When discussing the latest rifles and optics with my friends and associates, we agree on a common thread. When it comes to optics, the least expensive optics are better today than a decade ago. By the same token, the least expensive AR-15 rifles are better than ever.
A $200 optic does what a $600 rifle scope used to, and the $1,000 scopes are out of this world in performance. This is a result of competition and buyer demand. Without a great deal of research, it is difficult to have a grasp of which AR-15 you should purchase. Rifles may range from $700 to $2,500 or more. Let’s look at some of the details as to which rifle you should choose.
For my money, anyone starting out should probably choose an inexpensive rifle.
Why Own an AR-15?
First, let’s take a look at the similarities in between AR rifles in different price ranges. Across the price scale, any AR you choose will handle well and offer plenty of reliability.
The basic AR-15 rifle will be delivered without sights, but a flat-top receiver is standard. This makes it easy to mount optics. Additionally, the rifle will be delivered with a round handguard. The round handguard works just fine for most applications. The round handguard just doesn’t have the appeal of M-Lok and other developed designs.
Next up the ladder in price will be a similar rifle, just delivered with iron sights. Then, a more expensive version will have some type of advanced handguard. All of these rifles are easy to shoot well.
Recoil with the .223 cartridge is minimal and practical accuracy is excellent. As an example, it is pretty expensive to get a rifle shooting three shots into an inch at 100 yards. Two inches at 100 yards is average for a less expensive rifle.
When you become a good shot and need more accuracy for, say, 3-Gun competition, or 200 or 300-yard varmint shooting, you may upgrade to a custom trigger and better optics, or a better rifle. However, you need a reasonably accurate rifle to begin learning with.
One of the best features of the rifle is versatility. The AR-15 may be used for personal defense, varmint hunting, competition, and with a proper load and good shot placement, deer hunting.
I think that the majority of AR-15 rifles are owned for recreational shooting. They are fun to shoot! Simple pride of ownership is another reason to own the rifle. In the end, you don’t need any more reason than a few trips to the range each year to own the AR. After all, burning up a lot of ammunition is always fun and will teach you about marksmanship if you approach learning properly.
The majority of budget AR-15 rifles are 16-inch barrel carbines. An 18-inch barrel is considered mid-length and a 20-inch barrel is rifle-length. Most of us will use the carbine. I find that on average, the longer barrel options are more expensive, but often have more features. It all depends on your needs.
ARs with a 16-inch barrel are the fastest handling. If you are planning on lying prone on a hill and shooting prairie dogs, the 20-inch barrel is a better choice.
There is also the question of the carbine, mid-length, and rifle-length gas system. In general, the mid-length system has the greatest appeal, while the rifle-length gas system is the softest on the action. Even the carbine-length gas system is fine for many thousands of rounds of ammunition.
BCGs and Triggers
An important part of the rifle is the bolt carrier. About a decade ago, I ran across a number of rifles in my shooting classes with problems due to improperly staked bolt carriers. The cartridge cases were freezing in the barrels, requiring a steel rod and considerable force to free them. Improperly staked carrier keys seemed to be most common in home-built rifles, although a few factory rifles had problems as well.
The trigger action is made up of the disconnect, hammer, trigger, and the pins and springs of the action. Drop-in trigger groups are available. These aftermarket triggers make life much easier.
The standard AR-15 trigger action is usually features around seven pounds of trigger compression weight. Occasionally, a maker will offer a crisp and light trigger on a rifle, in the five-pound range. The trigger action may be heavy at seven pounds or so. However, if the trigger is smooth, good accuracy is possible.
The Smith & Wesson AR and the Ruger AR types generally offer good trigger actions, although they are far less than $1,000 dollars. The Springfield Saint usually comes in at around 7.5 pounds. Learn to control the trigger action well before going to an aftermarket type.
Handguards, in the simplest terms, are used to stabilize the rifle and to prevent burning your hands on the barrel. I prefer a handguard that doesn’t expose the gas block. If you have ever touched a hot gas block you will not do it again.
The standard round handguard is a minimal device. The more advanced handguards allow deploying optics, combat lights, lasers, and forward grips. If you have no need for this option, the stock round handguard works fine.
A free-floating handguard is a little more expensive than the standard round handguard. The free-floating handguard doesn’t affect barrel harmonics by butting against the barrel. Free-floated handguards are a good idea.
While accuracy potential inside of 100 yards may not be affected noticeably, anyone considering top accuracy in the AR-15 rifle should choose a free-floating handguard.
The most common buttstock for the AR-15 rifle is a six-position adjustable stock. These stocks allow a shooter to adjust between the proper offset for light clothing, heavy clothing, the requirements of the optic used, or optimal eye relief with a red dot sight.
Storage is easy and close-quarters-battle demands make the adjustable stock the best overall choice for most of us. Hogue and Magpul stocks are of good designs. Leapers, Luth-AR and a few others offer high-grade solid stocks that may be retrofitted to the AR rifle. These stocks allow excellent accuracy. While the shooter using these stocks is in the minority, they are often very good shooters demanding a solid firing platform.
An issue that really isn’t an issue with the budget AR-15 is sights. Quality fixed sights are not always iron, some are polymer and plastic. Some, but not all, of us put optics on the AR-15 rifle. If the rifle doesn’t come with iron sights, that isn’t that big a drawback. Take a look at iron sights at CheaperThanDirt.com. Polymer and aluminum sights are included in the iron sight category and some are less than $20. You can spend more, but you don’t have to.
There are also the new breed 45-degree angle offset ‘backup’ sights you may wish to deploy in addition to optical sights. The bottom line is a rifle that saves a few bucks by not including iron sights isn’t a bad idea. You may add your own choice, irons or optics, and have the freedom to choose.
Conclusion: Budget AR-15
When you get right down to the nitty-gritty, an inexpensive AR-15 may be the best investment. There is no need to pay for features you don’t need. Get a less expensive gun, and if you desire, replace the stocks, sights, and trigger action with upgrades that compliment your growing skill.
Spend the money you save on ammunition. The budget AR-15 is a grand investment.