but will become better with use.  I like it for it’s reliability.

More precision rifles will use aftermarket single stage or two stage triggers.

However, I will say that the first upgrade I would do to a rifle would be upgrading the trigger.  Just stick with the stock one first…if only so you can fully appreciate an upgraded one!

Can’t wait?  Head to my Best AR-15 Upgrades article.

Optics/Accessories/Furniture

Again, we recommend getting used to your iron sights, stock muzzle device, and standard furniture before jumping into upgrades.  You likely won’t know what you need until you get adequate range time.

But of course we’ve got a guide for that too…check out Best AR-15 Furniture & Accessories and Best AR-15 Optics & Scopes.

Intended Purpose

We’ll cover the four main flavors, each with their own pros and cons.

M4gery

Typical AR-15
Typical AR-15
Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11
Daniel Defense AR-15 Flattop, DDM4 V11

Known lovingly as the “M4-gery” (M4 + Forgery), this is the most common AR-15 type which seeks to mimic the M4 military carbine.

While the M4 has a 14.5″ barrel with a carbine length gas system, most AR-15’s of this variant will use a 16″ barrel and a mix of carbine and mid-length gas systems.  Most will have collapsible buttstocks so you can adjust your length of pull and eye-relief.

M4gery’s span many varieties.  The first rifle is more bone stock, with a carry handle, non-free-floating handguard, carbine gas system, and a front sight base.

The second rifle has a flattop upper receiver with a 1913 (Picatinny) rail on top, the new KeyMod rail on the sides, free floated handguard, mid-length gas system, and low profile gas block.

Precision/Varmint

AR-15 Varmint
AR-15 Varmint

Varmint/precision builds likely will have a 18″ or 20″ barrel of the heavy contour variety for extra stability and velocity.  The twist rates and materials may also change for more accurate combinations (1×8 or 1×7 and non-chrome-line or stainless steel).

Precision AR-15’s will also almost likely have free-floated handguards and heavier buttstocks.  You’ll want to add a scope and probably a bipod too.  Get ready for a much heavier rifle!

SBR/Pistol Builds

DD MK18 AR-15 SBR
DD MK18 AR-15 SBR

We won’t be covering much of them in this guide, but if you do go this route, be extra sure of your state/local laws since you’ll be going with sub-16″ barrels.  Traditionally this is known as a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR) which requires paperwork and a tax stamp.

AR-15 Pistol
AR-15 Pistol

AR pistols generally require less steps but make the tradeoff of not having an actual buttstock.

Both make the tradeoff of a shorter, lighter, and easier to handle weapon.  But the drawbacks include much decreased velocity and increased muzzle blast.  SBR’s and AR pistols are best suited for under 100 yards.

Competition Builds (3-Gun)

JP15 3-Gun Rifle
JP15 3-Gun Rifle

Competition guns are specifically tailored race rifles for 3-Gun (rifle, pistol, & shotgun) or other competitions.

Normally you’ll see longer barrels and gas systems coupled with big brakes/compensators to reduce recoil and enable faster followup shots.  Almost everything else in the system is customized to the shooter.  We’ll leave this topic for another day.

Featureless Builds

Stag 2TF Featureless AR-15
Stag 2TF Featureless AR-15

It brings me great sadness to have to add this for 2017.

But featureless rifles make it legal for residents of CA and NY to own AR-15 style firearms.

The biggest differences you’ll see are no pistol grip, non-adjustable buttstock, and no flash hider.  For more, check out our Featureless Rifles page.

Best AR-15 Manufacturers

Drumroll please…

Top Tier AR-15 Manufacturers

These are our perceived top quality manufacturers who don’t cut corners and can produce near 100% reliable guns (or they have an awesome marketing budget).

If you’re looking for the best service grade (mil-spec) AR for self or home defense, we recommend going with one of these top tier companies who stand behind their product.

Mid Tier Manufacturers

These are great guns that might start out range plinking guns until they’ve proven themselves.  We recommend putting at least 1000 rounds through with varying conditions, ammo, and magazines before you trust a gun with your life.

The below is not an exhaustive list, especially with all the builders out there.

Budget Manufacturers

Nothing wrong with these guns either, they are great starter AR’s because of their affordability and are perfectly capable of being reliable.  Just test them out first.

Price

For a top tier, expect to pay over $1000 for a complete rifle, while mid tiers can start around $500.  Remember, you’re paying for quality of materials, quality control, and R&D.

Rifles are one item where the adages of “You Get What You Pay For” and “Buy Once, Cry Once” ring true.

Specific Recommendations

Alright, what you’ve been waiting for…some of my specific recommendations based on personal experience.

Just because it’s not here doesn’t mean it’s not good, and just because I like it, doesn’t mean you will too.

For such a large purchase, I would always recommend to see these rifles in person at your local gun shop (LGS) so you can touch and handle them.  Or you can online order them to your shop which should have a FFL (Federal Firearms License) to process everything.

