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The “Black Rifle.” The “assault rifle” (even though it’s not – see below). The gun that elicits responses on both sides of the aisle, whether pro or con. No other gun has been demonized more in recent memory than the descendant of Eugene Stoner’s handiwork, the AR-15. But… no other gun has had a more successful run in recent memory, either. If you are a shooter, you’ve probably at least seen or maybe even shot the ubiquitous AR-platform rifle. The gun does have some pretty good things going for it… easy caliber interchangeability, simple optics mounting, customization capability out the wazoo… the gun is a tinkerer’s dream. If you’ve not owned one and are contemplating buying one, it can be a little confusing. The purpose of this article is not to bore you with a lot a techo-speak, but to give you some practical advice on buying a decent AR. We all have to start somewhere. Before we get to it, let’s look a bit at the rifle’s backstory, where it came from.
History Of The AR-15
Eugene Stoner worked as chief engineer for ArmaLite (the “AR” in the model name AR-15. “AR” does not stand for “assault rifle). ArmaLite was a division of Fairchild Engine & Airplane Corporation. 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 AR-15 was later adopted by United States military forces as the M16 rifle.
That is where our part of this story ends, but it kept going, with Eugene Stoner continuing to design rifles, some more popular than others. It’s interesting that Stoner left ArmaLite in 1961 to serve as a consultant for Colt after ArmaLite sold the rights to the AR-15 to Colt, who eventually morphed it into the M16 for military use.
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 were armed with the Colt M16.
I wrote a review of the Rock River Arms LAR-15 in which I went into some detail about the trials and tribulations that the early-deployment M16s had in the jungles of Vietnam and how incorrect training practices cost American lives…you can read about that elsewhere on this site. Suffice it to say that we did get things turned around, and the M16 has been with us in one form or other since that time. It is still going strong today, stronger than ever before.
An Assault Rifle, It’s Not
What didn’t help its popularity, early on, was its being linked with mass shootings. We all can recount those terrible episodes in our collective memories of schools under lock-down, businesses closed, and other dark events of recent history. If ever one type of weapon was strongly tied to a series of heinous crimes, fairly or unfairly, it was the AR-15-style “assault rifle.” There’s only one thing wrong with that – the civilian AR-15 is no more an “assault rifle” than Ralphie’s 200-shot, range model air rifle was. Technically, a true assault rifle is select-fire… you can set it to fire once when the trigger is pulled in semi-auto mode or to fire either a burst of three or fully automatically when set to “auto.”
Civilian ARs do not have the “auto” option…you get one bullet leaving the muzzle for each press of the trigger. (This describes a stock AR, not one outfitted with aftermarket parts…no full-auto conversion kits). Therefore, the modern sporting rifle (MSR) cannot be an assault rifle. Interestingly, Colt designed the M16A2 to include a three-round burst mode instead of the full-auto setting of those guns that came before. This was done in an effort to save ammunition and to keep green troops from holding the trigger down in a “spray-and-pray” attempt to lay down a wall of bullets. The burst feature was changed back to “auto” in the A3 models, with Colt building both trigger groups for different models. Here is a quick table of models and trigger groups…
So, we see that the M16 has gone through many changes in its trigger group specifications. This is all to show that the civilian rifle does not have the full-auto capabilities of the military version.
It is obvious that the civilian AR-15 is not an full-auto-capable M16. But why is the AR so popular? What changed from its early days as the rifle that most of us ignored?
Here is the full chronology of the AR-15 and 5.56×45 NATO cartridge.
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Why Is The AR-15 So Popular?
The AR-15-pattern, or “modern sporting rifle” (so-named by the National Shooting Sports Foundation in 2009), 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. It wasn’t until the NSSF embarked on its mission of making the “black rifle” more popular by showing it in the hands of hunters, competitive shooters and other just-plain plinkers that the gun platform really took off.
Let’s look at a few of the reasons that the MSR has gained in popularity.
Versatility. 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 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.
Caliber Variety. 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 one will be sent 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? Use your standard .223/5.56 upper for the coyotes and order another one in .308 or stronger for the bruins.
Parts Availability. There are more third-party parts available for the AR than Carter’s has Little Liver Pills. (For those of you under 60, that’s a whole lot of parts-those pills were very popular in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Ask your grandmother). The point is, 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 muzzle brake? Order one. Fore-end grip? How many do you want? The point is, there are a whole lot of add-ons available for the AR.
Price. You can buy a fully-functional AR-15-style rifle for well under $500 – I will talk about a couple of them later. Or, you can spend whatever you can afford on one. The platform lends itself to both ends of the budget spectrum.
