11 Best AR-15s: Ultimate Guide [2022 Hands-On]

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There’s a perfect AR-15 out there for you and we’ll help you find it.

By the time you’re done with this guide, you’ll know everything about how the AR-15 works and how different configurations affect performance.

Some of Our Favorite AR-15s

There might be some jargon in there you don’t understand.

But don’t worry…we’ll deep dive into individual parts, the best manufacturers, and more about each rifle choice.

Aero Precision EPC Night Vision Shooting
Aero Precision EPC Night Vision Shooting

And we’ve actually hands-on tested all these guns…unlike most other sites out there that copied us.

Daniel Defense MK18
Daniel Defense MK18

Here’s a sneak peek of our favorites…but also scroll to “Best AR-15 Rifles” for more info on each!

Summary of Our Top Picks

Table of Contents

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Why the AR-15?

BCM Recce 16 Rifle with MCMR Handguard
BCM Recce 16 Rifle with MCMR Handguard

The AR-15 is one of the most popular sporting rifles for many reasons. Here’s what we think are the top reasons:

Used by the US Military

Special Forces Beard Guy
Special Forces Beard Guy

Or rather, it looks like the M4s and M16s used by the US military.

The civilian AR-15 is a semi-automatic rifle compared to the automatic/select fire capabilities of some of the military versions.

That means one press of the trigger is a single PEW! instead of a fully automatic where a single press of the trigger will be a continuous stream of PEW! PEW! PEW! until you let go.

Admit it…there’s a little coolness factor in holding the symbol of America’s might.

Lead Star Arms Shooting
Wooooo!

Shootability

AR15 Parts Diagram
AR-15 Parts Diagram

The AR-15 is very light recoiling when chambered in its native 5.56x45mm round. And is also very ergonomic when compared to other popular rifles such as the AK-47.

Check me out dumping 10 rounds on a PSA…

Modular Design

The AR-15 consists primarily of two large segments, the lower receiver…

BCM Lower Receiver, Mod 0 Stock
BCM Lower Receiver, Mod 0 Stock

And the upper receiver, which can be swapped out in a matter of seconds.

A Few Of Our Personal AR-15 Uppers
A Few Of Our Favorite AR-15 Uppers

The AR-15 can fulfill roles such from a long-range precision rifle to close-quarters combat (CQB) carbine by just switching out the “upper” and mating it with the “lower.”

Only the lower is the serialized firearm so with one lower you can have several uppers to fulfill any role without additional paperwork.

.300 BLK 123gr vs 200gr
.300 BLK 123gr vs 200gr

The lower holds the trigger mechanism and for the most part, you can swap out the upper for even different calibers, from the .22LR to .300 BLK and even .50 Beowulf.

All of the Prism Scopes
All of the Prism Scopes

There are also tons of aftermarket products to customize the look, feel, and performance of your AR-15 to match your personality and intended use.

However, there’s a prevailing stigma (especially online) of putting too much possibly unnecessary stuff on your gun, and making you a “mall ninja” or being too “tacticool.”

BSF Complete Upper
Carbon Fiber Everythang

In my opinion…it’s your gun and your money, so do what you want to do as long as it’s still safe and legal. But…the above AR might have gone a little overboard!

We’re also very obsessed…so here’s a (partial) selection of our upgraded uppers.

Lots of AR-15 Uppers
Lots of AR-15 Uppers

See all our suggestions at Best AR-15 Upgrades.

Want to get a glimpse of how easy it is to take apart and clean too?

Still with me?

AR-15 History

Popular Rifle Calibers, Part I
Popular Rifle Calibers, Part I

Eugene Stoner developed the AR-15 as a lightweight 5.56x45mm version of the 7.62x51mm AR-10 while working at Armalite during the 1950s. The lighter bullet enabled infantrymen to carry more rounds. And that’s always a good thing!

Naming Conventions

M16 Vietnam
M16 Vietnam

In 1959, Armalite sold the AR-10 and AR-15 rights to Colt. The “AR” actually stands for “Armalite” and not the common misconception of “Assault Rifle.”

After some tweaks, Colt introduced the M16 which was select-fire (automatic) and mostly had a 20-inch barrel.

M4 Carbine
M4 Carbine

The M4 came about in the 90s and had a 14.5-inch barrel with a carbine gas system. Carbine just means that it has a shorter barrel than the rifle version and can either be pronounced “car-BEAN” or “car-BYNE,” but my preference is for the “bean” version.

The AR-15 is the civilian semi-automatic version of the select fire M4. 1 press = 1 PEW!

Colt owns the rights to “AR15” and “AR-15,” so most other manufacturers have slightly different names, but the general public still refers to the general pattern as AR-15’s.

Now, one big question coming up…

AR-15: To Build or To Buy?

For a first AR-15, we would heavily suggest buying a complete rifle from a reputable manufacturer.

Or at the very least, get a complete upper (Guide to Best Uppers) and build your own lower. It’s like Legos for big kids and you can see our recs at Best AR-15 Lowers.

