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When it comes to AR-15s and the quality of the many companies that make them, the field is ever widening. The AR-15 is, without a doubt, America’s rifle. And as such, is built primarily by American companies, big and small. It all started with Eugene Stoner and his “Armalite Rifle” or AR. Another iconic American classic in the world of firearms, the AR would be originally made in a much larger caliber, the 7.62×51 NATO, to try to compete in the U.S. Military’s rifle trials at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Though the M14 was chosen for its compatibility, the AR design was not out of the fight. Mr. Stoner’s Chief Assistant and another man would, at our Military’s request, scale down the rifle. To match the downsizing, they would chamber it in a smaller, faster caliber, and the .223 Remington was the chosen one.
After these mods and some others, the AR-15 patent was sold off to Colt and adopted by our military as the M16. Many more variations and upgrades were to come and the AR-15 has been running into danger side by side with the heroes of the U.S. Military ever since. Those iterations were the M16A1 or XM16E1, M16A2, M16A3 and A4, and the M16S1. This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of each model. However, the development of the M16 and civilian AR-15 rifle has been driven forward and continues to be.
The history of the AR-15 and its development are both interesting subjects to say the least, so if you ever get a chance, you should read more about it. For now, though, we are going to dive headlong into the various AR-15 manufactures and the quality of their products. Most readers have heard of the big makers like Smith and Wesson, and Colt, but there are many more manufacturers out there. So, for this article, we are going to divide the builders into 3 distinct groups, High Quality, Mid-Level Quality, and Entry-Level Quality AR-15s. Our definitions for each will precede each list of companies.
The Upper Receiver
Before we tackle this subject though, there are some things you as the reader must know about AR-15s and their construction. The AR-15 is built from multiple parts, but the primary parts are divided into the Upper Receiver and the Lower Receiver. The “Upper” consists of the upper receiver itself which houses the barrel and barrel extension, the muzzle device (whatever that may be), the ejection port dust cover and its parts, the forward assist (If your AR-15 has one), the gas block and gas tube, the bolt carrier group that includes the bolt itself, the charging handle, and any sighting system that is attached to it.
The Lower Receiver
The “Lower” is the part that is generally considered the “Receiver” and is identified legally as the “firearm”. Even though the Lower Receiver doesn’t meet the legal definition of a firearm, the policy/definition remains. But we will leave that issue for another day. The Lower has multiple parts in it including: the FCG or Fire Control Group, the Safety Selector, the Buffer Tube and Buffer (Also known as the Receiver Extension), the Buffer Tube Spring, the Bolt Catch, the Take-Down Pins, Magwell, Mag Release, Grip, and Stock.
Fire Control Groups
The civilian AR-15 system shares almost all its parts with the M16A1 system. The major difference falls on the FCG or Fire Control Group. The Military M16A1 firearm has a “Full Auto” capable Fire Control Group with a few distinct differences. One of these major differences is the famous “3rd Trigger Pin Hole” located above the safety selector. This 3rd hole is a rapid way to ID a “full-auto capable” AR-15 receiver or M16A1. The internals of the M16A1 are similar, but they have the long finger coming off the back of the disconnector, a 3-position safety selector, and of course, the auto sear. There is also a version of the fire control group that has 3-round burst capability instead of full-auto. Both types of M16A1 had the 3-position safety for “safe”, “semi-auto”, and “full-auto”, or “safe”, “semi-auto” and “3-round burst”. Those aren’t the technical terms exactly, but you get the idea. There were other differences in the construction of the M16A1 type firearm versus the AR-15 system, but we can save that info for another time and another awesome article.
“Mil-Spec” or Military Specifications
Let’s talk “Mil-Spec” or Military Specifications. One thing you need to know about parts for the AR-15 is that the term “Mil-Spec” is thrown around quite a bit, when, many of those parts are not mil-spec at all. If you want to know the real deal on what mil-spec is and what those specs are for the M16/AR-15 system, you need to look at the manuals or original blueprints of the firearms themselves. I can tell you this though, all M16/AR-15 parts (along with all firearms parts) are made within specific tolerances. This is done for uniform manufacturing purposes, but it is also done because the design specs or blueprints of the firearm demand it. Again, all firearms are manufactured within certain tolerances. This is nothing new.
But there is more to the story, all things being equal, those tolerances I just told you about are + or – (Plus or Minus) .005” (Five Thousandths of an inch). So, what does that tell us? It means if you have two manufacturers, one that is making his parts at + .005” of an inch (Plus Five Thousandths) and one that is making his parts at – .005” of an inch (Minus Five Thousandths), then you could potentially have parts that are .010” of an inch off from each other. That’s bad… That’s really bad. So, going with a high-quality firearm is never a bad thing, but just because it’s an AR-15 or M16 part, doesn’t mean it’s going to work flawlessly with your current system. There are no guarantees of that. Be certain you are check fitment and tolerances as best you can. And when you replace the BCG and bolt, it’s always best to check headspace. But we can leave “how to check AR-15 headspace” for another article at another time.
