11+ Best AR-15 Rifles: The Ultimate AR-15 Buying Guide [2022]

Last Updated on August 9, 2022.

The “best AR-15 rifles” category is insanely broad. There’s an infinite number of potential AR-15 configurations and a ton of quality AR-15 manufacturers.

Welcome to the wide world of AR-15 rifles

There’s a perfect AR-15 for every one. This guide will show you everything you need to know to find your perfect AR-15.

But, if you just want to know what to buy, get an AR-15 with these specs:

Barrel length16” overall
Barrel twist rate1 in 7 or 1 in 8
Gas systemMid-length
Bolt carrier groupPhosphate or black nitride, MPI tested
or MPI and HPT tested
HandguardFree float or drop-in
TriggerMil-spec

Keep reading to get a deep understanding of all the AR-15 jargon and specs, and also see my picks for the title of “Best AR-15.”

All these AR-15s were selected based on my hands-on experience shooting these rifles and working on them in the gunsmithing shop.

Here’s a quick look at the tippy-top AR-15 rifles. After that, there’s an insanely detailed guide to AR-15 specs. Then, remember to check out the reviews to see what makes each choice special. 

Best Choice

Daniel Defense DDM4V7

Specifications:

Cartridge:

5.56 mm NATO

Capacity:

30+1-Round

Finish:

Matte Black

Pros:

  • Insane Durability – Incredibly durable cold hammer forged barrel.
  • Robust Handguard – Mounts using the same bombproof barrel nut assembly.
  • Super Comfortable – Super comfortable ergonomic hardware.

Comparison Table

Skip Straight to Product Reviews

1. Overall best

2. Budget AR-15 rifle

3. Value AR-15 rifle

4. High-end AR-15 rifle

5. Gas piston AR-15 rifle

6. Competition rifle

7. Outstanding rifle

8. Lightweight AR-15 rifle

9. Budget Performance

10. Upgradable rifle

11. Classic Quality

Table of Contents

Why get an AR-15 (And a brief history of the AR-15)

The AR-15 has gone through several stages of evolution. And today it stands as the most popular tactical and sporting rifle in the United States. The customizable modular design makes the AR 15 a bit like Legos, but for adults.

That’s what makes it such a great platform.

The modularity, aftermarket support, and shootability make it an ideal rifle for just about any context. The AR-15 can do everything from long-range precision to short-range competitive and tactical shooting. And it’s pretty good for backyard plinking, too.

Additionally, the AR-15 design has been around for a long time. So the performance and reliability have been fine tuned and proven. Though, it took a few years to get there.

The AR 15 was originally designed in 1956 by Eugene Stoner, and manufactured by ArmaLite. Stoner first submitted the ArmaLite AR-10 for military trials in 1956. But the rifle was rejected. Eventually, ArmaLite sold the AR-10 and AR-15 designs to Colt.

Colt redesigned the rifles slightly for mass production. After redesigning the rifle, Colt rebranded the AR-15 the M16. Ultimately, the military completely adopted the M16 in 1964.

While the civilian model is still labeled “AR-15,” the rifle sports the same reliability and simplicity that you’d get from its military counterpart. You just don’t get any full-auto or burst-fire operation from an AR-15.

Now that you’re sold on the platform (as if you weren’t already), here’s what all the configuration options mean.

AR -15 specs: What do they mean?

Almost every aspect of your AR-15 can be tweaked and adjusted to make it perform how you want. You can even add attachments to fit your primary context.

These are the specs you’ll see on the product pages and what they mean for your experience shooting the rifle.

Muzzle Devices

Muzzle devices can affect how your AR-15 recoils. And they can serve as suppressor mounts.

Muzzle brake

Muzzle brakes reduce felt recoil. The stronger the muzzle brake, the less the rifle will push against your shoulder when you fire your rifle.

However, they produce a lot of muzzle blast to the sides of your muzzle. Be mindful when using a muzzle brake on a firing line.

Compensator

Compensators vent the muzzle blast upward to keep your rifle level during rapid fire. But most compensators do not reduce felt recoil. Some compensators offer some flash suppression.

However, they don’t reduce flash as much as this next muzzle device.

Flash Hider

Flash hiders reduce the muzzle flash from the end of your rifle when you shoot. And some flash hiders have some compensation built into them.

Flash hiders are probably the most common muzzle device to use as a suppressor mount.

Barrels

The barrel is arguably the most important component in your rifle, since it has the most impact on precision and ballistics.

Length

A longer barrel produces more muzzle velocity. That gives you better terminal ballistics at longer range.

As a general rule, a barrel longer than 14.5 inches is best if you regularly shoot further than 300 yards for things such as hunting. And 16 to 20 inch barrels are common on long-range AR-15 rifles.

However, a shorter barrel can be precise enough for longer shots. Just be aware that shorter barrels will deliver less energy on distant targets.

Twist

The mil-spec AR-15 rate of twist is one full twist every seven inches (1 in 7 twist). This works well enough for most shooters.

