Firearms

10 Best AR-15 Alternatives (5.56 NATO Semi-Auto Rifles)

Studio shot of a semi-automatic rifle with a silencer and a Ka-Bar.

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.

5.56 NATO Ammunition in AR-15 Magazines

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.

SIG Sauer MCX Virtus Patrol
SIG Sauer MCX Virtus Patrol

Ruger Mini-14

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.

Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle
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.

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.”

Steyr AUG A3 M1

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.

IWI Tavor X95 XB18

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.)

FN SCAR 16S FDE

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.

CZ Bren 2 Ms

HK SL8-6

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.

HK SL8-6

Zastava ZPAPM90PS

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.

Zastava M90

Kel-Tec SU16C

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. 

Kel-Tec SU16C

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.

IWI Galil Ace

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.

If the rifle you’re looking for isn’t in stock at the moment, be sure to sign up for our email notifications to be informed when it comes back in stock!

What are your favorite AR-15 Alternatives? Would you consider choosing one of these options over an AR? Let us know in the comments!

  • SIG Sauer MCX Virtus Patrol
  • Ruger Mini-14 Ranch Rifle
  • Steyr AUG A3 M1
  • IWI Tavor X95 XB18
  • FN SCAR 16S FDE
  • CZ Bren 2 Ms
  • HK SL8-6
  • Zastava M90
  • Kel-Tec SU16C
  • IWI Galil Ace

About the Author:

Alex Cole

Alex is a relatively young firearms enthusiast who’s been shooting consistently for around seven years. Though he is fairly new to the industry, he loves consuming all information related to guns and is constantly trying to enhance his knowledge, understanding and use of firearms. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t do something firearms-related.

Alex tries to visit the range at least a couple of times a month to maintain and improve his shooting skills. He also enjoys disassembling and reassembling firearms to see how they work and to keep them properly cleaned and maintained. He installs most of the upgrades to his firearms himself, taking it as a chance to learn.

Additionally, he is very into buying, selling and trading guns to test different firearms and learn more about them. He is not only interested in modern handguns and rifles, he appreciates the classics for both historical value and real-world use.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. As a lib, i have no issue with the AR-15. My real issue is the AR-15 crowd. It reminds me of the competitive car stereo fan boys. I don’t want to hear about how you spend $500 on a new trigger, or how your hand guard is so much better then stock, or how you spent $1000 to make some minor upgrade and how much better your rifle is now.

    “yeah, i spent $2k on upgrade, now i can shoot 1 inch groups at 100 yards vs 1.000001 inch groups”

  2. These options may be alternatives for the AR-15, but the reason people stay with the AR-15 is for several reasons, like price point, modularity, weight, and ergonomics, not to mention, the multitude of accessories, and different calibers, all the options mention in this article most of which you could not build even remotely on a budget. The article you should have wrote should have been AR-15 Budget Alternatives. Even though I don’t think there is any such thing as a Budget AR-15 Alternative say far less then a grand.

  3. I GOT THE MINI-30 WHEN NJ SAID YOU COULD ONLY HAVE CERTAIN MINI-14’S. THE COPS WERE TOO STUPID TO KNOW WHAT CALIBER IT WAS. THEY DIDN’T EVEN KNOW I HAD A FEW ‘ILLEGAL’ 18RD MAGS WITH IT.

  4. In this day and age, the “BLACK RIFLE” is every Liberal’s nightmare. Mini 14 is a great alternate, and doesn’t look like a “BLACK RIFLE”. Imagine having some Liberal wanting to try to take away your “small game” Mini 14 hunting rifle, and saying it is an evil “BLACK RIFLE”. Optics do count! NOTE – Ruger 10/22 and Mini 14 look so much alike that most Liberals can’t tell them apart.

  5. I been shooting for40+yrs and collecting firearms for 30+yrs. I own about a dozen AR’s alone. I mostly buy already made AR’s from Hk, Lwrc,Sig,but sometimes to project AR builds using mostly Lwrc lower kits and upper kits from Stern, Hk or Colt, I don’t go really cheap like Spikes etc. Many cheaper brands are sometimes out of spec most of my current builds have been SBR’ed PCC’s in .40 or .45 and most guns I suppress as well. I own AR’s in 556, 762 and 22 and again a few PCC’s.

    But I also own ACR’s Brens 1-2, SCAR’s L-H AUG (old) AUG (new), Tavors, X95, SL8 converted G36, TG36, every Sig rifle since the 516 I collect just about every military type rifle since the Civil war, I own muskets, Spencer carbine to, M1 carbines, KAR 98k’s, lugers, P38’s and a Thomson sub machine gun my most prized safe babies are my pre-ban select fire guns 2 AR’s, a Russian stamped Ak47, 2 Mp5’s an SD and a Navy. I own a few newer semi auto subguns like a few B&T’s, Hk’s new manufacture MP5’s and some others but not really a big fan of subguns or shotguns as I only own a single shot gun and just got it a year ago a KS7 modded to the helt tho ; ) and of course handguns though most of my hand guns are .40, 45 or.22LR and 22mag. I used to own many wheel guns but most either sold or again just collecting.

    I won’t say exactly how much I guns as I like talking guns but dont want to sound like a bragger. I own but its 30+yrs worth I buy, sell and trade but its lets say its in the high 2 digits and comepard to other collectors I know I small time some could open their own gunshop.

    Pardon the rant but like said love talking guns many I buy doubles one to shoot one to just keep NIB. But back on topic i like the AR very easy to get parts and will fit any ones budget. Only thing that I or what is universally hated is the T handle I have 2 converted to left side charging. Its the one thing I do NOT like about SIG they keep putting that T handle on nearly every rifle they make except the 556/522.

    But anyway this list they have has guns on it that are old and or very hard to find for reasonable prices and most will be used or sold new by the gougers. But an AR or AK is a good starter gun anyone can build one from a parts kit with stripped lowers and uppers you just need the right tools which I cannot stress. Go buy a AR armorers book or take a class as I did long ago. DO NOT use Youtube etc. If at all try AR-15 dot com or similar forums as they have member who will help you out as everyone makes a POS AR their first time.

    I would but a newer gun like the Bren or Aug etc AR’s and AK’s are nothing special at all you go to the range everyone and anyone has one from kids to grandma’s. But take out a X95, MDR or SIG etc Everyone will want to look at it. For me I probably will not buy or build any AR’s anymore. Much more interesting and ergonomic guns out now. Sure they are pricey but I will take a Bullpup like my AUG over any AR except maybe my Lwrc PDW for defense use for long range I would use one of my bolt guns or if its a gas gun my PSG clone etc. AR’s are 50+ yrs old and it shows and its so common again its like looking a Kia’s or Tesla’s everyone has one.

  6. The Galil ARM.
    Folding stock, folding bipod, night sights, rugged and utterly reliable.
    A hybrid weapon of near perfection.

  7. Author somehow missed the Robinson XCR from Utah and has the wrong Keltec rifle. The RDB bullpup holds its own against the Tavor and Aug at less than half the price.

  8. Was interested in the AR platform but I like something different. Picked up a Ruger Mini 14 Ranch Rifle instead. The accuracy and reliability are second to none. Many aftermarket options in stocks and magazines make customization easy. I highly recommend it for those that don’t want a gun that everyone else has.

  9. You forgot to add the Beretta ARX100 which has the gas piston, folding stock and is very ambidextrous and has been out for years. It’s big brother, the ARX160, has been a staple of the Italian Army.

  10. The AR platform was unleashed upon the world prematurely. For the next 50 years there was great competition to produce a worthwhile facsimile that actually worked dependably and functioned properly.
    I don’t own one.

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