Daniel Defense DDM4 Variants

DDM4A1
DDM4A1

Might be just because my first AR-15 was a DD, but mine has never failed me.

For a first rifle (or only rifle) I’d prefer one with a FSB such as the 16″ DDM4 V3 ($~1700) which also has the slightly softer shooting mid-length gas system.  For railed systems also in mid-length, I’d recommend the 16″ DDM4 V5 (~$1600), or on the shorter side the or the 14.5″ carbine gas system DDM4A1 (~$1700).  All their rifles here.

Bravo Company

BCM Mid16 Mod 2
BCM Mid16 Mod 2

Daniel Defense has the quality but I think it’s a little expensive.

BCM in my mind is the best bang for the buck for top-tier stuff based on the several that my friends use and that I have extensively shot.

I would get their mid-length 16″ MID16 Mod 0 ($~1200) with polymer rails or the Mod 2 ($~1400) with quad-rails for a complete rifle.  And for free-float, I would get either the Recce 14 or 16 (~$1500).  All their rifles here.

LaRue

Larue PredatAR
Larue PredatAR

Another creme de la creme is the mid-length 16″ Larue PredatAR  (~$1800) which has an accuracy guarantee and has some of the best machining around.  All my important optics use LaRue mounts.  All their other rifles here.

Colt

Colt LE6920
Colt LE6920

Good ole Colt has one of the best entry level AR-15’s and it is one of the three that I recommend my friends who are just getting into AR’s.  Just get the 16″ carbine gas LE6920 (~$1000) and then you can always upgrade as your heart desires.

Smith & Wesson

M&P 15
M&P 15

Another well-known name, albeit probably more known in the revolver and handgun world.  More budget friendly but also one of my top recommendations for an initial AR-15.  Their entry-level 16″ carbine gas M&P 15 Sport (~$650) sells like hot cakes for good reason.

Aero Precision

A well-known name if you’re into building your own AR (they make my favorite upper receiver), Aero has gotten into the complete AR-15 game along with innovative rail attachment systems and barrels.

For best overall value I’m liking their AC-15M 16″ mid-length ($700).  Check out my review of their upper.

Aero MC-15M
Aero MC-15M

Left-Handed AR-15

Now you don’t have to worry about brass flying into your face or getting an ambidextrous safety.

Stag Arms

Stag Arms 2L Left-Handed AR
Stag Arms 2L Left-Handed AR

Stag Arms has been making left-handed AR’s for a long time and offers life-time guarantees regardless of original owner or even number of rounds fired.  I like the Model 2L ($965) for flip-up iron sights (as opposed to the 1L that has a carry-handle).

My best buddy has been running his for years for both plinking and even competition.

Featureless Rifles

For the folks in CA and NY.  There’s been a lot more activity here (Springfield and LWRC) but I’m holding off on adding everything until I can review them in-hand.

Stag Arms

Stag Arms Model 2F Featureless AR-15
Stag Arms Model 2F Featureless AR-15

I got a chance to handle it during SHOT 2017 and it felt great in the hands.  The HERA stock takes care of both the pistol grip and buttstock.  Plus you can remove the plate to get a regular pistol grip if you’re in a free state.

I like the Model 2TF ($1095) for its flip up sights.  Left-handed models available too.

Pre-orders are GTG and they are looking to ship their first sold-out batch soon.  I’ll also be reviewing it hands-on in the 2nd batch.

Conclusion

I know we’ve gone over a lot, and your journey to getting an AR-15 has just begun.  So think of all the criteria you want (including price point) and start looking.

And once you do get one, let me know how it runs, and then check out the rest of the AR-15 guides to start upgrading!

127 Comments

  1. Hey Eric
    Excellent and informative article. I have been out of the market for years (kids &life), but have recently decided to reinvest. I am somewhat familiar with the AR platform buy as stated it has been about eight years since owning. Was curious what you would reccommend for a second AR? Buy or build? I have put a few .22’s together which were relatively simple and have a pretty decent understanding of building. However I am torn with the idea of “M4gery” or having one , like a DDM4 finished and ready. Also you left the trigger department somewhat vague (no offense). For .22’s (Ruger) that is a fairly integral portion of accuracy. Not that I’m looking to get involved in comp. shooting but I do like to hit what I’m aiming for! I do understand there are tons of variables when it comes to deciding what AR is right for each individual personally. So with that being said, what do you think is best for an all around AR platform that is reasonable to carry for reasonable distances, accurate, and dependable? And do you think it’s best to build or buy?
    Thanks

    1. Hi Nate, thanks for your comment and suggestions! If it will be your first 5.56/.223 AR-15 (sounds like right now you only have.22 versions?) I would suggest going the Buy route with any of the suggestions I have at the end of this article based on your budget. You can always go ahead and upgrade the trigger (thanks for the insight) in your lower at a different time. I go over them somewhat in my Best AR-15 Upgrades article.

