In 2012, I purchased my first firearm – a S&W Sigma in 9mm. It was a huge mistake. I didn’t know gun store etiquette, I was stressed out because of the background check (for no reason), and the trigger weight was awful too. GoneOutdoors.com says shooters reported a weight of 8-12 lbs on the trigger pull, while current model Glocks have around a 5.2 lb trigger pull. I want to save you from that misery. Don’t invest your money into a rifle without reading this article – we’ve researched the top 4 best beginner AR-15 rifles. The overall best rifle you can buy is the S&W VOLUNTEER XV 5.56MM OR CTC.
What is the best beginner AR-15 rifle?
- S&W VOLUNTEER XV 5.56MM OR CTC – Editors Choice
- Ruger AR-556 – Budget Setup
- Christensen Arms CA5five6 – High End Kit
- Custom Built Aero Precision M4E1 Rifle – Custom AR-15 Build
#1. S&W VOLUNTEER XV 5.56MM OR CTC
Check Current Price | Editor’s Choice
Pros and cons
- Upgraded entry level AR-15 rifle
- Ready out of the box
- Ships with red dot
- Collapsible stock
- Ambidextrous features
- The Crimson Trace red dot might not be your preferred brand
- No front sight post for co-witness – if you’re interested in that
- We prefer picatinny all around the handguard – this has M-LOK on the bottom handguard
Our experience with S&W VOLUNTEER XV 5.56MM OR CTC
We really needed to put this rifle at the top of the list. Compared to higher end custom AR-15 builds, this has everything you need to hit the range for some target practice after purchasing – with a little wiggle room to spare for your ammo budget. Comparable Aero Precision builds are going to put you in this price range without the red dot sight.
The buttstock is and performs as you’d expect with any collapsible buttstock. The pistol grip’s angle is perfect, without being too aggressive or vertical.
We don’t like the texture of the sides of the handguards on this modern sporting rifle. It feels synthetic, not real, or they tried to make it a rougher texture for better grip – but it didn’t help as much as we thought it would.
The red dot performed as well as it should – the novice or beginner shooter will feel like a pro shooting this at their next range day. As you progress, you might want to upgrade to a higher end red dot.
#2. Ruger AR-556
Check Current Price | Budget Setup
Pros and cons
- Rear sight has windage adjustment capability
- Ready out of the box
- Collapsible stock
- Removable handguards
- QD socket below front sight post
- Retro AR-15 look
- Rear sight doesn’t have elevation adjustments
- Stock doesn’t have QD socket
- You’ll eventually want to upgrade to aftermarket handguards
Our experience with Ruger AR-556
We’re not an old fud, but we sound like it when we say we shot the “real version” in the Marine Corps. In fact, the stock was an A2 stock (not collapsible) – but we feel comfortable giving our $0.02. Plain and simple – the rifle is under $1,000 and will shoot just fine out of the box.
You’ll need to learn trigger discipline and how to use iron sights. Besides that – it’s a great budget rifle.
You’ll probably never adjust the front sight post – but if you want to, you can always use the front sight tool that comes with the rifle. The handguards are heat resistant – at the current cost of ammunition, you probably won’t be firing at a cyclical rate anyways.
If you wanted to keep the retro look, we’d immediately replace the rear sight with a picatinny carrying handle. The carrying handle will have an elevation knob and help you gain experience at longer distances.
We’d also upgrade the handguards. It just doesn’t make sense to use these stock handguards when Magpul has military service tested drop-in handguards. A last and final fact is that the rifle is made by one of the many reputable gun makers that have been in business for decades.
#3. Christensen Arms CA5five6
Check Current Price | High End Kit
Pros and cons
- Lightweight – starting at 6.35 lbs
- Christensen Arms sub-MOA guarantee
- Collapsible stock
- Carbon fiber M-Lok handguards
- Threaded muzzle
- No sights or optics out of the box
- High cost – probably overkill just because of a brand name
- Reduced magazine capacity because it’s the CA model
Our experience with Christensen Arms CA5five6
Buying Christensen Arms means you’re buying quality. It unfortunately also means you’re buying a higher cost rifle to go with that name.
Now hear us out – we suggested the CA5five6 because it’s what’s available. Are you really going to pass up a great rifle because it has a reduced magazine capacity at shipment?
We really like the space age, carbon fiber … everything on this rifle. It’s like Elon Musk and NASA designed it – They’re unique in the modern sporting rifles category in that they’re light weight.
