I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The AR-15 market is on fire. In my last post I talked about current AR-15 market trends. This time I focus on points to help you make well informed product decisions.
Long gone are the days of only ABC AR-15 choices, for ARMALITE, Bushmaster or COLT. As of autumn 2013, there are almost countless AR-15 product choices available on the market. Even still, almost daily there seem to be new product offerings, and even new manufacturers popping up in the AR-15 market. You should also notice that more and more, a plethora of AR style rifles are back in stock at your Local Gun Store (LGS). So with such a dizzying array of options, how do you narrow down the field, and make a well informed choice? (This one is short on pictures, but long on content and links.)
As with any gun purchase, before you pull the trigger on that new AR-15, spend time answering the following four very important questions:
1. What is your Purpose, or Philosophy of Use (POU)? Why are you buying this AR-15? How will you use the AR-15? What realistically will you be doing with your AR-15 most of the time?
2. What is your current and future budget? My advice is to spend a little more upfront for better quality. Sure, it’ll sting a little now, but you won’t regret it down the road. Nor will you spend more money fixing or replacing it later.
3. How might your AR-15 evolve over time, and how might your overall collection of firearms evolve over time? Is this your only rifle? Will your A-15 have to flex into many different roles? Might your POU change over time? Is hunting in your future? Is competition in your future? Is a Zombie Apocalypse in your future? (Obviously, that’s a joke, but Zombies, and marketing to the Zombie Apocalypse are huge in the firearms and survival / prepper industries. Hell, there’s even a zombie in one of the latest Sprint mobile phone commercials.)
4. What are the Federal, State and Local laws applicable to this purchase? Though your vendor of choice, be it your LGS or an Internet site, should provide assistance here, it’s still your responsibility to know the laws that relate to your new purchase.
Don’t Sweat It. You almost can’t go wrong…
Competition is generally a good thing. The result of healthy competition is lots of product choice, better overall product quality, and better (lower) prices for the end consumer. All of that is absolutely true in the AR-15 market. As of fall 2013, many AR-15 manufacturers make high quality rifles, parts and accessories at very reasonable prices. Generally speaking, and for most civilian POUs, if you stick with a well known manufacturer, with a good history of quality rifles, and a strong reputation for customer service, you almost can’t go wrong.
At a high level, AR-15 manufacturers fall into two categories:
- Manufacturers that focus on nothing but the M16 / M4 / AR-15 platform, and produce nothing but AR-15s, and related parts.
- More commonly known, traditional gun makers that make AR-15 style rifles.
The MIL-Spec Designation…
OK, what is the Military Specification for M16 and M4 rifles as it relates to the AR-15? What does it mean? Is it important?
Honestly, it’s surprisingly difficult to define the MIL-Spec definition as it relates to the AR-15. Some argue if the gun hasn’t been handed out by one of the branches of the U.S. Military, complete with select / burst fire, and if you’re not carrying it for Uncle Sam, then it’s not MIL-Spec. Others have written nauseatingly long (even for me) articles that discuss each and every individual component of the AR-15 relative to the M16 / M4 Military Specification. Others say parts of the M16 / M4 MIL-Spec are still, well, classified…
For simplicity sake, so that you are generally aware of them, commonly agreed upon and highly favored features from the M16 / M4 Military Specification are listed below:
1. MPI (Magnetic Particle Inspected), pressure tested, shot peened bolt. MPI and pressure testing help ensure parts are structurally sound, devoid of cracks and less likely to fail. Shot peening is a metallurgical process that increases strength and useful life. The rods in the engine of your car are also shot peened, for the very same reason.
2. Properly staked gas key on the bolt carrier. ‘Properly staked’ speaks to how the gas key is attached to the bolt carrier so they don’t separate at the most inopportune time.
3. 4150 or CMV chrome lined pressure and MPI tested 1:7 twist barrel. The chrome lining improves reliability, is less susceptible to fouling, reduces corrosion and enhances feeding & extraction. The 1:7 twist is fast enough to spin heavier, longer bullets that provide better long range accuracy and stopping power.
4. 5.56 NATO chamber with M4 feed ramps. The 5.56 NATO chamber allows you to safely fire both full-power NATO spec 5.56 and .223 Remington ammunition. The M4 feed ramps ensure proper feeding of ammunition to help reduce malfunctions, especially at high rates of fire.
5. Forged FSB (Front Sight Block) (F marked if carbine) with parkerizing under it. Forged for strength. F marked for carbines with a flat top upper to properly align the height of the front sight with the height of the MIL-spec rear iron sight.
6. Tapered pins for the FSB. Tapered pins only go in one way, and have a tighter fit than straight pins so they reduce the risk of working themselves out over time.
7. MIL-Spec size receiver extension (buffer tube), with staked castle nut. Commercial tubes are smaller in diameter than MIL-Spec size tubes. This is important if you plan to change stocks.