Couple AR Lowers
Couple AR Lowers

Now there are also options to simply get a complete upper AND a complete lower. This way saves some money too since companies are charged an 11% tax on complete firearms.

Buying complete eliminates a lot of possible headaches by having a solid warranty behind your gun. Plus, if you’re just starting off, you probably don’t know what you like/want, so I recommend just going with a standard configuration.

A factory gun doesn’t cost that much more than building your own (and nowadays it’s likely less), and you’ll get a much better resale value if you ever decide to part ways (or upgrade).

AR-15 Build Your Own Kit
AR-15 Build Your Own Kit

However, there’s something very satisfying about building your own “franken-gun” or “M4-gery,” but we recommend doing it for a 2nd or 3rd AR-15. It’s not terribly difficult and you’ll get to choose every component in your gun.

But we think you’ll make better decisions after spending time with a factory gun first.

If you’re curious, check out our How to Build an AR-15 Lower Receiver and Upper Receiver articles just to see your future.

AR-15 Upper Receiver Parts
AR-15 Upper Receiver Parts

Next, we dive into the various parts of the AR-15 before putting it all together and recommending specific combinations based on your intended use.

All About AR Barrels

We begin the breakdown of the AR-15 system by covering the various characteristics of barrels (the thing that bullets come out of).

Now the real fun is going to start!

Barrel Chambering

AR-15 Chamber
AR-15 Chamber

The barrel chamber means the part of the barrel where the cartridge sits before firing (ie, what ammo it can shoot).

Since this is a beginners’ guide, we’ll focus on the most common 5.56x45mm NATO and .223 Remington. There are tons of other chamberings from .22LR to .50 Beowulf, and a slew of new .30 caliber offerings.

The 5.56 is the more common choice compared to .223 since it gives “looser” tolerances and can withstand the higher pressures of the 5.56 round.

Here are some general safety guidelines for using different cartridges in different barrels:

  • With a 5.56 barrel, you can shoot BOTH 5.56 and .223
  • With a .223 barrel, you can ONLY shoot .223
  • Hybrid chambers such as Wylde are for specific precision purposes but can shoot both

Barrel Length: Long & Strong

AR-15 Different Barrel Lengths
AR-15 Different Barrel Lengths

Federal law states that the minimum barrel length of a rifle must be at least 16-inches. This includes muzzle devices, such as flash hiders, muzzle brakes, or compensators. However, if the device is to be included in the length, it must be permanently attached.

Tested Muzzle Brakes
Tested Muzzle Brakes

For example, you can have a 14.5-inch barrel and permanently pin/weld a muzzle device to make it over 16-inches to make it compliant. Please note, there are some state/local laws that might govern the types of devices allowed, and even having a 14.5-inch barrel might be illegal without appropriate paperwork.

Therefore, we recommend beginners get at least a 16-inch barrel so they can switch out muzzle devices to their liking. Most common lengths include 16-, 18- and 20-inches.

So which one do you choose?

AR-15 Barrel Length Velocity, SA Defense
AR-15 Barrel Length Velocity, SA Defense

Having a longer barrel doesn’t necessarily mean more accuracy. You can get plenty of accuracy out of 16-inches since it is shorter and therefore stiffer and less susceptible to barrel whip (movement of the barrel during shooting).

However, a longer barrel gives you higher velocity since there’s more room for all the powder to burn. And faster-moving bullets give the environment (gravity and wind) less time to affect the trajectory of the bullet.

PSA .223 Wylde 18"
PSA .223 Wylde 18″ Barrel

The average 16-inch barrel is good for up to 400-yards, but after 300-yards, the standard 55-grain projectile becomes more susceptible to environmental factors. 

For longer distance, you would want a heavier and longer projectile such as 62gr, 77gr, or 80gr bullets.

Assorted 5.56 Rounds (XM193, XM855, Gold Medal 69gr)
Assorted 5.56 Rounds (XM193, XM855, Gold Medal 69gr)

Lastly, there’s also the issue of portability…shorter barrels are easier to move and weigh less.

So many things to think about!

Barrel Twist Rate

Barrel Rifling, Criterion Barrels
Barrel Rifling, Criterion Barrels

Another number you’ll see when looking at barrels is the twist rate of the rifling.

This is denoted as 1 x number (1×9) which means “one twist per 9 inches”. In general, the longer a projectile, the faster the twist is needed (a smaller number in the twist since that means one turn happens in a shorter length).

Below is a great chart to show you the ideal bullet weight for the twist of a barrel.

Bullet Weight vs Twist, Shooters Log
Ideal Bullet Weight for Twist, Shooters Log

The most common AR-15 twist rate is 1:9 since 55gr is the most commercially available while the most common mil-spec twist is 1:7 since they need to stabilize longer/heavier tracer rounds.

