Best Assault Rifle, Top 25 AR-Style Rifles | Field & Stream

F&S Picks the 25 Best AR-Style Rifles

An Intro to the AR-Style Rifle

Black guns often get a bum rap. They can look a bit menacing, and their configuration and controls are radically different than those found on traditional sporting firearms. But the hunter who automatically dismisses AR-style rifles as legitimate sporting guns would be doing himself a major disservice. Why? Because the AR is one of the most capable, adaptable, and appealing firearm platforms on the market today. And these characteristics are helping it gain traction in the civilian market in its semi-automatic-only form.

So, what exactly is the AR and why is it so appealing? First, AR stands for Armalite, the company that created the guns back in the 1950s (not Assault Rifle as is commonly thought). However, it has now come to refer generally to all manufacturers' civilian versions of the design.

When the first AR rifles were introduced they were radically innovative compared to popular guns of the day. The classic Winchester Model 70, for example, with it's wood stock and blued carbon-steel barrel, looked great, but it also had an action based on a 19th century design. The AR was something completely different: It combined advanced aluminum-alloy forgings and synthetic materials. It featured a modular design with a two-piece receiver that allowed users to easily swap out upper assemblies of different chamberings or configurations. The two-piece stock design let users reconfigure the AR with different stocks and fore-end systems. That kind of versatility has allowed the AR (which was born as the AR-10 and adopted by the military as the M16) to become the longest-serving rifle in our country's history.

Over the past 50 years manufacturers have taken advantage of the gun's modularity to attach optics and accessories, add new operating systems, allow larger chamberings, and even create civilian-legal semi-automatic-only versions. These guns have proved capable and popular with shooters of all stripes, especially varmint hunters. And recent developments have expanded the platform to big-game hunters as well.

This is because the qualities that make AR rifles so successful as a military design also make them highly capable as hunting firearms. Many models boast sub-MOA accuracy right out of the box, with some variants featuring performance that rivals that of custom target rifles.

What follows is my personal list of the top 25 ARs. This list includes guns ranging from tactical rifles to hunting rifles, plinkers to pistols, all of which is designed to give shooters a good idea of the range of ARs available to them today. Unless otherwise noted, all guns on this list are chambered for standard 5.56x45mm/.223 Rem. cartridges. -Michael Humphries

The New Standard—M4 Carbine-style DPMS AP4

The most popular AR variant these days is the semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. Military's M4 Carbine, a weapon seen in the hands of members of the U.S. military from Iraq to Afghanistan.

A terrific example of this class of firearm is the DPMS AP4. This gun combines handy size, ample power and an ability to accept a wide range of optics on its Picatinny rail upper receiver (which has a removable carry handle). There are a host of aftermarket accessories available for it, including Picatinny rail fore-ends, replacement stock assemblies, sights, and more, so the little carbine can grow with you as your interests and budget changes. MSRP: $904. www.dpmsinc.com

The Legacy Bearer--Colt Match Target HBAR

When the Marine Corps requested an upgrade to the M16A1 that would incorporate sights adjustable to 800 meters, thicker barrels, and more durable plastic parts, the result was the M16A2. The redesign introduced features that are now standard on most AR firearms--including round, ribbed handguards, a shell deflector on the upper receiver, and more. Colt, which worked with the Marine Corps to develop the M16A2, offers a civilian semi-automatic-only variant of this rifle in its Match Target HBAR rifle.

Because these guns are Colts, they get all the refinements (and the quality control) that the company has developed during the four-plus decades it’s been building AR variants. There’s a lot of history behind the rampant colt logo, and this gun gives civilians a chance to own a piece of it--as well as an astoundingly reliable and accurate gun. What more could you ask? MSRP: $1,119. www.coltsmfg.com

The Blast from the Past--Armalite AR-10 A2

Although most AR rifles are chambered for 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem., it actually began life as the Armalite AR-10 chambered in 7.62x51mm (.308 Win.). The original Armalite company went out of business decades ago, but the .308 Win. AR-10 is back, thanks to a reborn Armalite company based in Geneseo, IL.

