Budget AR-15: Get the Most Value for Your Money

man shooting budget AR-15

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.

S&W M&P Budget AR-15
The Smith & Wesson AR-15 isn’t expensive, but offers good performance.

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.

man shooting budget AR-15
Firing a budget AR-15 at 100 yards is interesting — most are plenty accurate for common tasks such as hunting and personal defense.

Barrel Length

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.

Ruger AR-15
The Ruger 5.56 NATO rifle in its bare-bones model is reliable and useful.

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.

Bolt carriers are easily replaced and carrier keys are not difficult to re-stake. It may be best to start with the S&W, CORE15, or Ruger AR and avoid these troubles.

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.

Close up of S&W AR-15
This M&P15 has fired thousands of trouble-free rounds.

AR-15 Handguards

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.

Ruger MPR AR
If there is a single best buy AR-15 rifle, it may be the Ruger MPR.

AR Stocks

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.

AR and mags on range bag
This CORE15 rifle has served for many years. It is useful for most chores.

AR-15 Sights

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 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.

AR-15 rifle with scope
This Ruger 5.56 NATO rifle with TRUGLO scope is an excellent combination.

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.

What do you think of the budget AR-15? Let us know in the comment section!

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
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. @ETPH If you’re interested in keeping it light… go with a JMT Gen2 or JMT Carbon 50. Yes, it’s a polymer but a VERY good one. The company is fantastic as well. My DPMS Oracle, carbine length, pencil barrel, Glacier guard, even with using loaded 30 round stainless mags… aluminum carry handle… and a Streamlight attached only weighs in at like 7.2lbs. It’s pretty dang light compared to my brother’s DDM4 tipping the scales at around 9lbs. That thing is a cow… darn good rifle but heavy as all get out. He’s got a mid length M-Lok guard, Gov’t profile barrel, flashlight, a holographic red dot, 45 degree BUIS, sling, Magpul furniture… it’s honestly way too heavy. He loves how light mine is and constanly b****** about its weight… and I don’t blame him.

  2. I’ve had my M&P 15 for several years but it unfortunately is heavy because I added a light, sling, and optic. I purchased the some AR 15 parts to begin building a new rifle that will be lighter than my current one. I still haven’t begun to buy the other parts yet.

  3. Have a DPMS Oracle, that I completely assembled myself. Can’t find them like that anymore but mine has been fine for close to a decade now. Stuck a UTG Leapers carry handle on it, and of course a matching height front post because the DPMS gas block sits lower than the upper receiver rail.
    The whole comment someone maid about not using polymer lowers… umm… my JMT Gen2 has been flawless… although there are junk poly lowers out there but the JMT isn’t one of them.
    Using C-Products Defense stainless mags, loaded to 30, with the JMT lower, not a problem at all.
    Overall, about $600 total… it eats anything it’s fed, no malfunctions on the rifle’s part. One LC case from 1973 ruptured, blew the floor plate of the mag off, the mag out of the lower… checked the rifle, the rest of the ammo, reinstalled the mag and everything kept on running.
    It’s simple, effective, was inexpensive, and overall plenty good enough for anything I’ve asked of it.

  4. Curios what happened in March 2018 besides the announcement that Toys R Us was closing that made Tim run out and by 2 AR-15s ?

  5. been around guns all my life (I live in the South). Never had a reason to own an AR-15 till March of 2018. Now I have two. Amerika is going down\/

  6. AR-15s to avoid due wildly varying quality control: Bear Creek Arsenal, Hesse, InterOrdnance, Jokken, all polymer lowers.

    As frames for upgrade assemblies: Anderson,Aerspace Presicision, Del-Ton, Armalite, S&W, Ruger, Stag Arms. Recommend REliability uogrades for the aforementioned rifles: A. Improved, cheap, BCG[Bolt Carrier Group]: Toolcraft nickel boron or titanium nitride BCG. B. Improved, charging handle: BCM{Bravo Company Manufacturing]ambidestrous large latch charging handle. C. Magazine upgrade: Base Defense: ASC stainless Steel thirty round magazines. Patrol: HEXMAG S2 thirty round polymer magazines. NOTE: I load both with on 25 rounds of ammo to further max the reliability. D. KNS Precision push button pivot and rear take down pins. Both simplifies the AR-15[no detents or springs]and makes it easier to field strip for cleaning, too. E. If no optic and no rear sight, Troy Industries fixed rear sight. E-1, Blitzkrieg Components LLC Green or arange luminescent front sight replacement post triangle.

    Cleaning and Lubrication. Hoppes #9 Gun Medic Cleaner and Lube Quick.

    From the box as is: Springfield Saint 15.

    Hope this helps , Marky

  7. My wife has an Oracle by DPMS. I paid less than $500.00 for it. It does everything my FN does, which was$1,200.00 however, for me, I’d rather have the FN. The DPMS works great for her use, though.

  8. I really enjoyed the article very much. It was so nice to see someone not try and push more expensive products and be honest in their appraisal of how to begin to enter the world of AR enjoyment. I personally own a S&W MP and have slowly begun aquiring parts for my own build. I swapped out the hand guard and have aim point pro optic. I couldn’t agree more with you on recommending the S&W for a budget friendly 1st AR. I love mine.

  9. I own the Ruger 5.56 NATO, the Ruger AR-15, and the M&P 15. My favorites are in the order shown. The Ruger 5.56 NATO is a blast to shoot. I plan on obtaining a Ruger MPR soon. Absolutely recommend an AR-15 for self-protection and fun shooting.

  10. Great article. I’m looking to get an AR for myself and my daughter and didn’t want to spend $4000.00 on two guns. This was very helpful for me, as to, what to look for and not get caught up in all the whistle and bells. Thank you. New shooters.

  11. Great article it brought back the day I turned 17 and 2 days later I was on the yellow footprints at marine corps recruit depot San Diego where my first weapon was the m-16 A1 and learning how to hit the target at 500 meters with a weapon rated to 460 meters was a educational fast forward to today Monday my Ar 15 m4 colt gets here and with the adjustable stock being 6ft 8in tall with the A1all my bullseyes required the carrying handle to hit me in the eye brow to once again be able to fire the new 5.56 stay tuned once again thanks for the article Semper Fi Capt. RTFerris USMC Ret

  12. Great article!! Very informative and helpful. I have a buddy who has a Ruger AR-556 and it is very smooth handling and nice for the price! I have been looking into getting a MP-15 but can’t decide between the Ruger or S&W. Whichever I choose I’m sure will be great though!

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