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John writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email [email protected].

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  1. Because AR’s a so modular, I think it matters more about what’s on the AR than who’s name is on it. Starting off with a basic, bare-bones 16″ flat-top is probably the way to go in a starter AR. From there, you can swap out barrels, sights, handguards, stocks, gas blocks, grips, triggers, bolt carriers, and scopes to your heart’s delight and not have to worry about changing the upper or lower.

    The question with an AR isn’t “What can it do?” it’s “What do you want to do with it?” Plink? Hunt? Compete (3 gun or Hi Power)? Self-defense? Figure out what you want the AR to do, then build around that.

  2. Suggestion for a great follow-up article: recipe for the specific AR-15 lower you would build for a first black rifle. Or at least, which parts you’d consider for a couple basic uses (hunting, 3-gun, value).

  3. best 1st black gun would be smith and wesson sport 1/2 the price of the big boys ($600.00) dependable (see ttag review) i have fired almost 2k rounds thru it with out one hic-up ….my OHO

  4. According to some of the industry’s most renown and reputable trainers, going with the Colt is the wise choice.

      • ‘We’ are sleeping soundly knowing we paid for .. let say a “Mustang Cobra” instead of paying the Mustang Corbra PRICE for a lowly no-option V6 Mustang.

        I all about getting what i PAY FOR, regardless of what i want to do with it.

  5. “Building a lower will cost around $450 for the bare bones features.”


    You can get the entire parts kit for $125 and a stripped lower for $100…

    • Forget that! You can go to and find a deal for a plum crazy “complete” lower for $113 shipped.
      Or if you are anti-polymer you can wait until somebody has a complete lower for sale in the $120-$130 range which happens every once in a while.

      then goto either palmetto state armory or aimsurplus for a complete upper ranging between $379 and $450 depending on options. I like this particular upper here cuz it’s stainless, full barrel profile and has the wylde chamber designed to accurately handle BOTH .223 and 5.56mm
      So for about $500-$550 you can have full quality rifle. With the complete lower so cheap you can start shooting right away and change your stock/trigger etc later because those parts were essentially free!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I asked this question about three weeks ago in a related AR blog here at TTAG, and couldn’t wait for a very good answer, and you provided it! I have always felt that the AR platform was the best all around rifle if someone was only able to purchase one rifle, but needed some input as to what was a good middle of the road AR. I didn’t want junk, but I didn’t feel I needed to spend over a thousand dollars (OR MORE) for something that would just be for home defense and occasional target shooting. I’ve watched many shooting shows and read many articles gushing about the Ruger Scout Rifle, but IMHO the AR platform is hands down the better choice. So once again, thanks.

  7. I’ve already passed the first black rifle mark, and 4 years ago I paid $619 for my DPMS, before tax. I thought it was an excellent deal, and it’s never given me any problems and has always treated me right.

    If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do anything different. For your first AR, I think paying over $1,000 is just obnoxious. As far as I can tell, brand means less than some people may think. My DPMS shoots just as well as my friend’s Bushmaster, and his shoots just as well as his dad’s Colt.

    Then again, it IS your money after all, and I absolutely hate paying too much for a product that works perfectly for almost half the price.

  8. but I’d be weary of Bushmaster

    I think “weary” is “wary” in that context.

    I have a question as far as trouble-shooting your AR platform for something like jams and stoppages. Is there a large amount of leeway as far as putting break-in rounds through it before you should start troubleshooting stoppages? Is there a similar fashion of throwing off a rifle’s function like “limp-wristing” for pistols?

    Those questions come from the day I spent breaking in my Bushmaster LR .308 and sighting it in. The sight is pretty straight and finally on there tight enough not to fly off with the recoil (.223 accessories do not stand up as well to .308 vibrations, same platform or not) and while I was doing that the bolt seemed to hang up from time to time and the action would end up halfway open when stripping a fresh round into the chamber from the magazine. A tug on the charging handle, eject and it would be fine but do you have an idea why that happened?

    • That sounds awfully close to something that happened with my ArmaLite NM M-15.

      The AR operating system, when properly functioning and using the proper ammunition, should cycle just fine no matter how you hold it. That’s the beauty of direct gas impingement and one of the reasons I don’t like piston ARs.

      What’s going on with your rifle is either that the ammunition isn’t producing enough pressure in the barrel to cycle the action or something in the bolt / buffer assembly is gumming up the works. I’d check the gas rings first, then make sure the buffer and spring are the right kind.

      • “That’s the beauty of direct gas impingement and one of the reasons I don’t like piston ARs.”

        umm… what? Please explain how your hold on an AR – DI or Piston – would affect its ability to cycle? Also, regarding your comment regarding proper ammunition, I would argue that piston systems are MUCH less susceptible to ammunition variances than DI systems. Clean, dirty, old, new – it doesn’t matter with piston systems!

