Which Tier 1 AR-15 manufacturers are your favorites? A poll around the Cheaper Than Dirt! office resulted in this list in no particular order:
I repeat, in no particular order. (C’mon guys, you know that would be impossible.)
- Knight’s Armament
- Lewis Machine & Tool
- Daniel Defense
- Midwest Industries
One thing all these manufacturers have in common? They all make parts or complete rifles favored by military and law enforcement personnel. For many looking for a Mil-Spec AR, this is no slight detail.
Okay, so admittedly, I am a little gun shy about writing this list. The last time I made a list it almost blew up (har har) in my face. (I made a comparison list of small, pocket handguns and plenty of you were in disagreement…as I am sure you will be with this list.) However, lists are fun to make and people like reading them and then apparently, arguing about said list.
There are hundreds of AR-15 manufacturers, from giants such as Freedom Group—which owns Remington, Bushmaster and DPMS—to small mom and pop boutique shops that meticulously machine and hand-fit almost every single part. Prices range from $500 to thousands. It is also extremely popular, fun and affordable to build your own. When you piece-meal your rifle together—you get exactly what you want.
Those who are budget conscience can buy pieces slowly so no one you live with gets mad or goes hungry. That’s what I did for my first AR-15. For about $500, I have a reliable and accurate AR with a red dot and Magpul furniture. She isn’t built from the most expensive parts and she doesn’t like to run dry—what AR does?—and I’m fine with that.
I have heard many say that the best AR is the one you build yourself from the exact parts you want. However, there are plenty of respectable AR-15 brands out there using top-notch parts, high-quality machining, and that pay close attention to details. There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a factory AR-15. I know plenty of carbine experts who buy and run stock rifles.
So what makes a good AR-15 anyway? Certainly reliability and accuracy. Will it go bang! every time? Does it feed, function and eject without issues? Another huge part to a good AR is the quality the company puts into the parts, if they pay attention to detail and offer excellent customer service. All the Tier 1 AR manufacturers ensure the completed rifle is fired and function-tested before leaving its doors, fit and finish is impeccable and the warranty that goes with the rifle is second to none.
Some will say a Tier 1 AR manufacturer makes its rifles to MIL-SPEC; however, MIL-SPEC is arguably just a marketing catchphrase. No semi-automatic, commercial AR-15 will truly be Mil-Spec. Most aficionados will tell you, the best ARs will follow Colt’s Technical Data Package, though a bit outdated now due to modern, innovative technologies, the best-rated AR-15 manufacturers’ rifles will have:
- A properly staked gas key
- A high pressure tested/MPI and shot-peened bolt
- 4150 steel, chrome-lined or stainless steel MPI and cold-hammer forged barrels
- Chambered in 5.56mm NATO (All AR-15s listed below are chambered in 5.56mm)
- A chrome-lined bore and chamber
- M4 feed ramps
- Mil-Spec-diameter receiver extension (buffer tube) with staked castle nut
- Type III hard coat anodizing
For a detailed explanation of what all that means—especially for a beginner or first-time AR buyer/owner—I refer you to the best explanation I have read, “Explanation of Desirable Features in Commercial M4 Pattern Carbines.”
This can’t be a definitive list—that would be a near impossible task to list every top AR-15 brand in the world. I am pretty sure many of you will recognize which manufacturers are missing and please tell me.
(Note: I have also left off “boutique” manufacturers like Hodge, Sionics and WarSport.)
Without a doubt, this list of 10 best-rated AR-15s includes some of the best in the business.
BCM is a veteran-owned black rifle company that started in 2005. They build Mil-Spec rifles for people who are going to run them. The entire company is dedicated to creating equipment that will not fail those who depend on it. BCM barrels are either Mil-Spec 11595E barrel steel (CMV) or SS310 stainless steel, chrome-lined and are both M197 high-pressure tested and Magnetic Particle inspected. The company’s rifles have M4 feed ramps and a chrome-lined bore and chamber. The bolt is shot peened and high-pressure tested. Receivers are anodized per MIL-A-8625F Type III Class 2. The gas key is properly staked, hardened and chrome lined with Grade 8 Mil-Spec fasteners. When running down the “what makes a good AR-15” checklist, Bravo Company gets all of it right. BCM rifles start at $1,200 for the standard carbine length, while mid-length isn’t much more.
The late John Noveske founded Noveske Rifleworks in 2001 after returning home from serving in the U.S. Army and learning barrel making at PAC-NOR. He started Noveske in his dad’s garage with a lathe making barrels. He soon moved to a shop with the lathe and a new mill to start building a precision AR-15 rifle. The renowned AR maker paved the way for stainless AR barrels. Noveske applies an extra thick chrome-lined layer, making a Noveske barrel much more durable than most others are. These Noveske AR hand-chambered barrels exceed Mil-Spec standards with a 416 stainless steel hardness of 32 RC. Noveske takes great care in the detail of the process of creating one rifle. Each rifle is hand-fit by just one person. It’s Gen 1 RECCE Basic rifle, starting at around $1700 has a shot-peened and MP-tested bolt and a staked carrier key, a Noveske Signature rear back up iron sight made by Troy Industries and Magpul furniture.
