Best AR-15 Complete Upper Receiver [Hands-On 2018]

Getting overwhelmed with all the upper receivers out there?

Find out the best AR-15 complete upper receiver for you depending on your end use, such as precision shooting, general use, or close quarters combat.

Aero M4E1
Aero M4E1 Uppers

Let’s talk budget…are you looking for the best bang for the buck or are you fully loaded?  We’ll have recommendations at all different price points.

*Updated 2018: New models and left-handed uppers.

Now let’s get started!

What is an AR-15 Upper Receiver Assembly?

Quick refresher on AR-15 uppers and lowers.  Chances are you already have a complete AR-15 rifle or at least the serialized complete lower.  By pushing out two pins, you can connect a new upper to your lower and have basically a new gun.

AR-15 Lower
AR-15 Lower

We’ll be going over completed AR-15 upper assemblies or groups, instead of just the stripped upper.  But don’t worry, here’s our guide for the best stripped uppers for your build.  And how to put it all together: Upper Guide & Lower Guide.

Aero Precision Stripped Upper
Aero Precision Stripped Upper

Why Not Just Get a New AR?

This question comes up a lot…why not just buy a new complete AR instead of just buying a upper.  Here’s some of the reasons:

  • Saving money: If you’re not looking to get two guns and just want a different AR, getting the upper will save you at least $100-200 if not more.
  • Saving time/paperwork: Since only the lower is serialized, you don’t need to go to a FFL and file paperwork.
  • Like the current loadout: You’ve already modified your trigger, buttstock, or grip to your liking and don’t want to do it again.

Background and Brands

Still with me?

Technical Background

We’re going to presuppose that you already know some stuff about AR-15’s, such as the different barrel lengths, gas systems, and BCGs.  If you’d like a refresher, check out our Guide to AR-15’s.

We’re also sticking with direct impingement guns (normal).  If you’re looking for Piston uppers…check out Best Piston Uppers & Kits.

Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement

Brands

These are our perceived top tier brands that don’t skimp anywhere and cost a little bit more.  If you’re looking to trust your rifle with your life, we recommend going to these proven brands.

  • Bravo Company (BCM)
  • Colt
  • Daniel Defense (DD)
  • Larue
  • Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT)
  • LWRC
  • Noveske
  • Yankee Hill Machine

And these are our mid-tier brands.  There’s nothing wrong with them and we own a couple ourselves for plinking and competitions.  But we recommend testing them thoroughly before you decide to use them for defensive purposes.  These will typically cost less than the top tier brands.

  • Anderson
  • Aero Precision
  • FNH
  • Palmetto State Armory (PSA)
  • Rainier Arms
  • Ruger
  • Sig Sauer
  • Smith & Wesson
  • Spike’s

While these are the budget tier brands.  Cheapest of the bunch but great for a starter build.  Probably missing some accessories such as a free-floating barrel.

  • Bushmaster
  • Delton
  • DPMS
  • Olympic
  • Rock River Arms (RRA)
  • Stag

Now the good stuff!

Best 16″ AR-15 Upper Receiver Assemblies

These are the most popular upper receivers since they are in the sweet spot of 16″ barrels that is the minimum barrel length for a rifle under the National Firearms Act (NFA).  However, we’ll still include some 14.5″ barrel uppers that have muzzle devices pinned and welded to meet the length.

We prefer mid-length gas systems for 16″ barrels since they allow a little more space for pressures to drop and therefore give a slightly softer shooting impulse.

Other things such as handguard, front sight block (FSB), and barrel profile are user preference.

Daniel Defense 14.5″ DDM4 A1

14.5″ barrel with a permanently attached flash suppressor to make it 16″.  1:7 twist and carbine length gas system.  ($1200)

Daniel Defense 14.5″ DDM4 A1

Daniel Defense 14.5″ DDM4 A1

Prices accurate at time of writing

Yankee Hill Machine Black Diamond 16″

Free floated quad rail with a mid-length gas system, 1:9 barrel twist for common 55gr bullets, flip sights, and a flash suppressor.  ($950)

Yankee Hill Machine Black Diamond 16″

Yankee Hill Machine Black Diamond 16″

Bravo Company (BCM) 16″

Another favorite top tier brand.  This upper utilizes their 15″ KMR Alpha rail in KeyMom to give you tons of space to mount anything your heart desires.  ($864).

