Key point: Let the debate begin.
After you read this guide, you will have a pretty good idea how the AR-15 works and how different configurations make a big difference. This should help you make an informed decision on which AR-15 to purchase for your intended purpose.
Below, you will find our recommendations. To note, we spent days test firing these AR-15s and doing research to come up with this list.
Here’s Gun News Daily’s list of top ten AR-15 rifles across all price points:
Aero Precision: AC-15M
Armalite: M-15 A4
Bravo Company: Mod 0, Mod 2, Recce 14/16
Daniel Defense: DDM4 V3, DDM3 VV5, DDMA1
Rock River Arms: LAR-15 Entry Tactical
Sig Sauer: M400
Smith & Wesson: M & P MOE
Windham Weaponry: R16M4FTT
WHY THE AR-15?
There are many reasons why the AR-15 has remained the most popular of all civilian rifles. Here is a list of the top five reasons why I think they are so popular:
THEY ARE USED BY THE U.S. MILITARY
Technically, this isn’t 100% accurate. The US military uses the M4 whereas civilians are legally allowed to only use the semi-auto AR-15. This differs from the automatic/select fire capabilities of the military variety.
In a nutshell, semi-auto means with each pull of the gun’s trigger, only a single round is fired.
This makes the AR-15 significantly slower to shoot compared to the military version of the rifle, the M4, which fires has a 3-shot burst option (three rounds are fired with a single pull of the trigger) and a full auto option (the gun will empty the entire mag if the user doesn’t let go of the trigger).
Personally, I prefer firing any gun in semi-auto. When doing target practice, I get to focus on each shot and don’t end up wasting bullets.
In real-life home defense scenarios where most of us only have to deal with one or two people, the ballistic performance of the 5.56×45mm caliber should be plenty powerful — a single shot should be enough to repel, maim or even kill a bad guy if needed.
One of the best things about the AR-15 is that it can be tailored to suit aesthetic taste and home/personal defense needs. It is customizable for any purpose and has readily swappable parts, aka “furniture.”
You can pick up practically any gun-related magazine and you will see ad after ad of aftermarket AR-15 accessories and parts.
To really put this into perspective, Brownell’s has a catalog of AR-15 parts that rivals the Yellow Pages in size, and Brownell’s is just one of many. That’s how readily available AR-15 aftermarket parts and accessories are.
The AR-15 as a shooting platform has relatively more manageable recoil compared to other rifle platforms, particularly so when chambered in its intended 5.56x45mm round. It is also offers relatively better ergonomics than other popular rifles, such as the venerable AK-47.
It is a precision-built tool specially designed for accuracy with some models tricked out with easy-grip hand guards, scope mounts and more. This is why many rifle purists and even hunters swear by the AR-15.
And this brings us to number four our my list of reasons why the AR-15 is incredibly popular.
The AR-15 is primarily comprised of two segments—the lower receiver and the upper receiver, each of which can be easily swapped out in as fast as a few seconds, provided the user has put enough time to practice field stripping and reassembly.
I’ve seen a few people do it real fast even when blindfolded.
This modularity makes the AR-15 stand out as a weapon platform: it’s easy to clean, easy to maintain, easy to field strip and easy to reassemble.
This also makes it versatile because in a pinch, with the right parts and accessories, it can be configured as a DMR (Designated Marksman’s Rifle) high-precision rifle, a hunting rifle (using bigger caliber barrels and ammo) or by default, as a CQB (Close Quarters Combat) carbine by simply switching out the upper receivers and barrels.
What’s more, the upper receiver and barrel can be swapped out for a ton of different calibers like the significantly weak but plentiful .22LR or the monstrosity that is the .50 Beowulf.
If you’ve never heard of the .50 Beowulf, it’s essentially a 50-caliber round that has the same ballistic performance as that of the most powerful production revolver caliber, the .500 S&W Magnum, designed primarily for big game hunting.
Only difference between the two is firing the .50 Beowulf in a rifle platform is significantly more manageable than firing the .500 S&W Magnum in the wrist-breaking S&W 500 X-frame revolver — that, and you get more rounds in the mag with the AR-15 compared to only five shots in the X-frame revolver’s cylinder.
As mentioned earlier, there is no end to the aftermarket products with which the AR-15 can be customized to suit anyone’s specific preferences and needs. The sky’s the limit when personalizing the look, feel and performance of your rifle, provided you have the money to burn.
People make fun of some AR-15 enthusiasts who like to pimp their gun, overly customizing it to impractical tacticool levels, but I say to each his own. It’s your hard-earned dollar, don’t let anyone tell you how you should be spending it.
If someone tells you that you can’t have something, you end up wanting it that much more.
That was the case with the AR-15 back when then-POTUS Bill Clinton signed into Office the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban.
In time, Clinton would come to realize that his ban did nothing to deter gun-related crimes nor did the ban successfully halt production on AR rifles. But it did cause AR sales to rise and, also, resulted in manufacturers making innovative modifications to the AR model to strengthen its materials.
Fast forward to the present, the demand resulting from the Clinton ban didn’t die. In fact it’s gotten even stronger — proof being every day there seems to be a new firearms manufacturing company selling their version of the AR-15.
And since more and more of them are being made available, pricing is never going to be an issue
THE ORIGINS OF THE AR-15
The first AR-15 was manufactured in 1958 by Eugene Stoner for ArmaLite (which is why it’s a no-brainer that ArmaLite should land on this list). It was a lightweight 5.56x45mm variation on the 7.62x51mm AR-10.
The lighter bullets made it so that infantrymen could carry more rounds with ease.
Most people associate the AR-15 with the Colt name because Armalite sold the rights to Colt in 1959. But think about the name AR-15 — what does the AR stand for?
If no one ever told you, the AR is short for Armalite (not “Assault Rifle” as so many folks in the media would lead you to believe.)
Over time, Colt tweaked the design and came out with the M16, a select fire (auto) design with a twenty-inch barrel.
In the 90’s, the M4 was introduced featuring a 14.5-in barrel and a carbine gas system. Carbine is a word that basically serves as a shorthand for “shorter barrel.”
The AR-15 is the civilian semi-auto version of the fully-automatic M4. To reiterate what was said earlier about semi-autos, one pull of the trigger equals one shot.
Since Colt owns the rights to the AR-15 name most manufacturers use slight variations on the name such as ARX, A4 or, more cleverly, “PredatAR.”
Now, to answer a pressing question:
AR-15: TO BUILD OR BUY?
For those of you who are purchasing your first ever AR-15, I would highly advise you buy a complete rifle from a trusted manufacturer. In the very least, you should buy a total upper and customize your own lower.
This will prevent a lot of inconveniences because you will have a full warranty on your rifle. Also, when you’re just getting started, you might not know exactly what you want or need so it’s best to go with a standard configuration.
Factory-grade rifles are generally pretty affordable which means that you won’t have to spend much more than you would if you were building your own. Besides, beginners aren’t exactly adept at assembling their own firearm so this takes the headache out of the whole process.
Another factor here is resale value. As I learned the hard way when I posted an ad in the past, self-built rifles are practically worth nothing when compared to branded pre-built firearms.
On the flip side, many people enjoy the sense of pride they get from building their own. Designing your very own “Frankengun” can be a satisfying and fun experience, but I recommend getting your hands on a standard AR before attempting to go the DIY route.
I think you’ll have an easier time building one after you’ve spent some time with a factory gun.
For those who have graduated from the factory-built AR-15 and want to build your own AR-15 lower receiver, there are several resources out there that will walk you through the process.