Moving on, lets take a good look at some of the AR-15 manufacturers out there. We want to separate these manufacturers into groups to make it a wee bit easier on the reader. So, the grouping we are going to use will consist of High Quality, Middle of the Road Quality, and Entry Level Quality. These 3 categories are important because they separate the makers into groups that give the reader an idea where to start, in terms of affordability, quality, availability, and manufacturer reputation. With this in mind, we can move forward to discussing the various categories of AR15 manufacturer.
High Quality AR-15 Manufacturers
The Higher Quality AR-15 Manufacturers are meant primarily for the serious AR-15 buyer or Military end-users. The higher-quality makers will design and build their own proprietary parts, their parts are usually made to tighter tolerances, the absolute best materials are used in every part, the materials are constantly scrutinized for quality, most if not all the parts are made in house, the guns are made with all sorts of upgraded features, and these groups tend to have stellar customer service records. These, among many other features, separate the High-Quality AR-15 makers from the Middle and Entry Level makers.
The Knights Armament Company
The Knights Armament Company or KAC is a perfect example of one of the highest caliber AR-15 makers out there. Their SR-16 series of firearms is their “AR-15”, but they come standard with various proprietary features that are only available on KAC SR-16s. The SR-16 firearms are designed around the awesome “E3 Bolt” that boasts the ability to run reliably through 20K plus rounds. The SR-16’s also come standard with their own two-stage match grade trigger group. This trigger group has a dependable 5 lb. second stage trigger break and comes in semi or full-auto configurations. These SR-16’s also come standard with KAC’s own micro-sized flip-up iron sights, QDC flash hiders that are compatible with Suppressors, and full ambidextrous controls to accommodate both left- and right-handed shooters. And finally, the SR-16 also utilizes the well-thought out “Mod 2” Gas System. The optimized “Mod 2” Gas System makes utilizing a suppressor easier, sports less recoil, and increases the entire systems’ reliability.
Bravo Company Machine
Bravo Company Machine or BCM is another heavy-hitter in the world of the AR-15. BCM weapons systems come to the table with the best of the tried-and-true features known to keep the M16/M4 family of firearms running smoothly. BCM only uses Mil-Spec 11595E Barrel Steel that is Independently Certified to ensure they are getting top of the line barrel steel for their guns. The Mil-Spec 11595E Barrel Steel has a higher level of vanadium and carbon in it. This combination gives the shooter a tougher product and gives it the ability to handle a variety of conditions most other barrel steels simply cannot.
In addition to using true Mil-Spec barrel steel, the BCM barrels are subjected to the Military-Specification ASTME1444-01 tests at current standards. This includes MPI (Magnetic Particle Inspection) testing, and M197 HPT (High-Pressure Test) testing to prove that the barrels can handle a 70,000 PSI proof load and then show that the barrel has taken no damage or significant wear. And each BCM Barrel comes standard with a chrome-lined barrel. The chrome-lining has been shown to help with overall reliability, chambering cartridges, minimize potential carbon fouling and corrosion problems, ease extraction of the spent brass, and provide the shooter a longer barrel life.
If you’d like to grab a high quality BCM Recce-11 KMR-A Pistol in 5.56… hit this link.
Daniel Defense holds another top spot in the higher-quality AR-15 manufacturer pool. The MK18 is one of the most well-known M4-type firearms that Daniel Defense has made their own version of. Their rifles, lower and upper receivers are Mil-Spec and feature various upgrades many AR-15 shooters hope for in an off-the-shelf firearm. Aside from being Mil-Spec in materials and construction, their AR-15’s also feature enhanced flared magwells, M4 Feed Ramps, indexing marks on the upper receiver, Type III Hardcoat anodizing, 7075-T6 upper and lower, Cold Hammer Forged, Chrome Moly Vanadium steel barrels with Government profile, 4140 hardened steel pinned gas blocks, MPI Tested Chrome-lined Staked Gas key M16 Profile Bolt Carrier Groups, 6 position Mil-Spec Receiver Extensions (Buffer Tubes), proprietary furniture, and so much more. While Daniel Defense does have many other rifles, pistols, bolt action rifles, accessories, and even Class-3 firearms and Suppressors, their AR15’s remain their best-selling products.
