Top 5 AR-15s Under $1,000

Because of its wild popularity, the AR-15 has been called “America’s Rifle.” I’d have to say that nickname couldn’t be more appropriate. The AR-15, of course, was born in the 1950s, the brainchild of Eugene Stoner. It went on to be adopted by the US Military as the M16, M16A1, M16A2, and M4 series.

Eventually, it also caught on with the civilian population, and today, it fills a host of roles with Americans. Many use it in military and civilian competitions, and it’s a staple of law enforcement. It perfectly fills the home defense role, and some people simply collect them. And I almost forgot—they’re just really fun to enjoy on the shooting range!

Supply, Demand, and Circumstances

When COVID-19 hit, many people realized for the first time that the police and government really couldn’t protect them as they imagined would happen. We plunged into an uncertain time, and people who never before seriously considered buying a firearm for defensive reasons suddenly found themselves shopping for a gun. Whether it was a good thing or not, many went with the AR-15.

Another driving force over the past few years (especially around election time) has been the fear of gun bans. Politicians keep spouting about banning semi-auto firearms. Again, people who weren’t necessarily gun shopping suddenly decided that it might be “Now or never” since they might soon be banned. As a result, they ran out and bought an AR-15 (or AK or other semi-auto).

Once everyone bought every AR-15 on gun store shelves, there was a lull, and the supply caught up. At that point, many of those rifles just sat on the shelves because most people who wanted one pretty much had them.

Now, it seems that the higher-end (read that as higher-priced) AR-15s are sitting on shelves. Many of those higher-end ARs are close to, or over, $2,000 in price. James Reeves of TFB refers to those uber-expensive guns as “Boutique” guns. I think that term fits them well.

Who wants to pay over $2,000 for an AR when you can get one for under $1,000? But are those budget-friendly AR-15s really any good? Can the cheaper AR-15s be trusted to be reliable? We’re going to let you know right now!

Top 5 Picks

I tried to make all five picks to be manufacturers I have experience with. Some I’ve owned, while others are owned by friends. But to me, personal experience is always preferable. With that said, sometimes we have to do research to get a wider picture of things from a broader customer base.

This list of AR-15s is sure to make the gun snob turn his nose high into the air. I can hear the indignant sniffs now. “Well, my AR is made by the company that makes them for the SEALs/Special Forces/Rangers/Delta (insert other favorite spec ops unit here).”

Okay, great. So you paid as much for your rifle as some cheap cars are worth. It’ll shoot MOA groups or maybe a little under that. The question is, are you a spec ops guy? Do you need that much combat accuracy? Does the price justify the performance? Are you even capable of shooting that rifle to the level of its performance? Maybe you can, and if so, you are an extraordinary individual, and I love you for it.

Most of us mere mortals don’t necessarily need all of that. I mean, if you can afford it, by all means, go for it! I’d rather have the very best than not. However, most of us aren’t made of money but need a gun that does the job.

Stag Arms

I’ve used a Stag Arms M-4 for the past several years, and it has held up extremely well, never having suffered any stoppages. It has a 16-inch chrome-lined barrel with a 1:9 RH twist (I’ve seen their newer models have the 1:7 twist rate). The stock is the standard 6-position type that telescopes. There is a Picatinny rail on top of the receiver, so any sort of optics can be mounted, or you can place a carry handle with sights up there as well.

The gas system is standard, direct impingement. The handguards are standard GI type, and the gun is not festooned with rails for adding every gadget under the sun. The flash suppressor is the A2 birdcage type.

Stag Arms AR-15.
The Stag 15 carbine exhibits excellent accuracy and reliability. The handguards are standard, but the Picatinny rail on the receiver allows easy mounting of optics, such as this Leupold Mark-AR scope in 1.5-4x. Photo: Sue Davis.

Accuracy with this rifle is quite good, and I’ve shot a group that was 1.0625 inches at 100 yards with 77-grain Nosler Match ammo. That’s right, my 1:9 twist rifle that’s only supposed to stabilize lighter-weight bullets loves the 77-grain rounds. It’s an important lesson: don’t believe the hype about twist rates, as certain barrels will like certain loads regardless of the twist rate.

At present, Stag lists this type of rifle at $1,099, but the actual price at gun shops on the street is going to be far less than $1,000, so it’s a solid buy.

Ruger AR-556

When Ruger decided to get into the AR-15 game, they did it right. A friend of mine owns one, and we wrung it out on the range, with the rifle coming up aces.

The Model 8507 features Magpul furniture and is basically the same as Ruger’s Model 8500 standard carbine. It has a 16-inch barrel topped with Ruger’s proprietary flash suppressor. It has a 1:8 Right-Hand twist and will stabilize the most common bullet weights. This carbine’s total weight is 6.5 pounds, and it has a Type III Hard Anodized finish that has held up well so far. With the stock folded, the overall length is 32.25 inches, and it’s 33.5 inches with the stock fully extended.

The front sight is a fixed A2-style post, and the rear sight is a flip-up type from Ruger that looks, for all the world, just like a Magpul product.

Ruger's AR-556 carbine.
Ruger’s AR-556 is an excellent, basic rifle. Shown here with Magpul furniture, it can be easily upgraded if the user elects to do so. This one is accurate, reliable, and compact. Note the Picatinny rail on top of the receiver. Photo: Jim Davis.

The rifle’s overall construction is great, and the bolt has all the features we’d like to see, including shot peening and MPI testing. The gas key is even properly staked. The extractor has a black O-ring, which is preferred for reliability. The trigger is a bit on the heavy side but breaks crisply.

The Ruger AR-15 has been 100% reliable, and its accuracy is quite good. If you’re after a no-frills rifle that will fill the bill for a range toy or self-defense, this one will get it done for you.

