Once you have your shiny new AR-15 (or two or three or…), it’s time to take it out and shoot it.
While your rifle may have come with a magazine or two, you’ll likely want many more so you can load them up at home.
The challenge with going magazine shopping is there seem to be a hundred different varieties.
Unlike handguns, where you pretty much are stuck with what your manufacturer makes…everyone seems to make AR magazines.
It’s the strength and weakness of the AR platform.
Everyone and their brother seems to make parts and accessories for it, and some of them are even good. So how can you tell which ones you should buy?
Well, we’re to help. We’re going to walk you through how to choose the right magazine for your platform.
So keep reading!
Table of Contents
What Makes a Magazine “Good?”
Fortunately, for magazines, it’s not terribly difficult to identify a quality magazine. Most modern AR magazines are relatively decent, so long as they can pass a few straightforward tests.
First, does the magazine look like it’s in decent shape?
This may seem obvious, but a magazine that is dented or cracked is unlikely to work reliably.
Make sure you check it all over, too. You don’t need to take the magazine apart, but look at the feed lips and follower in addition to the body of the magazine itself.
They shouldn’t look bent or chipped.
Then fill up the magazine with ammunition and tap the bottom of it sharply. You can slap with your hand or use a padded surface (guess which one hurts less?), just don’t be shy about how hard you hit.
Either way, you’re looking to see if rounds pop up and out of the magazine from the impact. If they do, your feed lips may be out of spec.
Next, you’ll want to see if the magazine drops freely from your AR. That means you need to insert it into the gun, hold the gun up, hit the magazine release, and see if the magazine drops from your gun without assistance.
You should try this with both empty and full magazines, although full magazines should be reserved for the range or when facing a safe direction that can adequately contain a rifle round in case of an oops moment.
If they don’t fall freely, then your magazine is out of spec.
Finally, you need to find out if your AR’s bolt will lock back on the empty magazine. The fun way to do this is to shoot until a magazine is empty.
But all you really need to do is to drop the bolt on an empty chamber, insert an empty magazine, and pull back on the charging handle.
You shouldn’t need to fumble with the bolt catch if the magazine is in good shape.
You can use these tests to see if individual magazines you already own are good to go, as well as to see if a new-to-you brand of magazine will work with your AR.
Polymer vs. Metal Magazines
When talking about polymer and metal, we’re mostly focused on the body of the magazine and the feed lips.
But really, it’s the feed lips that are the critical part and really define the magazine. Example of a polymer magazine is, of course, the Magpul PMAG.
And for the metal magazine, take a look at Brownell’s 20-round mag.
Quick and dirty version of this discussion is that both styles of magazine will, generally, be very reliable, last a long time, and serve you well on the range and in the field.
That said, polymer magazines do have one major advantage over their metal counterparts…the feed lips.
When a magazine breaks or becomes unreliable, it is normally because something happened to the feed lips. They are the weakest part of the magazine and the most critical part when it comes to reliably offering a round for the bolt to chamber.
Metal feed lips are fairly hard to deform, but dropping them on hitting them hard enough will do the job.
Their disadvantage lies in the fact that visually telling that a magazine with metal feed lips is deformed can be hard to do.
Many times the deformity is minor enough to pass visual inspection, but sever enough to cause unreliability.
This almost never happens with polymer feed lips.
The polymer will either return to its former shape or break entirely. Thus, if it looks good – it is good. But if it is broken, the break will be obvious and you can discard the magazine.
But…polymer mags don’t have that classic look and feel to them. And yes, sometimes that does make a difference.
What Is Better For You?
If you’re like us then the answer is simple. Both.
Metal magazines are normally cheaper which means you can stock them deeper. But polymer has better visual inspection properties.
Metal magazines are very slightly lighter weight (1-ounce per mag normally).
Polymer mags can have windows in them so it’s super easy to see how many rounds you have left.
Metal magazines are classics and are the only choice for retro builds.
Polymer mags will never rust or dent. Metal magazines are slightly thinner and can fit in a chest rig better sometimes.
So the answer you’re looking for is both.
Best AR-15 Magazines
I get it. Not everyone has the time, money, or inclination to perform their own testing.
That’s why you’re reading this article. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent magazines on the market right now that you can be quite confident about running with your gun.
1. Magpul PMAG M3
Perhaps the most popular AR magazine on the market, with the most name recognition, is the Magpul PMAG.
They’re reasonably-priced, easy to find, and generally quite reliable. It’s difficult to go wrong picking up a pack of PMAGs, and that’s assuming you don’t already have a few floating around.
