How to Setup the Best AR-15 on a Budget

Black Del-Ton ECHO AR-15 with Magpul furniture

When you work in the gun industry, it is easy to be caught up in the hype of buying the end-all-be-all of rifles. Often, we fail to realize that your average American shooter does not want, nor can they afford, a Noveske or LWRC. That being said, how do we arm the general populous with a rifle that meets all their needs without destroying their bank account? Here, we will find that middle of the road in quality versus price for the rifle, optic and light.

The market has become so flooded that it is fairly easy for the average Joe to have an AR-15 that not only withstands some of the more rigorous paces, yet is still affordable enough to escape murder by your significant other. Often, it is far better to pick up a gun at a decent price, so you can attach the parts you need instead of dropping your hard-earned greenbacks on just the gun. By jumping on the first high-end rifle you come across, you are selling yourself short on being able to pick up an optic that will get you through the fight, and the light that will blind your enemy in the dead of night.


Black Del-Ton ECHO AR-15 with Magpul furniture
Just below the six hundred mark, the Del-Ton ECHO comes almost ready to rock and roll.

At just below the $600 mark, the Del-Ton ECHO comes almost ready to rock and roll. Not many AR’s in this price range will be able to perform as well as this gun. Typically, when you go cheap you can run into various issues such as improperly staked gas keys or dremel work on the feed ramps (yes, that is a common thing). You will not run into these issues with Del-Ton. For the comfortable price of $600, this rifle features a 1:9 heavy profile Chrome Moly barrel great for reaching out and dropping hogs, MOE furniture with almost limitless options for attachments, M4 feed ramps, and the reliability that only an American-made firearm can achieve. Couple this firearm with some 55-grain ammo such as Federal V-Shok and you have a force to reckon with.


Trying to decide on an optic is by far the hardest part. Looking for an optic that is capable of intermediate range work to CQB is no easy task, so I hope this helps you in your adventure. The fact is, most people can’t afford a new ACOG. Are they some of the best? Sure. Will they ever fail? Probably not. But at an average price of around $1100, it is just not a feasible option.

Barska AR-15 red dot sight
Few optics out there will give you the flexibility to engage a target at 350 yards and still be able to defend the home in a CQB situation.

After careful consideration, the 4×32 AR-15/M16 sight from Barska became the obvious choice. At a sub $200 price tag, it is a contender for even the most frugal of gun owners. Few optics will give you the flexibility to engage a target at 350 yards and still be able to defend the home in a CQB situation. The Mil-Dot reticle will assist when compensating for range, while the shockproof design gives you the versatility to not have to baby a gun that helps defend your life.

One thing to keep in mind is that even with a great optic, a must-have is a backup sight. Sometimes we have to quote Murphy’s Law and remember that what can go wrong will go wrong. Optics go down and that is an unfortunate part of being a shooter. My go-to back-up sight is a flip up from Mako Group. Going with flip up sights is always a great option because they are easy to keep on hand, yet rarely do they get in the way or get caught on things. Flip-up sights from Mako will run you less than $40 and be ready to save the day when things go south.


Black, tactical SureFire flashlight
The G2X will light up any target at home defense distances.

Lights can be a tricky road to travel when we are looking for quality and affordability at the same time. Often, I have found the best thing to do when light shopping on a budget is to go with a handheld light and add a mount. Most lights from reputable manufacturers will have a standard one-inch body that fit a plethora of very affordable mounts. For this setup, we will go with a Surefire G2X Tactical. Ideally, we would like to go with a higher output light, but for the topic of budget guns, this is one of the best options out there. The G2X will light up any target at home defense distances. For those of you who have never been hit with a high output light such as the G2X, all I can really tell you is that it hurts. The upstanding gentleman creeping around your house at night is not going to be able to see much of you at all—just a painful light to leave him disoriented. The only thing left is to add a mount so that you can attach it to the gun. The BLACKHAWK! offset mount is quality that you can depend on.

Any of us can be armed and ready to defend life, liberty, and property with the right tools and a little bit of nudge in the right direction.

