RFI: Low-Cost AR-15


  • Is the Ruger AR556 a good deal (at just under $500)
  • Is it a rugged gun
  • Is it a decent product (trigger, ammo feeding etc.) and
  • Does it require moar $$$$ / massive effort to set it up with a tac-light and red-dot scope?  (ignoring the cost of the doodads, of course)

…or is this one of those things needs a bucketload of cash to make it a decent gun?

Asking for a friend.  (Seriously;  it’s not for me.  And I should point out that the guy just wants an off-the-shelf, grab ‘n go gun and isn’t interested in building one from parts.  He is  my friend, after all, and we share many traits and characteristics.)

From my admittedly-inexperienced perspective, the AR556 seems like the bees’ knees for a one-stop shop, plus the Ruger brand gives some degree of comfort.  Am I wrong?

Update from A Concerned Reader:

#1 I am not a fan of Ruger and their quality control with AR-15s is suspect. So for something “off the shelf”, I would not look to them.

#2 S&W is abut the same as Ruger. I’ve heard and seen some corners cut to bring the price point down. This MIGHT be ok. The again I was at FEDEX and the guy next to me in line was sending his S&W MP AR-15 back. Apparently nothing S&W customer support could tell him to do could get it to work reliably. We didn’t go into details, but he was completely dissatisfied with the S&W AR.

#3 PSA (Palmetto State Armory), seems “OK”. PSA is cheap but they seem to work. I have not bought a complete AR from them. I bought an AR upper with a free float handguard, but the aluminum was so thin it would flex and touch the barrel. But PSA AR’s do work. I would say if you want a cheap AR, that would be the way to go. Most of the internet commentators, focus on the cheapness, but don”t complain about them not working.

#4 DPMS used to be considered a bottom tier AR maker. IMHO, their quality has improved and other manufacturers have found more corners to cut in order to reach lower prices. I would put them in the same tier as Anderson Manufacturing.

#5 I’ve heard good things about Spike’s Tactical. In my dealings with them, I’ve found them to be excellent (I ordered a charging handle from them and they offered a free return and refund while it was en route to me, since it had been advertised as made in USA and apparently their supplier was getting the part from overseas-China).

#6 I’ve also been happy with all things Aero Precision. Right now I’m building an AR in 458 SOCOM (as a 45-70 fan you have to appreciate that) and I am mainly using Aero Precision parts.

At a minimum, your friend is going to need to add a decent 2 point sling… I call a one point sling a noose and I just don’t need a complicated 3 point sling. Finding a good sling these days is difficult. I don’t think people carry long guns enough anymore to appreciate the need fora good sling.

So in summary, NO to Ruger and S&W. Shop around for a PSA or spend a little more for a DPMS or Anderson. Maybe go for a Spike’s Tactical or Aero Precision.


  1. I bought the S&W version, the MP-15. Only I bought it back during one of the Obama scares and it was in the $800 range. Now I think it goes for just slightly higher than the Ruger.
    But, yeah, decent rifles that do exactly what their supposed to do, go bang each time you pull the trigger. Mil-surp ammo groups 5 inches at 100 yards, better ammo groups moa. I’ve put maybe 1000 rounds through mine, never cleaned, never jammed.
    The collapsible stock sucks in my opinion. But that can be replaced later. Pay attention to whether it’s”optics ready” which I later learned means “no sights”. Otherwise good to go for a SHTF rifle.

  2. A friend was looking to buy a budget AR a few years ago, and asked me for advice. The Ruger had just come out to glowing reviews, so I suggested it to him. He bought one, I took him shooting to try it out. The rear sight looked normal, but I discovered that it had only one aperture, not two, as is standard. The first time he shot the gun the taper pin that secures the front sight base on the barrel fell out. I was not impressed, and was embarrassed to have recommended the gun to him.

  3. I wonder if the overall quality has improved over the years, or if their lemon-rate is bad. Timely post, I’m looking into M4 style rifles.

  4. You get what you pay for. If you want a genuinely mil-grade AR, I think most affordable are either BCM (Bravo Company) or SLGW (Sons of Liberty Gunworks), starting around $950. But then you don’t have to wonder if every part is in spec (it will be). Anything less and they’re cutting corners, typically spotty QC and/or loose supply chain.

  5. Either Ruger or Smith is a decent deal for a budget AR. Both companies will stand behind their product when manufacturing defects such as Darrel described come up. When going with budget ARs, I consider it very important to budget for at least a couple hundred rounds of ammo to burn through the rifle as a reliability check. That Ruger rear sight is decent as a backup sight to optics, but does not have the full functionality of an A2 rear sight – which could be added.