Where you might get confused is that there are a lot of different varieties of PMAGs out there these days.
The most common is the standard 30-round magazines, which come in both a Gen M2 and a Gen M3 variety.
The Gen M3 are the latest and greatest, and there’s no reason to go hunting for the Gen M2; Magpul has only bettered their design over the years.
However, M2 PMAGs are often found for a decent amount cheaper and there isn’t anything wrong with them.
The M3 design was made to address some very specific issues that the military had in conjunction with their exact model of AR-15, namely the H&K 416 and derivatives of that platform.
While these design improvements are nice to have for the average user, they are by no means critical or necessary.
For a deep dive on the differences between the Gen 2 and Gen 3 PMAGS, check out Magpul PMAG M2 vs M3 [Does It Even Matter?]!
Magpul also offers 10-, 20-, and 40-round versions of the PMAG (not to mention a 60-round drum variation).
The 10- and 20-rounders are especially useful for shooting from prone or other positions where a longer magazine might get in the way.
Whatever size you get, you will also need to decide on whether you want a windowed PMAG.
Having a window makes it a little easier to tell how many rounds are left in your magazine, although the counts aren’t perfect.
Prices accurate at time of writing
What’s your take on Magpul mags?
2. Lancer Systems AWM
Alternatively, you can get a translucent magazine that makes it possible to see all of the rounds that are inside.
My pick — Lancer Systems Advanced Warfighter Magazines (AWMs).
They’ll cost you about the same as a PMAG, aren’t hard to find, and are about as boringly reliable as the PMAG.
The AWMs come in 5-, 10-, 20-, and 30-round varieties to match up to most standard uses for AR-type rifles.
All of them come in clear or translucent shades so that you can see through almost the entire magazine, no matter what angle you’re looking from.
It’s a little less finicky than looking through a small window and even allows you to count rounds individually without emptying the magazine.
Lancer also did something else different with the AWM.
Instead of the magazine body being completely polymer like the PMAG, the AWM has steel feed lips attached to its polymer body.
They’re considered more durable and harder to deform than aluminum feed lips and, of course, it would take quite a bit more effort to chip them.
3. USGI-Style Magazines
If you don’t trust plastic at all, you can always go old-school with all-metal USGI-style magazines.
Standard issue in the military for years, the biggest problem with them is that there are seemingly a million manufacturers and variations of these simple aluminum boxes.
And not all of them are created equal.
I recommend sticking with two — the Brownells house brand and the Surefeed magazines made by OKAY Industries.
They both come in 10-, 20-, and 30-round varieties, although the Brownells 10-round magazines are the same length as their 20-round magazines.
And they both consistently meet current military standards or better in construction and specifications.
In fact, OKAY supplies the U.S. military with AR magazines now, and those are the same magazines sold under the Surefeed name.
Metal magazines have the advantage of not only being quite durable, though this is less of a concern with modern polymers but also generally cheaper.
While a few dollars each might not seem like big savings, it can add up as you buy more and more magazines.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Higher Capacity Magazines
4. Magpul D-60 Drum
Superb reliability and worth of the Magpul name, this is hands down the best large capacity AR-15 magazines on the market.
But it’s fairly heavy, and loading it takes some effort. These are unavoidable though so…just gotta embrace it!
Real downside though is that there is just no good way to carry a drum magazine on your person.
They’re bulky, oddly shaped, and real heavy just at one end.
Great for keeping in your rifle for the first mag — but you might want to switch to more normal shaped magazines when it’s time to reload from the belt or vest.
5. SureFire 60-Round “Coffin” Magazine
SureFire is a well-known name for a lot of AR-15 parts, such as their muzzle brakes, flash hiders, lights, and more. Their magazines are solid options also!
While I wouldn’t call their 60-round magazines as reliably as the Magpul drum, it still works.
It also has the advantage that they are MUCH easier to carry on your person.
They won’t fit in a standard magazine pocket, but they do fit in doubles like a charm.
Ban State and Lower Capacity Magazines
Depending on the state you live in, you might be limited to only having 10- or 15-rounds in your magazine. Check your state laws to be sure, but either way, we got you covered.
There are two main styles of magazines for banned states.
One uses the body of a 30-round magazine with some kind of limiter or pin to block the magazine to only accept 10- or 15-rounds or there are dedicated 10- or 15-round magazines where the body of the magazines itself is also designed to only take that many rounds.
