For those looking to get an entry-level AR-platform rifle, the good news is there are a lot of options on the market today. The bad news is… there are a lot of options on the market today. With so many potential choices in similar price brackets, it can be a real challenge to determine which one would be best for your specific application.
Answering a few questions can help narrow down that list of potential purchases:
- Do you plan on shooting at close range, long range, or both?
- Do you plan on using optics, iron sights, or both?
- Do you plan on customizing the rifle? (i.e. a new stock, handguard, pistol grip, trigger, barrel, etc?)
You might have a good idea of what you want out of a rifle right now, but you also need to plan for potential changes in your intended application, ergonomic preference, and aesthetics. You want to find the most versatile platform possible, and that means buying an “optics-ready” rifle. Traditionally, many AR-15s come equipped with a gas block that has a triangular-shaped front sight (called an A2 sight) attached. While it can be useful if you intend to use iron sights exclusively, the A2 sight can obstruct the sight picture when using optics.
Optics ready AR-15s are come with no sights of any kind, giving you the option to install whatever sights or optics you wish. Even if you only intend to use iron sights, there are literally dozens of different aftermarket sights available; having an optics-ready rifle allows you to select the exact sight combination that fits your needs instead of being stuck with the old-school A2 sight.
This article will explore five decent entry-level, optics-ready rifles. The criteria we used to select these choices are as follows:
- Street price (new) of about $600 or less – this is determined by comparing pricing from multiple reputable online dealers.
- Optics-ready configuration, without add-ons (spare magazines, red dot sights, etc)
- Barrel length of at least 16 inches, chambered in 5.56mm NATO or .223 Wylde
- Carbine-length gas system
Street Price = $480 – $520
The Oracle was one of the first optics-ready carbines to hit the AR-15 market, before it became saturated with low-cost mil-spec options. It’s a no-frills, basic rifle that was designed to bridge the gap between sporting and tactical markets, and hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced over a decade ago. The DPMS oracle is a tried-and-true design, but because it has been offered in the same configuration for over a decade, it doesn’t have all the features you might find on more modern rifles.
DPMS has been manufacturing AR-15 rifles for over 30 years. Their rifles are well-known for their quality of build, even with their lower-priced offerings. If you buy a DPMS rifle, you can rest assured that it will function properly straight out of the box.
This rifles weighs 6.4 pounds unloaded, which is about average for an AR-15. Certain upgrades can help reduce the weight by a significant margin. Unfortunately, if you want to upgrade the stock, you will have to find one that fits commercial-spec buffer tubes (for more information, check out our article on Mil Spec vs Commercial Buffer Tubes). Some companies like Magpul still manufacture aftermarket commercial-spec stocks, so you aren’t completely out of luck there, but it’s something you will want to keep in mind.
Another odd feature off the Oracle is the railed gas block, which sits lower on the rifle than the receiver rail. This means that you cannot mount iron sights on the gas block rail without first installing a spacer to raise the rail height to equal that of the receiver. If you don’t typically use iron sights, this will not be a big deal, but it can certainly be frustrating for those that want the option to do so. The rail on the low-profile gas block is also too wide to fit a free-floating handguard over it; if you want to use one of those, you will need to replace it with a low profile gas block without a rail.
Finally, it should go without saying that a rifle produced over 10 years ago wouldn’t have the same furniture as modern rifles, but it still has to be mentioned because the issue is as much about ergonomics as it is about aesthetics. The standard A2 handguard and grip are functional, but not as comfortable as newer offerings.
In a nutshell, the DPMS Oracle is a decent entry-level rifle. In its factory configuration, it would be best used with a dedicated optic instead of iron sights due to the shorter gas block rail. Customization is possible, but can be a bit of a hassle, so if you want to customize your rifle heavily, consider other options.
Street Price = $500-$600
Another longstanding name in the firearms industry, Ruger has been producing firearms for over 70 years, and AR-pattern rifles since 2009. Overall, their AR product line is well designed and reliable, consistently receiving praise from reviewers everywhere.
The AR556 Model 8525 is very similar to the DPMS Oracle in overall looks and weight (the Ruger is 0.3 pounds heavier). The stock, pistol grip, buffer tube, and gas block are slightly different – and in some ways, slightly better. The pistol grip is an ergonomic grip designed by Ruger that looks quite similar to the Magpul MOE. Regardless of its origins, this is a definite upgrade from the classic A2 grip, and is much more comfortable in the hand. The AR556 also features a cold hammer forged 4140 steel alloy barrel.
The stock on the Ruger is an M4-style, compared to the Pardus stock on the Oracle. Neither is a particularly outstanding stock, but the Ruger takes the advantage in that the buffer tube is mil-spec. This ensures a broad array of options to consider when contemplating an upgrade.
