Reader’s Note: I’ve written a newer version of this article, found here
In the last several years, the number of new buyers for the AR-15 pattern rifle has exploded. There are, of course, many people buying their second, third, or twentieth AR as well, but this post is not geared towards them. This post is geared towards you, dear reader, who is searching for advice on buying an AR. I know, there are a staggering number of choices out there: too many different manufacturers with cool roll marks, an endless variety of rails, stocks, grips, triggers, sights, optics, slings, and other accessories.
If you were anything like me when I was researching my first purchase, you probably find yourself affected by what I call, “Paralysis by Analysis.” Your brain is too overwhelmed by the choices and you don’t want to make the wrong one. This guide is intended for you.
The advice I give you may not be what you want to hear, but you’re going to have to suspend disbelief for a bit and listen to my reasoning. If you are anything like I was when I first got seriously interested, you’ve been combing through the message boards at AR15.com, M4carbine.net, Weapons Evolution, Guntalk, The High Road, or any number of other shooting related sites. You’ve probably browsed through the photo threads and decided what kind of configuration looks the best to you, and you want to jump right towards it. Well, I’m going to burst your bubble. Going down that route will result in costing you far more money than you plan to spend, and you will probably not be happy with the result for very long.
There are two fundamental laws that must always be followed when buying an AR pattern rifle:
1. Let the mission dictate the configuration
2. Buy Once, Cry Once
What do these two laws mean, and how do they apply to you? That’s what we’re going to talk about.
Law 1: Let the Mission Dictate Configuration
On the surface, this sounds pretty simple, right? It is easy to build a very specialized gun to serve a special task. The last twenty years have seen a dramatic increase in the possible configurations of the AR-15/M16/M4 platform. We have the M16A4 with it’s 20″ barrel and fixed stock filling the role of old school rifle. We have the Mk18 CQBR for go-fast door kicking and room clearing. There is the Mk12 SPR light precision rifle (and its more compact brother, the RECCE), and a near infinite number of configurations in between. You probably already know what you want to use it for, and therefore know what kind of configuration you want.
Well, you are probably wrong.
If this is your first AR-15, then you really haven’t gained enough experience with the platform to know how you will actually prefer employing it. In all honesty, you will never really learn your needs until you start shooting the piss out of your gun in a variety of circumstances. In most cases, any AR15 configuration can do a passible job of doing the task of any other variety. All of these specialized configurations are just that: specialization. You shouldn’t go pursuing those special configurations until you know what you actually need, and what the limitations and downfalls will be of that specialized configuration for your uses. The more you equip a rifle for specialized roles, the worse it performs at others. The little Mk18, for instance, looks super slick and handy; but its 10.5″ barrel has a skull-rattling concussion and the shorter barrel also means that it loses a ton of velocity relative to its longer barreled cousins (extremely important if you plan on hunting). A heavy barreled SPR configuration may maintain better precision over longer strings of shots, but it is heavier and more cumbersome. The full size 20″ M16 is a super smooth shooting rifle with the best effective range, but its size makes operating out of vehicles much more challenging.
So what would be the best configuration for you? We’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about…
Law 2: Buy Once, Cry Once
There is a lot of competition in the AR market for your discretionary income. Everyone is throwing a lot of advertising dollars at you in order to sell you their latest whiz-bang widget. Combined that with gun store lore that Brand X is “just as good as….” and you have a very high risk of wasting your money. There are a great number of factors that go into a quality rifle: barrel metallurgy (4150 CMV, 410 Stainless, etc), twist rates(1/7 or 1/8), receiver materials (7075 T6 aluminum), feed ramp configurations (M4 ramp vs rifle ramp), Quality Control (QC) procedures, tolerances, and just downright skill and care taken during assembly. These things matter. There is no such thing as a free ride.
In order for a manufacturer to offer you a lower price on a rifle that is “just as good as,” they must cut costs somewhere. That usually manifests itself in materials selection, wider spec tolerances, or more slack QC methods (usually a combination of all three). Am I saying that your $499 Model 1 is going to fall apart tomorrow? No. But I am saying that for the extra few hundred it would cost to get a rifle from a top manufacturer, you get a rifle that has better materials and QC procedures and has a MUCH lower probability of causing you problems. If you intend to use your gun in any way for self defense, then do yourself a favor and minimize the probability that your gun will malfunction when you absolutely need it to work.
