Are PSA’s low prices too good to be true?
For years I’ve heard of Palmetto State Armory and their ultra-affordable AR-15s. The only negative things were some finishing issues and shipping delays here and there.
But… for a long time I was a little obsessed with name brands and scoffed at sub-$500 rifles.
I finally bit the bullet…
I got three of their uppers (16″ 5.56 with front sight block, 16″ 5.56 free-float rail, 18″ stainless .223 Wylde), one of their lowers, and shot a lot of rounds through them.
By the end you’ll know if a PSA rifle/upper is right for you…and the best model to get based on your use.
Table of Contents
Who Is It For?
- Budget conscious buyers who want something that works and can overlook some details like perfect finishing and dead-on accuracy
- Someone who wants a lot of options in terms of barrel length and handguard
- People who can wait a while for something to go into stock or ship
Why Is It So Cheap?
PSA sent me these three uppers and one lower for testing.
But they are going through the same testing procedures I do for all my other guns.
And at a higher round count since reliability is key when I recommend more budget-friendly options.
I spoke with PSA and the reason their AR-15s are so affordable is due to full vertical integration. From raw metal to the finished product…they do it themselves.
Fit, Feel, & Finish
PSA has their Freedom line which is their most affordable and is pretty much mil-spec (meets military specifications).
However, like I outlined in our AR-15 Buyer’s Guide…I like a mid-length gas system way better than the standard carbine-length.
It gives you more rail space and a softer shooting impulse since the gas tube is longer and gas block is more forward.
Unless you’re going for the pure M4 look…I’d opt for something in the mid-length arena. Or at least their Magpul MOE furniture models so you can add some rails in the future.
Barrels & Gas Systems
For my upper with a FSB (front sight block…that triangle thing you see above), I went with a 16″ mid-length Magpul model and Nitride-coated barrel.
This gives me a longer handguard (with M-LOK), ability to add rails, Magpul rear flip sight, and a nicer barrel finish compared to phosphate.
Since it has a pinned FSB…it’s a little front-heavy….but that’s the nature of the beast. The FSB is pinned well and the handguard is really on there. You can see my segment of Picatinny I added to the handguard’s M-LOK attachment points.
The next upper would be my favorite overall setup. 16″ mid-length with a 13.5″ M-LOK free-floating barrel and Nitride barrel.
Now you get the benefit of not having a FSB which helps the weight balance, and also having a free-floating handguard that increases accuracy by taking away contact points on the barrel.
For absolute reliability I’d still opt for the FSB model…but free-float AR’s are now the standard, you can attach a lot of stuff, and the gas block is really on there.
The last model is the 18″ .223 Wylde which is a relatively new chambering that will shoot BOTH 5.56 and .223 but offers a slight accuracy edge. Usually you’ll see the more accurate barrels in stainless which is what we have here.
This comes in an even softer shooting rifle-length gas system and 15″ M-LOK free-floating rail.
All came with mil-spec A2 bird-case flash-hiders that were installed correctly and didn’t require superhuman strength to take off and switch for some compensators.
PSA seems to have three tiers of barrels.
- Premium: chrome-lined or CHF (cold hammer forged) that are made by FN
- Standard: Nitride, Melonite, and stainless barrels
- Basic: phosphate coated
The two 5.56 uppers I received were Nitride coated instead of regular phosphate…while the Wylde was stainless steel.
Nitride (two left black ones) is smooth while stainless is…stainless. The BCG on the right gives you a sense of what the rougher texture phosphate looks like. Nitride is supposed to be a little tougher and I like the smooth look.
I took apart the free-floating 5.56 and Wylde. Straight gas tubes…
And at least 35 in-lb of torque on the gas block with some sort of weird spill on the 5.56.
There’s not too much to say here…everything is where it’s supposed to be.