The new AR-10 rifle, specifically the AR-10 A2 Infantry Model, takes advantage of all the modernized features of a mature AR, including M16A2-style sights and stock set, and an upper receiver with a forward assist and shell deflector, and combines them with the traditional charm of a 1950s-era AR-10.

So, here you not only get to go back to the AR’s roots, but you also get a gun that moves the design solidly into the big-bore power range of the .308 Win. And that means deer. MSRP: $1,561. www.armalite.com

The Southpaw’s Best Friend--Stag Arms Model 4L

Left-handed shooters can be a somewhat overlooked group --Just ask Mr. Petzal-- often forced to learn to use standard right-hand variants of firearms. However, thanks to Stag Arms, lefties can get a true left-hand AR-pattern rifle, the Stag-15L Model 4L in 5.56x45 mm.

This gun, from the company's Stag-15 and 15L line of right- and left-hand rifles and carbines, is not simply a retro-designed ambidextrous rifle but actually a near-mirror copy of a standard right-hand rifle. The lower receiver of the rifle is a standard model fitted out with completely ambidextrous controls (this is required to allow the use of standard magazines), but the upper receiver is a true reversed left-hand version with a matching left-hand bolt carrier assembly.

Representing an AR variant unlike anything else on the market, the Stag Arms series of southpaw rifles and carbines offers lefties a wonderfully engineered and uncommon mirror-image version of the now so-familiar AR rifle. MSRP: $1,095. www.stagarms.com

The Real Lightweight--Bushmaster C15

The C15 M4 Type Carbine (configured like an M4-style carbine with a flat-top upper) from Bushmaster updates the basic AR design with a new generation of materials. Rather than aluminum, the C15 employs composite-molded receivers. The synthetic material makes the gun very light and durable. In fact, the company claims a 40 percent reduction in weight and a 40 percent increase in strength over a comparable aluminum receiver. It's lighter, yet stronger. I have no problem with that. MSRP: $1,190. www.bushmaster.com

The Easy on the Wallet AR--DPMS 5.56 Sportical

When you're on a tight budget, a $2,000 or $3,000 rifle is an impossibility. But where there's a will, there's a way, and Randy Luth at DPMS put his team to work to create an AR that delivered champagne quality at wine cooler pricing. The result is the 5.56 Sportical, which combines elements of the company's sporting and tactical offerings into an appealing package that retails for around $700.

The Sportical achieves it excellent price point by cutting the design down to its basics while leaving the features most wanted by shooters. To make mounting optics easier, DPMS opted to go with an extruded-alloy flat-top upper receiver (with no forward assist or shell deflector) and a Picatinny rail-equipped gas block. The carbine features a 16-inch lightweight profile barrel and the company's proprietary Pardus six-position collapsible stock. The Sportical proves that quality does not necessarily have to cost an arm and a leg. MSRP: $704. www.dpmsinc.com

The Precision Hammer--Knight’s SR-25 Series

Developed in the early 1990s, the SR-25 series from Knight's Armament Corporation was designed to be an AR-based precision rifle in 7.62x51 mm/.308 Win. capable of shooting less than 1-inch groups at 100 yards. Tuned from the ground up for precision, the SR-25 achieves its exemplary performance by using high-quality barrels housed within free-floated handguards.

Harnessing the inherent accuracy of the AR-pattern rifle and the power of the .308, the SR-25 offers the discerning shooters a chance to own one of the most refined AR variants available. Such precision, alas, does come at a price. Do you own an oil well? MSRP: $7,884.39. www.knightarmco.com

The Predator Hunter--Remington R-15 VTR Predator Carbine CS

Although the AR's popularity has grown beyond the military and tactical realms to also include the shooting sports, the majority of the latter have been geared toward long-range varmint shooting. This application makes sense due to the inherent accuracy and fast follow-up shots of the AR, but Remington saw more potential.

The R-15 VTR line of rifles, offered in a variety of configurations in either .223 Rem. or the new .204 Ruger, represented Remington's first move into the AR market. The significance of this can not be understated, as Remington is a company renowned for producing revered sporting firearms, and Big Green's historic move has helped win over many hunters.