Barrel Material

There are a lot of numbers and scary sounding words out there when related to barrel material, and we’ve done our best to simplify it:

  • 4150: Steel used in mil-spec barrels
  • 4140: Steel with 10% less carbon than 4150
  • Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium, Chrome Moly, or CMV: Same as 4140
  • Stainless Steel: More accurate but shorter lifespan
PSA .223 Wylde 18"
PSA .223 Wylde 18″ with Stainless Barrel

For the average shooter just go with the 4140/CMV. Unless you’re firing full-auto a lot, you probably would not reap any benefit from 4150. Except for a lighter wallet…but that probably doesn’t count as a benefit.

PSA Barrel Coatings
Coatings/Materials (L to R: Nitride, Nitride, Stainless Steel, Phosphate)

Barrel Lining

Chrome Lined Barrels
Chrome Lined Barrels
  • Chrome Lined: Coating that makes your barrel last longer at the price of a slight decrease in accuracy. You’ll see a gray ring around each end.
  • Ferritic Nitrocarburizing (FNC): Also known as Tennifer, Melonite, or Nitride. Treats the surface of the barrel instead of a coating for possibly better accuracy but with additional cost.
  • None: No coating.
Criterion Barrels, Different Coatings
Criterion Barrels, Different Coatings (Top to Bottom: Stainless, Chrome, Nitride)

Real round counts will differ based on a lot of factors (heat, environment, your definition of “accuracy,” etc), but you can expect around 10-20k before you have to re-barrel.

You still there?

Barrel Testing

Good, here’s some more acronyms manufacturers will throw at you.

MP HP Tested Barrel
MP HP Tested Barrel
  • MP: Magnetic Particle tested, magnetizing the barrel and using fine iron particles to detect cracks/defects
  • HP: High Pressure tested
  • None: No testing. You get what you pay for.

You might run into the use of “batch tested” which really doesn’t mean much. The manufacturer may test 1 out of 10 barrels or 1 out of 100K barrels. For a home defense rifle, we recommend getting a barrel that is both MP & HP tested.

You know…just in case.

Barrel Forging

  • Cold, Hammer, Forged (CHF): Process that creates a more durable barrel
  • Barrel, Forged, Hammer (BFH): Same as CHF
  • None: No extra process

CFH and BFH reduce accuracy a little but you gain a much more durable barrel. If you plan on shooting thousands of rounds a year, it might be worth the extra cost and push you towards a 20k+ round count.

Barrel Contours

Shape and thickness of the barrel will have a decent effect on the overall weight. And if you haven’t seen this quote yet on forums…“ounces equal pounds and pounds equals pain.”

AR-15 Barrel Profiles
AR-15 Barrel Profiles
  • CAR (Colt Automatic Rifle): Just a specific family of AR-15/M-16 rifles from the 70’s. Now just a general term for carbine-length rifles before the advent of the M4.
  • Heavy (Bull): Stiffer and heavier but more accurate. Can take a lot of heat before shooting groups start to suffer. Normally used for precision builds. .936-inches in diameter.
  • Medium (Government or M4): All around balance. M4 contour has a cutout for grenade launchers. .750-inches in diameter.
  • Light/Pencil: Lighter but more susceptible to heat from rapid firing. .625-inches in diameter.

For the average plinker, Medium or Light barrel contours will work great.

And to make it more fun…some manufacturers also have their own versions too.

Faxon Pencil, Ballistic Advantage Hanson, PSA Stock
Faxon Pencil, Ballistic Advantage “Hanson,” PSA Stock

Barrel Feed Ramps

This is an integral part of the upper receiver and you want it to be a proper match with your barrel.

M4 Feedramps, AR15Barrels
M4 Feedramps, AR15Barrels

The jury is still out whether or not they help reliability, but the main thing is to match up the ramps with your receiver. If you’re buying from the factory, this should not be a problem. But you still might want to check.

Curious what can befall ARs? Check out Most Common AR-15 Failures (And How to Fix Them).

AR-15 Gas Systems

Now that you’re a pro with AR-15 barrels, we’ll go into the gas system.

There are two major types, Direct Impingement (DI) and Piston. DI is the original design while piston only really became popular within the last few years.

Direct Impingement vs Piston

An AR-15 works by directing the hot gas behind the bullet into the gas tube (where the triangular front sight block is above) which then uses the gas to either move a piston or send it directly back (direct impingement).

Faxon 16" Gunner 5.56 Barrel
Faxon 16″ Gunner 5.56 Barrel with DI Gas System

When the force is applied, it makes the bolt unlock, move back, expel the spent casing, and strip a new cartridge into the chamber.

The vast majority of AR’s are direct impingement instead of piston.

Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement
Direct Impingement vs Piston
Direct Impingement vs Piston

Pros of Piston:

  • Cleaner since dirty gas is vented away
  • Should be more reliable in bad environments (water, dust, etc)

Cons of Piston:

  • Costs more than traditional DI system
  • Weighs more and puts weight in front (although getting better each year)
  • Proprietary parts unique to each manufacturer
  • Less accurate
PWS MK116 Long Stroke Piston
PWS MK116 Long Stroke Piston

Unless you’re needing to shoot coming out of water or in very dusty environments with limited ability to clean, a direct impingement system will work fine. If that’s you…here’s our review of the Best AR-15 Piston Uppers.