Christensen Arms covers this rifle with a sub-MOA guarantee.
The stock is a minimalist adjusted stock. The lower features a trigger tech single stage trigger.
The barrel is a 223 Wylde, allowing you to shoot 223 and 5.56.
The price of the rifle is a bit of a shock. For the beginner AR-15 shooter, it’s a lot to pay. If you’ve made it in life though and prefer to get the best of the best on the first go, it might be the rifle for you.
#4. Custom Built Aero Precision M4E1 Rifle
Check Current Price | Custom AR-15 Build
Pros and cons
- Fully customized by the shooter
- Ballistic Advantage (Aero Precision) barrels have a sub-MOA guarentee
- Choice of collapsible, fixed, or braced stock options
- Full line of M-Lok or Quad Rail handguards
- Everything can be purchased from same website
- Great project to learn how an AR-15 works
- You’ll need to build it or buy parts separately
- Cost can be slightly more than Editor’s Choice rifle
- May take a small amount of tuning (i.e. – gas block)
Our experience with a Custom-Built Aero Precision M4E1 Rifle
There are two ways to build a Custom Aero Precision M4E1 Rifle. You could buy all the parts fully assembled (aka “COMPLETE”) or build the upper and lower receivers yourself.
We prefer to build the lower receiver from a stripped lower receiver with an Aero Precision lower parts kit. Following instructions from Aero Precision’s website or Ballistic Advantage’s YouTube page, you can assemble a lower receiver very easily and safely.
Read More: Everything You Need to Build an AR-15
Using a completed upper and lower receiver, you’d just purchase a bolt carrier group, charging handle, and some sights – voila – you have a complete rifle. Grab a Magpul magazine, some ammo, and you’re ready for the range.
This isn’t the best idea for complete beginners though. The process of identifying all the pins, springs, and detents can be very daunting. You can also lose a single pin or detent – causing you to pay $0.50 for the part and $3.00 for shipping.
Read More: The Parts and Pieces to an AR-15
We highly recommend finding a friend or enthusiast to teach you how to properly assemble an AR-15.
Read More: What’s the Best AR-15 Stripped Lower
There would be a small amount of tuning necessary for an upper receiver – as gas blocks have different settings to allow the shooter to tune the rifle to shoot a wide range of ammunition. Aero Precision has videos on their site and on YouTube to explain these adjustments and when to make them.
How do I buy a beginner AR-15 rifle?
You can find any of these rifles on our website. If you don’t live in the Dallas-Ft Worth area, you will need to:
- Find a local FFL/gun dealer
- Get their name, address, phone #, e-mail address
- Enter the FFL/gun dealer information on the ship-to portion of your order
- We’ll verify the FFL/gun dealer’s documents
- Once verified, we’ll ship the rifle to your gun dealer.
You’ll probably pay a $20-$40 transfer fee at your gun dealer. This is for their time to receive the firearm, store it, and do the necessary paperwork.
What other parts or accessories should I buy?
We believe you should have the following at a bare minimum. Even if you’re a novice weekend shooter, a once a month or quarter shooter, or you only shoot once a year – these essentials will make gun ownership fun and keep your rifle in good shape.
Your firearm will usually come with one or two magazines. It’s typical to add in a MAGPUL PMAG or that manufacturer’s version of a magazine with the rifle when purchased. We suggest buying an additional 5 to 6 magazines. Here’s an article on The Best AR-15 Magazines.
Why buy 5 to 6 more magazines? Federal and State lawmakers across the country are trying to ban high and standard capacity magazines. The bans typically apply to new purchases. Privately held magazines are not against the law and basically grandfathered in.
Really – you should buy more than 5 to 6. Think of them as an heirloom – the magazines will last quite a long time (depending on how often you shoot) and could pass through generations (much like firearms do).
Optics and Sights
We mentioned rifles that come with red dots and adjustable sights. A couple did not include them. This is a personal preference:
- How far out do you plan to shoot?
- Are you shooting tactically? For distance?
- Do you want a retro rifle feel?
Think of these things when purchasing your next red dot, iron sights, or scope.
I’m not entirely sure if they’re necessary for the once a month shooter or not. I think rifle retention is important in a gunfight, I like hanging the rifle on my body as I complete tasks (picking stuff up, eating, reloading magazines, etc), and I’ve always had one.