If you make a living with your AR-15, or are otherwise selecting something for work, then learning more about the M16 / M4 Military Specification, and trying to obtain an AR-15 as close to the M16 / M4 MIL-Spec as possible is well advised. (Though, you may be better served with an actual select fire / burst capable M16 / M4 from FN or COLT, which as far as I know, can only be obtained the traditional way…) In any event, God Speed, Good Luck, and I’m totally stoked you read my stuff!
For the rest of us, the average civilian buying an AR-15 for plinking, hunting, home defense and/or competition; don’t get wrapped around the axle about the MIL-Spec designation. Sure, many of the seven MIL-Spec traits listed above are nice to have – some certainly more than others. (MPI and pressure tested bolts and barrels are nice to have, especially if taking your AR-15 to carbine class, where you will fire thousands of rounds, potentially at a high rate of fire, in a short time period with little cleaning between firing. Likewise, if using your AR-15 primarily for defense purposes, MPI and pressure tested bolts and barrels add confidence in your equipment. Is it needed for most casual plinkers who likely shoot less than 1,000 rounds all year?? Shooters focused on getting the best possible, hair splitting accuracy from their rifle may opt for non-chrome lined barrels, and accept the negative trade-offs. Fine if going with a stainless steel barrel, but otherwise I like chrome lined barrels in the AR-15 platform for reliability and longevity. I doubt most will notice any trade-off in accuracy. That forged F marked FSB and the tapered FSB pins are only relevant if you’re building a flat top carbine with the traditional front sight. Have an A2 style or other non-collapsible stock, or otherwise happy with the one you have with no plans to swap it out? Then don’t even worry about the MIL-Spec sized receiver extension.)
The point is, there are plenty of excellent, high quality AR-15s put out by great manufacturers that lack more than a few of the MIL-Spec features listed above; some are even used by major US Law Enforcement agencies. Focus more on overall AR-15 build quality and manufacturer reputation.
My ‘Two-Cents’ Worth “Who’s Who” List of AR-15 Manufacturers… (It’s actually worth thirty-seven dollars and change.)
Knowing my audience is generally newer to guns, and possibly brand new to the AR-15 platform, the section below provides baseline info, some company history and my thoughts on a number of AR-15 manufacturers. I also indicate whether or not the manufacturer made my ‘short-list’. In many cases, what did NOT make my ‘short-list’ came down to very simple things like personal taste, cost or simply having to limit the number of choices to avoid the dreaded, never-ending analysis paralysis.
Providing this list is a risky endeavor. I’m sure to piss off more than a few since I could never cover all of the choices, nor do all of them justice. Hey, I’m sharing what I know from personal research and experience. Consider it a starting point for your own research, certainly not the “be all, end all,” answer.
Category 1: Manufacturers Who Focus Solely on the M16 / M4 / AR-15 Platform:
The names you are most likely see on the wall of your LGS, or at the local range, some history and my thoughts on each:
Bushmaster – Bushmaster is one of the original names in civilian AR production, dating back to 1973. However, circa 2010, Bushmaster was purchased by the Freedom Group, which also owns Remington Arms and Marlin. Honestly, I can’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. I have no personal experience with a Freedom Group Bushmaster. I can tell you that my Remington 700 CDL is outstanding in fit and finish, and quite the tack driver. Though I realize the Remington 700 is no AR-15. When it was time for my decision, I feared company integration, retooling and retraining challenges, so Freedom Group owned Bushmaster didn’t make my short-list. If buying today, I’d keep an open mind, do my research and check them out again.
DPMS, Defense Procurement Manufacturing Services – Founded in 1985 as precision machine shop producing MIL-Spec parts for the Government. DPMS eventually started producing complete rifles and expanded into the civilian market. DPMS is a large supporter of 3-Gun sports. Their TAC2 offering received was named Shooting Illustrated’s Rifle of the Year. DPMS might have made my short list. However, at decision time they didn’t have an offering I considered aesthetically pleasing. For me that’s a factor. Call it what you want; appeal, second kind of cool, pleasing to the eye, sexiness, whatever… With so many other good choices available, I wasn’t willing to compromise. Though I’ll say some of their newer stuff certainly has appeal, the ‘TAC2’ and ‘3G2’ being great examples.
Rock River Arms – Founded circa 1997 by two brothers with gun building experience that includes serving as the head armorer at Springfield Armory, and custom pistol builder at Les Baer Customs. RRA was founded from Day 1 with a focus on the AR-15 platform. In 2003 RRA was awarded a contract with the DEA to provide 5,000 LAR-15s. RRA was on my short-list.
STAG Arms – “The oldest new name in ARs.” Officially started as its own company in 2003, Stag Arms is an offshoot of CMT (Continental Machine & Tool) who has been a major producer of component parts for military and consumer AR-15s since the Vietnam War. In 2003, they decided to produce their own, complete rifles for the civilian market, instead of just remaining a background, component part supplier for other, major name brands. Stag is a supporter of 3-Gun sports and with their high-end 3G, was the first major AR manufacturer to offer a 3-Gun specific model. Stag Arms was on my short-list. In fact, the STAG 3G topped my list.
