Ask Foghorn: Best AR-15 for First Time Black Rifle Owners

John writes:

I want to buy my first black rifle. I have decided on a Colt SP6920. I’d buy a LE6920 but I don’t feel like paying an extra $200.00 for some roll marks. I have an opportunity to buy one from an established gun seller outside the southeastern PA area for around a thousand bucks or so.

My questions: Would you recommend any gun other than the 6920 as my first AR style rifle? Do you like the 6920? Is $1,000.00 to $1,100.00 for a new one a decent price?

This is actually a very well timed question — I just put together a new “bare bones” AR build a few weeks ago to use as a guinea pig for TTAG reviews. Let’s take a couple minutes and discuss the best options for those with a hankering for an evil black rifle.

While an AR-15 seems like a complicated piece of machinery to the uninitiated, in reality it probably couldn’t be any simpler. That feature makes it perfect for first time owners of semi-automatic firearms, along with the ease of maintenance, low recoil, abundance of accessories, light weight… I think you get the point.

That relatively simple design means that those looking to purchase a new AR-15 have some options available that tend to lower the price of the gun. When obtaining a new AR-15, the prospective owner can:

  • Buy a complete new firearm
  • Buy a complete used firearm
  • Build the firearm from scratch
  • Build the lower and buy the upper complete

Each of these options have benefits and drawbacks, but I do think there is a clear winner (for me, at least).

The first and most obvious option is to buy the firearm already fully assembled. The main benefits are that the firearm doesn’t require any additional assembly, can be used immediately, and is guaranteed to work. For new owners this is the easiest option to choose and probably your safest bet, but it probably won’t be cheap.

Brand new AR-15 rifles can cost a pretty penny, usually in the $1,000 – $1,500 range. The Colt SP6920 indicated by our reader seems to be going for around $1,043, which is right around the normal price for a complete gun. So in answer to the reader’s last question yes, $1,000 is an OK price for that specific model.

While the Colt may be a little pricey, those who value their dollars over a name brand have some options. For example, DS Arms has this DSA Z4 Carbine for $759.95 that has almost every feature the Colt sports. Spike’s Tactical has another similar rifle, their ST-15, for $849. Bushmaster takes the cake with their M4A1 rifle, weighing in at a stunningly low $699 (and lacks iron sights). Olympic Arms also has an offering for $599, but it’s nowhere near what our reader wanted. In short, there are options.

If you’re going this route, though, I highly recommend you look at either the S&W M&P-15 or the Mossberg MMR Tactical. Both have many of the same features, but the Mossberg has a free floating barrel that will improve accuracy and full length rails for all your mall ninja fantasy camp accessories.

Option #2 is to buy the gun used. Sure it doesn’t have that “new gun smell,” but theoretically you can get higher quality parts for the same amount of dosh. Theoretically. In reality, the asking price for even the crappiest ARs are only around 10% discounted. While the supply is gigantic, the demand for these rifles is even bigger. If you want to go the “used” route the best idea is to avoid Gunbroker at all costs and try to find the relevant local gun trading forum for your state. Pennsylvania has PAFOA, Virginia has VA Gun Trader, Maryland has MD Shooters, the list goes on. Private party transfers provide the best chance for getting a good deal on your new gun.

Option #3 gives the owner the opportunity to save some money by assembling the gun themselves and lets them pick out exactly what they want in their rifle by building it from scratch. This option provides the highest level of customization, but also requires a good bit of mechanical skill. And a vice. The mechanical thing, not alcohol. Although some of us have that too.

Building an AR-15 from scratch really only requires a few major purchases: upper receiver, bolt carrier assembly, lower receiver, barrel, handguards, stock, parts kit. There’s a couple other minor parts involved but they’re all $10 or less. In theory this can yield a complete rifle for around $600 – $700, but in reality you’re still going to end up paying close to $800.

The last option (#4), and the one I actually recommend, is to build the lower receiver and buy the upper complete. One of the unique features of the AR-15 platform is that the gun is composed of two interchangeable parts — an upper and lower receiver. Of these parts, the more important to how well a gun feels is the lower receiver as it contains the stock, the grip and the trigger.

Building the lower from parts only requires a hammer, a screwdriver and a place to work, and the process can be done in under an hour. While putting all the pieces together may seem daunting, the major benefit from doing it yourself is the knowledge gained about how the gun works and the knowledge of how to service the firearm and improve it later on.

Another giant benefit of building the lower from parts is the ability to choose your own rollmark. If you want a cheap lower (and don’t mind being a billboard) lowers can be had for as little as $74.99. On the other side of the scale “specialty” lowers can run anywhere from $150 — $50,000 (for machine guns, that is). Any lower will do if all you care about is semi-automatic fun, but choosing a rollmark that looks great is something that I find appealing and an easy way to “pimp” your gun a little.

Building a good lower will cost around $450, and an OK lower can be around $250-300 for the bare bones features. Once that is built you can select your very own upper in whatever caliber strikes your fancy, the most popular being 5.56, 5.45, .22lr and .300 BLK. This one is only $399 for almost exactly the same profile as the colt indicated in the question.

That was a bit of a long answer to a relatively short question, so let me try to sum this up:

  • Would you recommend any gun other than the 6920 as my first AR style rifle? The Colt SP6920 is as good an AR-15 as any other model. It has all the features I look for in a carbine length AR and should serve you well in recreational shooting or even 3-gun competitions. But there are other similar options available for less money.
  • Do you like the 6920? Never fired it, but it looks OK to me. Colt has a great track record (recently) with firearms and AR-15s in particular, so if you hear your heart calling for one I wouldn’t resist.
  • Is $1,000.00 to $1,100.00 for a new one a decent price? Decent? Yes. But there are cheaper options as well.

At the end of the day any of these options will get you a new AR-15 for about the same price, give or take $300ish. I prefer to build my own lowers from parts because I like to be able to select which components I use, but it’s a personal preference thing. Your own level of mechanical skill and desire to customize will drive which path forward you choose. But thanks to the high level of parts interchangeability and the ease of use whatever AR-15 you ultimately buy will be OK, or you can quickly make it OK by changing a few parts.

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email guntruth@me.com.