    Rugged as any other AR, I suppose. It is based off a mature military design, and any parts that may break are easy enough to replace.

    Trigger, like most ARs are “meh” from the factory. Some of the grittiness will go away with use. If the pull weight and break aren’t acceptable, drop in triggers range from $50-$350. Feeding is usually quite reliable in ARs, and after running several hundred through it he’ll know if his is reliable. Magazines are cheap enough that if one is causing problems it’s not much heartburn to throw it out and get more. I’d expect 4MOA out of it, better with whatever ammo it likes.

    Setting up a red dot is simple. If the sight doesn’t come with an AR height riser, those are easy to find. Flashlight mounting is a little more difficult with the plastic handguards, but only a little. The aftermarket for ARs is stunningly large – there aren’t many problems that don’t have solutions already.

    It’s not the AR that I’d buy, but that’s because of my requirements for a work rifle not any deficiency in the Ruger. With enough rounds downrange, I could learn to trust one.

  6. Based on the picture alone, I’d say the red dot should be fairly easy, due to the picatinny rail on top, but the tac-light could be a problem, due to no rail on the side or bottom.

    I solved this on my DPMS Oracle by replacing the forward handguard with a quadrail for under $20.

  7. Some advice from a long time AR shooter, having first shot an M16 in Basic Training in 1970. First thing I would do is trash the collapsible stock and replace it with a quality aftermarket such as Magpul. Only the stock needs to go, not the buffer tube. Check with the Manufacturer to see if it is a Commercial tube or Milspec, they are different diameters. The magpul does not rattle or jiggle like the ones on the rifle. A magpul hand guard might be a good idea as you can set it up to install what you want easily. Both items are easy to replace and reasonable in cost. Other options for handguards exist that allow attaching stuff as your heart desires.

    Optics are the way to go, and the choices available are endless. Scopes, red dots, EOTECH, Acogs, you can go crazy trying to decide. Try to check out the various offerings. Everybody has their own Idea as to the perfect setup. But buy optics made for the AR, not the airsoft junk found on E Bay . There are better rear sight options also. Again the varieties are endless and every shooter has an opinion.

    My two AR’s are equipped with a patrol optic (Aimpoint) and a Leupold 3×9 fire dot scope. But I also have an EOTECH as a spare. ACOGs are excellent but very pricey. YMMV

    I have Geissele triggers in both my guns, much improved over the standard triggers but not really necessary unless you Are a trigger snob. I like crisp triggers.

    I sign up for flyers from Brownells, Midway, Natchez and several others and shop the sales. Picked up some good deals.

    ARs are barbie dolls for shooters.

    Buy quality mags. I prefer MAGPUL. USGI mags are good, if you buy new.

    Get good cleaning supplies and use them. Patches and solvent/oil are cheap, guns are expensive.

  8. Kim,
    I took a different approach with my AR as I wanted a little something more than the Smith and/or Ruger offerings . . . I purchased major components separately as follows and assembled into a complete rifle:
    * DPMS mil-spec complete lower from Brownells – about $175 with shipping, plus $25 transfer
    * Palmetto state complete upper, 18″ stainless barrel, 5.56 Wylde chamber, 1:7 twist
    — rifle length gas system, MLOK handguard – about $300, delivered
    * New grip, Magpul, ’cause the mil-spec grip on the DPMS lower sucks ass, about $20
    * Rise Armament RA-140 drop-in 3.5# single-stage trigger ’cause mil-spec triggers suck ass, about $120
    * Nikon 4-12×40 BDC scope and heavy duty Vortex rings – about $175
    I’m still getting comfortable with the rifle, having shot it only a couple of times. When zeroed for 25 yards, it hits about 3″ or 4″ inches high @ 50 yards and about 7″ or 8″ high at 100. My club is building a 200 yard line . . . looking forward to seeing where my beast prints at that distance.
    And because this is IL, I have two extra stripped AR lowers on the shelf, as well as a good-sized (for me) pile of 20- and 30-round mags.
    Also . . . what KMM696 said about mil-spec triggers – 100% true.

    1. Sheesh…

      “And I should point out that the guy just wants an off-the-shelf, grab ‘n go gun and isn’t interested in building one from parts.”

      Was that part not clear?

