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Colt LE901 16S (courtesy Nick Leghorn for The Truth About Guns)

Jim Golden writes:

USA –-( –  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The AR-15 market is on fire. In my last post I talked about current AR-15 market trends. Long gone are the days of only ABC AR-15 choices, for ARMALITE, Bushmaster or COLT. As of autumn 2013, there are almost countless AR-15 product choices available on the market. Even still, almost daily there seem to be new product offerings, and even new manufacturers popping up in the AR-15 market. You should also notice that more and more, a plethora of AR style rifles are back in stock at your Local Gun Store (LGS). So with such a dizzying array of options, how do you narrow down the field, and make a well informed choice? Ponder this . . .

As with any gun purchase, before you pull the trigger on that new AR-15, spend time answering the following four very important questions:

  • 1. What is your Purpose, or Philosophy of Use (POU)? Why are you buying this AR-15?  How will you use the AR-15?  What realistically will you be doing with your AR-15 most of the time?
  • 2. What is your current and future budget? My advice is to spend a little more upfront for better quality.  Sure, it’ll sting a little now, but you won’t regret it down the road.  Nor will you spend more money fixing or replacing it later.
  • 3. How might your AR-15 evolve over time, and how might your overall collection of firearms evolve over time?  Is this your only rifle?  Will your A-15 have to flex into many different roles?  Might your POU change over time?  Is hunting in your future? Is competition in your future?  Is a Zombie Apocalypse in your future?  (Obviously, that’s a joke, but Zombies, and marketing to the Zombie Apocalypse are huge in the firearms and survival / prepper industries.  Hell, there’s even a zombie in one of the latest Sprint mobile phone commercials.)
  • 4. What are the Federal, State and Local laws applicable to this purchase?  Though your vendor of choice, be it your LGS or an Internet site, should provide assistance here, it’s still your responsibility to know the laws that relate to your new purchase.

Don’t Sweat It.  You almost can’t go wrong…

Competition is generally a good thing.  The result of healthy competition is lots of product choice, better overall product quality, and better (lower) prices for the end consumer.  All of that is absolutely true in the AR-15 market.  As of fall 2013, many AR-15 manufacturers make high quality rifles, parts and accessories at very reasonable prices.  Generally speaking, and for most civilian POUs, if you stick with a well known manufacturer, with a good history of quality rifles, and a strong reputation for customer service, you almost can’t go wrong.

At a high level, AR-15 manufacturers fall into two categories:

  1. Manufacturers that focus on nothing but the M16 / M4 / AR-15 platform, and produce nothing but AR-15s, and related parts.
  2. More commonly known, traditional gun makers that make AR-15 style rifles.

The MIL-Spec Designation…

OK, what is the Military Specification for M16 and M4 rifles as it relates to the AR-15?  What does it mean?  Is it important?

Honestly, it’s surprisingly difficult to define the MIL-Spec definition as it relates to the AR-15.  Some argue if the gun hasn’t been handed out by one of the branches of the U.S. Military, complete with select / burst fire, and if you’re not carrying it for Uncle Sam, then it’s not MIL-Spec.  Others have written nauseatingly long (even for me) articles that discuss each and every individual component of the AR-15 relative to the M16 / M4 Military Specification.  Others say parts of the M16 / M4 MIL-Spec are still, well, classified

For simplicity sake, so that you are generally aware of them, commonly agreed upon and highly favored features from the M16 / M4 Military Specification are listed below:

  1. MPI (Magnetic Particle Inspected), pressure tested, shot peened bolt.  MPI and pressure testing help ensure parts are structurally sound, devoid of cracks and less likely to fail.  Shot peening is a metallurgical process that increases strength and useful life.  The rods in the engine of your car are also shot peened, for the very same reason.
  2. Properly staked gas key on the bolt carrier.  ‘Properly staked’ speaks to how the gas key is attached to the bolt carrier so they don’t separate at the most inopportune time.
  3. 4150 or CMV chrome lined pressure and MPI tested 1:7 twist barrel.  The chrome lining improves reliability, is less susceptible to fouling, reduces corrosion and enhances feeding & extraction.  The 1:7 twist is fast enough to spin heavier, longer bullets that provide better long range accuracy and stopping power.
  4. 5.56 NATO chamber with M4 feed ramps.  The 5.56 NATO chamber allows you to safely fire both full-power NATO spec 5.56 and .223 Remington ammunition.  The M4 feed ramps ensure proper feeding of ammunition to help reduce malfunctions, especially at high rates of fire.
  5. Forged FSB (Front Sight Block) (F marked if carbine) with parkerizing under it.  Forged for strength.  F marked for carbines with a flat top upper to properly align the height of the front sight with the height of the MIL-spec rear iron sight.
  6. Tapered pins for the FSB.  Tapered pins only go in one way, and have a tighter fit than straight pins so they reduce the risk of working themselves out over time.
  7. MIL-Spec size receiver extension (buffer tube), with staked castle nut.  Commercial tubes are smaller in diameter than MIL-Spec size tubes.  This is important if you plan to change stocks.