One of the more unique and interesting variants in the line is the R-15 VTR Predator Carbine CS. Geared toward the predator hunter, this handy little carbine features a collapsible stock and a short 18-inch barrel. To aid concealment, the rifle also sports an Advantage MAX-1 HD camouflage coating.

Taking what was once considered an unconventional sporting firearm and honing it to precisely what outdoorsmen need, Remington has done both the hunting community and the AR-enthusiast community a service with the R-15 series. MSRP: $1,225. www.remington.com

The Balanced Approach– Armalite M15A4 Carbine

When the AR began life it was configured as a full-size rifle with a 20-inch barrel and a long gas system that ran the full length of the handguard. But over the years the pattern has been downsized to carbine variants with shorter barrels and shorter gas systems.

These shortened guns achieved the goal of providing an AR carbine, but there are two side effects from the shorter gas systems--faster wear due to the action opening while chamber pressures are higher, and greater fouling from hotter gasses being jetted back into the action.

Armalite, through its M15 Carbine series, developed a novel solution. Rather than a conventional carbine's short handguard and gas system, the company developed a mid-length gas system that still preserved the overall dimensions of the carbine while elongating the gas system and handguard. The result was a handy carbine designed to run cooler and cleaner than a traditional carbine.

With the AR carbine being one of the most popular variants of the design on the market today, Armalite's refreshingly new take on its configuration offers shooters another appealing option. MSRP: $1,060. www.armalite.com

The Cool, Clean Customer--POF-USA P-415

Some very vocal critics of the AR argue that its direct gas impingement system of operation, in which hot gasses are jetted directly back into the rifle's receiver and can potentially cause serious fouling and malfunctions, is a real problem. In response, one company has developed an entire line of rifles to address this issue.

The company is Patriot Ordnance Factory, Inc. (or POF-USA), and the rifle is the P-415 Gas Piston Rifle. Although at first glance it appears to be a relatively straightforward AR-pattern rifle, it features a gas-trap piston operating system that adds three parts to the standard AR (a gas plug, a gas piston, and a push rod) and removes the gas-rings, gas tube, and gas key from the design. The result is a rifle that runs cooler and cleaner by keeping the hot gasses out of the receiver, but also one that is intended to run more reliably due to the reduced fouling inside the action. Prairie dog shooters, who cycle hundreds of rounds day, should take note. MSRP: $1,575. www.pof-usa.com

The Operator-Approved AR--Barrett REC 7

If you think the 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem. chambering doesn't have enough muscle, say hello to my little friend: the Barrett M4-Carbine-patterned REC7 chambered for the 6.8x43 mm SPC cartridge. This round was developed at the request the the U.S. military, which wanted a round that could hurl a 115-grain bullet at roughly 2,600 feet per second. In addition to its larger chambering, the REC7 also employs a short-stroke gas piston system of operation designed to run much cooler and cleaner than the AR's standard direct gas impingement system. MSRP: $2,399. www.barrettrifles.com

The AR Most Likely to be Fired--S&W M&P15-22

Considering the cost and scarcity of 5.56x45 mm .223 Rem. ammunition these days, filling up a few 30-round magazines can seem to cost as much as buying the gun you picked to shoot it. That's why S&W, one of the newer entrants into the AR market with its M&P15 series of rifles, is offering a nifty little carbine that addresses this concern--the M&P15-22. Configured similarly to its .223 Rem.-chambered siblings, the M&P15-22 is chambered for the much more economical .22 LR cartridge.

Featuring a six-position collapsible stock, a 16-inch barrel that can be fitted with a barrel shroud, a flat-top upper receiver and quad-rail fore-end, and a 25-round magazine, this little carbine lets you shoot for hours for less than the cost of a few boxes of centerfire ammunition.

The M&P15-22 from Smith & Wesson offers shooters a unique AR variant, one capable of hunting small game as well as providing a day of shooting that won't require a second mortgage on your house. MSRP: $499. www.smith-wesson.com

The Varmint Scourge--Les Baer Super Varmint Model

The Les Baer Custom Super Varmint Model possesses what Les Baer Custom is renowned for--extreme quality and extreme accuracy. In fact, the rifle comes with a guarantee that it will shoot half-inch MOA groups.

