The 3 Most Popular AR-15 Build Styles

AR-15 build styles

There are almost as many ways to build an AR-15 as there are parts combinations. Today, however, we’re going to focus on the three most popular AR-15 build styles.

Let’s get right into it.

AR-15 Build Styles

1. Pre-Assembled Lower + Pre-Assembled Upper

AR-15 Build Styles - Upper Receiver

The simplest choice is to buy a pre-assembled lower an

d mate it to a pre-assembled upper. This is technically “building” an AR from a legal standpoint, as it avoids the 10% ITAR tax on the sale of a complete rifle.

This might be a worthy reason for doing your build, assuming your goal is a mainstream desire. You also have some degree of control over the options you choose to mate together. This method is inherently limited to the options bulk builders see a market for.

It is rare that you will find many of the higher-end options in these offerings. The good news is that all uppers will mount to all lowers, assuming they are not from a third-rate manufacturer or not specifically labeled as being proprietary.

(This is of specific concern with pistol caliber lowers and some billet components.)

2. Prebuilt Lower or Upper + Other Parts

AR-15 Build

A slightly more labor-intensive option among AR-15 build styles is buying either a prebuilt lower or a prebuilt upper and assembling the other half from parts. Many people do this when they find desired components in a preassembled half, but not in the other half.

Most of my AR builds fit this pattern. Although I am fully capable of assembling an upper, a prebuilt upper matching my desires usually costs less and is the manufacturer’s problem if something doesn’t work properly.

Prebuilt lowers rarely come with quality triggers, so I usually build those myself.

An example: I priced out buying the components for a 24″ heavy barrel precision upper build. Buying the components I wanted, would have cost me roughly $1,000. Instead, I bought a fully assembled White Oaks Armament upper for just under $700.

The only thing I wasn’t entirely sold on was having a tube handguard instead of a railed one. I have come to learn that a tube on that type of rifle it is a great option.

In addition to saving $300 and the time of assembly, I also received the White Oaks Armament reputation for accuracy. My sub-MOA expectations were handily exceeded with hand loads. When I do my part, the rifle provides sub 1″ five-shot groups at 200 yards.

Occasionally, the group size hits .625” at 200 yards. I seriously doubt any assembly of parts would do as well. In my three years of owning this rifle, the only thing I have changed on the upper is having the barrel threaded for suppressed use.


In this example, I knew the barrel and chamber were going to be spot on, so the best use of my money was to make sure the lower components’ performance matched with the potential of the upper. This meant I needed a quality stock and trigger.

On a build with a 7# upper, a light collapsible stock was not the best idea. It also meant that a Mil-Spec, #8 gravel road trigger was not an option. The $300 saved on the assembled upper went a long way towards building the lower properly.

This included purchasing a Magpul PRS stock, high-quality lower parts kit and one of Geissele’s SSA-E, two-stage triggers.

3. Complete Build from Scratch

AR-15 Build

The last general category of building your own AR is to buy a basket of parts, assembly tools and get building. A list of those parts can be found here. 

I would strongly suggest not taking this route on your first build. It would also be smart on the initial build of this type, to not use generic brand components. These parts have a much greater chance of being out of spec and creating assembly issues.

As a new builder, it is unlikely you will be able to easily diagnose the issue and may well spend more money chasing the issue than if an assembled gun was purchased. The worst of the potential issues is out-of-spec head spacing.

This brings me to the point where I give the safety brief. Every build has the potential for error. Some errors result in a scratch on your lower or upper—frustrating, but not a big deal. Others result in a broken or lost component. Annoying, but not tragic.

The worst issues result in out-of-battery ignition, dramatic overpressure situations or other potentially catastrophic events.