If you make a living with your AR-15, or are otherwise selecting something for work, then learning more about the M16 / M4 Military Specification, and trying to obtain an AR-15 as close to the M16 / M4 MIL-Spec as possible is well advised.  (Though, you may be better served with an actual select fire / burst capable M16 / M4 from FN or COLT, which as far as I know, can only be obtained the traditional way…)  In any event, God Speed, Good Luck, and I’m totally stoked you read my stuff!

For the rest of us, the average civilian buying an AR-15 for plinking, hunting, home defense and/or competition keep reading; and don’t get wrapped around the axle about the MIL-Spec designation.  Sure, many of the seven MIL-Spec traits listed above are nice to have – some certainly more than others.

(MPI and pressure tested bolts and barrels are nice to have, especially if taking your AR-15 to carbine class, where you will fire thousands of rounds, potentially at a high rate of fire, in a short time period with little cleaning between firing.  Likewise, if using your AR-15 primarily for defense purposes, MPI and pressure tested bolts and barrels add confidence in your equipment. Is it needed for most casual plinkers who likely shoot less than 1,000 rounds all year??  Shooters focused on getting the best possible, hair splitting accuracy from their rifle may opt for non-chrome lined barrels, and accept the negative trade-offs.  Fine if going with a stainless steel barrel, but otherwise I like chrome lined barrels in the AR-15 platform for reliability and longevity.  I doubt most will notice any trade-off in accuracy.  That forged F marked FSB and the tapered FSB pins are only relevant if you’re building a flat top carbine with the traditional front sight.  Have an A2 style or other non-collapsible stock, or otherwise happy with the one you have with no plans to swap it out?  Then don’t even worry about the MIL-Spec sized receiver extension.)

The point is, there are plenty of excellent, high quality AR-15s put out by great manufacturers that lack more than a few of the MIL-Spec features listed above; some are even used by major US Law Enforcement agencies.  Focus more on overall AR-15 build quality and manufacturer reputation.

My ‘Two-Cents’ Worth “Who’s Who” List of AR-15 Manufacturers… (It’s actually worth thirty-seven dollars and change.)

Knowing my audience is generally newer to guns, and possibly brand new to the AR-15 platform, the section below provides baseline info, some company history and my thoughts on a number of AR-15 manufacturers.  I also indicate whether or not the manufacturer made my ‘short-list’.   In many cases, what did NOT make my ‘short-list’ came down to very simple things like personal taste, cost or simply having to limit the number of choices to avoid the dreaded, never-ending analysis paralysis.

Providing this list is a risky endeavor.  I’m sure to piss off more than a few since I could never cover all of the choices, nor do all of them justice.  Hey, I’m sharing what I know from personal research and experience.  Consider it a starting point for your own research, certainly not the “be all, end all,” answer.

Category 1: Manufacturers Who Focus Solely on the M16 / M4 / AR-15 Platform:

The names you are most likely see on the wall of your LGS, or at the local range, some history and my thoughts on each:

Bushmaster – Bushmaster is one of the original names in civilian AR production, dating back to 1973.  However, circa 2010, Bushmaster was purchased by the Freedom Group, which also owns Remington Arms and Marlin. Honestly, I can’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.  I have no personal experience with a Freedom Group Bushmaster.  I can tell you that my Remington 700 CDL is outstanding in fit and finish, and quite the tack driver.  Though I realize the Remington 700 is no AR-15.  When it was time for my decision, I feared company integration, retooling and retraining challenges, so Freedom Group owned Bushmaster didn’t make my short-list.  If buying today, I’d keep an open mind, do my research and check them out again.

