Every sect of the gun world has an opinion on the AR-15 and its multitude of variants, and a lot of the conversation focuses on cost. In general, an AR-15 costs between $400 and $2,000, with most falling somewhere in between.
Regarding opinions, some (Boomers?) scoff and scream “One shot per second!” on the firing line, while popular culture rates upper receiver groups with terms such as bussin’, slaps, and cope & seethe.
The point is, everyone who shoots or hunts has an opinion on the AR-15, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent. I’ve built dozens of rifles for various uses and, through trial and error, have learned the rules-of-thumb firsthand of what makes a good rifle.
ARs are immensely popular because of their huge modularity and versatility (you can make them excel at any task), reliability, lightweight (some examples are sub-4-pounds), and for the most part, are affordable.
Overview of AR-15 Style Firearms
More than 60 years of innovation have gone into the AR platform, making it one of the most vetted, scrutinized, and tested weapons systems in the world. Eugene Stoner’s original design has been refined into an efficient, accurate, and reliable tool lauded by hunters, soldiers, and shooters alike.
There are scores of calibers that will fit into AR-type rifles, owed to the fact that there are two general frame sizes. The original was actually considered the “large frame,” as Stoner’s gun was designed to fire the 7.62x51mm NATO (the .308’s military sibling) cartridge. By far, the most common size is the small frame that frequently fires the ubiquitous 5.56x45mm NATO (the .223’s military sibling).
When we say “frame,” we’re mostly referring to the lower receiver, which is the part that holds the trigger (fire control group) and the magazines. This is what the ATF calls the “firearm” and is the serialized part that must be transferred through a Federal Firearms License (FFL) holder before you can take possession. Here’s where the AR/MSR platform really shines; its versatility. Each of these two frame sizes can accommodate a host of calibers for a wide array of uses.
When it comes to price, the whole AR industry and the market have evolved since the introduction of the platform, but evolution has been kicked into hyperdrive over the past 15 years. As ARs gained popularity, more and more companies began producing complete rifles, parts, accessories, and ammunition to support the market. This success bred more and more success and, in turn, innovation.
As of late, customers are no longer hamstrung to just a handful of offerings from a few manufacturers. The market has boomed with a multitude of manufacturers entering the fray but has stabilized (as free markets do) into what we see today; a solid selection of guns from $400 bare-bones blasters to $2,000 combat-proven weapons.
The best part of all the competition in this market has been the general upward trend of quality and reliability of the rifles and parts that are available. Today’s $500 low-end rifle generally performs as reliably and accurately as a $1,000 rig from 20 years ago. That’s the beauty of the free market; when a widget (or rifle or accessory in our case) is proven to be garbage, word gets around, and it dies off, replaced by a better widget or widgets.
Something worth touching on is an unfortunate factor that drives the AR-15 market: mental illness that manifests itself in violence. High-profile shootings involving AR-15s often create a surge of law-abiding buyers because lawful gun owners are afraid of politicians’ efforts to politicize tragedy and gain support for an “assault weapons ban.”
America’s Love for AR-15s
There are loads of reasons to love and own an AR-15, but we’ll focus on an objective one, their versatility.
Going back to the large and small frame options, the small frame is by far the most popular of the two. Its “native” chambering is the .223 Remington/ 5.56x45mm NATO. The distinction between the two cartridges is made due to interchangeability and the lack thereof. To keep it brief, rifles chambered in .223 Rem. should NOT be used with 5.56 NATO ammo because the NATO round operates at a higher pressure than the .223 Rem. However, .223 CAN be fired from a 5.56-chambered rifle. Commit that to memory, and we’ll move on.
These two rounds are great options for what the vast majority of Americans do with their AR; plinking, target shooting, home defense, and even hunting small game and deer (with the right bullet). Add to this the fact that they’re both affordable in terms of centerfire rifle cartridges, and you’ve got a recipe for success.
But wait! There’s more!
We mentioned modularity. Most of the aforementioned activities are best achieved with slightly different configurations of guns, which is the key selling point of the AR. Your grandpappy’s Remington 700 is a great hunting rifle, but it’s not the best for the confines of a house in a home defense scenario. The same is true of a 10.5-inch barreled AR in the field; it’s not ideal (in some states, not even legal) for making a 300-yard shot on a buck. This is why you see gun owners with multiple configurations of ARs.
How Much Does an AR-15 Cost? List of Various Prices
ARs are no different from many consumer goods in that you’ll find an array of prices with something to fit almost any budget. They are all designed to do the same task (send projectiles downrange), but the means to this end are extremely varied.
