Ask Foghorn: Best Budget AR-15 for Cheap Bastards

UPDATED 8/19/2012

Jerry asks:

I’m looking for an entry AR for 3-gun. I’ve read through all your AR articles in the Ask Foghorn section. Could you do a post on a budget AR build like your college friend Nate or Tate talked about in the comments section of your 3-gun 101 article?

I’ve done an article on what I think is the perfect AR-15 for self defense, and the perfect AR-15 for first timers, but I don’t think I’ve done one of these yet. So, how low can you go? Let’s find out…

First up, what exactly do you need for a 3-gun rifle? Well, the bare minimum that most competitions will accept is something chambered in 5.56x45mm NATO, so a Ruger 10/22 in .22lr is right out. It also needs to be able to hit the broad side of a barn, but the most I’ve seen required is minute-of-clay-pigeon at 50 yards — accurate, but not necessarily precise. It also needs to be semi-automatic and take detachable magazines for speed, unless you’re in California. You also only really need iron sights, not some fancy red dot or scope, and you’ll be in a class of your own so you won’t be at much of a disadvantage for not having glass that can see the lunar landing sights in broad daylight.

So what you need is something semi-auto and magazine fed in 5.56 or greater. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be an AR-15.

If you really want to be a cheap bastard on this but still remain competitive, something to look at is Kel Tec’s SU-16A. One like this one seen being used by a member of an all-female 3-gun team at a recent competition who were quite competitive. The base model clocks in with an MSRP of $665 and is compatible with AR-15 mags, so you won’t need to buy all new gear when you decide to make the next move. There aren’t many upgrades available, though, so choose wisely. I’ve never really been a fan of Kel Tec’s products, but this one is the exception to the rule.

Then again, the real McCoy isn’t too much farther up the cost ladder.

My standard recommendation used to be the Smith & Wesson M&P-15, but there are some features missing on that rifle compared to the latest and greatest AR-15 for cheap bastards.

Mossberg has come out with their MMR Tactical (full review here), and while it’s not what I would call “perfect” all on its lonesome it is about $100 in upgrades away from that. Swap out the grip, the trigger and add some handguard covers and what you have is a 1 – 1.5 MoA gun that will run with the best of ‘em. A free floating barrel and full length rails on all sides of the handguards is what places this above the rest of the competition. All this can be yours for around $700 retail.

Option #3 is to go all Dr. Frankenstein on the thing and build it yourself. And personally, I think this is the best option. This insanely crappy picture dating from before I graduated college shows the stripped lower receiver that eventually became my Pretty Princess competition rifle that I still use today. Building a rifle from parts gave me the experience and know-how that I needed to be able to maintain and upgrade the rifle along the way, and was fun as hell. I went the “massively expensive” route with my gun, but my calculations indicate that you could build yourself a perfectly serviceable rifle for as little as $650. Plus, YOU get to choose exactly what parts you want to use.

Here’s a suggested build:

So, what’s the best choice? Ultimately that’s up to you. If you only need something that goes bang, look at the Kel Tec. If you really want an authentic AR-15 then go with the Mossberg. And if you’re feeling adventurous (and cheap) go with building your own.

[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!

55 Responses to Ask Foghorn: Best Budget AR-15 for Cheap Bastards

  1. avatarMatt says:

    I bought a Windham Weaponary MPC back in February for $780. I’ve put about 1000 rounds through and have never had any problems with it. It is a pleasure to shoot and is made in America! I love the Windham story, check it out if you’re unfamiliar with it. I support putting Americans back to work, doing my part to stimulate the economy. The Windham Weaponary AR’s are a great entry/budget level gun for people new to AR’s.

  2. avatarBlake says:

    The lower you list isn’t California compliant. How do you get around that problem?

    • avatarhoppes#9 says:

      Move. :-)

      • avatarJoe Grine says:

        +1.

      • avatarLeo Atrox says:

        Sure. Whenever the weight of oppressive government becomes heavy, we should leave our homes behind and move elsewhere. That sounds like a good plan. Geez, that’s a lot easier than changing governements. So what if you have rights? So what if its your home, you know? Just pick up and move. Brilliant!

        Do not move. Do not surrender.
        Your home. Your rights. Your freedom. Your government.

        (I know you were half-joking, hoppes; but this needed to be said as the same joke goes around the Internet, and humor and sarcasm are sometimes hard to read.)