This rule applies in all things, by the way. There absolutely is point of diminishing returns on rifles and accessories, typically once you cross the $1400 threshold, but there is definitely a point that gets you a proven reliable piece of equipment versus something that requires replacing soon after purchase. The latter situation means that you will purchase the less expensive item more than once and end up spending more than you would have had you bought the quality item up front. I see this a lot when guys purchase some cheap red dot sight that breaks after six months, and they are now on their third one. For the money they spent on those three cheaper sights, they could have bought a single quality red dot from Aimpoint, EOTech, or Trijicon and never worried about it again (yeah yeah…I know the enthusiasts will say that EOTech isn’t on the list anymore).
The bottom line is this: If you decide you need it, make sure you buy a piece of quality equipment that will last. If you can’t afford it, then save until you can. You are better off buying the one piece of gear that will last you the life of the weapon (and probably two more after it) than a piece of gear that will fail you in a few months.
My Recommendation for First Time Buyers
Now that I’ve explained my fundamental rules, you can better understand why I’m going to make the recommendations that I am.
If this is your first AR-15, then start basic. Either buy a complete gun from the companies below, or buy a complete lower and complete upper separately and slap them together. Do not do what I did, and start piecing it together one bit at a time. The hidden expense there is in all the tools you will need to do it properly. Not to mention that you lack the experience and training to know how it “feels” to assemble an AR correctly. Alternatively, you could also pay someone else to assemble it, but unless you absolutely know that person is doing it correctly, you will always be left wondering if the job was really done right. Do not buy fancy configurations that you might think you need. After you have shot the gun enough to figure out your needs, you will have expended many multiples more money in ammunition than the cost of the part you thought you needed, and will instead know if you actually need it.
Ok, so here we go…your first gun should look like this:
- 16″ Lightweight mid-length chrome-lined barrel with a fixed front sight base; OR a 20″ government profile with fixed front sight
- Plastic handguards, either USGI round ones, Magpul MOE, or BCM
- Simple collapsable stock (Magpul MOE, Colt, on either a Vltor A5 buffer system or basic carbine buffer tube with an H2 buffer, I’m a huge fan of the A5
- Pistol grip of choice
- Quality (but not fancy) trigger. The fanciest I would suggest at this point would be an ALG ACT or BCM PNT
- Fixed rear sight (LMT or Daniel Defense)
- If you have the money to buy an optic at this time, go with an Aimpoint CRO, PRO, or Trijicon MRO (if you can afford better, fine. If you can’t afford these, then shoot with irons until you save up the money).
My second AR build, which closely follows what I’m recommending here
Rather than telling you what spec to look for on each of these, I simply suggest buying from one of these manufacturers: BCM, Daniel Defense, or Colt. There are many others that produce quality rifles, but those three are the most commonly known quality brands and roughly share the same price point. If you find a rifle that’s significantly cheaper than one of those and is advertised as “just as good,” then remember Law #2.
“But I Want a Stainless Barrel For Accuracy!”
Unless you are already an accomplished rifle competition shooter, then you are not going to be able to take advantage of the accuracy in even a chrome-lined barrel, much less a nice stainless barrel. The standard chrome lined barrel on a quality AR-15 is still quite accurate, and you will be far more limited by your own skill and the ammunition you are using. If you want to buy a stainless barrel for accuracy sake, and then plan on shooting non-match ammo through it, then you are wasting money. A match barrel is best considered to be part of a system that provides accuracy (that system being the barrel, the ammunition, and the user). If you don’t have all three of those parts, then there is no benefit.
The only way you will improve your skill and accuracy is to shoot the gun. By the time you shoot the gun enough to build enough skill to take advantage of the added accuracy benefit from a nice stainless or nitrided barrel, then you will have fired enough ammunition to have worn out your first barrel. When you replace your first worn-out barrel, you can replace it with that nice stainless one that you thought you needed at first.
“But I Need a Free Float Quad Rail!”