With proper maintenance, a DI AR-15 is a very reliable weapon and what the military uses.

Direct Impingement Gas System Lengths

The gas system length refers to the distance to the gas hole, or where the triangular “front site base” or FSB sits on each barrel above.

The rifle-length gas system is traditionally used for 18-inch or longer barrels, but there is the oddball “Dissipator” model which has a rifle length system on a 16-inch barrel.

AR-15 Gas Systems Barrel Lengths
AR-15 Gas Systems Barrel Lengths

For 16-inch barrels, the primary choice is between carbine and mid-length gas systems.

AR-15 Gas System Lengths
AR-15 Gas System Lengths

We believe the mid-length has the advantage since it allows a longer sight radius if using a front sight base (which doubles as the front sight). 

It also gives you more possible handguard/rail space since the handguard goes from the upper receiver to the front sight base.

PSA Valkyrie vs 5.56 Barrel
Two Different Length DI Gas Systems

It should also theoretically offer a smoother/softer shooting rifle since the increased distance will allow gas pressure to lower before going back into the rifle.

But, this is influenced by a lot of other factors including gas port size, buffer, and spring combinations.

Gas Blocks

For the majority of this article, you’ve been seeing the front sight base (FSB) style gas block which combines the front sight with the gas block.

PSA FSB vs Free-Floating
PSA FSB vs Free-Floating

For years I’ve been recommending this style for beginners for the ease of already having a front sight, robustness (the FSB is pinned to the barrel), and cost-efficiency of a non-free-floating barrel.

You can also choose to grind down the FSB to fit a free-floating barrel later.

BCM in the Desert
BCM in the Desert

BUT…there are many AR-15s that now offer low-profile gas blocks that enable a factory install of a free-floating barrel.

Some of these gas blocks are also adjustable so you can choose just the right amount of gas to make your rifle/ammo combination run smoothly without unnecessary recoil.

If you know you’ll want to add stuff to your AR…skip the headache of grinding down the FSB or getting a new upper…and start off with a free-float handguard.

Handguards

Front sight blocks almost always force you to utilize non-free-floating handguards.

PSA 16" Nitride with FSB
PSA 16″ Nitride with FSB

This means that the two-piece handguard touches the barrel at the FSB and can add some inconsistency in force that makes it slightly less accurate.

S&W M&P Sport II smoky
S&W M&P Sport II Smoky

But for non-competitive shooters, you’ll be fine with a non-free-float. There are some aluminum variations, but most are polymer which still work great and are more affordable.

The above Magpul MOE Handguards for Carbine or Mid-Length still allow you to add Picatinny rails on the slots to attach accessories or use their new M-LOK attachment system directly.

Picatinny rails were the gold standard of rail attachments and look like raised rectangles. Below is an example of a “quad-rail” since there are Picatinny rails on all four sides. 

FN 15 quad rail
FN 15 Quad Rail

The big con was its weight.

And of course, you’ve seen the free-floating handguards for low-profile gas blocks. This allows more consistency in your shots since there’s nothing touching the barrel along the handguard. Those usually cost $100 to $200 more but allow tons of rail space.

AR-15 Uppers, Front
AR-15 Uppers, Lots of Handguards

And also save you a bunch of weight.

I prefer M-LOK over KeyMod, and so does the military now.

Keymod vs M-Lok
KeyMod (bottom) vs M-LOK (top)

If you can’t wait to see handguard upgrades, check out Best AR-15 Handguards.

Lightest AR-15 Handguards
Lightest AR-15 Handguards

Now for some serious stuff…

AR-15 Bolt Carrier Group (BCG)

How the BCG Works

Essentially the engine that runs the AR-15. The bolt is housed within the bolt carrier and together they make up the bolt carrier group (BCG).

Best AR-15 BCGs
Best AR-15 BCGs

It moves back when you pull the charging handle back.

Charging Handle and BCG Labeled
Charging Handle and BCG Labeled

And when you let go of the charging handle, the BCG moves forward, strips a round out of the magazine, and puts a round into the chamber.

When you pull the trigger, the hammer releases and strikes the back of the firing pin which is also in the BCG.

The firing pin hits the cartridge’s primer which sparks the gunpowder and sends the bullet down the barrel. Then the gas system comes into play.

Watch it below:

Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG

The BCG comes in semi-auto (SA) and full-auto (FA) varieties. Having a full-auto BCG does not instantly make your gun automatic. Normally it is used to slow down the cycling rate due to its increased mass (see the right ends of the BCGs below).

Note that they should be overall the same size but the bottom FA is shrunk in the picture.

