A lot of options on the tried and true AR can be both a blessing and a curse.
What to consider when buying an AR:
- What Is My Intended Use?
- Which Caliber Best Suits My Needs?
- What Can I Upgrade Later?
- Functional vs. Cosmetic Components
- Optics and Shooting Aids
During the past decade, there has been an explosion in the number of manufacturers and, as a result, the production of AR-type rifles. Thanks to an anti-gun presidency that lasted almost a decade and a firearms market that grew in response to it, for a while it seemed there were as many different AR options as there were garages to build them in.
This growth has been seen not only with specialty, custom-type shops that design and build premium rifles, but also among larger manufacturers that are now producing cost-friendly versions in both AR-10 and AR-15 platforms. Traditional long gun makers such as Savage and Mossberg, for example, have even jumped into the fray with a wide variety of ARs, from tactical models to long-range predator thumpers.
On the plus side, it means there have never been more calibers and configurations of the AR-type rifle than there are today. There’s literally an AR for every budget and intended use, from 3-gun competition and 1,000-yard steel banging to predator hunting and home defense.
The downside? There’s an awful lot of options to sift through when putting together your next rifle budget or build, and it can be altogether confusing to know where to start. To help with your next purchase, here are the top five questions to ask before you buy your next AR.
What Is My Intended Use?
The most important question you need to ask and answer before purchasing your next AR is what you intend to use it for. While some rifles are inherently more versatile than others, there isn’t really one rifle that can cover every application. As a result, it’s best to narrow down intended use to a couple of categories.
Do you intend on using your AR for home defense? If so, you’re probably going to want a carbine- or mid-length gas system, which will allow you to run a shorter barrel (roughly 10-20 inches) and overall rifle setup, a definite benefit for close-quarters rumblings. Lighter, generally more compact, and more recoil friendly, the AR-15 is going to be the most likely platform of choice for home defense.
The same will be true for competition rifles, in which lightweight maneuverability is a non-negotiable and the AR-15 excels. Competition guns, which typically run on custom or match ammo and feature higher-end triggers, are ideally equipped with an adjustable gas system that maximizes accuracy and minimizes recoil for fast follow-up shots. While competition guns are equally well suited for predator hunting, they generally require fine-tuning for different loads and cost quite a bit more.
If you plan on hunting with the rifle, you’ll likely want to go with a mid- or rifle-length gas system, which gives you a barrel generally between 14-24 inches. It also depends which type of hunting you want to do — while the AR-15 is great for predator and small deer hunting, the big game and hog hunter will probably consider the AR-10 for larger calibers, most prominently the .308 Winchester. Since the AR-10 is heavier, it’s not as ideal for maneuvering in a house-clearing, home-defense situation, and bullets tend to over-penetrate through walls and human targets at close ranges.
Long-range competitors will likely settle on an AR-10, too, because weight is less of an issue and caliber selection is everything. The AR-10 can house the .260 Rem., .308 Win., and the hot new 6.5 Creedmoor, among many others, all favorites among the long-range crowd.
Which Caliber Best Suits My Needs?
Related to the decision between AR-10 and AR-15 is caliber selection. One of the reasons the AR-15 is well-suited for home defense, for example, is that the .223 Rem./5.56 NATO round is available in many home defense loads that are highly effective on target and minimize penetration through walls and other in-home barriers. That same rifle, depending on twist rate of the barrel, can generally double as a good coyote gun because there is an endless supply of high-quality loads for hunting in the .223 Rem.
If you do want to hunt larger-bodied game with the AR-15, there are some great options by way of caliber selection. One is the 6.5 Grendel, which can capably take larger game out to several hundred yards and was pioneered by Bill Alexander of Alexander Arms. Hornady produces the 6.5 load with a 123-grain SST bullet, which is ideal for deer and bear.
There is a wide variety of AR-15 chamberings that will do the trick, including 6.8 SPC, .300 BLK and, for small game, several rimfire variants such as the .17 Winchester Super Magnum (WSM) and both the .22 long rifle (LR) and magnum (WMR). If you’re looking for something outside the box and want to stretch your distances, the 22 Nosler might just be the ticket. With 25 percent more case capacity than the .223, the 22 Nosler is 300 fps faster and is available in several different 55-grain loads.