        • @Patrick: As a basically novice rifle shooter I asked if that could be a factor as I am not familiar with all of the factors that can cause a cycling failure in this weapon platform. Seeing as I do not know the difference between piston and direct impingement function there wouldn’t be a way for me to explain it even if I had an idea. I was more concerned with having a repeating error occur that I didn’t knowingly commit happen several times without a visible cause.

          @Nick: I’ll have my smith look at the bolt carrier assembly since you mentioned that the gas rings could be the issue.

  9. What are you thoughts on the Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport? MSRP is $739 and I think I remember Robert doing a bit of a review and saying that he liked it.

    • Ben used it down at Gunsite and said he thought it was fantastic. From what I’ve heard it would fit the bill as well. There are a number of great manufacturers with “budget” ARs (Mossberg also comes to mind) but I just wanted to give 3 examples in order of decreasing awesomeness and then one example of a cheap rifle that didn’t fit the bill for the reader.

    • it’s a fine gun…. lets say its a v6 mustang at a v6 mustang price…if your going to war then i would have to agree on the colt….IMHO

    • You may hear some purists claim that the lack of forward assist and dust cover make the Sport a no-go. For a range/backyard/home rifle it would be a difficult sell convincing me that either are a necessity.

      • It’s my understanding that these days the forward assist is mostly cosmetic. I looked back through and Ben gave it a pretty good dust up and didn’t have any issues missing the dust cover.

    • I bought the M&P 15 Sport after reading Benjamin T. Shotzberger’s review in TTAG this summer. There is also a review in the January 2012 Guns and Weapons for Law Enforcement magazine ( Both reviews are very positive and address the features and benefits of the Sport compared to the more expensive (> $1,000) models.

      It’s a great value and if it wasn’t on the market, I would probably be still waiting to buy my first AR.

    • Best rifle for the money. Best barrel- melonite vs chrome. S&w has melonite that is superior in accuracy and durability than chrome. Identical to the glock tenifer. Rockwell hardness and great rifeling.

  10. I’ve have never understood the “Cult of Colt.” Overrated, IMHO. Never could tell much difference in quality between my many military Colts and my first (and only) military Bushy M-4. Some gunsmiths twll me that the tolerences are tighter in a Colt, and others have told me that some of the Colts parts in their civilian guns are not interchangeable with other manufacturors. I don’t know about any of that stuff but when it comes to shooting them, its all “six-one, half dozen the other,” in my estimation. The only rifle that really stood out in my mind in that $800-1100 price range was the Rock River Arms. Excellent accuracy, excellent trigger.

    • I know of several Colt owners stuck with barrels that were not chrome plated. The barrels started to rust. Colt replaced one grudgingly after several letters.

    • Except that RRA trigger is likely going to break. They have a problem with that. The only aftermarket trigger that I’d put in an AR is a Geissele.

      However, I’d agree with you about the Colt Cult. I can think of several manufacturers that make superior DGI AR-type rifles. Bravo Company, Daniel Defense, Knight’s Armament, Lewis Machine and Tool, are all superior to Colt if you ask me. That’s not say Colt is not good, but there are better rifles to be had.

  11. Humble opinion based on personal experience: Stag Arms. I own both a Model 3 (direct impingement) and a Model 8 (piston), and even with trying-in-earnest to make something go wrong they’ve not choked on me. I cannot personally say the same about DPMS or Olympic. Both Stags were incredibly tight fits straight out of the box, and have remained so after heavy use.

    Its important to note that I care almost nothing about rollmarks, so the antlered deer head bothers me not one bit. Others disagree.

    A well-known online retailer was recently selling Mod 3s (with factory aluminum modular forends installed) for around 750.00. Pretty hard to beat that.

    • Also, if you happen to be a southpaw like my wife is, Stag Arms makes left handed versions of their rifles, both just the uppers and the whole thing. She’s got the left handed version and loves it, and it’s not to hard for a right hander like me to use.

  12. Somewhere out there I have seen AR lowers for around $55. Can’t remember the name, though.

    I have decided my next AR build will be a .308. Right now it seems parts for those are a bit scarce, though. Seems like only DPMS is making the neccessary .308-specific parts (upper assemblies, lowers and magazines.)

  13. For those who want to trade time for money, one can make an AR’s upper and lower receivers and the various metallic parts aside from the barrel. You can now find “80%” lower castings or forgings for less than $100. You’ll need a mill and some fixtures (which you could make, if you’re the kind to can make his own tools). If you don’t want to make your own fixtures, you can buy fixtures for less than $150 around the ‘net.

