RFI: AR-15 Rifles

Before we go any further with this discussion, let me say unequivocally that I am not in the market for an AR-15 rifle [10,000 words of unnecessary explanation omitted].

However, many people are, these days, and let’s look at the situation from this perspective.  A couple days back I received this junk mail advertising missive from my old friends at CheaperThanDirt(dotcom):

Now, Readers, here’s my question:  if you were a newby assault rifle prospective purchaser and saw this ad, what are the questions one should ask before making one’s decision?  Here are my thoughts, to kick the discussion off.

Bushmaster is a recognized brand, Stag a little less so, and the top two are complete unknowns.  Do you go with the “brand leader” (at the apparent premium price), or get the cheapest knowing that you may have to do a little aftermarket improvement — or will that be the case regardless  of which brand you pick?  It’s one thing to want to arrive at this conclusion, so to speak:

…but it’s a different issue if you’ll need to buy a new barrel, different trigger assembly etc. just to get the thing to work in its most basic form.  Is this an issue with budget ARs, or has the situation resolved itself like that of the many budget 1911 pistols, where most are now acceptable out of the box?

I’ve never concerned myself with these questions as the AR-15 (especially in the poodleshooter 5.56mm NATO chambering) has never been a contender for my purchase decision — in fact, one of the primary reasons I’ve always chosen AK-47 rifles is that you hardly have to do anything with them to make them “more” functional.  My own SAR-1 only needed an Ultimak mount and red-dot sight, for example:

But I digress.

So, Loyal Readers:  what are your opinions on making that AR-15 purchase?  (Try to keep your responses to about 1,000 words… and eschew the temptation to make suggestions for alternatives.  Stick to AR-15s only.)

38 comments

  1. I carried an M16 for 4 years in a combat arms unit in Germany in the army in the 70’s and never had any of the problems with it that other people complain about.

    2 years ago I built an AR15 after doing the research and carefully choosing the parts. My initial thought was to spend about $600-800 but after 3 months to complete it, it had tallyed up to almost $2000 complete. All of the parts are better than average but you can only know that if you do some research. Early on I determined an “off the shelf” approach simply would not do for a custom made gun. The lower receiver came from Spikes tactical and the upper receivier, barrel and adjustable gas block, and buffer assembly came from Black Rain Tactical. The trigger came from Bullseye. All of the accessories came from a variety os places and the furniture is Magpul.

    I’ve put over 2,000 rds through this gun and only had 1 misfire which was because of a faulty magazine feed which was corrected by removing and stretching the spring. No more misfires after that. The scope is a Barska 1-6 variable. The gun itself is black and the furniture is dark earth and it lives in a Plano hard shell case. I’m glad to have the knowledge to build and repair this gun.

    If you can afford it and are quality oriented and know which end of the screwdriver to hold onto I advise building your own. You do have to purchase a few specific tools to accomplish this task. My next effort os to make an 80% lower. I’m also considering building another AR in 7.62.

  2. Getting back to your original question. Stay away from the platforms with the handle on top and the A4 style front sight as they will restrict any accessories and modifications you might want to make in the future.

    1. The fixed front sight doesn’t cause any issues with optics. I’ve used both red dots (M4 with M68 Aimpoint) and variable scopes with fixed front sights with not issues.

      The one thing it does complicate is swapping out handguards, if you have one kind and decide you want a free float tube of any sort. In that case, you have to remove the front sight to swap the handguard.

  3. I use the damn thing in exactly the same configuration that I had from Day One on Parris Island back in 2001. Iron sights and a 300 yard BZO. As long as the sucker feeds and holds consistent groups, who gives a shit whose name is stamped on the receiver.

    The rifle was designed to be used as part of a rifle squad, to achieve fire superiority and mobility while not overburdening the user with heavy ammo loads. If you try to shoehorn the platform into other roles, you’re doing it wrong.

    Simple is better.

