|Our Top Pick – The Ruger AR-556||Check Price|
|Runner Up – Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II||Check Price|
|Premium (Fanciest Option) – Daniel Defense DDM4 V7||Check Price|
|Best Lightweight Option – Bushmaster XM-15||Check Price|
|Popular Budget Option – Springfield Armory Saint AR-15||Check Price|
|Aero Precision M4E1 .223 Wylde||Check Price|
|Palmetto State Armory (PSA) PA-15 M4 Carbine||Check Price|
|Bravo Company Recce-14 MCMR 5.56 AR-15 Carbine||Check Price|
|Left-Handed Alternative – Stag Arms Stag-15L Tactical LH||Check Price|
|Easy to Take Down For DIY – DPMS Panther Arms Oracle AR-15||Check Price|
The AR-15 is the cornerstone rifle of American home defense and competition shooting. By now, you’re probably convinced that you want one, but it’s definitely no easy task to find a decent one for your money.
You’re in luck. In this ultimate buyer’s guide, I rounded up 15 of the most reliable and versatile AR-15 rifles with high-quality features, so you’ll surely find one that will suit your style.
I’ve tested most of these AR-15 rifles, thought long and hard, did the math and ballistic comparisons, went through the rounds, and came to the conclusion that the Ruger AR-556 Semi-Automatic Rifle is your best bet. It’s an overall great rifle with well-balanced specifications that opens up a window of aftermarket customization if you want to take up the DIY route.
That being said, most of the AR-15 brands and models shoot and do their job just fine. I didn’t round up fifteen of them coincidentally, but rather to show you what to expect from a standard AR-15 gas-operated platform and the features you’ll come across. Ultimately, I hope that you’ll have a better idea of what to look for.
Designed in 1956 by Eugene Stoner and adopted by the US Armed Forces as the M16, the ArmaLite AR-15 is America’s favorite select-fire, gas-operated rifle. As you’ll see through our reviews, there are plenty of reasons why this is so. Let’s get into it.
Here’s our roundup:
- Our Top Pick – The Ruger AR-556
- Runner Up – Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II
- Premium (Fanciest Option) – Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
- Best Lightweight Option – Bushmaster XM-15
- Popular Budget Option – Springfield Armory Saint AR-15
Best AR-15 Rifles For 2021
Our Top Pick – The Ruger AR-556
- One of the best rifles for value on the market
- Chrome-moly, 18-inch barrel with 1:8 twist for light and heavy rounds
- Dust cover included
- High-quality M-LOK free-float handguard
- Dust cover and flash suppressor included
- Very reliable bolt with rifle-length direct impingement gas system
- Not very lefty friendly
I picked the Ruger AR-556 rifle, not because of the name, but because it has shown me nothing but exceptional reliability after thousands of shot rounds. It’s a latecomer in the AR-15 business, but the manufacturer definitely saw how a well-balanced MSR rifle can deliver on quality and accuracy for your dollar. Both rookies and veterans should definitely have this AR-15 in their arsenal.
It has a cold hammer-forged barrel, easy-to-install, heat-resistant nylon handguards, a reliable bolt that’s machined from 9310 alloy steel with aerospace-grade 7075-T6 aluminum forging, staked gas key on the BCG, and a free-floating handguard for exceptional sub-MOA accuracy. I’m still surprised how they keep the MSRP below $1,000.
The trigger is smooth and crisp with a 4.5-pound trigger pull and a lightweight hammer, while the BCG is chrome-plated for extra heat resistance and reliability. There’s also an anti-corrosion matte black oxide finish on the outer part of the BCG.
Since the rifle has a 1:8 barrel twist, expect reliability from all kinds of 55-grain bullets. Furthermore, it can still eat 77-grain, which is a characteristic not found in 1:9 or 1:7 twist barrels. The free-floated M-LOK barrel rail is also a nice feature that adds to accuracy, and you can easily swap out the furniture with a custom part of your choice. Additionally, it has a QD socket and bayonet lug for your slings.
It’s simply a no-nonsense model that works like clockwork and gives you breathing room for customization, not to mention how lightweight it feels. Of all the rifles I’ve tried and reviewed, you won’t find an AR-15 with better value than this.