AR-15 Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG
AR-15 Semi-Auto vs Full-Auto BCG

The full-auto has a shroud to protect the firing pin from hitting the hammer during re-cocking. You can see the right-most BCG has more of the firing pin exposed and less weight on the bottom, making it a semi-auto version.

BCG Shroud, AR15
BCG Shroud, AR15

It doesn’t really matter which one you get, but most higher-end manufacturers will put in the FA BCG. Most guns are over-gassed so they can run a larger variety of ammunition, so the additional mass and firing pin protection are advantageous.

What do I mean by over-gassed?

In an ideal world, the gas block would send back the bare minimum amount of gas to move the BCG back so it can eject the spent casing and strip another round.

BCM M16 BCG
BCM M16 BCG

However, there’s the problem of weaker ammo which would produce less gas, and also the crud that accumulates and can slow everything down.

Therefore, manufacturers usually let a much larger amount of gas cycle through to brute force through the issues. A heavier BCG and shrouded pin minimize the negative effects of a lot of gas.

There are also lighter BCGs for competition guns…but don’t worry about that for now! Unless you want to here.

Lightweight BCG's
Lightweight BCG’s

BCG Coatings

One of the newest crazes is to have coated BCG’s that are supposed to make them easier to clean, require less lubrication, and run longer between cleanings. 

WMD Guns NiB BCG
WMD Guns NiB BCG

Nickel boron is the flavor of the week along with Titanium Nitride, Hard Chrome, and Black Nitride.

Our Favorite BCGs
Our Favorite BCGs

If you’re running your gun hard constantly or use a suppressor which deposits more gunk back into your BCG, you might benefit from a coated BCG. Otherwise, keep your regular BCG clean and lubed and it will run just fine. 

Or…check out our Best BCG’s article for our favorite picks.

Buffer Tubes, Triggers, & More

Buffer Tube

Mil-Spec vs Commercial Buffer Tubes
Mil-Spec vs Commercial Buffer Tubes

This comes up more when you are building a lower from scratch. Just go with Mil-Spec instead of Commercial since it is stronger. Also, make sure to match up the carbine/rifle lengths according to your barrel.

Triggers

I’d stick with the standard Mil-Spec trigger initially. It may be a little gritty at first but will become better with use.

I like it for its reliability.

Mil-Spec Trigger
Mil-Spec Trigger

More precision rifles will use aftermarket single-stage or two-stage triggers.

However, I will say that the first upgrade I would do to a rifle would be upgrading the trigger. Just stick with the stock one first…if only so you can fully appreciate an upgraded one!

Tested AR-15 Triggers
Tested AR-15 Triggers

Can’t wait?

Check out our Best AR-15 Triggers list. Hands down…getting a better trigger is the best upgrade you can do to shoot more accurately.

Optics/Accessories/Furniture

Again, we recommend getting used to your iron sights, stock muzzle device, and standard furniture before jumping into upgrades.

You likely won’t know what you need until you get adequate range time.

Closeup of Destroyed Sig Sauer Romeo 8
Tested Red Dots & Optics

But of course, we’ve got a guide (and lots of testing) for that too…check out: 

A Couple AR-15 Optics
A Couple AR-15 Optics

AR-15 Intended Purposes

We’ll cover the four main flavors, each with its own pros and cons.

M4gery

Typical AR-15
Typical AR-15

Known lovingly as the “M4-gery” (M4 + Forgery), this is the most common AR-15 type which seeks to mimic the M4 military carbine.

PSA 16" Nitride with FSB
PSA 16″ Nitride with FSB

While the M4 has a 14.5-inch barrel with a carbine length gas system, most AR-15s of this variant will use a 16-inch barrel and a mix of carbine and mid-length gas systems. 

Most will have collapsible buttstocks so you can adjust your length of pull and eye relief.

Best AR-15 Buttstocks
Best AR-15 Buttstocks…So Many Buttstocks

M4gery’s span many varieties. 

The first rifle is more bone stock, with a carry handle, non-free-floating handguard, carbine gas system, and a front sight base.

Trijicon MRO on BCM 15 Studio
Trijicon MRO on BCM 15

While the BCM flattop upper receiver with a 1913 (Picatinny) rail on top, the new M-LOK rail on the sides, free-floated handguard, mid-length gas system, and low profile gas block.

Precision/Varmint/SPR/DMR

AR-15 Varmint
AR-15 Varmint

Varmint/precision builds likely will have an 18- or 20-inch barrel of the heavy contour variety for extra stability and velocity. The twist rates and materials may also change for more accurate combinations (1×8 or 1×7 and non-chrome-line or stainless steel).

Oh…and get ready for some more acronyms such as Special Purpose Rifle (SPR) and Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR). Basically…longer barrel.

Precision AR-15s will also most likely have free-floated handguards and heavier buttstocks. You’ll want to add a scope and probably a bipod too. Get ready for a much heavier rifle!

