Just bought your first AR-15? Great! In this article we’re going to show you the best AR-15s, whether you’re a beginner or a more advanced shooter.
By the end of this guide, you will have a much better understanding on how the AR-15 works and what differences exist between models as well as different features. This should help you make an informed decision as you purchase your next AR-15 based on what you intend to use it for.
We spent days testing out these AR-15s and doing research to recommend this list.
Here are 10 AR-15 rifles across all different price ranges.
Click on the Table of Contents here if you need to jump to a specific section:
Why the AR-15?
There are many reasons why the AR-15 has remained the most popular of all civilian rifles. Here is a list of the top five reasons why I think they are so popular:
They Are Used by the U.S. Military
Technically, this isn’t 100% accurate. The US military uses the M4 whereas civilians are legally allowed to only use the semi-auto AR-15. This differs from the automatic/select fire capabilities of the military variety.
In a nutshell, semi-automatic means that with each pull of the trigger, only one round is fired.
This makes the AR-15 significantly slower to shoot compared to the military version of the rifle, the M4, which fires has a 3-shot burst option (three rounds are fired with a single pull of the trigger) and a full auto option (the gun will empty the entire mag if the user doesn’t let go of the trigger).
Personally, I prefer firing any gun in semi-auto. When doing target practice, I get to focus on each shot and don’t end up wasting bullets
In situations where you’re protecting your home from intruders, the ballistics from the 5.56x45mm round should be more than enough – a single shot could repel or even kill them if necessary.
One of the big advantages of the AR-15 is that it can be personalized according to your needs. It allows you to choose what you need and change loadouts quickly and easily while still having a lot of variety. Plus there lots of customization options!
You can pick up many different magazines and see ad after ad of AR-15 parts.
Brownell’s sells over 18,000 different AR-15 parts and accessories in one catalog. That is just one company that provides these items for the industry. This number is staggering when put into perspective with other companies that offer AR-15 aftermarket parts & accessories.
AR 15 – Shootability
The AR-15 is a rifle that offers relatively better ergonomics & recoil control. It is also more popular as it’s chambered in the 5.56x45mm round rather than some other rifle rounds, such as the some other popular ones, such as 7.62x51mm calibres which some people have come to refer to as ‘full power.
This is a precision-made weapon for accuracy. It is often equipped with easy to grip handguards and useful scope mounts so it can be used even by those who are less experienced. People call this an AR-15 rifle, but really it’s more than just a rifle.
Before we move on, let’s consider reason #4: the AR-15 is popular.
AR 15 – Modular Design
The AR-15 is comprised of two separate but interchangeable parts: the lower receiver and the upper receiver. The user can simply replace one with the other if they have practiced sufficient enough at field stripping & reassembling it.
I’ve seen a few people do it real fast even when blindfolded.
The modularity of the AR-15 makes it a standout weapon platform. It’s easy to clean, maintain, field strip and put back together.
This also makes it versatile because in a pinch, with the right parts and accessories, it can be configured as a DMR (Designated Marksman’s Rifle) high-precision rifle, a hunting rifle (using bigger caliber barrels and ammo) or by default, as a CQB (Close Quarters Combat) carbine by simply switching out the upper receivers and barrels.
This means that the upper receiver and barrel can be swapped out for whatever you’re going for. We offer a ton of calibers including .22LR, .50 Beowulf, and much more.
If you’ve never heard of the Beowulf, think of it as a powerful 50-cal round that has the same ballistics as the .500 revolver. It’s designed for big game hunting.
The only difference between the two is that firing the .50 Beowulf in a rifle platform is significantly more manageable than firing it from a pistol .The 500 S&W Magnum in the S&W 500 X-frame revolver packs a punch, getting more rounds per magazine than the AR-15 for example. Plus, you can break someone’s wrist with this gun!
As discussed earlier, there are a variety of aftermarket products for the AR-15. You can customize your rifle to suit your preferences and needs. For instance, you can personalize the look, feel and performance of your rifle as much as possible by putting on the aftermarket goods that suit you best.