Mid-Level or Intermediate-Quality AR-15s
Mid-Level or Intermediate-Quality AR-15s are labeled that was because they ride that perfect line between the “Entry-Level or Beginner Quality” AR-15s and “Higher Quality AR15 Manufacturers”. The Intermediate level manufacturing of any product is a necessary format due to the ever-expanding need for those items. In the world of the AR-15 or Americas most popular rifle, the intermediate category consists of companies like CMMG, ZEV Tech, and Aero Precision. An argument could even be made that these companies belong in the “Higher Quality AR15 Manufacturers” category, but for various reasons, this article chose not to classify them as such. Let’s dive into the world of Mid-Level AR-15s.
ZEV Tech or ZEV Technologies is a staple in the world of Glock pistol upgrades and competition parts. Although ZEV Tech’s rifle offerings are lesser known, they are nevertheless known for their quality and focused production of specific lines of AR-15s. ZEV Tech focuses on 4 lines of AR-15s exclusively: the Billet Rifles, the Core Elite AR Pistols, the Core Elite AR Rifles, and the Core Duty Rifles. Each ZEV Tech AR is designed and built in the USA, as it should be. ZEV Tech focuses their efforts on providing a lightweight, reliable, well-tested, versatile AR platform, and providing plenty of options for their buyers to choose from.
The ZEV Tech Billet rifles are available in the .308 Winchester AR-10 system, and in the 5.56x45mm NATO AR-15 system at the buyer’s discretion. The ZEV Core Duty Rifles are a different story, focusing on the end-users being soldiers or serious daily shooters. The Core Duty category boasts Mil-Spec forged uppers and lowers, 16” inch Chrome Moly barrels with Melonite QPQ finish, proprietary 3-prong flash hiders, mid-length gas systems with low-profile gas blocks, Mil-Spec Bolt Carrier Groups, and the ZEV Tech enhanced 2-stage trigger group (Fire Control Group). The Core Elite AR Pistols and Rifles come to the table with just as much to write home about as the other AR-15s in ZEV Tech’s lineup. The Core Elite rifles come from the factory with a 16” barrel and the standard factory build you would expect from ZEV Tech. The Core Elite pistols are available in .300 Blackout or 5.56x45mm NATO. The .300 Blackout version is available with all the goodies and an 8.5” inch barrel, whereas the 5.56x45mm NATO version is also rocking the goodies but comes standard with a 10.5” barrel. Both use the standard SB Tactical Arm Brace for one-handed pistol shooting.
CMMG is one of those rare companies that doesn’t just make a great product, they also continue to innovate along the way. They offer multiple, quality standard AR-15 and AR-10 platforms in various calibers, but they also have some AR-based offerings that you may not know about or wouldn’t believe exist. They have the BANSHEE Pistol available in multiple calibers including 4.6x30mm, 5.7x28mm, .350 Legend, .224 Valkyrie, .22 Nosler, and more. CMMG also comes out swinging with their RESOLUTE and ENDEAVOR firearms lines. The Endeavor lineup consists of the 100-series, the 200-series, and the 300-series rifles. The Endeavor is based on building a long-range, hard-hitting system that is built to fit the user. The caliber options are many and include the .22 Nosler, .224 Valkyrie, 6mm ARC, 6.5 Grendel, 6.5 Creedmoor, and the timeless classic .308 Winchester. The Resolute line is also available in the 100, 200, and 300-series of firearms. The Resolute is available in multiple calibers just like the Banshee and Endeavor, and sports upgraded features depending on which series you go with. The 100-series of firearms is basically the CMMG guns in classic style, with A2 Birdcage Flash Hiders, 6-pos Buttstocks, and A2 Grips.
- CMMG 100 Series: In the 100 Series you will find classic furniture appointments like the beloved A2 pistol grip, 6-position or fixed buttstocks and A2 Birdcage flash hider.
- CMMG 200 Series: The CMMG 200 Series turns up the coolness factor by a good margin. The 200 series comes from the factory with some of the best choices in aftermarket furniture such as the Magpul’s MOE line. Not to be outdone, CMMG even includes its own furniture on the 200 series such as the RIPSTOCK™ and RIPBRACE™, depending on what type of AR they are building. One more awesome upgrade in the 200 series is the CMMG SV muzzle brake.
- CMMG 300 Series: Finishing up the group, we have the 300 Series. The heavy hitter in CMMG’s lineup comes online with all the coolest upgrades and more. Featuring 10 different Cerakote color options (at the customer’s choice), 2-stage precision trigger group, full ambidextrous operation, and sling mounts, Magpul and CMMG’s own RIPSTOCK or PRS stock round out the furniture options, and the effective factory built CMMG SV muzzle brake.
Its easy to see why so many shooters look to CMMG for those rare and interesting AR platforms. They offer calibers no one else does, they offer 3 different grades of firearm to fit the customers needs, and they do it all under a lifetime quality guarantee. CMMG is a strong contender in the AR world.