      1. Man , I thought that PSA would have been rated better than you rated it. I have shot mine with a bump fire stock, used steel cased ammo, etc, and it hasn’t missed a beat. It is mil spec as well, so I don’t know why it’s rated as a lower tier product

  2. Eric,
    Great article. Lot’s of information. I’m new to guns, trying to learn as much as possible.
    What are you thoughts on “Knights Armament” products?
    Thinking about the AR “mod 2”.

  3. Hello great article ! lots of great info. I was thinking of buying a DPMS GII Recon or GII Moe
    Have you done any reviews on DPMS Porducts? If so which one would you recommend of these 2.
    Thank you

    1. Hi, DPMS should be good for the price…I’ve used a DPMS upper for my AR-10 which has run smoothly. I think it really depends on what handguard you like since the recon is a quad rail with flip up sights while the MOE has the standard Magpul plastic handguard and front sight block.

  4. Hi Eric, thanks for the great article. I’m looking for a first AR for my son for his 18th birthday. The rifle will be used for recreational shooting and home defense (kept in my safe until he graduates from college!).

    Here’s my question: John is left-eye dominant so he shoots better left-handed. What is the difference between a RH and a LH rifle? If we get a LH model can I still still shoot it (I’m a RH shooter)?

    Also, you didn’t mention Bushmaster in your summary for a first affordably priced gun. Can you comment on that brand please?

    Thanks again,
    Kurt

    1. Hi Kurt, you’re welcome and thanks for your comment!

      The difference between a RH and LH AR-15 rifle would be the placement of the ejection port (would be on the left side) and also the placement of the magazine release and safety lever (mag release would be on the left and safety lever would be to the right).

      You can still shoot it just like John can shoot a regular RH gun. Only annoying thing would be the manipulations and the occasional brass flying into your face. I’d suggest an ambi-safety at least so it’s not annoying to switch it on/off safe for either of you.

      Bushmaster is good to go as an introductory gun!

  5. Hi Eric,

    Great article, it was very informative, what tier would you considers “Nemo Firearms?” I have been looking and researching the 5.556 Tango 2. Any experience with this manufacturer? Thanks in advance!

    1. Hi Xander, I’ve only heard of them but don’t have any experience with them. Let me know what you end up deciding!

  6. Hi. I’m not sure if you’re going strictly by price here but I strongly disagree with your placing RRA in the bottom tier of AR builders. I have owned or shot at least half a dozen RRA rifles or upper builds and every single one of them has had incredible fit and finish and will shoot sub 1″ groups at 100yds all day. I’ve admittedly only shot their “higher end” rifles but I have a fair amount of experience with AR type rifles in general and have not found a better overall value yet. Do you have actual experience with RRA guns that differs from mine?

    1. Hi Caleb, thanks so much for your message and experience with the value and performance of RRA. My list is definitely a little subjective and I take into account price, personal experience, online sentiment, etc. Hope to one day have a shootoff with all the rifles out there…

  7. Eric,

    Great informative article..been researching for months. Am looking to get my first AR.

    Grew up around guns…but its baan a long while. 25 yeard.. Live in CA. So panther is out…Any reccomendations? 5.56/.223 or .308. (Light n cheap vs. Death behind a cinderblock wall at 150yrds. N expensive) Chrome vs. Chromoly…etc. plinking, deer..zombies..urban combat scenarios (aka decline of western civilization) etc.

    Any suggestions? (CA)

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Fain, thanks for your comment! For a first AR I would heavily suggest the AR-15 (5.56/.223) instead of the AR-10 (7.62/.308) since the recoil will be much more controllable and you won’t go bankrupt from ammo. Check out my recs for complete rifles in the article above.

  8. Eric, great article and thanks for the information. I’m thinking of buying my first AR and have been looking at an Adams Arms product at a local gun dealer. Specifically the 16″ Mid Tactical Evo Rifle. Do you have any experience with Adams Arms?

    1. Hi Chuck, definitely heard of them and mostly for their piston gas system guns. Looks like the one you mentioned is piston so I’d so you’re most likely in good hands!

  9. Hi Eric,

    Excellent article and very informative. I appreciate you taking the time to do a really deep dive on the AR-15. I’ve wanted one for a while, but the explosion in AR-15 variations has overwhelmed my ability to digest all the variations out there. Your article helped clear up a lot of the confusion. I noticed that you’ve got Colt crossed out on your list of top tier AR-15 manufacturers. Is that a typo? If not, could you explain why you’ve crossed Colt off of your top tier list?

    Based on your article and a search of their website, I decided to look for a BCM Mid16 Mod2, but I can’t find an online dealer with any in stock. In fact, I can’t find an online dealer with ANY BCM products in stock. I suppose this is a combination of the overwhelming public demand to get an AR-15 before the gun control nuts get their way and a testament to the quality of BCM products.