    1. I went through PI in 67 and we qualified with the M14–loved that rifle. When I got to DaNang they issued me the M16 and never did like it. Not fond of the 5.56. Lost a friend during operation Auburn, and reports from survivors reported many malfunctions, so I always wondered if he had been one of the unlucky marines that were victims of the early M16 problems.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Auburn

      1. You always do best with what you learned on. That’s why I got a civvie AR. I know how to maintain it and how it behaves from my days with Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children.

        That’s why I don’t put any of that gay shit on my rifle. We didn’t have it in 2001.

  4. My initial sticker shock experience with an “optics ready” rifle is that basic flip up iron sights will set you back another $100 or so. So just to be able to aim and shoot requires more cash. That puts the three bargain basement rifles much closer to the Bushmaster.

    I already have one so not shopping anymore, but I get daily emails from grabagun.com advertising the ruger AR for $499, sights included. The S&W version can generally be found in the same price range. I have the S&W MP and it just works. Box after box of ammo, no jams, never cleaned. If I wanted another one, I’d pick from Ruger or Smith, depending on the sale of the day.

  5. The question is: what do you want to do with it? If all you want is a truck gun or a SHTF gun any outhouse AR or AK of reasonable quality will probably do. If you want to go beyond that, the AR can’t be beat.

    With the AR the sky’s the limit. It is the first truly do-it-all gun ever invented. I would go all in on mine: top tier lower, and spending as required for the upper. Match barrel and high end optics for the varminter, and maybe go as finances permit for the other uppers. About the only cautionary notes I can think of is to avoid some of the latest and greatest proprietary cartridge chamberings. I’ve been hearing some highly negative feedback about the 22 Nosler, the Valkyrie etc. The reloaders are still working on those and should have them sussed out for us soon. Johnny’s Reloading Bench on YouTube is on the case as we speak.

    Others like the 6.5 Grendel are truly interesting. That little number may just be as close to the do-it-all caliber as we can possibly get! With guns my experience seems to be that you can certainly get good shooting cheap guns. The price goes up for quality and precision. Cheap guns tend to use alloys that don’t offer the longer service life that quality steels do.

    1. I’m in the process of building one with the best components I can afford. I’m going for the 6.5 Grendel since after much research it seems to be the best all-round option that is very effective close up and yet can accurately reach out to 1,000 yards with good optics (said optics will be the last component I will buy and will take a year or two of saving up for it). Brownell’s new BRN-180 upper seems very interesting, an update to the AR-180 that’s piston-operated, has a side charging handle, and doesn’t require a buffer tube. However, it has a non-standard barrel mounting, so that kills it for me.

    2. There is probably not a whole lot of difference in the *functionality* of the four rifles. I suspect that they all have about the same level of manufacturing defects, and that other than that they would all shoot to about the same standard and require about the same level of maintenance and repair.

      The Bushmaster (as noted elsehwere, sort of) is the only one ready to shoot out of the box, but is also the only one that would be a PITA to mount an optic on.

      All of the other you would need to mount an optic on, or mount iron sights. This can be done for as little as 20 bucks (Amazon) if you just want something to tide you over.

      As to the AK, I have one, and all I’ve done to it was to replace the wood furniture with polymer and add an ultimak front rail and Aimpoint M2. It is reliable and head-shot at 100 yards accurate.

      But this is the US, not some contested 3rd world s*t hole where the communist block was dumping AKs by the millions. In a SHTF scenario you will find 10 good ARs for every AK, and half the AKs will be cheap-charlie crap. Well, ok, so will 1/3 the ARs, but the math still says “carry what you want, know how to use an AR.”

  6. A while back I read that there were only a couple of companies that made AR lowers – basically all the same castings and then marked with whatever the rifle manufacturer (assembler?) wanted. In the low to medium price point I think that ARs are pretty much generic. Throw the parts in a pile, stir them around, and the gun will work. I’ve built a couple of low price rifles on Anderson lowers and Delton upper kits and they’ve worked fine. I also did a PSA pistol kit with an Anderson lower. I found a good deal on the lowers and bought a half dozen of them and put myself on at least that many “lists”. I’ve gotten used to the black helicopters and they don’t even keep me awake at night these days.