The 10/30 and 15/30 magazines are nice because they look and feel right and also give you the option to convert them to full 30-round magazines if your state laws change or you move to a new state.
But the dedicated lower-capacity magazines are also nice because they are shorter – this makes prone or bench shooting easier for most people.
6. 10/30 and 15/30 Hexmag
We’ve used a lot of Hexmags over the years and have been very impressed with them. While there were negative reports about their Series 1 magazine design, we’ve only ever seen/used the series 2 mags and they are rock solid!
7. 10-Round PMAG
I know you’ve seen their name a lot but that’s because they really are one of the best options for magazines, period.
Great for shooting prone or from a bench, the 10-Round PMAG M3 is an option that won’t let you down!
Why Do I Need More Mags?
You always need more magazines, for every gun you own.
It’s not just because having to stuff mags at the range can be a drag, or because of potential shifting political winds.
They’re also a consumable resource, so they won’t last forever. You can keep them usable for longer if you follow a few basic guidelines though.
Remember how I mentioned that magazines that look beat up probably won’t work well?
The first rule of magazines is to not beat them up unnecessarily.
If you’re shooting your AR in matches or classes or practicing dynamic shooting, you’re almost certain to drop them a time or four hundred. That’s fine.
What you’re trying to avoid is intentionally stomping on them, drop-kicking them across the range, or dropping them for fun (especially on the feed lips!).
Do that a few too many times, and you’re certain to start having magazines go out of spec.
And don’t forget, you don’t need to immediately throw out magazines that fail the tests above, satisfying as it might be.
However, you do need to make sure you take them out of the rotation for important uses like matches or home defense.
For practice or for plinking at the range, an occasional failure won’t be a problem, so you can keep those magazines a little longer.
Accessories for Accessories
With all of those magazines, you might want to set some aside for a particular use.
In addition to mags designated for training only, I also have mags that are dedicated to different kinds of ammunition.
That would be especially important for me if I had a rifle in .300 Blackout, which looks very similar to .223/5.56 but would be very dangerous to shoot out of a .223/5.56 rifle.
If you’ve decided to do that, you’ll need a way to mark them so that you can keep track.
An easy, low-cost, and high visibility way to label your magazines is to wrap a strip of duct tape around the bottom.
You just need to make sure it’s positioned to not get into the magazine well when it’s loaded into your rifle.
A little fancier and more personalized option is to use a GunSkins wrap or similar product that’s basically like a giant, durable sticker for your magazine.
It takes little effort and just a few minutes, and the results are permanent. Plus if you pick a bright or unusual color, nobody will mistake your mags for theirs at the range.
Cosmetics aren’t the only thing you can change about magazines.
You can also extend their capacity or make them a little easier to use in different types of environments.
While you can always just buy the next bigger magazine of the brand you’ve chosen, sometimes you want just a few extra rounds available.
You might also want a little extra room in your magazine so that it’s easier to seat a full magazine on a full chamber in your rifle.
The answer to that is the basepad extension.
It replaces the basepad on your magazine and, by making the whole thing a little longer, allows you to load a few extra rounds.
My favorites are the ones from Taran Tactical Innovations. The downside is that they’re not available for all models of magazines.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Another option is to attach two magazines together so that when one goes empty you can reload with the other one right there.
While people have done this by taping mags together, you can also buy purpose-made couplers to do the job, like the one Lancer Systems makes for their own magazines.
While you’re adding things to your magazines, extra capacity isn’t the only end game.
With modern magazines and ARs, using your mag as a sort of monopod won’t cause malfunctions.
It’s so common and trouble-free now that you can even update your baseplate to make the magazine a more stable platform to balance on.
One example is the Magpul Ranger Plate. It not only gives you a more forgiving surface with better angles to support the gun, but it also acts as a pull tab.
What’s a pull-tab?
Even though your mags should drop free when they’re functioning correctly, you might run into a little trouble if there’s a malfunction of some type — perhaps a magazine that failed unexpectedly or a double-feed.
In those cases, getting a little extra leverage to pull the magazine out can be helpful, and that’s where pull-tabs come in. They replace or attach to your baseplate and give you a little extra to grab onto.
Magazines seem like they should be a simple purchase.
After all, they don’t need to do anything more than hold ammunition and feed it to the gun.
It’s a vital function, though, and a bad magazine will make even the best rifle nothing more than an awkward club. Stick with mags like those described above, and you’ll have a much better day at the range.
What are your favorite AR mags? Let us know in the comments below. You know…you need a rifle to go with those mags. Why not check out our recommendations for the Best AR-15s.