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Designed in the 1960s, the AR-15 is simultaneously a classic American rifle and a piece of cutting-edge technology that stays at the forefront of innovation and development. That’s pretty impressive for a design that is over 50 years old.
If you’re just getting into the AR-15 platform then you’re in luck because we are truly in a golden age for America’s favorite rifle.
Let’s talk about some history, clear up some misinformation, dig down into what really matters about choosing the right rifle for you, and give you our top recommendations based on real-world shooting.
History Of The AR-15
Eugene Stoner is the man, the myth, and the legend who designed what would become the AR-15. Working as the chief engineer for ArmaLite, a division of Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation, he designed a number of firearms from AR-5 in .22 Hornet and AR-7 in .22 LR all the way to the AR-10 in .308 Winchester.
The “AR” in all of these names stands for ArmaLite. Not, as some might believe, for “assault rifle”. While we’re going to focus on the AR-15 here, the story really starts one step before that with the AR-10.
In 1955, Stoner finished design work on the forward-thinking ArmaLite AR-10, a light, select-fire infantry rifle in 7.62×51mm NATO caliber. The AR-10 was submitted for rifle evaluation trials to the US Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground late in 1956.
When compared to the designs submitted by other companies, the AR-10 was smaller, easier to fire in automatic, and lighter. The problem was that it arrived fairly late in the testing cycle, and the army rejected the AR-10 in favor of the less-innovative T44, which became the M14. The AR-10’s design was later licensed to the Dutch firm of Artillerie Inrichtingen, who produced the AR-10 until 1960 for sale to various military forces.
At the request of the U.S. military, Stoner’s chief assistant, Robert Fremont along with Jim Sullivan designed the ArmaLite AR-15 from the basic AR-10 model, scaling it down to fire the small-caliber .223 Remington cartridge, slightly enlarged to meet the minimum Army penetration requirements.
The United States military forces later adopted the AR-15 as the M16 rifle.
Stoner’s time with ArmaLite wouldn’t end with the AR-15, but his involvement with the AR-15 largely ended once the US Military adopted it. He would be asked to consult a few times when problems arose with the rifles in Vietnam, but he would be ignored by the powers in charge. His story and his developments after the AR-15 go on but those will have to wait for another time.
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America was sending advisors to a small Asian country called Vietnam in the early 1960s, little realizing that our involvement was soon to take a big upturn. The Vietnam War was soon to see upwards of 500,000 American Airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines involved. Most of the rifle-carrying troops armed themselves with the Colt M16. Sadly, due to politics, the stupidity of our government, corruption, and ignoring the wisdom of the designer — those early war rifles failed to perform.
A complete story of what happened can and has filled volumes, but the ultra-short version is that the incorrect ammunition was used and changes to the design that were against Stoner’s advice made the rifle jam and fail often. It took years, a congressional investigation, thousands of angry warfighters speaking out, and an unknown number of troops killed in combat — but it was finally fixed.
The M16A1 was adopted in 1986 and with it came a long list of seemingly small but important changes that dramatically improved the reliability and durability of the rifle. Since then, these rifles and carbines have been with American troops in every conflict the United States has fought. They have time and again proven to be one of the most reliable and effective combat arms ever made.
Assault Rifle or Modern Sporting Rifle?
There are a lot of terms and words thrown around in the firearm world that feel like they mean something but really don’t.
Let’s break some down.
“Assault Rifle” means a select-fire, intermediate cartridge, rifle capable of firing in full-auto. Rifles such as the M16 and AK-47 are true “assault rifles” but only in their military forms.
Civilian weapons in the United States that can fire in full auto (meaning that they will keep firing as long as the trigger is held down) are actually quite rare and very expensive. Plus, they’re tightly controlled.
The AR-15, even though it looks identical to the M16 or M4, is not able to fire in full auto. Thus, it is not an “assault rifle”. It is, legally, the same thing as any other semi-auto rifle. To help combat this bit of misinformation, many in the firearm community have started to call the AR-15 an “MSR” or Modern Sporting Rifle.
This term really does identify the platform well since it is modern and it is a sporting rifle. The AR-15 is not a weapon of war while the M16 and M4 are. The AR-15 is meant for sport such as 3-gun competition, 2-gun, high-power, or hunting. It is also one of the best defensive firearms ever made.
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Why Is the AR-15 So Popular?
The AR-15-pattern was not as popular in its early days of commercialization as it is now. Thought by many to be of use only to military and quasi-military police units, I remember that the gun was pretty well shunned by the shooting public except for a few die-hards.
As with anything new, it took time before people started seeing them in the hands of hunters, competitive shooters, and just plain plinkers. Once people started to get a taste though, that is when the gun really took off.
