How To Choose Your First AR-15: Setting You Up For Success
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How To Choose Your First AR-15: Setting You Up For Success
Brian Zerbian Last Updated 25th September,2023

Finding your first AR-15 can be difficult if you don’t know where to start. I often see shooters buying rifles that do not fit their needs and spending far more than is necessary.

It’s probably because they didn’t come to Gun Made first, but that’s alright. At least you didn’t make that mistake.

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If you’re looking for your first AR-15, I want to set you up for success since I’m sure you want something that will serve you well and last you a lifetime.

We’ll dive in deep and peel back the layers of what makes a rifle right for you and what you should consider before laying down your card.

Step 1: Define Your Purpose

Before you go out and start looking at rifles, the most essential step you have to take is figuring out what you will use that rifle for. As a rule of thumb, your first rifle should be versatile and practical in multiple scenarios.

Sorry for all of you who thought a 10.5-inch barrel would be the best for your first rifle. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. Unless you plan on running this rifle strictly for home defense, you might want to go with a longer barrel.

Once you have your purpose, you can establish what you need regarding attachments, optics, barrel lengths, etc.

Defining your purpose will be a basis for the rest of the subcategories because only you know what you plan to use it for.

Step 2: Pick A Caliber, Any Caliber

5.56×45 has been around for a while, but plenty of calibers can do specific jobs better if needed. For example, suppose you want to eventually throw a suppressor on your rifle and have it be whisper quiet. In that case, .300 Blackout may be the round for you.

Or, if you want more power, you can go with an AR-10. .308, or 7.62×51, is known not to ask twice.

But hold on, before you go buying an AR-15 chambered in .50 Beowulf or something crazy, make sure you consider the cost per round. Nothing is worse than buying a firearm and being unable to afford ammo.

Ask me how I know that.

Part of the appeal of 5.56 is how relatively cheap it is per round. On the other hand, .300 Blackout can run you almost a dollar per round, with subsonic rounds being close to $1.50 a pop. Some may be able to shell out that type of cheddar for ammo, but I cannot.

And you don’t want your first rifle to be a cash cow. Save the cash for training.

Step 3: Choose A Barrel Length

This is part of defining what the purpose of the rifle is going to be. As I said before, your first rifle should be a good all-arounder. That means having an appropriate barrel length for close to mid-range engagements.

So, I wouldn’t suggest anything shorter than 14.5 inches. That was the barrel length of my first rifle. It allows for easier maneuvering around corners if you’re using it for home defense, but still long enough to get some good performance from the 5.56 round outdoors.  

That’s if 5.56×45 is what you’re going with.

Don’t worry. You can always buy a different upper receiver with a shorter barrel if that’s what you’re into. Just make sure you go with a longer barrel first.

Now, if you want to punch out past 500 yards, you’ll want to look at a longer barrel with a longer twist rate so you don’t over-stabilize the round while remaining accurate. Home defense is the opposite. Shorter barrels are best for home defense.

Step 4: Other Factors To Consider

Now that you have a purpose in mind and know which caliber and barrel length you’re going to go with, you still need to consider more factors.

For example, which hand do you shoot with?

Left, Right, or Ambidextrous?

For you right-handed shooters out there, you have to worry about too much since most rifles and lower receivers are made for right-handed shooting.

You left-handed shooters out there may need help finding a rifle that is meant for you. While an ambidextrous rifle can solve most of your problems, you still have the ejection port right in front of your face.

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Ambidextrous Stag Arms SPCTRM

Don’t worry, it won’t hit you. That’s what the deflector is for. Just make sure your rifle has one.

If that’s not something you want to worry about, some firearm manufacturers make actual left-handed rifles where the ejection port is on the left of the upper receiver. Stag Arms is well known for doing this.

If you want the most versatility from your rifle, like going from shoulder to shoulder when shooting from a corner, an ambidextrous one is an excellent option. American Defense Manufacturing has some of the best ambidextrous lowers on the market if you’re interested.

Mounting Platform (Handguard)

What I’m talking about is the platform of your handguard—either M-Lok, Keymod, or Picatinny. I would recommend M-Lok over Keymod; tests have been conducted and have proved that it’s a more reliable mounting platform.

You can use Picatinny if you like, but that will lead to more of the following subcategory.

You can also check out our guide on the best AR-15 handguards to learn more.


Depending on what caliber you choose, whether it be 5.56×45, .308, or .300 Blackout, it will affect how much your rifle weighs.

