Everyone should have an American Rifle. No, that’s not what AR stands for (check out this post on AR History, but it seems to be moving that way fast. If you don’t have one, or are thinking about buying a new one, the choices are endless. If you want to buy one for the first time, how can you choose? What AR should I buy? What should be my first AR?
In this post, I’m not trying to tell you what AR to buy but rather give some background information so you can make your own informed decision. I own two Bushmasters and have trained with rifles made by Smith & Wesson, HK, DPMS, Hi-Standard, Colt, and FN. The only thing I have to say for sure about these companies is don’t buy a Hi-Standard, it was anything but high standards.
The first choice when buying an AR is the caliber. You can get an AR in just about anything nowadays. My first suggestion would be for someone to buy a 5.56mm/.223, but it depends on what you want it for. I only suggest 5.56 because it’s the cheapest rifle and ammo to buy right now. If you want a long range rifle, there are a couple different choices, but I would suggest going with the .308 if you want something bigger than a 5.56. If you really have to have something different, go for it. Just know that ammo, magazines, and the rifle it self will be considerably more expensive (that is why I own 2 in 5.56mm).
Most people use the .223 or 5.56mm as the same cartridge, but it’s not. Outside dimensions are the same, but the 5.56 NATO has higher pressure limits. Some people say that it’s unsafe to run 5.56 NATO ammo in a .223 chambered rifle. I’ve done it without issues, but it’s just easier to buy a rifle that says 5.56 on the barrel. Don’t believe what the salesman says, look at the rifle. On the barrel, normally towards the muzzle, will be stamped what the rifle is designed for. Error on the side of caution and just get a 5.56 rifle. Most these days are, but there are a few exceptions, so check.
For your first rifle, stay away from franken-guns, or something someone will put together for you. Buying parts and parts kits is an excellent way to get a high-end rifle with all the accessories that you want, but the rifle may not work as well as a rifle that comes straight from the factory. I would suggest that you get a factory complete rifle just for the sake of ease. But if you want an adventure or a mechanical challenge, buy some parts and go for it. As long as you follow directions, the worst that could happen is the rifle malfunctions a lot.
There are a couple different sizes of rifles. The basics are the M4 or M16 styled rifles. The M4 generally has a 16” barrel and a stock that is adjustable for length of pull (i.e. it gets longer or shorter). Most people will call it a collapsible, but a collapsible stock on any other rifle means that the stock folds up out of the way somehow. The M16 style generally has a fixed stock and a 20” barrel. Most people like the M4 style just because it’s shorter, lighter, and is more common right now. Either one works great. And if you don’t like your choice, you can always buy parts later to switch the rifle the other way.
Optics are all the rage right now. Good optics are expensive, like half the price of the rifle or more. For you first rifle, stick to “fixed sights.” I would buy a flat top version (which just means you can put a scope on it later), and back up or small iron sights. Some rifles will come with the front sight as part of the rifle and no rear sight. You can easily buy a good rear sight for less than $100, but most rifles will come with the iron sights. Learn how to shoot your irons first. Here is a good podcast on shooting an AR and a YouTube video to go with it.
If you have looked at an AR, you have heard the argument about piston driven or direct gas system. Piston guns are awesome, but cost a lot more, there is no standard (every company makes their own version), and it’s only needed for really high ammo counts. A close friend of mind found that running a full auto gun that the gas system would start to have problems after going through 7 magazines as fast as the rifle would fire (that means holding down the trigger to dump a mag, change as fast as possible, and then holding down the trigger again). The piston guns will go over 10 mags before they start to have problems at that rate. I default to the gas system. The piston guns are really more expensive and there is another moving part to break and something else to adjust. The biggest reason I don’t want one yet is there is no standard. Almost every AR on the market will be “Mil Spec” which means it was made to take all the same parts as the military versions. There is no mil spec to a piston system. Besides, I’ve run a Colt on full auto through over 14 mags at a time with a 10” barrel and gas system and the little gun just kept going. We tried to break it and couldn’t. I actually melted a magazine to cause the gun to malfunction. Once I switched mags, it continued to run.
ARs are almost modular now. There is so much stuff you can put on them it’s ridiculous. For your first gun, just buy a base model. You don’t even need a rail on the front hand guard. If you get one, it will be heavier and it’s hard on your hands because it has sharp parts where you hold on. Then you will end up buying rail covers and that just adds more weight and expense. Start with a base model that just has a cheap priced front hand guard and it’s super easy (and will be the same price) to upgrade later. Learn how the base weapon works first, then you will know what you want.
Price points on these rifles run anywhere from about $800 to $4,000. Almost everyone is making a good AR these days, buy one from a reputable company and try to keep it in the $800 to $1,000 range. There really isn’t any reason to buy a better one for your first rifle. If you have the money and just “need” a Les Baer, go for it (they used to start at $2,500).
Companies I can suggest you buy for your first gun are Smith and Wesson, Bushmaster, DPMS, and Colt. They all make a good entry level gun for a reasonable price. I have two Bushmasters and those have been my favorite to run. They generally are a little more expensive then DPMS or Smith, but have a better trigger and a better feel. But I have used a Smith and it runs great for the price.
If you don’t have an AR and are thinking of getting one, just save up your money and go get one. It’s hard to make a bad choice and everyone has their favorite. Find the one you like, get it, and shoot it a lot. They are a lot of fun, relatively cheap to shoot, have almost no recoil, and everyone has one. They are great for hunting, plinking, target shooting, run and gun games, and home/personal defense. Get one and enjoy.