Worth mentioning is that while the list below is by no means comprehensive, they are all complete rifles. If you want to dive into building your own rifle, you can get a stripped lower receiver (the basis for an AR build) for as little as $35. Again, the lower receiver is the part of the gun that’s considered the firearm and is therefore serialized and must be transferred through an FFL holder before you can take possession.
Once you’ve got your lower receiver, creating a functioning rifle is a matter of compiling and assembling the remaining parts, which is easily done with common tools. But that’s for another article.
Now for the cost of AR-15s (prices accurate at the time of writing):
|AR-15||Price (as of November 2022)|
|Bear Creek Arsenal BC-15||$359.00|
|Palmetto State Armory PA-15||$449.99|
|Anderson Optics Ready 5.56||$474.38|
|Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II||$722.19|
|Colt AR-15 A3||$918.88|
|BCM Recce 14||$1,691.99|
|Geissele Super Duty||$1,975.00|
|LMT MARS-L 556||$2,599.99|
|KAC SR-15 E3 Mod 2||$2,911.26|
Factors Affecting AR-15 Cost
Construction Methods & Metal Quality
Guns are made of various types of steel and aluminum, and the quality of metal as well as the method by which it is turned into gun parts greatly impacts the final price of a gun. Most AR upper and lower receivers, handguards, and receiver extensions (buffer tubes) are made of aluminum.
Most manufacturers use 7075-T6 aluminum, while others use 6061-T6. There are advantages to both and in general a trio of methods by which raw aluminum is made into various parts.
Billet units generally command a higher price because they’re made from a solid block of aluminum and milled/cut to shape. In contrast, cast units are created by heating and melting aluminum and pouring it into a mold, and forged are heated and hammered into shape. Again, tradeoffs abound, but with modern manufacturing methods and standards, you’ll be good to go with any.
The heat of a rifle is its barrel. Again, there are different kinds of steel that can be used, but the biggest cost driver for barrels is the method by which they’re made, especially the rifling (the lands and grooves inside that squeeze the bullet and make it fly straight).
The most common method of cutting rifling into a barrel is button rifling, where a “button” or die is forced through a barrel blank. Once it passes through, rifling is left behind. This is the most cost-effective (and quickest) way of rifling a barrel. While button-rifled barrels can be accurate, they’re not as accurate as other methods, such as 5R.
But, there are scads of different types of rifling that could fill another article. Suffice it to say that lower-end guns are button rifled while some top-tier are, but might feature a different style of rifling. Check the specs.
This goes hand-in-hand with the quality of the parts as well as the extent to which the end products are proven and tested. Internet keyboard commandos will shriek, “you’re paying for a rollmark!” referring to the logo on a gun when comparing their budget blaster to a top-end rifle.
The reality is that you get what you pay for, and many high-end manufacturers’ products result from feedback from government and law enforcement agencies that use the product in the field. This is true of Knights Armament Co., Colt, LMT, and others, hence their higher price tags.
Sum of the Parts
This could be considered the sole determining factor as it encompasses all of the above but the paradigm of “crap in, crap out” applies to rifles in a big way. There’s nothing wrong with selecting a rifle based solely on price, but you can usually expect performance (accuracy, reliability, etc.) commensurate with the price tag.
Budget makers use lower-end materials, and off-the-shelf parts that aren’t held to as high of a QC standard as others and are concerned with quantity over quality. This is a broad generalization that applies to most anything that comes off an assembly line.
Is it worth buying an AR-15?
Yes, it’s absolutely worth buying an AR-15. They offer so many advantages and have so much versatility that if you only have one gun, an AR-15 is the best choice. They’re affordable, accurate, light recoiling, reliable, and versatile.
What type of ammo does an AR-15 shoot?
Most AR-15s shoot .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm NATO ammo. The .223/5.56 are a great choice for many tasks, including target shooting, some hunting, and home defense. However, different kinds of ARs can fire other cartridges, including those that excel at long-range shooting and big-game hunting.
Is an AR-15 an assault rifle?
No, an AR-15 is NOT an assault rifle. This is the most common fallacy surrounding AR-15s. “AR” stands for “Armalite Rifle,” Armalite is the company that pioneered the AR platform. Assault rifles have select-fire capability (semi- and fully-automatic fire or 3-round burst), whereas AR-15s are semi-automatic only.
To put a bow on things, the AR-15 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Yes, some politicians vilify them and will try to legislate them into oblivion, but their popularity and usefulness are unparalleled in the gun world.
Today is a great time to be a gun owner, either first-time or longtime, because the offerings are better than ever, and there are more AR-type guns than ever. No matter what you’re looking for, be it hunting, plinking, or a serious home defense tool, there’s an AR-15 that fits the bill perfectly with zero compromises.