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The AR 15 is one of the world’s most well known and popular rifles. It’s one of the most flexible, adaptable, and customizable platforms in the world. There are AR 15 variants for nearly every application. With the right configuration and training, an AR 15 is ideal for:
- Competition shooting
- Tactical shooting
- Home defense
- Recreational sport shooting
However, it’s crucial that you have the right AR 15 for the job. The wrong setup can cause a lot of frustration or saddle you with a tactical disadvantage. Keep reading to learn how to make sure you’ve got the right AR 15 for your shooting context.
The Top AR-15 Rifles on the Market Today
Best AR-15 Reviews Off The Shelf (Factory Built Brands)
1. Daniel Defense DDM4V11 AR-15 Rifle
Top Choice Under $2000
When it comes to direct impingement rifles, Daniel Defense is considered to be the best AR 15 on the market. A Daniel Defense AR 15 is not a cheap gun, but your investment is backed by industry leading:
- Build quality
- Quality control
The Daniel Defense DDM4V11 is one of the most precisely constructed rifles on the market and is versatile enough to serve most shooters incredibly well.
The DDM4V11 has the best middle-of-the-road specifications that make it ideal for both short-range tactical shooters, and hunters and competition shooters need more long-range precision.
The barrel is 16 inches and uses a 1 in 7 twist, which is good for shooting out to about 500 yards with heavy ammunition, but short enough to handle well in tight CQB situations. Daniel Defense also includes Soft Touch Overmolding on the pistol grip and buttstock to make the rifle comfortable enough for extended hours of fast paces or fixed position shooting.
The DDM4V11 comes with a chrome lined bolt carrier and polished feed ramps for exceptional reliability with even cheap steel-case ammunition. The lower receiver comes equipped with an ambidextrous safety selector (no ambidextrous magazine release or bolt release), and a flared magazine well for faster reloads.
The entire rifle is finished with mil-spec Cerakote for long-term durability and corrosion resistance. Daniel Defense built this rifle with the durability and quality that make it the sort of AR 15 that will last the rest of your life, which make it an excellent choice for shooters who want to buy a single AR 15 that will meet their sporting needs for decades.
Daniel Defense doesn’t include any iron sights or optics with the rifle, but the entire length of the upper receiver has Picatinny railing for mounting sights or optics in any position. The DDM4V11 is only available with a 16-inch barrel, so this rifle is perfect for shooters who focus mainly on short-range tactical shooting, or medium range hunting or competition shooting.
Long range shooters and hunters may want to check out Daniel Defense’s lineup featuring 18-inch barrels for better long-range performance.
Read more on our choice of the highest-rated AR-15 scopes here.
2. Bravo Company Manufacturing RECCE 16 Carbine AR 15 Rifle
Top Choice Under $1500 (for Competitions)
Bravo Company Manufacturing is one of the best AR 15 manufacturers in the industry who takes a utilitarian approach to deliver high-quality rifles at reasonable prices. The RECCE 16 Carbine eats up most of its cost in quality materials and manufacturing techniques, with only a few creature comforts.
The RECCE 16 Carbine is another rifle that hits the middle-of-the-road specifications point with a 16-inch barrel, and a 1 in 7 twists. This is a great stat line for shooters looking to do short range tactical work, while still being able to engage to about 500 yards. However, Bravo Company added a few upgrades to supplement this standard specification combo.
The RECCE 16 comes with a suite of improvements that make this gun ideal for tactical professionals or shooters looking to compete in 3-gun or action rifle competitions.
The furniture of the rifle is designed for fast shouldering and front sight acquisition and has multiple attachment points for one, two, or three-point slings. This is perfect for shooters who want to run their gun with body armor or kit on.
Bravo Company also uses a factory polished trigger for a consistent trigger press. The upgraded trigger combined with the flared trigger guard make this rifle easy to operate with gloves on. If you’re a tactical professional or often shoot in cold weather and need to wear gloves while shooting, you’ll find the RECCE 16 easy to handle.
The RECCE 16 Carbine also comes with an integrated compensator, for flatter and more controllable rapid fire shots.
Bravo Company didn’t put any ambidextrous controls on the RECCE 16, but the charging handle does have an extended flange, which does help left-handers run the gun a little easier. Also, the RECCE 16 doesn’t come with any sights, but there’s a lot of real estate along the top of the rifle for mounting sights and optics.