As with all its offerings, Les Baer Custom builds the Super Varmint using only the finest components. The rifle features a flat-topped upper receiver ready to accept optics suited for a long-range precision rifle and, to help wring out the most accuracy possible, it features a tuned two-stage Geissele trigger group.
The 416R stainless steel barrel of the Super Varmint, manufactured by Les Baer Custom, is the heart of the rifle and contributes to its extreme accuracy. To further enhance performance, the barrel is free floated inside an aluminum handguard also produced by Les Baer Custom.

Taking the inherent accuracy of the AR-pattern rifle and combining it with the precision and quality control of Les Baer Custom, the Super Varmint is one of the finest examples of this type of highly specialized AR variants. MSRP: $2,390. www.lesbaer.com

The Fitting Adaptation--Rock River Arms 9mm CAR A4

Some shooters just want to go their own way. Offer them the standard calibers of most ARS and they'll pass. They want something truly different, and Rock River has it: the 9mm CAR A4, an AR-pattern carbine chambered for 9mm Luger. Employing a modified high-capacity Uzi magazine, the Rock River carbine features a dedicated 9mm lower receiver with an integral magazine designed specifically for the handgun-cartridge-chambered carbine. This is opposed to employing a standard lower receiver fitted out with a magazine block adapter that can work loose and cause malfunctions.

Recognizing that the pistol-cartridge-chambered AR is by its nature a specialized AR variant, the Rock River Arms 9mm CAR A4 has refined the concept even further with its model-specific lower receiver, offering shooters a carbine designed from the ground up for its unique chambering. MSRP: $1,085. www.rockriverarms.com

A New Approach--Para TTR

One of the quirkier elements of the AR-pattern design is its buffer tube system that extends down into the buttstock assembly. A side effect of this system is the fact the rifle can only employ a collapsing stock rather than a true folding stock. However, the new Tactical Target Rifle (TTR) from Para Ordnance turns this paradigm on end.

To accomplish this, the TTR design moves the recoil spring above the barrel and under the handguard, removing the buffer tube assembly and allowing the rifle to employ a true side-folding stock with five positions of length-of-pull adjustment. In addition to the innovative buttstock assembly, the TTR's gas system also employs a unique DIG system (Delayed Impinged Gas) that runs cleaner and cooler than comparable ARs using gas vents in the bolt carrier and a unique gas redirection system in the gas block.

This is a truly innovative design, one that took some serious thinking outside the box. MSRP: $2,297. www.paraord.com

The Deer Camp Companion--Remington R-25

When it comes down to it, Remington knows hunting rifles. And it also knows what hunters want. Recognizing the growing demand in big-game sporting circles for the AR-pattern rifle Remington developed the R-25, an AR chambered in .308 Win., 7 mm-08, and .243 Win.

The R-25 features a flat-top upper receiver and matching gas block that makes it easily adaptable to mounting optics. A Mossy Oak Treestand camouflage finish on the majority of its parts combined with a free-floated aluminum fore-end ready to accept Picatinny rails makes the R-25 perfect for the modern medium- to big-game hunter.

The R-25 proves that the AR can be a capable big-game hunting rifle. And the legitimacy of the Remington brand has helped expand the overall popularity of this style of firearm. MSRP: $1,567. www.remington.com

The Best of Both Worlds--DPMS Mark 12

The DPMS Mark 12 is a civilian-legal rifle inspired by the Mk 12 SPR, a rifle developed for use by both the U.S. Navy's and the U.S. Army's special forces to fill the gap between the 14 1/2-inch barreled M4 Carbine and the 20-inch barreled full-size M16 series.

The DPMS Mark 12 features a stainless-steel free-floated 18-inch barrel housed within a Picatinny rail-equipped fore-end. To enhance accuracy, the rifle also has a two-stage trigger group for a clean trigger break. Sporting a flat-top upper receiver ready to accept optics, the Mark 12 comes standard with a set of flip-up iron back-up sights. To enhance its compactness, the rifle is fitted out with an LMT collapsible buttstock assembly with five length adjustment settings.