        • avatarArrDee says:

          Yeah… But they do not have rights, Smarty. Look at their “laws”. No one changes the government as the majority there clearly likes the leash around their necks. Ah, but if someone says “overthrow” as in the Constitutional advisory that it is our DUTY to replace the govt when it becomes oppressive – THEN you’re all “Well, that’s EXTREME.” Yeah, Smarty – staying there, preaching to us online and acting like you have “rights” – that’ll show ‘em. Get back to us when the dollar collapses – SOON if obama gets HIS “right” to raise the debt ceiling at will. The next day I bet China or Russia announces that they will no longer recognize dollars as valid currency.

    • avatarDon says:

      Turners in CA has lowers on sale for $90 this week. For the lowers it is easier just to buy at a CA gunstore so you don’t have to do the FFL transfer….the rest just get online.

    • avatarphillip says:

      Check with your local gun shop and have them order it and install the bullet button.

    • avatarKevin says:

      for the keltecs there is a california specific model in the su-16′s, AR’s on the other hand im not sure about but as to the moving part there is a reason I wont live in cali plus a few others like illinois and such

  3. avatarlouis r says:

    There are many lowers that can be shipped to CA. you just need to install a bullet button an a 10 rd mag. I build them all the time and ship them to California .

  4. avatarfrankgon4 says:

    Here is a Bushmaster CAR 15 with Red Dot sight for $699 shipped to your FFL

    http://www.budsgunshop.com/catalog/product_info.php/products_id/69657/Bushmaster+CAR15+223+16+BSH+REDDOT

    • avatarMatt in FL says:

      Now you’ve just got to find an FFL willing to accept an incoming transfer from Bud’s. Some of my local shops have started to balk, with reactions ranging from “won’t do it” to “grumble under their breath while doing it.” These are shops that my every other experience has been quite good to excellent, so the “just don’t shop there anymore” solution is less than desirable.

  5. avatarlouis r says:

    You should be aware that the AR-15 parts market is just about at a stand still. Some parts have a back order time of 8 to 12 weeks

  6. avataranotherMatt says:

    My Palmetto State Armory build has been flawless.
    $50 forged lower
    $90 lower build kit
    $480 forged mid length 16″ upper with 1:7 chrome lined FN barrel

    That’s considerably cheaper than the M&P Sport and has all the features of a $1000+ rifle. I highly recommend.

    • avatarJason says:

      My local dealer has a M&P 15 Sport for $650. Your build comes out to $620. If your time is worth $30, the M&P comes out cheaper.

      • avataranotherMatt says:

        It takes about a half hour to assemble a lower taking your time. My time is worth $60/hour.
        Plus I have a nice mid length gas system, a better barrel, and the aforementioned forward assist (don’t use it) and dust cover (comes in handy).

      • avatarJay W. says:

        FWIIW – The street price on the M&P Sport is < $650 and I won't be surprised if someone tacks on that they bought one for < $600. I bought mine last July for $615 before taxes and fees when the MSRP was $709.

    • avataranotherMatt says:

      Plus you’d have to pay tax (at least in my state).

    • avatarlouis r says:

      What you fail to mention is the the company out of stock on almost every part you will need

      • avatarRandomhero says:

        like that even matters right now. EVERYBODY is out of stock on pretty much ANY AR part right now. So, if im going on your logic, this whole article is moot due to lack of in stock on pretty much any site for any part.

  7. avatarMikeinidaho says:

    How important is a dust cover and forward assist? We picked up the low end model M&P for a few pennies under $500 a year ago. I am shocked at the quality. Great trigger, great fit and finish, accurate to at least minute of operator. It was on sale at sportsmans. I should have bought at least two.

    • avatarJason says:

      Take a look at the JP Enterprises CTR-02 competition rifle. Base price of $2599. No forward assist. No dust cover. High end competitors don’t miss ‘em. You won’t either.

    • avatarAnon in CT says:

      I wouldn’t want to forgo the Forward Assist. Dust cover is whatever.

    • avatarJeff O. says:

      I bought the M&P based on the review here and it’s a great gun.

      I think having a warra ty from once source is worth the litle extra I paid vs building.

  8. avatarRabbi says:

    Personally, I would never buy the cheapest anything that is designed to contain explosives from blowing up my face.

    I have had a number of top rifle instructors tell me that they have seen frankenguns have a higher rate of failure than most factory guns in their classes. They may run well when run soft, but fail when run hard. That said, most private citizens don’t run their guns hard.