However, heavier bullets (62 and heavier) perform best from a barrel with a 1 in 7 twist. A barrel with a 1 in 8 rate of twist will work better if you usually shoot 55 grain rounds.

Don’t be alarmed if you usually shoot 55 grain bullets and the rifle you want has a 1 in 7 rate of twist.

It will work fine with 55 grain ammunition. It’s just not perfectly optimal, and it’s perfectly safe.

Steel

The most common barrel steels are 4140 chromoly vanadium steel and stainless steel (usually 416 or 416R stainless steel).

Chromoly vanadium steel barrels are usually chrome lined or nitride finished. They deliver good precision. And they last a long time.

They’re less likely to show a shift in point of impact as they wear. However, a stainless steel barrel will have a somewhat  shorter lifespan than a chromoly vanadium barrel.

Carbon steel and stainless steel barrels will last for thousands, most likely tens of thousands of rounds, though. Most shooters will get their money’s worth from any of the major barrel steels.

AR-15 Gas Systems

Gas system length determines how much gas pressure gets redirected into the AR-15 action to drive the bolt carrier.

Carbine

The carbine length gas system is one of the shortest. The shorter gas system pushes a lot of pressure into the action. Carbine gas systems are very reliable, because there’s enough pressure to push the bolt through carbon buildup and debris.

However, the higher pressure produces a slightly sharper recoil impulse. A carbine gas system can also cause more wear on the internal parts of your AR-15. They also tend to give a lot of gas blowback during suppressed fire.

Mid-length

A mid-length gas system is the middle of the road gas system.

Mid-length gas systems deliver good reliability, with a slightly softer recoil than a carbine gas system. With a mid-length gas system, you’ll also get less gas in your face if you use a suppressor.

The mid-length gas system is the best option for most shooters. Fortunately, most AR-15 manufacturers use this gas system. 

Rifle

The rifle length gas system produces the softest recoil.

However, they only fit on longer barrels. Typically, you’ll find rifle length gas systems on 18 inch and longer barrels.

Also, AR-15s with rifle length gas systems can require a bit more maintenance, since the gas pressure is the lowest. It’s usually not an issue if you keep your rifle clean and oiled, though.

Gas piston

Gas piston systems vent gas out the front end of the gun, rather than directly into the action. They’re designed to reduce carbon fouling and maintenance requirements, without sacrificing reliability. They also work great on suppressed rifles, since almost no gas gets vented into your face.

The only drawback is that gas piston systems usually give a bit more felt recoil than a direct impingement gas system.

Handguards (M-LOK, KeyMod, Picatinny, and all the rest)

There are two aspects to a handguard: how it mounts on the rifle and the accessory rail. 

Free Float handguards

Free float handguards mount directly to the barrel nut and don’t contact the barrel.

This improves precision because the handguard allows the barrel to flex naturally. In short, a free float handguard enables your rifle to be as precise as it can be

Drop-in handguards

Drop in handguards fit onto a mil-spec barrel nut with a delta ring. At the other end, drop-in handguards plug into a fixed front sight gas block. These handguards are quite easy to install.

However, the contact with the barrel near the muzzle can make your rifle a tad less precise. It’s not a huge difference in precision, though. You probably won’t notice the difference unless you’re benchrest shooting.

M-LOK rails

M-LOK is by far the most popular attachment system for AR-15 handguards. M-LOK is relatively simple to use. And there are a ton of M-LOK accessories on the market.

M-LOK is also the most durable attachment system, aside from picatinny.

KeyMod rails

KeyMod is the direct competitor to M-LOK. It’s not as popular. But it is slightly more user friendly.

M-LOK did beat KeyMod in the military durability tests. But it’s still durable. Just not as durable as M-LOK.

Picatinny rails

Picatinny is the original rail attachment system. And it’s pretty bombproof. It’s also really easy to use.

Unfortunately, it’s rather bulky. And picatinny rails are often called a “cheese grater.” They can be a bit rough on your hands if you have to grip a picatinny rail. Consider using rail covers if you have a picatinny rail.

Bolt Carrier Groups (BCG)

Some argue that the bolt carrier group is the most important part of an AR-15, because a good bolt carrier group is what makes your rifle reliable. You can decide if you think the bolt carrier group is more important than the barrel. Then get a good bolt carrier group, no matter what.

Chrome Phosphate

These bolt carriers have a phosphate coating on the outside and a chrome lining on the inside.

Chrome phosphate is the mil-spec finish. It’s durable. But it requires more lubrication than the other finishes. And carbon sticks to the phosphate finish more than some of the other bolt carrier finishes on the market.

Nitride

The most common alternative to the chrome phosphate finish. It’s smoother and harder than a phosphate finish. Therefore, a nitride finish will work with less lubrication (you should still oil your rifle, though) and resists carbon buildup better than a phosphate finish.

DLC

DLC (Diamond Like Coating) is the smoothest and hardest finish for a bolt carrier group. A DLC finish can run with very little lubrication. And most carbon deposits will wipe off with a rag. Unfortunately, DLC finished bolt carrier groups are also the most expensive.