    1. Hi Tom, thanks for the keen eye! Turns out the specific link to Colt became a dud and your browser picked it up. I’ve gone through and fixed it.

      Yup…it seems like there’s always something political/tragic that’s driving great products out of stock. Best of luck in finding one!

  10. I miss the H&K MR223/416 in your list. In my opinion it beats up everyone of your list – especially the poor one`s of colt. Just look for youtube to see a comparison firing test with a wet Colt M4 against a MR223/416 – The Colt explodes completely when firing the first round!

    1. Hi Patrick, I do remember that video! I’ll probably do a future list with piston AR’s (where it will definitely make the list)…but for now I’m just including DI for first timer buyers.

  11. Cool info but it is a fact that a gas piston AR-15 is as accurate as one that isn’t! I’ve owned both and my gas piston LWRC and RUGER 556 piston type AR-15 rifles were more accurate than any of the none piston rifles. LWRC is a half an inch MOA shooter. RUGER is a three fourth an inch MOA shooter. They never jam! Every non gas piston rifle that I ever owned would jam all of the time.

      1. Try out the Sig 516 if you get the chance. You will fall in love with it, and you will probably put Sig in your top tier where it belongs.

  12. I have a few different manufactures on your list, but the one I take issue with is Stag. To put Stag on the “budget” list, but Colt as a tier one, isn’t doing your homework. CMT (Stag is their house brand) has been making parts for the M4 since the Vietnam War, and I would bet there is a great chance nearly all of the rifles you have listed have some CMT (Stag) parts in them. You have S&W as a mid-tier……do you know who made S&W early AR style rifles? Stag did.

    I don’t work for Stag, nor am I involved in the firearm business at all – I just like it when folks do their homework. You can find Stag Model 1 or 2 with their “Plus Package” for around $850 – and that is a 100% “mil-spec”, “tier-one” AR (according to the infamous chart) for less than any other mil-spec variant on the market. Oh, and a transferable lifetime warranty with them, including free barrel replacement if you shoot it out. IF a 6920 Colt (which I own a couple of) is “tier one”, then so is a Plus Package Stag.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for the info! It’s my own personal list and really appreciate your input which helps me out in the future and gives a different perspective to my readers.

      1. Don’t confuse original manufacturers to end products.

        Just because CMT made the RAW product for a company doesn’t mean there all equal.

        Each company has to put the finishing touches on the product. Like finishing or quality control.

        An example would be a company only checks every 25 gas blocks for proper sizing and machining.

        When another company check every 10 or everyone.

        The end product will very between company’s . Some company’s cut corns to save money. Some don’t.

  13. I’m debating between Colt 6920 and Spikes ST-15 Midlength. Both are about same price just under 900.

    Any tips for a newbie? Thank you!

    1. Hi John, out of those two I like the Spikes since it has the mid-length which should shoot a little softer. As far as I know Colt doesn’t have any mid-lengths.

      1. Thank you so much for the fast reply! I may actually hold off an save a little bit for a BCM. I have a tendacy to over analyze everything and become frozen around decision time!

      2. Just want to let you know that I ordered the Spikes today! Thank you for your advice and this well informative article. I will let you know how it is in follow-up comment!

    1. Hi Keith, thanks for the question. I’ve never cleaned it since it should be self-cleaning every time you shoot. The 30-50k PSI of hot gas probably does a better job than I ever could.

  14. Eric, great article. I am interested in an entry level (under $900) 300 Black Out for the extra punch in hunting. Do your recommendations hold for the guns, assuming they offer the 300 AAC? Also, looking at Wyndham Weaponry, are you familiar with that brand? Thanks so much.

    1. Hi Will, thanks! I haven’t had the chance to get a .300 Blk but I’ve done some research before and it seems awesome to have the capability of a .30 cal in the AR-15 platform that is basically made to be suppressed.

      I haven’t heard much about Wyndham so I have no opinion yet, but for now I’d say my recommendations should be a good starting spot as well for .300 Blk.

  15. Great article Eric. I have to agree…Daniel Defense is top tier quality and function. A lil pricey, but worth every penny once you buy one. I bought the M4A1 and what a beautiful rifle! …..comes with nice case also. State of the art facility where these guns are made. Marty Daniel has you covered!!! If your on the fence, buy a DD -best AR out there.

  16. This is my 1st time to read your articles and really like the info you shared with ‘us’ newbies, in the AR platform. I built my very 1st AR-15, a Polymer80 lower, and a ATI 5.56/.223 NATO 16″ barrel. I have since done a few mods, quad gas block, FireField site, Red Dot Laser, XML-T6 Flashlight lots of 30 round mags. […] I love the way my AR shoots, it’s very accurate, light weight. Do you have any info or ideas on this ‘Kit’ or the way I did things for the 1st time? All is appreciated…

    1. Hi Joe, I’ve seen them on some sites but haven’t heard much about them. I’d do more research before you take the plunge. If you get it, please let us know how you like it.