    My vote is for the S&W

  9. avatarChris Dumm says:

    Building your own lower can save you money, but the real draw is for the advanced hobbyist because it really gives you a great understanding of how the gun runs. Your black rifle stops being a mysterious black box, when you know how every part went together.

    When it comes to reliability, I’ve had more problems with factory guns than with home builds. If you’re a beginner you should get a complete upper receiver (instead of an unassembled barrel, receiver, gas tube, bolt, carrier, etc) because that’s the one area where spacing and timing are critical.

  10. avatarSig says:

    As is often the case, the article’s real benefit is to spur on an interesting conversation. I’ve delayed getting an AR just because my budget is pretty limited and I’d rather spend it on something new and different; the M-16 was my “first” and I still get a taxpayer-funded trip to qualify every year, so I started my home collection with a pistol. That said, it’s on my “sooner or later” list…

  11. avatarSanchanim says:

    I have to agree with Chris on this. I love building stuff. For me when I tore apart my M-16 in the army, it wasn’t just the field strip, I tore it all the way down. I inspected each part for where things wore down. I didn’t have an advanced manual, and had never looked at an M-16 prior. My commander freaked, but I went to our Armour and let him know I needed some replacement parts. We spent the weekend messing with it, and in the end, I had a perfectly good Vietnam era M-16 that didn’t jam or miss feed. It just worked and worked well. After that I tore down any gun I was ever given. Even my tavor lol Knowing how something works to ever last nut and bolt might not be critical if you are down at the range, but in a survival situation, or a zombie Apocalypse, it could just save your life.
    I would go the build your own route, but if you look any well any site, it is all parts on order no ETA! WTF!!!

  12. avatarAPBTFan says:

    For $499 Del-Ton offers kits that include everything you need to finish a stripped lower – complete upper with chrome-lined barrel, HPT/MPI bolt, LPK and buttstock/buffer tube assembly. This is the route I took and it turned out great. All I had to add was a rear sight.

    http://www.midwayusa.com/product/644662/del-ton-mid-length-carbine-kit-ar-15-556x45mm-nato-1-in-7-twist-16-chrome-lined-barrel-upper-assembly-lower-parts-kit-m4-collapsible-buttstock-pre-ban

    Mr. Dumm nails it with learning how the rifle works. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Just be prepared to launch the pivot pin detent a time or two.

    louisr nails it too. Parts are damned hard to come by. A month after I built mine both my brothers wanted to build one and had a hell of a time getting all the parts.

    • avatardubbs says:

      Wow! Don’t say that! Delton is crap, amd all who buy their stuff are ignorant bubbas! Whu just ask the all knowing bubbas over at the m4 website who constantly rip on anyone who doesn’t own a $1k plus colt, or 1,500 to $2k DD, Larue, or noveske. What they won’t they won’t mention that sans corporate geeed and price gouging, the per unit cost that we tax payers are”supposed” to shell out for a military FA colt is about 650 per gun. Yet amazingly again, no real AR types talk about cheap or low standards with that. Seems everyone is building the basic rifles as mil spec, so buying an entry smith n wesson, of dmps at 700, or assembly of a Franken gun with mil spec parts should have to break your bank! I own handguns that cost more than a complete parts kit, amd I know that no civie gun is going tp hang like its full military version( while some joe couch chairs talk about running their ARs to 30k plus, I talk to actual military personnel who have had totally new or refurbished weapons waaaay before that point.

  13. avatarmatt says:

    I got lucky a few weeks ago and got a Spikes Tactical off aimsurplus.com for $769. I signed up back in December to be emailed when back in stock, and happened to be at my computer when the notification came in. Unfortunately, I haven’t shot it yet, but the build quality is top-notch.

    I also have a New Frontier complete lower that was mentioned above for $109. I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do with it just yet, but will probably just put a PSA upper on it and call it a day.

  14. avatarTony says:

    I bought the M&P 15 Sport (complaint – NJ!!!!!) based on the review I read on this site. Five stars? Well deserved. $609 shipped from Bud’s last year. Over 1000 rounds (mostly Federal .223) without a single failure of any kind. Accurate as any carbine-length AR. Add in the warranty, and this has to be your best bet. Seriously, I never used to be a S&W fan of any sort, but I think they’ve hit a home run here. Try one – you won’t be sorry. And if you are, the demand for these things is such that you can probably sell it for just about what you paid for it new.