Triggers

AR-15 triggers come in two broad categories. There are nuances. But most AR-15 rifles come with one of these two trigger types.

Mil-spec

A mil-spec trigger simply uses the original-three piece trigger design. It’s common for manufacturers to use some sort of mil-spec trigger in their rifles.

Mil-spec triggers are designed to maximize reliability, which usually comes with a heavier, grittier trigger press.

However, there are variations of the mil-spec trigger that make the trigger press shorter, smoother, and make the break cleaner.

Drop-in

Drop-in triggers are a single, self-contained unit that slides into your lower receiver, without any assembly.

Drop-in triggers almost always have a better trigger press than a mil-spec trigger. The downside is that drop-in triggers require anti-walk pins. And it’s very difficult to rebuild a drop-in trigger if a part wears out.

Buffers and receiver extensions

The lower receiver extension and buffer control the rearward movement of the bolt carrier group and help mitigate recoil.

Carbine buffer tubes and buffers

The carbine buffer system is the most common. It uses the shortest lower receiver extension, buffer, and spring.

You can use a heavier buffer if you find that the gas system in your rifle is delivering more pressure than you want.

Rifle buffer tubes and buffers

The rifle buffer system is the longest buffer system. Most adjustable carbine stocks will not fit a rifle length receiver extension.

However, a rifle buffer system delivers the smoothest recoil impulse, because it has the longest spring. So the bolt carrier group slows down more gradually, which helps mitigate the sharp kick from the bolt hitting the back of the buffer tube.

VLTOR A5 System

The VLTOR A5 System is a compromise between a carbine length and rifle length buffer system. The VLTOR A5 receiver extension and buffer are slightly longer than a carbine receiver extension. And the VLTOR A5 system uses a rifle length buffer spring.

Manufacturers rarely use the VLTOR A5 system on their rifles. However, it’s a solid upgrade that gives you a smoother recoil impulse than a carbine buffer system and that’s compatible with standard carbine stocks. 

Furniture

On most rifles, the furniture is the stock and pistol grip. Most manufacturers use a proprietary handguard, then simply purchase the furniture from MAGPUL, B5 Systems, or another manufacturer.

Most modern pistol grips and stocks are comfortable and ergonomic. Watch out for the “A2 pistol” grip. It’s the original mil-spec pistol grip. And it’s uncomfortable for a lot of shooters.

Controls

When they say “controls,” most manufacturers are talking about the AR-15 safety selector, the magazine release, and the bolt catch. Some manufacturers also consider the charging handle to be one of the controls.

Standard

“Standard” doesn’t always mean mil-spec, though that’s often the case. Usually, standard controls are just controls that have no features for ambidextrous operation.

It should be noted that an ambidextrous safety selector is increasingly considered a “standard” control, since it’s useful for both right and left-handed shooters.

Ambidextrous

Ambidextrous controls have some sort of design enhancements that enable the shooter to access the controls from both sides of the rifle.

In principle, ambidextrous controls are a good idea.

However, not all ambidextrous controls are well executed. If a manufacturer specifies ambidextrous controls, zoom in on the lower receiver and get a look at them, so you can see if they’ll work for you.

Enhanced

There’s a wide variety of “enhanced” controls. Every manufacturer has their own design.

Some of them are good. Some of them are not so good.

Usually, though, enhanced controls amount to some sort of extended magazine release, a larger bolt catch paddle, and ambidextrous operation features.

Quality control

Many aspects of quality control are left unstated, because they tend to be overly technical and not very exciting. However, you’ll often see two key acronyms in product descriptions, which are related to quality control: MPI and HPT.

These terms apply to the bolt carrier group (BCG) and barrel.

In most cases, the type of quality control inspection will be stamped on the barrel. And most bolt carrier groups have the quality control procedures listed in the product description.

Magnetic Particle Inspection (MPI)

Magnetic Particle Inspection (MPI) is a relatively standard quality control process, where a magnetic field and iron particles are used to inspect bolt carrier groups and barrels for microscopic cracks and imperfections.MPI is the most common quality control process because it’s efficient and affordable. It also does a good job of weeding out defective parts.

High Pressure Testing (HPT)

Most of the time, High Pressure Testing (HPT) is just a technical term for test firing.

The standard HPT procedure is to fire a high-pressure military round through the rifle once it’s been assembled and MPI tested. Most manufacturers use an M855 or M193 round for HPT.

It’s a good quality assurance step to have in place. HPT verifies that the rifle functions properly. However, it’s time and resource intensive.

There’s nothing wrong with AR-15 rifles that have only been MPI tested. Many quality AR-15 rifles are just MPI tested.

If you’re willing to pay a little more, a rifle that’s checked with both MPI and HPT can offer a little more peace of mind.

However, solid quality control does not replace function testing your rifle yourself. Even the most stringent quality control is imperfect. You should always shoot a new rifle and make sure it works.  