- Ejection port door works
- Forward assist works
- Charging handle feels mil-spec and works
- T-Markings present and easy to read
- Evenly phosphate coated
If I had to nitpick…there’s some super small machining marks on the forward assist for two of the uppers I had. Not even sure you can see them in the pics.
The Magpul mid-length polymer handguard is what it is. A great update to the mil-spec plastic handguard that can’t attach anything.
The free-floating M-LOK handguards work too. The thin profile feels great in the hand…but could use a little more TLC in the CNC to get rid of sharper edges.
Also the 13.5″ is a little on the purple-ish side and a little off in orientation between receiver and handguard…but nothing an Allen wrench and a small turn didn’t fix.
The more “premium” Wylde upper was properly aligned and colored.
BCG + Charging Handles
As mil-spec as they come. Everything is as it should be and the gas-keys are properly staked.
The 5.56 uppers had phosphate coated BCGs (mil-spec) while the Wylde had a Nitride coated one.
If I had to nitpick again…the coating is a little bumpier than other phosphates I’ve used, but since only the rails of the BCG contact anything…there’s no real downside.
I found that the mil-spec phosphate BCGs were not MP marked (magnetic particle inspected) while the more premium .223 Wylde one was.
All the bolts were listed Carpenter 158 steel (mil-spec) but I’ve seen some PSA models where it is 9310 steel. Fine for civilian use but if you really want mil-spec…go for the Carpenter 158. The carriers were all 8620 steel (mil-spec).
Charging handles were mil-spec as well.
Since I’ve gone with aftermarket charging handles…I cannot go back (Best AR-15 Charging Handles).
I built the lower as a kit so I added a few dings here and there (How to Build an AR-15 Lower). I got the Magpul kit which has their buttstock, grip, and trigger guard.
This one also comes with PSA’s EPT trigger which is silver compared to mil-spec phosphate black. Much less grit!
But for this one I did have a little trouble threading the grip screw initially. I’m thinking the coating was a little thick since I had to muscle my way through the initial turns.
Otherwise everything installed as it should.
How Does It Shoot?
What really matters…right?
I took a bunch of ammo, a buddy, and the two 5.56 uppers to the range. With the goal of putting as many rounds downrange as possible.
I cleaned the barrels but otherwise did not do any break-in procedures. I started with ~300 rounds of Wolf Gold (Best AR-15 Ammo) through each one before the accuracy tests.
For the 16″ with FSB…there were two failures to load a new round after a magazine change in the first 40 rounds. However after that it shot without a hiccup.
For the M-LOK free-floating version, there was one failure to load on the first magazine change and no more problems afterwards.
This is likely due to all the parts breaking in.
Recoil was standard and mild for both 5.56 uppers. After a few mags I was easily hitting 12″ plates at 100 yards with my EOTech.
But still made me realize how spoiled I’ve been with adjustable gas-blocks and compensators (Best AR-15 Upgrades).
For the free-floating version, if you grip around the gas block like I do…you’ll feel a little heat when dumping rounds. Not enough to burn…but enough to have a red hand after 500 rounds.
Here’s my buddy and me at our second range day. I’m running my competition lower with a much better trigger (Best AR-15 Triggers).
The uppers worked flawlessly after the initial break-in on the following lowers:
- Aero Precision (x2)
- Daniel Defense
While the lower worked with the following uppers:
- Aero Precision (x2)
- Daniel Defense
The 5.56 barrels are the middle of the road for PSA. Let’s see how they fare.
I let the barrels cool down and then ran through Wolf Gold, PMC Bronze, American Eagle, and Federal Gold Match.
I used my standard testing platform for all my AR-15 stuff…
- Lead Sled DFT ($200)
- Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25x Scope with Larue Mount ($3500)
- Hiperfire Eclipse Trigger ($230)
Targets were placed at 100 yards and I shot at a pace of around 1 shot per 10 seconds. 10 shots each group.
Mil-spec is 3-4 MOA which means 3-4 inch groups at 100 yards. The FSB version falls within that (targets are 8″). With PMC Bronze doing the best of the plinking rounds at around 3 MOA.