  17. Hey guys just wanted to tell you about the barrels being magnetic particle tested. It’s know as MT tested. It’s the induction of a magnetic field into the steel with an application of flourscent iron particles. What this means with a barrel that is crack will attracted those iron particles to the void allowing the inspector to see it. It’s called magnetic flux leakage. X-Ray is different. We all the the standard medical x-ray. Same process just more iodization

  18. Great article for a relative AR newcomer like me (I’ve been a Tavor bullpup guy up till this year) (*gasp*). This past summer, after reading numerous glowing reviews and with the grudging nod of approval from a lifetime AR friend, I picked up a Ruger SR-556 Takedown in 556, with the option of swapping out the barrel for a 300 Blackout barrel kit. It’s a piston design, which is something I definitely prefer, with a free-floating barrel, and overall a great gun in the $1500 range (gun show price, by the way). It does have two interesting quirks, however, and that’s that it has a 1:9 twist to the barrel (which you say is typical, but for the a purportedly mil-spec AR, I wasn’t the only one who was surprised it isn’t 1:7), and that when assembling the rifle for use from its broken down and carry-bagged state, you MUST install the bolt carrier group LAST. Otherwise, the BCG doesn’t sit quite right in the upper when it meets with the barrel and you’ll have a devil of a time running the charging handle and no magazine installed. It will still work if you load a magazine and charge, but if you want totally smooth operation 100% of the time, follow the instructions and put the boot in AFTER you’ve assembled the rifle from its taken down state.

    Again, thanks for a great article!

  19. Practically a knuckle dragger when it comes to Ar-15’s. I hear all the time about switching uppers, but is that only possible with a given type of gas control system?? Direct impingement vs piston. So maybe the question is, if I bought a piston type complete gun, can I switch on most any upper or must it also be of a piston type only???

    Thank you very much Eric

    1. You should be able to use any DI or piston upper with a “regular” DI lower since it doesn’t play any part into the gas system. I’d still double check with some Google-fu in case you’re looking at some proprietary systems.

  20. Eric, thanks for an excellent and informative article. Your BIO mentions that you have attended a number of training classes. Any in particular that you recommend for those new to the AR?

    1. Hi Dakota, I’ve done mostly pistol and shotgun courses. For rifle I utilize the same safety/handling skills from the classes and practice in rifle competitions. I can personally vouch for ITTS (CA but sometimes they travel). But great idea for a future article of great training courses!

  21. Hi Eric, I have been researching ARs for awhile now. I just came across an article in Tactical Life on the Dark Storm Industries DS-15 Typhoon. Have you come across one of these and if so, how do you rate them? What is interesting to me is that it already comes with many of the mods I had already earmarked for mine. Appreciate any info you have.
    Roland

  22. Thank u for a very informative article. I wish I could find a page like this for everything that I have ever needed answers for. Thanks again and for what it is worth I saved the page and subscribed to your YouTube channel.

    1. Hi Aryn, replied to your email, but thought other readers might like my response too.

      Haven’t heard bad things about them but I haven’t had the chance to see/hold/shoot one myself.

      Let us know how it is if you end up getting a BRO.

  23. Hi Eric! Thanks for the article and greetings from Poland. In my country, the budget Mossberg MMR is becoming pretty popular, what’s your opinion on this AR?

  24. Hi Eric great article. I was wondering why no mention about Wilson combat rifles and am looking into the AR platform and was wondering if you could recommend a top tier manufacture for a .300 blackout and will this shoot your standards 5.56/45mm & .223 home defence rounds. Thanks

    1. Thanks! I have no experience with their rifles but they make some top-notch 1911 products that I own. If you get a .300 BLK upper it will not be able to shoot other calibers.

  25. Great article! Looking to purchase my first AR. Any tips on locating the BCM Mid 16 mod2? Everywhere around me just says “good luck”. My local guy is pushing a CORE15. Any feedback?

    1. Hi Dave…they do tend to sell out quickly. Best bet would be to see if there’s any place to do a back-order. As for Core15…I’ve only heard of them but don’t have an opinion. If you get one, please let us know!

  26. Hi! I like the article. Im looking into getting my first rifle and one of my friends who is a cop brought up the new AR from Springfield Armory the Saint. Do you have an opinion about that rifle as far as quality?

    1. Hi Nathan, I don’t have personal experience with any SA rifles but my first 1911 was one of theirs and it’s still going strong!

  27. Hi Eric, looking to purchase my first AR and I’m leaning towards DD but not sure which DDM4 model to go with…any suggestions?

  28. Thank you for the very informative article. The new Springfield is out and based off the article I like what im seeing with the Saint from SFA. Any thoughts on it for a zombie end of world must have AR?