SBR/Pistol Builds

Daniel Defense MK18
Daniel Defense MK18 SBR

We won’t be covering much of them in this guide, but if you do go this route, be extra sure of your state/local laws since you’ll be going with sub-16-inch barrels. Traditionally this is known as a Short Barreled Rifle (SBR) which requires paperwork and a tax stamp.

Aero AR-15 10.5" Pistol
Aero AR-15 10.5″ Pistol

AR pistols generally require fewer steps but make the tradeoff of not having an actual buttstock. But now there are things such as “pistol braces” that the ATF allows for shouldering.

Daniel Defense MK18
Daniel Defense MK18 Pistol Brace

Both make the tradeoff of a shorter, lighter, and easier-to-handle weapon. But the drawbacks include much-decreased velocity and increased muzzle blast (people around will HATE you). 

SBR’s and AR pistols are best suited for under 100-yards.

Check out our guide for Best AR-15 Pistols and Best Pistol Braces!

Competition Builds (3-Gun)

JP15 3-Gun Rifle
JP15 3-Gun Rifle

Competition guns are specifically tailored race rifles for 3-Gun (rifle, pistol, & shotgun) or other competitions.

Normally you’ll see longer barrels and gas systems coupled with big brakes/compensators to reduce recoil and enable faster follow-up shots. Almost everything else in the system is customized to the shooter. For the best out-of-the-box competition ARs…click here.

Pistol Caliber Carbines

Another new entry to the field is pistol caliber carbines (PCC). They are also known as AR-9s and I’m pretty sure you can guess what they are!

9mm AR-9 Uppers
9mm AR-9 Uppers

ARs that give you the same ergonomics you’re used to but that take pistol mags and ammunition.

Aero Precision EPC Shooting
Aero Precision EPC Shooting

Now you don’t have to double-up on mags and ammo. Plus you can compete in pistol competitions because the ammo won’t destroy the targets like fast rifle rounds.

Check out our list of Best AR-9s: Pistol Caliber AR-15s.

Angstadt UDP-9 at Sunset
Angstadt UDP-9 at Sunset

Featureless Builds

It brings me great sadness to have to add this for 2017+.

Resurgent Arms Featureless Grip, Left
Resurgent Arms Featureless Grip

But featureless rifles make it legal for residents of CA and NY (and probably more) to own AR-15 style firearms with accessible magazine releases.

The biggest differences you’ll see are no pistol grip, non-adjustable buttstock, and no flash hider. For more, check out our Featureless Rifles page.

Best Featureless Grips
A Few of Our Featureless Rifles

Best AR-15 Manufacturers

Love it or hate it…people really want these groupings. These are my personal point of view and fluctuate through the years as I gain more experience.

Drumroll, please…

Top Tier AR-15 Manufacturers

These are our perceived top-quality manufacturers who don’t cut corners and can produce near 100% reliable guns (or they have an awesome marketing budget).

If you’re looking for the best service grade (mil-spec) AR for self or home defense, we recommend going with one of these top-tier companies that stand behind their product.

Mid Tier Manufacturers

These are great guns that might start out range plinking guns until they’ve proven themselves. We recommend putting at least 1,000 rounds through with varying conditions, ammo, and magazines before you trust a gun with your life.

The below is not an exhaustive list, especially with all the builders out there.

Budget Manufacturers

Nothing wrong with these guns either, they are great starter ARs because of their affordability and are perfectly capable of being reliable. Just test them out first.

Price

For a top tier, expect to pay $1,300 to $2,000 for a complete rifle, while mid-tiers can start around $900. Intro AR-15s are attainable for around $500 now thanks to Palmetto State Armory.

Remember, you’re paying for the quality of materials, quality control, and R&D. Ok…and probably marketing too.

Best AR-15 Rifles

Alright, what you’ve been waiting for…some of my specific recommendations are based on personal experience of my team.

Even More AR-15 Uppers
Even More AR-15 Uppers

Just because it’s not here doesn’t mean it’s not good, and just because I like it, doesn’t mean you will too.

You can online order them to your shop which should have an FFL (Federal Firearms License) to process everything. But I would also recommend touching them in hand if possible at your local gun store.

1. Daniel Defense DDM4

Might be just because my first AR-15 10 years ago was a DD, but mine has never failed me even after 8k rounds.

Daniel Defense DDM4V7
Daniel Defense DDM4 V7

My overall pick for a high-end AR-15 goes to the 16-inch DDM4 V7 which sports a free-float handguard and a softer-shooting mid-length gas system.

Daniel Defense DDM4V7 Desert Shooting
Daniel Defense DDM4V7 Desert Shooting

We’ve been testing it extensively and the quality shows even in a sea of ARs.

Check out our full video and article here of the DDM4 V7 here.

And in the current firearm craze…they are still pumping them out weekly although I recommend getting on their email notification.

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If you want to go on the shorter side, try out the 14.5-inch carbine gas system DDM4 A1 with a permanent muzzle device that brings it to 16-inch.

If you like the front sight block (FSB) options, look at the 16-inch DDM4 V1 which also has the slightly softer shooting mid-length gas system.