Bravo Company (BCM) 16″

Bravo Company (BCM) 16″

Prices accurate at time of writing

Palmetto State Armory 16″

Tons of options from PSA but here’s our list of 16″ mid-lengths sporting a M-LOK free floating handguard.  You can still choose BCG, sights, and barrel profile (~$300).

Palmetto State Armory (PSA) 16″

Palmetto State Armory (PSA) 16″

Prices accurate at time of writing

From raw materials to finished product…PSA does it so that’s why their prices are so low.  You’ll hear the occasional complaint about finish and shipping time…but they are well known online for reliability.  Full review coming soon!

Aero M4E1 16″

Softer shooting mid-length gas system, 16″ CMV barrel, choice of free-floating rail, but you will need to add a BCG and charging handle for about $120 more (use the “Finish Your Build” tab). ($429)

Aero Precision M4E1 16" 5.56 Mid-Length Upper (ATLAS Handguard)

Aero Precision M4E1 16" 5.56 Mid-Length Upper (ATLAS Handguard)

Prices accurate at time of writing

Aero Precision M4E1 16 Midlength Pencil
Aero Precision M4E1 16 Midlength Pencil

Probably the best deal for a quality nicely-finished free-floating mid-length upper.  Check out my in-depth review of the previous generation with thicker rails.

A new version has thinner ATLAS rails that are easier for gripping.  Also comes in Pencil Barrel (shown above) which I just received.

Best Precision/Varmint/3-Gun AR-15 Upper Receiver Assemblies

These types of builds have longer barrels such as 18″ or 20″ for increased bullet velocity and may even use stainless steel barrels barrel for better accuracy.  Their handguards will likely be free-floated for enhanced accuracy too.

.223 Wylde chambering adds additional accuracy by having a smaller chamber throat compared to 5.56 but will still shoot both .223 and 5.56 NATO.

Daniel Defense MK12 18″ Upper

Reach out and touch something with this upper in soft-shooting rifle gas length configuration.  1:7 twist stainless steel barrel is perfect for precision shooting with heavier bullets.  Comes with flash suppressor.  ($1300)

Daniel Defense MK12 18″ Upper

Daniel Defense MK12 18″ Upper

Bravo Company (BCM) 18″ Upper

This BCM sports a stainless 18″ barrel with a rifle-length gas system for soft-shooting and accuracy.  Also comes with the 15″ Alpha KMR KeyMod rail.

Bravo Company (BCM) 18″ Upper

Bravo Company (BCM) 18″ Upper

Prices accurate at time of writing

Palmetto State Armory 18″ Wylde Upper

Working with a budget but need something that will always go bang and hit its target?  I’m liking PSA’s 18″ rifle-length gas system for extra velocity and reduced recoil.  Again, tons of options but I’ve selected M-LOK handguards for you to be future-proof.  If you’re shooting mostly bench…you can opt for the 20″ barrel.  (~$350)

Hands-on review coming soon!

Palmetto State Armory 18″ Wylde Upper

Palmetto State Armory 18″ Wylde Upper

Prices accurate at time of writing

Aero M4E1 18″ Wylde Upper

Rifle-length gas system for the softest shooting and with the more accurate Wylde .223 chamber that still works for both 5.56 and .223 rounds.  Different thin free-floating handguards and colors available.

Need to purchase BCG and charging handle ($120 in the “Finish Your Build” tab) but still makes it a great deal.  ($479)

Aero M4E1 18″ Wylde Upper

Aero M4E1 18″ Wylde Upper

Prices accurate at time of writing

Best AR-15 Short Barrel Uppers

These barreled uppers are for Short Barrel Rifle (SBR) applications or the easier to do AR-15 pistol configuration.  Make sure you follow all laws such as having a pistol lower already before purchasing.

I like the minimum length to be at least 10″ if not 11.5″ because of increased dwell time.  I’ve heard too many reliability issues with barrels and gas systems shorter than that.

