Best AR-15 Upper Receiver Assemblies for the Money 2017

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 2017*: New companies and left-handed uppers.

Now let’s get started!

Completed Upper Receivers
Completed Upper Receivers

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 Completed 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.

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
  • 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
  • Palmetto State Armory (PSA)
  • 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 16″ DDM4 V1/V5: Mid-length gas system combined with the very sturdy FSB setup and an enclosed rail.  Some models come with a verticle foregrip.  The best of all worlds.  ($1100)
DDM4 V1/V5 16 Inch FSB
DDM4 V1/V5 16 Inch FSB
DDM4 A1
DDM4 A1
  • Daniel Defense 16″ DDM4 V11 Lightweight: Pencil barrel for weight savings if you don’t plan on mag dumping all the time.  Mid-length gas system, 1:7 barrel twist, free float KeyMod rail, and flash suppressor.  Also comes in standard Government profile barrel.  ($900)
DDM4 V11
DDM4 V11
YHM Black Diamond
YHM Black Diamond
  • 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.  ($800)
M&P15 Upper
M&P15 Upper
  • 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)
Colt LE6920 Upper
Colt LE6920 Upper
  • DPMS A3: A3 Flattop Version ($370) 16″ pencil contour, carbine gas length, 1:9 barrel twist, A2 flash hider, and plastic handguards.  Or the FSB version for $500.
DPMS A3 Flattop
DPMS A3 Flattop
  • Aero M4E1 16″: ($425) 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.
Aero M4E1 16 Mid-Length
Aero M4E1 16″ Mid-Length

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.  ($1200)
Daniel Defense MK12 18 Inch
Daniel Defense MK12 18 Inch
  • FNH FN15 18″ Upper: Almost identical to the DD above in terms of statistics except with a compensator instead of a flash suppressor.  ($1100)
FNH 18 Inch
FNH 18 Inch
  • 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.  ($900)
Anderson 18 Inch
Anderson 18 Inch
  • 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 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.  ($450)
Aero M4E1 18 Wylde Upper
Aero M4E1 18 Wylde Upper

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)
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
  • DPMS 11.5″ & 7″: Flat top receiver and FSB with 1:9 barrel twist and A2 flash hider.  11.5″ model has plastic two piece handguards while the 7″ is free floating.  ($530-600)
DPMS 11.5
DPMS 11.5
DPMS 7
DPMS 7
  • 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).  ($385)
Aero M4E1 10.5 Upper
Aero M4E1 10.5 Upper

Best Left-Handed AR-15 Uppers

Stag Arms 3THL-M
Stag Arms 3THL-M
  • 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.

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!

37 Comments

  1. Anderson over Bushmaster? XM15 bare bones lower is 350$ Rainier is top shelf as well. Actually, that whole classification of brands is way off. I enjoyed the read, however you putting an FNH as a “mid-tier” weapon is quite laughable. Have you ever touched any rifle made by FNH? I think you would like it! ☺

    1. 249 SAW, 240B, 50 cal, most barrels in the m4 we used in the army. All FNH. Yeah I’d say their top teir indeed

  2. I know chrome lined barrels are generally less accurate than their stainless steel counterparts, but Im looking for an 18in chrome lined barrel so I don’t have to worry about corrosion. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. Eric,

    You mention the Black Diamond “16 from Yankee Hill but I did not see Yankee Hill listed in your mfg. rundown. Where do you list the Yankee Hill products?

    Thanks

  4. I am really surprised that you ranked Bushmaster in the lower tier, Can you please elaborate on why you ranked them at this level. Their prices seem to rival most of the mid tiers that you listed.

  5. Eric, you didn’t mention Windham Weaponry in your mfg list. Was that a byproduct of your experience with their products? Or, just left them out completely?

  6. I’m glad to see you included the YHM Black Diamond in the top tier. I did my first build 6 months ago and that is the upper I chose to go with. I have to say it has incredible accuracy. I used top tier products all through the build from a Magpul UBR stock, a Geissele SD3G trigger, a Seekins Precision SBA15 lower to a Steiner T5Xi 1-5x24mm scope. Beast of a build I’ll tell you what. I’m glad to see a review that makes an honest assessment on the hierarchy of uppers. Also it reinforces my opinion that I made a good decision in trusting YHM 😉

  7. Do you see any negatives going with the 18″ wylde upper over the 16″ mid length upper by Aero Precision? Other than it being 2″ longer, I like the added accuracy it will provide for farther distance.

      1. I’m building my very first AR based on your website recommendations of the Aero Precision. For a first time owner of an AR, which barrel length would you recommend? Thank you for your website and taking the time to reply.

        1. Hey Grayden, I like 16″ for a good mix between velocity and maneuverability. Plus, you can change up muzzle devices without dealing with permanent attachment.

          1. Ok 16″ it is thank you Eric! However, would you opt for the .223 wylde mid length over the 5.56 mid-length for $25 more? Sorry for all the newbie questions but I really value your opinion in owning my first AR. Thank you again Eric!

          2. Hey Grayden, I’d say it’s based on if you’re looking at slightly more accuracy go for the wylde (if you’re reloading, really make sure your rounds are in spec, I learned the hard way), but for general shooting go for the 5.56.

  8. Hello Eric, I want to build a side charging 300 Blackout.
    I see a complete upper by ARStoner. Do you have a review available for that brand?
    Thanks for your site.
    Tom

    1. Hey Thomas, I haven’t owned any AR Stoner stuff but I know they are the budget in-house brand for Midway. I’d check out more reviews first.

  9. For the complete aero precision upper do you recommend the pencil profile or m4 profile? 16″ mid length gas tube. Just for a good all around gun.

    1. I like the pencil profiles for weight reduction. Unless you plan on shooting lots of rounds really quickly you won’t really see a difference in groups.

  10. I just finished a build (kind of a Frankenbuild) with Mega Arms forged upper and lower, UTG Slim Pro handguard, and 16″ Ballistic Advantage Hanson Series 1:8 barrel in QPQ finish. The Mega receivers are absolutely tight and well finished. Had to heat the upper to insert the barrel, but I understand this is a good thing for accuracy. First time out, after sighting in the run of the mill Magpul irons, I shot a 20 round grouping the size of a plum at 50 yards. Recommend all of the above parts.

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