The AR-15, whether you love it or hate it, is known as “America’s rifle” for a reason. By most estimations, there are at least 20 million AR-type rifles in the USA alone, and that number grows by around 3 to 4 million annually.
The now-iconic Jim Sullivan/Eugene Stoner design for the “ArmaLite Rifle” (that’s what the “AR” stands for, by the way) first underwent testing in 1956, was first sent to Vietnam in 1961, and was adopted by the US military as the M16 in 1963. Colt began selling a semi-automatic version of the AR-15 to the civilian market that same year.
The AR-15 pattern of rifle is now available in a staggering array of configurations, calibers, colors, and from dozens of manufacturers and is considered a “modern sporting rifle.” So how do you know you’re getting a good one? Let’s go over some key things to consider, and then we’ll give you some of our picks for good ARs in different price brackets, and for different intended purposes.
Table of Contents
- Features that make a great AR-15.
- Best AR-15s (for fighting, general use/plinking, and gun games).
- Best fighting/tactical AR-15s for serious use.
- Best budget or general purpose AR-15.
- Best ARs for gun games like 3-gun and multigun.
- Which ammo for your AR-15?
- How much does an AR-15 cost?
- Gun Safes Suitable for AR’s.
Features that make a great AR-15
In our opinion, these are the top three features that help make a great AR: a quality barrel, a quality bolt carrier group (BCG), and a good trigger. (Although a good shooter can usually shoot a bad trigger accurately, assuming the barrel and BCG are good.)
Everything else is gravy (assuming the upper and lower receivers are in spec), and since the AR-15 is colloquially known as Legos for grownups, and there are literally hundreds of companies making parts and accessories for the AR-15, you can add forged upper and lower receivers, retractable or fixed stocks, free-float or traditional handguards, rail covers, sling attachment points, angled backup iron sights (BUIS), muzzle brakes/compensators or flash hiders, vertical or angled forward grips, lights, lasers, iron sights or optics (or both), and tactical bottle openers/pez dispensers/espresso machines to your heart’s desire.
Video: FINAL RULE 2021R-05F-Definition of Frame or Receiver and Identification of Firearms
Best AR-15s (for fighting, general use/plinking, and gun games)
The analogy may be tired, but asking what’s the best AR-15 is akin to asking what’s the best car? A lot of follow-up questions and probing are required to provide a meaningful answer to each individual. Best for what? What do you intend to use your AR-15 for? What’s your budget? What do you prioritize in a firearm? How often do you intend to shoot it?
These are just a few questions that can help narrow the potential answers. However, we can provide a general list of what we consider some of the "Best AR-15s" in 3 categories:
- Fighting ARs
- General use/plinking rifles
- Rifles intended for use in gun games like 3-gun competition
Please note: this is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive list, and we’re bound to leave off some good choices. These are just our picks of some of the top names in the game for the various categories we’ve identified.
Best fighting/tactical AR-15s for serious use
For combat, fighting, and serious tactical use where people’s lives are on the line, some AR-15 brands continually get mentioned as front-runners. These are just a few of our top choices.
Colt’s Manufacturing, LLC bought the rights to produce the ArmaLite Rifle during the Vietnam War, and arguably knows more about building a reliable, high-quality fighting rifle than any other company. Colt has had various financial issues in recent years, but if you do your homework, you can still find a gen-yoo-wine Colt AR-15 that you can be proud to own and won’t let you down.
We like the bomb-proof LE6920 SOCOM variant, with a standard carbine-height front sight gas block, and a true SOCOM-profile 14.5” heavy barrel (including the iconic M203 grenade launcher flats) under the battle-proven Knight’s Armament quad rail system. It’s heavy as hell once you mount all your doodads on it, but it’ll survive just about anything you can throw at it.
FN (Fabrique Nationale)
Fabrique Nationale Herstal is currently the largest exporter of military small arms in Europe and is one of the authorized manufacturers of the US military’s M4/M16 platform of assault rifles (the fully automatic versions of the AR-15). As such, FN’s barrels, bolt carrier groups, and other parts are fully “military grade” and are tested and inspected to very high tolerances. FN’s AR-15s for civilian sale is known as “FN 15” and they have several variants.
Our favorite is the civilian clone of the M16A4, which FN calls the “FN 15 Military Collector Series M16.”
Knight’s makes several weapons systems for the US military, including their excellent .308 caliber M110 Semi-Automatic Sniper System (SASS). However, they also make one of the very best AR-15 type rifles in the world, partially due to their well-thought-out improvements and upgrades.
