Ask Foghorn: Best Self Defense AR-15 in 5.56x45mm NATO?

Mike asks:

I am new to AR-15s. Then only rifle I own is a Marlin .22. I was interested in getting an AR-15 and was reading your “Best Self Defense AR-15” article. If you were to build a similar AR-15, but wanted to shoot 5.56×45 what would your build look like?

I’ve had a couple requests for this, and so I’ll let you in on my winning design (in my opinion, at least) for a self defense AR-15 in 5.56 that you can build yourself for about $1,300…

The picture above is more or less my “perfect build,” but it used the wrong lower and optic. Back in college I built this AR-15 to compete in the Limited division of 3-gun competitions, and the what made it ideal was that it used the same lower receiver as my competition rifle but a different upper receiver. I still have the upper kicking around somewhere in my closet, but since my infatuation with .300 BLK began it has taken a backseat.

With the benefit of hindsight and MUCH more experience than I had back then, this is the parts list for the “perfect” self defense AR-15 in 5.56x45mm NATO:

Total build: $1,328 + tax + shipping.

You may notice that the lower receiver is basically the same as my .300 BLK build, and that’s because I like the way that lower works for a nimble rifle. But let’s talk about why I made a couple of the decisions I did in the build to alter it from the .300 BLK configuration.

The first thing that should jump out at you is that the upper receiver doesn’t have a free floated barrel. The reason behind that design decision is more about saving money than anything else, as free floated handguards can cost a pretty penny and standard handguards will provide enough accuracy for self defense situations out to at least 50 yards. Plus, they make maintenance a lot easier (as they’re faster to remove and replace than the free floated kind).

The next thing that might catch your attention is the red dot sight. Why use a cheap dot instead of a complex holographic sight like an EOTech? Because it’s simple. Put the dot on the target, pull the trigger. It’s dead simple, small enough to not obstruct much of your field of view, and above all else CHEAP!

The last interesting design decision is probably the fixed front sight, and that’s mostly because (once again) it’s cheaper to do it that way than a flip-up sight on a low profile gas block. After years of using this upper, I can tell you that the fixed front sight doesn’t really get in the way all that much once you set up a red dot and start shooting with both eyes open. Plus, to me it just looks… right.

The only thing I might suggest to improve this gun is the addition of a silencer. 5.56 is an extremely loud round (especially in confined spaces), and the ability to hear during and after a DGU will be very beneficial, either in detecting additional threats or trying to explain the thing to your lawyer. That’s the reason I like .300 BLK over 5.56 — the ability to completely suppress the sound of the gun and the bullet. But if you’re dead set on 5.56 this will do the job.

If you’re unwilling to build it yourself (or just too lazy) here are a couple of complete rifles that will get you close:

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

66 Responses to Ask Foghorn: Best Self Defense AR-15 in 5.56x45mm NATO?

  1. avatarSkyler says:

    “standard handguards will provide enough accuracy for self defense situations out to at least 50 yards.”

    I think any Marine would tell you that standard handguards with iron sights provide enough accuracy out to at least 500 yards. Maybe you wouldn’t want to compete with them, but hundreds of Marines are hitting man-sized targets at 500 yards every day.

    And not only do they have non-floating barrels, they put ungodly amounts of stress on the barrel by using a hasty sling. A hasty sling wraps around your forward upper arm and attaches to the front sling swivel. The point is to make the sling so tight that you really have to wedge the butt stock into your shoulder and if your arm isn’t black and blue after shooting a few rounds, you’re not doing it right.

    Floating barrels are nice, but to say you need them for self-defence outside of 50 yards is kind of silly. You only really need them if you’re being competitive. If you just want to kill someone, iron sights and standards grips are perfectly fine.

    • avatarRabbi says:

      Argue about components all you want. An AR without a light is not a good option for self-defense. When it comes to life-saving equipment, I don’t penny pinch. I purchase the most reliable. Aimpoint optics for me.

      If cost is an issue, I would rather have iron sights and a light and skip the optic.

  2. avatarBuuurr says:

    Ak74 for me. Way cheaper and way more reliable.