Knight’s Armament (KAC) has grown to be one of the biggest manufacturers of small arms in the United States since it started over 30 years ago. KAC employed Eugene Stoner, who was at Knight’s Armament until he passed away. The company is best known for its innovation and improvements to Stoner’s original AR-15 design. Many of Knight’s Armament newest ARs have the tough E3 Enhanced proprietary bolt carrier group. KAC’s railed forend is also the one that the U.S. military use on their M4 and M16s. Barrels are hammer-forged and chrome-lined. KAC rifles start at around $2,500.
Lewis Machine and Tool has been in business since 1980 and is most known for President Karl Lewis’ Monolithic Rail Platform, which is a one-piece Mil-Spec upper receiver that has an integral forend. This system was one of the first to allow for quick barrel and caliber swaps. The innovative design allows users to switch barrels without losing the point of impact and point of aim. Neither are you forced to buy a completely new upper when changing calibers. Switching calibers from 5.56mm NATO to .204 Ruger, .300 AAC Blackout or 6.8 SPC is as easy as simply removing the upper using just one tool. Starting at almost $1400, LMT’s lowest price AR-15 has a chrome-lined and cryogenically treated barrel. The company also makes stainless barrels. All of LMT’s rifles are 100 percent made in the U.S.A.
Marty Daniel, the founder of Daniel Defense, started the company when he found a lack of high quality improved parts for his M16, so he decided to make his own. It is only one of five companies worldwide that make cold hammer-forged barrels. Daniel Defense barrels are chrome-lined and MPI. Daniel Defense produces rifles in pistol, carbine, mid and rifle-length gas systems—all have Type III hard-coat anodized finish, M4 feed ramps and a properly staked gas key. The bolt carrier group is shot-peened and both Mil-Spec MPI and HPI-tested and the gas system has a salt bath nitride finish. Unlike some of its competitors, Daniel Defense machines much of its own parts in house, including sights, stocks, rails, and flash suppressors. For $1,500, you can get Daniel Defense’s M4V11 rifle.
After U.S. Army vet, Pat Bryan bought out the pre-existing company in 2006, LWRC became dedicated to developing a short-stroke gas piston system for the AR-15. LWRC’s short-stroke piston system is patented. LWRCI rifles are made to meet U.S. Army Individual Carbine program requirements. The company makes its own barrels out of 41V5 steel alloy, which are NiCorr-treated, eliminating the need for chrome lining. The bolt carrier group—another innovation of the company—is Nickel Boron coated which provides permanent lubrication to the rifle. LWRC ARs have a Mil-Spec-sized buffer tube, H2 buffer and are Type III hard-coat anodized. Prices for an LWRC at Cheaper Than Dirt! start a little over $1600.
A company that needs no introduction—the Colt’s LE6920 is the closest commercial AR-15 you will find to the military M4. All its missing is the pewpewpew button. So when Colt says its AR-15 is Mil-Spec, they really mean it. “Parts is parts” isn’t a thing with Colt. The same parts that go into the Colt M4 go into the Colt’s commercial/civilian ARs. Barrels are chrome-lined and HP-tested and MP inspected. The bolt is also Magnetic Particle Inspected. And not to mention, Colt was the first and for a long time, the only ones to have exclusive rights to the military’s specifications and requirements for M4/M16 rifles. Colt rifles are only of two on this list that sell for less than $1,000.
H&K as a weapons manufacturer began as developing and supplying firearms to the German military in 1956. Since then, it has produced some of the most famous and reliable battle rifles in the world—most notably the MP5 and the HK416 (the rifle used to kill Osama Bin Laden). H&K pioneered the polygonal rifling that is standard today. An H&K AR is set apart from others due to its proprietary gas system. The H&K MR556A1 uses the same gas system found on the HK416 rifle. Instead of a gas tube, the MR556A1 AR-15 uses a pusher rod. This system proves to be truly cleaner than others are. Also different is H&K’s choice to not chrome line its barrels. H&K barrels are made by H&K in Germany out of cannon-grade steel and are cold hammer forged. The 5.56mm NATO chamber meets the Commission Internationale Permanente dimensions requirements (C.I.P.). Many of the same exact parts used to build the HK416 also go on the MR556A1 like the free float rail system. The H&K MR556A1 retails for a little more than $2,500.
Midwest Industries have been making quality AR parts for years now, but are relatively new to building complete rifles. Its first complete rifle was introduced in 2014. Built on the company’s forged hard coat anodized billet receivers, the Midwest Industries AR-15s have FN hammer-forged and chrome-lined barrels, a MPI bolt, M4 feed ramps and a staked castle nut. You will find the same type of safety selector on the Midwest Industries riles as you do on an FN SCAR—a feature unique to Midwest’s complete AR-15s. Midwest Industries’ most affordable AR has an MSRP of less than $900.
Barrett is known for firsts. Ronnie Barrett founded it in 1982 when he developed the first ever shoulder-fired .50 BMG rifle—which is what Barrett is mostly known for. When Barrett introduced its REC7 rifle in 2007, it was one of the very first piston-driven AR-15 style platform rifles chambered for 6.8 SPC. The Barrett’s ARs have an MPI bolt, hard-anodized receivers, chrome-lined barrels, M4 feed ramps and utilize some of the industry’s most respected accessories from Magpul, Daniel Defense and BCM. The anti-tilt bolt carrier has no gas key, is machined from one piece of 8620 steel, and is Nickel Teflon-coated. The standard REC7 model has an MSRP of nearly $3,000.