AR-15 Manufacturers

There are a ton of AR-15 manufacturers out there. Too many to list here.

What I can do is list the manufacturers that seem to produce the best rifles, based on my experience shooting AR-15 rifles and working on them in the gunsmithing shop.

Before I get into that list though, the relationship between quality and price isn’t quite as straightforward as you might think

It’s often the case that budget or value AR-15 rifles perform just as well as more expensive rifles (to a point. If the price seems too good to be true, it probably is). The AR-15 system has been thoroughly developed and tuned to the point where even the most affordable AR-15 can be a quality piece of hardware.

However, a higher price gets you better manufacturing processes and quality control.

The more expensive AR-15 rifles usually show their quality in their lifespan and are less likely to need warranty work.

Most people don’t shoot enough or abuse their AR-15s enough to really take advantage of the benefits you get from a more expensive rifle, though.

Get the AR-15 you can afford. You’ll be happier with the rifle you can buy than with the rifle you can’t.With that, this is a brief rundown of the AR-15 manufacturers that deliver the best quality for your dollar.

Bravo Company Manufacturing

If I left Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM)  off this list, somebody would probably come after me. And that’s fair, because they’re one of the most revered AR-15 manufacturers in the U.S. (maybe the world).

BCM is known for thorough quality control and workhorse rifles that come at reasonable prices. A BCM rifle might be the best AR-15 for the money.

They also have a pretty hearty dedication to the original AR-15 design. Almost all the components in a BCM rifle are built to mil-spec (phosphate finishes, mil-spec trigger, etc.).If you get a BCM, you’re getting a no-nonsense rifle that will run reliably for a long time.

Daniel Defense

Daniel Defense is another company that produces bombproof rifles.

Similar to BCM, Daniel Defense takes a no-frills approach to building AR-15s. And they stick to mil-spec in most areas.

Daniel Defense rifles are a bit on the pricey side. But they’re incredibly well-made.

Overall, Daniel Defense rifles are known for being rugged, reliable, and pleasant to shoot.

Geissele Automatics

Geissele Automatics are mostly known for their triggers. But they also make excellent rifles. Geissele handguards are incredibly durable and well-designed.

And Geissele controls offer meaningful improvements over mil-spec controls, without being bulky or gimmicky (the Geissele Airborne Charging Handle is considered one of the best ever).

Geissele rifles are also known for being well-gassed and pleasant to shoot with a suppressor.

Springfield Armory

This one usually surprises people, because Springfield Armory isn’t really known for their AR-15 rifles.

And they really only produce different variations of the same rifle: the Springfield Armory Saint (more on this one in the review below).

The AR-15 they make has been a good one, though. It’s impressively well-built for such an affordable rifle.Springfield Armory may not have the reputation and cool factor that some of the other manufacturers do. However, their first attempt at producing an AR-15 seems to have been a success.

Ruger

Ruger is another one that tends to surprise people. And, again, that’s because they only really make one AR-15: the Ruger AR556.

However, so far, the Ruger AR556 has been a great rifle. It’s an affordable rifle that comes with a few nice features. And it works.

JP Enterprises

JP Enterprises is known for their competition rifles. And they make great competition rifles. They also offer a lot of sensible upgrades that fit on just about any AR-15. But those upgrades come standard on a JP Enterprises rifle.

JP Enterprises rifles are one of the few high-end rifles that deliver really noticeable performance improvements in terms of ballistics and precision.

If you suck at shooting, you’ll still suck. However, it will be more fun to suck at shooting if you’re shooting a JP Enterprises rifle.

Other Quality AR-15 Manufacturers

Those are some of the key players in the AR-15 market. But, wait, there’s more…

These are some other AR-15 manufacturers that make excellent rifles:

  • Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT)
  • Yankee Hill Machine
  • Rainier Arms
  • Stag Arms

We could go on. The AR-15 manufacturers we’ve listed here should give you plenty of options, though.

Choose whatever manufacturer has a rifle that suits your needs.

12 Best AR-15 Rifles and Carbines

These are the AR-15 rifles that I’ve found to work really well. They come with all the features you’d expect from a modern AR-15. And we rarely see them in the gunsmithing shop for problems related to the manufacturing quality.

Overall Best

1. Daniel Defense DDM4V7

The Daniel Defense DDM4V7 is easily one of the most durable, long-lasting AR-15 rifles you can get.

Key Specs:

  • Cartridge:

5.56 mm NATO

  • Finish:

Matte Black

  • Muzzle:

Flash Suppressor

  • Stock Material:

Polymer

  • Weight:

6.2 lbs

Pros:

  • Incredibly durable cold hammer forged barrel.
  • Robust handguard mounting system.
  • Super comfortable furniture

Cons:

  • Might be too expensive for some budgets.
  • Totally mil-spec trigger.
  • Rubber overmolding on furniture can eventually delaminate.
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Here’s another fun story from the range:

We had a Daniel Defense MK18 in our rental inventory for about seven years. The gun lasted for literally hundreds of thousands of rounds. It probably would have kept going if not for some bad ammo that damaged the upper and lower receiver.

