What Should Your First AR Rifle Be?
As a kid growing up here in South Dakota, the son of a man who hunted since he was old enough to hold up a .22, it was inevitable that I would be too. Deer, pheasants, and other varmints were the targets of my youth. When junior high and high school came around I found myself less interested in hunting and shooting and more interested in football, baseball, and playing guitar in a handful of garage bands. I didn't dislike hunting and shooting, but at that time I preferred ball sports and six strings.
Fast forward a few years to Thanksgiving Day in 2011. It was nice that day and my father decided to take the older grandkids, along with his sons and son-in-law, on a trip to the range. The kids shot his .22 rifle. The adult kids shot his Glock 17 and 22. After five rounds through one of the pistols I was hooked all over again. I bought Dad's Glock 17 from him. A few months later I borrowed my brother's AR-15 when we visited my in-laws farm. After shooting that with my wife I had to get my own.
It's been nearly three years since I bought my first AR-15 rifle. What drove my purchase at the time? I chose the rifle I chose mainly because of cost. No other practical factors came into the decision. That was because I was ignorant of nearly all logic that goes into the purchase of an AR, other than knowing I wanted a 5.56 NATO model. So I let the salesman talk me into what seemed like a logical choice; a flat-top M4-like model with a 16 inch barrel, no carry handle, and no front sight, and a railed gas block instead of a traditional front sight. With this rifle I could put a scope on top and dress it up any other way that I would like. While I never disliked the rifle, in hindsight it is not the way I would have gone.
For those of you who have never owned an AR, I will try to give a little guidance. I am also going to stay practical, not tactical or "tacti-cool." I never served in the military and was never issued a G.I. M16 or M4. But I was a first time buyer not long ago. I am no firearm expert, but I have recent experience in buying a rifle that I wish had been a little different.
What Will Be The Purpose of Your Rifle?
What do you plan on doing with your rifle? One of my favorite Youtubers, Nutnfancy, calls this "Philosophy of Use" or POU. A firearm is a tool. What job will this tool accomplish? It is the most important thing when determining what you are going to get for and what accessories it will need. If you are just going to plink away at the range, anything you can afford will be fine. If you want to do more than just target shooting there are things to consider.
How far away will your targets be? Whether they be paper, steel, or game, the distance to target will should be a factor. If most of your shots will be less than 200 yards away, an AR with a 16 inch barrel is certainly capable of handling the job. A carbine of this type would also be a decent home defense weapon as well a "SHTF" gun. If you think you might try longer shots than that a longer barrel would be in order. A longer barrel of 18 - 24 inches will provide increased velocity and accuracy. Rifles in these lengths are widely available.
Will This Be a Hunting Rifle?
If hunting is likely one of the purposes you will need the rifle for, ask yourself what will you be hunting? An AR-15 in 5.56 or .223 is great for hunting all sorts of critters such as prairie dogs and coyotes. Most coyote hunting is done within 200 yards so a 16 inch barrel will serve you just fine. Prairie dogs can also be hunted with a short barrel but some varmint hunters like a longer barrel for when some of the dog towns are 300 - 400 yards out. Having a heavy bull barrel is also good if you will be doing shooting 500 rounds in an afternoon. Bull barrels hold up to heavy use in one sitting better than lighter barrels. Rifles with longer, heavier barrels typically cost more. If you choose to go that route, getting one one with a free floated hand guard is a good idea. Most of them already are free floated, but if you are buying one that isn't, spend the little bit extra for a feature that provides more accuracy. Free floating the barrel is something you can certainly do later.
If you are thinking you might be hunting deer with your new AR-15, and many people have to great success with shorter well placed shots, a longer barrel with a faster rifling twist of 1 in 8 or 1 in 7 inches will be ideal. The faster twist will allow you to shoot longer, heavier bullets up to 80 grains. If you want your AR to be your main deer hunter, a larger caliber might be the route to go.
Do You Need a Fixed Front Sight?