All the furniture (buttstock, pistol grip) is molded plastic, with no rubberized molding, which some may find less comfortable. However, this utilitarian approach does deliver a great rifle for tactical professionals and competition shooters that’s capable of winning competitions and gunfights right out of the box.
3. Bushmaster XM-15 Standard Heavy A3 Carbine
Top Choice Under $1000
Bushmaster has been in the AR 15 game for a long time, and they build quality rifles, even if they’re not flashy.
The XM-15 Standard Heavy A3 Carbine is a pretty plain AR 15, but with some enhancements over a military rifle in terms of manufacturing quality.
The XM-15 uses a 16-inch barrel, with the military standard 1 in 7 twists.
Unlike the more expensive rifles on this list, though, Bushmaster doesn’t chemically treat the XM-15 barrel.
The barrel is hammer forged and chrome lined, making it a more quality piece than you’d find on a standard military contract rifle.
The XM-15 is durable, and a chrome lined barrel is perfectly suited to short-range tactical shooting but isn’t designed for long range precision.
The internals of the Bushmaster are ripped straight from the M16 and M4 models, with an M16 bolt carrier, and M4 feed ramps. Bushmaster rifles are known for reliability, but the military style bolt carrier group and feed ramps aren’t known for great performance with steel-cased ammunition. So, the XM-15 is well suited for shooters who use primarily brass-cased rounds.
The front sight is fixed, but the carry handle and rear sight are removable via a rail mount. The combination of a fixed front sight and a removable rear sight make the XM-15 ideal for shooters who want an AR 15 red dot sight to co-witness with their front iron sight. However, the fixed front sight is not ideal for use with scopes or magnified optics.
Additionally, the furniture on the XM-15 is standard M16 and M4 fare as well, with a basic 6-position adjustable stock, and a standard M16/M4 pistol grip and handguards. The standard furniture, combined with the iron sights make the Bushmaster a great starter rifle. It’s a solid, affordable platform for new and experienced AR 15 owners who want to get a complete rifle and add upgrades later on to improve the specialized performance of their rifle.
4. Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II AR-15
Top Choice Under $800
Smith & Wesson has been making rifles and pistols for military and police agencies for a long time. Their AR-15 rifles are designed to meet agency requirements at a minimum cost. So, the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II is a good blend of quality and affordability.
The M&P 15 uses a standard civilian 16 inch barrel. However, the twist rate is 1 in 9, which makes the M&P 15 better suited to lighter ammunition. The barrel is coated inside and out with Smith & Wesson’s Armornite finish, which is more durable than a chrome finish.
Additionally, the barrel is a light profile. This reduces the overall weight. But, the lighter barrel heats up faster during rapid fire shooting.
The M&P 15 is most ideal for fast moving, tactical situations. It comes with a removable flip-up rear sight, which can be left in place while using a red dot or other optic, while retaining the reliability of iron sights. There’s also a threaded barrel for attaching a suppressor or other muzzle devices.
Where the M&P shines is in the weight. The light barrel profile, the Magpul MOE Handguard, and minimal furniture make for a light and easy-to-handle rifle. If you’re shooter or tactical professional who needs to carry his or her rifle for long periods of time, the M&P 15 will make you more comfortable.
The M&P is a good starter rifle for shooters looking to get into 3-gun or action carbine competitions, or any AR 15 owner who uses their rifle for sport shooting.
5. Radical Firearms RF 16
Top Choice Under $600-700
Radical Firearms have occupied the niche of budget AR 15 rifles for a while now. Price is their primary selling point, but a great many shooters report solid performance from these value-priced rifles.
The Radical Firearms RF 16 is a great combination of quality and budget friendliness.
The barrel is the civilian standard 16 inches. It comes with a 1 in 7 twist rate for better performance with heavier ammunition, and a melonite coating for more durability.
This setup performs well in most contexts, be it hunting, competition, or tactical shooting.
Radical Firearms also applied their melonite coating to the bolt carrier group to improve the reliability and longevity of the rifle. The lower receiver is built entirely with a mil-spec parts kit, but models are available with pistol grip and stock upgrades pre-installed.
The RF 16 comes with an M-LOK rail system that’s impressive for the price and will accept forend attachments in almost any position, which provides excellent customizability. The RF 16 doesn’t come with any optics or sights, but the full-length rail system is prepared to accept optics.