DIY Dream. You can build an AR to your exacting specifications by ordering all the pieces-parts or an AR-15 build kit and assembling them on your kitchen table, or you can buy a complete rifle. (I recommend, for the first-time owner, a complete rifle until you understand how they work and then you can experiment with different uppers, lowers and other parts).
Here is a screen capture from Palmetto State Armory – it gives you an idea of just how many parts there are out there for AR customization…
… note the “Items 1-30 of 3067”. There are over 3,000 parts (including 65 complete rifles) on this site alone. Some other sites have even more. I would say the AR platform has definitely arrived and is here to stay.
Just be judicious in your part selection. You could end up with something that looks like this, but let’s hope not…most times with an AR, less is more. I like the 40mm grenade within the buttstock and the two grenade launchers. Nice.
We see that the AR platform is popular for some very good reasons on paper, but it doesn’t mean a thing if the darn thing can’t shoot worth a hoot…are they accurate? In a word, yes. Many shooters use this type of rifle for hunting and competition – that wouldn’t happen if the guns weren’t accurate. With a right optic and a good barrel for your AR-15, there’s no reason that at-least-MOA-groups can’t be gotten with an AR, and many take that a lot further with long-range shooting. OK…let’s look at what makes an AR tick.
How It Operates
Here is how an AR-type rifle functions.
- 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 gases bleed rearwards from the gas block through the gas tube, 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
Here is a sectioned M16. This is a good way to see the way that Eugene Stoner designed the rifle with the action, barrel and recoil spring/buffer all in-line. He didn’t want any off-center rotational forces torqueing the gun off target, so everything went straight back and forth, for the most part.
A Couple Of Decisions To Make…
When buying an AR, there are a couple of basic decisions that you need to make. Granted, there are myriad variations of rifles out there, but here are a couple of foundational construction techniques you might want to consider before you start loading up your new AR with optics, lights, etc. Rifles come with either a direct impingement or piston operated gas system and have their gas key staked or not staked. Here, in a few sentences, is what I’m talking about…
Direct-Impingement Vs. Piston Operated
Most ARs utilize a system whereby the gases that are directed rearward flow through a tube into the expansion chamber of the BCG in order to force the BCG to the rear, extract the spent case and cock the hammer. Another system that has gained in popularity is the piston operated gun. In this case, there is a steel rod that is moved by the gases and is connected mechanically to the BCG in order to force it to the rear. Here is a photo of an HK MR223 piston-operated rifle…
… where you can see the piston below the barrel. It’s interesting to note that even direct-impingement systems use a piston of sorts – it’s just in a different place than the so-named piston operated models’ pistons. (In essence, the bolt and the bolt carrier become a piston of sorts). The gases are led into a chamber with a piston, unlike a true direct-impingement gun like the Ljungman Ag m/42. So, in essence, all modern ARs are piston guns – they just have the piston in different places. Go here for more on how the AR works – it’s a very interesting read. The direct impingement system works and tends to be a bit cheaper.
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.” Some makers will stake the key – they’ll use a specialized punch (sold by Brownells among others) to move a bit of metal adjacent to the key’s screw heads over the heads, thereby locking the screw and not allowing it to back out over time. But…some makers don’t stake the key. They claim that, unless the screw is properly torqued to somewhere between 50-58 inch pounds you’ll be staking a screw that is either loose or over-tightened, neither of which is optimal. Here are a few photos of gas keys…
So, some rifles use a staked gas key and others do not…my advice is that if you find one that claims to be staked, just make sure that it has been done properly. Some of the best guns have keys that are not staked…this is just one area that you should consider when purchasing.
Here are a few other considerations that you need to think about if you are wanting to pick up your first AR…
How long a barrel do you want? The common rifle lengths are 16 and 20 inches. Please remember that the legal length for a rifle barrel is at least 16 inches, which can include a muzzle brake or other device on a shorter barrel as long as that device is welded to the barrel and the total length is 16 inches. You also may think that a longer barrel will be more accurate than a shorter one, but that’s not necessarily true. If you know how to set it up, a short barrel can be plenty accurate. The 16-inch barrel works very well, and is what many ARs are outfitted with.
Assuming you want to shoot the .223 round, do you buy an AR chambered in .223 or 5.56? Here’s something to consider: if you buy a .223- chambered-gun, you can only shoot .223, but if you buy one chambered in 5.56, you can shoot both. Why? The 5.56 chamber is a tiny bit larger to allow for dirty ammo in a military setting, while the .223’s tolerances are tighter. Plus, the 5.56 chamber is built to withstand a little more pressure than the .223. There’s not a whole lot of difference (approximately 55,000 p.s.i. compared to 50,000 p.s.i.), but when you’re talking 55,000 pounds of pressure, it doesn’t take much of an overcharge to possibly do some damage.