Let’s look at a few of the reasons that the MSR has gained in popularity.
The modern MSR is basically a modular weapons system. We have a gun made of an upper assembly – barrel/chamber, bolt carrier group, sights, gas system, and buffer tube – and a lower assembly which consists of the trigger group, grip, and safety.
Just two pins connect the two – remove the pins and replace the upper assembly with one in a different caliber, different optic, different rail system…the possibilities are many and varied.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (BATF) is interested in the lower assembly – that‘s where the serial number is. Buy one lower and as many uppers as you like, in as many calibers as you want.
Want a 9mm upper or a 9mm lower to go with your pistol? There are dozens available. How about the new (as of this writing), popular straight-wall hunting cartridge, the Winchester .350 Legend? Sure. Just a few clicks on a website, and they will send one to your home. Want something that will lay the grass flat for yards in front of the muzzle when you shoot? Order an upper in .50 Beowulf or .450 Bushmaster.
Want to hunt coyotes with an occasional black bear thrown in? Go up in size a little to the 6.5 Grendel or 6.8 SPC. Feel like ringing steel at 1,000 yards? 6mm ARC will get you there all day, every day. Need some cheap plinking or got a rabbit problem in the garden? Drop-in a .22 LR conversion kit and blast away.
The point is — the AR-15 has more caliber flexibility than really any other firearm ever made. And we’re inventing more options every year just about.
There are more third-party parts available for the AR-15 than flies in summer. If you don’t like the sights that came on your rifle (or didn’t come on it), order new ones.
Want a red dot or scope? Easy-peasy. Mounts are readily available that allow you to screw on your own scope, or mount a red-dot sight directly on the rail. Need a light to go with that scope? No problem. Attach one to the side rail. Bipod? No prob. Different AR-15 muzzle brake? Order one. Forend grip? How many do you want?
Between being the most flexible platform ever made, the innovative nature of designers and users around the world, the fact that the AR-15 has been around for so long, and our American consumerism — there is a never-ending supply of new, different, better, or lighter parts to choose from.
Right now prices are a little funny due to COVID-19 and everything else that happened in 2020. But it wasn’t long ago that a sub-$300 AR-15 that was reliable and durable was on the table.
If you only have a few pennies to spend, you can get a basic rifle that will go bang every time you pull the trigger.
On the opposite side of the bank account, you can drop used car money on a super fancy rifle and get something that your great-grandkids will use to drop deer and shoot matches with long after you’re gone. Pick a budget and go for it.
Most folks joke that the AR-15 is like an adult Lego set, but really it’s very true. Being that the platform is so modular and has so many options from so many brands — it really feels like a Lego set you can shoot.
If you want to go a full-custom path, you can mill out your own lower from an 80% lower or even a block of aluminum.
Just want to be able to pick the parts you really want? Get a complete upper and a complete lower and slap them together. You don’t even need to worry about brand compatibility since everything is Mil-spec. In fact, getting an ultra-cheap complete lower and a Gucci complete upper is a great way of building your first rifle.
Accurate, Reliable, Durable
All of these reasons sound great, but none of them matter if the rifle doesn’t perform. However, the proof is out there, the AR-15 is outstanding in every respect. From the dusty deserts of New Mexico to the deep cold of Alaska to the wet swamps of Florida, the AR-15 just works. You can even dump mud on it and still trust it with your life.
With the right optic and a good barrel for your AR-15, you can have a real precision shooter. While Milspec is around 3 MOA (minutes of angle), making a sub-MOA AR-15 isn’t as hard as you might think. Several of my personal rifles are truly sub-MOA in .223 Rem, 6.5 Grendel, and 6mm ARC. The AR-15 delivers.
How It Operates
A normal direct-impingement AR is pretty simple.
- First, the bolt carrier group (BCG) picks up a cartridge from the magazine.
- Next, the bolt seats the cartridge in the chamber.
- Then, the cam pin forces the bolt to rotate 15 degrees to engage the locking lugs, locking the bolt in the barrel extension.
- When the trigger is pulled, the hammer is released and hits the firing pin.
- Firing pin hits the primer and ignites the cartridge.
- Gas pressure builds being the bullet thus pushing it forward into and out of the barrel.
- As the gasses pass the gas block the gases bleed up and out of the small hole in the barrel going to the gas block.
- They move rearwards from the gas block through the gas tube, into the BCG, and expanding in all directions in the expansion chamber.
- The bolt rotates and unlocks as the BCG moves rearward, extracting the spent case and cocking the hammer.
- The spent case is ejected
Confused? Don’t worry, here is a gif that should help.