    If you go the “build your own from a block of aluminum” route, I’d guess that you’d need a barrel, sights or a scope to go on the rail, a trigger group and any molded plastic furniture you want to use. The rest is within the capabilities of those who really put their minds to the job with a mill, dividing head or rotary table and a lathe.

  14. Great write up, Nick… I think you really dissected it well.

    I’ve blogged about this push towards ARs with lower price points a while back,

    and I think just about any of the name brand entry level ARs that are out there right now would be great for just about every first time AR buyer. I listed out a few specific models in this post:

    The other day I also mentioned that AR15Pro is featuring a bunch right now from $599-$750

    And these are really just the tip of the iceberg (the ones mentioned in the comments section are great as well). Really, any of these lower price point models would serve just about every AR owner extremely well…. so if you are thinking about getting into the AR game, its not as costly as you might think.

    Great post, Nick!

  15. I used one of those surplus ammo lowers for my first AR build mostly because I didn’t want to mess up a expensive lower on my first try. That and I got it at a gun show for a ridiculously low price. Its held up I still have it and use it.

  16. I bought an Eagle Arms AR-15 used for around 600 a few years ago, shot it for a few years and sold it for around 550 to buy a DPMS LR-308 in .308 cal. Now that was a step up, I bought mine brand new for 1050.00 in 2008, a few days after The Messiah clinched the nomination. I ain’t goin back to no .223.A friend went the assemble route on his black rifle. Spent a month gathering pieces, had to get some smithing done for some reason or another. He spent around 750 and ended up with a new gun out of it. To each his own I guess.

  17. Great post, Nick. I’ve really enjoyed your last 2 Ask Foghorn posts (and bookmarked them for forwarding and the future) – lots of good info. Thank you.

  18. At $75, I’m thinking of investing in some (a handful or so) stripped lowers – a few questions:

    1. Are all stripped lowers created equal? (I don’t care about cosmetics)
    2. What happens if there is an AWB (I don’t remember the last one)? I’m assuming uppers and parts will continue to be sold, but would a private individual be able to sell a stripped lower or complete AR to another private individual? Or would I just be sitting on a worthless investment that I can’t legally sell?

    I welcome any other thoughts on this. Thank you.

    • A friend once told me “a lower is a lower is a lower.” In terms of semi-auto lowers, at least, its true. There are some differences in high shelf vs. low shelf, but that only comes into play if you want to try and make it full auto with a drop-in auto sear. If full auto isn’t on the menu then there’s virtually no difference.

      If there is another AWB a wonderful clause in the constitution forbids the passing of “ex post facto” laws that criminalize behavior that was legal at the time it was committed. Its the same situation that machine guns made before 1986 face, and pre-ban lowers in California and New York find themselves in. Specifically, they’re legal to own and much more expensive than a modern lower.

      • We the people don’t enforce any other section of the Constitution so what makes you believe we would enforce the “ex post facto” clause.

        The really big violation lately is Obama getting us into war in Libya without Congressional approval. He also spent tons of cash on that war with out a signal Congressional bill to give him that many. As far as I can tell, we are all still setting on our asses while that is still going on!

  19. Built my first AR in Spring. POF billet Multi Cal. stripped lower for less than $150.Bushmaster lower parts kit, $60. The Rock River upper, Colt HBAR 16″ heavy barrel, Daniel Defense BCG, oversize Magpul trigger guard, YHM free float foregrip, Falcon Ind. ERGO grip, VLTOR adj. stock kit. All for less than $600. That’s a darn good AR for $800. Some bells and whistles I added, were a Miculek Comp. $29.99, Simple BUIS, and a NcStar Red Dot. (Santa will get me something better this year, I’ve been a good boy)…All in all, a retail price for this “custom” build, would be over $1200.00 easy. Plus I can pick up a 6.8 SPC complete upper for $550.00 and a couple mags and go to town.Put it together, in my home office. Even bought the punch kit, and AR tool, ….Much easier than I thought, Brownells has step by step assembly vids, and the the carbine rocks and shoots like a .22LR.I built it because the “gouging” some, not all, dealers are selling AR’s for…. Nothing wrong with a DPMS, M&P 15, Stag, whatever, buy it stock and tweak it. My next is to build an LWRC REPR, for much less than the $2200.00 MSRP….Good choice on the Colt though….

    • Yeah, you’re not going to be building a REPR. For on thing, LWRC’s gas piston system isn’t available on the market. Two, the REPR uses a proprietary upper and lower. Three, the retail price for an LWRC REPR is around $3,500.

  20. If you’re getting a 16″ barreled carbine, you should definitely go for one with a mid-length gas system. Not only will this give you a softer recoil impulse, but it will give you more handguard so you can more easily utilize modern shooting techniques.

