I decided it was time to revisit one of the most popular posts on this blog: my advice to first time AR-15 buyers.
For a variety of reasons, the AR-15 platform is now the best selling rifle platform in the United States. With that popularity comes competition for your money, and unless you know how this market works, you are very likely to waste money in the process of buying one for yourself. This guide is intended for folks who are relatively new to shooting and are looking through Google, message boards, and other places for help on what to buy. If you have plenty of experience shooting, you will still find this guide useful- but you will be able to skip some of the advice since you probably already have a good grasp of what you are looking for.
Before getting on with it, I want to explain where I went wrong with my first AR-15 (pictured here). I purchased a stripped lower and immediately started scouring the internet for what I should do with it. Over the course of about 10 months, I purchased each part individually as well as the tools to assemble them. I built a $3,000 carbine that the internet would be proud of. It was a sleek, bad ass looking, SHTF-ready general purpose carbine. It made a fantastic range toy that impressed everyone around me. However, once I actually started using it in local three gun competitions, its shortcomings became immediately apparent to me and I knew it was going to cost me more money to do some things over again. I then built a second carbine taking things back to basics (as I will advocate here). After shooting with that for a bit, I went back to my first AR and rebuilt it using lessons learned from my actual usage.
This brings me to my two fundamental laws of purchasing gear:
- Let the mission dictate the configuration
- Buy Once, Cry once
Let me explain these.
Let the Mission Dictate the Configuration
As simple as it sounds, this is the most difficult law for people to grasp. The AR-15 is so customizable that most buyers will immediately begin tailoring it to some perceived need even before they fully understand how they are going to use it. It took me years to understand one fundamental truth: a very generic weapon will do reasonably well at just about any task the AR-15 can be used for. The more specialized you make an AR for any particular use, the worse it will perform at others.
The last thirty years have seen an explosion in the possible configurations of an AR. We’ve gone from the classic M16A2, to the M16A4, the M4A1 Carbine, the Mk 12 SPR (and it’s shorter cousin, the Recce), the Mk 18 CQBR, and a myriad of others in between. As the internet has filled with pictures of each of these, and the warriors who carry them, there is a certain element of, “I want that!”
This sentiment is understandable, these guns all look amazing and they all exist because they have proven useful and reliable. But here is what you have to keep in mind: these configurations all exist to serve as compliments to one another. The M16 series offers the best all-around ballistic performance on an open battlefield, but its extra length will be more difficult when moving in cramped spaces. The Mk 18 and its 10.5″ barrel are great in cramped spaces, but it produces skull-rattling concussion and loses a huge amount of velocity (which limits its effective range). The Recce and SPR fit more into an intermediate category, but their precision optics and stainless barrels make them more useful for precision and less useful for volume of fire (for more information about how barrel length and material affect performance, please read my post on barrels). Everything is a trade off. It’s not a big deal, though, if the taxpayers are buying your weapons for you and you have a squad to outfit with a variety of weapons to compliment each other. It’s a different story if you have to buy them yourself and it may be the only rifle available to you in times of need.
What does this mean to you? As I said before, a generalized weapon (such as the M16 or M4A1) will do reasonably well at any task you throw at them. The specialized weapon configurations really only shine when put in the hands of a skilled and practiced user. Put another way, a NRA high-master shooter will still shoot a chrome-lined M16A2 better than the average joe will shoot a fully customized national match rifle. Special parts and configurations only matter when comparing two skilled users who can take advantage of the capability. If you are a new shooter, you have not gained the skill and experience to even know how you will be employing your weapon, much less take advantage of the nifty gizmos you want to attach to it.
So what do I recommend for a first time buyer? I’ll get to that in a minute.
Buy Once, Cry Once
Don’t be cheap. There is a lot of competition for your discretionary income, and that means there is a lot of marketing dollars spent to sway you to one product over another. One of the worst mistakes you can make is to listen to gun store lore that says Brand X is “just as good as” Brand Y even though it is significantly cheaper. There is no such thing as a free ride. Every reduction in price must be paired with some other reduction in cost to the manufacturer. Typically, these costs will appear in material selection, quality control procedures, manufacturer tolerances, or other areas. If you are interested in the components of a quality AR, please read this post on technical specs.