The guy who sold me my rifle said that I can put whatever kind of front sight on the gas block. That sounded great. Then, after researching them all and still not realizing I still didn't understand what I was seeing, when I tried to install my Magpul MBUS front sight the instructions stated that this could not be installed on a gas block rail. What I didn't realize is that the gas block rails are about one quarter of an inch lower than the rail atop the upper receiver. Thus you cannot use most back up front sights. In hindsight I wished I had purchased the version of my rifle that had the A-frame or A2 style of front sight. I ended up mounting that MBUS on the super cool quad rail I had also purchased, but a longer sight radius (distance between front and rear sights) makes for a more accurate rifle. My front sight was about two inches closer to the rear.
Another reason I wished my rifle had a fixed front sight on it is because I now shoot competitively. I have participated in CMP and High Power shoots at my gun club and the rules for service rifle competitions state that you must have the fixed style of front sight on a M16/M4 type of rifle. Not only that, but when I borrowed my brother's rifle, the front sight post was smaller and easier for me to shoot accurately.
If you know you are only going to shoot with a scope, or you know you will never require more than a quick flip up front sight, you don't need one. But if you might need one, for a first AR it would be easier to have that already installed for you, and preferably with the rear sight carry handle included. Although the carry handle typically does raise the cost of the rifle.
5.56 or 7.62 or 6.8 or .204 or Other
I have no factual basis for this statement, but I think it is a safe bet that most people will buy a 5.56 x 45 NATO chambered rifle. If it is your first AR that is probably your best bet. Ammo is plentiful and reasonably priced. Larger and smaller calibers are on the market. Everything from .22 LR all the way up .308 and probably beyond, I just haven't encountered any in .270 or .300 Win Mag.
As mentioned earlier, if you are really wanting to use your AR for medium game, slightly larger calibers that use the same AR-15 lower receiver are available like 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 Remington SPC, .300 AAC Blackout, and even 7.62x39mm Russian. Complete upper receivers and magazines are available for all of these calibers. But if you want to start with a 5.56 NATO rifle, you can buy a complete upper receiver and barrel in a larger caliber and essentially have two rifles in one.
But if you are leaning towards hunting deer and larger game like elk, an AR in 7.62x51 NATO or .308 Winchester would be preferred. Unlike the previously mentioned calibers, AR-10 or 7.62 NATO upper receivers will not mate with AR-15 lower receivers.
What Other Accessories and Upgrades Should It Already Have?
Guys love to hang lots of stuff on their AR's. Flashlights and lasers and sights and handles and stocks and bipods of all kinds adorn rifles all over the place. A lot of it is unnecessary. Some of it is useful some of the time. If you buy a used rifle demand to buy it clean, without the crap. Otherwise pass on all of their "crap."
New rifles will come with a handful of upgrades. Grips and stocks are the most common small upgrades but they are also the easiest and cheapest to do on your own. Free floating a barrel or changing a gas block is tricky and may require a gunsmith. If the barrel is already free floated, you are one step ahead of the game. But remember, while free floating the barrel increases accuracy, a rifle with the standard G.I. handguard and delta ring is not inaccurate. It is still capable of shooting 1.5 inch groups at 100 yards with the right ammo.
I recently bought a new rifle that actually fit what I wanted it for and I am so much happier with it. It is a model 3G1 made by DPMS. It is a purpose built 3-gun competition rifle. It has an 18 inch barrel with a 1 in 8" twist, and a longer 12 inch free floated hand guard. It did not have a front sight and has the dreaded railed gas block. However this didn't prevent me from buying the rifle as I will mainly be using a scope on it. I do plan to add a rail piece to the end of the hand guard to attach my MBUS sight to. I bought it to be a better prairie dog gun than my old 16 inch rifle, plus I plan on shooting 3-gun competitions this year for the first time.
Again, I am not an expert on AR-15 rifles but I do consider myself an expert on being new to the platform and making mistakes. The thing I have learned is that these rifles are infinitely changeable after you buy them. I am confident that real experts on the subject will tell you the same thing I am now; there is no perfect AR-15. But there is a perfect-for-purpose AR-15. The main thing to remember is what that purpose is.