  15. avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    I think the way to get the price down would be to try to get several people who want to build a common configuration together and bulk-order several parts that tend to be spendy in single orders. eg, the barrels.

    Some of the roll pins and springs used in the AR can be found more cheaply in quantity from machined parts distributors like Fastenal in bulk than what you pay for them in “lower parts kits.”

    NB that to build the upper/barrel sub-unit, you’ll need some specialized tools. You’ll need an action vise block or something similar to hold the upper (or upper+lower) in a vise so you can torque down the barrel. You’ll need a barrel wrench to torque on the castellated nut and if you want to do the job correctly according to military/Colt specifications, you’ll need a 1/2″ drive torque wrench. You’ll also need a set of roll pin punches, a set of snap ring pliers, a 4-oz hammer, cleaning kit, etc. This is where getting together with some other people will amortize these costs across a group of people effectively, since I’m talking of over $150 in tooling here, and that’s leaving out the really mil-spec stuff like headspace gages, barrel straightness rods, erosion gages, etc.

  16. avatarJFP says:

    I picked up my first AR, a Del-Ton 316 Echo MOE for $770 on sale this weekend locally. Just need a rear sight.

    http://www.del-ton.com/DTI_16_Carbine_MOE_Rifle_p/rfth16-moe.htm

    I’m not ready to go with the build my own path yet but its tempting.

  17. avatarAzman says:

    I find it kind of funny that all of you are complaining about no ar-15s or parts when I picked up a converted saiga for 499 that will work longer than I will and is plenty accurate. But then the question was about ar’s and I don’t do 3 gun so mebbe I’m off here?

  18. avatardustyvarmint says:

    Navy shipmates used to call me OCB (Old Cheap Bastard) as I carried my physical training clothes in a Wal-Mart bag and wouldn’t buy a duffle bag. I’ve since upgraded to a duffle bag (cheap WM one) for PT clothes and a range bag (different bags). I’ve checked out the M&P Sport for $699 at my LGS and the DPMS Oracle at Cabelas for the same price, but it is nice to know there are options.

    thanks and happy shooting, dv (aka Cheap Bastard Jerry)

  19. avatarRich says:

    I’m on John Farnum’s email list. I just received this a couple of hours ago:

    More comments on AR parts/accessories, from an AR Armorer:

    “Beware!

    There are a lot of crap AR parts out there. Most top-tier manufacturers
    don’t themselves make every part that goes into rifles they sell. They have
    to buy parts from vendors, and, as noted, the parts-market is a minefield
    right now! Even top-tier manufacturers occasionally have a bad part, or
    two, pass through their System.

    For that reason, ‘price-point,’ or ‘hobby-grade’ rifles, even from
    established brands, are highly not recommended. When the price of a new AR
    seems too low (under 1k), the manufacturer had to cut costs somewhere, and it is
    usually in parts.”

    just thought that I’d pass it along.

  20. avatarSanchanim says:

    Well this just stinks.
    Many of the cool lowers are not being sold to CA! :-(
    Time to move outta state!!!

  21. I picked up a complete poly lower from New Frontier Armory, I think mine was $116 shipped. I got the complete Red X Xtreme Tactical 16 upper with stainless barrel and flash hider with BCG and charging handle for $409 shipped (yes it has a dust cover and forward assist). That’s $525 for a complete AR in 5.56! I put on a red dot, grip pod, rail covers and a ambi single point end plate for a little over $600 I have a complete AR-15 that weighs in at around 7lbs. It runs good, it’s light weight and didn’t break the bank.

  22. avatarEthan says:

    I just bought my Smith and Wessons AR15 m&p for $999.00. It has a free float rail, dust cover and so on. Did I pay more or is this the current price?

    • avatarJoshinGA says:

      What model is it? It doesnt sound like you got the cheapest model, but obviously prices will fluctuate and vary depending on your location…

  23. avatarjimmyjames says:

    No AR is cheap currently but I would have to say the S&W M&P15 Sport is the best bang for your buck. Mine is a tack driver with match ammo and with M855 the point of impact only shifts 2″ from 25yds to 100yds. After owning a Mossberg ATR100 rifle, you could not give me one of their AR’s. It would break in half before I could sell it.

  24. avatarbrad says:

    …..AK 47. ;)

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