  3. avatarScott says:

    That’s a nice set up, but for home defense it may be overkill cost wise. Your basic S&W MP Sport is $650 and dead reliable and accurate if you aren’t jungle trekking.

    • avatarTomahawk says:

      +1

    • avatarJason says:

      +2.

      As long as the gun is reliable (and the Sport is reliable, made from good components, and well-assembled) a 5.56 bullet is a 5.56 bullet. I put a Troy fixed rear sight on mine just to reduce the weight (S&W has since switched to a Magpul rear instead of the big bolt on A2 pillar rear) and an Armalite 2-stage trigger, because I’m old and set in my ways, and I want my AR-15s to feel like M1As. But none of that is absolutely necessary.

      Buy a basic AR-15, take the money you save, and buy a 2-day carbine course. That will increase the effectiveness of that 5.56 bullet.

      And if you must put electronics on it, get an Elzetta front sight mount for a flashlight. Cheap, effective, durable, and will both allow you to see your sights and identify the target. That is a real benefit for a home defense gun, much more so than the latest high-speed-low-drag plastic.

    • avatarMadDawg J says:

      +1

  4. avatarChris says:

    This is a nice build, but I think it’s a bit much for self defense…

    A Timney trigger? A 60 round magazine? A super fancy Mag-Pul grip and stock?

    The very slight advantage these things might give you can be completely eclipsed by spending the same money on a decent carbine course and/or enough ammo to get yourself proficient.

    I can see this as a great 3 gun set-up though.

    Attachments and accessories don’t make good shooters, quality trigger time does.

  5. avatarChach says:

    Why the upgraded trigger? When your under the stress of a home invasion, I don’t want to accidentally let my 2lbs trigger go off. also MOE furniture? Maybe it will tactical out the invader and hell wet himself?

    The best Home Defense Ar-15 is an SBR to move around easier with no frills and maybe a red dot, but iron sights do just fine and wont be difficult to turn on when your freaking out.

  6. avatarMike in NC says:

    I agree that free-float tubes won’t be of much benefit close-in, but by that same logic, any accuracy gained with a Timney would be similarly wasted. The MOE is a good basic stock, but adding just a few more dollars to upgrade to the CTR (or a bit more for the ACS) with a friction lock could be worthwhile.

    Shipping costs seem to be going sky-high these days, so to keep the number of boxes down I’d suggest using a Spike’s buffer tube kit. The T2 buffer is exactly halfway between an H and H2 at just over 4 ounces.

    Last, I wonder about the Surefire magazine with 60 round capacity for the low, low price of ten Magpul 30 round magazines!

  7. avatarAK says:

    A suppressor? Any data or instances of a suppressor being used in a DGU? It seems like something the the prosecution would use against you.

    If noise reduction were that important, why not get a nice can for an EDC gun?

    • avatarSid says:

      DGU use invovling a suppressor…. it is like asking how many four leaf clovers were found growing in the cracks of a parking lot. Suppressors have been around for a while but availability has only recently increased. DGU is very rare. Coupled with access to a suppressor and it will be even more rare.

      But the technology makes sense. As someone who lives with decreased ability to hear from years of exposure to weapons fire, I would have enjoyed the widespread use of suppressors from the beginning. Firing live rounds inside a building is potentially deafening. It would suck to have to use a gun in your home. Why would you want to compound the suck by going deaf?

      • avatarAK says:

        You’re willing to take full responsibility for your life by arming yourself, but not willing to protect yourself by researching legal precedent?

        Just because it’s obscure doesn’t mean it’s not worth studying.

  8. avatarsdog says:

    “If you’re unwilling to build it yourself (or just too lazy) here are a couple of complete rifles that will get you close:

    Del-Ton Echo 316 MOE ($830)
    S&W M&P15 MOE ($1,259)
    Bushmaster MOE M4 ($1,295)”

    or you could look at a LWRC M6 SL, which gives you good KISS rifle package with a piston, and you get the lightweight moe furniture.

  9. avatarROger.45 says:

    In the hands of an experienced rifleman even a less expensive rifle is every bit as deadly.

    It’s not what you shoot… it’s how you shoot.

