Since there isn’t one gun to fit all, before recommending a gun to someone who asks me what is the best gun to buy, I always ask them, “what’s it for?” and second, “What’s your budget?” Some people shop for guns for protection, while some want an inexpensive snake gun for the hunting lease. I’m going to recommend a different gun for different situations.
The “best gun” question is always loaded. The “best” gun is really the one you feel most comfortable. What works for me, won’t necessarily work for you. Therefore, the “best” gun is relative and all “best of” lists will be subjective.
Here at Cheaper Than Dirt!, we shoot a lot. And I mean a lot. So, I can tell you with all confidence that none of these guns will disappoint. Just remember, the amount you invest in your rifle is what you should expect out of your rifle. Though an inexpensive factory gun shoots just fine, it may be only a matter of time before you will want to upgrade your trigger, sights or buttstock—maybe all three. For example, if you buy the DPMS Sportical and upgrade the handguard, add sights, and install a good—not even the best—trigger, you have added nearly $500 to a $550 rifle. Now, don’t get me wrong. Upgrades to the Sportical aren’t a necessity. Add a red dot or scope and your ready to rock and roll, but just realize the limitations of the gun.
To start your best AR-15 search, settle on a budget. Then, start shopping by features. After figuring out how much you can spend, make a list of the features you want and eliminate guns that don’t have those features. For example, if you don’t care about a forward assist, dust cover or Battle Sights, definitely look at the cheap rifles. Further, if plinking is your thing, a cheap AR is all you need. If you plan to run into battle, fight the zombie horde, compete or hunt, you will want to look at the $1,000+ price range.
Features you might want to consider include the rifle barrel’s twist rate, choice of sights/handguards and mounting options, type of stock and chrome lining in the barrel. Of course, there is no scientific evidence behind these choices. Based on dependability, reliability, accuracy, features and popular vote, these ones made the list.
The best entry level AR-15 is honestly the cheapest you can find. If you can build it cheaper than factory, then go that route, but if you insist on factory or can’t wait to get in all the parts separately—a budget build can take awhile, believe me—then these three ARs will suit your needs for a basic, entry-level AR-15.
DPMS Sportical, $549
The DPMS Sportical is our least expensive AR-15. Like all the ARs on this list, it will shoot .223 Remington and 5.56mm NATO. It has a 16-inch barrel with a 1:9-inch twist. The barrel is not chrome-lined and the rifle comes without sights. However, the Sportical does have two rails to add optics and other accessories. It comes with DPMS’s Glacier Guard handguard and Pardus collapsible stock. The DPMS also has an A2 birdcage flash hider and A2 pistol grip. It weighs 6.3 pounds. With a good scope, you will be pleasantly happy with its accuracy performance for its price, but you will probably want to replace the included 30-round magazine with a Magpul PMAG.
Windham Weaponry Carbon Fiber SRC, $599.14
Windham Weaponry gained a reputation quickly throughout the shooting community to be a high quality, pay-attention-to-deal company that knows what it is doing. The Carbon Fiber SRC shoots both .223 Remington and 5.56mm ammo and has many of the exact characteristics of all these ARs, such as the A2 flash suppressor, collapsible stock, optic-ready rails and A2 pistol grip. However, unlike the others, the SRC’s receiver is not made of aluminum, but molded carbon fiber. This keeps the weight down to a low 5.85 pounds. The Windham Weaponry Carbon Fiber SRC has a 16-inch 4150 Chrome Moly Vanadium 11595E steel barrel with a 1:9-inch twist. The warranty on the Windham lasts a lifetime and is transferrable.
Best Value: ArmaLite Defender, $655.14
I don’t necessarily consider the ArmaLite Defender an entry-level AR, because it is fully featured, however, the price can’t be beat. The ArmaLite Defender shoots both 5.56mm NATO and .223 Remington and has a 16-inch chrome-lined barrel with 1:7-inch twist. This twist rate will handle heavier 77-grain bullets. It has standard oval polymer handguards, an A2 pistol grip and collapsible stock. What makes this such a great value is the forward assist and dust cover—which other AR-15s in this “cheap” or “entry-level” category usually do not have. Although the ArmaLite Defender does not have a rear sight, it does come optics-ready with Picatinny rails and an A2 front sight tower.