Runner Up – Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II
- Outstanding durability and longevity for a budget rifle
- Comes with Crimson Trace CTS-103 red/green dot sight with lens cap
- Removable riser block
- 16-inch threaded barrel with a 1:9 twist rate
- Chambered in 5.56mm, so you can use .223 rounds
- Lifetime warranty
- Bare-bones when compared to the Ruger AR-556
- Relatively expensive for a budget option
Just like Ruger, Smith & Wesson are relatively new to the AR-15 rifle business, but this entry directly competes with Ruger’s AR-556, and I really had a hard time choosing between these platforms for the Top Pick section.
The Smith & Wesson M&P15 Sport II is famous for its capability to withstand massive amounts of heat and continuous firing. The high-quality Smith & Wesson direct-impingement mechanism, the 7075 T6 aluminum upper and lower receiver, and Armornite finish make sure it takes the heat.
You got folks pushing it to the limit, trying to see how much heat it can take. It’s a literal frying pan.
The 2-inch M-LOK Picatinny-style rail offers a variety of customization options, and the windage- and elevation-adjustable Crimson Trace CTS-103 sight comes with a lens cap. Although, it’s worth noting that the models without the scope are cheaper.
The M&P 15 Sport II has a 6-position collapsible stock, dust cover, forward assist, a removable riser block, a Magpul PMAG for solid reloading, MOE M-LOK carbine length handguard, and a Picatinny-style M-LOK rail for customization.
The 16-inch threaded barrel has a 1:9 twist rate which is better suited for 45- to 77-grain bullets, and the chrome-plated firing pin allows for smooth and frequent follow-up shots. Additionally, it’s chambered in 5.56mm, so you can shoot .223 Remington with no problems.
It might not have features for convenience like the Ruger AR-556, but at this point, it entirely depends on your ergonomic preference. It’s a standard rifle with classic characteristics that make it perfect for AR-15 newbies and for those of you who spend long hours at the ranges.
Premium (Fanciest Option) – Daniel Defense DDM4 V7
- Great value for a premium pick
- All the essential features for a competition shooter
- High-quality BCG
- 32, 30, and 10-round models available
- M-LOK tech for a more lightweight feel
- High-quality DD flash suppressor muzzle device
- Daniel Defense buttstock and pistol grip for maximum comfort
- Not good for starters
- Problematic with 75-grain ammo
The Daniel Defense DDM4 V7 is my definite premium pick, as it retains unmatched quality, reliability, accuracy, and ease of use without exceeding your budget with unnecessary features. I’d say it’s a granted value for your money, despite being around the $1,500-$2,000 mark.
This model comes with M-LOK attachment tech that provides a lightweight feel. It has all the important features of a high-end rifle, including a flash suppressor, free floating handguard, Mil-Spec lower and upper receiver with QD swivels, and a cold hammer-forged 16-inch barrel.
What I love about the DDM4 V7 is the pinned, low-profile gas block with a staked gas key that’s CNC-machined from 4140 hardened steel that can take massive amounts of heat. That’s why it’s regarded as a target practice and competition shooter for those long hours at the ranges.
With a chrome-moly vanadium steel barrel, a 1:7 Twist, and a mid-length gas system, you can bet it’ll eat anything from 40- to 70-grain, but be careful around the 75-mark ammo boxes.
Then there’s the DDM4 V11 model, with a standard aluminum dust cover, in contrast to the V7’s polymer dust cover. The difference is that the V7 is mid-length, while the V11 is more lightweight, with a higher muzzle rise, and the V11 is more expensive. There’s no difference in precision, though I believe that the V7 has a far superior free-floating handguard. It just feels very free and offers great operation on the fly.
Folks waited long enough for the M-LOK attachment options, and I’m sure that now it has all the right stuff for a true competition shooter to justify the high to mid-range price tag.