Have you set up an AR-15 on a strict budget? What rifle and parts did you use? Share your build with us in the comment section.

Kyle has been very active with firearms from a young age when his father gave him his first .22 and a brick of ammo. This led on to deer hunting in southern Illinois to doves in west Texas. He is an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, and currently works as a product tech for Cheaper Than Dirt!


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 (43)

  1. “and the reliability that only an American-made firearm can achieve.”

    One of the most asinine and incorrect statements ever written.

  2. Wow, Of all the comments I’ve read no one has mentioned laser attachments. In the home target acquisition would be from around the corner of a door or hallway. I mounted a $50 laser light combo to the bottom of a 4 rail gas block, remote switch on them both. Got a reasonable deal on a set of 45 degree flip-up open iron sights and an under $100 4-16 x 40mm illuminated reticle scope for some distance, my eyes need all the help I can give them. I pieced this setup together as I could afford it. Also added a 4 rail froward hand guard, bipod and forward pistol grip, single point sling because its heavy now, but I don’t care about the weight, with the laser I don’t need to draw up to acquire the target, hence, “Shooting from the hip”. The rifle is a double star that I got for $500 .223/5.56 NATO second hand.
    Thank you “Cheaper than Dirt” for making this rifle affordable. Totaled out under $800. My friends think I went over the top with this thing but they can’t stop looking at it and wanting to holding it.
    I also built up a Remington 870, added an adjustable rear stock pistol grip combo with a matching forward stock, and a mag extension that holds nine in the tube and one in the throat. Yep, certainly more fun than humans should be allowed to have.
    Funny thing is, in a hurry I grab my S/W Mod 19, .357 magnum. I loaded it with the first 3 rounds of CCI 38 spc #6 bird shot followed with 3 rounds of .357 magnum semi jacketed hollow points ( out on my 5 country acres in Florida, we have dangerous snakes) yes, there is a shotgun shell for an outdated revolver.
    Consider this, you can have all the hardware in the world, however, all this is worthless without training and practice, make your actions a reaction verses trying to learn under real-world duress. In the country as a family we set up a private shooting range and practice scenarios that we could possibly face, children of ten years and up included. Not everyone can put in their own range, however, I’m sure your local range would be more than willing to accommodate you.
    Happy practice, TT

    1. “Wow, Of all the comments I’ve read no one has mentioned laser attachments”
      The local Bass Pro has a decent looking rifle laser attachment with a momentary on button (only on as long as you hold it) for only $29.
      It would be easy to add a regular on/off button in addition to the momentary button.

    2. at Archangel
      The remote switch is the same as what you described as a momentary on button, only comes on when the button is held. Have you seen lately the prices of attachable lights. The laser/light combo for $50 is a sweet deal, never guess where I got it …(Walmart). This set came with both on/off button and remote switch.

    3. The flash light I would rather not be attached to a rifle or pistol as I see them as a “SHOOT HERE” indicator more so than a laser would be.
      On a shotgun however, I see the flash light in the same “light” as a laser on a pistol or rifle.
      Lighting up the area of the shotgun pattern impact area.
      I have seen lasers that place a pattern of dots for shotguns, but I’m too much of a cheap old Ba5tard to buy one.

  3. My ar cost about 500 not including optics. CDNN, and other companies, has/have pre-assembled uppers for around $300. My upper from cdnn was all name brand parts ($890ish msrp not including shipping), and was on sale for 280 with free shipping. You do get what you pay for, so I would advise you to shop around. An hour shopping online for parts/ full rifles can save you a few bucks that you can spend later on optics or ammo.

  4. I purchased a S&W M&P with a 5.56 1:9 barrel a folding Magpul rear sight and M4 feed ramps. Everything on this rifle is mil spec and it only cost me $530 delivered. I just put an Exos Defense stock on it because the S&W adjustable one rattles. The Exos doesn’t. I am looking for a decent optic, but Barska it not known for top end optics. $200 is the starting price for good optics. How about a sale on the NIkon scope everybody is buying? Its in the $200 range and I trust Nikon a lot more than Barska.