For a budget tactical, competition, or hunting rifle, the RF 16 is quite capable and boasts a lot of quality at this price point.
6. LWRC Enhanced Individual Carbine (IC) AR 15
Top Gas Piston AR 15
LWRC arguably makes the best gas piston system on the market. Their rifles run cleaner and more reliably than any direct impingement rifle. The LWRC IC-SPR is the most recent iteration of their extremely popular M6 line of rifles.
Something that immediately stands out on the LWRC rifle is the barrel. The barrel is 14 inches, with a 1 in 7 twist. However, the IC barrel is fluted for faster cooling during strings of fire, and features NiCorr surface conversion which provides superior durability for a barrel that will last for 20,000 rounds, according to LWRC.
Another great aspect of the IC is the gas piston system. LWRC designed their system to vent gases near the front sight, away from the shooter. This prevents gas from being blown back into the bolt carrier group for extremely clean operation and superior reliability.
In addition to the clean-running gas piston system, LWRC also uses a nickel-boron coating on the bolt carrier group for smoother, more reliable operation. The IC will reliably run any kind of ammunition.
The forend is completely customizable, with rail sections that can be added anywhere the shooter needs them. For more comfort, the pistol grip is rubberized, and the adjustable stock is angled for a better cheek weld. The IC is incredibly comfortable to operate in both tactical run-and-gun situations, and long range fixed position shooting.
Left-handed shooters will also find this rifle comfortable, since it comes standard with a completely ambidextrous lower receiver, for easy manipulation of all the controls without taking your weak hand off the gun.
The LWRC IC is at the head of the game when it comes to the next generation of AR 15 rifles. The gas system has proven to be the most reliable and durable on the market, and requires very little cleaning for proper function. Any shooter looking for the most reliable AR 15 they can get their hands on ought to check out the LWRC IC.
7. Colt M4 Carbine
Top Classic Mil-Spec AR 15
Colt manufactures the original M4 and M16 and had the contract for military rifles for decades. The Colt M4 Carbine is the closest you can get to the actual rifle that’s issued and used by the U.S. military.
To make the rifle legal for civilians, the barrel is 16 inches. The twist is the same 1 in 7 twist that Colt used on the military models.
The barrel is chrome lined and capped with a compensator, which is good for rapid fire, even though the civilian model has no burst-fire option.
All the internals—the bolt carrier, the trigger, the bolt—are all mil-spec and built to the same standards specified in the military contract.
This system is reliable as long as it gets plenty of lube and doesn’t have to shoot too much steel-cased ammunition.
The mil-spec trigger is good enough for both long range and tactical shooting applications. However, the quality control on mil-spec triggers is often inconsistent. Some mil-spec triggers are very smooth and feel great for slow, fixed-position shooting. However, some mil-spec triggers feel gritty and are annoying for long range shooters. Hunters and competition shooters may find that the trigger is something they want to upgrade immediately.
The rail and fixed front sight are fine for red dot sights and holographic sights but are not suitable for higher magnification scopes.
Overall, the Colt M4 Carbine is a solid rifle that works well if it’s properly maintained. For extensive customization, the handguard may need to be changed out, and long-range shooters may find the trigger to be inadequate.
8. Ruger AR-556 MPR
Top Budget AR 15 for Home Defense
The Ruger AR-556 MPR is designed specifically to address every need of the home defense shooter, including budget. Quite simply, this rifle has everything you need in a home defense rifle, and none of the stuff you don’t need. This makes it a functional, but still affordable, home defense rifle.
First, it’s built around an 18 inch barrel, to ensure that you can own this rifle without violating any short-barreled rifle laws. Additionally, the barrel is short enough that it handles well inside a house, without compromising accuracy or muzzle velocity for defensive ammunition.
Also, the barrel is built with a 1 in 8 twist rate, for better ballistics with lightweight defensive bullets.
This model comes with no sights. But, there’s a full-length picatinny rail for mounting any sighting system you want. The idea here is that most home-defense shooters will use a red dot or holographic sight. So, Ruger skipped the sights to add more durability and performance to the rest of the rifle.
The pistol grip and stock are Magpul MOE equipment. This is a huge upgrade over a standard mil-spec furniture package. Both the stock and the pistol grip are simple to use and extremely comfortable.
Lastly, the forend is a full-length free float handguard with M-LOK attachments. This makes it easy to mount a light in any position you need, which is ideal for a home defense gun.