  10. avatarMr. Lion says:

    “Perfect” for what? Making yourself deaf, blind, and potentially incarcerated should one of those rounds go through a wall and hit something unintended?

    I’ll stick with big, slow bullets out of a handgun, and bigger, slower formations of buckshot out of a trusty 12 gauge.

    • avatarJason says:

      Or you can go slow bullets out of a rifle. Don’t forget, a pistol-caliber carbine is even quieter than a pistol-caliber pistol. And they do make pistol-caliber AR-15s…

    • avatarEric says:

      I believe a 9mm pistol round has more barrier penetration than 5.56 X 45. One reason SWAT teams switched to the M4 from MP5s.

  11. avatarKevin says:

    At that price you can buy a Colt LT6720-R. Which is a much better gun than that bushcraper and somewhat better then the other two.

  12. avatarSteve says:

    Oh, you guys and your AR’s.

    You really crack me up talking about saving money by spending 1300$ on an AR15 for home defense.

    I have a 150$ pump shotgun that is probably better in most foreseeable home defense scenarios.

    But really, I do like reading about AR builds, so carry on. I appreciated the chuckle I get from hearing these words “…and above all else CHEAP!” in the same article as “Total build: $1,328 + tax + shipping.” with seemingly no acknowledgement of the irony there.

    You all must be richer than I am.

    • avatarMartin Albright says:

      Steve: Richer than me, too.

      Although, given the number of breathless articles we’ve had about $3,000 + M1911s, maybe it’s just that TTAG appeals to a demographic that has a lot more disposable income than we do.

      • Hey, he asked for the best.

        It’s like asking which car is the best and being offended when the Bugatti Veyron comes up.

        • avatarsdog says:

          how about we stay away from unfounded accusations of classism in a theoretical gun build post.

          i am not a rich guy, but i do know how to squirrel away $$ for my hobby. over time you can get what you want.

          “maybe it’s just that TTAG appeals to a demographic that has a lot more disposable income than we do.”
          well then save up, or stick to your hipoint.
          there is such a wide range of gun reviews here, but they are not saying that one needs a knight armament gun to properly defense yourself.

        • avatarMatt says:

          That IS offensive. Everyone knows the right answer is a Porsche 911 C4.

        • avatarRobert Farago says:

          +1

        • avatarsdog says:

          i disagree, everyone knows that the lambo Reventon is the quintessential everyman car.

      • avatarJason says:

        It’s all about priorities. Lots of middle class folks have a summer time share, or a ski boat, or an RV, or an ATV, or flying lessons, or a horse. And you’d be amazed at how much extra money you have when you’re not making payments on a status symbol BMW or a Ford F350 dualie cowboy limo.

        Some people would rather have and shoot a dream gun than do those other things.

  13. avatarJR says:

    Colt is also making their rifles with some Magpul stuff:

    http://www.coltsmfg.com/Catalog/ColtRifles/ColtCarbinesII.aspx

    These also seem like an excellent value.

  14. avatarGA Koenig says:

    I totally disagree with Mr Foghorn’s advice here.

    First- you are FAR better off spending $650 on the S&W M&P instead of this rolling-your-own business.

    Second, Foghorn’s solution is missing a light. ANY defensive long gun needs a light.

    Third, Foghorn’s investing money in all the wrong places – flossy Magpul doodads and match triggers while going cheese dick on the optics. Buy an Aimpoint or EoTECH (forums for-sale sections are a great place to save $100 on such items).

    Frankly, this post flies in the face of what any quality instructor or most experienced AR users would ever tell a noob to buy. It’s far too competition geared, has too many “upgrades” and is missing a mission-critical piece of DUG kit (the light).

  15. avatar"Dr."Dave says:

    A better question is, why use an AR-15 for home defense, anyway?

    Dont get me wrong. They are great rifles. I own several of them.

    But they are grossly inappropriate for most peoples home defense scenarios. Letting off 5.56 rounds in the suburbs, much less an aparptment complex, is a really, really bad idea.

    Further, I really disagree with your set up, Nick.

    No flash light? Really?