DPMS, Defense Procurement Manufacturing Services – Founded in 1985 as precision machine shop producing MIL-Spec parts for the Government.  DPMS eventually started producing complete rifles and expanded into the civilian market.  DPMS is a large supporter of 3-Gun sports.  Their TAC2 offering received was named Shooting Illustrated’s Rifle of the Year.  DPMS might have made my short list.  However, at decision time they didn’t have an offering I considered aesthetically pleasing.  For me that’s a factor.  Call it what you want; appeal, second kind of cool, pleasing to the eye, sexiness, whatever…  With so many other good choices available, I wasn’t willing to compromise.  Though I’ll say some of their newer stuff certainly has appeal, the ‘TAC2’ and ‘3G2’ being great examples.

Rock River Arms – Founded circa 1997 by two brothers with gun building experience that includes serving as the head armorer at Springfield Armory, and custom pistol builder at Les Baer Customs.  RRA was founded from Day 1 with a focus on the AR-15 platform.   In 2003 RRA was awarded a contract with the DEA to provide 5,000 LAR-15s.  RRA was on my short-list.

STAG Arms – “The oldest new name in ARs.”  Officially started as its own company in 2003, Stag Arms is an offshoot of CMT (Continental Machine & Tool) who has been a major producer of component parts for military and consumer AR-15s since the Vietnam War.  In 2003, they decided to produce their own, complete rifles for the civilian market, instead of just remaining a background, component part supplier for other, major name brands.  Stag is a supporter of 3-Gun sports and with their high-end 3G, was the first major AR manufacturer to offer a 3-Gun specific model.  Stag Arms was on my short-list.  In fact, the STAG 3G topped my list.

Windham Weaponry – Started in 2011 by the former founder and owner of Bushmaster Arms.  The company was started after the Freedom Group purchased Bushmaster, moved operations out of the area and laid-off the original employees.  In many cases, Windham Weaponry employees have been making ARs for ~25 years or more.  Based on personal experience with what I’ll call a Windham Weaponry produced Bushmaster that’s been in the family for ~10 years, Windham Weaponry would definitely make my short-list.  However, as with DPMS, they didn’t have anything I considered visually appealing at decision time.  I do like some of their newer stuff, like their ‘Timber’ and ‘CDI’ offerings.

Additional names of other very popular AR-15 specific rifle and parts manufacturers you will hear as you dig deeper into the AR-15 platform are listed below.  They are considered by many to be higher-end, and/or more specialized than those listed above.  In most cases the price tag matches that reputation.  Depending on where you live and what your LGS carries, these are not as likely to be hanging on the wall or in the rack of your LGS, so trying to get your hands on one may be difficult.

BCM – Bravo Company USA. On my short-list, not only for parts like their BCG and uppers, but for complete rifles, and because of the company’s origins.  Click here to learn about Filthy 14.

CMMG. Based originally on making AR-15 parts and accessories, they now produce complete rifles.  Their AR-15 .22lr conversion kits are very popular and have a solid reputation for quality and performance.

Daniel Defense.  On my short-list.

LMT – Lewis Machine and Tool. On my short-list.

LaRue Tactical. On my short-list.

Noveske. On my short-list, at the time specifically for their barrels, which have a great reputation for accuracy.  Now they make other parts and even complete rifles too.

Seekins Precision. On my short-list.

Spikes Tactical.  Their lowers are extremely popular and have a good reputation for quality with the build your own crowd.

It’s worth noting, and as you probably figured out from the history and my comments, almost all of AR specific manufacturers listed above offer not just complete rifles, but parts for those that want to build or upgrade their AR-15.

Category 2: Traditional Gun Makers with Strong AR-15 style offerings:

While ARMALITE and COLT have pretty much always had AR-15 offerings for the civilian market, it took a while for other, more traditional gun makers to get into the game.  With the AR-15 platform still popular as ever, many of those traditional gun makers are now in on the action.  Big names you’re sure to recognize:

It might be a surprising revelation, but not many offerings from the list above made my ‘short-list’ of AR-15 choices.  You’ll learn a bit more about why in my next post – hint, hint.  To be clear, they all make perfectly fine AR-15 style rifles.  COLT still makes M16s and M4s for military, which should tell you something, and let’s not forget it was an H&K416 in the hands of a NAVY SEAL that took down bin Laden.  If you’re in the AR-15 market, I’d put every single one on your ‘short-list’.

As you might expect, and in contrast to the manufacturers that focus completely on the AR-15 platform, almost none of the traditional gun makers offer parts for those that want to build their own.  So, I don’t believe you can purchase a COLT or S&W upper to mate with your STAG lower, etc.  I’m sure it’s related to warranty and liability issues.

Finally, if nothing from the dizzying array of “factory”  options excites you, and if you have the coin, you can always pony-up for an ultra high-end, hand fitted AR-15 from some of the best names in the custom gun making business, like Les Baer or Wilson Combat.