This isn’t the cheapest AR-15 out there. But, it has upgrades in all the right areas that make it an excellent value for any home defense shooter.
9. Wilson Combat SBR Tactical
Top Short Barrel
Short-barreled rifles are not legal in every state, and also have federal compliance requirements.
Check local and federal laws before purchasing a short barreled rifle.
For CQB handling, an SBR is the way to go.
They’re easier to maneuver around inside a house, and they’re lighter than a standard length rifle.
However, this does come at the expense of long-range performance.
Additionally, the shorter barrel means that the muzzle blast and flash will be louder and brighter than with a longer barrel.
But, if you’re looking for outstanding short-range tactical performance, the Wilson Combat SBR Tactical is an excellent option. Wilson Combat is known for competition grade firearms, and the SBR Tactical is right in line with this reputation.
The SBR Tactical features an 11.3 inch, match grade barrel with a 1 in 7 twist, and a muzzle brake for rapid-fire recoil management. The barrel is threaded if you prefer to use a suppressor.
The internals are all NP3 coated for supreme reliability. The trigger is a Wilson Combat TTU (Tactical Trigger Unit) specifically designed for more control in rapid fire, tactical shooting contexts.
All the furniture is ergonomically designed by Wilson Combat for better tactical handling and comfort. The forend and adjustable stock have several attachment points for one, two, or three-point slings so that the rifle can be carried comfortably with or without body armor or a chest rig.
The SBR Tactical comes with iron sights and has a rail on top for optics.
For serious 3-gun or action carbine competitors or tactical professionals, the Wilson Combat SBR tactical is absolutely some of the best bang for your buck.
10. Noveske Gen III N4 SPR
Top Choice for Long Range Shooting
The Noveske Gen III N4 SPR is built to be an amazing long-range precision rifle right out of the box.
This model is built around an 18 inch barrel. It’s a slightly longer rifle. But, the additional barrel length helps you push your rounds further. However, it’s not so long that it’s difficult to handle in tight spaces, if you need to move.
The barrel is also constructed from stainless steel for superior rigidity and organic accuracy.
The upper and lower receiver are coated in Noveske’s Armor Black Cerakote ceramic finish. This finish offers excellent corrosion and wear resistance. And, it’s matte black to reduce any reflections or glare that might give away your position.
This model is finished with Magpul furniture: Magpul PRS six-position stock and Magpul MIAD pistol grip. The stock has storage tubes that also function as cheek rests to give you a more consistent cheek weld and sight picture. And, the pistol grip is customizable, so you can adjust it for the perfect shooting grip.
The last bit is the Magpul MBUS sights. Both sights fold down to stay out of the way of whatever optic you use. But, they’re fully functional battle sights, should you need to use them.
All in all, this rifle delivers every feature you need to get those long range hits with your AR-15. It’s not the most affordable rifle on the market. But, it’s ready for precision shooting right out of the box.
The perfect AR 15 for you will vary depending on your situation, but most shooters will be able to find a quality AR 15 that fits their needs within the $1000-1500 range. At this price point, there are a lot of options for specialized rifles, and plenty of configurations that will meet the demands of a vast majority of shooters.
Shooters looking for a rifle that’s tailored to their shooting style and body type should look into building a rifle or buying an AR 15 build kit to get a custom AR 15.
Top AR 15 FOR THE MONEY
BRAVO COMPANY MANUFACTURING RECCE 16
The Bravo Company Manufacturing RECCE 16 is excellent value, period. The build quality is excellent, and for $1500, it will serve the needs of almost every shooter right out of the box. Additionally, Bravo Company Manufacturing offers plenty of upgrades if you want to add more specialized functionality to your rifle.
A Brief History
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.
Cold redesigned the rifles slightly for mass production. Eventually, Cold rebranded the AR 15 the M16, which was eventually completely adopted by the U.S. military in 1964.
The AR 15 has undergone a lot of evolution, and today stands as the most popular tactical and sporting rifle in the United States. The customizable modular design makes the AR 15 like Legos for adults.
Should I Build or Buy?
There are advantages to both methods of getting your perfect AR 15, but what most people end up asking when they’re trying to make this decision for the first time is:
“Is it cheaper to build an AR 15 or buy one?”
Of course, all else being equal, it’s going to come down to cost. When it comes to how much it costs to build an AR vs how much it costs to buy one, the difference is minimal.