Built with a beefier bolt carrier group and buffer tube components, the AR-10 can handle the abuse of larger rounds such as the .308 Win. and is better suited for larger animals and longer distances. This is where most long-range shooters will live, given caliber choices that go all the way up to .300 Win. Mag.
What Can I Upgrade Later?
Just like vehicles, AR-type rifles go up or down in price based on the quality of accessory packages and components. The chassis itself is more or less always the same — either a direct gas-impingement system, as Stoner envisioned, or a slightly modified gas-piston design, with upper and lower receivers, a buffer tube system, bolt carrier group and handguard. One of the key points of the AR design, after all, was modularity and interchangeability of parts. This means, if you’re working with a tight budget, you can buy a base AR and upgrade parts — of which there are literally thousands of different designs — and upgrade down the road.
Your base model AR will come with the world’s grittiest Mil-Spec trigger, generally in the 5- to 9-pound range, and is usually the first thing I’d swap out. A good drop-in trigger will run you $150-200. For competition, this is an absolute must. The same is probably true for hunting, whereas you can get away with the standard trigger for general home defense purposes.
Beyond the trigger, you can add handguards that are lighter and more accessorizable, pistol grips, adjustable gas blocks, muzzle devices (suppressor/compensator/brakes) and buttstocks. And you thought women were bad about accessorizing — just hang out with a diehard AR aficionado. You can spend hundreds of dollars on the accessories alone, but that also means you don’t have to spend all your money right away.
One thing to keep in mind is that the AR-15 is generally much more standardized than the AR-10. As a result, a lot of AR-10 parts won’t fit on different models, a problem generally not had with the AR-15. The one standardization for the AR-10 you can kinda sorta rely on is the “DPMS” designation, which most retailers will list.
Which Components Are Functional vs. Cosmetic?
Of all the AR rifles I’ve tested, I can honestly say the biggest difference between a $2,000 gun and a $1,000 gun is, in many cases, cosmetic. Spiral fluted barrels, artfully machined billet aluminum receivers, flared mag wells and posh paint jobs.
While I’m as much of a sucker as the next guy for something that just downright looks cool, it’s important to realize that most of these cost-heavy features don’t actually add anything to the functionality of the firearm.
If you have the extra cash and the cool factor is a good enough justification, great — feel free to dump your dollars into a custom paint job or spiral fluted barrel. But realize that your gun isn’t necessarily going to perform any better than a plane Jane, black barrel. Also in the cosmetic category goes CNC-machined billet receivers.
Yeah, sure, they might be slightly more durable after the 50,000th round, but that is negligible for something like 99 percent of shooters. In all reality, they look nice.
Other components, however, greatly impact the actual functionality of the rifle and are, in my opinion, the things I’d upgrade or add to my build first. As I said before, the first is the trigger. Timney and Geissele are two names that come to mind for excellent drop-in, match-grade AR triggers. A good trigger will make for improved accuracy and is imperative for quick follow-up shots. A good barrel with an adequate twist rate to match your intended bullet weight is second to none, while a high-quality adjustable buttstock will greatly improve accuracy, too, especially for the long-range shooter or hunter. And yes, most standard A2 buttstocks are wobbly and worth replacing.
Which Type Of Optics And Shooting Aids Do I Intend To Use?
Most ARs will come with a Picatinny top rail that’s adequate for mounting any number of riflescopes, red dots or ACOG-style combat optics. Beyond that, there are a number of options for scope mounts — two piece, one piece, quick detach, lightweight and different height options for more or less elevation (helpful for the long-range guys). There’s also a case to be made for the full-length Picatinny rail on the top of the handguard, which gives you even more mounting options.
For home defense or predator hunting, I prefer a handguard with 3, 6 and 9 o’clock attachment points, either in M-LOK or Key-Mod, for whatever light and laser combinations I want to add. The same handguard will work just fine for the long-range or hunting rifle, and allows for the addition of things such as a bipod or sling attachments. If you don’t intend on adding lights or lasers, you can also find a handguard without attachment cutouts.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.