Aero Precision is one of my personal favorites in the plethora of AR-15 and AR-10 manufacturing companies. Many people I know personally swear by AP firearms of all types. This author has a .300 Blackout Aero Precision Pistol. It has always worked flawlessly and still does. Among the vast universe of AR makers, Aero Precision stands out for their superb manufacturing skills, high level engineering, and all the benefits that come from a continuous dedication to all out quality in every firearm they produce.
Aero Precision offers multiple types of precision-built AR-15’s. The many types include the AP M5/AR308 rifles, which are the Aero Precision AR-10 platforms. These big-bore AR-10 firearms can be had in .308 Winchester and 6.5 Creedmoor, in many configurations including the upper and lower receivers so they customer can build and customize it themselves, from the bottom up. Next, they obviously offer the AR-15 system, again, in multiple versions and 2 different receiver types. The customer can get the AP AR-15’s as a stripped lower and upper, as a set, and as a fully built firearm. They can be had in 5.56x45mm NATO,.300 Blackout, 6.5 Grendel, and .224 Valkyrie. In addition to these barrel caliber offerings, the Aero Precision barrels are also available in the well-known .223 Wylde chamber which combines the best of the 5.56x45mm NATO and .223 Remington chambers. It should be noted that Aero Precision also offers receivers in 9mm and .40 S&W, and many AR parts for building your own kick butt AR platform.
Entry-Level or Beginner-Level AR-15’s tend to not be the super, over-built, hyped up and crazy customized AR’s. They fall into the category of a basic firearm. You could align them with the basic off the shelf Mil-Spec 1911. They typically have no frills, no special Cerakote or barrel steel types, no specialized uppers or lowers built for any variety of reasons, and no special or upgraded furniture. Sometimes shooters will buy them to get started in the AR-15 world, and to build them up on their own. And sometimes, the buyer just wants a gun that’s very simple, basic, and inexpensive. Nothing special, just your basic factory AR-15. Ya Dig?
Anderson Manufacturing is one of the many entry level firearms manufacturing teams. The have offerings in the AR-15, AR-10, and AR-9 categories. The Anderson Manufacturing firearms are widely available, as well as their receivers, upper and lower, and their massive catalog of parts for those systems. Anderson parts are affordable, and of good quality for the beginner shooter to get started with. Anderson parts are also a great option for the beginning AR builder to cut their teeth on. They have all the parts you need to make your own AR in many calibers, and they have customer support to guide you in your endeavors. Some of the calibers they offer are .308 Winchester in their AM-10 line and 9mm Luger in their AM-9 line. The Anderson AM-15 line is much larger and offers parts and guns in 5.56x45mm NATO, .300 Blackout, 7.62x39mm, 6.5 Grendel, .450 Bushmaster, and they offer the .223 Wylde chambered options too. Anderson offers both AR Pistols and AR Rifles and has consistently put out AR parts since their beginnings in Kentucky. All Anderson parts are 100% USA-Made, according to their website, which is very cool and noteworthy. Even though Anderson does make complete firearms, they are much better known in the firearms world for their vast parts catalog and multiple affordable AR Lower receiver types.
Diamondback Firearms was established in 2009, even though the parent company was started much earlier in 1989. Diamondback started out making components and parts for many other gun makers, and at some point, they realized they could make guns in their factory too. The first gun they started out with was the DB380, one of the smallest .380 pistols on the market at the time. This pocket pistol was to be one of the firearms that got Diamondback or “DB” noticed. Currently, just like many of the AR manufacturers, Diamondback offers many AR platform options, upper and lower receivers, barrels, and many other parts. The flagship of the DB lineup is their pistols, but the Diamondback DB9R line of 9mm AR’s are no slouch. Diamondback also comes to the table with their DB15 and DB10 models in many calibers. One of the best packages that Diamondback offers is the ‘DB15CCMLU300BFB’. Diamondback is one of the only firearms companies offering an AR-15 package deal like it. It includes a Diamondback DB-15 in 5.56x45mm NATO, AND an additional AR Upper in .300 Blackout. This awesome package deal is not a one-off for them, as there are a few other package-deals like this available via Diamondback Firearms. This package can be had in rifle and pistol configurations and gives the entry-level shooter a decent way to get into the world of AR-15s. Giving their customers a great value of 2 calibers in one package sets Diamondback Firearms apart from other entry-level AR-15 manufactures.
The world of the AR-15 is massive and continues to grow each day. The options are almost endless and if you can imagine a part you want for your AR, and do a web search for it, it is highly likely you will find it… or something that is similar. After many decades of research, experimentation, development, and manufacture, the AR-15 has come so far and worked out all of its shortcomings. Rifles, Pistols, DMR’s, Long-Range, Mid-Range, CQB, Suppressed, Custom, and many other configurations in more calibers than any other platform on earth makes the AR-15 a firearm that isn’t going away anytime soon.