An in-between or mid-range AR will typically have more features than a budget-priced rifle. For a few hundred more bucks, you get sights and an upgraded stock. These rifles, priced usually from $800 to $1,000, are generally more accurate and reliable than cheaper models. Since I don’t compete or precision-shoot, I shop in this range. These three rifles go from tin can plinking to home defense without issue. I would trust my life to any of them.
Windham Weaponry MPC, $826.47
When we look at higher-priced ARs, we also look at the additional features. The MPC has a flip-up rear sight and fixed A2 front sight tower. The 16-inch barrel is also chrome-lined. The Windham MPC shoots .223 Remington and 5.56. The barrel has a 1:9-inch twist. It also has a six-position collapsible stock, A2 flash hider, A2 black pistol grip and optic-ready rails. Unloaded, it weighs 6.8 pounds.
Colt AR15A4MP-FDE, $1,099.99
This Colt is slightly different from any other rifle on this list, it has a 20-inch barrel. The 20-inch barrel allows the bullet to perform at its maximum ballistics, and the longer sight radius aids in accuracy. It has a 1:7-inch twist. Another difference is the Colt’s fixed Magpul stock. The rifle is 39.5 inches long and weighs 7.72 pounds. Along with the Magpul flat dark earth stock, other Magpul FDE furniture on the Colt includes a pistol grip and handguard. There is also a Magpul MOE rear BUIS sight. The bolt is MPI-marked and it comes with an A2 flash hider. The Colt AR15A4MP-FDE is made in the U.S.A. It ships with a 30-round Magpul PMAG.
S&W M&P15 MOE, $1,035.10
Like the Colt, the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 MOE comes with flat dark earth Magpul furniture. It will shoot both 5.56mm and .223. The S&W M&P15 MOE has a 16-inch barrel with 1:8-inch twist. There is an M4 A2 front sight tower and a folding Magpul rear MBUIS sight. The MOE buttstock is collapsible. Besides the Magpul stock, pistol grip and handguards, the S&W M&P15 MOE also has a Magpul vertical grip. Fully extended the rifle is 37 inches long and it weighs 6.54 pounds. Smith & Wesson is relatively new to the AR market, but they hit the nail on head with their quality M&P15 rifles. The M&P 15 ships with a 30-round Magpul PMAG.
The reason why guns jump in price is the amount of high-end features and quality and control of craftsmanship that goes into the build at the manufacturer.
Colt 6920 SOCOM, $1,351.90
The Colt 6920 in its various configurations continuously makes Cheaper Than Dirt!’s top selling list year after year. Colt has been making ARs longer than any other company, which directly reflects on the Colt’s reliability. It is arguably one of the best AR-15s you will get right out of the box. The SOCOM’s lower receiver is stamped “LE,” for law enforcement and chambered for 5.56mm NATO. It will also shoot .223 Remington. It has a 16.1-inch chrome-lined M4 SOCOM barrel with a 1:7-inch twist. The Colt 6920 has a standard A2 pistol grip and collapsible M4 stock. Not standard is the Troy Industries quad rail handguard, MaTech back-up rear iron sight and H2 buffer. The rifle is 32 inches long with the stock collapsed and weighs only 7.11 pounds.
FNH FN-15 Tactical Carbine, $1,299.00
FN introduced its first AR-15 rifles in 2014 and though it entered late into the game, the company entered right. Its AR-15s are top-notch. The Tactical Carbine has a 16-inch match-grade, chrome-lined and free-floating barrel with a 1:7-inch twist. Topped with a Midwest Industries LWM M-LOK 12-inch handguard and Magpul furniture—including both front and rear Magpul sights. The FN-15 carbine has a single-stage ALG Defense QMS trigger and FN 3-prong flash hider. The Magpul SL collapsible buttstock extends to 37 inches long. Fully collapsed, the rifle is 33.7 inches long. The FNH FN-15 Tactical Carbine is lightweight at 6.6 pounds.
