Anything But An AR-15: A New Generation of Rifles

I remember my first SHOT Show. It was the 2016 show, and as stoked as I was to go, I remember getting bored almost immediately at every company there seemingly having an AR model. They weren’t much different than every other AR out there. Eight years later, there are still tons and tons of ARs at SHOT, but there has been an evolution in rifle design, and in 2024, in particular, we saw an interesting amount of deviation from the AR platform.

AR and Market Dominance

The value of the AR-15 can’t be understated. The popularity of the platform after the 2004 AWB brought the gun into common use, and it has become the standard rifle. The AR provides a ton of benefits to any shooter. They are crazy accurate, even at the lower price tiers. The rifle has hardly any recoil. Ammo is affordable, and so are the magazines. Let’s not forget how modular and accessible these rifles can be.

AR-15 grip using a short vertical foregrip.
Shorter vertical foregrips are often used to modify a grip. [Photo: Jason Mosher]
The AR dominates for a reason. Anyone can make one, and it will most likely work pretty well. It’s easy to manufacture, it’s cheap, and the demand must be high enough to facilitate enough sales to justify a ton of production by a ton of different companies. Yet, are we, as a gun-buying community, becoming so saturated with ARs that we are looking for alternatives? Or are gun companies firing up the creative juices to bring us newer and potentially better rifles?

This could be the beginning of a new generation of rifles competing for that dominant spot. At the moment, it seems like a mix of ideas are competing to see which takes off. Some are more prominent than others, and today, we are going to explore the rise of these new rifles and if they can unseat the AR.

The Rise of AR Alternatives

For years, we’ve been seeing a drip feed of rifles that are alternatives to the AR platform. They come and go. Platforms like the SCAR and the Tavor have become fairly well established. A few years back, Brownells embraced another type of AR, the AR-18, with the BRN-180 series.

The Sig Sauer MCX has been very successful in several markets. This includes the military market, with the Army choosing the MCX-derived Spear design as the Next Generation Squad Weapon and the LVAW and PDW for special operations.

FN Scar 17S DMR 6.5 Creedmoor
FN Scar 17S DMR 6.5 Creedmoor.

That drip feed turned into a bit of a faucet between this year and last year. Between 2023 and 2024, we saw the Carmel, The ZF 56, the Monolith, the UXR, the MAT-9, and even various clones of the HK 416 design, like the Titan Defense uppers. Each of these guns offers an alternative to the standard AR-15 design.

Every one of these guns takes major cues from the world of the AR. In fact, in many cases, they are practically using AR lowers. Guns like the MCX, SCAR, the Monolith, and the ZF 56 are basically using AR lowers.

The lower design is a strong component of the AR design and is already quite modular. The vast majority of shooters are used to that layout. It’s easily adaptable to ambidextrous controls, and those controls are placed for ease of access. We might get away from the standard AR design, but I doubt we’ll get away from the lower design of the AK.

Why The Change?

I think it’s almost driven by the fact that gun companies feel obliged to release new guns. You can only release a ‘new’ AR-15 so many times before people start clowning you. The firearm industry has hit a period of staleness where any advancements are being done fairly slowly and come in very small advancements. These companies are hoping their small advancement works best and it might become the new hotness.

These are all semi-auto rifles, and so far, they made the right decision to use AR magazines. With that in mind, what are they doing differently to set them apart from the AR-15 design? It comes down to mostly adapting to things the AR does well, but their guns can do better.

The Changes

One of the big reasons why the AR-15 was so successful is its modularity. I’m not sure if Stoner designed the gun with this much modularity in mind, but the rifle turned out to be pretty easy to adapt to various calibers, furniture, and more.

This new generation of rifles seems to be leaning heavily on modularity. They are designed with modularity in mind. These new generations make it even easier to swap out barrels, calibers, and more.

BRN-180
If the original AR-180 or AR-18, if you prefer, was manufactured like the BN-180, it
might have made actual inroads with regard to military service beyond a handful of third-world
countries.