If you want a minimal setup, you can build an inexpensive AR 15. If you want a boutique rifle with all the bells and whistles, it can get expensive very fast.
Pros and Cons of Building vs Buying
One of the benefits of buying an AR 15, is that the whole rifle comes under warranty.
If it doesn’t work, you can get it fixed or replaced for minimal or no cost.
Building an AR 15 is a project. Buying an AR 15 is much simpler. They’re available in most gun stores and sporting goods stores.
In many states, once you pass the background check, you can take the gun home the same day.
It can be more expensive
Buying isn’t ALWAYS more expensive. However, there are some price tiers that seem to be pretty common:
Do you see the complication here?
You’re either going to get a price point rifle, a mid range model, or a high end blaster.
Not all of these configurations work for everyone. So when you buy a complete rifle, you may end up paying a bit more to get some features you want, but also paying for features that you don’t.
On the other end, you go one size down, and get a few things that you might need to upgrade eventually, but pay a little less upfront.
For many, this isn’t an issue. Just know that it can sometimes be tricky to get exactly what you want when you buy a complete rifle.
Building an AR 15 can be less expensive
Mostly this comes down to being able to manage the cost of every single part. You can get spendy on certain parts, and save on others.
So it offers a lot of small opportunities to cut down on overall costs. Additionally, you save money by assembling it yourself.
You get an AR 15 that’s EXACTLY the way you want
The main allure of building an AR 15 is that you get it the way you want it, right down to how the pins were seated.
It’s also rather satisfying to go out and shoot a gun that you built yourself.
No comprehensive warranty
Even though manufacturers usually warranty their parts, if you put your AR 15 together and it doesn’t work, you’re on your own.
Manufacturers do not guarantee that their parts will work with parts from any other manufacturer, and it will be your responsibility to prove a workmanship problem with a specific part if you think it’s causing your rifle to malfunction.
This is uncommon, but it does happen sometimes, and it’s a bummer. You order one part from one manufacturer, and one part from another, and they don’t work together. Some companies will accept a return in this case. If not, you’re out of luck.
A good way to avoid this is to buy groups of parts from the same manufacturer. Buy all your lower receiver parts from one company, and your bolt and upper receiver from the same manufacturer, and so on.
AR 15 Builder’s (and Buyer’s) Guide:
Eventually Everyone Becomes a Builder
One great strength of the AR 15 platform is the customizability. Every piece of the AR 15 can be upgraded or modified. So, even if you buy a complete AR 15, chances are you’re going to want to start tinkering eventually.
This guide will help you build your perfect AR 15, or show you how to customize the rifle you purchased.
Start here: AR 15 Lower Receiver
If I’m building an AR 15, I like to start with the lower. The lower receiver is the actual “gun” of the AR 15. When you buy a complete AR 15, the lower receiver is the only serialized and federally controlled part.
If you’re a left-handed shooter, there are left-handed lower receivers available, which move all the controls on the rifle to the other side of the rifle, for better manipulations by left-handed shooters. A left-handed lower receiver eliminates the need for ambidextrous controls, which I’ll talk about later on.
Whether you need a left or right-handed lower, you can buy an 80% lower receiver, which is essentially a block of aluminum shaped exactly like an AR 15 lower receiver that you mill out for all the components yourself.
Whether you buy a complete lower or build one, these are all the parts you’ll need:
Single stage vs Two stage triggers
Single stage triggers are very common on AR 15 rifles and come in a variety of designs for gunfighting, competition shooting, hunting, and anything else you can think of. Single stage triggers can be fine-tuned for half-pound pull weights, which is great for competition shooters.
Two-stage triggers have slack that must be taken up before the trigger sets to fire. If you release the trigger before firing, the trigger will reset, and the slack will need to be taken up again when you’re set to fire. Quality two stage triggers are similar to the trigger of a 1911 pistol.
Two-stage triggers can be tuned for very low pull weights as well, and many people prefer them for tactical shooting, competitions, and hunting.
Whether you prefer a single or two stage trigger mostly comes down to feel. If you can, try both, and see which one feels better to you. Many experienced 1911 shooters prefer two-stage triggers because the trigger feel is similar to the 1911.
No matter what trigger you choose, be sure to set the pull weight to something that’s appropriate for your context. 3-gun and tactical competition shooters should consider a slightly heavier pull weight, in the area of 4 pounds, for safer run-and-gun operation. Hunters and long-range competition shooters can opt for a lighter trigger for more stable shooting from fixed positions.
