Best AR-15 Upper Receiver Assemblies for the Money [2018]

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.

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.  More in February after SHOT Show!

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 permanently attached flash suppressor to make it 16″.  1:7 twist and carbine length gas system.  ($1100)

DDM4 A1
DDM4 A1

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)

YHM Black Diamond
YHM Black Diamond

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).

BCM 16 Mid-Length Upper
BCM 16 Mid-Length Upper

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).

PSA 16 Mid-Length with MBUS
PSA 16 Mid-Length with MBUS

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 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.

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.

.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 Inch
Daniel Defense MK12 18″

Bravo Company (BCM) 18″ Upper

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

BCM 18" Rifle-Length Upper
BCM 18″ Rifle-Length Upper

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!

PSA 18" Rifle-Length Wylde
PSA 18″ Rifle-Length Wylde

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 Precision M4E1 18 Rifle Atlas Handguard
Aero Precision M4E1 18 Rifle Atlas Handguard

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)

MK18 Upper
MK18 Upper

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

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.

BCM 11.5" Carbine Upper
BCM 11.5″ Carbine Upper

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)

PSA 10.5 Carbine Length Upper
PSA 10.5 Carbine Length Upper

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 Upper
Aero M4E1 10.5 Upper

Best Left-Handed AR-15 Uppers

Stag Arms 3THL-M

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.  ($750)

Stag Arms 3THL-M
Stag Arms 3THL-M

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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63 Comments on "Best AR-15 Upper Receiver Assemblies for the Money [2018]"

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tango
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I’ve purchased 4 ar stoner uppers that have going on a 1000 rounds without a pickup and printing 1/2 moa at 100 yards. I’m curious why they are not mentioned at all

James Kirk
Guest

Wth these groups of mid tier vs top tier are ridiculous. What is that the groups of people that didn’t offer to send you free stuff vs the people that did?

Shane
Guest
Eric i always enjoy your articles but I don’t know how lon it’s been since you got a palmetto state armory upper but I have ordered 3 in last 6 months using their deal of the day and they to me are better than most of the middle group you mentioned. I have a DD AR and they don’t compare but I’ve had zero problems and great groups with all of them. Most are what they call blemishes and they usually have a little scratch on the rail or a slight color defect that I’m not sure most could tell… Read more »
Robert
Guest

JSE surplus is a great place for a large variety of complete uppers. They allowed me to customize the 4 I bought from them. Delton also has a really cool customizable section. There are only 3 upper receiver manufactures and all make them to mill spec. Its the barrel you want to pay attention to. I prefer mid-length gas system. it shoots smoother and tends to be more reliable for extraction. Most barrels are 16″ why not get the most out of it.

adam
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what about Wilson combat upper lowers