In a market flooded with options, it can be hard to get excited about another AR-15. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good AR. With its modularity and parts availability, I think it’s one of the most practical options available. However, there are plenty of 5.56 NATO semi-auto rifles that perform just as well (and perhaps even better) than the venerable AR-15.
Why choose a 5.56 NATO semi-auto rifle?
The 5.56 NATO round is by far one of the most popular rifle cartridges in the United States, and for good reason. It has the capability to push out to 1,000 yards, while providing modest recoil. This lack of harsh recoil allows for rapid and accurate follow-up shots. Additionally, the small cartridge diameter allows for a higher capacity in a standard-size magazine. 5.56 NATO rifles tend to be lighter weight than .308 and 7.62×39 rifles. The ammo is also lighter weight, so you can carry more. This makes 5.56 rifles easier to manipulate and handle. Due to its popularity, ammunition was readily available and relatively affordable. Hopefully, it will be again soon. Overall, the beloved 5.56 NATO has a lot going for it.
SIG Sauer MCX Virtus Patrol
At first glance, the SIG Sauer MCX Virtus Patrol seems like just another AR-15, but that isn’t the case. The MCX incorporates a number of upgrades to the AR-15 design that take it to a whole new level. SIG has removed the buffer tube, allowing the MCX to have a folding stock. The MCX operates on a gas piston system, keeping gasses and debris out of the action and allowing the rifle to run longer between cleaning sessions. Additionally, the ambidextrous safety and magazine release allow the shooter to easily manipulate the rifle with either hand. The SIG MCX accepts standard AR magazines. Overall, it keeps the strengths and improves on the weaknesses of the AR-15.
If you want the dependable functionality of the AR-15 in a more covert package, take a look at the Ruger Mini-14. This is a more traditional looking rifle, especially if you select the one with a wooden stock. The Garand-style action features a breech bolt locking system with a fixed-piston gas system and self-cleaning moving gas cylinder. Unlike the Garand, the Mini-14 allows you to retain the detachable magazine benefit of the AR-15, but with an overall length of 38 inches, it is a couple of inches longer than a standard 16-inch AR. If you can, get the extended mag version with 20-round mags included. It will provide you with extra firepower right out of the box.
Steyr AUG A3
If you’ve seen an ’80s action movie, you’ve likely noticed the popular Steyr AUG. The bullpup design gives this rifle a different balance and weight distribution than a standard rifle. It also allows the AUG to house a longer barrel in a more compact overall package, at just 28.25 inches, compared to a standard AR-15 with a 35.5-inch length (with the stock fully extended). Unfortunately, the bullpup design tends to give the rifle a heavier trigger pull due to the longer trigger bar.
There are two versions of the AUG, but I prefer the M1 version because it accepts standard AR-15 magazines that are plentiful and easy to find. However, you can also get a version that accepts proprietary AUG mags. There are even versions that feature a built-in scope often referred to as the “donut of death.”
IWI Tavor X95
The IWI Tavor X95 is another bullpup design that is a bit more modern. It accepts standard AR-15 magazines and has ambidextrous controls. The Tavor X95 is a bit more portly than other options on this list, at 8.2 pounds, but with an overall length of just over 28 inches on the 18-inch barrel model, provides a lot of power in a compact package. It operates with a closed rotating bolt and long-stroke gas piston, so it can go a long time between cleaning sessions. Whether you select the 18 or 16.5-inch version of the Tavor X95, you’re sure to have an incredible rifle. Choosing a firearm from IWI practically guarantees a level of durability you can count on in any environment.
FN SCAR 16S
Used by operators and military units all over the world, the FN SCAR 16S needs no introduction. Based on its big brother, the 17S in .308 Winchester, the 16S is chambered in 5.56 NATO. It features the iconic side-folding “boot” stock with adjustable comb height and length of pull. The SCAR 16S accepts most standard AR-15 magazines, but has some issues with Magpul Gen 2 PMAGS, which can cause damage to the rifle due to the feed lip design slightly raising the bolt hold-open device even while loaded. This gas-operated rotating bolt rifle has a 16.25-inch barrel with a 1:7 twist rate. Further, the ambidextrous magazine release and safety, paired with the reciprocating charging handle that can be moved to either the left or right side, allow the rifle to work well with both left and right-handed shooters. (It should be noted that in 2021, FN upgraded the SCAR, and it now features a non-reciprocating charging handle.)