Standard mil-spec triggers
Mil-spec triggers are cheap and effective. However, they generally have a rather heavy pull weight (around 8 pounds) and don’t have a smooth feel to them. Experienced shooters often refer to these triggers as “gritty.”
Mil-spec triggers work well-enough for tactical and 3-gun competition shooting, and sound shooters won’t have a problem with medium and long-range shooting. A mil-spec trigger will be easy on your budget, but you may end up paying more in the long run when you finally get annoyed and buy an upgraded trigger.
There are a ton of options from companies like Alexander Arms, ALG Defense, and American Trigger. Many of these options are designed to feel like a mil-spec trigger with improved performance, which are excellent for tactical shooting and 3-gun competitions. Others are mean to be most optimal for long-range competition shooting and hunting and are much lighter than a mil-spec trigger.
Buffer Tube Assembly
The rear end of the commercial buffer tube is slightly slanted, and the tube is 1.168 inches in diameter.
The rear end of the mil-spec buffer tube is flat, and the tube has a slightly smaller 1.148-inch diameter. Despite the smaller diameter, mil-spec buffer tubes are more durable. Mil-spec buffer tubes are a bit more expensive, but the expense is minimal.
For building or buying, it’s better for your rifle to have a mil-spec buffer tube.
The main thing to look for when you buy an AR 15 stock is which buffer tube the stock is designed to fit. If you have a mil-spec buffer tube, you need a mil-spec stock and vise versa.
An adjustable AR 15 stock is the most versatile option when it comes to stocks. It makes your rifle more customizable, and more adaptable. With an adjustable stock, you can set the length of the buttstock so that it fits your arm length, and gives you a more comfortable shooting grip and better sight picture.
Additionally, the stock can be shortened for a more compact platform which is best for CQB and tactical shooting.
Fixed stocks, like the ones found on the standard M16 rifles, are heavier and not as versatile as adjustable stocks. However, they are good for long range competition shooters and hunters that shoot from a bench, prone or any other fixed position.
For decades, left-handers were marginalized in the shooting community by guns that were designed for right-handed shooters. Fortunately for us lefties, there are now two options when it comes to controls:
Standard controls are optimized for right-handed shooters, and have been standard on AR 15s since their inception. For most shooters, standard controls the best option, since most shooters are right-handed.
Experienced left-handed shooters may prefer standard controls if they’ve trained extensively with them since ambidextrous controls are manipulated differently, and so will require building new habits.
For new left-handed shooters, or even experienced shooters willing to adapt to new weapon manipulations, ambidextrous AR 15 controls are great. AR 15 ambidextrous safety selectors, magazine releases, and bolt releases are available individually, or as a complete AR 15 ambidextrous controls kit.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that ambidextrous controls add some bulk to the lower receiversince the receiver itself is machined for standard controls.
Which AR 15 pistol grip you choose is a matter of fit and comfort. Typically, standard mil-spec pistol grips are made of hard plastic and feature no finger grooves. Aftermarket pistol grips are available with rubberized coatings, finger grooves, and thumb notches.
The most important aspect of a pistol grip is to make sure that it fits your hand. If you cannot reach all the critical controls on your rifle (trigger, safety selector, magazine release) with your firing hand without breaking your grip on your rifle, the pistol grip doesn’t fit your hand. The second factor in choosing a pistol grip is comfort. If it fits your hand and it’s comfortable, it’s the one.
The Fun Stuff: AR 15 Upper Receiver
The upper receiver is where all the goodies are.
Most optics and attachments are attached to the upper receiver, and all the cool customization parts like the barrel and rail systems are part of the upper receiver as well.
Upper Receiver Body
There are a handful of options when it comes to receiver bodies, and the difference has to do with what’s actually molded into the upper receiver body itself.
These are your options:
Standard carry handle
The standard carry handle receiver has largely gone out of style, but many still like them. The carry handle style is what you see in Vietnam movies and has a rear sight aperture built into the carry handle.
A flat top AR 15 upper receiver replaces the carry handle with a rail system for attaching iron sights, optics, or even a removable carry handle. Anyone looking to put aftermarket sights, scopes, or optics on their AR 15 needs a flat top upper.