Gold Match does the best but keep in mind it’s about $1 a shot. If you’re shooting that on a regular basis you’re probably looking at other rifles (Best AR-15s).
All in all…it’s as I expected. When there’s a front sight block there’s a whole lot of stuff touching the barrel which doesn’t help accuracy. Let’s see the free-floating model.
Much better! Looks like all the groups closed up. PMC Bronze and American Eagle are pretty even at what looks like 2 MOA. Gold Match is still the ultimate winner but it’s not THAT much off from PMC and AE.
When you have a free-floating handguard there’s less contact with the barrel and the accuracy shows.
Now how about the .223 Wylde we’ve forgotten?
Since this is a more premium barrel and made for accuracy…I did a break-in procedure with it as well as with PSA’s .224 Valkyrie (coming soon).
I cleaned the barrel and shot 1 round through before using copper solvent and a brush. Repeat the shoot and clean for 5x total. Then I changed it up to 5 shots before cleaning. Repeat 5x.
I then plinked ~200 rounds.
Finally, I was ready…
I used a different lower with a Triggertech trigger which I might actually like more than my Hiperfire (Best AR-15 Triggers). I started running low on Gold Medal so the last group only has 4 rounds.
It really looks like the FSB version instead of something that uses a tighter chamber and a free-floating handguard.
I’ll continue testing but right now looks like I would stick with PSA’s regular 5.56 offerings (free-floating of course).
The thing with PSA is that they are always in and out of stock of everything. And they have almost every combination under the sun…which makes it nice but also a headache to find what you want.
No fuss of building anything…out of the box ready to go.
I again like mid-length gas systems and it looks like their Nitride barrels are GTG. Their more premium selections (CHF) should be great as well if you have a little more to spend. I haven’t spent time with their regular barrels (phosphate), but other reviews vouch for them.
I personally like free-floating M-LOK handguards since they give you added accuracy and lots of space to put stuff. Unless you really want the look of a FSB…go for free-floating!
Already have a lower and want an affordable upper? There’s a bazillion options again…so here’s a search for 16″ mid-lengths to narrow it down a little:
Remember to choose the options with BCG (bolt carrier group), CH (charging handle), and Magpul MBUS (flip backup sights) if you need them.
Looking at complete lowers? I prefer the Magpul editions…mil-spec buttstocks and pistol grips are not great.
A little something I learned recently…retailers must add on a 11% tax for fully assembled firearms.
PSA has rifle kits which…if you’re a little handy…will save you a bunch when you build your own lower.
And be sure to get a stripped lower since the kit will contain everything except that.
Follow our How to Build an AR-15 Lower guide to put it all together.
By the Numbers
After some minor break-in to loosen things up…my PSA uppers were fully reliable at my current round count of 1500 across all three.
It’ll do its job within mil-spec with regular plinking ammo, and seems to like PMC Bronze overall the best (Best AR-15 Ammo). Little bummed out that the .223 Wylde didn’t perform as well as it should.
Magpul kit makes it pretty good with the buttstock and pistol grip. Free-floating handguard is thin but a little too sharp around the edges.
Pretty average here but could use more consistency in color.
Bang for the Buck: 5/5
You can get a fully reliable AR for under $500…and even lower if you get the kits.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
The online legends are true.
Based on my testing I can totally recommend Palmetto State Armory for an affordable AR-15 that will go bang every time.
My favorite would still be their mid-length free-floating options…but their more M4-looking FSB ones also fit the bill.
For now…stay away from their Wylde and soon I’ll have reports on their .224 Valkyrie and more. Plus I’m going to put much more rounds in all three and update if anything changes.
And once you get one…check out our AR-15 Definitive Resource for everything AR.
What do you think of the review? Is a PSA AR-15 on your horizon? Or if you already have one…how’s it working out for you?