There is little doubt today that the AR-15 is the most ubiquitous of rifles in the U.S., and is the gold-standard that all other semi-automatics are measured against. Due to its overwhelming efficiency popularity, flexibility and suitability to shooters of all statures AR-pattern rifles are produced by dozens of manufacturers, from proud American institutions to small, boutique assemblers. The AR is also assembled by owners entirely by parts, producing a completely unique rifle.
But all rifles are not made equal. Prices on new 5.56mm ARs can swing from $600 all the way to $2500 and beyond. Manufacturers’ procedures vary widely in their quality controls, assembly procedures and use of quality components. If you are buying a rifle for serious defensive or duty purposes, it is in your best interest to understand and honestly assess the manufacturing factors and component selections that add up into a rifle that will be reliable during more than just a weekend of leisurely plinking.
I’ll discuss and detail what procedures and checks separate great manufacturers from mere peddlers, and what elements constitute a quality part, and dispel common myths and misunderstandings people have about the state of AR manufacturers in the U.S. I’ll also weigh in on whether or not you should consider assembling your own rifle for defense or duty. Let’s get started.
What is Quality?
For the purposes of this article, quality is determined by the measurement of one rifle, process or component against another of like kind. When considering a rifle, a high quality rifle will be more reliable, durable, accurate and consistent that one of lesser quality. The same goes for a part.
When considering manufacturers, a high quality manufacturer will use more of those high quality parts and raw materials, then assemble or process them in such a way as to maximize their required performance before subjecting them to more rigorous checks for proper tolerances and function. A high quality manufacturer will have a higher rejection rate of both finished rifles and components. By instituting such exacting standards, they are ensuring the finished rifle can meet its design specifications.
Quality speaks. Quality is not dependent on your opinion. Quality is objectively measurable across a large sample size. Just like any great manufacturer can turn out a lemon, any lesser manufacturer can turn out a rifle that just so happens to run really well. As the saying goes, the exception proves the rule.
Our search is complicated by the fact that quality coming from a manufacturer is something that may be in flux; a manufacturer known for making solid, even excellent rifles, can falter for a host of reasons. It might be new leadership, unforeseen errors that crop up on the assembly line, or the changing of suppliers. They may make a business decision to increase profits by cutting or reducing quality control and quality assurance operations. They may decide to outsource certain procedures or processes to subcontractors. All of these factors may make a difference.
Some manufacturers have AR 15 prices that are not just optional equipment packages. The actual rifle may be manufactured to a lesser standard in order to drive down cost, forgoing certain processes or higher-grade components. Some may even be cheaply made by another manufacturer and then branded for the seller. You must know exactly what you are paying for in a rifle, and this guide will help you be an informed purchaser.
How Can You Identify a Quality AR?
That is not always easy. Any cheap AR can be dressed up with fancy finishes and top-tier accessories and made to look just like a rifle configured the same way from a prestigious maker. You might call it “all flash and no dash.” And short of taking the time and ammo to devise a regimen to shake out a rifle you own, how can you really be assured that it will perform under certain conditions?
No matter what, you must always test any gun you are trusting to perform in a life-saving capacity, but a good function test and rigorous shake-down are two different things. If you pay close attention to the reputation of a manufacturer with the right user groups, and know what to look for on a rifle’s spec sheet, you can make a solid assessment of it suitability for duty or defensive use.
There are consistent, standard practices and materials that go into making high quality rifles that we will discuss below. It is not necessarily simple, or easy, but they are understood. The majority of manufacturers turning out good AR’s adhere to or exceed most of these standards. Makers that do not are not usually known for making a consistently dependable quality, or if they are, are probably best suited for sport or recreation.
A high-end manufacturer will usually publish assembly and component specifics, quality control metrics and testing procedures, as well as any lab or anecdotal reliability and longevity tests. Ones that do not may not have performed such tests, or don’t want you to know the exact procedures used in assembly.
What is the Performance Benchmark for a Good AR?
A reminder: this guide is written with the focus being on defensive- or duty-grade rifles. To clarify, this means a gun that you can expect to function reliably under harsh inclement conditions and a heavy firing schedule. Also note that there is no universally accepted industry standard for this, no number of rounds fired in a specific time, specific temperature and specific maintenance schedule. Many people use their own arbitrary metrics to determine if a rifle is “good to go.” It may or may not be.