    1. I have a Vortex Crossfire II on one of my AR’s. It is a 1-4×24. It has illuminated optics. I like this because I can magnify for distance, yet have zero magnification for up close. It cost about $250, but then you need to buy a base. I got mine from MidwayUSA. The base was an ARStoner brand. Solid as a rock. The really nice thing about any Vortex optic is the warranty. The warranty is for life! No registration, no receipts, and they don’t care if you’re the original owner or the tenth. Vortex offers a full repair or replace, no questions asked. If you run your rifle scope over with a truck, it is covered 100%!! All Vortex optics are the same. Go to their website and see. I’m building another “backup” AR right now.
      I saw a 1-4×24 illuminated Tactical Scope in the latest NRA Christmas catalog for $149.95. I called NRA, and they gave me the phone number for the manufacturer. It has a “Iimited” lifetime warranty. In other words, if it breaks, they will fix it for life. It doesn’t cover user abuse or accidents though. It comes base included, (that’s another $50-$100 for a decent one!), all for $150.00. I’m going to buy one. If the NRA stamps their logo on it, it’s not going to be junk. For a budget, it sounds like a great option.

  5. “Go on the cheap and that is was you end up with…cheap”?
    Ok, go big or go without?
    Frugal is not the same as cheap.
    I don’t have even the $600 they refer to so am piecing it together ONE PIECE/GROUPING AT A TIME and only when the item to be purchased is on sale or a deeply discounted blemished part (like the olive green upper from R-GUNS I only paid $65 with forward assist and dust cover installed and they had to point out the defect for me).
    A show piece it will not be, but a decent serviceable defensive weapon.
    If you intend to, and can afford to toss hundreds of rounds down range 52 weeks a year, you can afford a pricey gun.
    Put your money where the pressure and wear is, like the barrel and bolt carrier group.

  6. I managed to build an AR with Anderson upper/lower and a PSA lower build kit. Added some magpul flipups and it’s a pretty nice rifle for $600 – especially since it has a floating barrel! Still saving my money for a red dot…I hear good things about the Lucid HD7.

  7. I bought a Delton Echo 316 a couple of years ago for $700 in CA. Never had an issue it and put on a Nikon P223 scope with some AM rails. Love that gun. Got a DPMS for the wife and it has been a never ending headache.

  8. Go on the cheap and that is was you end up with…cheap. When your life or the lives of your loved ones 12might rely on this weapon, cheap is not an option.

    1. RPK, cheap is not always the best option. Unfortunately, for most people going high end is not an option, which is what this is about. It is better for people to be armed on a budget vs. not being armed at all.

  9. Luckily, I’ve never had to defend my home with a firearm. However, I’ve tried a lot of optics out on my AR, and I can’t for the life of me agree with the idea that a dedicated 4x optic of any kind, even a $1000 trijicon ACOG, is in any way a “good” solution to the trade off conundrum of trying to get both fast acquisition and target transition shooting, and precise aiming for long distance shooting. Any fixed magnified optic just isn’t “good for both.” Target acquisition is VERY SLOW, I don’t care how much you practice the “Bindon Aiming” technique. Compared to iron sights or a 1X red dot, they are glacially slow. And even worse for transitioning to a second target. I am still waiting for a satisfying “budget” way of getting both close quarters optimization AND magnification. Right now, the options are 1) a cheap 4x like the Barska in the article, coupled with another cheap clone of the RMR or Burris Fastfire type red dot, either mounted atop the 4X (bad for cheek weld) or mounted on an offset (my preferred) which also requires buying an offset rail. 2) The cheap variable magnification optics. Unfortunately, the ones that that I’ve tried, and I’ve tried a few, aren’t good at the 1x setting for fast close shooting. They’re a little better than a 4X, but still bad. The only ones I’ve tried that are true “no magnification/both eyes open” scopes, and hence perform as well as a red dot, are the >$1000 scopes, it’s just expensive to get the lenses correct so that they don’t distort your field of view at no magnification. The cheap ones present their unmagnified image slightly out of alignment with the true line-of-sight of your eyes, so when you bring up the scope into your line of sight, you have a double image which is slightly off from the line of sight of the eye that is not looking through the scope, and so you have to go through the “Bindon Aiming” process of having your brain prioritize the new view through the scope, and phase out the original image you were focused on before you brought the scope up into your line of sight. SLOW. 3) Red dot with a magnifier that can either flipped out of the way until you need it, (clunky and impedes your peripherial vision on the side it’s flipped to) or mounted with a QD lever type mount when you need it. I like this option, as you can basically have the magnifier in a pouch on your kit, which gives you a spotting monocular AND a magnifier on your weapon (you can spot with it without pointing your weapon around).