Often, firearms that strive to strike a balance between two very different designs simply mitigate the appealing qualities of both. Not so with the DPMS Mark 12, which offers shooters a superbly balanced design offering the best of both a long-range rifle and a handy carbine. MSRP: $1,599. www.dpmsinc.com

The Penny-Pincher Reformer--Sabre Defence M4 Tactical

Although Sabre Defence may be one of the newer names on the AR market, the company produces nearly 80 percent of its AR rifles in house--providing it with a great deal of quality control over its products.

The M4 Tactical, one of the company's many appealing offerings, is designed to be a top-end M4 Carbine-style ready for optics right out of the box. It features a free-floated quad-rail fore-end, upgraded CTR collapsible buttstock and Ergo pistol grip, and flip-up iron sights. Also, be sure try out the optional Tactical Gill Brake, which has proven to be astoundingly effective at dampening felt recoil.

I must admit, I balked a bit when I first saw its price tag. However, once I fired it, I never questioned its cost again--and I doubt you will, either. MSRP: $1,969. www.sabredefence.com

The Competitor’s Edge--JP Rifles CTR-02

Designed by competitive shooters for competitive shooters, the CTR-02 custom rifle series from JP Rifles is a radically designed AR-pattern rifle. The upper receiver of the rifle features a flat-top Picatinny rail configuration with an integral interface cut into it to accept a Trijicon ACOG optic.

The CTR-02 is available with the JP Low Mass Operating System (a minimal recoil impulse for maximum accuracy) and the JP Fire Control System that features a single-stage trigger with a 3-pound break. The CTR-02 barrel is available in a variety of lengths, ranging from as short as 16 inches to as long as 24 inches, and is available topped off with the JP Recoil Eliminator compensator. For added accuracy enhancement, a free-floating JP/Viking Tactics Modular Hand Guard System is also included.

Although the AR is now well known as a tactical gun and growing in popularity as a hunting firearm, knowledge of its popularity as a competitive rifle is not nearly as widespread. However, through the efforts of manufacturers like JP Rifles, that is changing. MSRP: $2,499. www.jprifles.com

The Multiple-Personality Gun--DS-AR Standard MRP

Well known for its line of high-quality FAL rifles, DS Arms also makes AR-pattern rifles with its DS-AR line.

One of these, the Standard MRP rifle, employs the innovative LMT MRP quick-change barrel system in which a turn of two fastener screws just forward of the lower receiver frees up the free-floated barrel so that it can be removed and swapped out with other barrel assemblies available in a variety of lengths. All this can be done in minutes, and without a loss of zero. Additional advantages of the DS-AR Standard MRP include a monolithic rail system in which the Picatinny rail fore-end is an integral part of the upper receiver assembly, and an LMT enhanced bolt assembly with a special coating and enlarged extractor.

The Standard MRP from DS Arms makes the AR even more adaptable by allowing owners to quickly and easily change barrels without having to swap out entire upper receiver assemblies and matching bolt carriers and bolts. MSRP: $2,795. www.dsarms.com

The Detail Oriented AR--Wilson Combat UT-15

Founded in 1977 as a custom firearm shop, Wilson Combat has grown over the decades into one of the most respected custom firearm manufacturers. Although the company built its reputation on the M1911 pistol, it eventually expanded into the AR market.

The carbine-configured UT-15 Urban Tactical model is an excellent example of the quality product Wilson Combat produces, combining reliability with a 1 MOA accuracy guarantee (with quality ammunition). As should be expected from a company with a tradition in custom work, the hand-assembled and fitted UT-15 comes with a precision JP trigger/hammer with a 3- to 3½-pound pull, a 16 1/4-inch match-grade barrel, and a free-floated aluminum fore-end.

Although M1911 enthusiasts have long been able to enjoy the refined quality of Wilson Combat products, the UT-15 represents the company's efforts to provide AR shooters with the same. For those who appreciate the little details--and don't mind the price--the UT-15 should definitely fit the bill. MSRP: $2,250. www.wilsoncombat.com

The High-Powered Competitor--Bushmaster DCM-XR A3

As the AR-pattern rifle has become more prominent in high power competitions, the market for ARs designed for this discipline of shooting has grown significantly Intended to be ready for competition right out of the box, the Bushmaster DCM Competition Model (DCM-XR A3) sports modifications and features developed through discussions with competitors at the Camp Perry National High Power Matches.