The Daniel Defense DDM4V7 is just the full-length variant of the MK18 (minus the quad rail). Given that the DDM4V7 has a longer barrel and a longer gas system, it will likely last just as long as a MK18, maybe longer.

Also, the DDM4V7 is much more pleasant to shoot than the MK18. The longer barrel and gas system produce a less felt recoil. There’s also none of the muzzle blast right in your face.

Also, even though the DDM4V7 doesn’t have the quad rail, it still mounts using the same bombproof barrel nut assembly.

If there were a complaint to make about the DDM4V7, it’s that the rubber overmolding on the grip and stock eventually delaminates. It takes an impressively long time. It does happen after a while, though.Still, this is a tough AR-15 to beat, even at the somewhat higher price point.

Budget AR-15 rifle

2. Ruger AR556

The Ruger AR-556 is an affordable rifle that punches above its price point.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

5.56 NATO

  • Barrel Length:

16.1″

  • Finish:

Black Hard Coat Anodized

Pros:

  • Excellent 2-stage trigger group.
  • Flash suppressor is impressively effective.
  • B5 Systems furniture is some of the best on the market.

Cons:

  • Free float rail has no full-length picatinny rail.
  • Flash suppressor offers no recoil reduction.
  • No diagonal M-LOK slots.
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The Ruger AR-556 surprised me a little bit. It was much better than I expected.

The B5 Systems pistol grip and stock are a nice touch.

All the finishes—the anodizing and the nitride—are impressively smooth. The upper receiver, lower receiver, and the bolt carrier group look a lot like Aero Precision hardware (though I’m fairly certain that Ruger does not contract Aero Precision to make their parts).

The AR556 is also decently tuned out of the box. You could soften it up a little bit with a heavier buffer or a muzzle brake. However, it’s not terribly obvious that they’ve tuned this rifle for reliability.

My only complaint about the AR-556 is the free float handguard. There are only a couple of short sections of picatinny rail along the top. And there don’t appear to be any anti-rotation tabs.

The handguard might have an internal anti-rotation insert, similar to an SLR Rifleworks handguard. But, from the outside at least, the handguard appears to be friction clamped to the barrel nut and retained with anti-slip screws.Handguard aside, the platform as a whole shoots better than the price tag suggests.

Value AR-15 rifle

3. Springfield Armory Saint Victor

The Springfield Armory Saint Victor sits in the goldilocks zone between price, performance, and creature comforts.

Key Specs:

  • Barrel length:

16 inches

  • Overall length:

32.25-35.5 inches

  • Weight:

6.9 pounds

Pros:

  • Comes stock with a flat-faced, nickel boron trigger.
  • Includes flip-up sights.
  • Muzzle brake deliver good recoil reduction.

Cons:

  • No full-length picatinny rail.
  • No ambidextrous controls.
  • Muzzle brake produces pretty serious muzzle blast.
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The Springfield Armory Saint Victor is a nice upgrade from the standard Saint rifle. All the key operating parts are the same. But this one comes with a muzzle brake and an M-LOK freefloat handguard.

The handguard has a ton of M-LOK slots. If you’re into mounting a lot of M-LOK attachments, the handguard will work. And it’s a nice slim handguard that’s comfortable with any grip technique.

Unfortunately, there’s no full length picatinny rail on top of the handguard, just a small section up front for mounting backup sights. This might not be an issue for you.

But a full length picatinny rail is pretty handy for mounting pressure switches, sling sockets, and the like. And it doesn’t really grate on your hand the way a quad picatinny rail does.

However, picatinny rail complaints aside, we’ve had this one out on the rental counter, too. And it runs like a top.

High-end AR-15 rifle

4. Geissele Automatics Super Duty Rifle

The Geissele Automatics Super Duty Rifle brings the quality and performance of Geissele triggers to the entire AR-15 platform.

Key Specs:

  • Cartridge:

5.56 MM NATO

  • Barrel Length:

16″

  • Finish:

40mm Green, Luna Black

Pros:

  • Fitted with a SureFire Warcomp.
  • Ridiculously beefy handguard.
  • Incredible Geissele SSA-E X trigger.

Cons:

  • A bit expensive.
  • No sights included.
  • Pistol grip angle is similar to an A2 grip.
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As far as high-end duty rifles go, the Geissele Automatics Super Duty Rifle is about at the top of the heap.

Geissele rails are legendary for their durability and versatility. And this rifle is precisely tuned right out of the box.

Even with a suppressor, you don’t get much gas blowback. And the recoil is noticeably tamer than something like an M&P15.

Also, you get a Geissele SSA-E trigger and the Geissele Maritime Bolt Catch, which are both best-in-class parts.

I’m not a huge fan of the Geissele pistol grip. It’s a bit too much like an A2 grip for my taste. But it’s easy to replace, if you happen to dislike it.

This rifle is a bit expensive. But Geissele really nailed it with this one. 