    You’ll recomend a 60 round magazine when average defensive gun uses are far less than ten rounds…

    And you’ll recomend a match trigger, when average engagment distances are less than 25 yards…

    But you wont reccomend a flash light, when its clearly proven that almost all DGUs are in low light/no light.

    So you’re basically telling people to spend money on stuff that’s nifty and very useful…If you’re over seas getting into running gun battles…But you leave out what is probably THE most important accessory for home defense.

    Its a bad idea to shoot what you cant see. And having a light is very, very useful.

  16. avatar"Dr."Dave says:

    Go get a Remington 870. Put a side saddle and a light on it. Total cost: $650 or so.

    Then sink a couple hundred bucks into getting better locks, a solid core front door or a solid wood one, if possible. Get some motion activated lights that operate off a battery backup and your houses electricity.

    Get a dog.

    Then you’ll realistically be much, much safer than you would be with a riced out race gun you dont know how to use, and you’ll have a couple hundred bucks left over for ammo and beer.

  17. avatarMr. Carpenter says:

    Whats wrong with you people? Just buy a Red Jacket AR. Will Hayden says they are the best and built to mill spec..come on, just get one of those……hahahahaha

  18. avatarsdog says:

    have you seen the “Why the Red Jacket AR-15 is a Success Story” over on G&A? this guy is hilarious and given no context as to why their “desert ar” is so much better than all other ar’s ever made.

    neva beeen donebefo

  19. avatarfreeport56 says:

    Nice build. The best rifle is the one that works best for you. I too built my carbine(16″) and rifle (20″) a couple of years ago. Neither are free-float and both are accurately Zeroed at 300m with Iron sights. I know you will enjoy shooting this rifle. I wish you a great time every trip to the range!

  20. avatarDrewR55 says:

    My question (and maybe there is a good reason that I’m not aware of); Why have a carbine length gas system if you are not going to get a NFA barrel? If you were going to get a 16″ barrel shouldn’t you get a mid-length gas system? Or would that make too little of a difference to matter?

  21. I’m not going to make a fuss about agreeing or disagreeing.

    Personally if I were to build an AR for deffensive use (Property defense because I use a shotgun or a handgun for home defense) my build would go something like this.

    A Spike’s stripped lower receiver.
    A RRA trigger assembly.
    Whatever Mil-spec buffer tube and kit was available (Probably Spike’s or BCM).
    If an upgraded pistol grip and trigger guard are desired the MOE series for either is good enough for me. Same goes for the butt stock.

    For an upper I’d get a BCM stripped mid-length upper receiver with the government profile barrel.
    For hand guards I’d go with a MOE fore arm if I wanted to save class. If I wanted a rail the Midwest Industries bolt on Mid length rail seems like a good choice if you don’t want to go through a gun smith.
    A Fail Zero BCG (You can find them on sale for fairly cheap if you shop around; plus they’re uber cool).
    A BCM gunfighter charging handle.

    Accessories.
    I don’t mind the Magpul MBUS backup sights.
    Any decent 2 point sling.
    I like the Streamlight series of flashlights as far as weapon mounted lights go. I’d like one of those or a decent Surefire light.
    A stack of Magpul PMAGs.
    If I had Cash left over I’d splurge on an Aimpoint PRO for a defensive optic.
    I think that covers everything.

    • avatarMadDawg J says:

      “If I had Cash left over I’d splurge on an Aimpoint PRO for a defensive optic.”

      That is the only red dot I would recommend on a home defense gun. At 2am when the BG is walking down the hall to your door you do not want to have to deal with lens covers and on switches. Rule 1 with home defense guns is K.I.S.S.

  22. avatarMadDawg J says:

    Caliber debate aside since this is specifically for a 5.56 AR, I disagree with getting a cheap POS site to save $3-400 and then spending $1,000+ & $200 Stamp tax on a suppressor. That is simply bass achwards in my book, and that is even if you ignore the added length and unballancing of the rifle by adding a can.

  23. avatarRobert says:

    Why not just buy a complete Spikes gun?

    They range from 850-up and are excellent guns.