A free floating rail is useful for removing outside stresses on the barrel (sling tension, bipods, barriers, etc). The effects of free floating show up in point of impact changes at intermediate ranges. Until you have developed your shooting ability enough to tell that you have a 2 MOA shift in your POA when you tension your sling, then you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway. The M16 rifle, on its introduction in the early 1960’s, did not have a free floated barrel. The Marines still qualify on a non-free floated barrel out to 500 meters, and are doing just fine.
Quad rails, keymod rails, M-LOK, or other attachment systems are great for mounting accessories like flashlights, foregrips, bipods, or other sling attachment points. But you can do all of those things on standard plastic handguards as well. You don’t need the quad rail in order to mount these accessories. The only time I would upgrade to a quad rail or similar item is when it comes time to free float the barrel, which brings us back to the previous point.
By the time you have shot enough ammunition to require a free floated barrel, you will have spent many times more on ammo than the cost of the rail, and you will have a much better idea of what kind of rail would best suit your needs.
“I Don’t Want a Fixed Front Sight!”
Why not? Is it because you really like the slick look of folding front sights on all those cool photos you saw in the pic thread on that message board?
The original triangle front sight is the toughest and most durable front sight AND gas block you can put on the AR-15. It works great for all iron sight uses, and it also works well in a pinch for point shooting. The folding sight gained popularity with the growing desire for magnified optics. The fixed front sight can cause visual distortion and reflection through high magnification optics, but that gets us into specialized uses. And, even in those circumstances, the scope and sight still work just fine with each other for 99.9% of circumstances. If this is your first AR, then you don’t know if you have any use for higher magnification optics, and therefore no reason NOT to have the fixed front sight.
By the time you decide that you want to mount a higher magnification optic (and you still really really want to get rid of the fixed front sight), then you can spend the $38 at ADCO to have the front sight shaved down (or do it yourself), still leaving you with one of the strongest gas blocks available on the AR-15. But, until then, you still have it in the event you start using your gun in another fashion. Alternatively, if you’ve shot enough that you know you want to switch to a precision barrel for use with magnified optics, then you can install a low profile gas block (or folding front sight gas block) and call it good. But all of this comes only after you’ve shot many thousands of rounds.
“But I NEED a Red Dot Right Now! Can’t I Just Get a Cheap One For Now?”
Mostly no. This depends on your uses. There is no shortage of companies out there that are marketing inexpensive red dot sights. These are probably OK if the gun they are mounted on will never be used for anything other than going to the range or an occasional hunt. But with increasing price point comes increasing reliability. Quality red dot sights can be bumped, dropped, submerged in water, buried, and then pulled out and shot like nothing happened. They are environmentally sealed to work in nearly any condition without fogging or losing power. They can be left on for months or years at a time without replacing batteries. These are the kind of red dots you want on any rifle that has even the most remote chance of being used to save your life. Buy once, cry once.
Iron sights are certainly falling to the wayside, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The military used iron sights on the M16 for nearly 50 years before optics were widely distributed. Irons work in all weather conditions, and can take a lot of abuse without breaking. Optics are faster, but irons will serve you well until you can afford a quality optic.
“But I Want a Nice Trigger!”
Why? I’ll admit I love my Geissele triggers, and I have a strong preference for two stage designs. But it certainly shouldn’t be the first thing you do. A quality mil-spec trigger will break in nicely over time, and will not hinder you in any significant way while you are learning. Again, this gives you time to figure out how you want to use your gun, and therefore what kind of “nice” trigger you install. If you find that you like three gunning, then after a while you can install a S3G. If you find that you like precision shooting, then go ahead and get that Willson TTU or Geissele SD-E. But only go that route once you know that is what you need, not because you think you need it.
“I Hate Collapsable Stocks!”
Ok, get a fixed one. No argument from me! Go with an original A1 style or Magpul Moe Rifle.
The Bottom Line
Put simply, buy a basic rifle or carbine of good quality from a quality manufacturer. Do not be swayed by fancy marketing or gun store promises that Brand X is “just as good” as one of the quality builders.
Do not go into this thinking you already know what it is you want, because you saw it done on a message board. My first AR was done that way, and I regretted it (and all the wasted dollars). Shoot first, then modify based on your needs. Worry about specificity and piecing a gun together for your second or third AR. Keep it simple, shoot the piss out of it, wear out the barrel, then figure out what’s next.
Last Revised on 30 January 2016