There is no question that the AR-15 is America’s most popular rifle, and is the current and likely future champion when it comes to fast handling, accurate and reliable intermediate caliber rifles.
The meteoric rise and exponential growth of the AR-15 as a market unto itself in the firearms business has led to dozens upon dozens of manufacturers entering the fray, each of them eager to serve customers who want a specific piece of the Black Rifle pie.
From ultra high-end boutique customizers to mass manufacturers of military-grade, no-nonsense rifles and everything in between, there is an AR to suit any taste.
One of the most popular and well-known makers of AR-15 style rifles today is Palmetto State Armory, or as they are sometimes called among gun aficionados PSA. But the only announcement this company is making to the public is that they are serving up ultra-affordable military pattern rifles on a budget that almost any working stiff can afford.
What is more, they seem to have garnered a reputation of good quality despite their bargain-basement price tag, with adherents swearing that theirs are the equal of rifles costing twice their price.
We like to give every gun its day around here, and as a long-time AR shooter myself, I decided it was time to give the PSA AR-15 a proper shakedown and subsequent review. Keep reading to see how this budget black rifle blaster stacked up against the competition.
But First, Who is PSA?
Palmetto State Armory is a comparatively young firearms manufacturer in America, specializing in the manufacturer of AR-15 rifles, pistols and related accessories although they have recently branched out into a variety of other firearms including AK pattern derivatives and AR-10s.
The company is based in Columbia, South Carolina and it is from this Tidewater region that they derive their namesake: South Carolina is known as The Palmetto State, hence Palmetto State Armory.
Rising to prominence from inauspicious beginnings selling accessories, magazines and ammunition in an online-only capacity, the company now boasts several retail locations across South Carolina, and is even expanding into Georgia.
Aside from producing their own rifles the parent company of Palmetto State Armory, JJE Capital Holdings, has recently hoovered up several brands well known to everyone in the shooting world, including such lauded properties as AAC, DPMS, and H&R- all obtained from Remington Arms parent organization.
PSA is much more than some here-today-gone-tomorrow assembler of rifles bolted together with parts obtained from who-knows-where. They are striving to be a top-to-bottom manufacturer of all things AR, keeping costs low by keeping as many manufacturing processes as possible in house. Has this grand strategy translated into one of the better budget-class rifles on the market? Let’s find out.
The Gun: PSA Freedom AR-15 Overview
PSA’s Freedom line of AR-15s are no fuss, no muss near-replicas of the standard military service carbine M4, only lacking full auto capability.
Compared to the most modern and highly refined iterations of the AR, today resplendent with extraordinary and ergonomic furniture, ambidextrous controls and all the goodies a shooter might want, these rifles are decidedly basic.
But basic isn’t a bad thing if you need a decent quality gun on a budget. Sometimes it is better to sacrifice the fancy “fenders” in order to assure that the rest of your rig is up to snuff.
If you are fluent with AR assembly and manufacture, there are few surprises to find in the Freedom rifle line. Both upper and lower receivers are forged, made of 7075-T6 aluminum that is hard anodized before being finished with a phosphate coating.
Phosphate might have been a state-of-the-art gun finish seven decades ago, but time has moved on and progress with it. Even as far as phosphate goes the coating applied to PSA’s rifles is decidedly on the rough side, which means it will retain water, oil and dirt more readily then a finish with finer pores.
Not necessarily the end of the world, but it is something to be aware of. In the end the phosphate finish is adequate to the task of protecting the rifle from serious corrosion.
The furniture too is decidedly in “throwback” territory with a standard A2 pistol grip, M4-style telestock and oversized, egg-shaped M4 handguards complete with slip ring.
Even these are starting to look plenty retro thanks to the preponderance of MLok and Picatinny rails around these days, and even humble Magpul MOE handguards are light-years beyond them in terms of fit, feel and function.
Once again, every component comprising the furniture is entirely functional, definitely usable, and though you might pine for more modern equipment this is not stuff that will slow you down in any meaningful way.