    1. Hey Donnie, thanks for the comment. I’ve been seeing the name around a lot recently but haven’t had the chance to play with one yet. Looking forward to SHOT show!

  29. Hi Eric. Thanks for the informative article. This helped me choose my first AR by pointing me towards a DD. Did further research on it and ended up getting the DDM4V11. Been very happy with it. I sometimes shoot at ASR too.

    1. Hey Brian, depends on your definition of entry, but mine is anything under $1000…so that would be the S&W, Spike’s, and Aero at the bottom of the list.

      1. Ruger AR556 > Anything in it’s price range and probably better then most AR’s even a few hundred more… It’s a LOT better then the mediocre M/P Sport II (the Sport I was a good rifle but the Sport II… meh, nothing special. They didn;t drop the price but they did drop the ONE big feature of the Sport I and seem to think that a forward assist and a dust-cover are equal to a quality barrel… they’re not,) The lowers are all fairly interchangeable even on many of the high-end AR’s and the barrel on the Ruger is better then anything Spikes, Smith & Worthless or the like.

        If you want to get the most bang for your buck and don’t want to build: Ruger AR556

        1. Hey Blue, thanks for the insight. I had the chance to play with the Ruger at SHOT this year and it did feel/shoot very nice. I hope to get my hands on one for a longer test. Lol at Smith & Worthless!

  30. I read your article and was considering a bcm recce, and a dd v11, however I ended up going with a Troy which I really like so far, are you familiar with Troy, what tier would Troy fall under? Also I have a friend that is selling his dpms sass, I think it is an lrt but need to verify. Even though a manufacturer is typically a low tier can they make higher end that would fall in the mid or high tier catigory? This ar-10 looks and seems nice but I have no experience with dpms and don’t want to pay 1500 for a low tier gun.

    1. Hey Lyle, I think you’re sweating the tiers a little too much. Troy has a good rep but I have never tried/owned one. Shoot it a lot and build up that confidence! I personally have a DPMS 7.62 which has been great too when fed its favorite ammo. I’d ask your friend if it has been finicky. Not sure about the prices though.

  31. Hello Eric, I like to have an nice barrel, CHF, 16″ Mid-gas, Government, 1-7 twists, would you suggest FN Barrel or BCM?
    Thank you

    1. Hey Matthew, 1:9 is the optimum twist for a 55gr bullet. If you go out of that range, it’s possible that it doesn’t spin it enough or too much so it’s not stabilized in flight. Accuracy at distances might suffer.

    2. 1:8 will still stabilize 55gr rounds perfectly well and it gives you significantly better results with the lower GR. rounds then the 1:9 barrels do with the heavier rounds that are becoming much more common these days. IF you can honestly say you’ll never shoot anything but 55gr .223 then 1:9 is acceptable but if it’s a GP rifle then 1:8 is just a vastly better and more versatile option as it’ll help with the heavier bullets and give more consistent accuracy across a broader range of bullet-weights and target distances. IMO 1:8 is the best all-around rifling for an AR these days…

  32. What a great article! I’ve been looking for something like this for about a year. Most guides make too many assumptions about what the reader knows but you spell it out perfectly! Pros and cons and personal opinion mixed in honestly! Thanks!

  33. Hi Eric,

    Great article, thanks!

    Do you prefer a M4gery style AR or a Flat Top? Can you explain why one is “better” than the other? Or is the only difference how it looks?

    Thanks!

  34. If this is truly a new, original article as of 2017 you seem to have one glaring omission: The Ruger AR556 is a tough rifle to beat in terms of mechanical accuracy at almost any price these days (1 – 1&1/2MOA at 100yds if you do your part and absolutely SPANKED the KAC SR25 I had in the safe until a few months ago) and it’s one of, if not THE best “budget” AR’s out there these days… The M/P 15 Sport 2 isn’t the rifle it was in Ver 1 (5R rifling that made it what it was) and really it’s nowhere near the value the Ruger is these days.

    As far as the others as advice to a first time ARb buyer (after over a decade of building them myself) I’d skip all the “big names” that want to charge you extra for a mid-range AR with their own (almost universally) junk furniture as an “upgrade.”

  35. Great article:) Very helpful for newbies.

    However, the link to ‘Best AR-15 Upgrades Guide’ actually links to 1911 upgrades. Other than that, good stuff!

    Cheers, Paul

  36. Very nice write-up, thanks. I am helping a friend who is looking to purchase his first rifle and this gives great information.

  37. I found this extremely informative if not a little intimidateing too. This is my first venture into buying an AR type rifle. I’m left-handed and researching the Stag Arms l2 or l3 models. I’ve saved your article in my favorites for future reference. I’m an avid shooter, mostly handguns, but feel out of my eliment when it comes to modern rifles. Thanks for getting me off on the right foot, or left foot in my case. Joe B.

