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.

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