It’s simple, reliable, and is hard to break in the field.
Some people will complain that the AR-15 allows gas into the BCG area where carbon can build up. While this isn’t untrue and carbon does build up — the system is self-cleaning, to a point.
Carbon is a lubricant and a small amount actually helps keep things moving. You shouldn’t allow it to build up too much, but you’ll easily go thousands of rounds between when you need to clean it.
Direct-Impingement Vs. Piston Operated
Most ARs utilizes a system whereby the gases are directed rearward through a tube into the expansion chamber of the BCG in order to force the BCG to the rear. This is generally called “Direct-Impingement” although technically that is a slight misnomer, a more accurate name would be the “Internal Piston” system.
Another system that has gained in popularity is the piston-operated gun. In this case, the tube is removed and a steel rod is in its place. The gases then move the rod and are connected mechanically to the BCG in order to force it to the rear.
Why two systems? Direct-impingement is the firstborn and most widely used version, pistons came along years later as an attempt to improve the platform.
While pistons can have some advantages such as less cleaning and playing better with suppressors, it’s never caught on for most people. Pistons are also heavier, much more expensive, and offer nothing major to the average user. However, it is the system the HK416 uses and all of the HK416 sub-variations. This means that on a military level worldwide, it’s a very popular system.
Bottom line: get a DI rifle. Unless you’re an advanced user with a very specific reason for getting a piston rifle, DI is simply the better, easier, cheaper answer.
To Stake or Not to Stake?
The gas key funnels the gas from the tube leading away from the port at the front of the rifle into the bolt carrier. Its function is to provide a seal as it guides the tapped gas into the bolt carrier. It is critical that the key does not become loose and allow gas “blow-by.”
Really, these days it is very rare to find a brand that doesn’t stake their carrier keys — but they do exist. Even with the brands that do stake them, a poor staking job is one of the most common QC failures. Any rifle that you’re looking at buying, it’s worth taking a quick few seconds and taking a look at the carrier to make sure the key is staked well.
Not sure what you’re looking for? I got you, fam. Here are three of my BCGs and all of them are properly staked.
If you’re not sure, get a 16-inch barrel. That is the easy way of looking at things. That said, there are a lot of options you can pick from to really tailor your rifle to your needs.
Short barrels are great for a compact rifle or pistol, personally, I don’t recommend going shorter than 11.5-inches though. Shorter than that and you’ll run into reliability issues. Keep in mind though that anything shorter than a 16” barrel needs to be built as a pistol or registered as an SBR.
Longer than 16 inches can be a lot of fun also and is perfect for extending the effective range of your rifle for things like long-range plinking, hunting, or PRS competitions. What profile your barrel has is just as important as the length.
Generally, the most common profile you’ll find is the “government” profile. This is the profile that is mil-spec and is what most M16s and M4s use. However, for a civilian, it is also an entirely utterly useless and outdated profile.
Starting at 0.675” by the chamber, tapering down to a clean 0.625”, and then swelling again to 0.675 until the end of the barrel, the government profile adds more meat to the end of the barrel… for “reasons”.
The way I always heard it, the government profile was to make attaching an M203 under-barrel grenade launcher more secure. But recently I came across a more official source on the topic and the reason is so dumb it simply must be true.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Lutz who was the program manager for the M16A2 development project the government profile change came about as an answer to a problem that didn’t actually exist.
Basically, during ordnance inspections, the Marine Corps found that they had a lot of “bent” barrels. They tested this by taking a gauge and dropping it down the bore of the barrel. If it fell through, the barrel was fine. If it didn’t, then it was “bent”.
The assumption was that these barrels were bending either due to Marines going He-Man on them and using them as crowbars or they were getting bent during bayonet training. The fix? Add more metal to the end of the gas block where the bayonet attaches itself to the rifle.
But it turns out… they were wrong. Sometime after the wheels were in motion, the inspection teams discovered that the barrels weren’t bent. Instead, the issue was actually built-up bullet jacket material left at the gas port due to burrs made when the gas port was drilled.
Once they removed the built-up debris, the barrels would pass inspection just fine. But by this time it was too late — the government had already issued contracts for new barrels and barrels were already in production.
And so here we are… left with a barrel profile no one wants and yet we all have.
Sadly, it’s the most common and often the cheapest. If that’s what you want, that’s okay! But there are better profiles out there.
Personally, I’m a huge fan of anything a bit lighter. It depends on the manufacturer, but a “pencil” or slightly heavier than the pencil profile is, to me, ideal. This shaves a good amount of weight off of your rifle making it easier to handle while keeping enough meat on the bone to manage heat effectively.
