The term assault rifle has gotten a bit muddy these days. Politicians and marketers alike have tweaked the term enough that it can be tough to determine which guns are actually assault rifles.
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Daniel Defense DDM4V11
If you need a fast answer, here’s the best assault rifle in this article: Daniel Defense DDM4V11.
But before we really dig into the best assault rifle, we need to establish which rifles are actually in the running.
What is An Assault Rifle?
One of the first American rifles that could be considered an assault rifle was the M1 Garand.
There were two primary attributes of the M1 Garand that separated it from the rifles used in World War I the other minor conflicts before World War II:
- The semi-automatic action.
- The ability to be reloaded quickly.
A lot of things that have been used to define the term assault rifle over the years—pistol grips, adjustable stocks, attachments, and on and on.
These features are primarily ergonomic. All they do is make a rifle more comfortable. The ability to fire as fast as you pull the trigger and reload the weapon quickly still remain the defining traits of an assault rifle, regardless of the legal or marketing definitions.
So, for the purposes of naming the best assault rifle 2018, only semi-automatic rifles with interchangeable magazines will be considered.
A few decades ago, this would have been an AR-15 versus AK-47 article. These were the only two really popular and legitimate assault rifle options.
Fortunately for gun owners, the field has diversified quite a bit since then. There are a lot more options now, each with their own merits.
But, before we get into determining which one is best, let’s answer a critical question about assault rifles…
Why Use an Assault Rifle?
The assault rifle was conceived by modifying hunting rifles to be more capable for combat (which is probably the origin of the term “assault rifle”). So what use do we have for assault rifles, as civilians?
Simply stated, for home or self-defense.
While there are some big differences between the police or military and civilian contexts, there are a few areas where these contexts overlap.
The purpose of improving the rate of fire and reducing reload times is to keep the gun in the fight as continuously as possible.
Keeping the gun in the fight is valuable in any dynamic critical incident, whether that incident involves the police or military, or a civilian defender.
We also know from empirical evidence that it most often takes multiple shots to stop an attacker.
So being able to shoot and reload faster helps shorten the duration of defensive incidents and improve the probability of successfully stopping an attacker.
The combination of a high rate of fire, fast reloads, and a platform that fires a rifle round (which are much more powerful than pistol rounds) makes assault rifles very effective for personal defense, especially inside the home.
Another shooting context that’s very fitting for assault rifles is competitive shooting.
Assault rifles are the only rifles that provide the capability to get multiple rounds on target as fast as possible. So if you plan on competing in tactical competitions, an assault rifle is for you.
The bonus here is that an assault rifle that’s good for self-defense is also good for competition and vise versa. There are a few parts and modifications that are truly context-specific, but there’s significant overlap between the defensive and competition contexts.
Lastly, an assault rifle is actually a really fun gun to shoot recreationally. Shooting and reloading faster equates to more fun out on the range.
So a good assault rifle can be a solid investment, especially for those who value getting a lot of use from the things they buy.
How to Choose an Assault Rifle
Choosing an assault rifle is pretty similar to choosing any other gun.
It’s a basic process that can be broken down into evaluating these four factors:
There’s no gray area when you’re evaluating the fit of a gun. Fit is either yes or no.
The test is simple:
- Hold the rifle with a firing grip in your dominant hand.
- Find out if you can reach all the controls with your firing hand. This includes the trigger, the safety, the magazine release, and the bolt catch.
- On some rifles, you’ll be able to do this easily without releasing your grip on the rifle. However, other rifles aren’t so user friendly. Just ensure that you can reach the controls and operate the gun efficiently without risking dropping it.
If you can’t reach the all of the controls, the gun doesn’t fit. You may want to consider a different rifle.
Unlike fit, feel is very subjective and there’s sort of a spectrum.
Here’s the test:
Pick up the rifle and shoulder it the way would if you were going to shoot it. You’re pretty much just handling the rifle to find out if it’s comfortable for you.