Like most things, there absolutely is a point of diminishing returns. In the AR world, that point starts at about $1400. In my opinion, the sweet spot is between $900 and that $1400, where you are getting very high quality weapons that you can depend on for protecting your life, your family’s life, and performing in competition. Am I saying that a $500 Model 1 AR is going to fall apart tomorrow? No, not at all. But I am saying that the methods the manufacturer took to get the price point that low could affect the reliability and long term durability of the rifle; and you would have no way of knowing it was a problem until it becomes one (and that usually happens at the absolute worst moment). If you know this weapon is purely a range or hunting toy that you will not bet your life upon, then no problem. If, on the other hand, there is the slightest chance that you might need this weapon to function in a desperate moment- that extra few hundred dollars is cheap insurance.
This doesn’t just apply to rifles, either. I have seen many a shooter buy a cheap red dot sight only to have it break in a couple months. By the time they have bought their third replacement, they have spent as much money on those three optics as they would have spent buying one quality optic up front. If you think a component is worth having, then its worth buying a high quality one at the start. That quality component will last the life the weapon, and probably a couple weapons after it.
Now that I’ve discussed my guiding principles, lets discuss what your first AR should look like. First, you are going to start with a basic configuration that will serve pretty well at just about any task you might have. I suggest only buying a complete rifle, or buying a complete lower and upper separately. At this point, do not attempt to piece together a rifle one part at a time (as I did). You will end up spending more money than you think on tools and shipping. Even then, you don’t have the technical knowledge on properly assembling parts together (especially mounting barrels and checking headspace). Sure, you could take it to a local gunsmith- but unless they truly know what they are doing, you will always wonder if the job was really done right. In that instance, you might be tempted to blame poor performance on the gun rather than yourself. That attitude will only drive you to spend more money on gear rather than ammo and practice. Buying a properly assembled quality rifle up front means any shortcomings are probably yours rather than the weapon’s.
Once you have your new AR, I suggest only spending enough money to get it up to the status of “minimum capable” for whatever it is you want to do. Once there, spend the rest of your money on quality ammunition and some training. Shoot the thing so much that it becomes second nature to you. Compete with it in a variety of styles from CMP/High Power to USPSA. Burn out the barrel. Once you have gone down this route, it will become very obvious where you should spend your money to best suit your needs. By this point, you will have expended enough money in ammunition that the cost of the widget in question will seem….paltry.
All of that said, here is my basic “minimum capable” recommendation for first time buyers. I will discuss variations afterwards.
- 16″ Lightweight mid-length chrome lined barrel with a fixed front sight base
- Either plastic handguards (Magpul MOE, Standard Round, BCM) or a quality free floated rail
- Quality collapsable stock, without being too fancy, containing a H2 carbine buffer and spring (alternatively, I’m a big fan of the VLTOR A5 system)
- Quality 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
- Quality rear sight, with or without adjustment (Magpul MBUS/MBUS Pro, LMT L8A, Daniel Defense A1.5, Larue Lt 103, or even a carry handle from BCM or Colt)
- If you have the money to buy an optic at this time, then go ahead and grab one that suits your needs- just remember to buy quality (Aimpoint, Trijicon, ELCAN, Zeiss, etc.)
- Bonus: If you plan on using the weapon for defensive purposes, then you really should mount a white light on it (InForce WML, Elzetta, Surefire, etc.) and learn how to use it properly (i.e., only use in momentary bursts of light)
- Bonus: You should get a sling.
The rifles below are a selection of various configurations I’ve used that roughly meet the criteria I laid out. The closest two are the one on the top left and bottom right. The top left, with FDE furniture, was my second AR and built with all of the lessons learned from building the first rifle. The second rifle, on the bottom right, was the first iteration of my marksmanship training rifle; it was nearly identical to the FDE rifle except that it had a 20″ barrel and a different stock. That longer rifle is now the one on the top right. The only significant changes are the addition of a free float rail, a muzzle compensator, and a Trijicon TR24. I made these changes only after shooting the rifle for several thousand rounds in a variety of circumstances.
There are many quality manufacturers out there, and I don’t have time to go down the pro/con for each one of them. So, to be blunt, I suggest that your first AR-15 should come from Colt, BCM, Daniel Defense, or Sionics Weapon Systems. These manufacturers all follow a good spec and stick around the same price point. Going much below these manufacturers in price should cause you to ask questions about what was done to reduce costs. Going much above their prices (as with Noveske, KAC, LMT, and others) should make you question if you are paying for a name or features that you are unable to take advantage of. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying its impossible reduce costs without sacrificing quality (supply chain management is one method of doing so). But I am asking that you don’t play that game with your first rifle since you don’t know a lot about the marketplace.