    Back to the subject. I wouldn’t recommend that a newbie try to build his own rifle – at least not without a lot of advice and baby sitting. A lower or mid price rifle from a recognized manufacturer (not Leroy’s Bait, Beer, and Barbeque Joint out on FM 1099) should do the job. Given the generic almost appliance like nature of these guns, you’re buying to a price. In today’s market $500-600 buys a pretty decent rifle and in this tired old man’s opinion the fit, finish and features will be the same no matter what name is on the receiver.

    We used to say that “It’s not the cost but the upkeep”. Actually I heard that in reference to very high maintenance women back when I was a callow youth, but the principle applies to rifles as well. If you have to have the very latest Magpul stock made from Unobtanium and magic unicorn dust – only to replace it next week with the newer stock made from mil spec grade 2 Unobtanium (which is about to be banned in 6 states so you’d better buy a case of them and get on the lists too) – well then things can get expensive real fast. I married a lower maintenance lady over 40 years ago and she doesn’t get too upset when I throw a little money in the direction of Magpul but I don’t hang a thousand bucks of accessories on a five hundred dollar rifle. At my age I don’t have any fantasies of fighting off hordes of ISIS terrorists, or blue helmet UN troops, or the cast of the Walking Dead. For that work I’ll break out my real wood and steel Garand in the manly .30-06 caliber and I’ll see what those old Korean black tip AP rounds I found 30 years ago will do.

    This is what happens when you stir up cranky old men before breakfast!

  7. A buddy of mine is a competitive three-gun shooter, and he shoots a moderately-customized AR (in the “under $1500 including optics” range). Wins a lot, apparently. Won at least one competition with a bone-stock AR that cost under $800.

    We were at a gun show, and he pointed out the basic Smith and Wesson M&P 15 as being a perfectly good basic AR model for just about anyone. $549.

    I’m personally leaning toward an AR-10 .308 – bigger bang, still lightweight.

  8. My ARs are not the usual. They have been assembled over a 17 year period. Only the .308 was purchased as an assembled rifle, it was custom ordered from the factory & the only changes have been a 24″ barrel for longer range shooting. The two .223 / 5.56 are assembled from selected parts
    All three of my ARs have high grade triggers. A definite must IMHO. A JP, a Jard and a Geissele two stage. All of them have high grade barrels with headspaced bolts purchased together, A Criterion, a Shilen and a Krieger. All of them will easily shoot less than 1/2″ groups @ 100 yds with ammo loaded for them. (Sierra Match Kings & Berger bullets). All three have good quality optics suited for their intended use. All three are stone cold reliable & do not jam, FTE, FTF, etc.
    It is my opinion that building an AR is the most effective way to end up with a rifle well suited to YOUR needs. No need to buy a rifle then throw out half or more of its parts to end up with a suitable firearm.
    from the above, it is clear to see that the old saying that the sting of price is soon forgotten but the pain of poor quality stays on forever is doubly true with firearms.

    1. As someone who spent most of his life in CA, building an AR was a necessity after the passage of Roberti-Roos.
      Probably have a half dozen that I’ve built, all for different purposes, including an AR-10 for long-range. Have just one “factory built”:
      A Colt SP-1 with a fairly low 4-digit serial # (originally sold by Weatherby in South Gate CA) that I picked up in the “grey market”, even have the two OEM 20-rd mags. Shot it once at a private range too long ago to say without embarrassing myself. Now that I’ve relocated to Free America…..we’ll see.

  9. The primary split in price point between the basic ARs and the Spendy ARs, in in the degree to which they’re “Mil-Spec” compliant.

    Stuff on the high end, such as Bravo Company or Daniel Defense, assure one that each and every part, down to the tiniest roll-pin, are indeed compliant with U.S. Military specifications as to alloys, dimensions, heat-treatment, finish, and repeatable random testing of parts from the assembly line for wear and durability.