    So, if you can’t get both close quarters and long range on a budget, I’m going to prioritize close quarters for my general rifle, for sure the one I would prepare for home defense, and set up a second, dedicated long distance rifle as a role player. I’d rather be optimized for close up where tenths of a second count, and take the hit on accuracy beyond 300 yards. Honestly, I think most civilian shooters prioritize magnified optics because they can’t really practice close quarters shooting at their local range, and it’s more fun to have a great scope that goes out to 9X or more and all you can do is shoot in a lane from a bench out to 200 yards. But if you have any genuine intention of fighting with an AR inside of 50 yards, you’ve got to set it up with that as the priority, and that means an unmagnified red dot. If you’ve got the budget, you can add a magnifier, or pop for the good variable optics from Trijicon, Meopta, Leopold, etc.

    On a budget, I like a good reliable red dot from Primary Arms, the beefy one that can take a beating is around $160 retail, you can get blemished ones for around $100, and then a quick detach magnifier on my kit, which can be had together (magnifier and QD mount) for under $100. If I need magnification, that means I’m shooting beyond 200 yards, which means I’m taking a supported shooting position anyway, likely prioritizing cover over speed of engagement anyway, so I can take the time to slap on the magnifier if it makes sense to do so (would be enough of a benefit to justify the time).

    1. I am surprised PA optics is not mention in publications more often. i have several of their optics. From my ARs to my long range hunting rifles. i have put them to their torture test as they have in their videos. they are all still in full service. i guess PA is an underground niche. i know i have passed a few of their optics on to peers after they missed on hunting trips. i am very glad someone mentioned PA.

    2. Red dot holographic sights are the fastest target acquisition optics up to 100 yards period. Over that and you will have to magnify or use iron sights. If you are buying one to defend yourself or your family at home, then buy an unmagnified holographic sight. Aimpoint is a good place to start as EoTech just lost their contract with the military because of parallax problems at both temperature extremes. If you live in climates where it doesn’t get above 120 degrees or below 20 below 0 then EoTech will serve you just as fine as Aimpoint. The cheapest ones are in the $250 to $300 range, but you do get what you paid for.

  10. There’s a saying for a reason “buy once, cry once”. Every time I buy less expensive parts or accessories I end up upgrading, not because I want to but because those parts cannot take the abuse of actually using them. I’m not hard on my stuff, I do not hunt or go to the field with it. I’m a range warrior and make holes in paper. But my guns are also for self-defense.

    Some people get away with cheap junk, according to them it works great, I just don’t believe it. I have not had that kind of luck I guess, they always break or do not work consistently. Hey if it comes time that my life is on the line I want something to work without worry or question. To me Murphy was an optimist.

  11. Very nice article. I’ve been wanting to purchase a high end AR for years, but price was always the big issue. I finally decided to build one by buying parts one at a time as I could afford it. My weapon is a total mutt! A DelTon upper, a Yankee Hill lower, various Magpul products etc. it is a very nice rifle and very accurate. Fully mil-spec. I love it.