Bravo Company USA RECCE 16 Mod0 Carbine, $1,295.80
Though the Bravo Company RECCE 16 Mod0 Carbine has no sights, its specifications and features read like a what’s what of ARs. It is truly an operator’s AR-15 set up with Bravo Company’s hailed BCM Gunfighter Mod 4 charging handle, MPI and HPT bolt, properly staked gas key and BCM extractor spring. Many of the rifle’s parts are USGI MIL-SPEC including the 5.56mm chamber, chrome-lined barrel, bolt, hardened gas key, hard coat anodizing, receiver extension, and M4 stock staked lock nut. Bravo Company uses the Troy Industries TRX free float rail and Magpul’s MOE enhanced trigger guard on this rifle.
If Money is No Object
Part name, but mostly quality is the reason behind such high prices on the following three rifles. Serious competitors, hunters and long-range precision shooters demand a lot from their rifles and those priced over $2,000 will deliver. From the proprietary gas piston system in the H&K MR556 to the Barrett’s piston operating system, these three expensive rifles have every feature you could want and more.
HK MR556A1, $2,854.50
The H&K MR556 A1 AR-15 uses the same proprietary gas piston system as the HK416 battle rifle. This system uses a piston and a solid operating rod instead of the traditional gas tube found in most AR-15s. The H&K AR has a 16.5-inch heavy contour barrel with 1:7-inch twist. The free-float handguard has four Picatinny rails. There is a two-stage trigger with a 7.64-pound pull. The H&K is a little heftier than most the ARs on this list, weighing in at 8.60 pounds without the magazine. The stock extends from 33.90 to 37.68 inches.
Barrett REC7, $2,698.00
The Barrett REC7 depends on the same reliable gas system as the AK-47—a piston operating system. This keeps the chamber and bore cleaner than direct gas impingement rifles. Firing both .223 Remington and 5.56, the Barrett REC7 has a 16-inch chrome-lined and magnetic particle-tested barrel with a 1:7-inch twist. The Barrett AR has a reinforced and enhanced piston bolt and extractor. The full-auto bolt carrier is machined form a solid block of 8620 steel. It has a Barrett factory KeyMod rail system. Upgraded parts include the Magpul MOE six-position stock and MOE grip, a PWS Triad muzzle device and one of the best triggers on the market, the Geissele SSA. On top of the rails are adjustable flip-up iron sights. When fully extended, the rifle is 33.25 inches long and it weighs 7.2 pounds.
Noveske Gen III Recon, $2,348.27
Many consider Noveske the best in the business of building AR-15s. The Gen III Recon has a 16-inch barrel with 1:7-inch twist and shoots both .223 and 5.56. Noveske built this rifle on aluminum upper and lower receivers that are hard coat anodized. On the inside, the bolt is shot-peened for a longer bolt life and corrosion-resistance and MP-tested. The gas key is properly staked. The Noveske Gen III has an ALG Defense combat trigger, Raptor ambidextrous charging handle, Magpul STR carbine stock, and Magpul MIAD pistol grip. Four mounting optics, it has a 13.5-inch NSR free-floating KeyMod handguard with rails. There is also Troy Industries back-up iron sights.
If you are still unsure of the features you want on your AR-15, read the following in-depth articles that describe twist rate, chambers and upgrades.
- Which Gas System is Best?
- AR-15 Barrel Twist Explained
- Configuring an AR-15
- Inside the AR-15 Barrel Twists and Chambers
- AR-15 .223 vs. Mil-Spec 5.56mm Chambers
- AR-15 Barrels 101
Curious about which AR-15 rifles sell the most? For the past four years, we have calculated sales of all AR-15s and made lists of the ones that sold the most. To see those lists, read the following posts:
- Top 10 AR-15 Rifles 2014
- Best Selling AR-15s of 2013
- Best Selling AR-15s of 2012
- Best Selling AR-15s of 2011
If money was no object, what AR-15 would you buy, or which parts would you get to build your own? Tell us in the comment section.