Picking a First AR-15 in 2015: Where to Start?
Jon Stokes 02.27.15
Last night at dinner, a friend of mine asked me for recommendations for a first AR-15. When he told me that he’s looking to keep it under $1,500.00, my first reaction was, “Yes, you can get a fantastic AR for that amount,” but my second reaction was, “but I have no idea which one.”
I follow the AR scene and have a good sense of prices and quality levels at different vendors, but I was still sort of stumped. Given that he’s mainly interested in home defense, I told him he should first consider a suppressed pistol for that application or maybe a Tavor if he can find a deal on one. But while I was saying this, I was thinking that here has to be an AR equivalent of “nobody ever got fired for buying an IBM.” But what would it be? Colt? Daniel Defense? Smith & Wesson?
If you do some Google searches for articles on buying your first AR, you’ll find that most of them are from 2008 to early 2013, and that’s no coincidence. Obama’s election precipitated a gun panic in ’08, and then Newtown triggered the mother of all AR runs in December of 2012. With all of those new buyers flooding into the AR market, publications like ours stepped up to give some guidance on brands, features, prices, options, and so on. But there hasn’t been much written lately that’s aimed at first-time AR buyers.
I also can’t help but think that there’s another factor at work in recent years’ dearth of articles on picking your first AR: with prices so low and quality so high, it’s really hard to make a mistake. Seriously, you have to make it a point to cheap out and not do even a minute’s worth of Googling to pick up a dog in the current market. And if you’re in the $1,000+ range, forget about it. The casual shooter will have to work to pick up a bad AR at that price point.
So with the 2015 AR market being an embarrassment of low-priced riches, there’s less of a need for intro pieces to steer new buyers in the right direction than there has been in years past. There are just so many good ARs on the market right now.
I started out here with a question, but it’s not one that I intend to answer today. Rather, it’s a question that I want to put to the audience: if you’re trying to steer a complete AR newb in the right direction, where do you start? What do you tell friends and family who want to get into the AR scene? Where do you send them? Are there any online resources that you steer them towards? Any brands that you automatically recommend?
Update: A truly fantastic comment from user James Rea below, which I’ll post in full here:
“I have been into the AR world seriously since 2004. I have been shooting them for over 36 years. I have built nearly 3 1/2 dozen and owned over 4 dozen. I currently have 30 of them. So, I am pretty up to par on ARs. Whenever I hear that someone is looking into getting their first AR, I want to know a few things before I even begin with recommendations. What is your budget? What is the purpose? What is your experience? With the hosts of ARs on the market today, there are many good ARs to choose from. A person does not have to spend their whole budget on an AR. There are other things to consider such as magazines, optics (optional), supporting gear (gun case, cleaning supplies, etc.), and most importantly, ammo. If you cannot afford the proper ammo, your AR is useless.
For someone using an AR primarily for HD and plinking, there is no need to spend a boat load of money on it. There are many ARs out there that are priced in the $550-$750 range that will offer dependable performance and will provide the owner with everything they need. Good quality budget-minded optics can be had anywhere from $70-$400. I usually find that a big chunk of the budget should be used on buying good quality and dependable ammo. 2000 rounds of good brass-cased ammo is a good start.
It is easy for people to start throwing brand names out there. many that do have limited experience with a broad range of ARs. I have nothing against certain brand name ARs as I own a few of them. One thing I always want an individual to consider is to build the one they want. A person can source out everything they need to build the AR they want. Sometimes it is cheaper and sometimes not. The good thing is that it is theirs and they had a hand in building it.
Lately, I have helped two friends of mine build their own ARs. These were their first. One guy has now built four of them. I have some other that are looking to build their first one. There is nothing like having pride in owning something you built.
In essence, recommending an AR to a first-time buyer is not an easy task. Until you fully understand what they are looking for, you do them no favors throwing names out there.”