    I have two comments. 1st, you should really learn to shoot your weapon with iron sights. It’s taken years of practice, but I can shoot 5 round groups of six inches at 100 yards standing up pretty consistently. If your target is 350 yards away, that little 3x scope isn’t very effective. Tactics will work better than a puny scope. Flank that sucker and get in closer.
    2nd, it’s rather alarming to hear people discuss using an AR as a home defense weapon. Holy moly, that round has the kinetic energy to pass through multiple walls, including your neighbors! Not a good idea to uncork a couple of rounds in a random direction in a populated area. A good tactical light mounts just as well on a 20g pump shotgun and 99% of the pellets that don’t strike your assailant are going to embed themselves into the first wall they encounter. Plus it’s pretty darn hard to miss a moving target at 20 feet with a shotgun. Also much easier to teach your wife how to use!

    1. Ric,
      .223 penetration through drywall is actually very minimal compared to a good 00 buck. There have been many studies to compare and contrast with surprising results that show handgun and shotgun loads will penetrate through more walls than most .223 rounds.

    2. I always felt as you stated. Until I watched Hickok 45’s u tube video” shot gun vs Ar for home defense”. Honestly I’m not sure which I would prefer for home defense now. I keep a 44 special loaded and live in a low crime area. I think that’s good enough for now.

    3. That’s true, but a significant percent of our citizens live in rural areas, not the burbs. They also make frangible bullets and DRT makes compressed powder bullets that are cohesive on their flight. Perfect for home situations as neither are going to kill your neighbors as they won’t pass through your attackers.

    4. Ric, I agree about the iron sights. I am a very firm believer that you should know your firearm with irons before moving to an optic. That being said, there is no reason that you cannot pick up both at the same time and learn to use both.
      As for your concern about using an AR in a home defense situation, I am finishing an article on that right now but for the time being, we can have a brief mention.
      The AR is great for defensive situations. It is flexible to your needs. Just because I mentioned the above optic does not mean that is what you have to use. A quality red dot will do great things for you.
      If you are concerned about over penetration that can easily be address. Shoot frangible ammo.
      At the end of the day, we will all have our preferred firearm. As long as you are able to defend your home, that’s what matters.

      If you are concerned about over penetration that can easily be address. Shoot frangible ammo.

      At the end of the day we will all have our preferred firearm. As long as you are able to defend your home, that’s what matters.

  12. I picked up the DPMS Oracle kit and coupled it to a James Madison Tactical Gen2 polymer lower.
    Installed a set of A-2 front and rear iron sights, no optic.
    Using C-Products steel 30 round magazines.

    All together, ready to shoot for under $600.
    Although am still looking for a light that I’d like to use, for the money invested I’m quite happy for what is.
    Reasonably priced, has been 100% reliable, and capable of “Bad Guy” sized center mass groups at out to around 200 meters.

    1. Cheap and affordable are two different terms, not everyone can afford the latest and greatest AR to come down the road, buy what you can afford, keep it clean and functional. Most of all learn how to use it !! I believe this article was about affordable AR’s on a budget. Sure everyone reading this forum would love to have a high dollar weapon but, budgets in some families and individuals don’t allow for that so, buy the best you can afford and train with it. I’m sure the threat to you or your family won’t care if they get shot with a LWRC or a frankengun.

  13. Good article with good choices for those on a budget needing some guidance. Delton is a good name and product-i had one but sold it. My learning/buying over the last few years says palmetto state armory ar’s are a very good choice also, at around $500. I realy dig hp/mpi tested barrels and bcg’s. A shockproof sight, like the barska, add a ton of confidence and removes alot of worry. I am trying out the nikon 3x p223 as of late to see if i like it….its also around $200 or less with mounts and extremely highly rated….but NOT shockproof. Of course theres my trijicon reflex’s…..but those hover around $500, but require no batteries. I run handheld lights in mounts as well….primarily because of cost and the ability to remove it if needed and use it elsewhere. My surefire g2x is older and around 190 lumens i believe. I found it WAY too bright to use indoors on my weapon. Remember……at night you have to protect YOUR night vision also. That light will bounce of the walls and affect your vision, as well as any bad guys. The g2x linked above is over 300 lumens and even brighter than mine, so buyer beware. I settled on the streamlight polytac at around 100 lumens and like it much better….still bright….just not sun in my eyes bright. My streamlight is pushbutton….one level only, while the surefire listed is turn to activate, which is not easy to do without removing your hand from the weapon. I use my brighter surefire as a handheld every day when taking the dogs out and i love it….just not on my weapon. Food for thought and i hope this helps you make an informed purchase decision having a couple more options in the budget….but good quality….mindset.

