Every big box store sale flyer I pick up these days has at least a page devoted to budget priced modern sporting rifles, but with so many similar looking options available to consumers, how is the average gun buyer to know which guns are the best of the bunch? Accordingly we set out to find the best of the budget ARs.
For the sake of comparing apples to apples, all the entry-level rifles we’ve selected are all priced in stores under $650 and all have the same basic (i.e. expected and most common) features: 16” barrels, non-polymer lowers, 6-position carbine buttstocks, chambered for 5.56 caliber, threaded with flash suppressors, are milspec, include one Magpul-brand PMag, and are easily customizable. Also factored in heavily were time-proven reports of reliability, customer service, and manufacturer warranty. With that established, let’s count them down:
3. Armalite Defender or DSR
The namesake of the AR-platform caters to all levels of the modern sporting rifle market and their entry level rifles are no exception. The 1:7 twist, double-lapped chrome-lined barrel handles the lighter 50-55 grain bullets just fine, but is geared toward handling the heavier 75+ grain bullets. Though it does not come with a rear sight, the Defender does have a true flat top, including the picatinny gas block. This base model includes a dust cover and forward assist, features often left off cheaper models.
Armalite’s limited lifetime warranty is more inclusive than many other manufacturers, though you most likely won’t need it anyway. This is a time-tested, get-the-job-done rifle that is built to last.
Though retail price is a little higher at $799, we found an online sales price of $627 and sale flyer price of $649. If you can’t find the Defender, the Armalite DSR (Defensive Sporting Rifle) is very similar in quality and price point.
2. Ruger AR-556
The all–American company has been all the rage in the AR market since introducing both the AR-556 and high-end brother, the SR-556 (and SR-556E). As far as entry-level sporting rifles go, the AR-556 is hard to beat when you see where quality and price meet.
The gun comes standard with a flip-up rear sight, as well as a chrome plated gas key and bolt carrier. The cold hammer forged barrel with 1:8 twist is purported to stabilize a wide range of bullet weights. Ruger’s barrel nut and proprietary delta ring are the major design differences. The barrel nut can be swapped for milspec and the threaded delta ring makes it easier than ever to swap AR handguards. The AR-556 also includes a dust cover and forward assist.
The AR-556’s pistol grip is more ergonomic than the others and is very comfortable. Of the three listed here, the Ruger feels like the most tightly fitted gun, with much less rattle than the typical AR. An oversized trigger guard makes gloved shooting much easier.
Best of all, the Ruger is backed by the warranty and high-end customer service of one of the best names in the gun business. Retail price is higher than the others at $799, however, we found one major online retailer selling the AR-556 at $605, while most stores are closer to the $650 mark.
1. Smith & Wesson MP-15 Sport and Sport II
The best of the best in our test? Though Ruger is pushing hard for the top spot, S&W’s MP-15 Sport line still represents the best value-quality buy in the entry level AR market. With the 2015 introduction of their Sport II rifles that add a dust cover, forward assist, and ultra-durable Armornite finish, it’s just a hard gun to beat.
The 1:9 twist rifling excels with lighter bullets, with no noticeable falloff in accuracy until using bullet weights over 75 grains. The warranty is excellent, as is customer service. Both models come with the chrome lined gas key and bolt carrier, and the Sport II adds a chromed firing pin. Years of sales and hard use have proven the durability of the Sport rifles.
Like the Ruger, we appreciate that these S&W’s are 100% Made in the USA. Retail price on the original Sport is $679 while the Sport II is $739 and online sales prices ring in at $ 599 and $645 respectively. If you’re buying a S&W entry-level AR these days, the Sport II is definitely where it’s at.
While our quest for the three best budget-priced AR-15 rifles found close runners-up from both Windham Weaponry and Colt, the Armalite, Ruger, and Smith & Wesson offerings were too tough to beat. Though there are other major names in the sale flyers, not all stack up to the aforementioned guns in terms of quality, customer service, and warranty. Stick to the models above for well-built guns that allow new shooters to start small, customize, and enjoy the modern sporting platform.