      1. Clear? Of course it was clear. My contrarian side simply shone through, no more, no less. In my defense, I didn’t really build from parts. I did assemble from major components, save the trigger, but even that was a simple drop-in exercise. My path does take a bit more effort to be sure, but the mechanics are simple. Then again, I wasn’t looking for a grab-n-go affair . . . I wanted to setup a bench rifle. Oh, hell. Either way, more guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens – good. Idiots like “Beto” O’Rourke proposing confiscation schemes . . . bad. Double-plus ungood bad. (/soap box)

  9. Kim,

    For what you asked for, the “grab ‘n go”, I’m assuming SHTF self-defense gun, I’d say this is perfectly suited. I don’t even mind the shoulder stock everyone is bitching about, it’s what came on countless military guns and will get the job done. I was happy to see it had a cold hammer-forged barrel, and a shot-peened and proof tested bolt. The trigger will likely be gritty but will get the job done.

    At the price, it is a very good deal (Ruger usually is), it is likely rugged (ditto), and is a decent product. Would I buy it? No, but I am an aficionado and like to build/modify them myself–not your friend’s MO. I would not do ANYTHING to this gun, including the stock, for SHTF grab ‘n go purposes. It is a good basic gun, not one I’d sink a lot of money into modifying. I recommend the Primary Arms Silver Series Advanced 30mm Red Dot Sight – $130, with the Primary Arms High Cantilever 30mm Mount – Lower 1/3 Cowitness, $15. There are cheaper sights available, I won’t recommend them. That gun, with that red-dot setup and standard metal MILSPEC mags is a good basic defensive package.

    If your friend wants to change anything out (other than add the red dot), I’d second the suggestion to get a BCM gun with Magpull furniture. I’d also suggest a mid-length gas system. The BCM’s are wonderful–you can get “better” guns, and you can get cheaper guns, but I do not believe you can get a better AR than a BCM for less money. The red dots I recommend are fine on the BCM, also. Trying to dress up the Ruger is kind of silly IMNSHO, it’s a good basic, no-frills shooter, leave it what it is meant to be. Want more, step up to a BCM. Not necessary, though, for stated purposes. That’s my two cents.

  10. Do enough anecdotes qualify as data? I don’t think so, so I will spare you my limited experience with my ARs.
    See if you can try an example of a Smith or a Ruger for yourself, if you like it , buy it. It is just an AR, and they are more alike than different, everybody and his brother makes stuff for them and represent they make the whole gun. There is a lot of misinformation out there, I am afraid. I doubt that Smith or Ruger or anyone else, for that matter, makes every part in house.
    My advice is look for value, but then don’t start adding a better trigger, better this or that and end up spending much more overall than the $500 or less that the Smith or Ruger cost.
    Get decent optics if you can, or a red dot if you like them.

  11. I would tell him to save his money for a couple of months and pick up a Rock River. Occasionally you can get them on sale(that’s how I got my $1600 AR-47 platform from them for $1100. Didn’t really need it but could resist…
    Heck I’ve got a couple of NIB RR LAR-15s that I can let go for ~$800 and they may even be less these days.

  12. After looking around a lot 3 years ago I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with any off the shelf version, so I built my own. If you take the time to “learn” the workings of an AR you roo will come to that conclusion. I’m pretty much convinced people that buy off the shelf versions are lazy and posers. Building an AR is not too dissimilar to building a piece of furniture from Ikea. If you know which end of a screwdriver does the business and have a decent sense of mechanics you can do it. My first AR now has over 5k rds through it with not a single misfire and it’s in 5.56 cal, NOT .223. I’m assembling the parts now for a 2nd build in .308 with a 24″ barrel, hoping to reach out accurately beyond 1000 yds.

    You touched on the “learn” idea mentioned above when you said: “…is this one of those things needs a bucketload of cash to make it a decent gun?”

    Buy once, cry once.

  13. In the past 12 months, I’ve bought the S&W M&P 15 Sport II ($500), the Ruger AR-556 ($600) and a PSA kit with free floating handguard ($410 with the unbranded PSA lower), similar in profile and specs to the AR-556 but with 16″ barrel vs 18″ in the AR-556.

    Quality-wise, they were all good, with the PSA components easily being as good or better in fit and finish as the S&W. The only knock against any of them was with the Ruger, which had sharp edges on the inside of the lower that should have been knocked off before finishing. I was really surprised they let that one out the door, but as it’s the only Ruger AR I’ve seen up close I don’t know if that’s the norm or an exception. It’s a cosmetic issue and only seen on take down.

    The biggest difference in the 3 was the trigger. The Ruger came with the best trigger of the 3, and did not need to be upgraded from stock to work like I wanted it to. The S&W and the PSA needed upgraded triggers, Geissele 2 stage ($100) and a PSA EPT ($30), respectively. They’re now as good as the Ruger in the trigger department.

    Have shot ~600 rounds out of each of these, never had an issue feeding or firing 5.56 or .223.

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