This rifle currently retails for $1,069, but like all the others, its price at gun shops is far lower, and we found this one for around $700.

Palmetto State Armory

My buddy saw that Palmetto State Armory had AR-15s with 20-inch barrels (PA-15) for sale, and he decided to get one after doing a lot of research. The nostalgia of the M16A2 profile was too much to resist. And with everyone having the M4-type carbines these days, he wanted something a little different.

The 20-inch barrel is 4150V chrome-moly Vanadium steel with a 1:7 RH twist and a Melonite finish. It weighs around 6.5 pounds. The full-auto bolt group is shot-peened, Carpenter No. 158, and the gas key is hardened to USGI specs.

The upper receiver wears a Picatinny rail, and this one came with an A2 carry handle, which we used during the shooting sessions. Of course, optics could easily be affixed to this rifle.

Overall, the fit and finish of the rifle are very nice, and a range session revealed that it is 100% reliable. We didn’t torture test it, mind you, but we put it through its paces, and it performed just fine. The balance is also excellent, and it felt nice to have an “A2” in my hands again (it had been a number of years since I held one).

PSA PA-15 full sized rifle.
The author rekindled his love affair with the full-size AR-15. Here is Palmetto State Armory’s 20-inch A2 version, which proved to be accurate and reliable. Photo: Jason Stimmel.

That included shooting it out to 200 yards, where it consistently hit a 10-inch disk. At 75 yards, I shot a couple of groups in which four of the five rounds just about went through the same hole, and I threw a flier. However, I was astounded at the accuracy, especially with open sights.

The flash suppressor is a standard A2 cage type. When you hold this rifle, it feels just like an M16A2 and performs similarly. Of course, there aren’t a plethora of rail systems on this one. It’s a plain Jane GI-type rifle, which was just fine with us. We actually preferred it that way.

Now, hold onto your pants because here comes the price…$599.99!

I know, when my friend told me what he paid, I was thinking, oh my goodness, this thing’s going to be a mess. But I have to admit, I was not only wrong but pleasantly shocked! In fact, I’m plotting ordering one of these rifles for myself, they are that nice. This might be one of the best-kept secrets in the AR world. As an added bonus, PSA will send this rifle directly to your FFL since they are the manufacturer.

Smith & Wesson M&P Sport III

Smith & Wesson’s current AR-15 offering has a 16-inch barrel with a 1:8 RH twist, so it will stabilize a wide variety of bullet weights. It has a standard M4-type telescoping stock that saves space when folded. The overall length is 35 inches. This is a standard direct impingement rifle, but it has a mid-length gas system and is chambered for 5.56mm NATO.

This rifle has a Picatinny rail not only running along the top of the receiver but also out to the end of the free-floating handguard. The handguard has M-LOK rails all around, so you can bolt on as many gadgets as your heart desires.

S&W M&P Sport III.
S&W’s M&P Sport III is a solid choice. It comes with an M-LOK rail for easy accessory addition. No sights are included, so you’ll have to buy your own. Photo: PewPew Tactical.

I don’t personally own one, but a friend had a couple of these rifles and was well pleased with their performance. Of course, you also get S&W’s lifetime warranty for the rifle. Reliability and accuracy are excellent with these rifles. They don’t come with sights, so you’ll need to acquire those and/or an optic.

MSRP on these rifles is $799, but they’re available in gun shops for considerably less, making this one of the best AR15 bargains on the planet.

Sig M400 Pro

Sig Sauer’s M400 Pro comes standard with an enhanced trigger, a 16-inch lightweight profile barrel, and a Sig Micro-Light gas block. The handguard is free-floating and uses the M-LOK system, giving users flexibility. The 6-position, collapsible buttstock has integral QD points. The overall weight is 6.5 pounds, and the overall length is 36.5 inches.

This rifle even comes with flip-up front and rear sights already installed. Sig is putting an AR-15 in your hands that already has most of the add-ons that people have to buy for the base rifle to make it flexible. The M-LOK handguard and sights are something that many manufacturers don’t include, but here you’re getting them already installed.

Sig's M400 AR-15.
Sig’s M400 (this is the Tread model) comes with a number of extras, including the M-LOK system and flip-up sights. Photo by Guns & Ammo.

I’ll disclose that I have no personal experience with these rifles, but all accounts that I’ve heard sing them praises. And really, it’s a Sig, after all, so you can pretty much buy with confidence.

Sig’s M400 rifles can be found for around $850 routinely, but sometimes can even be had in the mid-$700 range.

Parting Shots

We’ve covered five very reasonably priced AR-15 rifles here. A few of them are even in the “How the hell did they do that?!” price range. We really don’t have to take out a second mortgage on the house to have a reliable, reasonably accurate, serviceable AR-15 rifle.

With any of these rifles, we can buy the basic rifle and then add upgrades as we see fit. Want an upgraded Bolt Carrier Group (BCG)? No problem; they’re out there. And it never hurts to have a spare around the house, either, just in case.

Want to add lights, lasers, optics, etc.? Not a problem because a rail can be added to any of these rifles that doesn’t already come equipped with one. Personally, I’m not big on adding a ton of gadgetry to my rifles since I won’t be fast-roping from the Space Shuttle into a combat zone. I’ll confess that a low-power variable optic (LPVO) is a great thing to add to a rifle or carbine, though, as it gives flexibility. A light allows dim light target ID, which is important.

Naturally, you’ll want to grab a ton of magazines since they’re insanely cheap these days.

With these very reasonable prices, there’s no reason to be without an AR-15 these days. Let us know in the comments what your favorite AR-15 is.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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