    So, while you or I might be perfectly well served by owning a Ruger or S&W AR rifle, our counterpart who might be employed by a private firm to go play in the Sandbox, WILL BE wise to drop the extra dimes on the proven, documented Mil-Spec specimen.

    Not a cheap insurance, but insurance, all the same.

    My precision AR is a “built” example, along the lines of those described above.

    I will however, purchase a Ruger, S&W or one similar to those you’ve pictured, for “household” duties. Such can be forfeit to a police evidence room, without the anguish and tears of losing a loved one to jurisprudence, ‘evermore.

    Oh, and Cheaper than Dirt, seriously? I thought they became Purveyor non Grata after the Great Obama Ammo Panic?

    Jim
    Sunk New Dawn
    Galveston, TX

    1. I think that Kim just used the CTD ad as an example of the price differences in ARs. CTD tried to clean up their act after the Sandy Hook days but we know that shooters have very long memories. I’ve never been impressed with their prices or service so I don’t spend a lot of money there. There are people who won’t buy Ruger products because of what Bill Ruger said about magazine capacity 40 years ago. The old man has been dead since 2002 but we still have to punish him and his company. Never forgive may be a great attitude for some, but I wouldn’t want to go to a church that operates on those principles.

  10. Not sure I’d advise building a rifle yourself. I could see sourcing a built upper and lower separately if that’s the cheapest path. Probably the biggest piece of advice I can give is to not skimp on the optics. Clapping a $200 el-cheapo scope onto a $700 rifle is a bad bargain.

    And FWIW, the word these days is that Bushmaster is not what it used to be. Try Windham Weaponry.

  11. I’d suggest buying a “cheap” one. Anderson stuff is decent and at $400, it’s a great buy. You will probably want a red dot sight, maybe some iron sights to make it shootable. If you want to spend more, find something that fits your budget that you like. I’d stick with a flat top receiver as it gives you more sighting options.

    The modular construction of an AR lends itself to customization. Swapping out buttstocks and grips is very simple. If you find yourself thinking about new barrels or uppers, go ahead and get another lower and assemble a new gun. It’s not very difficult and you might find you enjoy it. Pick the parts you want, one at a time for the new gun.
    When you’re done, you’ll have two guns, much better than one and a bunch of parts.
    The “cheap” gun will still be a good one, handy and light and you won’t worry as much about it getting knocked around.
    If there’s a worry about future legislation, stripped lowers are usually available starting at around $50 right now.

    Buy magazines, buy a bunch and buy some more. They are dirt cheap now and are one of the first things to get scarce when there’s a scare. I like Magpuls but you may want something different. Brownells makes a very good metal mag and I have had good results with C-Products mags as well.

  12. I have a couple of S&W ARs, one the basic raised front sight in .556 that works well with a decent Red Dot and the other a flat top 6.8 SPC that works well with a scope. The only thing I have done is replace triggers catching good sales on the parts and it is an easy desk top replacement, just find a Video and watch it a few times and pay attention. My guns are good enough for me out to 100 yards and that’s all I am looking for. I am too old to run and gun like my son and son-in-law who compete in three gun and need better equipment, I just want a gun that goes bang when I pull the trigger and mine do without fail.

    Lots of magazines makes a lot of sense and probably enough ammo to fill all your mags and then some, just because.

  13. For those that voted against the Bushmaster due to the handle, if you pull it up on the CTD site and look closely, it is a flat top with a removable A2 type handle attached. Which gives you iron sights to start with but is quickly removable for installation of optics and BUIS later if you desire .

    Never tried the currently available low price point ARs, but would feel comfortable with the Bushmaster given what I have seen in friend’s weapons.

    Mine is a Colt SP-1 in the A configuration and has served me well over the past 30+ years with few issues not related to magazines or ammo and only minor mods to the sights and trigger.

  14. I got a ruger 556 with a sig romeo red dot. Then I decided to get crazy and got 4 lowers. The first build which I am working on right now is .450 bushmaster. The next will be .50 beowulf, then a 458 socom, finished off with a 6.5 Grendel. I am also buying a bunch of starline brass and die’s for the press for all of the above. And they say that the AR is a poodle shooter.