CZ Bren 2 Ms
The CZ Bren 2 Ms is often referred to as the Czech SCAR, because they share a lot of features and aesthetics. The main selling point of the CZ Bren 2 over the SCAR, is that it’s about $1,000 less. It incorporates a similar folding, adjustable stock and operates with a short-stroke gas piston system. It also features a non-reciprocating charging handle, something many shooters disliked about the original SCAR.
Similar to many of the options on this list, the 5.56 NATO version of the Bren 2 is compatible with standard AR-15 magazines. The “Ms” designation of the Bren 2 refers to the modular forend that is swappable for different lengths and styles. Constructed with an aluminum upper and carbon-fiber composite lower, the CZ Bren 2 saves weight while retaining incredible durability.
This next suggestion is gonna shake things up a bit because, like our 5th grade pizza party, what we wanted is not what we got. When compared to the HK G36, the SL8 falls flat. It screams political correctness and appeasement. However, I still believe the HK SL8-6 has a place for some shooters who want HK durability and lightweight, polymer construction. The 10-round mags, thumbhole stock, and general P.C. nature could be a pro too, similar to the Mini-14, especially if what you’re looking for is a good target/varmint rifle. Additionally, with some skill, time, and cash, you can still convert your SL8 to a civilian semi-auto G36 if you’d like, and there are extended 20 and 30-round mags available.
For the people that are inevitably going to complain, “What about the HK 33?” Yes, the roller-locking HK 33 (and the Century C93 clone) is an incredible rifle that could easily find its way on this list. I just thought the less-expensive HK SL8 added a unique option for readers to consider.
Whether it be from movies and video games or the historical significance, many shooters love the AK platform. However, if you already own a few AR-15s and don’t want to collect calibers like Pokemon cards, it can be a hard sell to jump into 7.62×39. Zastava has alleviated this issue with the ZPAPM90PS — I know, the name just rolls right off the tongue. In my mind, the version that accepts AR-15 magazines is the real winner. This provides you with the legendary simplicity and reliability of the AK platform paired with ammo and magazine compatibility of AR-15. Zastava is known for making high-quality AKs, so you know you’re not getting a dumping ground of pot metal spare parts.
If you see one out in the wild, grab it because these unicorns are hard to get ahold of. Kel-Tec is known for making some of its more unique firearms in small batches that sell out quickly. There are several versions of this rifle, but the SU16C with its underfolder stock is by far my favorite. At just 4.7 pounds and 25.5 inches folded with a 16-inch barrel, this makes a perfect backpack gun for hiking or storing in a trunk. A Picatinny rail allows you to mount the optic of your choice to aid in long-range accuracy. Additionally, the SU16 is gas piston operated, keeping gas and carbon buildup away from the action.
IWI Galil ACE
The IWI Galil ACE makes some incredible improvements on the original AK design but retains some of the features that made the AK thrive, like easy fieldstrip for cleaning and maintenance. Instead of the traditional sub-par AK sights, the Galil incorporates tritium front and rear sights that provide a great sight picture in all lighting conditions. It also comes standard with a folding, adjustable stock. A milled steel receiver provides incredible durability, but makes the Galil slightly heavier at 7.8 pounds. The Galil moves the reciprocating charging handle to the left side, making it easier for right-handed shooters to operate and clear malfunctions. Further, the 5.56 NATO version accepts standard AR mags—if you haven’t noticed this is important to me because they are inexpensive, reliable, and easy to find. The Galil is not only a great substitute for traditional AK, it’s also one of the best AR-15 alternatives.
Conclusion: Best AR-15 Alternatives
With so many ARs, it may seem boring to add another to your growing collection. That would be nuts of course and you should get yourself checked out. However, if you’re searching for something different, try looking into some of these AR-15 alternatives. If you choose any of the incredible rifles on this list, you’re sure to love them.
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