Summing It Up

The AR-15 market is so strong you can get just about anything you want.  You can get a new, good quality Plain Jane, entry level AR-15 from more than a few of the manufacturers I list for about $800 – 900, maybe less.  You can get a completely custom, high-end, hand built rifle from some of the best custom makers in the World.  (Just bring your wallet because you will easily spend well into the thousands.)  Of course, you can get anything in between, and you can even build your own.  No doubt it’s a great time to buy in on the AR platform.

For my money, I like manufactures with a strong pedigree of Military and/or Law Enforcement service.  Companies that supply the Military and LE community, and those that supply those that supply all rank very high on my list. (savy?)  I also favor products designed by, and manufactured by guys who have operated in the theater of war.  God willing, these guys come home with first hand knowledge of exactly what works, what doesn’t and how to improve the platform.  In all cases, what passes their testing and performs successfully in the field for them, will more than likely work just fine for me.

That said, my best advice is this:  Define your POU and your budget then hit every LGS in your area.  Handle as many AR-15 style rifles as you can.  Cycle the action.  After you’ve verified the gun is unloaded, and asked if it’s OK with the LGS owner or salesman, dry fire the rifle.  Better yet, get some real trigger time.  Hit the range with family and friends, or find a range that rents.  Shoot as many AR-15 style rifles, from as many different manufacturers as possible

The truth is, with so many manufacturers producing quality AR-15s in the $900 – $1500 range, and for all legal, civilian uses I can think of, what’s stamped on the parts matters less than getting a rifle that fits you properly, has a good trigger, is setup correctly for your POU, is within your budget, and that generally appeals to your liking.  After all, it’s your rifle, you should like it!

Anyway, that’s my “Thirty Seven dollars and change” worth of advice on the AR-15 Market.  Hope it helps.  Let me know what you decide and how it worked out.

Be Aware! Be Prepared! Be Safe!

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About Jim Golden:
Jim is an NRA Certified Instructor who was introduced to firearms safety and shooting sports at 5 years old by his Dad, a NJ State Trooper. Since then, Jim has safely enjoyed shooting sports for over 35 years. He loves to educate new shooters, and enjoys generating interest in the sport. His primary goal is to promote safe handling and use of firearms for ALL LEGAL PURPOSES.  Be Aware. Be Prepared. Be Safe. Visit:

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  1. my lower is plastic (NFA)….dont judge.i didnt even get it at a gun shop. it was an aquarium store. it was all that was left after sandy hook. had opportunity to buy a “metal” lower last gun show for 60, but i think id rather take my chances with a plastic lower for 40 than a cheapo metal one for 60….

    • My primary lower is polymer too. New Frontier. Came complete, ready to hook to an upper for $150. I’ve put 5000+ rounds through it so far with no issues at all and I am anything but gentle with my guns.

    • I have the ATI Omni polymer lower. I’ve only put a few mags through it but I built it from bare using a CMMG lower kit and found a nice used upper. I spent about $600 total to build it. My friend shot it this weekend and loved it because it fits tight to the upper without any accu wedge in the rear like the metal lowers. I’ve seen some torture tests on it and I am confident it will meet my needs. This is not my SHTF rifle it is for the range and competitions. It it breaks it was only 60 bucks and I can reuse the other parts for another lower. I have a second lower that is going to be mated to a .300BLK upper in the future.

    • i can get these all day for 40+ or 150 for a complete. been a solid performer so far. i do have my doubts about the windham complete poly rifles. a lower is one thing…but a FULL poly i wouldnt run…

      mine was a “rat rifle” beat up M&P upper, no name bolt….

  2. Good article, however commercial spec buffer extensions are LARGER in diameter than Mil-Spec ones.

    Also, for the adventurous, building your own in some capacity should definitely be an option. I bought a rifle after Sandy Hook, and the only thing that remains of that rifle in it’s current configuration is the bare lower receiver.

    • thats a minor gripe i got with my plastic complete. the FCG is plastic. while its been flawless so far, the first thing i broke before i got it put together is the hammer. NFA did replace it no questions asked, but its still kind of unsettling.

      i love how light this thing is.

    • Yup. Was about ready to go out to the shop for my armorers book and spec sheets.

      Great article. I’m sure some will have experiences good and bad with different brands. I like my rock rivers. Both of them. Also love my spikes.

      I really look forward to reader responses.