  15. Despite what so many seem to think, AR-pattern weapons are not barbies for bubbas-in-camo. They are precision machines and, if you have the skills and knowledge of the available parts, you can build your own. Most people don’t.
    If all you want to do is shoot the occasional poodle or home invader then it may not matter what you buy or assemble with parts from “cheapest on line.” (Assuming of course you will verify that it works with a few rounds at least. You know, basic QA.)
    I have several automatic watches. None of them keeps perfect time, but they all keep adequate time, so I have never needed a Rolex, although it’s still on my win-the-lotto list. So is a LaRue AR.

    1. The LaRues are good (I own one), but there is a lot to be said for buying one of their uppers and having your lower built to spec. My other precision AR has a Suarez upper with a White Oak barrel…on a Fulton Armory lower with a Geissle trigger group.

  16. Why did I get an AR15? Because the bastards were about to tell me I couldn’t have one. Had it for five or six years and have put fewer than 100 rounds through it. I intend to take it out again this spring after I’ve had my cataract operation. Maybe I’ll be able to see the target at 100 yards again.
    Bushmaster lower with adjustable stock, Stag flattop upper in left hand. Accessories: removable handle and pop up front sight, left hand safety, and el cheapo four power scope.

  17. I think ARs are at the point where they all pretty much work out of the box regardless of the price point; higher end versions add convenience features (like quick detach sling points and fancy charging handles), more refined triggers, and better parts (with finer finishes and high tech metal treatments).

    Long having a preference for wood and steel over plastic and aluminum and falling squarely on the big & slow side of the momentum vs energy argument, I never had much desire for an AR. Heading into the 2016 election, I picked up some 80% AR lowers as a hedge against the gun grabbers. After building the wife and I each a 5.56 AR (kit built lowers mated to complete uppers) as well as a scratch built 9mm AR pistol, I have to say I am truly impressed by the elegant simplicity and versatility of the AR platform.

    I would also say that you don’t really know what you want until after you have some experience with the platform. My 5.56, being the first born, has already been rebuilt with upgraded parts (including the trigger, stock, grip, hand guard & sling points). My wife’s AR came second and has had only a few lower parts upgraded (although I will say that her upper alone cost about the same as the complete Stag Arms rifle in the CTD flyer).

  18. You get what you pay for, avoid cheap ARs. S&W is the bottom of my acceptable hierarchy.

    Cheap ARs are fine for the range, but I wouldn’t trust my life to one, or a Frankengun made by some guy named bubba.

  19. What I like about ARs? A couple of things come to mind, number one is they are being bought by both young and old, someone under 50 buys a rifle and good chance it is an AR, they bring new shooters into the fold. Number two, there are probably over 15 million of them owned by US citizens and that is a lot of people who will not be happy to part with them and every year a couple million more ARs and AKs are sold in the US, that’s a good thing.

  20. Years ago, Stag was one of the few major suppliers of AR parts in the US. They made the OEM parts for a lot of makers, big and small. They were big on precision. Then, an inspection apparently found them with some un-numbered lowers in the plant. Considering how many names they were actually making them for, I would think this to be normal, but the .gov decided to ruin them. IIRC, they were forced to sell the business, and the principals were banned from engaging in the business in the future. I’m not sure if that was the final result, I may be remembering the case from the early days, and it may have gone differently. THere may have been more than one company name involved, as I know they were doing 1911 parts also. damn memory…

  21. 3 ar pattern rifles. One in 450 bushmaster and 2 in 5.56/223. I think I am in the 450 about 500. Almost all AR’s will work out of the box. Have had some AK’s and can’t hit crap with them. I have a 30-06 that I can make clover leafs at 100 yards so I’m pretty sure it is not me. I get pretty good groups with AR so that is what I keep around.

    There are a lot of AR’s around so that is something to consider.