If your rifle is uncomfortable, you probably won’t enjoy shooting or training with it. This means you simply won’t be as good at shooting your rifle as you could be.
Not only that, but buying a rifle that’s uncomfortable could cost you money in upgrades and customizations to make it comfortable for you. So this is a pretty valuable test.
3. Shooting Context
There’s no real test for this one. But the goal is to get a rifle that’s best for your shooting context.
Before you even start shopping around for rifles, identify the features of an assault rifle that are most valuable in your shooting context, or that you find most valuable when you use a rifle in your primary shooting context.
For example, the trigger will be very important for a competitive shooter. Whereas a stock trigger will do fine for defensive use, where ergonomics and attachment points take priority.
Use your list of important features to help narrow the field of potential rifles to help streamline your selection process.
Cost is more of a tie breaker than a premier characteristic to consider. There’s also some subjectivity involved here.
Reason being: your price range will depend largely on which type of rifles fit and feel best to you and what your intended use is.
To help you use cost to effectively weed out contenders, here’s a good rule of thumb:
If you’re looking for a defensive rifle, get the less expensive rifle if you have two equally qualified rifles in all other aspects.
If you’re buying a competition rifle, be ready to pay for more refined features.
In short, your defensive rifle can be affordable. But feel free to go crazy buying everything you want for a competition rifle.
This selection process may make it sound like there’s no clear winner when it comes to assault rifles. But there is.
However, as you may have gathered from the definition of what an assault rifle is, there are a lot of options in terms of manufacturer, components, and attachments that fall under the banner of each type of assault rifle.
So, you can get the best assault rifle and all of your favorite features.
With that, here’s the best assault rifle (and some other options for those who might prefer something else)...
Best Assault Rifle of 2018: AR-15
For many, this is probably unsurprising.
The AR-15 is the civilian variant of the military M-16 and M-4 rifles that were designed in the late fifties.
The AR-15 has been king among assault rifles for several decades for a few reasons:
- It’s easy to use. The simplicity of the AR-15 is one of the reasons that the military picked it up during Vietnam. The learning curve to operate an AR-15 safely is shallow, and the time it takes to become really proficient with one is minimal.
- It’s reliable. This wasn’t always the case. The first AR-15 rifles were woeful jam cannons. However, the design has been reiterated several times since its inception in the 1950’s, and a lot of improvements have been made. Hence, contemporary AR-15’s are reliable even with minimal maintenance.
- It’s a modular system. Ease of use and reliability are pretty much table stakes for a modern rifle.
Modularity is where the AR-15 platform really shines. Nearly every piece of an AR-15 can be customized, upgraded, replaced, or repaired.
This is why there’s an AR-15 for every situation. No matter what your shooting needs are, there’s an AR-15 upgrade or modification for that.
Additionally, the modular nature of the AR-15 makes it easy to build your own. Which adds even more options for saving money and playing Legos with your gun.
Modularity is the primary reason why the AR-15 takes the best assault rifle cake.
To create a cleaner operating, lower maintenance AR-15, several manufacturers have developed a gas piston system for the AR-15. The system is modeled after the gas system in an AK-47.
So, now you have EVEN MORE options when it comes to buying or building an AR-15.
If you’re looking at AR-15’s, here’s a quick two point system for choosing which system will be best for you:
- Choose a direct impingement AR-15 if you’re building your own rifle or are buying on a budget.
- Choose a gas piston AR-15 if you’re looking to buy a complete rifle and have a slightly higher budget.
The choice depends on your buying situation. Both systems can be used for any shooting context.
No matter which route you take, there are a ton of options. Here are two quick AR-15 recommendations to help you narrow the field:
Best Direct Impingement AR-15
Daniel Defense DDM4V11
Daniel Defense makes some of the best direct impingement AR-15 rifles on the market. Some would argue that they’re the best you can get on the civilian market. The DDM4V11 is an amazing blend of affordability and quality.