  3. I tend heavily towards having two ARs, one for ‘every day’, the rat rifle, the beater and for that role I don’t like to pay too much. Then I like having the higher quality well dressed virtual safe queen. A rifle that you show off to friends but don’t really shoot much. The rifle that you’ll take out of the safe and run with if the SHTF.

    The thing is that I get attached to the beaters because they’re always with me. I love every scratch and patch of rust. After a time they develop a patina all their own, character if you will.

    The result is that while I covet a pricey custom made AR I shoot and carry DPMS Oracle currently. It’s got call the bells and whistles, it’s accurate, it wasn’t expensive and I don’t feel bad about taking it out in the rain.

    • wish more would chime in on their experience with NFA. mine has been good so far (m&p upper, cheapo bolt). it will be my beater….i do plan on getting an “operator” grade rifle bit by bit. the trick is getting it past the wife

      • I’d like to hear more about them too. i’m thinking hard on buying one when i get the money for that .50 Beowulf upper so i have somewhere to keep my 5.56 upper.

      • I kept thinking you guys were referring to the National Firearms Act and I was utterly confused… OH RIGHT – NEW FRONTIER ARMORY

    • +1 on the Oracle. I absolutely love mine. Not much left on it from DPMS, but its a great, cheap rifle that’s reliable.

      • LOL on the ‘not much left’. That’s the way it goes with AR guys though. I love my oracle. I knew a few guys 15 years ago who hated them with a passion but mine (bought new a few months ago for $650) runs great and is amazingly accurate (at least to me). I have hung some magpul furniture, a light, red dot, fold down iron backups etc too it, aren’t they always a work in progress? The rifle its self though inside and out is still all DPMS. I just haven’t found a reason to change anything.

  4. Great article! Does anyone know if if buying rifle kits can be a money saving alternative to reliable, entry level rifles?

    • Potentially, yes, but probably not for the intro shooter. The time and technical knowledge needed is better suited to complete a piecemeal build is better suited to experts than novices. My first two ARs were a complete rifles. The next two were separate upper and lowers, and the last two were builds from 80% lowers with professional build assistance.

      For your first AR, i would highly recommend a straight up factory – built complete rifle. Check the Smith M&P Sport, or M&P for a solid and reliable platform for about $650-$900. A dust cover is not essential. Colt and Bushmaster are also very solid.

      • I concur, Accur81. My first AR was a “pre-ban” Colt A2 HBAR. EXCELLENT RIFLE. I then bought a “post-ban” Colt Match Target. Also a good, solid, reliable shooter. I recently invested in a S&W M&P M4. No dust cover, no forward assist, no chrome lined barrel. Very reliable, and plenty accurate for a “beater”. Liked it so well, I bought another. Each of them were under $800.00 new.

    • DQ,

      as a slight alternative to Accur81’s suggestion of a fully built rifle, you could go the “assembled upper/parts kit lower” as a third route, where you buy the assembled upper (where the expensive tools come into play), and then you assemble the parts kit into the lower receiver yourself. I did mine with a hammer (not of the nice brass ones, a wingmaster steel construction variety), and a couple of basic punches.

      Cost difference is minor – you’re probably only going to save a couple of bucks. AR’s seem to have gotten so inexpensive lately that the more I think about it, the more just buying a complete rifle (with a helpful item called “a warranty”) seems to be the way to go.

      Damnit, circular logic.

      • I followed a similar path with a factory assembled and tested upper and putting the lower together myself for a first AR. There were a couple of factors that pushed me to assemble an AR in this way:

        1. Complete rifles which had most of my wish-list features were very rare at the time and manufacturers had apparently switched from aluminum to unobtainium.
        2. Even the rifles closest to my wish-list had a stock that I would replace right away and some would need a receiver extension change too.
        3. Putting the lower together would increase my familiarity with the inner-workings of the rifle compared to buying an off-the-shelf rifle.

        Like you, I had a bare minimum of tools and thanks to good online guides I only made one minor mistake by being too gentle with the trigger guard pin and a steel hammer and punch. The errant shine on the end of the pin only took a drop of paint to cover.

  5. I built one AR and one Lower in the past year. They get addictive after a while and I always want more! My next project is an 80% .308 lower. I have the tools from all of my work on cars so this should be interesting.

    • I was thinking the same thing. Doing it myself would be awesome and give me a lot more pride than buying one off the rack. Plus, I’d get to engrave the serial number as “000MURRICUH01” which would obviously make it more accurate and lethal. It’s just science.