  22. Avoid the dirt cheap guns they often have problems or just plain don’t work. There are Ruger/ S&W/ Bushmaster rifles available in the $600-700 range which are good entry level guns.

  23. You kind of get what you pay for. IMHO you can get a perfectly acceptable AR pattern rifle for $600-$800. Below that people are cutting corners. Looking at the flyer, I’d say the Stag is worth considering. Wouldn’t touch Bushmaster (or anything Freedom Group). Anderson thinks “mil-spec” is just a marketing term they can use at will, and QC is a needless expense.

  24. Interesting premise, and much information available in the comments. Thanks, Kim.

    I mentioned in my comment on your .22 rifle post my agreement that a .22 is a necessary household appliance and that the AR-15 was headed that way. I think it’s arrived. As to just which one, I’ll leave that to the individual’s freedom of choice and degree of topic understanding. My take is, more important than just what from just whom, is to actually have (at least) one and possess a very high degree of familiarity with the complete manual of arms on the device which, IMHO, should be coupled with a sufficient stock of parts (especially including magazines) and basic tools to keep it running and the necessary wherewithal to skillfully use those parts and tools; with the AR, parts, tools and skill translate to making it into whatever specialized – or unspecialized – tool one finds a need for, regardless of its condition at initial delivery. “The gun is a tool, the man is the weapon.”

    1. “…should be coupled with a sufficient stock of parts…”

      That right there.
      If you build your own, which is not difficult, you learn all the little details necessary to do repairs and modifications later on. If you buy an off the shelf AR and the gas block becomes plugged up do you know how to clean or replace it?

      Speaking of gas block, my AR has an adjustable one and it cost a few bux more. On the front of the block is a small set screw which, upon testing and adjusting, can cause the buffer to “float”, never allowing it to bottom out but still collapse the spring just enough to allow the gun to cycle but reduce felt recoil which is supposed to reduce the time for follow up shots. I’m considering getting another barrel with a piston rig and see how it compares to the gas tube. I have not had any problems with the tube, I’m just a curious sort.

      I’ve noticed that using the removable quick detach bipod on a hard surface causes the gun to “bounce” upon firing. Laying prone on the ground it is OK and does not bounce. But on the table at the range I remove it and use a Caldwell to support the barrel.

  25. As an AR noob, my original plan was to buy a complete upper (’cause I didn’t want to mess with headspacing), and then build out my lower. Know what they say about the best laid plans? When Brownell’s offered up a complete DPMS lower with free shipping for $169, I jumped. The upper I purchased sports a full length M Lok fore end, an 18″ stainless barrel with 1:7 twist and a .223 Wylde chamber, and also came with the charging handle and bolt carrier group. Last month I caught a super deal on a 4×12-40 Nikon scope – $115, shipped. I just need swivel mounts and a mil-spec sling and I’ll be good to go. I’m thinking I might want to take this rifle to Appleseed.

    I also have a couple of stripped lowers, and for AR #2, I’m thinking .300 blackout. Ammo cost is a factor, to be sure, but I like the idea of needing only to buy an upper and then being able to switch over everything else.

    And because I live in IL where the progs are threatening a ban on new magazines with more than ten rounds capacity, I’ve been stocking up on 20- and 30-round mags for the AR. I also plan to use the rifle for a lot of bench work, so the 20’s appeal to me more than the 30’s, but I do have some 30’s, because they’re likely to be banned.

  26. I just purchased my first AR. A lightly used S&W M&P 15 Sport II with an OK case and two extra 10 round mags for $500, give or take a penny.

    I was considering a new Anderson but I got the one with a front sight and flip up rear instead of having to put a scope on it.

    I have yet to fire it but have received my first 1,000 rounds of Wolf and will shoot that when it warms up to see what’s up with it.

    I wanted a basic rifle, inexpensive, and after years of wanting the AK, decided that the AR controls (mag eject, safety, and bolt release) made more ergonomic sense to me. YMMV

    plus, it’s light and my kids wanted to hold it and didn’t complain about it being heavy.

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