Lastly, the carbine is crowned with a conventional A2 sight tower and flat top upper receiver that is ready to accept a carrying handle, rear sight or any optic of your choice.
This is to be expected for a rifle in this price category and hardly a detriment considering the availability of effective, reliable and affordable backup rear sights.
Popping the Hood
True to its origins the PSA Freedom rifle utilizes a carbine length gas system. Compared to the more popular and refined mid length gas system, this isn’t going to be quite as soft shooting, but it is more than adequate under the demands and situations that the majority of shooters will put the rifle in. The gas system is married to a 1-in-7 twist chromemoly steel barrel.
The twist rate is analogous to what one would encounter on a military spec M4, but the lack of chrome lining is a demerit in my book.
A chromemoly barrel is still entirely adequate for the vast majority of shooters, but under a particularly rigorous firing schedule or for a rifle that must forego routine maintenance in a hostile environment that chrome lining might save the day and keep your barrel from becoming pitted.
There are no surprises to be found with the trigger group of the rifle, either. Every component is completely standard, and in keeping with the theme of affordable functionality the trigger could only charitably be called decent when compared to other military grade triggers.
The trigger on my self-purchased example broke at 7 lb 1 oz more or less consistently, although grit and a couple of minor hitches are present in the trigger pull.
Compared to a Geissele, Knight’s Armament or Wilson trigger the break is positive enough, if uncertain, and the reset feels a little bit like wandering home drunk from the bar at 2 A.M. – sloppy, miserable and ending with a resounding crash.
Is the trigger unmanageable or unusable? Absolutely not, generations of shooters produced incredible feats of marksmanship on demand using “military” triggers far, far worse than this one.
It is only worth noting because we have become so spoiled by the amazing aftermarket triggers widely available today, and the increasingly nice triggers on the vast majority of ARs from more prominent manufacturers.
Still, if an “okay” military grade trigger is the butcher’s bill for a rifle this affordable that still remains reliable that is a trade that I and other shooters should be willing to make.
Moving on to the bolt carrier group we continue with the complete lack of any ingenuity, which is a good thing! The bolt carrier itself is happily chrome-lined and like the receivers phosphate finished, topped with a properly staked (huzzah!) gas key.
The carrier is made of 8620 steel; in other words, this is as close to a conventional, bog-standard mil-spec bolt carrier as you are going to get.
The bolt was a bit of a mystery, though: the Carpenter 158 bolt is shot peened, but the example in my rifle was not MP marked.
MP stands for “magnetic particle (inspection)”, typically performed and marked accordingly after firing a high-pressure proof load to test the structural integrity of the part for metallurgical defects that could compromise strength.
Further investigation revealed that all premium BCGs sold by PSA are high-pressure tested and subsequently MPI’d, and I have seen PSA bolts myself with the indicated marking so I am not sure if this was a QC failure in regards to the marking or if there was something not up to snuff with the bolt.
Loading and Function
In the course of my test-firing I utilized magazines from all sorts of manufacturers and all different vintages. I made use of the now-ubiquitous Magpul Pmags, USGI aluminum magazines (some going all the way back to Vietnam) including Okay Industries Surefeeds, Lancer magazines and even some of the now-defunct Microtech XM translucent polymer mags.
All the magazines inserted and locked into place cleanly and dropped free without snagging when the magazine release was depressed. This was done with loaded mags and unloaded mags, and I’m happy to report that no problems were encountered in any instance.
Modern magazines that are designed to seat on a closed bolt when fully loaded performed as advertised in the PSA Freedom carbine. USGI magazines that were fully loaded struggled, per usual, in this regard, but that is hardly a knock on the rifle.
In the course of my test firing, more on those results in a minute, no malfunctions of any kind were encountered.
The ammunition used was provided by Winchester, Remington, Prvi Partizan and Magtech. The gun was lightly lubricated prior to its range session with no parts changes, optimizations or customizations performed.
Accuracy was what you might call adequate compared to the standards of more refined ARs but entirely for a rifle of this category, and typically superior to other types of bargain-priced “battle” rifles.