It’s a tradeoff. If you want more stopping power, you’ll have a heavier rifle. That’s just a fact. .300 Blackout is more of a middle ground, making it popular.

If it’s too heavy, hit the gym.

The material your rifle is made out of, its internal components and all of the attachments you decide to add will all affect the weight of your rifle. Be mindful before loading it up with every gadget you can find.


What do you think attachments would depend on? If you guessed “the purpose of your rifle,” then you’re correct.

We’ll talk about optics in a minute. Right now, I’m talking about foregrips, lights, lasers, IR devices, muzzle devices, and things of that nature.

It’s not often that you get your setup right the first time. You will probably go through different grips and handstops until you find what’s right for you. When I got my rifle, I originally had a BCM KAG hand stop on there. Then I ran the Gunfighter.

Don’t be afraid to switch it up a bit. Anyone who has been into guns for a while knows that how it starts off won’t be how it ends up. Sometimes, you set up your rifle and take it out shooting for the day, only to come home and start looking for other attachments.

It’s a part of the process. This is where you get to personalize your rifle and fine-tune it to your preferences. As you advance in your shooting career, you will likely change your rifle setup multiple times.


Sig Sauer M400 Tread

If I had all the money I spent on optics in my pocket, I’d be driving a Porsche 911. Instead, here I am with an EOTech XPS2 on my rifle and a 2000 Toyota Tacoma outside my door.

And a storage closet with more optics than the Bazaar after Biden left weapons in Afghanistan.

What can I say? This game is an expensive one to play.

Optics are, again, part of the purpose of the rifle. Specific barrel lengths work better with different types of optics.

You may change your optic once or twice while trying to nail down your build. But a good rule is to keep your optic close to the capabilities of your barrel length.

That means red dots or holographics on shorter barrels. LPVOs on longer barrels. Mid-range barrel lengths can run either just fine. But for the love of all things holy, do not put an LPVO on your 10.5-inch build.


sabre 30 Round Thril PSA Magazine

If you live in a state that’s run by communists like Jay Inslee and Bob Ferguson, you’ll have way fewer options when it comes to magazines. Now excuse me while I go cry in my room.

Anyways, you’d be surprised how many shooters buy a $3,500 rifle just to run a Promag and wonder why they are having issues.

Again, ask me how I know that.

I’ve had the best luck with Surefeed, Magpul Gen 3 P-Mags, and Lancer mags. So, if you’re unsure which magazines to go with, I’d suggest one of those. I bought about 20 each before the ban went into place. Tennessee, here I come.

How To Choose AR-15 Ammo

Our guide on the best AR-15 ammo discusses the importance of selecting the right ammunition for your AR-15, emphasizing that the choice depends on your preferences and your rifle’s characteristics.

When choosing ammunition for your AR-15, it’s essential to match the ammo with your rifle’s specifications, such as barrel length, twist rate, and gas system, as these can significantly affect performance.

It’s also important to balance cost and performance, ensuring you get reliable ammunition that suits your budget.

Experimenting with different types of ammunition is key, as each rifle may have its own preference, impacting accuracy and overall shooting experience. Testing various options will help you determine the best choice for your specific AR-15.

For a comprehensive understanding and specific recommendations, read our full article on selecting the best AR-15 ammo.


What Is A Good All-Around Caliber?

5.56×45 is the best all-around caliber for AR-15s. It’s accurate, versatile, and relatively cheap.

What Is The Best Beginner Rifle?

The AR-15 is the best beginner rifle as far as semi-automatics go. That’s why there are more AR-15s than civilians in the USA. Ahh, the sound of freedom.

What Rifle Caliber Has Killed The Most Deer?

.270 Winchester is the best caliber for deer. And if you think I’m wrong, go look up Jack O’Connor. 30-30 also has been said to claim a large percentage of deer.


If you take anything from this article, take this.

Can your rifle take the abuse? Is it accurate? Is it well-made? Do you know what components are used inside of the rifle? Probably not (to that last question). Do your research.

Ask yourself what’s the purpose of this rifle. Then, ask yourself if it will fail you in adverse conditions and if it will be accurate enough to achieve your goal(s).

Don’t spend premium money on a mid-tier rifle. And if you can afford it, buy a rifle from a reputable manufacturer. Adopt the buy once, cry once mentality, and you will be just fine.

Don’t be cheap with a tool that may save your and your family’s lives. That’s a bargain I’m sure you’ll find isn’t worth it.

Be good and take care.