This is a fairly uncommon style, but some prefer it for more snag-free tactical performance. The smooth upper receiver body has no forward-assist or brass deflector. Left-handed shooters should not use smooth upper receivers, since there is no brass deflector, and empty shell casings will fly in your face.
A left-handed AR 15 upper receiver has the action moved to the opposite side of the rifle so that brass ejects away from the shooter, and the forward-assist is easier for a left-handed shooter to use.
The type of barrel you choose will depend largely on which type of shooting you do. AR 15 barrel length is the most important factor to consider when choosing a barrel since it affects how the weapon handles, and how well it shoots at longer ranges.
Shorter barrels give lower muzzle velocity and less accuracy at long ranges. However, a shorter barrel, and therefore a shorter rifle, is easier to handle CQB situations and during tactical maneuvers.
The most common AR 15 barrel length for civilians is 16 inches. However, 14.5 and 20 inches are also common. Depending on your state laws, shorter barrels may be illegal, and you should check your state regulations before purchasing a rifle or barrel.
AR 15 barrels are all made of steel. However, there are different types of steel, coatings, and surface treatment that affect the durability and performance of an AR 15 barrel.
15 barrels come in three variations:
- Stainless steel barrels. Stainless steel AR 15 barrels are the most corrosion resistant. They offer excellent accuracy and longevity, but are usually heavier and rather expensive.
- Chrome lined barrels. Chrome lined AR 15 barrels are corrosion resistant and have a long lifespan. However, they are less accuratebecause of microscopic inconsistencies in the barrel lining.
- Chemically treated barrels. Many manufacturers have proprietary chemical treatment processes such as Meloniting, Nicorr Surface Conversion, and salt bath nitride. These treatments are claimed to be more durable and more accurate than chrome lining.
Then, AR 15 barrels come in different profiles, or weights, each with different characteristics. Stainless steel, chrome lined, and chemically treated barrels can come in any barrel profile.
These are the standard barrel profiles:
Heavy barrel (Bull)
A heavy AR 15 barrel, or bull barrel, is the heaviest, and most accurate AR 15 barrel. These barrels are best for hunters or competition shooters who shoot at very long ranges from fixed positions. Heavy barrels are more heat resistant than lighter barrels.
Medium profile barrel(Mil-spec)
Medium, or mil-spec, AR 15 barrels are lighter than a heavy barrel, but less accurate. Medium barrels are a good combination of light weight and accuracy. Many medium profile barrels have cutouts for M203 grenade launcher attachments. These are great for people who want a versatile rifle for tactical shooting and long range accuracy.
Light profile barrel
Light AR 15 barrels prioritize weight savings over accuracy. They are the lightest barrel, and best for shooters who use their rifle for CQB and often shoot on the move. Light barrels heat up the fastest during rapid fire.
Barrel Twist Rate
The rate of twist in a rifle barrel refers to how far a bullet must travel down the barrel before the twist spins the bullet in one complete revolution. Rates of twist are expressed as a ratio. 1 in 12 means one full turn of the bullet in twelve inches of barrel length. As a general rule, faster twist rates are better for heavier bullets.
This is more of a guideline, though. A slower twist will shoot heavy rounds well enough for recreational shooting, and most short-range tactical applications. However, long-range shooters should look to match their twist rate to their bullet rate for the best accuracy.
The most common rates of twist for AR 15s are:
- 1 in 7. This twist performs best with bullets between 62 and 80 grains. 1 in 7 twist is best for long range hunters and competition shooters who use heavier rounds for long range stability.
- 1 in 8. This twist is a great all around twist rate that handles lighter 55-grain bullets well enough, and works well for 62 and 77-grain rounds as well. 1 in 8 twist is great for shooters who want all-around performance from their rifle, and don’t need specialized performance in any single context.
- 1 in 9. This twist is ideal for shooters who primarily shoot lighter ammunition in short range, tactical or competition contexts. 1 in 9 works best with 55-grain bullets, but is also suitable for 62-grain rounds.
For specialized, long-range performance, AR 15 barrel twist can be something to take seriously. But, most shooters should look for a barrel with 1 in 8 or 1 in 7 twist for the broadest range of performance.
AR 15 barrel devices are used to improve the performance of the rifle in certain contexts. Most barrels come equipped with threads for attaching barrel devices. However, some barrels may require pinning or welding to attach a device.
A barrel device is not required for an AR 15 to function properly, and many match grade rifles feature barrels with no device attached.