Best AR-15 with a Front Sight Block (FSB)

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See all their rifles here which include lightweight barrels and different lengths.

And if you’re from California…they have compliant versions too.

2. Palmetto State Armory (PSA) PA-15

Balling on a budget? PSA makes everything in-house…turning raw materials into the finished AR-15 of your dreams. Find complete rifles (a lot of the time with free-floating rails) for around $600.

Reputation is great too for rifles that simply work. Sometimes you’ll see some complaints about shipping times when there’s a large number of orders.

I’ve finished testing three PSA rifles. Full review here.

PSA 5.56 & .223 Wylde
PSA 5.56 & .223 Wylde Builds

And…now with a video review too!

They have a lot of complete rifles…and they go in and out of stock frequently as people gobble them up. But whatever you’re looking for…16-inch FSB or 18-inch free-floating rail with Magpul MOE furniture? They’ve got the variant.

For the truly budget-conscious go for the Freedom Carbine…otherwise, I’d prefer a 16-inch mid-length with rails (are you getting tired of me saying that)?

Entry Level Pick

499

at PSA

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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Depending on the market…you might be better off ordering a complete upper and complete lower separately. Something about an 11% tax on complete long guns. All you’ll have to do is connect them together with two pins. Easy peasy.

If you decide to go this route, you’ll be able to have a bigger selection of furniture and rails (and the ability to get a sub $500 rifle). Check out Best AR-15 Uppers for my personal picks.

Make sure to get one WITH bolt carrier group (BCG) and charging handle (CH).

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And for lowers, you can choose whatever style you like. I prefer the Magpul editions with either the MOE buttstock or the ACS-L.

150

at PSA

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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Again…full review of 3 PSA uppers right here.

What’s your take on PSA?

3. Aero Precision M4E1

A well-known name if you’re into building your own AR (they make my favorite stripped upper+lower receiver). 

Aero Precision Thunder Ranch TR15 Shooting
Aero Precision Shooting

Aero has its roots in years of aerospace manufacturing and makes almost everything in-house (a rarity nowadays).

For best overall value in rifles, I’m liking their AC-15M 16-inch mid-length that has everything you want (including the mid-length gas system, at the same price as the other affordable models from S&W).

Best Bang-For-The-Buck FSB

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I’ve tested a couple of their free-float uppers on their lowers and my best stamp of approval is that it’s now my home defense/SHTF rifle.

Aero M4E1 16" Build
Aero M4E1 16″ Build

We have a full YouTube review now:

And you can check out my full written review here that goes over the full build as well as 100-yard accuracy groups.

Aero Precision M4E1 with ATLAS Handguards
Aero Precision M4E1 with ATLAS Handguards

It’s kinda weird that their full rifles don’t have this combo…but you’re in luck since you’ll get to save the full firearm tax.

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If it’s out of stock or you like other handguards…check out the rest of their Complete 5.56 Uppers.

Pair it with their AR-15 complete lower and you’ll never know the difference from purchasing a complete rifle.

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Make sure you don’t choose the M5 (different caliber) or Pistol (unless you’re building a pistol). M4E1 complete lowers are also great and come with upgraded buttstocks, grips, and better aesthetics on the lower (in my opinion).

4. Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) Recce-16

Daniel Defense has the quality but what if you want to save a few hundred?

BCM in my mind is the best bang for the buck for top-tier stuff based on the several that my friends use and that I have extensively shot.

Lately, supply has been limited.

BCM Recce 16 Rifle with MCMR Handguard
BCM Recce 16 Rifle with MCMR Handguard

I would get their mid-length 16-inch MID16 Mod 0 with a polymer handguard for something with an FSB.

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For my overall recommendation, I would get either the Recce 16 (~$1300).

We spent a lot of time with it and now have a full review here.

Plus full video review too:

Snag yours here…

Also Great High-End Pick

1299

at PSA

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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Or just its upper if you already have a lower.

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5. FN 15 Patrol Carbine

Looking for something with a “classic” feel?

FN 15 range ready
FN 15 Range Ready

The FN 15 has got it with its quadrail, FSB, and mil-spec furniture.

Superbly reliable, accurate, and soft shooting in our tests. Although you probably want gloves if you’re going to comfortably grip that rail.

And all from a super trusted name in the AR world.

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Check out the full written review here…as well as our video review!

6. Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II

Another well-known name, albeit probably more known in the revolver and handgun world.

More budget-friendly but also one of my top recommendations for an initial AR-15.

S&W M&P Sport II shooting, down hill!
S&W M&P Sport II Shooting

And one you’ll likely be able to feel hands-on at your local shop.

Their entry-level 16-inch carbine gas M&P 15 Sport II sells like hot cakes for good reason.

We had some slight hiccups like trigger pins walking out and a hot handguard…but overall it’s still a great budget AR.

S&W M&P Sport II smoky
S&W M&P Sport II Smoky

There are different variations based on sights and accessories…but we like the one with an included red dot.