    1. Brothersinarms, I encourage you to look up the terms “baseboard lighting” and “umbrella lighting.” Doing so will actually illuminate everything in the rooms in which you enter while minimizing reflections back at you. While the higher lumen lights may be uncomfortable for you shining around the house, remember that it’s horribly painful for the other guy.

  14. I have smith and wesson mp15 sport with 5r barrell. Troy battle rail, mbus flip up sights, eotech xps2-2,also rockin primary arms magnifier.Mako Fab deffense forgrip bipod. Ergogrip took awhile to find setup I liked for optic but love eotech with magnifier.

  15. For the money PSA (Palmetto State Armory) has to be considered in this mix especially if considering the quality & daily deals offered. I bought their Freedom Series 16″ SS 416R mid-length upper without BCG or CH for $199 w/free shipping. Added a PSA Magpul MOE Lower parts kit for $149 and with a AIM NiBx & nitride BCG ($99.99) & BCM Gunfighter extended latch CH ($38.99) and a Vortex Sparc II CQB/red dot scope ($209.99) . Total invested on this tack driving AR-15 fully outfitted is well under $850 which I couldn’t buy one with all the bullet proof upgrades installed for under $1000.

    PSA is a great supplier of FN CHF barrels & uppers. FN makes our military’s barrels for “machine guns” and other such critical components! Check these guys out.

  16. I recently purchased a S&W M&P15 for around $500. It came with standard grips and guards. It also included a Magpul flip up rear sight with the standard A2 front sight. I installed a Magpul furniture kit ($85) along with a Bushnell red dot scope (on clearance for $40) and a cheap slimline pic rail mount led light ($14). I installed the light on a Magpul offset mount. For basic shooting and home defense, I think it is a fair price (less than $700 total).

  17. I use a Del-ton Sport AR with a Walther PS 22 red dot sight & a UTG light. I’ve added a MFT hand guard so I would have a picatinny rail system to mount the light on . The weapon is light-weight & accurate.

  18. Is this rifle available in other calibers?
    I would prefer one chambered for 6.5mm Grendel 0r 6.5x39mm.
    Do they offer that?

    1. Alexander Arms is the only name in the business for a 6.5 Grendel. If your on a budget, this caliber is not cheap when looking to buy an upper or ammo. Your looking at $750 plus and up for an upper and $1-1.85 for each round unless you load your own and then you will find the brass is very expensive. The Grendel is not a budget caliber.

  19. For optics, I would highly recommend looking at Primary Arms ACSS scopes. They have great fixed power (2.5, 4 and 5x) as well as variable power FFP scopes (4-14×54 I believe). Excellent products for the money. Etched reticles mean they still work without batteries.

  20. I just set up my first AR. I found the DPMS Oracle at a great price. It was basically a blank canvas, added a red dot from Truglo, and waiting for my backup sites to arrive in the mail. Going to add some Magpul furniture as funds become available.

    1. +Scott Odom…… You might check out BCM products, before deciding on Magpul………….I use both and IMO the BCM products are superior to the Magpul stuff………..just food for thought.

      keep the 2nd or only crooks will be armed

    2. if you consider that 5.56 could take several rounds to repel your intruder the 7.62×39 AR 15 could be the one your looking for. Hardened arms is my choice with m4 feed ramps and an inhanced firing pin cost no more than the M&P 15 sport from Smith & Wesson. Also consider an AR that has no problem firing steel cased ammo.

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