Knight’s SR-15 E3 Mod 2 M-LOK features the company’s excellent ambidextrous lower receiver, with a right-side bolt catch and selector lever added, as well as a left-side magazine release. A 2-stage match trigger and Knight’s excellent backup iron sights are included, and the SR-15’s bolt is also not a drop-in part from a run-of-the-mill AR-15. In fact, it’s a stronger, more durable, more reliable design and isn’t cross-platform compatible. The E3 Enhanced Bolt features an enlarged bolt face, rounded lugs, reduced cam pin, and proprietary extractor (with two full-size extractor springs) and firing pin designs.
Lewis Machine and Tool has been known for decades as innovators in the AR game, and for making top-quality parts, barrels, and rifles. LMT makes a wide array of ARs in several calibers, including fully ambidextrous models. One of our favorites is the LMT Defender-L, which features many of the firm’s thoughtful and useful upgrades at a lower price (“only” two grand).
The Defender-L features LMT’s cryogenically stress-relieved barrel, enhanced bolt carrier group, and LMT’s patented Monolithic Rail Platform, where the entire upper receiver and forend/handguard are milled from a single high-grade aluminum forging. Two locking bolts on the side of the receiver lock the barrel extension in place. LMT says, “MRP® technology engages the barrel extension for a full 360 degrees and allows the barrel to be removed in seconds while minimizing point of impact shift. One receiver can support numerous barrels of varying length, material, and caliber.”
Noveske Rifleworks, LLC, a self-proclaimed “all-American badass rifle company,” would be worth a look just for their awesome, tongue-in-cheek marketing campaigns (“Keeping it rad since 2001,” and “Stops jihad on contact” being just a couple). But the late John Noveske’s unwavering commitment to innovation and above all, excellence continues, and the company he founded is still building what are among the best ARs in the world: high-quality, reliable rifles built without compromise on materials or precision.
It would be hard to choose just one, but we like the Noveske Infidel Gen 4. The list of improved features and upgrades is too long to include here, but some highlights include: Hand-polished Noveske match chamber, pinned low-profile gas block, extended hand-polished feed ramps, Hardcoat type III anodizing then Armor Black Cerakote ceramic coating for superior finish longevity, anti-rotation handguard interface, flared magazine well, 60-degree ambidextrous safety lever and fully ambidextrous lower receiver controls, proper staking everywhere, and an ALG Defense Advanced Combat Trigger.
Note: Bring money. Noveskes don’t come cheap. But they’re worth the buy-in.
Daniel Defense has earned a well-deserved reputation for producing top-quality fighting ARs while innovating and adapting to changing needs in the marketplace and on the battlefield. DD offers multiple models, lengths, configurations, and calibers, including the fully ambidextrous RIII. However, for the ultimate evolution of a durable, customizable, fighting AR-15, we like the DDM4 V7, with its full-length, 15” M-Lok free-float handguard, cold hammer forged chrome-lined barrel, ambi charging handle, and an M16 profile, mil-spec MP tested, chrome lined BCG with its properly staked gas key. Available in multiple cerakote colors. The ergonomic, glass-filled polymer DD buttstock with soft-touch overmolding is a nice addition.
There are many other reputable makers of battle-ready AR-15s, including Bravo Company (BCM), LWRC, Centurion Arms, LaRue Tactical, Geissele, Radian, Patriot Ordnance Factory, and Primary Weapons Systems, to name just a few. Any of these companies can be relied upon to provide you with a top-tier fighting rifle.
Best budget or general purpose AR-15
An "entry level," "basic," or "budget" AR-15 still needs to be acceptably reliable, durable, and accurate, and at a price that doesn’t make your eyes water.
These rifles may be used for home defense, plinking, hunting, and target shooting, and are often the basic platforms upon which many shooters’ customized ARs are eventually built.
There are some truly low-end brands that in our experience aren’t worth looking into. However, the following companies have developed a reputation for producing good-quality ARs at reasonable prices, and if there’s any issue, they’ll make it right: Ruger, Smith & Wesson, Palmetto State Armory, DPMS, and Anderson Manufacturing. If we had to pick one, we like Palmetto State Armory for its pro-USA and pro-2A policies, commitment to good quality and reasonable prices, and sense of humor.
Best ARs for gun games like 3-gun and multigun
If you’re a go-fast shooter aiming to dominate the multigun competition circuit, a few brands rule the roost.
JP Enterprises rifles are found on the podiums of nearly every multigun competition, and for good reason. JP has seemingly developed the voodoo to build accurate, extremely flat-shooting, extremely fast rifles that are somehow still reliable in hot, dusty, match conditions.