Gas piston AR-15 rifle

5. Primary Weapons Systems MK116 MOD 2-M

The Primary Weapon Systems MK116 MOD 2-M is easily the best gas piston AR-15 you can get.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

5.56mm NATO / 223 Wylde

  • Barrel Length:

16.1″

  • Action:

Semi-automatic

  • Finish:

Black

Pros:

  • Gas piston system produces a smoother recoil impulse than most others.
  • .223 Wylde chamber offers a good blend of precision and reliability.
  • BCM furniture is top notch.

Cons:

  • Recoil impulse is more aggressive than a direct impingement rifle.
  • No forward assist.
  • Birdcage flash hider is nothing special.
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Other Option

There are a few rifles out there that use a gas piston system. The Primary Weapons Systems MK116 Pro is one of my favorites, as far as true AR-15 pattern rifles go (the Sig MCX Virtus is also great, but with more proprietary parts).

One of the drawbacks of a piston driven AR-15 is that you get a more aggressive recoil impulse. This is true with the MK116.

However, PWS uses a progressive venting system that gradually vents more gas as the bolt moves to the rear to smooth out the recoil impulse.

It’s not perfect, still more aggressive than a direct impingement gun. But it’s better than most of the competitors.

However, the reason I like this one just a little bit more than something like the MCX is because it’s compatible with most standard AR-15 parts.

The bolt carrier and gas piston are proprietary, but just about everything else on this gun is compatible with standard AR-15 parts. It’s relatively easy to get replacement parts if something breaks.

It might be rare that a part breaks, but it’s a huge bummer if your gun is down for weeks because you have to get a replacement part directly from the manufacturer.

Also, the MK116 is a pretty gucci rifle that comes kitted out with ambidextrous controls, Bravo Company furniture, and a Radian Raptor charging handle right out of the box.It’s not cheap. However, this rifle is impressively pleasant to shoot, especially for a gas piston AR-15.

Competition rifle

6. JP Enterprises JP-15

The JP Enterprises JP-15 is a best-in-class competition AR-15 that you can also in any other shooting context.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

.223 Wylde

  • Muzzle:

Tactical Compensator

  • Finish:

Matte Black

Pros:

  • Radian Raptor charging handle is the best you can get.
  • Outstanding precision at all ranges.
  • Tunable gas system for the smoothest possible recoil impulse.

Cons:

  • Handguard has no M-LOK or KeyMod mounting slots.
  • Muzzle brake produces extreme muzzle blast.
  • Stainless steel barrel has a slightly shorter lifespan than a carbon steel barrel.
Check on Rainier Arms
Other Options

The JP Enterprises JP-15 is the AR-15 to get if you’re into competitive shooting.

Sure, the handguard might be a little bulky and the muzzle brake packs some punch.

However, between the muzzle brake, the silent captured spring system, and the trigger, you get an impressively smooth shooting gun, right out of the box. It also has a heat sink to keep the barrel cool during rapid fire.

JP enterprises is known for producing some of the smoothest rifles on the planet. This one lives up to that reputation.

The recoil impulse is incredibly minimal. The gun stays flat, almost on its own. The parts may be proprietary, they work.The only downside is the price. This is a pretty spendy gun. Most competition guns are pretty spendy, though. This one is almost more than worth the price.

Outstanding AR-15 rifle

7. Springfield Armory Saint

The Springfield Armory Saint is an outstanding rifle for anyone who wants a rifle just works.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

.223 Rem | 5.56 Nato

  • Weight:

6 lbs. 11 oz.

  • Finish:

Black Anodized

Pros:

  • Relatively lightweight.
  • Includes sights.
  • BCM furniture is excellent.

Cons:

  • Drop-in handguard has fewer mounting points than most free-float handguards.
  • No ambidextrous controls.
  • Muzzle device could be better.
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A few years ago, Springfield Armory decided to try their hand at making an AR-15. It seems to have worked out pretty well.

We’ve run a few of the Springfield Armory Saint rifles at the rental counter as rental guns. They’ve held up really well to the abuse, despite having to feed them scraps during the ammo shortage.

Springfield wisely contracted BCM (or B5 Systems, in some cases) for the handguard, furniture, and some of the internal components (the trigger appears to be a BCM PNT trigger or something very similar).

The result is a rifle with great ergonomics and a better than average trigger press.

However, there’s not a ton of rail space on the handguard (enough for a flashlight and a vertical grip). I’m also not terribly impressed by the included flip up sights.

They work well enough, though. They just wiggle in the up position more than I’d like. However, they’re not bad if you’re planning on using them as backup sights.Overall, it’s a well-gassed rifle that shoots pretty pleasantly for a middle-of-the-road AR-15.

Lightweight AR-15 rifle

8. Stag Arms Stag-15

The Stag Arms is lightweight, but impressively comfortable and capable AR-15 rifle.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

5.56MM NATO

  • Barrel Length:

16″

  • Muzzle Device:

Flash Hider

  • Handguard Material:

6061 Aluminum

  • Finish:

Chrome-Lined Phosphate

Pros:

  • Lighter than most other AR-15 rifles.
  • Handguting system is impressively durable.
  • Magpul MOE fuard mounrniture is some of the most comfortable .