  6. I own two Bushmaster AR’s. The first is the CMP Marksmen rifle, weighing a few bricks at 16.5 pounds. It’s a good rifle, accurate and enjoyable for competitions. But it’s not anything remotely useful for any other purpose.

    My other one is a .308/7.62N MOE Mid Length Carbine. Now that it’s broken in, I am really enjoying it and with the EOTech 552 .308 BDC on it, it’s a fun, quick shooting rifle. Even my wife will shoot it and says it’s easy to shoot.

    My backup SHTF rifle is an M-1 Garand. Might be heavy, might only hold 8 rounds. But it’s proven effective in many parts of the world:p

  7. S+W Upper with Stag lower?

    In order to get my hands on the post NY SAFE Act AR-15 of my dreams (a Stag 6H) I had to build it myself. (ARs are legal and not subject to registration in NY as long as they have no banned features. Which means you have to use a dumb-looking but surprisingly effective stock which replaces the pistol grip.)

    Built the Stag lower and bought the upper. Before the upper came in I put the upper from my S+W M&P 15 on the Stag lower. Mated perfectly. (Sadly didn’t produce offspring.) I ran a few snap caps through that combo no problem. I did not fire it, but the two halves seemed to work together just fine.

  8. Wish the AR-10 would become as ubiquitous as the -15, so as to lower the prices…. Been wanting a .308/7.62 AR for years, but can’t afford it yet.

    • Just keep a sharp eye out, and cash ready. I ran across a guy, (friend of a friend thing) who was off loading his rock river .308 on a short quick sale. Picked it up for 800 with 6 mags. But it was a gotta sell it today situation. I was fortunate.
      I try to keep at least 1,000 bucks cash on hand at all times for stuff like that. Picked up my second P-90s that way. Spread the word around to friends. Pretty soon fellow shooters are calling you to see if you want this or that. I’ve gotten some nice shooters and fishing poles (my other passion) that way.
      A grand seems like a lot, but if you can manage to scrimp and save here and there…

    • Yep, I was thinking the same thing about KAC not being mentioned. My fan-boy ego is severely bruised.

      In all seriousness, it’s almost impossible to ignore KAC when it comes to dedicated AR manufacturers. Not only is their stuff top-notch (and accordingly pricey), but they also had a strong relationship with Eugene Stoner himself.

  9. The “dizzying array of choices” in the AR market make it nearly impossible to know what is good, what is bad, what should be avoided at all costs, and what is a good price versus a rip off. I guess I must be prejudiced or something, because they all look the same to me. Which makes it even more confusing; if they are all the same basic gun, why is one $600 and another well north of $2000? One guy thinks Colts or Bushmasters are the cat’s meow, and the next says they are poorly built trash. That is until you get into the high end, but why these companies have to go by initials and use all this short hand that is probably familiar to someone with military training but not the rest of us escapes me. The discussion in this thread was so much gobbeldy gook to me.
    Now a bolt gun is something I can understand, but these? NOT! Every gun is a custom in one way or another, that comparing apples to apples is nigh impossible. I still haven’t figured out why these guys build them with forward assists–something it seems to my uneducated self to be an item not needed since the Vietnam War.

    • I’m not the expert on this topic but I’ll give it a try:

      The AR-15 is essentially two different things; a lower receiver which holds parts groups including the trigger assembly and hammer, and an upper receiver that I’ll get to in a second.

      What goes in the lower can raise or lower the price and or quality. They’re all the same parts, just made with different materials, tested differently, machined more or less carefully etc.
      As far as I’m concerned the lower, unless it is of truly poor or defective quality hardly matters for the vast majority of users and in reality makes little difference to all but a very rare few.

      The upper receiver houses the bolt carrier group and the gas system and is usually taken to include the barrel, though technically the barrel could be considered a third part on its own.

      The upper defines the caliber and must handle the reciprocation of the bolt, the pressures of the chamber and provide positive feeding and extraction/ejection. If the rifle is accurate or not, fails to feed or not or whatever the problem is usually somewhere in the upper. Thus a quality upper mated to any working lower is probably good enough rifle for most uses.

      The same thing going on in the lower happens when building an upper; you could source better or cheaper parts and end up with a higher quality or more affordable rifle.

      At the extreme ends one could build a (likely) working AR very cheaply from carefully chosen scraps taken out of other worn or broken ARs or else one could source only the highest quality parts at every turn and build something of a masterpiece. Newly manufactured ARs (hopefully!) would use only new parts but could be widely divergent both in terms of the quality of those parts and the fitting of them to the receivers. Since most builders will source the same parts from various machine shops and contractors over time the quality of their rifles (and perhaps the price) will fluctuation over time.