Daniel Defense MK18

Current rifle being provided to USSOCOM (US Special Operations Command).  10.3″ government profile, 1:7 twist, carbine length gas system, and flash suppressor.  ($1100)

Daniel Defense MK18

Daniel Defense MK18

Prices accurate at time of writing

Bushmaster 11.5″

11.5″ M4 contour barrel with 1:9 barrel twist, FSB, and A2 flash hider.  Easy entrance into the SBR or AR pistol world.  ($450)

Bushmaster 11.5″

Bushmaster 11.5″

Prices accurate at time of writing

Bravo Company BCM 11.5″

Great combo of the 11.5″ barrel for extra dwell plus carbine gas length.  Comes with a 10″ KMR Alpha KeyMod rail for enough space and grip for most jobs.

Bravo Company (BCM) 11.5″

Bravo Company (BCM) 11.5″

Prices accurate at time of writing

Palmetto State Armory 10.5″

Not wanting to have much barrel length AND out of pocket expense?  Again…it’s PSA to the rescue.  Normally short AR’s have reliability issues but so far so good with PSA.  (~$350)

Palmetto State Armory 10.5″

Palmetto State Armory 10.5″

Prices accurate at time of writing

Aero M4E1 10.5″

Carbine length gas system and A2 flash hider.  Comes in a variety of free-floating handguards and colors.  Need to purchase a BCG and charging handle ($120 in the “Finish Your Build” tab).  ($399)

Aero M4E1 10.5″

Aero M4E1 10.5″

Prices accurate at time of writing

Best Left-Handed AR-15 Uppers

Stag Arms 15L Tactical Upper

Stag has been in the left-handed game for years and offers a transferable owner and infinite round-count guarantee.  I like this model for the super cool rails although there are other options if you want a front-sight block.  Although, there are other options here.

Stag Arms 15L Tactical Upper

Stag Arms 15L Tactical Upper

Prices accurate at time of writing

Conclusion

So there you have it…our recommendations for the best AR-15 complete upper receivers out there.  Please check out the rest of our AR-15 articles for upgrades, best optics, cleaning, and more.

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78 Comments on "Best AR-15 Complete Upper Receiver [Hands-On 2018]"

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Sgt Rock
Guest

You put FNH in the mid tier? Shows what you know or who’s paying you to push their brand

David
Admin

I’ve handled several FN 15s and none of them have been overly impressive, especially for the price point. I’m a big FN fan but when it comes to an AR-15 there are better options for the cost.

joe
Guest

What happen to Seekins?

Bucknasty87
Guest

You call spikes a 2nd rate brand????? the whole ar community lives by them ! Spikes runs the lower game!

Brian
Guest

Dumb question. Is it OK to mix the manufactures between up and lower? I just bought an Anderson lower. Can I use another company’s upper?

David
Admin

For an AR-15 yes it is fine. The vast majority of manufacturers all use the same mil-spec standard as everyone else. There are a couple of companies out there that make a weird pattern that isn’t mil-spec, but those are very rare, cost an outrageous amount, and comes with lots of warning labels about how they aren’t standard.

All of the manufacturers we looked at in this article all make standard mil-spec uppers that can attach to any standard lower with no worries.

Personally, I highly recommend Aero.

Bcfm1
Guest

David, thanks for the information.

Shane
Guest

Two other great budget uppers are diamondback and CBC industries. I was weary of diamondback as they’re not known to make the greatest pistols, but I’ve already put 1000rds through one and have never had an issue and it’s extremely accurate. I’ve never personally shot a CBC upper but from the reviews they get they seem pretty nice. Both start around $200 with a large variety of uppers on both websites.

Kc p
Guest
I have a CBC upper mounted to a Anderson lower excellent fit and my 16” 1/7 twist 556 upper is as reliable and accurate as you can ask for regardless of the price at 200 yards I can shoot the cap off of a milk jug every shot it runs steel case tula ammo without an issue and brass runs great the customer service is prompt and they keep you informed on the status of your order unlike the horror stories I’ve read about from other companies I hope this helps more people decide to exercise they’re 2nd amendment rights… Read more »