You’ve decided to purchase an AR-15 for self-defense and high round count training courses. That is just the first of many decisions that confront the new AR owner. These decisions can be nearly overwhelming, especially if you are on a budget. So how do you get a top quality carbine that you can count on to protect your life and to stand up to high round count training without breaking the bank? It’s all about knowing where to spend more to get quality and functionality, and where to save money while still maintaining quality and functionality.
The AR Itself
This is one place to make sure that you spend enough money to get something that is going to work for you. I always recommend BCM, Daniel Defense, Colt, and lately I have been impressed with Spike’s Tactical as a high value brand. All of these brands do the little things that tend to add up to a quality carbine.
Buying a complete carbine from one of the manufacturers above is probably the most surefire path to reliability but purchasing a complete upper to drop on to a lower that you built yourself can save you some cash. If you do, go the complete upper route, buy one from the manufacturers listed above and build your lower with the best quality lower parts kit that you can find.
Most of what makes an AR reliable happens in the upper. Make sure you buy a quality upper and bolt carrier group. I generally recommend a 16” carbine with mid-length gas system and a flat top for its all-around utility, longer hand guard to support various shooting styles, and shootability. When all is said and done, expect to have at least $700-1000 just in the bare bones rifle.
One of the easiest ways to save money is to stick with the standard front sight base as your front sight and avoid the temptation to add an extended hand guard with folding front sight. The standard front sight base can also be a reliability and durability increasing choice if it is properly pinned with taper pins. The taper pins are an extremely durable way of attaching your front sight and serve to pull the front sight base down tight to the barrel to form a tight gas seal.
You can save some money at the rear sight as well. If you are going to mount a red dot type optic like an Aimpoint, consider using a fixed rear sight. Many people get worked up about having folding sights thinking that they won’t be able to see anything past the sights but that generally isn’t the case (especially if your red dot is set up for lower 1/3 co-witness). Fixed sights like those from Troy or LaRue can be a high quality, rugged alternative to a folding sight.
If you actually need a folding rear sight, check out the Magpul MBUS. This folding plastic rear back-up sight is an excellent value and costs about half of what other folding sights cost. Yes, it’s plastic but it is also a back-up sight (as in not your primary sighting option).
If you are building a home defense carbine that will see some high round count training, just stick with the standard fire control group that came with your quality rifle or lower parts kit. The trigger will likely not be as crisp and light as a match trigger but it will be usable, have durable sear geometry and reliable primer ignition, and have a strong reset. Match triggers are nice to have but are unnecessary on a non-precision rifle, especially if you are just going to mount an Aimpoint on your carbine. This is a good place to save money.
There are a ton of really slick stocks on the market that can be really tempting. You may want to consider if you actually need an aftermarket stock or if the standard stock is good enough (it probably is). You can save a ton of money by sticking with whatever stock your carbine comes with. If you can’t articulate why a new aftermarket stock will work significantly better for you, don’t buy it (this applies to just about anything you are considering buying for your rifle).
It is a good idea to spend some money on a real mil-spec receiver extension (buffer tube) if your carbine didn’t come with one (it will if you stick to the brands listed above). Most “mil-spec” receiver extensions on the market are just mil-spec in dimensions, not materials. So, be careful when you buy. A soft aluminum non mil-spec receiver extension can cause headaches down the road.
Hand guards can be one of the most expensive upgrades to your rifle which means they can also be a place to save a ton of cash. It is important to remember that hand guards aren’t just for holding – they are a means to mount a sling, a light, and potentially something like a hand stop or vertical grip. I consider a sling and a light to be absolutely necessary on this type of carbine.
Free float hand guards don’t have to cost a ton of money but there are cheaper options than even the cheapest free float hand guard. Weigh your needs carefully. If this was a precision rifle then it would make sense to drop some money here but we are talking about a defensive type carbine so you may not actually need to free float the barrel. You can always add one later if you find that the lack of one is holding you back (unlikely).
The cheapest, but still very functional, set up is to use standard hand guards. You can attach your light to the front sight base using something like the light mounts from Midwest Industries and attach your sling near the delta ring with a Blue Force Gear UWL or IWC QD Micro Sling MOUNT-N-SLOT.
My favorite budget set up is to use Magpul MOE hand guards with IWC products to mount my sling and light. This set up will also allow you to add a vertical grip like the Magpul MOE MVG or handstop like the IWC Weapon Control MOUNT-N-SLOT. I have actually come to prefer a set up like this over most railed hand guards. It is relatively inexpensive, light weight, very durable, and there is no need for extras like rail covers.
This is a great place to save money. Most uppers are going to come with a muzzle device installed and typically that is going to be an A2 flash suppressor. The lowly little A2 doesn’t get a lot of respect but it is actually a pretty decent muzzle device. It suppresses flash reasonably well (especially if you are using good ammo), it isn’t terribly loud, and it reduces muzzle climb a little bit. The close bottom on the A2 also keeps swirling dust to a minimum when you are shooting from a prone position. The A2 is quite compact compared to most muzzle devices on the market. If you are on a budget, keep the A2. It isn’t exotic but it works.
If you can make the standard A2 grip work for you, then keep it. There are few things that you can do to enhance the standard grip without spending any money. Many shooters find that simple grinding off the finger groove is a great improvement. You can also heat stipple the grip if you need more traction.
If you need something a little more hand filling, it is hard to beat the Magpul MOE line of grips. The MOE line probably has something that will work for you at a reasonable price.
The AR-15 magazine has come a long way over the years. Magazines like the Magpul P-MAG and Tango Down ARC magazine work tremendously well and don’t cost that much. The new Troy Battle Mags cost even less and are getting good press. However, those old aluminum GI mags are still the value leader. You can buy aluminum mags with upgraded followers and springs for $8-10 each. Polymer seems to be the way of the future for AR mags, but the aluminum mags work better than ever with their new advanced springs and followers.
There really isn’t much money to be saved here. A poor quality optic will ruin your day just as fast as a poor quality carbine. I prefer Aimpoints over anything else for this type of carbine. You can shop the secondary market to save some cash or go with one of the lower priced models. You will not regret spending some money on your optic. Don’t skimp on the mount either.
There is quite a range of quality and price when it comes to lights. I have been very impressed with the Streamlight PolyTac LED line of lights for use as budget friendly carbine lights. You will probably spend more on your light mount than you will on the PolyTac. The Surefire G2 and G2X lights are other favorite lights that don’t break the bank. All of the lights mentioned happen to be fairly light weight as well.
Don’t Buy What You Don’t Know
I don’t want to fool you into thinking that building a carbine the way that I have outlined is inexpensive. It is a significant investment. However, there are specific areas of the carbine where you can spend less and still have full, or even enhanced, function. There are also places where you can save money by not spending anything at all.
Here is a rule of thumb: If you can’t explain a part’s purpose or why it will help you significantly better, don’t buy it. Beyond that, if you haven’t shot your rifle in its current configuration to learn what works and what needs improvement, don’t buy any thing new until you have. Not buying things that you don’t need is the best way to save money when it comes to AR building.