Best Lightweight Option – Bushmaster XM-15
- One of the most reliable lightweight AR-15 rifles on the market
- Abundance of aftermarket customization
- High-quality 4150 CMV (chrome-molybdenum vanadium) barrel
- Good for starters
- Excellent for target practice and home defense
- Great flash hider
- Handguard may pose issues after continuous use
If you’re looking for something easy and lightweight that will allow you on-the-fly operation, check out the Bushmaster XM-15 M4-A3 Carbine Rifle.
I really like this one for its 6-position telestock, quad rail handguard (despite some minor durability problems), the 16-inch threaded barrel with an A3 detachable carry handle, and the A2 birdcage flash suppressor that makes things easier when shooting and carrying.
It’s an 8-pounder, so it’s probably not exactly light, but that’s entirely subjective. Its ease of use and longevity more than make up for it, though.
The Bushmaster XM15 M4A3 has an M16 type bolt carrier group with a staked castle nut and Mil-Spec manganese phosphate coating that can take the heat and avert corrosion and rusting.
I’m not exactly sure why it’s not more popular than the Daniel Defense because they really offer great value for the money, not to mention the easy operation and easy customization. It’s perfect for both hunting and target practice.
The F-marked front sight base is another notable feature that offers decent accuracy and target acquisition. The handle might be problematic because it doesn’t leave room for other attachments, but it’s flexible and lightweight enough if you’re looking for easy operation and modding.
One can definitely appreciate the no-nonsense design and how the grips and stocks feel. The trigger is a hefty 5-pound pull, but it’s crisp and smooth enough for anyone. Additionally, a 10-round model is also available for you Californians out there, and if you have more bucks to spare for a lightweight option, there’s always the Faxon Firearms FX5500 Ultralight AR-15.
For more on lightweight AR-15 designs, check out our Gunmade.com list.
Popular Budget Option – Springfield Armory Saint AR-15
- Valuable budget option
- Free-floating handguard
- Chrome-moly vanadium steel barrel with 1:8 twist rate
- Accu-Tite Tension System for quality trigger stability and operation
- Low recoil thanks to the Heavy H buffer
- Great for plinking and home defense
- Oversized trigger guard
- Has issues with cycling 55-grain rounds
Springfield once again knocked it out of the park with the new Saint Free-Float model that still retains the glory of the former and original design. I chose the Saint for a budget option because though it just falls under the $1,000 mark, it feels like a champion.
The 16-inch CMV steel barrel with a Melonite® treatment and 1:8 twist rate hits a sweet spot that can blast when shooting 5.56 ammo. You got your M4 feed ramps and forward assist, not to mention the free-floating handguard that makes operation very enjoyable with less heat.
The prized feature is the unique Accu-Tite tension system, a Springfield patent that reduces trigger play, and offers better stability and accuracy than other lightweight budget options. I absolutely loved it, and shooting with the smooth trigger really felt easy and accurate.
Don’t worry about recoil blasting your palms because the heavy H buffer offers far superior stability than your standard M4 carbine buffers.
The stock is a 6-position with QD and fixed attachment points, and the BCG is machined from Carpenter 158 steel, shot-peened and MP inspected, of course.
The grips feel like you’re holding a 1911-style combat rifle, and I really don’t know how to feel about that, but the trigger guard might feel a bit oversized for some and people have reported some cycling issues.
Overall, I think it’s a solid budget option that comes with a 30-round PMAG Gen3 magazine. What more could you want?
- .223 Wylde caliber can shoot both .223 Rem and 5.56 NATO calibers
- Excellent for home defense
- 16-inch barrel with 1:8 twist rate
- Magpul MOE grips and stocks for extra comfort
- Handguard might be awkward for some
- Could use a muzzle device better than an A2 stock one
- Some feeding and accuracy issues with 80-grain bullets
Here’s a .223 Wylde, because why not. Aero Precision is well-known for its receivers on the market, and their Enhanced Series upper receivers are all the craze nowadays, for a good reason at that. But, their complete rifles like the Aero M4E1 are another great example of a well-designed AR-15.
The Aero M4E1 AR-15 is chambered in the .223 Wylde, which allows you to run 5.56 NATO or .223 Rem bullets, and this is a great advantage.