  38. Very informative! I never make a major purchase without research. I am considering buying my first AR 15 type rifle. This article was bookmarked soon as I found it. It not only answered many questions, but has been a reference to fall back on.

    Do you have any background or info on Troy built guns? I’m finding very little info online.

    Thanks for the great post!
    Tim

  39. The father of the AR is Eugene Stoner not Stone. Also, why dont you have any recommendations for CMMG, anderson manufacturing, and specifically JD Machine (formerly Kaiser Defense) which a lot of the top manufacturers use as their base lower. They are just as good if not better than your suggestions.

    Lastly i would recommend adams arms piston uppers for their ease of use and easily disassembly for cleaning and maintenance. I myself have a JD machine lower mated with an Adams Arms carbine length piston upper which cost less than $800 total for the rifle.

  40. Thanks for making it simple. There are so many “buzz” words out there I was getting a headache. Do some plinking and target shooting nothing involved, I purchased a Bear Creek Arsenal as my first one. It is 7.62 x39. About to build a 5.56 from an 80% lower. Seems the best route to go for function and overall cost is a 16″ mid-length with the attached front sight , regular barrel and BCG. If I add a scope or optics will the front sight be an issue? Should I get coated BCG and barrel? Very fine work you have done on this article!!! Neal

    1. Hi Neal, glad I could help! You’ll be able to see the front sight block in your optics but it’s not too much of a problem (at least with non-magnified optics). Coated BCG’s are slightly cleaner but tons of people have done without them for years. And for barrel if you mean chrome-lined it’s up to you…gives a slightly higher round count.

  41. Rock River is in the bottom? I am glad that I have bought three, and built one, The predator pursuit, and the varmint both shoot 3/8 in groups with factory ammo, and you have them at the bottom of the list??

  42. Great article Eric!! I’m just a little confused about where the Colt LE6920 stands in your personal list. Do you rank it as top tier, mid, or low? Do you think a modern Le6920 is just as good overall as the older LE6920’s from say 20 years ago? The reason I ask is because if heard people say that Colt has lost some of its quality that it is known for, due to their financial issues. What’s your opinion on all that? I currently have a Colt LE6920 MP Edition on layaway. I’m an ex Army soldier from the 90’s and I enjoyed shooting the Colt M-16A2 I was issued back then, and that’s why I I’d likeep to own one. I currently have a S&W Sport 2 and so far after 500 rounds it’s a flawless rifle!! Thanks bro!! -Joel

    1. Hey Joel, I’ve heard of that too but unfortunately I don’t have experience with the older ones. One of my best buddies started off with a newer one (on my rec) and loves it.

  43. I purchased my DDM4V7 high quality gun and great piece of art to look at. My 1st shot was bulls eye hit at 35 yard,.5 inch group after followed shots right out of the box with Magpul sights. Being an engineer I did my through research and save up for this riffle. Like a high quality tool, buy it’s once and count on it when needed.

  44. Great Article. I have one question, where do you stand on building your first AR? I never owned an AR before but I’ve done a lot of research. In a perfect world I would like a 1/8 twist wylde 223 AR that is free floated in the price range of $500. Off the shelf guns won’t come close to that price range (Savage MSR 15 Recon). I was thinking Palmetto State Armory by building the lower and getting a complete upper from them. What do you think of them?

    1. I recommend buying your first AR, really knowing what you like/dislike, then going from there. PSA has some good budget products.

  45. Hi Eric,

    I am looking at the LWRC IC-A5, however they have not come out with any improvements for at least last years same model (maybe more I am not sure). I’m concerned about this; like cars, every year they improve. So, 1) what are your thoughts on this? and 2) what would be the equivalent AR from any other top Manufacture? (I did check some other manufactures links you listed, guess in my opinion, they weren’t as up to par).

    Thanks

    Paul

    1. Hey Paul, honestly there’s not too much stuff to improve on the AR system…a lot of it is “improvement” for the sake of improvement. So I wouldn’t take that as a negative.

  46. Hi Eric,

    Awesome article. My first AR 15 was the M&P 15 Sport 2 and my wife has the M&P 15-22. we love the guns and so do our kids. Now I’m at the point where I’m studying up on what it takes to build one from scratch. One article I read suggested that a newbie like me build the lower but to buy a complete upper so there’s less chance of messing things up. What’s your take on that?

    Thanks,
    Francis

    1. Hey Francis, the lower is pretty easy to complete if you know some of the tricks. The upper I recommend getting the correct tools so you have the right torque and also to secure the gas block correctly (those are the two main points of failure for my first few builds). Check out our how to build an upper and how to build a lower articles.

  47. Eric,

    Great article, thank you. I am just starting to read about AR’s; I’ve never owned one. Any opinions about American Defense MOD2 or Noveske GenIII? Was initially between Larue and DD, but now I’m not so sure. Thank you for your time.