I don’t think these need to be special or anything – some 550 cord would work just fine if you NEEDED one. But there are great options out there at a decent price.
Are there other types of AR-15 rifles?
Absolutely – we’re showing you a small selection that we think are the best. You could pay upwards of $5,000 – $8,000 for some higher end rifles. These will be replicas or exact matches to rifles the military uses (minus the fully automatic part).
Read: Savage Arms Lineup
Some brands we like (but are difficult to find) are Daniel Defense, Noveske Rifleworks, Heckler & Koch, and Larue Tactical.
There are also different variances of the AR. There is the pistol caliber carbine and the AR-10. The Pistol Caliber Carbine (PCC for short) shoots a pistol caliber round. This rifle can be a 16-inch barrel or as short as 7-inches. SBR rules still apply here.
The AR-10 is an AR-15 but for larger calibers – like the 7.62/.308 and 6.5 Creedmoor rounds.
What is an SBR?
An SBR is a firearm that is:
- Fired from the shoulder position (or meant to be fired from the shoulder)
- Barrel is less than 16-inches
- Less than 26-inches for the overall length (including the shortest position of a collapsible stock)
You’ll need a tax stamp for this rifle. You’d apply for the tax stamp with the ATF by filling out some paperwork (or doing it online) with the ATF, paying a $200 fee to the ATF, and sending your fingerprints to the ATF.
Your local FFL (if they have their Class 3 or SOT) can help you with this process.
An SBR (as of 04/07/2022) is not a rifle with a pistol brace on it.
What is a pistol brace?
The pistol brace was developed to help disabled veterans and civilians shoot a pistol in situations where it’s not possible to hold a firearm steady or safely. The brace has a hole cut in the bottom where a shooter can “wedge” their arm inside and strap it down – effectively giving the shooter an extension of their arm for easier aiming and shooting.
The legal gray area that exists here though is that some people use the pistol brace as a buttstock (shouldering it instead of strapping it down to their forearm). We expect pistol braces to be outlawed in the next round of regulation from the ATF under this administration.
If you find one, buy it – with the knowledge it might become illegal to own. Gun makers are still producing them to keep up with demand. Once banned, we think it just won’t be legal for new gun sales anymore (grandfathering in all sales prior to the ban).
Which caliber AR-15 should I buy?
The two most popular calibers for the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle would have to be the 300 Blackout and 223/5.56. Right now both are available at big box retailers. If you bought ammunition under the Trump administration – you know ammunition is high priced.
As a gun dealer – I can buy ammunition from a distributor at the same price as buying at Cabela’s. Unless I have dibs on a full container/shipment from a manufacturer, it’s not going to be competitive.
It’s important to note that ammunition during COVID was extremely hard to find. Choose a caliber that you think will always be in stock.
To keep the price down, we feel it’s best to buy a box or two each week. This also helps you keep your average cost down (dollar cost averaging). As ammunition prices rise or fall, so will your average cost. The average cost won’t swing dramatically though.
Who created the AR-15?
The AR-15 was originally designed by a small arms company named ArmaLite. The ArmaLite rifle design included the AR-10 and AR-15.
Because they were a small arms company and weren’t able to secure any large commitments from customers, the AR-15 design was later sold to Colt. It is said that Colt sold (in the same year) sold the first round of AR-15’s to the Air Force for base security. The AR-10 ArmaLite Rifle design was sold to a dutch company.
The morality of the semi automatic rifle and modern sporting rifles
Semiautomatic rifles get a bad rap because of their use in mass shootings. Semiautomatic rifles and semiautomatic handguns are often the scourge of anti-2A groups promoting their agenda. Unfortunately a few bad seeds use this popular rifle in these mass shootings.
While we’re sympathetic to families affected by mass shootings, it’s a few bad seeds that did them. Organizations like the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) help promote gun safety. They (along with gun makers) also advocate for the safe sale of firearms to law abiding citizens – like their “Don’t lie for the other guy” campaign in hopes to curb mass shootings.
The media and anti-2A groups often label these semiautomatic rifles as assault weapons because of their similarities to military weapons. The term itself “assault weapons” just carries a negative connotation with it that’s hard to shake in the firearm industry.
What’s our listing criteria?
- Is the rifle ready for the novice shooter out of the box?
- Does it shoot commonly available calibers?
- Is it legal out of the box (i.e. – does it require a tax stamp)?
- Is it a nationally recognized and trusted brand?
- Can it be easily found in-stock on the internet?