Windham Weaponry – Started in 2011 by the former founder and owner of Bushmaster Arms. The company was started after the Freedom Group purchased Bushmaster, moved operations out of the area and laid-off the original employees. In many cases, Windham Weaponry employees have been making ARs for ~25 years or more. Based on personal experience with what I’ll call a Windham Weaponry produced Bushmaster that’s been in the family for ~10 years, Windham Weaponry would definitely make my short-list. However, as with DPMS, they didn’t have anything I considered visually appealing at decision time. I do like some of their newer stuff, like their ‘Timber’ and ‘CDI’ offerings.
Additional names of other very popular AR-15 specific rifle and parts manufacturers you will hear as you dig deeper into the AR-15 platform are listed below. They are considered by many to be higher-end, and/or more specialized than those listed above. In most cases the price tag matches that reputation. Depending on where you live and what your LGS carries, these are not as likely to be hanging on the wall or in the rack of your LGS, so trying to get your hands on one may be difficult.
CMMG. Based originally on making AR-15 parts and accessories, they now produce complete rifles. Their AR-15 .22lr conversion kits are very popular and have a solid reputation for quality and performance.
Daniel Defense. On my short-list.
LMT – Lewis Machine and Tool. On my short-list.
LaRue Tactical. On my short-list.
Noveske. On my short-list, at the time specifically for their barrels, which have a great reputation for accuracy. Now they make other parts and even complete rifles too.
Seekins Precision. On my short-list.
Spikes Tactical. Their lowers are extremely popular and have a good reputation for quality with the build your own crowd.
It’s worth noting, and as you probably figured out from the history and my comments, almost all of AR specific manufacturers listed above offer not just complete rifles, but parts for those that want to build or upgrade their AR-15.
Category 2: Traditional Gun Makers with Strong AR-15 style offerings:
While ARMALITE and COLT have pretty much always had AR-15 offerings for the civilian market, it took a while for other, more traditional gun makers to get into the game. With the AR-15 platform still popular as ever, many of those traditional gun makers are now in on the action. Big names you’re sure to recognize:
It might be a surprising revelation, but not many offerings from the list above made my ‘short-list’ of AR-15 choices. You’ll learn a bit more about why in my next post – hint, hint. To be clear, they all make perfectly fine AR-15 style rifles. COLT still makes M16s and M4s for military, which should tell you something, and let’s not forget it was an H&K416 in the hands of a NAVY SEAL that took down bin Laden. If you’re in the AR-15 market, I’d put every single one on your ‘short-list’.
As you might expect, and in contrast to the manufacturers that focus completely on the AR-15 platform, almost none of the traditional gun makers offer parts for those that want to build their own. So, I don’t believe you can purchase a COLT or S&W upper to mate with your STAG lower, etc. I’m sure it’s related to warranty and liability issues.
Finally, if nothing from the dizzying array of “factory” options excites you, and if you have the coin, you can always pony-up for an ultra high-end, hand fitted AR-15 from some of the best names in the custom gun making business, like Les Baer or Wilson Combat.
Summing It Up
The AR-15 market is so strong you can get just about anything you want. You can get a new, good quality Plain Jane, entry level AR-15 from more than a few of the manufacturers I list for about $800 – 900, maybe less. You can get a completely custom, high-end, hand built rifle from some of the best custom makers in the World. (Just bring your wallet because you will easily spend well into the thousands.) Of course, you can get anything in between, and you can even build your own. No doubt it’s a great time to buy in on the AR platform.
For my money, I like manufactures with a strong pedigree of Military and/or Law Enforcement service. Companies that supply the Military and LE community, and those that supply those that supply all rank very high on my list. (savy?) I also favor products designed by, and manufactured by guys who have operated in the theater of war. God willing, these guys come home with first hand knowledge of exactly what works, what doesn’t and how to improve the platform. In all cases, what passes their testing and performs successfully in the field for them, will more than likely work just fine for me.
That said, my best advice is this: Define your POU and your budget then hit every LGS in your area. Handle as many AR-15 style rifles as you can. Cycle the action. After you’ve verified the gun is unloaded, and asked if it’s OK with the LGS owner or salesman, dry fire the rifle. Better yet, get some real trigger time. Hit the range with family and friends, or find a range that rents. Shoot as many AR-15 style rifles, from as many different manufacturers as possible
The truth is, with so many manufacturers producing quality AR-15s in the $900 – $1500 range, and for all legal, civilian uses I can think of, what’s stamped on the parts matters less than getting a rifle that fits you properly, has a good trigger, is setup correctly for your POU, is within your budget, and that generally appeals to your liking. After all, it’s your rifle, you should like it!
Anyway, that’s my “Thirty Seven dollars and change” worth of advice on the AR-15 Market. Hope it helps. Let me know what you decide and how it worked out.
Be Aware! Be Prepared! Be Safe!