The gun features the required "stock AR-15" appearance, and has an M16A2 dual aperture rear sight that is specially modified to accept interchangeable apertures, as well as a front sight that is ground on three sides for optimum visual clarity. The barrel of the rifle is an extra heavy competition barrel and is free floated under the handguards, and the rifle features a honed two-stage trigger.

The DCM-XR A3 from Bushmaster represents a great way for a beginning high power competitor to have a gun that will go the distance with them right out of the box, as well as one for the experienced shooter who knows exactly what he wants. MSRP: $1,250. www.bushmaster.com

The AR with an Accent--5.45x39mm M&P15R

Apart from rimfire variants, just about any AR-pattern rifle can be an expensive proposition to shoot these days. That is, except for one of the more unique M&P15 AR offerings from Smith & Wesson--the M&P15R.

The M&P15R, which at first blush appears to be simply a standard flat-topped M4 Carbine-style AR, is chambered for the 5.45x39mm cartridge, the former Soviet Union's answer to our 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem. The charm of the 5.45 cartridge is that it offers similar ballistic performance to that of the 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem. while being substantially cheaper to shoot. A specially modified 30-round AR magazine designed to feed the Russian round is included with the carbine.

Adapting the familiar AR-pattern carbine to the unfamiliar Russian 5.45x39mm chambering was a bold move for Smith & Wesson, but a good one. It offers American shooters a handy little AR carbine that is a bit easier on the wallet. MSRP: $1,225.
www.smith-wesson.com

The Big Brute--Alexander Arms 50 Beowulf Entry

And now for something completely different. Taking the AR design in a radically new direction is the Alexander Arms 50 Beowulf Entry AR. Based on the 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem.-sized AR platform, as are all of the company's 50 Beowulf ARs, this carbine is designed to provide extreme power at short to medium ranges with its substantial 50 Beowulf cartridge.

The 50 Beowulf chambering gives the AR rifle power in the range of the venerable .45-70 Gov't cartridge, and the 50 Beowulf Entry carbine does so in a handy carbine-sized AR with a flat-topped upper receiver ready for optics and a short 16 1/2-inch barrel.

Representative of a new movement toward ultra-big-bore AR variants in small and handy packages, the Alexander Arms 50 Beowulf Entry AR offers shooters a firearm that is simultaneously both a heavy-hitting close-quarters weapon and a highly effective hunting carbine for dense woods and heavy brush. MSRP: $1,197. www.alexanderarms.com

The Portable Powerhouse--Olympic Arms OA-93 Pistol

An interesting offshoot of the AR-pattern rifle in the past few years has been a movement toward pistol variants of the design--no small feat when it comes to downsizing a full-size .223 Rem. rifle and its operating system.

One of the more interesting offerings on the market today is from Olympic Arms, a company with a long history of innovation in its AR line. The pistol is the OA-93, and it features a 6 1/2-inch barrel and a radically shortened gas system, making for an extremely small and handy 5.56x45 mm/.223 Rem. pistol. In addition to the shortened barrel, Olympic Arms developed a novel way to further reduce the size of the OA-93. The company incorporated the OA-93's recoil assembly into its flat-top upper receiver rather than having a standard buffer tube assembly extend from the rear of the lower receiver.

Although an admittedly specialized offshoot of the AR pattern design, pistols such as the OA-93 are part of a new trend in the AR market combining abundant power and impressive compactness. MSRP: $1,202.50. www.olyarms.com

Michael O. Humphries spent seven years on the editorial staff of NRA's American Rifleman magazine before going freelance to cover military-pattern firearms for a variety of gun magazines, including Field & Stream's sister publication SHOT Business.

Humphries has attended many amorer's courses and shooting schools while researching articles, including events held at Gunsite, Direct Action Resource Center, the Crucible and U.S. Training Center (formerly known as Blackwater USA). He lives in North Carolina.

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