For myself, my priorities are extreme reliability and durability, and consistent accuracy. I expect any quality rifle using quality ammunition to fire no less than 1,000 malfunction free rounds, and 500 of those being a “burn-down,” where the gun is loaded and fired as fast as the trigger can be pulled. Some will argue that such a rate of fire is certainly abusive to the barrel of the gun and other components. This is probably true, depending on the grade of the barrel, but that is the point: most guns fail when they are being pushed hard, shot fast, and with no maintenance or lubrication.
A quality AR can easily handle such short-term abuse and continue to function fine. If you have a rifle that can do that, you should expect excellent reliability in optimal conditions. I am not saying you should adopt my methods, only that you need to investigate how well a given maker’s AR’s perform when pushed to the redline.
Keep it in perspective: 1,000 rounds is not much ammo over the average lifespan of any part on an AR. We are talking a case of ammo. That’s all. You can hardly get through a class with just a case, or one hard weekend of practice.
Finding Reliable Assessments and Reviews
When you are soliciting reviews or opinions of a manufacturer or specific rifle, consider your sources. If you are asking an individual owner, you must take things with a grain of salt and apply critical thinking to what they tell you. Many owners of crappy guns are still proud of them, and sentimental. This influences their opinions, and if you don’t think so try telling the owner of a DPMS or Windham Weaponry AR that it sucks and you can prove it mathematically.
When someone claims that they “never had a problem with mine, and I shot 500 flawless rounds through it,” ask them how long they have you owned it. 2 years? Ok, so an average of 250 rounds a year, hardly enough to keep the rust from forming. Whose opinion is worth more? The owner of the safe-queen, or an owner who has 10,000 rounds through their rifle, including several classes and seasons of competition. Theirs, or a professional trainer who sees hundreds or even thousands of the same guns pop up in students’ hands a year, or perhaps an agency or police department armorer who is maintaining dozens or hundreds of the same rifle?
Sample size is important for comparing data. A small, boutique manufacturer may on paper make fine rifles, but if you can only find one review or after-action report featuring one of their products you may not have enough of a sample size to pass judgment before purchasing. The same issue applies to brand new makers: whatever they promise, make no mistake you will probably be a “beta-tester” if you buy one of their rifles. It is up to you if you want to risk that in the pursuit of the Next Big Thing™ or chasing a less expensive solution.
Best Practices and Myths in Manufacturing
There is a tremendous amount of misinformation and false propaganda surrounding the manufacture of AR rifles. One of the most prolific is that all AR receivers are made by just a handful of companies, or forges, and all the brands you see on the rack at the gun shop just have a trade name roll-marked on them. This is absolute bunk.
It is true that often raw receiver forgings, barrels and the like will be outsourced by even major manufacturers, but what the proponents of this myth think that means is that a given manufacturer’s unique final machining, quality control, quality assurance, assembly, fitting, testing and rejection standards have nothing to do with the final product. This is demonstrably false in either lab or field conditions.
The other major myth is that a good AR is just the sum of good parts, and if you build your own from good parts or replace deficient components on a lesser rifle with good ones than you’ll wind up with a good running rifle. Well, yes, no or maybe: the AR, like all guns, is a system and the functionality of that system is dependent on the intrinsic quality of its components, but also on the tolerances between them, and on the diligence and adherence to specifications of its assembly.
Likewise, purchasing a bag full of good parts and then assembling them, even when done properly, does not guarantee your rifle will run well: tolerance stacking is a real thing, and even high-end parts may simply not play well together. Not saying it is a certainty, just that it does occur. This effect is less pronounced when doing a “coarse” assembly of just dropping a complete factory upper receiver of one brand on another brand’s lower receiver. But if you think you can assemble a true Frankengun where no two parts are form the same maker and you’ll be blazing away in no time, think twice.
AR-15s are not Lego, no matter how badly some people want to believe it.
AR-15 Component and Quality Check Analysis
In this section we will examine the materials and quality controls that apply to major component groups used in AR-15 assembly and what quality controls apply to them. High quality manufacturers will start with parts made from the correct materials and made to correct specifications and then will perform these checks or tests on every part. Lesser makers may “batch” test a group of parts in order to save money and time.
Considering that makers rise and fall, and some offer budget and duty grade rifles, it is more instructive to explain the what and why of quality manufacture and assembly than the who’s who. This way you will have the knowledge to sort the rockstars from the groupies.
The following is applicable to AR-15’s specifically, ones that utilize direct gas impingement operating systems. Several of the same considerations, like barrel and bolt materials and testing will apply to piston operated guns as well. Also, much of this is useful to keep in mind for AR-10’s, as it and the AR-15 have much in common, but they are a different animal with a few basic action variations that have their own considerations.