Some serious gun lovers take things a little too far by customizing their AR-15 to impractical levels. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It’s your hard-earned money and nobody should tell you how to spend it.
When someone tells you that you can’t have something, it makes you want it even more.
That was the case with the AR-15 back when then-POTUS Bill Clinton signed into Office the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
It would become clear over time that Clinton’s ban didn’t work in the way he intended. His aim was to deter gun related crimes and halt production on AR rifles, but in fact, the ban caused AR sales to grow and manufacturers made innovative modifications to the rifle.
Imagine the demand for firearms following the banning of AR-15s by Clinton. That didn’t stop, and is still going strong today. A new firearms company seems to be opening a new plant every day.
You don’t need to worry about the price of these machines, more and more of them are being made available each year.
The Origins of the AR-15
The first AR-15 was manufactured in 1958 by Eugene Stoner for ArmaLite (which is why it’s a no-brainer that ArmaLite should land on this list). It was a lightweight 5.56x45mm variation on the 7.62x51mm AR-10.
The lighter bullets made it so that infantrymen could carry more rounds with ease.
Most people associate the AR-15 with the Colt name because Armalite sold the rights to Colt in 1959. But think about the name AR-15 — what does the AR stand for?
If no one ever told you, the AR is short for Armalite (not “Assault Rifle” as so many folks in the media would lead you to believe.)
Over time, Colt tweaked the design and came out with the M16, a select fire (auto) design with a twenty-inch barrel.
In the 90’s, the M4 was introduced featuring a 14.5-in barrel and a carbine gas system. Carbine is a word that basically serves as a shorthand for “shorter barrel.”
The AR-15 is the civilian semi-auto version of the fully-automatic M4. To reiterate what was said earlier about semi-autos, one pull of the trigger equals one shot.
Since Colt owns the rights to the AR-15 name most manufacturers use slight variations on the name such as ARX, A4 or, more cleverly, “PredatAR.”
Now, to answer a pressing question:
AR-15: To Build or Buy?
If you want to purchase your first AR-15, I would suggest buying a complete rifle. At the very least, make sure it has a total upper and customize the lower.
This will save you from a lot of headaches later on because you’re covered with a warranty. Also, when you’re just starting out, it can be hard for you to know exactly what kind of rifle would suit your needs so this means going with a standard configuration is the best option.
Factory-grade rifles tend to be cheaper than buying a high end rifle and they come preassembled. This means that beginners don’t need to worry about assembling their own or accidentally welding two pieces together.
When you buy a rifle pre-built, you know that it’s worth the money. Selling one after that can be very hard – I learned this with my past ad, where self-built rifles are practically worthless in comparison to branded firearms.
Building your AR can be worth it and fun, but I recommend getting a standard one first. Not only is it safer, but I’ve found that it saves so so much more time and money. No matter what though, there’s always something satisfying about building your own.
before attempting to go the DIY route.
I think you’ll have an easier time building one after you’ve spent some time with a factory gun.
For those who have graduated from the factory-built AR-15 and want to build your own AR-15 lower receiver, there are several resources out there that will walk you through the process.
I recommend this helpful and informative YouTube video, which covers the process start to finish.
AR 15 – Barrels
This is another important area that needs to be covered, especially for first-time shooters. We’ll begin by breaking down the AR-15 system by talking about the multiple characteristics of barrels.
This can be boring or fun depending on your level of familiarity with the platform.
This is an important part of a rifle. It determines what kind of ammo the rifle is able to shoot.
For beginners, you should pay attention to the most common rifle calibers—the 223 Remington and the 5.56X45 millimeter. There are a lot of options in rifle calibers for AR-15s, from the lowly .22LR to the powerful .50 Beowulf, but the .223 Remington and the 5.56X45 mm are the two best offerings for novices.
The 5.56mm round is the most popular choice for home defense and sessions at the gun club. They are easy to purchase so ammo is inexpensive.
In order to ensure safety, every first-time AR-15 owner should follow these guidelines:
- With a .223 barrel, you can only fire .223 rounds.
- Hybrid chambers like Wylde are implemented for specific reasons but can fire a .223 or a 5.56.