If you’re interested in getting a taste of what this looks like, here’s a video example of one sequence in building an AR-15 from scratch (installing the takedown pin and buffer tube):

Essential Tools for AR-15 Builds

If you are doing anything beyond mating a pre-built lower to a pre-built upper, you really should have some AR build tools and one specific safety item. Here’s what you need for most AR-15 build styles:


Whichever method you choose, there is a great degree of satisfaction in building your own AR. It also opens up the build possibilities, be that for a specific component or building an AR in a non-standard caliber. My next build is likely to be a .458 SOCOM pistol.

I plan on running a Faxon 10.5” barrel, Fail Zero nickel boron bolt carrier group, Brigand Arms 9” ATLAS handguard, Spikes “Honey Badger” lower, Geissele SSA-E trigger, Magpul BAD lever and a Gear Head Works Mod 2 Pistol Brace.

What is your favorite among the above AR-15 build styles? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author:

John Bibby

John Bibby is an American gun writer who had the misfortune of being born in the occupied territory of New Jersey. His parents moved to the much freer state of Florida when he was 3. This allowed his father start teaching him about shooting prior to age 6. By age 8, he was regularly shooting with his father and parents of his friends. At age 12, despite the strong suggestions that he shouldn’t, he shot a neighbor’s “elephant rifle."

The rifle was a .375 H&H Magnum and, as such, precautions were taken. He had to shoot from prone. The recoil-induced, grass-stained shirt was a badge of honor. Shooting has been a constant in his life, as has cooking.

He is an (early) retired Executive Chef. Food is his other great passion. Currently, he is a semi-frequent 3-Gun competitor, with a solid weak spot on shotgun stages. When his business and travel schedule allow, you will often find him, ringing steel out well past 600 yards. In order to be consistent while going long, reloading is fairly mandatory. The 3-Gun matches work his progressive presses with volume work. Precision loading for long-range shooting and whitetail hunting keeps the single-stage presses from getting dusty.
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 (11)

  1. My first AR was a colt sporster, with the old school look. I bought 2 stripped lowers one milled and one cast. I want to build them but am completely uneducated about the quality of parts and don’t want to spend 1k on each gun. I do want quality weapons but am not a competitive shooter. I’m thinking of a 7.62×39 for cost effectiveness of the rounds, and possibly a higher caliber round for the second weapon. I’m totally vaporlocked on the decision, but this article helped educate me on the process.

  2. I have a SCR and intrested in changing the upper. It comes from the factory as a. 223/.556 but I would like to find out if there is a upper that can be installed to change it to a .300 black out or a.308? And can this be done with out major changes to the lower?

  3. I have my method of installing trigger guard pins on AR-15 builds.
    I have two crescent wrenches (two different sizes) with the jaws heavily electrical taped.
    I get the pin started and then use the crescent wrench to “push” the pin in place instead of hammering it in. As I push the pin in, I adjust the jaws so as to keep them as parallel to each other as I can, so as not to push on an angle.
    Less chance of breaking that thin wall on the lower and I feel better not using a hammer in this area.

  4. If it’s cheap I am after. Usually a prebuilt upper and assembled lower is the way I go. I’ve built numerous burners that I can use for trade, raising cash if needed, banging around in the truck, whatever. I won’t be heartbroken if they blow up or we otherwise part ways.
    Anything I plan on keeping around is usually a build to suit from the ground up. Exceptions are that sometimes these sellers run some incredible sales on prebuilt systems. It’s hard to keep the card in the wallet sometimes. But the beauty is most of these look the same to the uneducated. 😁

  5. Great write up. Especially for those who like to tinker and build. Good points with the tools needed too. Good Headspace gauges aren’t cheap as they are a very precise tool, which is why I went with a completed upper, but finished my lower with an 80%.

  6. My first AR is a scratch build. 80% lower, Bear Creek Arsenal side bolt upper, Bear Creek 24″ barrel, Ultradyne sights and Appollo muzzle brake. Amm still experimenting with trigger assemblies. JP Industries silent buffer(love it). very sraight, accurate shooter.
    Brownells retro furniturem wanted a little different “Old School” look. Gets a lot of looks and “What is that?” at the range. The buffer and brake make iy a real pleasure to shoot

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