Don’t get anything marked “bull” or “heavy” profile unless you’re in a state that requires it (like New York) or you’re making a dedicated long-range bench rifle.
If you’re just starting out, stick with 5.56 NATO or .223 Wylde. What are those?
5.56 NATO is the gold standard since you can shoot cheaper .223 Remington and hotter 5.56 NATO ammo through it.
.223 Remington barrels are very rare these days but you can still find them sometimes. Technically speaking, you shouldn’t shoot 5.56 NATO in .223 Remington rifles.
.223 Wylde is a newer kid on the block but is pretty awesome. To be clear, .223 Wylde is NOT a cartridge. You can’t go to the local bait and ammo store and get a box of .223 Wylde, it’s like asking for blinker fluid.
.223 Wylde is a chamber cut that is kind of in-between .223 Rem and 5.56 NATO. It can safely fire both but is generally a touch more accurate than 5.56 NATO tends to be.
My view is this: if you can get .223 Wylde in the profile and length that you want for equal or slightly more price than a comparable 5.56 NATO barrel, then get it. But if you can’t, then 5.56 NATO is more than enough.
If you want to really step into the world of what is different you can look at rifles in 6.5 Grendel, 9mm, .458 SOCOM, .50 Beowulf, .22 LR, or 6mm ARC! But those are niche cartridges that we’ll take a look at some other time.
There are a lot of handguards in the world and while they might seem like an unimportant part, they really are important. A good handguard will give you lots of mounting options, be strong and ridged, protect your hand from heat, and protect your barrel from damage due to falling or resting on things.
The two main types of handguards are “Free-floated” and “Drop-in”. Drop-in are the cheaper ones and frankly the not as good ones. These will touch your barrel around the muzzle end. You can also use them with a Front Sight Block.
While these are not bad handguards at all, they do have limitations since pressure on them will apply pressure on the barrel and thus could make your point of impact shift if you rest the handguard on something while shooting.
Free-floating handguards don’t touch the barrel. This improves potential accuracy and reduces the amount of heat transferred slightly. Normally, gun owners don’t use them on barrels with a front sight block. Beyond those two basic types, there are lots of flavors to choose from!
Quad rails have 1913 railing on all four sides, they are very strong but hurt to handle without rail covers.
M-LOK handguards are the most common these days since they are slick, comfy, and give loads of attachment points.
Something newer on the market but cutting edge are Carbon Fiber handguards. These are ultra-lightweight, super-strong, insolate you from heat, but are very expensive.
Best AR-15 Manufacturers
Tier lists are a little subjective and shouldn’t be taken as a hard and fast perfect rule since most manufacturers offer several options and levels of rifles.
But it will at least give you a starting point and an idea of what you’re looking at.
The highest quality (and the highest price for most of them) that deliver the best of the best in their fields. Many of these brands have major military contracts also either with big military or with special forces around the world.
Many others have actively contributed to design improvements to the AR-15 platform that make their rifle special and a notch above the rest.
- Knights Armament Company (KAC)
- Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT)
- Daniel Defence
- Yankee Hill Machine
- Bravo Company USA (BCM)
- JP Enterprises
- FN Herstal
- Wilson Combat
Any rifle from any of these brands is one I would trust my life within a defensive shooting. They are of good quality and can definitely last you a lifetime.
- Sig Sauer
- Sons of Liberty Gun Works (SOLGW)
- Faxon Firearms
- Aero Precision
- Smith & Wesson
- Palmetto State Armory
- Seekins Precision
These are safe to fire and normally very cheap. If they aren’t cheap though, hard pass on it.
- Bear Creek Arsenal
- Davidson Defense
- Unbranded AR
- Anderson Manufacturing
- Stag Arms
The Best AR-15s
OK…we’ve seen where the AR comes from, and how it works.
Now, how about looking at some specific guns? I will show you some of my favorite AR-platform rifles in .223/5.56 that would work well for a first-time buyer.
The guns are in no particular order, and all share a few common features.
- They all are chambered for 5.56 NATO, which means they’ll shoot military-style ammo in addition to .223 Remington.
- They all use a collapsible buttstock and include a 30-round magazine.
- They all are excellent rifles that I would trust to defend my home and my life with.
Palmetto State Armory M4 Classic Rifle
This is about as bare-bones as it gets. Back in the good ‘ol days of 2019 you would see these kicking around for half the price they are now, but even at the ~$700 it’s at now — it’s a good deal.
While it lacks any cool features or sexy aesthetics, it’s functional, dependable, and reliable.
If you’re on a budget and need a rifle — here it is. Slap a red dot on it and you’re ready for the range.