- The 5.56 barrel, on the other hand, can fire both 5.56mm AND .223 Remington
- Always clean and lube before shooting, especially if your rifle is new.
- Always protect your eyes and ears with goggles and ear plugs
- Consider taking shooting lessons/classes before purchasing an AR-15.
Federal law stipulates that the length of a barrel should be 16 inches. Any additional devices (such as muzzle brakes or flash hiders) must be attached if they will increase the rifle’s overall length.
Suppose a gun owner has a 14.5-inch barrel, which is below the threshold allowed by law. They could attach a muzzle device that’s less than 2 inches long- making it compliant with federal requirements.
Gun laws can vary significantly from state-to-state and even across localities, so do your homework before you buy.
Due to these restrictions, we strongly advise first-time shooters to purchase at least a sixteen-inch barrel so that they can swap out muzzle devices at will. There are three main lengths that are popular: 16”, 18” and 20”.
One thing that beginners should be aware of is that the length of the AR-15’s barrel does not necessarily affect accuracy. If you’re knowledgeable about guns, you can increase accuracy even with a sixteen-inch barrel because it’s also stiffer and therefore less affected by temperature changes and other things.
On the other hand, longer barrels can provide higher velocities as there is more space for the powder to burn and more room for the bullet to accelerate.
With faster projectiles, there is less time for environmental factors to affect trajectory (e.g. wind and gravity). This means that each shot is more powerful and accurate over longer distances.
For shorter range shooting, sixteen-inch barrels are typically easier to use. They can accurately hit a target up to 400 yards away. Beyond that distance, the traditional fifty-five grain load doesn’t lose its accuracy for 3 shots, but after 3 shots it starts to get shaky.
If you’re looking to fire at the max range of your weapon, you may find it better to use a heavier, longer-range load like a sixty-two grain bullet. These types of bullets are usually heavier and longer in length than shorter rounds.
When I’m choosing a weapon, I always think about how it will be portable. Short barrels are lighter and easier to transport.
AR 15 Barrel Material
As a newcomer to collecting firearms, you may be initially overwhelmed by the various types of guns and technical terminology that you encounter. However, it is never too important to start exploring what interests you and getting a feel for how it feels in your hands.
This is especially true of barrel material which is why I’ve tried my best to simplify it for the newbies out there who are just learning about this stuff.
- 4140: This consists of steel with ten percent less carbon compared to its predecessor, 4150 steel.
- 4150: Steel used in mil-spec barrels.
- Stainless Steel: This one is more accurate but isn’t as durable as 4150 or 4140 steel.
- Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium, Chrome Moly, or CMV: Basically identical to 4140
There are slight differences between that last one and 4140. Chrome Molybdenum Vanadium steel alloy contains a range of elements from chromium and nickel to molybdenum and so forth. It is renowned for its strength and hardness.
“Chrome Moly” or Chromium-molybdenum steel, is a range of low alloy steels that are of high tensile strength and aren’t as lightweight as counterparts like aluminum.
4140 alloy steel is a combination of chromium, molybdenum and manganese has high fatigue strength, impact and abrasion.
Both are high tensile strength steels which make them great for guns as well as bicycles and the like.
The average shooter should probably just stick with 4140 or CMV because there’s really no benefit to using 4150 unless you’re dealing with a fully-automatic piece. Besides, you’ll save money as 4150 costs more.
There are three basic options on the market when it comes to the inside of your AR-15 barrel. They are as follows:
- Ferritic Nitrocarburizing (FNC): Otherwise referred to as Melonite, Tennifer or Nitride, FNC treats the surface of the barrel instead of just coating. This can result to increased accuracy.
- Chrome Lined: A popular form of barrel lining. It is a coating that makes for better barrel longevity, but that longevity comes at a price — accuracy might suffer. If either end of the barrel has a gray ring around it, it’s chrome lined.
- None: Some barrels have absolutely no coating whatsoever.
Many environmental factors such as heat, moisture and more can affect your exact round count, but you can count on approximately ten to twenty thousand rounds before you need to re-barrel.