  24. avatarChris Dumm says:

    Nick has far more experience with different ARs than I do, but when it comes to red dot sights I speak from considerable experience. I’ve owned some of the worst and tested most of the best, but I’ve had a Primary Arms Micro Dot on my AK-74 for almost a year and a half. Since I reviewed it more than a year ago, it has performed flawlessly on a rifle that gets some rough use.

    It has survived rain, snow, drops, and the heat of more than 1,500 rounds while mounted to an Ultimak gas-tube rail. It’s gotten too hot to touch after some bump-firing mag dumps, been put away wet, and dismounted and remounted numerous times with no loss of zero.

    I stuffed a handful of spare CR-2032 coin batteries in my AK’s grip cavity when I mounted it, but after 16 months the Primary Arms Micro Dot is still shining brightly on the same battery it shipped with. Joe Grine owns Eotechs and Aimpoints, but he liked the PA so much he put one on his AMD-65, which gets hotter than a black dashboard on a Phoenix summer day.

    In short, I completely disagree that the Primary Arms is a POS. Spend an extra $600 or $700 on an Aimpoint Micro and a Larue Tactical riser mount if you feel the need (and if you can afford it) but the Primary Arms will do the job for $84.95 plus shipping.

    Riser mount included.

    • I’ve never used a PA red dot sight but I’ve used other Aimpoint clones. I have a Bushnell TRS-25 on my AK mounted on an Ultimak rail and it’s been pretty darn tough. When some folks where moving stuff around after my house flooded it bassically got dropped under the weight of my gun safe (I was pretty mad about that btw), but despite that it didn’t break it or throw it off zero.
      My friends Vortex Strike Fire red dot sight is pretty darn rocking too.
      If you don’t jump out of planes or scuba dive into foreign countries for a living the value priced red dot sights should work fine.
      That said if you can afford the higher quality sights you should go for it. I’m a little strapped for cash right now but as soon as I get some more disposable income an Aimpoint is going on that AK and the TRS is going on one of my target handguns or a hunting revolver.

      • avatarChris Dumm says:

        I’ve examined the Primary Arms and the Bushnell side by side, and I’m almost certain they’re made at the same factory.

  25. avatarTom says:

    Whatever you do, keep it simple and straight forward, without gimmicks.
    Iron sights will work.
    Stock trigger is OK.
    Standard stock and hand guard is fine.
    Practice with the gun selected.
    Find out what ammo and magazines works, and what does not.

  26. avatarJim Scrummy says:

    Nick, thanks for the write up. Interesting stuff both from your article and the comments. Learn something new everyday at TTAG. My 2 pennies to the conversation is to train up on all your weapons, knife, pistol, shotgun, rifle, fists, running, and anything else that might aid you in a self-defense situation. You never know what will be available to you to defend yourself. Try to get into a training class (e.g. shooting and combatives) where simulating a stressful environment (but safe) is part of the training syllabus, because a self-defense situation will be stressful and chaotic.

  27. avatarMatt G. says:

    That parts list makes it pretty obvious that you haven’t been hanging around on te right forums nick.

    Spikes is a bit of a joke to the guys who run ARs hard. Plus you can get a much better upper from BCM of PSA for the same prices.

    Do not trust anything from DPMS.

    Primary arms makes okay stuff but I wouldn’t cheap on the optic.

    The surefire mags are known for less than ideal functioning. I myself have seen one go down. there isn’t much if a need for overly complicated quad stack mags on a home defense gun.

    I don’t think anyone who knows what they are talking about will describe the 16″barrel/carbine length gas system combination as “ideal”. The AR was designed with a certain amount of dwell time. That combo is not it.

    A GTG AR can be had for 7-800$ before optic. A great AR can be had for 13-1400$, and will have much nicer stuff than you mentioned.

  28. If you want .300 blk so much why not just get an AK for home defense?

    And yes, I know the article was in response to a question about a 5.56 AR.

  29. avatarcounihan says:

    This article was destined to flop from the outset, no offense intended to the author. I have generally enjoyed Mr Leghorn’s articles and he is one of my favorite contributors to the site. With that said, why would you have a shooter whose experience lies in the competition field write an article about a defense oriented rifle? That is the major problem here. Offering this piece to another author with a background in defensive or offensive rifle tactics would have been better advised.