We’ve also seen rifles shrink. In the civilian market, shooters want smaller rifles with shorter barrels. While the AR works pretty well with short barrels, there are systems that offer a higher degree of reliability with a shorter barrel. Gas piston guns, in particular, tend to be well-suited for short-barreled designs.

The same goes for suppressors. DI guns work well with suppressors but get even dirtier faster. Gas piston guns tend to work a little better suppressed and don’t quite get as filthy.

Finally, we get to the same basic idea that’s driven all of gun design. Can we make it better in some way? Can it be more reliable? More accurate? Offer lower recoil? Can it be easier to manufacture, easier to use, or easier to fix? Those all drive small advancements.

Notable New AR Alternatives

PWS UXR

The PWS UXR is pretty far from the AR in design. It does come in 5.56, it can use AR mags, and the lower receiver controls are pretty AR-like in their design. Outside of that, the UXR is a fascinating rifle. It’s a long-stroke gas piston gun for one. Next, it uses a modular system unlike any other.

author shooting PWS UXR
The PWS UXR might be one of the most modern rifles on the market.

Users can easily swap barrels and calibers with a single tool. The lower separates into a firing control group and a magwell, which allows you to swap mags to swap to calibers like .308 from 5.56. You can use AK mags in the gun, SR-25 mags, and more. It’s the most modular rifle I’m aware of, and PWS seems to have big plans for their new rifle. I hope it succeeds, but the $2,500 price tag might be a turn-off for some.

Zenith ZF 56

Zenith is known for its variety of MP5 clones, but this year, they released a proper rifle. The ZF 56 is a 5.56-caliber rifle that uses the roller-delayed blowback action of HK and CETME rifles. A roller-delayed 5.56 isn’t totally new, but the Zenith take certainly is. It does use a very AR-like upper and lower combination. You can easily mount AR stocks to the gun, but there are several other options.

Zenith ZF-56 Roller-Delayed Blowback 5.56 Rifle
The Zenith ZF-56 Roller-Delayed Blowback 5.56 Rifle is designed for durability and reliable performance. (Photo credit: Zenith Firearms)

The gun uses an M-LOK handguard and AR-15 magazines. It’s a very modern design that isn’t clinging to the Cold War nostalgia of the MP5. It’s a modern take that does deliver the benefits of the roller-delayed action to a new generation of rifles.

IWI Carmel

The IWI Carmel is better compared to an AR-18 than an AR-15. It uses a short-stroke gas piston system. This offers you slightly lower recoil and a cleaner, cooler operating system that works more reliably with short barrels and suppressors. The Carmel brings a very modern rifle design to the market.

IWI Carmel
The IWI Carmel is a solid rifle with a bright future.

All the controls are either ambidextrous or easily reversible. The gun has a monolithic upper rail system, an M-LOK handguard, and a folding and collapsing stock. The rifle has three gas settings for suppressors, adverse conditions, or regular use. The barrel can be quickly removed and easily swapped to shorter lengths. The Masada isn’t radical, but it’s clearly a well-thought-out rifle.

ARs Forever

Nothing lasts forever, but I highly doubt we’ve seen the end of the AR-15. It’s just too dominant to go quietly into retirement. In fact, until we see a radical development in ammunition or material design, the AR-15 will still keep up pretty well with all these new rifles. It’s still nice to know the industry hasn’t completely stopped with Sotner’s 1950s design.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine Gunner and a lifelong firearms enthusiast. Now that his days of working a 240B like Charlie Parker on the sax are over he's a regular guy who likes to shoot, write, and find ways to combine the two. He holds an NRA certification as a Basic Pistol Instructor and is probably most likely the world's Okayest firearm instructor. He is a simplicisist when it comes to talking about himself in the 3rd person and a self-professed tactical hipster. Hit him up on Instagram, @travis.l.pike, with story ideas.

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