Getting overwhelmed with all the upper receivers out there?
Find out the best AR-15 upper receiver for you depending on your end use, such as precision shooting, general use, or close quarters combat.
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 October 2017: 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.
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.
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?
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.
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)
- Daniel Defense (DD)
- Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT)
- 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.
- Aero Precision
- Rainier Arms
- Sig Sauer
- Smith & Wesson
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.
- Palmetto State Armory (PSA)
- Rock River Arms (RRA)
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 permanently attached flash suppressor to make it 16″. 1:7 twist and carbine length gas system. ($1100)
- Yankee Hill Machine Black Diamond 16″: Free floated quad rail with mid-length gas system, 1:9 barrel twist for common 55gr bullets, flip sights, and a flash suppressor. ($850)
- Smith & Wesson M&P15: Upgraded upper receiver for the highly popular M&P15 with a Troy free-float rail, flip up sights, 1:7 barrel twist, carbine gas system, and flash hider. ($1000)
- Colt LE6920 16″: The upper to the venerable LE6920. 16″ barrel, 1:7 barrel twist, and carbine length gas system. But now comes with backup sights and quad-rail. ($700)
- Aero M4E1 16″: ($429) 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).
- Probably the best deal for a quality free-floating mid-length upper. Check out my in-depth review of the previous generation with thicker rails.
- New version has thinner ATLAS rails that’s 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.
- 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)
- FNH FN15 18″ Upper: Almost identical to the DD above in terms of statistics except with a compensator instead of a flash suppressor. ($1100)
- Anderson 18″ 3-Gun Upper: Marketed as a 3-gun competition upper but it is essentially just a 18″ stainless steel barrel with a soft-shooting rifle gas system, adjustable gas block, and muzzle brake. ($800)
- 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)
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
Best Left-Handed AR-15 Uppers
- Stag Arms 3THL-M ($750): 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.
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!