Best Gas Piston AR-15
LWRC was one of the pioneers of the gas piston AR-15. Their gas piston system actually improves the reliability of the platform without sacrificing any durability or shootability. The LWRC IC-A5 should absolutely be at the top of your list if you’re on the market for a gas piston AR-15.
If you want the best assault rifle you can get, get an AR-15. If you want the best AR-15, check out one of these two rifles.
Most Reliable Assault Rifle Ever: AK-47
The AK-47 is one of the most revered assault rifles in history for one reason:
There are countless stories of AK-47s functioning through absurd torture tests. Enthusiasts say that the AK-47 works no matter what.
The AK-47 also fires a slightly larger round than many popular assault rifles. Some say the 7.62x39mm is more powerful than the 5.56mm. However, both rounds have been proven effective in both combat and competition contexts.
The only significant consideration of using a larger cartridge is the physical profile of the weapon. The AK-47 has a (very) slightly larger magazine profile because it takes a little bit more space to fit 30 rounds into the magazine.
So, in most respects, the AK-47 is comparable to the AR-15. But the race isn’t exactly even.
Here’s why the AK-47 is a very close second to the AR-15:
1. Ease of use. The AK-47 is a very simple design. However, it’s almost too simple. The safety is impossible to reach with your firing hand if you’re left handed. But, even if you’re right handed, the safety isn’t quite as easy to reach as it is on other assault rifle designs.
Most people need to sweep the safety with four fingers to actuate it.
This isn’t a huge deal. But the AK-47 gets slightly lower marks in ergonomics and ease of use than the AR-15.
2. Customizability. There are many more modifications available for the AK-47 than there were ten years ago. Or even five years ago.
However, the AK-47 is built on a stamped steel chassis, which limits what can be modified.
So it’s a tad tricky to build your own AK-47 or create a rifle that’s exactly what you want or need. But it can still be done.
These are somewhat minor dings against the AK-47. Even if it’s not the BEST assault rifle out there, you still can’t go wrong by adding an AK-47 to your collection.
There’s one more thing that makes the AK-47 a great option:
The AK-47 is hands down the least expensive assault rifle on this list. You can get a very expensive AK-47 if you want. But it’s possible to pick up a base model for around $500 dollars.
So, if you’re looking for a great entry level assault rifle that’s totally viable for any context, an AK-47 is an outstanding option.
There are a few AK-47 manufacturers. But if you’re looking to pick up an AK-47 right now, this one is a great option:
Best AK-47 for the Money
Century International Arms Red Army RAS47
This isn’t the least expensive AK-47 out there. But it’s incredibly affordable and comes with all the reliability you expect from an AK-47. This model is also made in the U.S. So it’s made with high quality components.
The best part is that the RAS47 is designed for customization. So the furniture can be changed and optics can be added. Overall, the RAS47 is an outstanding option for those looking for a good AK-47 platform to build on.
Best Polymer Assault Rifle
In recent years, many manufacturers have created their own designs to compete with the reigning champions in the assault rifle market. Bushmaster is one of these manufacturers.
The Bushmaster ACR is designed to be comparable to the AR-15 in terms of size and performance. For the most part, the ACR accomplishes this mission.
Where the ACR actually improved on the AR-15 design is in the ergonomics. Here’s how:
- The ACR comes standard with ambidextrous controls.
- The ACR comes with a folding telescopic stock.
- The ACR comes with a push button two point sling system.
- The ACR comes with a built in rail system for accessories.
However, there are a few places where the ACR doesn’t quite stack up to the AR-15.
1. Weight. While there are heavier AR-15 models, on the whole, the ACR is heavier than the AR-15.
2. Magazine capacity. Standard ACR magazines are 20 rounds. Whereas standard AR-15 magazines are 30 rounds.
The upside here is that the ACR has a lower magazine profile. However, the tradeoff for fewer rounds probably isn’t worth it for most shooting contexts.
3. Customizability. Since the ACR components are proprietary there just aren’t as many aftermarket parts for it. So when you buy an ACR, you pretty much get what you get.
If you buy parts for an ACR, you’ll probably have to get them from Bushmaster.