The 16-inch barrel with a 1:8 twist is bead-blasted, made from 416 stainless steel for durability, and the mid-length system with a low-profile gas block works wonders for excellent cycling and reliability. Expect smooth operation all the time, especially in the cartridge it’s best used for.
This rifle uses Aero Precision’s Gen 2 lower receiver, which has a flared magazine for solid reloading. The standard A2 flash hider muzzle device works well too, though some would like to see a better one for the price.
What I like about the M4E1 is the Magpul STR stock and MOE grips that give you a very comfortable angle when shooting on the fly during those target practice sessions. Not only that, but I feel that the .223 Wylde would also make this a great hunting rifle for deer. Slap a scope or a red dot sight on the Picatinny rail, and off you go.
I’m not too keen on the lightweight M-LOK handguard because it feels odd. But, with this price, I must say that this rifle is pretty much in the pocket for home defense and target practice.
- Available and lots of aftermarket options
- Excellent price for its features
- 16-inch barrel length with a 1:7 barrel twist rate
- Barrel steel is CMV with a phosphate finish
- M4-style stock with A2-style grips for standard comfort
- Not very reliable in harsh weather
Palmetto State Armory is a purveyor of rifles with great value, and though their business focuses on the budget side of AR-15 rifles, you can’t beat their PA-15 if you’re just getting your toes dipped in the AR-15s.
It works like clockwork when it comes to modifying your platform, and that’s what PSA focused on, basically. The 6-position adjustable stock is a lovely touch as well.
The phosphate-coated CMV steel barrel has an M4 barrel profile, 1:7 twist, 16-inch length, it’s chambered in 5.56 NATO, and the carbine-length gas system is standard stuff for decent reliability and ease of use. I like how they keep it simple with the standard M4 handguard as well.
You got your F-marked gas sight base, A2 flash hider, shot-peened, Carpenter 158 steel BCG with a forged 7075-T6 upper receiver that keeps the heat at low levels. It also includes forward assist and dust cover. The fire control group is a standard Mil-Spec trigger group and feels crisp enough for long hours at the ranges.
What I most like about PSA is that once you buy directly from their website, they ship the rifle to your local FFL. If you’re looking for standard 16-inch, 1:7 twist barrels with an M4 carbine profile, you can’t go wrong with this one, though I’m sure that the S&W M&P 15 Sport II is pretty similar in that price range. I recommend you compare their features and decide for yourself whether or not you’d like an AR-15 with a standard M4 carbine profile.
- Every part is made by BCM, so expect superb reliability and accuracy
- M-LOK handguard, PNT trigger, and Gunfighter charging handle for ease of operation
- Synthetic stock
- 14.5-inch barrel length might be problematic for long ranges
Here’s Bravo Company Manufacturing, or BCM, with their Recce-14 MCMR 5.56 AR-15. What’s interesting about this AR-15 is that all of the components are made directly by BCM; from the BCG, barrel, furniture, and uppers, and you’d definitely expect top-notch reliability and ease of use.
The fact that they make their own stuff is very important, because the overall design is entirely focused on compatibility, and it’s clear that they know what they’re doing with the Recce-14 MCMR.
It has the BCM stock for extra comfort on the shoulders, Gunfighter charging handle, and PNT trigger for easy operation on the fly, it also has a mod 1 compensator, and of course, a free-floated M-LOK handguard. The barrel is 14.5-inches, coming in dangerously close on SBR territory, but it has surprisingly good accuracy on the mid-ranges, that is.
What I most like about the Recce-14 MCMR is the 16-inch 11595E steel barrel that you’d rarely find on other rifles. It offers decent accuracy, and the thin handguard is locked to the receiver, in a uniquely BCM way. This way you have lots of room for accessories.
The black anodized receivers are 7075-T6 aluminum forged and are very durable and can withstand heat, and despite the price, it’s clear that this rifle was designed to meet the demands of SEAL teams that often find themselves in harsh weather. The furniture and internal parts just sing.
Here are some honorable mentions, if you’re looking for left-handed alternatives or DIY-builds for your AR-15 platform.