LMT CQB16 MARS
Almost identical to the rifle that New Zealand recently adopted as their standard issue rifle, the CQB16 MARS is one of the best rifles currently in production, period.
Truly built for harsh conditions, it comes equipped with extra features.
This is one of the few full-ambidextrous rifles out there with every control being found on both sides of the rifle.
Magazine release, bolt release, safety, all on both the left and right sides. Plus, it comes with LMTs 2-stage trigger. On top of that, it has an upgraded buttstock, monolithic upper, Quadrail handguard, and comes with LMT’s awesome iron sights.
This is a beast of a rifle.
KAC SR-15 E3 Mod 2
Another of the top-tier rifles on the market, you will never go wrong with Knights Armament.
Again, fully ambidextrous, and a huge amount of swag points with this rifle. The major upgrades here are more internal than external though.
KAC’s “sand cutter” BCG is one of the best you can get and is over-designed to work in even the worst possible climates.
One of the gains KAC has over LMT is that the handguard is M-LOK. This means a smoother rail, a lighter rifle, and still lots of attachment points.
If I wanted to drop big money on a generational AR-15, KAC and LMT would be my picks.
BCM RECCE-14 MCMR
While not as old as the top dogs in the AR market, BCM has proven themselves to be a rock-solid brand that makes a lot of their parts in-house. Because they make their own parts, they have a ton of quality control across every moment of manufacturing. The end result is that you get a great rifle every time.
While I’m sure BCM gets returns sometimes, I’ve never actually met someone that returned their BCM because of a parts failure. That says a lot for them. The RECCE-14 is a great rifle with a super comfy BCM stock, BCM Gunfighter charging handle, BCM mod 1 compensator, BCM PNT Trigger, and a 13” free-floated M-LOK handguard. Oh, and the barrel is 14.5”. But wait, you say, that’s an SBR! Well, no. Not this time.
The 14.5” barrel BCM uses here has the BCM Mod 1 compensator pinned and welded to the end, thus legally making the barrel over 16”. This makes for one of the shortest possible AR-15 rifles while still giving you a ton of features and reliability.
Aero Precision M4E1 .223 Wylde
Any Aero Precision rifle is going to be awesome and I recommend them all. In fact, most of my lowers are Aero Precision lowers. And my AR-15 is an Aero Precision builder’s kit rifle. Basically, I love me some Aero Precision. The M4E1 in .223 Wylde might seem basic when you look at it, but it is one of the best blends of quality and price on the market.
A great barrel, solid lower, durable upper, Magpul STR stock, the Aero Precision Gen 2 handguard (awesome), and all for under about a grand.
If you want to get the best quality and features per dollar spent, this is it. In fact, Aero Precisions’ entire line is like that. I strongly recommend them.
Another rifle that isn’t bad, but isn’t standing out in any way. Ruger makes a very solid rifle but it lacks any extra features or coolness.
Sometimes you can find them on sale for a crazy good price, but normally they are an okay price.
This probably wouldn’t be my first choice in AR to buy, but there is nothing wrong with it either.
If it is in stock and it fits your budget, go for it.
KE Arms WWSD KP-15
This one is a little different than the others… okay, maybe a lot different.
Something we haven’t discussed yet is polymer receivers. Polymer isn’t new, in fact, Colt was toying with the design back in the 60s. But until recently, polymer lowers have always… well, sucked.
That changed in the mid-2010s when KE Arms introduced the CavArms monolithic lower. A revolutionary design that combined the buttstock, grip, and lower into a single-piece polymer unit.
Years later, the CavArms is no longer on the market — but KE Arms has breathed new life into the idea with their KP-15.
Designed in collaboration with InRangeTV and their “What Would Stoner Do” project, this complete rifle features not only the KE KP-15 lower but also a combination of high-quality parts that are proven to work.
Top brands like Faxon, Young Manufacturing, provide the handguard, barrel, and BCG while most of the remaining parts are all made by KE in-house.
I have my own WWSD clone rifle and it’s one of the best I own. It’s super lightweight, ultra-durable, and simply does everything better.
If you’re looking for something outside of the box, I highly recommend it.
The AR-15 has come a long way since Stoner first started working on the design in the 1950s. Over those long years, it has been improved and updated many times over, but at its heart is still the same lightweight, functional design.
For home defense, hunting, plinking, or competition — there is an AR-15 out there that will fill the role. You’re really only limited by your budget and your imagination.
But getting your AR isn’t the end of the road. You’ll want ammo at the very least. I would also recommend a sling and white light for anything defensive. An optic of some kind is a huge gain also.
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Updated: 11 September 2021