    Dickie

  48. Any thoughts on the Savage MSR15? I’m looking for my first AR15 and this one seems to get pretty good marks for some of its features like the 223 Wylde chambering.

  49. Great article Eric!

    After reading it, and researching the topic further I’ve narrowed my choices to two ARs…a Colt LE6920MPS or S&W M&P Mid MOE SL. I’m torn because I like the mid-length gas system on the S&W but the Colt’s a Top Tier AR for same price (but with carbine length gas)
    Would you help me break the tie in choosing one of these two? They both seem great and meet my budget but I can only buy one.
    Thanks, N8

    1. I’d flip a coin, lol! But if I had to choose between those two I’d go for the Colt if it’s your first gun.

  50. Great article
    First, I dont buy the overwhelming internet “would you stake your life on a non mil spec AR?” Spent many years in the service with some heavy combat and I would have loved the reliability of some of my home AR’s then the early M4’s i used. There is a lot of subjective information that comes out on the AR builds, “I have to have 4150 blah blah blah”. Look, in the real world here for self defense what are you really going to need? A gun that goes boom when you pull the trigger. Fact- you arent going to be shooting a 1000 rounds off when your house gets broken into. Find an AR that you are comfortable with and is made by a quality manufacturer. Yup for sure DD, BCM, Colt make great guns and i own them all. I also own a RRA. tactical Op 2 that I have literally beat the living Sheet out of and it keeps on ticking. I recently finished a 2 days fighting rifle class in pouring rain and mud for 2 straight 8 hours days. 1400 rounds and not a hiccup. Plain Jane Tac Op 2 with an eotech 512 on it and a sling. That is my 3rd such class with that rifle so In my book that is a pass and yea to get to my original point. I would stake my life on it whether its mil spec or not. Great read you have

  51. Pretty good article for the uninformed, You have some very good info there. But, (there’s always a but) You state that “Magnetic Particle tested, basically x-raying the material to see if there’s any hidden cracks or voids.” They are nothing alike. In Mag Particle NDT (non destructive testing), the part is either directly magnetized or indirectly magnetized. Then a ferrous material is applied, either in a wet suspension or as dry powder. The cracks or irregularities then show up.
    X-Ray is where the object is shot with a beam of either x rays or gamma rays since they have the shortest wavelength and can penetrate carbon steel easily, well they can penetrate almost everything. The rays pass through the object onto a special film that when developed any anomalies can be seen. Or you can even view them in real time now. Just like at your doctors.
    I teach NDT at an Aviation school.
    I’ve built 50+ AR’s and have seen both flat commercial and slanted mil-spec. buffer tubes. I think Del-Ton made some of the flat commercial tubes.
    Keep up the good work!

  52. Good article, but your commentary on barrel “forging” is a bit misleading. Hammer forging is not a process to make barrels last longer. It is how they are made. They are literally hammered around a mandrel that forms the chamber, bore, and rifling of the barrel. The reason they last longer is the hammering created a more dense material. As far as them loosing accuracy, that is not accurate either. Compared to other methods it can actually create a more smooth surface because nothing is pulled or pushed through the barrel created marks in it. In hand lapped barrels that is corrected mostly.
    Other types of barrels, are drilled, and either button rifled, single point cut, or broached. There are obviously pros and cons to all types, but Hammer forging can create extremely accurate and precise barrels.

  53. Being a left handed shooter, I wanted my first AR to be a lefty model. I bought a Stag Arms 3L. But after doing further research I learned that a lot of lefties buy just a regular AR. So now I am already looking for my second AR 15. I don’t plan to compete or go hunting with them. I will probably just shoot at the local shooting ranges.
    I will probably start chasing the 1″ MOA at 100 yd… I will start thinking about getting a free floating handguard, lighter trigger, better scope, better barrel, etc..
    So instead of upgrading a part by part, which can be fun but also frustrating, I will go for an expensive model probably.
    I will shoot the Stag Arms first and see how it does. But I know I will always want a premium AR.

    1. It really depends on what you’re looking for. At the super high-end, the best option would be to find a quality custom shop or gunsmith and have them build you exactly what you want. Asking for the “best AR” is a bit like asking “what’s the best car?”

      At the end of the day, its going to be the one that’s the best at what you want to do, and the one you have the most fun with.

  54. I am looking into buying my first ar-15. I have a military background, Marines, so I’m happy with fixed A2-style front, I’ll be shooting iron sights most of the time. This rifle is for self defense with plinking fun gun. I would like to shoot steel ammo, since I’m on a budget.
    I got Aero precision mid Ar 15 I can pick for at brownell for good price like less than 550, good specs but maybe bad customer service. I got ruger 556 for 605 from my dealer, ok specs, good customer service and I don’t have to pay ffl. Or Springfield saint for 750 also from my dealer. Which one would you pick?

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