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Full review here and also our YouTube video!

7. Colt LE 6920

Good ole Colt has one of the best entry levels AR-15s and the LE6920 is always on the list that I recommend to my friends who want something they can find at their local gun store.

Colt stopped production of civilian rifles at the end of 2019 but as of now they are back…and we are glad they are!

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It might have the shorter carbine gas length barrel but it will eat anything and keep on truckin’.

Or you can opt for the OEM version and follow our AR Furniture Guide to make your very own without the difficult assembly.

Colt LE6920 OEM
Colt LE6920 OEM

8. Lead Star Grunt

Lead Star is a hidden gem that got its start from crazy cool competition ARs and pistol caliber carbines.

Lead Star Arms Shooting
Lead Star Arms Shooting

Their new production 5.56 Grunt brings what they’ve learned into an affordable package that needs no upgrades.

Lead Star Grunt AR-15 (11)
Lead Star Grunt AR-15

Super reliable and accurate (1 MOA) out of the box with a nice muzzle brake, trigger, charging handle, and furniture.

It’s a solid deal at around $1000…and it’s easier to see in stock (unlike their custom competition rifles)!

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Full written review here and of course…a video too!

9. Faxon ION

Looking for something super lightweight with no mods necessary out of the box?

Faxon Ion Rifle Side
Faxon Ion Rifle

Check out the Faxon ION from the famed barrel manufacturers.

Coming in at sub 5-pounds, the ION has a lightweight barrel with an integrated brake that brings it to a 16-inch carbon fiber handguard, lightweight BCG, and more.

Faxon Ion Pencil Barrel
Faxon Ion Pencil Barrel & Integrated Brake

Plus a really nice tactile 45-degree safety and single-stage Hiperfire trigger.

Faxon Ion Pistol Side Profile
Faxon Ion Pistol Side Profile

Check it out in action:

Snag it here:

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Then check out our full review and video of both the rifle and pistol variants.

10. Daniel Defense MK18

We have an entire article dedicated to our favorite AR-15 pistols. But our absolute favorite that might be a little tinged with nostalgia and cool factor…is the Daniel Defense MK18 Pistol.

Daniel Defense MK18
Daniel Defense MK18 Pistol

Tested and fielded by SOCOM for years…it’s probably the closest you’ll get without diving deep into a clone build.

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However due to current AR pistol regulations…DD has temporarily stopped selling the complete gun. So instead I’d recommend getting the upper and putting it on another lower receiver.

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It’s a little heavy with quadrails…but it’s nearly indestructible and has a perfect 10.3-inch barrel that keeps going all day for sub-300-yard engagements. And oh yea…it excels in CQB.

Daniel Defense MK18
Daniel Defense MK18 Shoot House

Check out our MK18 full review where we get to use a full-auto receiver on it…as well as a nice Silencer Central suppressor.

And of course, with all that testing we have a sweet video:

11. Aero EPC 9mm

Again we have a full article on the best pistol caliber AR-15s but our favorite is the Aero EPC in 9mm.

Aero Precision EPC Shooting
Aero Precision EPC Shooting

Like other Aero’s it’s a great bang-for-the-buck option and has the all-important last round bolt hold open (LRBHO) feature that’s missing from more affordable options.

As well as other niceties.

Though it’s more oriented as a build-your-own option…there’s plenty of complete uppers and lowers to choose from.

Aero Precision EPC Build Right Side
Aero Precision EPC Build Right Side

We extensively tested the 16-inch for the full Aero EPC review.

And are currently having a great time with the 8.3″ version too which gives a great middle-ground for maneuverability, rail space, and balance.

Aero EPC-9 8.3" Build
Aero EPC-9 8.3″ Build

Check out all the things needed for your specific build:

9mm Pistol Caliber Carbine Pick

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Check out the full video as well:

Left-Handed AR-15s

Now you don’t have to worry about brass flying into your face or getting an ambidextrous safety.

Stag Arms

Stag Arms has been making left-handed ARs for a long time and offers lifetime guarantees regardless of the original owner or even number of rounds fired.

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My best buddy has been running his for years for both plinking and even competition.

Featureless Rifles

For the folks in CA and NY. 

There has been a lot more activity here (Springfield and LWRC) but I’m holding off on adding everything until I can review them in hand.

The easiest is to buy a featureless at your local gun store or turn your current one following our Featureless Guide.

Building?

If you really want to build your lower…

All AR-15 Lower Receiver Parts
All AR-15 Lower Receiver Parts

I’d recommend looking at our Best Lower Receivers article and then following How to Build a Lower Receiver.

But my advice is still…buy a complete rifle! Or at least two complete halves.

Conclusion

I know we’ve gone over a lot, and your journey to getting an AR-15 has just begun.

So think of all the criteria you want (including price point) and start looking.

And once you do get one, let me know how it runs, and then check out the rest of the AR-15 Definitive Guides.



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