Cons:

  • No horizontal mounting positions on the handguard.
  • Mil-spec trigger group.
  • Birdcage flash hider is only okay.
Check on Guns.com
Check on ImpactGuns

Stag Arms often gets pigeon holed as a budget AR-15 manufacturer. Though, I’ve used a lot of their components and rifles. They’ve always been very well made.

The Stag Arms Stag-15 is their flagship rifle, it runs well.

Though, it’s quite mil-spec in terms of the finish and trigger. I think that’s probably why people peg Stag Arms as a budget manufacturer: the external finishes are comparable to other budget oriented rifles.

However, the handguard is excellent.

The anti-anti rotation tabs contact the top and bottom of the upper receiver. Then the barrel nut and retaining mechanism is similar to an Aero Precision handguard. It’s super secure and easy to install.

The only real downside is that Stag Arms uses a standard weight buffer in this rifle. The recoil is a little bit sharp.

A heavier, H2 buffer would probably be appropriate for this rifle. A heavier buffer is a cheap upgrade, though, and this rifle shoots well enough with a standard buffer.

It would also be nice if the Stag-15 came with backup sights. But that’s a nitpick.Overall, the Stag-15 is a solid rifle for the money.

Budget Performance

9. S&W M&P15 Sport II

The Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II comes at a budget price, but delivers better than budget performance.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

5.56mm NATO / .223

  • Barrel Length:

16″

  • Overall Length:

35”

  • Weight:

103.2 oz.

  • Barrel Twist:

1 in 9, 6 groove

Pros:

  • Incredibly affordable.
  • Better than mil-spec finishes on the barrel and bolt carrier group.
  • Includes sights.

Cons:

  • Fixed front sight cannot be removed.
  • Rear sight is a polymer Magpul flip up sight.
  • Mil-spec furniture is not all that comfortable or customizable.
Check on Cabelas
Check on BassPro

Here’s a fun story about the Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II:

We were running a carbine class, and a friend of mine showed up with a brand new M&P15. He literally took it out of the wrapping at the range just before the class started.

At the same time, a couple of other students showed up with AR-15s that cost about three times as much as the M&P15 (not naming any names here. No need to put anyone on blast).

Both of those more expensive rifles broke during the class (broke bad. Needed a gunsmith to fix them). The M&P15 ran like a champ through the entire class—about 1000 rounds.

This is an anecdote. However, it’s been representative of my experience with a whole bunch of M&P15 rifles.

The trigger is a bit gritty. They could do with a heavier buffer, because the recoil is a little aggressive. I’d also replace the mil-spec furniture, if I had one of my own. Everything works, though.

My only hesitancy with this rifle is that it seems like Smith & Wesson may have recently changed their manufacturing a little bit. Within the last year or so, we’ve had a few of them in the shop because of gas system issues.

It’s been the gas block every time. That may be a coincidence, but it’s worth checking when you get your first shots with this gun.

On the other hand, these rifles sell really well, because they’re so affordable. Only a few of them have come back with an issue. It may have been a hiccup in manufacturing that S&W cleared up.

Overall, I have no problem recommending these rifles to anyone who’s blasting on a budget.

Upgradable rifle

10. Rise Armament Watchman LE

The Rise Armament Watchman LE is impressively affordable considering all the upgraded parts it comes with.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

5.56mm NATO / 223 Wylde

  • Barrel Length:

16.1″

  • Action:

Semi-automatic

  • Finish:

Black

Pros:

  • Rise Armament LE145 trigger is excellent.
  • Comes with ambidextrous controls.
  • Very lightweight.

Cons:

  • 416R stainless steel barrel has a slightly shorter lifespan than a 4150 CrMoV barrel.
  • Charging handle is not ambidextrous.
  • No horizontal mounting points on the handguard.
Check on Rainier Arms
Other Options

Rise Armament is primarily known for their triggers. However, the Rise Armament Watchman LE is an impressive rifle.

It comes with a Rise Armament LE145 Tactical Trigger right out of the box. It also comes with a couple other nice upgrades: an ambidextrous safety selector and fluted barrel (though the fluting is only in front of the gas block).

The charging handle is not ambidextrous. It just has a wide latch that makes it bearable for left-handers.

However, they did a pretty solid job of tuning this rifle out of the box. The casings consistently ejected to 3 o'clock, and it felt like the recoil was about as soft as it could be without doing anything crazy with the recoil system. Also, it’s surprisingly affordable for a gun that comes with a drop-in trigger and upgraded controls. Rise Armament may not have the clout that some other manufacturers have, but their gun shoots really well.