    Nick, when building or buying a rifle for protection (defense) the mindset can not be focused on kit. You’ve put together a very nice range gun, or even a nice entry level USPSA/3 Gun carbine. For defensive use the focus needs to be purely on function and reliability. Including a Timney trigger adds a potential weak link. Most match triggers (not sure about Timney) use reduced power hammer springs. This can lead to light primer strikes and misfires. That would be very bad in a DGU.
    I don’t have a problem with the Magpul kit. Whatever makes the rifle more comfortable, thus user friendly, is important.
    I do have a serious problem with a 60 round coffin mag/anchor dangling from the mag well. Take this advice from an Army Vet that had to lug an M249, LESS WEIGHT IS BEST. When doing MOUT with an M4 I used to do whatever I could to shave weight, same idea applies here. Not to mention the fact that we are talking about DGU not OGU (offensive). You’re not building a rifle for an operator, just average Joe Snuffy to protect his home.
    The optic mentioned I have used, and like. I would be sketchy about using any optic without extensive testing. This caveat should be added for any gear intended for defensive use. Always test (abuse) the equipment until you are satisfied with it’s quality and durability.
    Finally, as mentioned several times above, include a freaking mounted white light with switch. Most DGU’s will occur in low light or no light. As stated you can’t hit what you can’t see, and you shouldn’t engage without identification. White light is needed for these purposes and is of paramount importance. The light should not be cheaper out on (Don’t duct tape a flashlight to your handguard!)
    Sorry to get all preachy. But this site is frequented by new shooters with questions and this article and series of articles is aimed at that audience. We should do our best to give them the most informative and accurate article possible, especially on a topic of possible life/death significance like a defensive carbine/rifle. Next time please consult someone with a background in the topic first (military, police, instructor, etc)

    • avatar"Dr."Dave says:

      +10

      You should have written the article, not some one who runs 3 gun matches on open ground in broad daylight.

  30. avatarMichael says:

    This is just his opinion, we all have one. I hate it when people say that he is wrong because…..
    If there was a perfect gun/calibre the there would only be one manufacturer, which would be Glock in 9mm. So now go and critise that comment and tell me how wrong I am and that your 1911 in 45 ACP is the only gun that you should carry. I own lots of guns in various calibers, some for self defense, some just for fun. I think all would work to stop someone if I shot them with it.
    So lets have a perfect handgun caliber debate, you know, that real mean carry 45s, 9mm is for girls, ( Seals, SAS, Mossad GSG9).
    Oh and how about 5.556 does not work, “My friend shot someone in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, 10 times before he dropped” So we need to go to 7.62 debate.

    • avatar"Dr."Dave says:

      Put the bullets where they need to go.

      If you cant do that, no amount of debating will help you.

  31. avatarAPBTFan says:

    Personally, for my first AR I’m going to buy factory. Once I learn the ins, outs, what I like and what I don’t like I may find I want to go wild and build another to find my “dream gun” but given my leanings I’m sure I’ll make just a few tweaks and have my perfect rifle. There is a dizzying array of options (and infinite opinions) for building an AR and as such for someone new to the AR game I feel there’s a solid case to be made for buying a factory gun especially for an HD weapon.

    I have cash in hand and am waiting for Davidson’s to get more Del-Ton 316 Extreme Duty’s back in stock. With all Mil-Spec parts, a great reputation, a street price of less than $989 and a lifetime warranty I’m expecting a very happy APBTFan.

  32. avatarjoecr says:

    The link in [Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts] goes to the wrong URL on the site & just give me a search. But if I change the URL to just http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/category/askfoghorn It works with no issues.

  33. avatarhuck says:

    Just buy a Rock River upper with a Wylde 1:8 barrel and shoot both .223 and 5.56 (accurately).

  34. avatarCJ says:

    Not to get off the subject I wanted to add that I just equeped two of my rifles with Magpul battery assist devise and I can’t believe how a small change can make a big differance on functioning of my rifles

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