      Generally unless you need an extreme duty weapon or one that is of superior accuracy, the majority of ARs on the market will suit your needs. Much of the value of the higher end rifles is lost if you won’t fire it more than 10,000 rounds, won’t need it to achieve sub MOA accuracy and will use it under circumstances that allow you to clean it and acquire/install spare parts at will.

      Some of the highest end rifles are of questionable value simply because of the law of diminishing returns; that is a $5,000 rifle can hardly be twice as good as a $2500 one no matter what they have done inside it.

      The other factor in widely divergent prices is accessories. A ‘dressed’ rifle can cost considerably more but you might (or might not) be saving money over buying a basic rifle and adding custom accessories and furniture yourself.
      It’s very much like buying a car, if you get way more than you needed it probably wasn’t a good value no matter how good it is absolutely. Consider the Purpose of Use and your budget. If you need a 4×4 but price is an issue and you mean to treat it rough a good used truck with all the pretty beaten off of it is a good choice. Sure, an H-1 hummer performs better, but it also costs a fortune and if all you want to do is drive trails on the weekends it’s probably overkill.

      As for that forward assist: Practically, if you have a chromed bore and will clean the rifle regularly you probably don’t need one. Some people prefer the aesthetics of it or are simply traditionalists, some like the option of the assist in case they did need it, and some (like me) have training scars that have them slapping that assist plunger habitually and beating up their hand on the brass deflector if it’s not there.

      I can almost guarantee someone will disagree with me in theory about. . .everything I just said, and that someone who knows more about it than I do will pick it apart and likely point out some real errors in my thinking or statements, but for a quick brush on some of the complexities of the AR I think (I may regret this) it lays some foundations for thinking about the black rifle and what you might want to consider when buying one. It’s not exhaustive, and keep in mind I may have flubbed here or there in the presentation.

      For my personal ‘everyday’ AR I use a $650 retail DPMS oracle to which I’ve added some magpul furniture, and tru glow red dot, some fold down iron back up sites and a white light. Total cost for my rifle is at about $850. It’s still relatively new but approaching 2,000 rnds without a failure, it will frequently cut the same hole at 50 yards if I do my part, it will shoot the cheapest ammo on the market without a hiccup and is now well dressed enough to do anything I need it to do. I can’t say if you bought the same rifle you’d get the same results but mine is working well for me.

    • Do what I did… Smith & Wesson M&P-15 Sport. Cheap ($675 for mine), simple (no dust cover or forward assist), eats steel cased ammo with no problem, and goes bang every time.

      Out of the box (no adjustments) I was hitting 6 and 8 inch steel plates at 100 yards with the iron sights and Russian ammo. The misses were my fault I’m sure as you can barely even see the plates at that distance.

  10. OK, somewhat noob here with some questions.

    What does ‘setup correctly for your POU’ entail exactly? All I’m coming up with is barrel length and trigger for long range/bullseye shooting, or a shorter barrel close in, and either way make sure it has enough rail space for your light, laser, and soft drink dispenser collection. What am I missing? Which features go with which POU?

    Question 2, what exactly does more money buy you? What does the 1500 entry level gun have that the 900 doesn’t? 2000? 2500? What are the tiers and what differentiates them? Is it all nebulous build quality or are there specific features that pop up at specific price ranges that determine the cost? Is this a buy cheap or go expensive but avoid the middle type thing?

    From a newcomer perspective, the differentials in pricing are downright enigmatic. Actual gun shop conversation:

    Me: What about that one?

    Clerk: Oh xxxxx brand is awesome I love that one.

    Me: And that one?

    Clerk: Same brand, also awesome.

    Me: Apparently 600 dollars more awesome. How so?

    Clerk: Well, this one has quad rails versus just top and bottom on the xxxxxx.

    Me: … So I’m paying 50 dollars an inch extra for two 6 in bumpy metal parts? That’s it?

    Clerk: Ummmm…

    Other than obvious stuff like caliber and barrel length, what does differentiate models and pricing?

    • POU = Purpose Of Use, tacticool mission-planner speak for how many accessories and whizbang items you will need to attach to your rifle for your “scenario”

      Cost = whether or not a part is “milspec”, what type of proof-testing it goes through, what type of coating/finish it has, whether or not a barrel is hammer-forged or chrome-lined, what type of machining a receiver is built by e.g. forged or machined billet, etc.