    I’d look hard at Bravo Company’s MID16.

    • This is who I’d personally buy from:

      Direct Gas Impingement – Colt, Bravo Company Manufacturing, Lewis Machine and Tool, Noveske Rifle Works, Daniel Defense, and Knight’s Armament Company.

      Short-stroke Gas Piston – LWRCi and Hecker and Koch. As far as I know, the HK416 and the M6A2 are the only gas piston ARs tested and approved by USSOCOM.

  21. When I went looking for an AR-15, I asked around, went to forums, read reviews and watched youtube video reviews. But in the end, it really comes down to what do you want(features) vs what can you afford. I had been looking at the M&P15 MOE, buying uppers and lowers from spike tactical, Danials Defense and BCM. But in the end I spent a little more and bought the Sig 516 because it had all the features I wanted for a reasonable price( quad rail foregrip, Magpul Stock, no fixed front site,).

    Also shop around on the online options. You can probably find it cheaper than a local shop(I did and I live within driving distance of 2 Cabelas, a Bass Pro Shop and cheaper than dirt’s physical store) then if you buy out of state there is no sales taxes and FFL transfers are easy.

  22. “Gouging” by the manufacturers? Not bloody likely, the market is far too competitive for that. The biggest driver in the difference in cost between a complete weapon and a build?

    11% Excise Tax.

  23. i need some help i have a 223 lower and i use a 556 upper or do i have to use a 223 upper?

    • Nope…..223 and 5.56 x 45, are physically the same size round. The difference is the pressure when the separate rds are fired( mil 5.56 has higher pressure) unless there is some warning from the manufacturer, the take down pins should be the same, and mag clearance as well

  24. I know this is a year old but thanks for the article.

    I just placed a Palmetto State Armory PSA-M4 on layaway. This will be my first rifle and Im very excited. Around $700 (depending on where you find it) will buy a completed M4 with a flat top upper. It has milspec parts, the basic AR telescoping stock and plastic handguard. The fixed A post front sight is stock while you can spend a few extra bucks for an already mounted MagPul BUIS which PSA instals and zeros to 100 yards or you can buy the M4 without a rear sight and choose your own.

    They seem to be realy popular as of now. My local gun store keeps a few in stock betweem both locations but the PSA website shows most of their products are out of stock. I have yet to hear a bad thing but Ill know for myself once I pay it off.

  25. Built my lower,bought a complete upper with FA bcg, works just fine and came in at $800.00. I am so sick of the “specs nazis”, and the “pay $2,000.00 or your garbage” snobs out there. Does anyone thing our soldiers(other than the SF community) are running around with high end gucci guns? Nope. What is required is a pattern AR that is interchangeable with others, has the basics that other ARs have( mine has milspec listed bolt, fcg, barrel, heavy buffer ,proper staking on required parts). Do I pretend it will run as long or as hard as the “gucci” brand ARs? Probably not, but then again, if you are the average shooter or want it for HD, shooting a gun over 20k rounds is gonna put severe wear on it anyway! I am not a suburban mall commando, with fantasies of a zombie apocalypse( do you really want to “survive” in that type of nightmare????). I am a realistic gun owner. As a L.E. officer, I have fired my side arm only twice in anger, and I doubt that I have ever put more than 10k rds through my issued 92FS. “If” I had listened to the “superior gun” snobs, my Beretta was supposed to fail me, was chambered in an “inferior rd”, was “too big”, whatever urban tale they buy into. But with proper maintenance and my training on it, that Beretta is still ticking and as functional as the day it was first issued! I know is that the makers of the parts I used to build my AR are reputable US companies-bcm, psa, spikes, and “yes” GTO Core 15. If a part fails, or wears out, I know who to turn to. And if I want to break the bank, I’ll spend more for the”better name stamped”( but same) parts from the more expensive makers.

    Bottom line, the AR pattern civilian rifle is designed like its military brother, to be an exact, easily modular, easily replaced piece of equipment. A colt upper will run on on a delton complete lower, a dpms upper will function on a larue tactical lower, and a s&w 15 can be repaired and operational with noveske parts. Whether you like it or not, they are all the same…..

    • It takes a calm 45 mins to an hour to properly assemble a lower (thats putting together the buffer and buffer tube with stock.staking isn’t hard either)

      after that, its as simple as attaching the upper. Add a loaded magazine and head to the range…

  26. I got a lr308 barrel with rust on the outside of the barrel that goes in the upper will that hurt my accucy not a lot but should I send it back

  27. Using the Del-Ton kit and an Anderson Lower for my first Black Rifle AR15 is this a recommended choice

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