One way around this issue is to get the .223 Wylde chambering – it will shoot both, no problem.
What has been becoming quite popular over the last couple of years are AR 22s, we have an article covering the best AR-15 .22LR conversion kits for you.
You may not think there’s a lot of difference in handguards, but there sure is. There are a couple of main types – the free-floating handguard versus the non-free-floating. The first doesn’t touch the barrel along the handguard, while the second does. If you use a front sight gas block (FSB), you pretty much need to use the non-free-floaters, but this is not exactly terrible. The free-floating type doesn’t touch the barrel, as stated, which means it can’t interfere with it. Here are a couple of the more popular style handguards…
For the average buyer who probably is not going to load up the rifle with a lot of do-dads, whatever handguard comes on the gun will most probably work. It’s part of the learning process, learning about handguards…they are fairly easily replaced if you want to try something different. That’s the beauty of the platform. One note…the four-position Picatinny rail can be a bit rough to hold on to when firing the gun. There are inserts available that fill in the slots on the area where you are gripping so as to make it easier on your hands. If you need to mount something there, just remove the insert.
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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, which means they’ll shoot military-style ammo in addition to .223. This will ease your ammo purchasing requirements a bit. They all use a collapsible butt stock and include a 30-round magazine.
Palmetto State Armory 16-inch Freedom M4
Although it is pretty bare-bones, it shares some decent features with other, more-expensive carbines. With a 16-inch chrome moly vanadium nitrided barrel and forged 7075-T6 receiver, this gun should last a good while. Stick on whatever sight system you want, whether iron or optic, load the included magazine and go to the range. The FDE furniture is sure to attract attention when you get there. Sling swivels are even included. Not a bad buy for $449.
Ruger makes a whole lot of guns. We know that. What I have been impressed with over the 40+ years that I’ve owned Ruger products is the quality that Ruger builds into just about everything they build. Their AR is no exception.
Built around a 16.1-inch, 1:8 twist barrel, this gun has its gas block at the carbine (M4) position as do the other guns. Its bolt carrier and gas key are chrome plated, with the key staked for a long service life. The included iron sights are adjustable, and the six-position butt stock is ready and able to be used in any situation. Add in a MagPul 30-round PMAG and you have a very capable AR-style carbine for a real-world price of around $550.
Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport
The S&W M&P 15 Sport is a very popular rifle. With a street price of around $500-$550, this is a lot of gun for the money. With an included Crimson Trace optic on selected models (at a higher price, of course), this gun comes ready to run.
With all the standard AR features, including a 16-inch 4140 barrel, six-position adjustable stock, dust cover and forward assist, this rifle is a solid performer in the under-$600 marketplace and is backed by a company known for its customer service.
Del-Ton Echo 316M Sport- Mod 2
The Del-Ton Echo 316M rifle is another great buy in the under-$600 marketplace. Optics-ready but otherwise complete (even to including sling swivels), Del-Ton makes a very nice rifle. I should know – I own one (or at least a complete Del-Ton upper assembly). Mine is accurate and I’ve never had any issues with it. The above gun is in the familiar M4 mold and includes a 30-round magazine.
So, we see that it conforms to the standard that has become the M4-style carbine. This is one gun that is made from parts that Del-Ton makes. The company started off by selling AR parts and then got into rifle/upper/lower sales.
If mine is any indication, you should have years of good service with this rifle.
Rock River Arms Car4 LAR-15
I recently reviewed a Rock River Arms LAR-15 – you can check it out here. If you are seriously interested in an AR, you definitely will want to look at that review, if for nothing else than a more-detailed history of the platform. I found that gun to be a very capable carbine. The one pictured above is built to pretty much the same specs, which is to say top-notch. This is another company that makes the parts that go into its guns, so they really know what they’re doing. Some of the features of this gun include a HBAR 16-inch chrome moly barrel, RRA Operator Brake, carbine-length gas system with a low-profile gas block, single-stage trigger, A2 grip, and the RRA six-position tactical carbine buttstock. It also uses a RRA Half Quad Free Float Mid Length handguard and is definitely easy to pack at 7.4 pounds. The pistol grip is a Hogue rubber grip (Check out our guide on the best AR-15 featureless grips). Top it off with a 30-round magazine, add some sights and you’re good to go. I was impressed with the other RRA rifle – check this one out. The gun carries a full MSRP of $925, but look for it closer to $650 out there.