The barrel is the heart of the rifle, and plays a critical role in determining both the accuracy and reliability of the rifle. There is much debate over what type of barrel steel is “best” in terms of accuracy potential, longevity and corrosion resistance. Some factors below may be considered “optional” depending on your requirements and objective.
High Pressure Test- This step involves the firing of a cartridge loaded well in excess of SAAMI-normal specifications, called a “proof load” in order to subject the barrel to stresses that may result in failure. This is to be done in conjunction with Magnetic Particle Inspection, below. Lesser companies will perform this test in batches, or using samples, but not on every barrel.
Magnetic Particle Inspection- This check is performed after the preceding proof-firing to check for invisible cracks or fissures resulting from it. This should be mandatory after an HTP in order to observe or check for any failures that would result in the rejection of the barrel.
Proper Gas Port Size- Depending on the length of the gas system (carbine, mid-length or rifle) the gas port in the barrel needs to be sized specifically to suit that system. Some manufacturers will increase the size of this port in order to ensure the rifle runs reliably (typically owing to a substandard chamber, see below) but this comes at the expense of more wear and tear on the rifle. Together with the buffer this has a considerable effect on reliable cycling and the felt recoil impulse.
Barrel Steel- Barrels are available in a positively enormous array of lengths, sizes, weights and profiles. Their materials likewise vary greatly, with each having pro’s and con’s. Typical varieties will be of chromoly or stainless steel. Stainless steel barrels are popular with precision shooters and entirely acceptable in that role while the chromoly varieties are the traditional and more durable choice. Among chromoly barrels the two types of steel most commonly seen are 4140, and 4150. The latter is slightly better than the former, as it is of higher quality.
This is an area of considerable contention as barrel makers are constantly innovating, and new or previously unknown barrel steel may prove to be superior to all comers, or just have excellent properties for specific applications. Take the time to investigate the barrels a manufacturer uses if making them a prospect for purchase.
Chamber- There are several design factors related to the chamber itself that affect reliability and accuracy. The most important one for a duty grade gun is that the chamber be of true 5.56x45mm specification, not .223 Remington. The cartridges are popularly thought to be identical but are not interchangeable; one can safely shoot .223 in a 5.56mm gun, but not the other way around. The barrel will feature an engraving or stamp somewhere on it that will signify if it is 5.56 or .223, but this can be complicated by the fact that some cheaper guns have a barrel marked 5.56, but may actually have a .223 chamber!
The other consideration is the finish of the chamber: chrome-lining is a traditional and popular treatment with an excellent and well-deserved reputation for longevity and corrosion resistance, but is somewhat frowned upon in precision rifle circles as it is thought to negatively impact accuracy potential. Today, nitrocarburizing is a common on higher-end rifles, and is an extremely rugged metallic finish that is believed to offer more accuracy potential and excellent wear properties.
Some chambers and barrels will have no special internal finish, and while not patently a bad thing this means you will need to be very cautious of moisture and corrosion.
Bore Finish- Always finished to match the chamber, the finish of the bore will likewise affect its base characteristics.
Extended Feed Ramps- Also known as “M4 pattern feed ramps.” This design refers to feed ramps that begin in the barrel extension and match up to corresponding ramps in the lower receiver. Other designs do not, and are constrained only to the barrel extension itself. This is not a must-have, but is seen as desirable owing to greater mechanical reliability of feeding.
Bolt Carrier Group Specifications
The bolt of the AR, together with its carrier is called the bolt carrier group, or BCG. Together with the barrel, this component group is critical to good reliability and function, so having a BCG of high-grade is essential.
High Pressure Test- Performed at the same time and for the same reason as the barrel test. Bolts undergo considerable stress and wear during a normal firing cycle, and so if made cheaply or skimpily one of the parts most likely to fail first on a cheap gun. Like barrels above, lesser makers are likely to batch test bolts instead of testing everyone.
On that topic, there is some controversy among AR cognoscenti regarding bolt life after a proof-firing. A proof load as mentioned above is loaded well in excess of the safe specifications for a cartridge, and a while a good bolt will survive the firing with much life left, it has been estimated that a proof-load firing costs a bolt as much as 50% of its service life!
So while an essential check for safety and suitability of a rifle for duty, debate is ongoing if there is some other way to check for metallurgical flaws in the metal composition of the bolt.
Magnetic Particle Inspection- Done for the same reason, and the same way as the MPI test for the barrel. Must be performed after HPT.