How did I arrive at this spec?
What separates the first iteration of this guide from the new Version 2.0 is that I have softened my stance a bit on a few things- particularly handguard and stock selection. Let me briefly explain each of theelements, and why I chose them as suggestions for a first timer.
I said a 16″ lightweight chrome lined barrel with a mid-length gas system because I believe it will be the most versatile for most people getting started in shooting. Heavy barrels really only shine in applications with high volumes of fire or an increased need for precision over the course of long strings of fire. Neither of those describe the average newbie. I used to suggest a 20″ barrel as well, and it is still a very viable option, but I don’t want to limit folks who might start using the carbine indoors for defending home and hearth.
I still suggest starting with a fixed triangle front sight base as opposed to the new trend of low profile gas blocks and rail-mounted front sights. The traditional triangle post is the sturdiest front sight and gas block you can use. If something has enough force to damage it, then there was probably enough force to destroy the whole rifle along with it. The fixed front sight is useful for point shooting, and works great for times where speed is of the essence. If you decide down the line that you want to mount a longer rail, then you can pay $40 to have it shaved down, or do it yourself, and still have one of the toughest and most rugged gas blocks available.
I still suggest most people should start with plastic handguards, but I’ve come around on the subject. There are many free float handguards on the market that are lighter than even the classic plastic ones. While most newbies will not really be able to take advantage of the accuracy benefit inherent in free floated barrels, it will be there for them in the future once they have practiced enough. The caveat, of course, is that you should do your research and buy quality. I take no sides in the Keymod vs M-LOK debate (though I have been using keymod), both will do the job well enough.
I used to suggest a plain collapsable stock like a Magpul MOE or standard Colt. I’ve backed off of that and will now say to pick a quality stock of your choice. BCM makes a great one, and Magpul makes several options. I suggest collapsable to better suit various shooters’ body mechanics. I’m also a fan of fixed rifle stocks, such as the A1, A2, and Magpul MOE rifle. If your primary usage is outdoors or at the range, a fixed stock has a lot of benefits in durability and smoother functioning (due to the longer action spring). Just remember, if you go the rifle route, you will need a different spring and buffer system than the carbine recommendation I made earlier. It’s up to you to do the homework on weight vs capability and how it affects your weapon. Remember, you should always strive for the lightest component that meets your needs and maintains reliability.
When it comes to triggers, I fully understand the temptation to jump for a $200 Geissele or Wilson Combat. I run Geisseles in all of my rifles at this point. However, I will admit that I did that before I could really take advantage of it. I’ve been shooting quite a few rifles with the ACT and PNT triggers, and they are all actually quite nice. They serve as fantastic interim triggers while you decide what route you wish to go in the future: combat two stage, light single stage, or any other variation. Once, and if, you go the route of fancy trigger, you still have a quality backup trigger in the parts bin. If you wish to know more, here is a post all about AR triggers.
When it comes to optics, I used to only suggest red dot sights. However, I realize that many folks might not have eyes made for irons and red dots anymore. Some folks already know they want to go with magnification. For red dots, stick to the Aimpoint CRO, PRO, or T2 series. The Trijicon MRO has been getting a lot of attention lately as well. For magnified optics, the options are wide and varied. I’m a fan of Trijicon ACOGS and the ELCAN Specter series, but there are many more out there. You’re going to have to do your homework. For a quick overview of the market, here are my thoughts on optic selection.
For bonus items, I mentioned white lights and slings. In my opinion, no defensive rifle should be without a white light. It follows rule #4, knowing your target and what is behind it. Without a light, you might just be shooting at shadowy figures that may or may not be family members. As far as slings go, there are a huge number on the market tailored for various needs. You need to decide if you need one to serve more as a shooting aid, a retention device, or just carrying the rifle in the field. Pick one that suits your desires.
The Final Word
As I stated at the beginning, a generalized carbine will perform well at just about any role that can be expected of an AR-15. The more you start specializing it through fancy barrels, triggers, optics, rails, stocks, and accessories, the worse it will perform at all the other roles you didn’t specialize for. More so, those specialized guns only make a difference in the hands of a skilled user.
Until you have developed the experience and skill, then you really don’t know how you will prefer to use the rifle and what you can do to make it better for you. Until then, it’s all just theory and trying to be cool on the internet. Don’t do what I did.