Overall, the ACR is viable for any shooting context, it just lacks the customizability to really specialize in any one context.
Best Compact Assault Rifle
The CZ Bren is a relatively new assault rifle. However, it’s built to the exacting standards of CZ and the initial reports from the field are positive.
The Bren was originally designed as a pistol. CZ simply designed a collapsible stock for it and made a rifle variant. Soit’s a compact rifle. The only option for barrel length is 16.2 inches.
So it’s a solid option for home defense and tactical shooters who need mobility in tight spaces.
The Bren and the ACR are fairly comparable in terms of size, weight, and ergonomics. But the Bren has a slight leg up on the ACR here because it uses 30 round magazines.
Where it tends to fall down a bit is in the price and customization.
It has a really high base cost. It’s one of the most expensive assault rifles on the market.
Also, it has fixed attachment points for accessories on the handguard. Which makes it far less customizable than an AR-15.
So, if you’re on the market for a really nice assault rifle and would rather put your money into the platform itself than into modifications, the Bren is a strong option for you.
Best Adaptive Combat Rifle
The FN SCAR might have been the first of the adaptive combat rifles (even though Bushmaster created the term Adaptive Combat Rifle when they built their ACR).
The SCAR’s main claim to fame is the ergonomics. All the controls are ambidextrous and so is the charging handle.
It also has a precisely adjustable stock and more options for handguard attachments than any other rifle in this class.
The SCAR is also lighter than the ACR and the Bren at 7.4 pounds. This is about middle of the road as far as assault rifles go.
A lot of people really like the way the SCAR feels and shoots. However, the price tag is what tends to drive people to the AR-15. The SCAR is the most expensive rifle in this article.
However, in terms of performance, the SCAR stacks up pretty evenly against the AR-15. The only drama with the SCAR is that there aren’t nearly as many aftermarket parts for the SCAR as there are for the AR-15. Building your own SCAR probably isn’t even an option.
So, the SCAR is a solid option for those with slightly higher budgets who are looking for a complete rifle. Do-it-yourself fans may want to look elsewhere.
Best Bullpup Assault Rifle
Steyr AUG A3M1
The Steyr AUG A3M1 is the original bullpup assault rifle.
A bullpup rifle has the magazine well located behind the pistol grip, rather than in front where most traditional designs place the magazine well.
The bullpup design creates a more compact rifle, without sacrificing barrel length.
The AUG was one of the first bullpup assault rifles ever made.
Naturally, the great strength of the AUG is how short it is. An AUG with a 16 inch barrel is shorter than some AR-15 rifles with 14 inch barrels.
So you get great accuracy and muzzle velocity in a compact rifle. The best of both worlds, right?
Yes, but there are some tradeoffs.
The first is the learning curve. Since the magazine is in an entirely different spot on the rifle, you’ll have to do a lot of reload training to be really proficient with it. Especially if you’re accustomed to a traditional reload.
The second is that there’s not a lot of space on the AUG for attachments. There’s a rail on top for an optic, but that’s about it. If you like weapon-mounted gear, this might not be the rifle for you.
Lastly, the AUG isn’t tremendously friendly for left handed shooters. Of course, left handers can operate the AUG. However, the bolt release and charging handle can be tricky to reach if you’re left handed. Be prepared to practice your weapon manipulations a lot if you’re a left handed shooter.
The AUG is also fairly expensive. So it’s best for people who really value having a compact rifle.
Having an assault rifle in your collection is always a good idea. But it’s important to get a rifle that fits your needs.
There’s an AR-15 for everyone. That’s why it’s the best assault rifle you can get.
Shooters with very specific needs may prefer one of the other designs.
But if you want to make a quick purchase, you can’t go wrong with the Daniel Defense DDM4V11. No matter what you plan to use it for, you can make it work for you. And you’ll get a lifetime of use out of it.
Now that you know what you’re looking for, if you still want a great all-purpose rifle, get out and get yourself an assault rifle!