All accuracy testing was conducted at 100 yards with the rifle solidly benched on a weighted rest firing from a sturdy table. A Vortex Razor HD Gen III scope was attached to aid in wringing out the best accuracy practicable.
The very best 5-round group produced in the course of my accuracy testing measured a middling 2.1 inches, done with Prvi Partizan 55-grain M193 equivalent.
The worst 5-round group was a lackluster 2.6 inches, surprisingly turned in by typically sharper-shooting Remington UMC 55-grain. This could only be considered “meh” for most middle-of-the-road AR’s and laughable if produced by any high end gun save by fluke ammo incompatibility.
I know I am more than capable of producing better groups utilizing the same ammo in better rifles, so I’m going to blame this on the gun, though an unfortunate instance of the rifle simply disagreeing with all of the tested brands cannot be ruled out.
Would this be anything other than disappointing in a rifle with a price tag costing twice as much? I’d say so. But is this entirely adequate when appraised when the standard expected is “battlefield” accuracy? Again, that is an affirmative.
I would not consider myself an AR snob, though I would consider myself a connoisseur of such rifles. I do not mind paying more for a superior out-of-the-box product that I have every expectation will function in all conditions and at all times, and be more than capable of heirloom grade longevity.
That being said, not everyone has the same requirements or desires that I do, but no matter who you are and what your budget is, I think we can all agree that it is a bad idea to pay too little for any rifle, especially an AR.
Pay too little? Yes: if you pay too little for an AR, you are likely to get a rifle in the shape of an AR, as it were, but one incapable of this proud firearm’s legacy.
A gun instead made with cutthroat-cheap parts sourced from God-knows-where, including overseas countries that utilize slave labor. These guns work fine… so long as you’re not shooting them.
If you will never shoot more than 500 rounds in your lifetime they will likely do everything that is asked of them, namely sitting around and serving as a toy to fondle for social media posts.
To borrow an expression, there is a price point at which genuine quality becomes impossible for a given category of gun.
I am happy to report that the PSA AR-15 is not one of those aforementioned bottom of the barrel rifles.
Though inexpensive and comparatively rough and rudimentary by our modern sensibilities for the platform it is nonetheless a reliable, functional and more importantly faithful reproduction of the traditional AR-15 in the guise of the M4 family of rifles.
I fired a little over 750 rounds in my test after initial zeroing and accuracy testing was completed. I was loading and firing magazines conducting a variety of drills as quickly as I could get ammo back into the rifle.
The barrel was steaming oil and the old, trusty M4 handguards were uncomfortably hot, closing in on too hot to touch. The rifle never stuttered.
So who is this rifle for, besides a shooter who is trying to stretch their dollars while still getting into a quality gun? As it comes out of the box it isn’t even ready to shoot, not really, as it will need at the minimum a rear sight.
Once this is added to the rifle if someone is considering it for self-defense they would be wise to add a flashlight and a sling. These legacy guns really start to show their age in this regard.
Bolting on a flashlight using anything other than a crappy adapter will require changing handguards at the minimum, increasing cost.
A simple shoulder strap can be added using the simple sling loops fore and aft, but they will not allow the shooter to carry the rifle in a ready to fire posture should they need to free up their hands. This too can be corrected by upgrading the furniture or adding an adapter, both options increasing cost.
Does this defeat the purpose of buying a budget gun in first place, or is it simply the best way to stretch the purchaser’s money knowing that certain upgrades have to be bought no matter what kind of rifle you choose?
That is up for you to decide: I can tell you only that Palmetto State Armory is building a quality gun in its price range, handily better than many of its competitors in the same category.
Palmetto State Armory has risen from a small online supplier of ammo and accessories to one of the largest and most prolific manufacturers of affordable ARs and other rifles in the United States. Though their guns are sometimes derided as hobby-grade trash, the example I fired was anything but.
It was rough and unrefined compared to more modern offerings, but it was nonetheless a quality product, and the ideal starting point for a shooter with a limited budget or for anyone who wants a backup or project rifle.
Perhaps the only major disadvantage with going PSA is the wait: their rifles are in high demand, and it is not hard to see why!