Aero Precision Aero AC-15 Complete Rifle
Aero Precision is a company based in Tacoma, Washington that makes parts for AR-style rifles and complete rifles. Their guns are made with the best materials: barrels are made from 4150 chrome moly vanadium with corrosion resistance and many models sport a Magpul MBUS rear sight coupled with an A2 front sight…specifications can vary. The company is one of not too many that show a pretty detailed description of their bolt carrier group – M16 cut, 8620 steel, Phosphate finish, properly staked, Carpenter 158 bolt, HP and MPI tested. This is one well-built rifle. For an MSRP of $699.00 – 749.99 (again depending on model), this rifle should last.
And, lastly but certainly not least…probably one of the best deals going in a lesser-expensive AR-platform carbine…
DPMS Oracle AR-15 Optics-Ready Rifle
Here you go…for a little under $500, you can get into the AR game with just the additional purchase of whatever sight system you desire. I keep iron sights on mine – that way, I can grab it and go, and not worry about knocking an optic around. That would be up to you, of course, but at under $500, that would hopefully leave a few bucks in your account for sights of some sort. The rifle itself shares many of the features that the others above boast, including a 1:9 twist 4140 16-inch barrel, multi-position butt stock, forged 7075-T6 upper and lower receivers, 30-round magazine and a weight of 6.4 pounds. You even have a short rail in front of the handguard to put a sight or red dot on if desired. For the money, this is a very complete carbine.
Rifles For The Experienced Shooter
OK…so this ain’t your first rodeo where an AR-style rifle is concerned. You may already own a few, or you got pretty good with one thanks to Uncle Sam. What if you could find a pretty-darn-close copy of that M16A1 you got really familiar with back in the day? Brownells sells one, the BRN-16A1 in a few different colors. I chose the Basic Black because that goes with anything, I’m told. This rifle is pretty accurate except for the full-auto select-fire choice, but we expect that. Here it is…
This rifle is a preproduction of the M16A1 design introduced in 1967. It includes a magazine fence, chromed bore and chamber and A1-style flash hider. It also incorporates a mil-spec phosphate bolt-carrier group plus a 20-inch, 1:12 twist barrel and gray-anodized receiver. The muzzle ends in an A1 flash hider, and a 20-round magazine is included. For former soldiers, sailors, Marines, Airmen and any other service branch that used it, this M16A1 reproduction is sure to bring back memories. The MSRP is $1017.
Daniel Defense DDM4V11
For you fans of the Key-Mod system, the Daniel Defense DDM4V11 is a head-turner…
From the adjustable, stylized Daniel Defense buttstock to the 15-inch KeyMod SLiM RAIL direct attachment rails at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, this is one fine rifle. The KeyMod system allows a good return-to-zero capability when re-attaching optics. Utilizing a mid-length direct impingement gas system, this rifle has been said to have a smoother recoil impulse. With the 15-inch rail, a long sight radius is possible for iron sights, thereby aiding accuracy. The charging handle is the ambidextrous GRIP-N-RIP model, which is engineered for suppressed fire. This system re-directs gases away from the operator, according to the company. With the upper and lower made from 7056-T6 Type III Hard Coat Anodized aluminum and a barrel of chrome moly vanadium steel with a 1:7 twist, this rifle should give many years of great service.
Bravo Company Mark 12 Mod 0-A5
For those of you wanting an offshoot of what Navy special forces carries, here you go. This rifle is based on the Mk 12 0/1 Special Purpose Rifle (SPR), which has seen service in the Middle East among other locales. This is a top-notch rifle.
Utilizing an 18-inch barrel, this nine-pound beauty is one very reliable weapon. Here is a list of features, taken from the Bravo Company’s website:
All these build features don’t come cheap. The MSRP on this rifle is $2700, but you can find it for a bit less at Brownells. If you want to carry what the pros carry, this is the one for you.
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So, to sum up, what have we learned? Well, hopefully one thing you take away from this little exposition of ARs is that there are many great rifles out there, whether you’re starting out or are looking for your seventh one to add to your collection. I knew next to nothing about the platform until I got mine together and started learning as I shot it. I am by no means an AR-15 expert, but I have learned enough to know what to look for. Any of these guns would make a great AR for most any shooter.
As always, I want to hear from you. Tell us all of your experiences with the AR-15 (M16, if you served our country). I received some very poignant comments after the RRA LAR-15 review from vets who had “been there and done that” with an M16 in Vietnam or other locations. The review is worth looking at if for no other reason than to see the comments. This is a rifle that elicits, like I said in the opening above, strong opinions on both sides of the aisle but is definitely worth a look if you are looking to add to your firearms collection. The ammo is fairly cheap and there is not much recoil. The guns are fun to shoot and don’t have to cost an arm and a leg. Heck, you might like it so much that you’ll start collecting uppers in different calibers-that’s a definite possibility! Check one out today – you’ll be glad you did. As always, get out there and go shooting and stay safe!