While JP builds rifles in multiple configurations and calibers, we love the SCI-20, with a modernized “slickside” (sans forward bolt assist), a non-reciprocating side-charging upper receiver. And of course, it features JP’s innovative, patented, and recoil-reducing “silent captured spring” recoil buffer system, along with their Supermatch air-gauged, button-rifled, cryogenically treated barrel that is “Thermo-Fit” to the upper receiver with a thick-walled, integral barrel nut for unmatched stability and repeatability. Bring quality hearing protection… JP muzzle brakes are LOUD. But they work!
Seekins is known for building extremely accurate bolt guns and ARs, but they have a strong presence in 3-gun as well. They’ve released several factory-built 3-gun rigs over the years, and depending on when you’re shopping, they may or may not be available as complete units.
However, you can always build your own using a Seekins lower receiver and upper assembly, or you can find them for sale at various retailers, like this Seekins 3G2 3-gun competition AR.
Taran Butler is a bombastic, controversial character with large appetites, but it can’t be denied that the dude knows how to shoot, and knows how to win multigun championships. He started out customizing STIs, Glocks, and AR-15s for multigun competition, and now he has a dedicated shop with several gunsmiths turning out excellent products for Hollywood’s elite and the shooting sports’ well-heeled.
His ARs are built from top-quality foundational parts from V Seven, BCM, LaRue, and others, and then Taran’s gurus perform their magic. The result is a strikingly attractive, fast-shooting rifle (we like the M4E1 Ultralight) that in the right hands is capable of winning a national 3-gun competition or starring in the next John Wick movie.
There are many other makers of quality “race guns,” and many shooters enjoy assembling their own rifles from quality components to get exactly what they want. That’s one of the benefits of the adaptable, customizable AR platform.
Which ammo for your AR?
The answer here is "good ammo." That’s not particularly helpful, but then again, it’s not a particularly useful question. Like many questions, an accurate answer requires a little more thought on the part of the asker.
What are your priorities when considering ammo for your AR-15? Do you want cheap bulk practice ammo for informal range use or plinking? Are you stockpiling for “end of the world” or survival situations? Do you plan to shoot for groups/accuracy? Do you reload and want to save your brass? Do you plan to hunt with this ammo? Do you need to use non-magnetic bullet jackets at the locations you plan to shoot? Do you prefer buying USA-made ammunition? What caliber is your AR-15? Standard .223 Remington/5.56x45mm NATO? Or something more exotic? All of these questions will help inform the “best” ammo for your particular situation.
For the absolute cheapest .223/5.56 ammo, you’ll generally have to buy foreign-made, steel-cased rounds. You can check on Ammoseek for the cheapest deals currently running. We’ve had good luck with Tulammo and Wolf, but prices are a lot higher than they used to be. All else being equal, if the price is within a few cents, we’d recommend buying reloadable, brass-cased ammunition.
If you’re hunting, there are myriad options depending on your budget, your intended game, and your rifle’s preference, but look at Hornady Varmint Express V-max, Federal Fusion 62 grain spitzer, Barnes Vor-TX, and Winchester Deer Season 62 grain XP.
For match shooting, if you don’t reload, it’s really a question of finding what your rifle likes best. Go to Lucky Gunner, SGAmmo, Midway USA, or a similar store, type ".223 match" in the search window, and buy a box of a few different types of match ammo in different bullet weights, shoot some groups, and see how it goes.
Once you know what your rifle shoots well, you can order more when it’s available.
How much does an AR-15 cost?
This question is similar to, "how much does a car cost?" Prices vary depending on market fluctuations, the quality of the rifle, supply and demand, and more factors. Panic buying is definitely a real thing, and when states or the federal government threaten gun bans or other "anti-AR-15" legislation, prices can spike and supply can quickly dry out.
Generally, you can usually get an entry-level AR-15 for around $500-$600 in the 2020s, and sometimes less. “Good” ARs usually start around $700-$800, and premium AR-15s can range from $1200 up to a few thousand, depending on your preference. These are just our observations, so don’t be too offended if you can’t find a current deal that aligns with our findings.
Gun Safes Suitable for AR’s
Owning an AR-15, like any firearm, is a responsibility you shouldn’t take lightly. All firearms should be securely stored when not in use, and the best way to prevent unauthorized access, theft, or fire damage is by keeping your guns locked in a USA-made Liberty safe. We have multiple sizes, options, and price ranges to fit any budget or need. Check out our online catalog to find the best gun safe for you, or find a local dealer.