Classic Quality rifle

11. Colt AR-15A4 Patrol Rifle

The Colt AR-15A4 Patrol Rifle is perfect if you want classic looks and quality parts.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber:

223 Remington/5.56 NATO

  • Barrel Length:

20″

  • Finish:

Black

  • Weight:

7.7 lbs

Pros:

  • Rifle length gas system produces minimal recoil impulse.
  • A2 sights are adjustable for precise long-range shooting.
  • 20” barrel is ideal for long-range ballistics.

Cons:

  • Stock is not adjustable.
  • Front sight cannot be removed.
  • A2 pistol grip is not all that comfortable.
Check on Guns.com
Other Options

Colt is the original AR-15 manufacturer. And the Colt AR-15A4 Patrol Rifle is a cool rifle if you want a full, 20-inch AR-15. It’s not compact. But it’s got classic looks and Colt quality.

It’s not the most ergonomic rifle ever. The rifle stock and A2 grip are pretty old school. But the carry handle can be removed, so you can modernize the sighting system.

However, this is a relatively heavy rifle. And the rifle length recoil system makes for light recoil. Colt also makes nice mil-spec triggers. It’s still a mil-spec trigger. But the trigger press is manageable for long-range shooting.

The barrel is excellent for long range shooting, though. A 20-inch barrel drives a 5.56mm round quite far, and carries good velocities out to about the maximum range of the round.

It’s not the most space age rifle around. But it’s an affordable base platform that can be easily upgraded.

Quality AR-15 rifle

12. Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) Recce-14 MCMR

The Bravo Company Manufacturing Recce-14 MCMR is built with industry leading quality control and delivers workhorse performance.

Key Specs:

  • Caliber/Gauge:

5.56x45mm NATO

  • Barrel Length:

14-1/2″

  • Overall Length:

31-1/2″ (Collapsed), 34-1/2″ (Extended)

  • Material:

7075 T6 Aluminum

  • Weight:

6 lbs

Pros:

  • Industry leading quality control.
  • Handguard mounting system is incredibly durable.
  • BCM muzzle device is an excellent flash hider and compensator combo.

Cons:

  • No sights included
  • Muzzle device is pinned and welded to barrel
  • Finish on charging handle wears pretty quickly
Check on Brownells
Check on Palmetto

We’ve already talked about BCM a bit. And the BCM Recce-14 MCMR is comparable to the Daniel Defense DDM4V7 rifles, in terms of build quality.

As a direct comparison, I actually prefer the Recce-14, despite my rather outstanding experience with Daniel Defense rifles.

The main reason is the handguard. Bravo Company handguards are one of my favorites. They mount incredibly securely. And they have great ergonomics.

Also, the BCM PNT trigger feels a little smoother out of the box. Not that I’m much of a stickler for triggers. But I know some people are. And the polished nickel finish on the PNT feels a little better than the more mil-spec finish on the DDM4V7 trigger.

And, let’s be honest, the Recce-14 is less expensive than the DDM4V7. That probably counts for more to me than it should.

I will admit that the Recce-14 has a slightly snappier recoil impulse than the DDM4V7. I suspect that BCM might err on the side of having more gas to drive the bolt for reliability. But the Recce-14 rifle is one that definitely benefits from a heavier buffer.

In the end, though, BCM has a reputation for a reason. And the Recce-14 is just about at the pinnacle of value. The build quality and ergonomics are hard to beat without spending more money.

What about building an AR-15?

Building an AR-15 is a great way to get a rifle that’s built exactly the way you want it. And, if you’re careful, you can save yourself some money by building your own AR-15.

But that’s a story for another day. Check out our AR-15 builders guide for the full rundown on how to build your own AR-15.

The Final Shot

Daniel Defense DDM4V7

Key Specs:

  • Cartridge:

5.56 mm NATO

  • Finish:

Matte Black

  • Muzzle:

Flash Suppressor

  • Stock Material:

Polymer

  • Weight:

6.2 lbs

Pros:

  • Incredibly durable cold hammer forged barrel.
  • Robust handguard mounting system.
  • Super comfortable furniture

Cons:

  • Might be too expensive for some budgets.
  • Totally mil-spec trigger.
  • Rubber overmolding on furniture can eventually delaminate.
Check on Guns.com
Check on BassPro

The AR-15 can be a do-it-all rifle, without a doubt. It’s easy to make modifications and tweak your AR-15 to suit your needs, if the base configuration doesn’t quite get it done.

The key is starting with a solid rifle that will give you a reliable foundation for building the AR-15 of your dreams.

If you get one of the rifles we’ve reviewed, you’ll be happy.

Read our other related articles here:

AR 15 Scopes (between $100-300)

AR 15 Pistols

Make Your Own Rifle (AR-15 Build Kits)

AR-15 Pistol and Rifle Comparison Review

How to Shoot with an AR-15

Most Common Rifle Calibers (Read Article)

Are Shotguns Better than Rifles?

A Loon Into Every Types of Rifle

Rifles 101: Bore Sighting

Custom Spray Painting Your Rifle

Guide to Rebluing You Rifle

Tools You Need on a Cleaning Kit

Proper Cleaning and Maintenance of AR-15

Carbines vs Rifles Explained (See Full Article)

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