If you’re still with me, let’s move on to testing, another important area to be aware of.
AR 15 Barrel Testing
As I said before, there is a lot of technical mumbo jumbo that comes with owning guns. Some acronyms that manufacturers like to throw at you include the following:
- MP: Magnetic Particle tested. This just means that it’s essentially subjected to X-Rays to check that the gun doesn’t have any voids, cracks or other imperfections.
- HP: High Pressure tested. This is a method by which manufacturers ensure the integrity of anything from primers and projectile seating depth to chamber parameters and neck tension.
Of course, some AR-15s have not been tested at all, so buyer beware! If a gun’s packaging or advertising specifically says it hasn’t been tested or doesn’t mention testing, you’re buying it at your own risk.
- Cold, Hammer, Forged (CHF): This is a process that results in a more durable barrel. Repeated blows by a series of hammers align the grain within the metal, causing more strength and rigidity.
- Barrel, Forged, Hammer (BFH): Essentially the same as CHF, BFH is where a mandrel (carbide tube) is inserted into the barrel, rotated and pushed forward to create precise rifling.
With these options, you lose some accuracy but they make up for that with increased durability.
This refers to the thickness and overall shape of your barrel. Fortunately, there are several options available.
” alt=”chart comparison the ar15 barrel contours side by side” width=”750″ height=”635″ data-ezsrc=”https://gunnewsdaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/ar15-barrel-countours-comparison.gif” />They include:
- CAR (Colt Automatic Rifle): This one used to be the name of a certain group of AR-15s and M-16s back in the 1970s, but today it is a name for carbine-length rifles.
- Light: This one is just what it sounds like, it’s lighter than others but it’s vulnerable to the heat associated with rapid firing. This one’s .625-in in diameter.
- Heavy (Bull): This one is heavier and stiffer, but it’s also far more accurate. I like this one a lot because it can handle more heat than others before it starts to be affected. It’s typically implemented for precision builds. Bulls are .936” in diameter.
- Medium (M4): The M4 contour possesses a cutout for grenade launchers which is what makes it ideal for military purposes. It’s got terrific balance and is .750” in diameter.
In my opinion, the average plinker doesn’t require anything more advanced than light or medium barrel.
Barrel Feed Ramp
This is a vital part of the AR-15’s upper receiver, therefore you want it to properly match the barrel of your rifle.
There’s still some controversy on whether the feed ramp affects reliability, but it’s important to make sure it matches with the upper receiver. But if you buy factory made rifles, you don’t need to worry about that. However, before purchasing one, please check to confirm it with the seller.
AR-15 Gas Systems
Now that you know the basics of the AR-15, we’ll get into more complicated stuff.
There are two different gas systems for the AR-15. One is DI or Direct Impingement, while the other is Piston. DI was first designed and it is the original system whereas Piston became popular in recent years.
Direct Impingement vs Piston
The AR-15 has two mechanisms which cause the gun to ‘cycle’. Either hot gas from the bullet is sent behind the bullet and along a tube (gas tube) to move a piston (direct-impingement), or hot gas is sent directly back into a chamber and then pushed into another tube that directs that gas back, causing the next bullet to be fired.
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No matter how the force is applied, it makes the bolt unlock, move back, eject the spent casing and push a new cartridge into the chamber.
By and large, most AR-15s are DI instead of Piston. Like most things, there are pros and cons to each.
Pros of Piston
- Typically more reliable in poor weather conditions (dust, water, moisture, heat, et al.)
- Relatively cleaner as dirty gas is vented out
Cons of Piston
- More expensive than DI
- Heavier with more weight in front
- Harder to find proprietary parts from manufacturers
- Less accurate than DI
Unless you’re in an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie where you have to fire your weapon coming out of water or you live in a desert somewhere, a DI system will be perfectly adequate for most purposes.
Assuming you properly maintain your AR-15, a DI model will be a dependable weapon.
DI Gas System Lengths
Gas system length is the distance to the gas hole. The gas hole refers to the triangular front site base (FSB) that sits on top of the barrel.