Left-Handed Alternative – Stag Arms Stag-15L Tactical LH
- The best left-handed AR-15 option
- Easy to operate and take down
- Solid accuracy and reliability
- 16-inch, chrome-lined barrel with a 1:7 twist rate
- High-quality Mil-Spec, single-stage trigger
- Accessories and customization options are difficult to find besides Stag Arms
Here’s a little something ambidextrous for you left-handed folk out there. Stag Arms are well-known for their ambidextrous LH uppers and full rifle kits, and the Stag 15L Tactical is a shining example of well-designed machinery.
The Stag 15L Tactical is a left-handed answer to their signature, the Stag 15 rifle, and it has the exact same Mil-Spec manganese phosphate coated M16 BCG, an ejection port on the left-side, chrome-lined 16-inch barrel, and Magpul MOE pistol grips for extra comfort and handling.
You’d be surprised at the accuracy of the rifle, as the chrome-lined barrel with a 1:7 twist rate swirls just enough for 70-grain bullets. It’s a heavy hitter that’s accurate, comfortable, and easy to customize, of course, in compliance with US laws in selected states.
The Magpul CTR buttstock feels just right on the shoulder, and the selector switch is on the right side, and you can either go for the 5.56 NATO or the .223 Remington model calibers, that depends entirely on you.
The BCG isn’t the only thing that’s Mil-Spec. The single-stage trigger works extra smooth for follow-up shots, and though it might feel heavy at first, it gets crispier.
If you’re a glove shooter, you’ll definitely appreciate the enhanced trigger guard, not to mention the 13.5-inch free-floating handguard with a QD point for slings. I would definitely recommend no other rifle than the Stag 15L if you’re a left-handed person. Check out our Gunmade.com list of left-handed AR-15 options as well.
Easy to Take Down For DIY – DPMS Panther Arms Oracle AR-15
- Focused on build quality
- Extractor includes O-ring for added stopping power
- Forward assist and shell deflector included
- Abundance of aftermarket options
- Excellent service by DPMS Panther Arms
- Gas block is lower than the top rail which might be awkward for some
- Uncomfortable handguard
- Heavy recoil for a DIY AR-15
DPMS (Defense Procurement Manufacturing Services) Panther Arms is a mouthful, but they’ve managed to establish a name for themselves in the budget niche of AR-15 rifles.
The Oracle A3 has proven itself time and time again, and all I see are more and more videos of people giving it a shot. It’s a lightweight (6.4 pounds) semi-automatic AR-15 model that focuses on combat, but has no sights, so you can focus on grabbing some red dot sights and scopes of your choice.
It has a birdcage flash hider, adjustable stock, and a chrome-lined BCG that offers solid reliability. I don’t like how the gas block is lower than the top rail, but the standard Picatinny rail opens up a window of aftermarket opportunities.
Additionally, it has an O-ring extractor for more stopping power, staked castle nut, and a shell deflector and forward assist are included. These features offer excellent ease of operation for the money.
The round polymer drop-in handguard feels like a classic, and the 1:9 twist rate works great with 44-grain bullets. Basically, it’s a budget mid-range carbine rifle that’s best suited for those of you who like to attend sporting competition shooting and for tactical home defense use.
I believe that the low price definitely calls for a red dot sight or a scope attachment, since DPMS believe that you’d want one of your personal choices.
Check out our review of the DPMS AR-15 rifle here.
AR-15 Buyer’s Guide (What to Look For When Purchasing Your AR-15 Rifle)
Being informed and educated on how an AR-15 rifle works and how it can be customized to (your preferred) perfection are the two most important aspects when looking for an AR-15.
There’s no need to go straight for the AR-15s from high-end manufacturers just because they have more features than one might need. On a practical note, though, one of the first things to look for is the gas system that the AR-15 rifle has.
Direct Impingement vs. Gas Piston System
There are two main gas systems for the AR-15: the DI or Direct Impingement and gas-piston operation. To keep it short, stick to direct impingement, and I won’t bore you with the details and physics.
Most AR-15s are DI, and this is because they’re cheaper, lighter, and it’s easy to find parts and customization options for them. The gas piston rifles are definitely heavier, but more durable in harsh weather conditions and have no problems with dust and moisture. They’re mostly designed for military use in my honest opinion.