Flash hiders do exactly what the name implies. A flash hider minimizes the flash signature from the rifle for less visibility in low light conditions. These have no noticeable effect on the performance of the rifle.
An AR 15 compensator vents gas out the end of the barrel in an upward direction to help keep the rifle level during rapid or full automatic fire. Compensators are the most common barrel device since they give a small performance edge in rapid fire contexts, but have no drawback other than a bit of added weight.
An AR 15 muzzle brake channels gases in a direction that helps counter the recoil and rise of the rifle when fired. Muzzle brakes make the rifle more controllable for rapid fire, but make the muzzle blast much louder for other people nearby. If you often shoot at indoor ranges, you may want to consider a compensator or flash hider, unless you do a lot of competitive tactical shooting.
An AR 15 is a gas-powered rifle, which means gases exiting the barrel from firing a round power the action of the bolt. There are two types of gas systems:
- Direct impingement
- Gas piston.
A direct impingement AR 15 routes gas from the barrel back to the bolt carrier, and the gas directly pushes the bolt back. The downside of direct impingement rifles is that carbon is vented out the ejection port, which causes fouling on the bolt carrier group over time. Direct impingement is the original AR 15 gas system, and it’s reliable so long as you keep your rifle clean and lubricated.
The gas piston system was developed to create a more reliable, cleaner operating AR 15. Most gas piston rifles are sold complete, or as a gas piston upper that can be attached to any lower receiver. A gas piston system vents gas out the gas block at the front of the barrel, and does not cause any carbon fouling on the bolt carrier group. Some say that the high-impact nature of a gas piston system causes less accuracy, but most manufacturers use more rigid barrels to account for this. Gas piston rifles require far less cleaning than direct impingement rifles to remain reliable.
Gas System Length
Gas systems come in three lengths:
- Rifle length or dissipator
A longer gas system provides more force to drive the bolt carrier and helps prevent short stroking and malfunctions related to bolt carrier travel. Carbine is the shortest gas system, and rifle length gas systems are the longest. Most shooters will find that a carbine or mid-length gas system operates perfectly well in all contexts.
There are two main options when it comes to forends:
- Standard M16 or M4 handguards
- Rail systems
The standard handguards a mil-spec plastic, with a metal heat shield inside. There are options for mounting AR 15 accessories on a standard handguard, but it requires additional parts and is not convenient.
Rail systems are quickly becoming the new standard for AR 15 forends. A forend with a rail system adequately protects the shooter during rifle operation, and offers easy mounting of grips or other accessories. There are a several rail system options for AR 15 forends:
Any rail system will work. Just know which rail system you have so you can purchase accessories with the corresponding system.
AR 15 iron sights are by far the least expensive option, and are adequate for ranges out to five hundred meters, on a man-sized target. However, AR 15 optics and scopes offer faster target acquisition, better target visibility, and more precision. Although optics give better performance, many shooters keep backup iron sights on their rifles in case their optic breaks or fails.
Short-range tactical shooters will do well with an AR 15 red dot or holographic sight. Long range competitors should look into a quality scope.
Bolt Carrier Group
The bolt carrier group has all the pieces that make the rifle work:
- Firing pin
- Gas tube or lug
- Bolt carrier
Bolt carriers come in two variations:
Full-automatic bolt carrier groups are more durable and slightly heavier than semi-automatic bolt carrier groups. However, having a full-automatic bolt carrier does not make your AR 15 full-automatic. It’s just designed for the rigors of full-automatic fire.
In general, a full-automatic bolt carrier is best. Most quality manufacturers use full-automatic bolt carrier groups, and the slight increase in cost and weight is well worth the improved durability.
Bolt carriers can also come with a number of different coatings. As a general rule, bolt carrier groups that are silver are coated in a higher-performing coating such as nickel or chrome. They’re usually slightly more expensive, and add some reliability.
Although only shooting enthusiasts really need a chrome or nickel plated bolt carrier group, casual shooters will appreciate the increased longevity.
Almost all charging handles are made of aluminum, and some feature larger tangs or flanges for easier racking of the weapon. But these are the two most notable variations:
Only left-handed shooters need an ambidextrous charging handle. However, with a bit of training, left-handed shooters can operate an AR 15 just fine without an ambidextrous charging handle. Right-handed shooters may want an ambidextrous charging handle for offhand shooting, but it’s not required.