Shot Peening of Bolt- A cold-working process by which the surface of the bolt is blasted with small particles, or shot, with sufficient force in order to mechanically change the properties of the metal. The specifics of the process and its variations are unimportant, except that the result is the bolt is relieved of stresses to lengthen it operational lifespan. An important step to get as much life out of a bolt as possible.
Carbine or Heavy-Duty Extractor Spring- Typically a 5 coil extractor spring. Necessary to ensure the extractor maintains a good grip on the rim of a cartridge for rifles with vigorous operation cycles. A bolt without a heavy-duty extractor spring is liable to see the extractor claw jump or slip off the rim of the case, creating a malfunction.
M16 Bolt Carrier- Heavier than a commercial semi-auto carrier. Aids in extraction by slightly retarding the movement of the BCG to allow chamber pressures to drop. Also fully encloses firing pin at bottom rear of carrier, ensuring that hammer will by impact of the bolt carrier itself, not the firing pin. The semi-auto carriers are somewhat less common today than years past, but still around, and using one will see increased wear on both your firing pin and hammer.
Staking of Gas Key Screws- Situated on top of the bolt carrier, the gas key is the small pipe that receives gasses from the gas tube upon firing of a cartridge to unlock and move the bolt carrier to the rear, cycling the rifle. Being under such enormous pressure, it is critical that the gas key is tightly affixed to the bolt carrier, as any movement or looseness will result in a malfunction.
The gas key is usually affixed by two screws that are tightened to specified torque. After tightening, the screws should be staked, a process that impinges the metal of the screw hole against the screw itself to prevent it from backing out or loosening. Good staking will show significant deformation of the metal on either side of the screw holes, and even slight deformation of the screw head itself. Note that thread locking compounds are not an acceptable alternative.
Other Important Specifications
Heavyweight Buffer- The buffer is the weight that cycles back and forth in the receiver extension (colloquially called the buffer tube) moved by the action spring. It first resists and then provides counter- force to the movement of the BCG. In any gas system shorter than rifle length, a heavy buffer is desirable, as it will increase lock time of the operations cycle and increases service life by reducing impact forces on the whole system.
A too-light buffer will result in a cycle time that is too fast, and likewise one can go too heavy on a buffer and create cycling issues. A heavy buffer is available in a variety of weights, usually marked with an “H” and then a number to denote a heavier part, e.g. H1, H2 or H3.
Build Your Own or Buy for a Defensive Gun?
Owing to its relatively simple assembly and easy access to every conceivable part needed, an increasing number of AR enthusiasts opt to build their own rifle out of parts. While well within the abilities of the average DIY-savvy shooter, the required fixtures, blocks and tools that are essential to proper assembly add no small cost if you do not already possess them, and that outlay of money could be spent on a higher grade factory rifle. It is my opinion that user-assembly of an AR for serious purposes should be avoided.
The reason for this is not the difficulty of the assembly itself, but rather the required secondary testing to ensure that a gun is within technical specifications and tolerances. This issue is exacerbated by the typical at-home builder buying parts from a swath of different manufacturers, and those mating parts will need to be within acceptable tolerances to function optimally. Ascertaining these tolerances is usually beyond the ability and tools of an average home builder.
The other consideration is that the testing of your new rifle will fall solely on you: there will be no factory backup in the case of a glitch or catastrophic failure. You will be the one diagnosing, tweaking and replacing parts. Advocates will say that there is no better way to get to know your rifle inside and out, and while that may be true, you are better served by training for the task at hand, not playing gun plumber.
I have also said publicly in the past that a factory warranty is no good in the middle of a fight or a match when your gun quits, and I stand by that. But context is important, and the context of that admonishment was referring to the lesser manufacturers that sell rifles of poor quality and offer a lifetime warranty or some such guarantee. A junky rifle you can get replaced for life is still a junky rifle; we expect superior makers to standby their product at any rate, and having a warranty on a good rifle means one less logistical hiccup to worry over if the gun goes down for any reason.
Don’t believe the siren song that any home assembled AR, even one made from quality parts, will definitely be as reliable as a factory gun. It may be, but very well may not, and the variables in such an equation are many. For a duty or defensive rifle, stick with factory built.
Not all AR’s are created equal. “Just as good as” isn’t. If you are considering an AR-15 for duty or self defense, you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to select a quality rifle from a good manufacturer. It has been said of Americans that invasion of the U.S would be impossible because “there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.” That’s true, but you want to be sure that you aren’t behind a blade of grass trying to frantically fix your budget AR.
Do you know the ins and outs of the components on your AR? Who is your chosen manufacturer, and why? Let us know in the comments!