DIY and Aftermarket Customization Availability
You’ve heard the saying that the AR-15 rifle feels just like “an adult Lego set” you can tweak and tinker with. It’s definitely true.
Look for AR-15 rifles that have a Picatinny rail, stocks, and grips that can be easily modified and replaced with parts of your choice. Foldable stocks are a hot topic nowadays, but I think that it entirely depends on a person’s preference.
Almost every AR-15 rifle has good rails for red dot sights and scopes, and they’re usually very easy to install.
If you’re taking the DIY route, pick uppers and lower receivers that have Mil-Spec compatibility. Just find cheaper lower receivers, pay attention to the quality of your upper, make sure the gas key is staked, and you’ll be fine.
Barrel, Barrel Twist, and Chambering
You won’t go wrong with 16-inch or 18-inch barrels. They’re pretty much the optimal length for reliability and accuracy. Anything shorter than 16-inches is an SBR AR pistol, and these might get you into trouble.
Then, you got carbine-length rifles that are practically Colts, the heavier .937-inch diameter for heavy-duty use, the medium or Government M4 well-balanced .750-inch diameter barrels, and the lightweight pencil barrels with a .625-inch diameter.
I suggest you steer clear off the lightweight ‘pencil’ barrel profiles if you don’t want bent necks or if you plan to fire consistently. The quality of the barrel should be your priority, so you won’t go wrong with chrome-lined barrels that are more durable but at the (slight) expense of accuracy.
As for finishes, nitride treated barrel surfaces are of higher quality, but they’re more expensive. I still think that the chrome-lined ones are solid if you don’t have the extra cash, and through the MP HP (magnetic particle/high pressure) testing really guarantees you longevity after many rounds, it’s still costly.
For barrel twist and bullet grain ratio, you should check this handy chart out:
Your AR-15 barrel has grooves inside that spin the projectile to stabilize it, providing accuracy and velocity. The bullets you use must be in accord with the rifling if you want to sharpen your precision, and remember—the smaller the twist number, the faster the twist.
Chambering for the AR-15 is 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington. 5.56 NATO is regarded as the gold standard because it allows you to use .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO ammo through it. However, you can’t shoot 5.56 NATO from a .223 Remington caliber rifle, so keep this in mind.
You got other calibers like the 6.5 Grendel (not the Creedmoor), 9mm, or the .458 SOCOM if you’re planning to kill a giant grizzly bear. Whatever works for you, these are the classics.
You’ve heard of M-LOK, free-floated, drop-in, etc. Here’s the gist. Handguards offer you mounting options, protect your barrel from falling damage, and of course, they protect your hands from heat.
Two main types of handguards abound on the market: the free-floated and the drop-in. The drop-in ones are the cheaper option, but I wouldn’t recommend them. Always go for free-floated handguards because they touch the barrel, which means that you get solid accuracy and reduced heat transfer.
You also have M-LOK handguards, popular for their comfort and many attachment points. Then, there are the carbon fiber handguards which are lightweight, durable, heat-resistant, but too expensive.
We’ve come a long way with the AR-15 since Stoner started the whole thing. What he wanted was simply a more compact, lightweight rifle that can fire LOTS of high-velocity cartridges in a short time span.
What we’re doing now is just more and more needless features and upgrades as a typical example of solutionism for problems we really don’t deal with. It goes to show how much we really know about AR-15s, judging by how people still believe AR stands for “assault rifle” instead of ArmaLite, Eugene Stoner’s legacy itself.
Please don’t be discouraged by the sheer mass of models, makes, and brands of AR-15 rifles. Most of them work like a charm. Their high-end features are just for pro sportsmanship and competition shooters. When looking for a good rifle for target practice, plinking, home defense, and hunting, you just won’t need all that. Plus, in most cases, you have the option to mod it.
I recommend you stick to the Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic or the S&W M&P 15 Sport II if you’re a casual enthusiast who’s looking for a decently priced, not too buff AR-15. The Daniel Defense DDM4V7, on the other hand, brings about the ultimate competition shooting experience.
Stay safe and shoot straight.