      Most important factor (not to you, but to those who scribble on price tags) is whose name is on the product, which often does not mean all that much unless it’s a manufacturer who makes their manufacturing and testing processes well-known.

      While the first is babble-speak heavy, the second can be the make or break between an AR that will poop out at a couple thousand rounds, or will still be going strong and shooting the same general group sizes after throwing 20K rounds down the pipe.

      I’m not an AR guy myself, I much prefer AKs, but if building an AR I would generally always tend towards a chrome-lined, hammer-forged barrel, a proof-tested bolt, and milspec dimension parts. The rest I could not care all that much about.

      FWIW I have been slowly planning and doing the parts catalogs to put together an accurate M16A4 clone. Hopefully that’s the only AR I’ll ever want or need.

      • Ah, long term durability is what more money nets you. Sounds like I should go either dirt cheap and treat it as disposable, or go higher end for staying power, and avoid the middle price tiers.

        Thanks for the clarification.

  11. I”m looking for ridiculously cheap full upper receiver assemblies. … But no, none to be found. I should have stocked up last November when they were $250-350 for a 16″ CAR.

  12. FWIW, Ruger sells three uppers in its SR556 line, two in 5.56 and one in 6.8!

    But the MSRP is $1500 for just the upper. To put that in perspective, the SR-556E (the whole gun) is MSRP $1375.

    I have no idea the differences between the economical model and the standard other than price (MSRP is $2000 for a regular SR556) nor the differences between the uppers that are in 5.56. But I do find it nice that they would package uppers for sale and not just whole guns. But for the price…

  13. I went with the wilson combat billet it is built like a watch. it is too good looking to shoot . I didn’t count on that

  14. The article mentions certain specifications to look for, but many of the manufacturers referenced actually cut those very same corners.

    Remember if a manufacturer doesn’t say that they MPI and Proof their bolts, barrels, stake their gas keys, use mil-spec components, etc… then they probably don’t.

    Those are selling points to a rifle and if a manufacturer meets those quality control standards they will advertise that they do meet those standards.

    Manufacturers who DON’T meet those standards will probably never mention those standards. Keep that in mind when perusing a companies offerings.

  15. Years ago, I bought an Alexander Arms .50 Beowulf. Great gun for buffalo, but a bit much for plinking and home protection. I wasn’t too keen on .223, but when everything went to hell after Newtown, I figured I should have a .223 AR, just to have one. I had a Para TTR upper with folding stock, that I had been given several years back. So I bought a “Blemished” Aero Precision stripped lower for $100 and a Palmetto State Armory Lower Parts Kit for $60, and put it all together. It works quite well, and I like the folding stock feature.

  16. No one has mentioned White Oak for uppers. They seem to be tack drivers but they do not seem to offer shorter barrels that 20 inch. I will echo what Robert and others have said, do a little homework and spend a little extra on quality. It will pay off when needed. I personally like Bravo Company and White Oak as I have had some experience with them as well as Bushmaster. Bushy’s are OK entry level but the higher quality ones that MPI test their parts would be my choice for long term relaiability. Also consider a fully shrouded bolt carrier as well. Some call them the full auto style and they are. The added weight will slow down the cycling time just enough to aid in reliable feeding and function.

  17. Im looking to change my factory stock off my .50Beowulf im looking for some input on what to put on and where to get it from any advice is gud advice in my book …

  18. Excellent write up. I am alway looking for the cheapest AR15 with the best performance and build quality. This is not always possible, but we reviewed the BearCreek Arsenal AR-15 and it seems like one of the best deals yet. Check out the Review – S&I Arsenal:

  19. Having served 2 tours in Iraq and 3 in Afghanistan, I wouldn’t use a DI gun in combat ever again. They are fine for shooting on the range and will work for fine for typical civilian uses, but we had way too many malfunctions. Luckily in Afghanistan, my unit switched to the HK416 instead. In Afghanistan we were out on patrol for days at a time and no time to clean our weapons. The dust and sand + carbon buildup took its toll and there’s no worse feeling than having your gun jam when you need it most. When Talis are shooting at you and you can’t shoot back because you’re dealing with a jammed m4, well, that just sucks right there. I will just reference this and this or this and you can Google hundreds of other situations and talk to anyone who fought in Afghanistan using M4s.

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  21. I have a question you might be able to answer. I am trying to find out what the max pressure the HP testing is. I have contacted stag arms and they won’t tell me. (I believe it’s a liability issue?) I loved this article by the way. I have ready many of them and I really enjoy it.

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