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.
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.
And we’ve actually hands-on tested all these guns…unlike most other sites out there that copied us.
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
Why the AR-15?
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
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.
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…
The AR-15 consists primarily of two large segments, the lower receiver…
And the upper receiver, which can be swapped out in a matter of seconds.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
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?
Good, here’s some more acronyms manufacturers will throw at you.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
- 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.
Barrel Feed Ramps
This is an integral part of the upper receiver and you want it to be a proper match with your barrel.
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).
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.
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
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.
For 16-inch barrels, the primary choice is between carbine and mid-length gas systems.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Front sight blocks almost always force you to utilize non-free-floating handguards.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And also save you a bunch of weight.
I prefer M-LOK over KeyMod, and so does the military now.
If you can’t wait to see handguard upgrades, check out Best 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).
It moves back when you pull the charging handle back.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nickel boron is the flavor of the week along with Titanium Nitride, Hard Chrome, and Black Nitride.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
But of course, we’ve got a guide (and lots of testing) for that too…check out:
AR-15 Intended Purposes
We’ll cover the four main flavors, each with its own pros and cons.
Known lovingly as the “M4-gery” (M4 + Forgery), this is the most common AR-15 type which seeks to mimic the M4 military carbine.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Competition Builds (3-Gun)
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!
ARs that give you the same ergonomics you’re used to but that take pistol mags and ammunition.
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.
It brings me great sadness to have to add this for 2017+.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
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).
And for lowers, you can choose whatever style you like. I prefer the Magpul editions with either the MOE buttstock or the ACS-L.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I would get their mid-length 16-inch MID16 Mod 0 with a polymer handguard for something with an FSB.
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
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
Or just its upper if you already have a lower.
5. FN 15 Patrol Carbine
Looking for something with a “classic” feel?
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.
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.
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.
There are different variations based on sights and accessories…but we like the one with an included red dot.
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!
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.
8. Lead Star Grunt
Lead Star is a hidden gem that got its start from crazy cool competition ARs and pistol caliber carbines.
Their new production 5.56 Grunt brings what they’ve learned into an affordable package that needs no upgrades.
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)!
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?
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.
Plus a really nice tactile 45-degree safety and single-stage Hiperfire trigger.
Check it out in action:
Snag it here:
Then check out our full review and video of both the rifle and pistol variants.
10. Daniel Defense MK18
Tested and fielded by SOCOM for years…it’s probably the closest you’ll get without diving deep into a clone build.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out all the things needed for your specific build:
Check out the full video as well:
Now you don’t have to worry about brass flying into your face or getting an ambidextrous safety.
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.
My best buddy has been running his for years for both plinking and even competition.
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.
If you really want to build your lower…
But my advice is still…buy a complete rifle! Or at least two complete halves.
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.