Unlike the gas block on the Oracle, the rail on the gas block of the AR556 is at the same height as the upper receiver rail. This ensures that you will be able to use just about any kind of aftermarket iron sights without having to purchase a riser for them.
The Ruger AR556 could be considered slightly better than the DPMS Oracle in some respects, especially if you intend to use any kind of iron sights. However, neither allow the use of floating full-length handguards without changing out gas blocks, so keep that in mind before you buy.
Street Price = $580 – $640
One of the original American firearms manufacturers, Smith & Wesson has been in business since 1852 – that’s over 167 years of firearms production. Well known for their revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, S&W released the Military & Police (M&P) line of AR-pattern rifles in 2006.
Smith & Wesson M&P Sport II Optics-Ready carbine is very similar to the Ruger AR556; both feature 7075 T6 aluminum forged receivers, a railed gas block that is the same height as the upper receiver rail, and M4-style stocks. The weight of the Sport II is roughly 6.5 pounds, which also puts it in the same ballpark as the Oracle and AR556.
The main differences between the two are the pistol grip and the handguard – the M&P Sport II has an A2 grip and Magpul MOE M-Lok handguard, where the AR556 uses an ergonomic grip and an A2 handguard. Ultimately, the differences are negligible – it comes down to an individual’s preferences on what they would upgrade, if they chose to.
Street Price = $500 – $600
Another long-standing contender in the rifle market is Palmetto State Armory. Initially just a distributor of magazines and ammunition, PSA has expanded into a number of business lines, including complete firearms. Overall, their quality of build is good and their offerings are diverse enough to cover virtually anyone’s preferences.
The PA-15 M-Lok has forged 7075-T6 upper and lower receivers, and comes equipped with a 13.5” M-Lok handguard, A2 pistol grip, and an M4-style stock. The buffer tube and fire controls are mil-spec, ensuring compatibility with a variety of aftermarket parts. The free-floating handguard extends past the low-profile gas block, allowing a greater sight radius when using iron sights.
The drawback of the PA-15 is the weight. At 7 pounds, the rifle is 0.3 pounds heavier than the Ruger, 0.5 pounds heavier than the S&W, and 0.6 pounds heavier than the DPMS. This may not seem like that much of a difference to some, but you’ll definitely notice the extra weight if you intend to haul your rifle around for an extended period of time.
The other downside is the M4-style stock and A2 grip. As mentioned previously, both stock and grip are perfectly functional, but not as ergonomically friendly as newer offerings. These basic components are, however, balanced by not needing to purchase an expensive new free-floating handguard.
Street Price = $520 – $560
Comparatively new to the market, Radical Firearms specializes in delivering AR-platform products that are heavy on features and comparatively light on pricing. They manufacture most major components in-house, and those that they don’t build themselves (barrels, bolt carrier groups, stocks, small springs, and pins) are provided by manufacturers with strong reputations in the firearms industry. Their rifles are named based on the type of handguard they are equipped with; for this article, we selected the FCR.
One of the biggest reasons you might consider buying from Radical Firearms is “bang for the buck”. Each rifle is equipped from the factory with a modern handguard, pistol grip, and stock, all of which are more comfortable and ergonomically sound than the classic M4 stock and A2 furniture:
- The MFT Minimalist is one of the lightest weight adjustable stocks you can buy, and typically costs $40 – $60 to purchase aftermarket.
- The MFT Engage V2 grip is similar in profile to the highly popular Magpul MOE-K grip, which can save you another $15 – $25 that you might normally spend on a replacement grip.
- The FCR is a free-floating, slim-profiled M-Lok handguard that can be purchased in either 12” or 15” configuration; if you want an M-Lok handguard, this can save you $120 or more on aftermarket parts.
This rifle is also a very light option, weighing in at a mere 6.1 pounds. Both upper and lower are forged 7075-T6 aluminum; the upper, lower, bolt carrier group, fire control group, and buffer tube are all mil-spec. The barrel is a SOCOM profile made of 4140 Chrome Moly Vanadium, and has a melonite finish. The bolt carrier group is manufactured by Azimuth Technology, whose bolt carrier groups come standard in rifles from 75 other reputable manufacturers.
With an MSRP of $600 (and a street price lower than that), it’s hard to go wrong with a Radical Firearms product. While newer to the market, they are an ISO-9001-certified manufacturer, which means they have a robust quality management system that is proven in its ability to product components with a high degree of consistency. They also offer a lifetime warranty on their products.
In summary, many of the options we covered to in this article are very similar, but each has its own benefit depending on your intended use.
- The DPMS Oracle makes a great optics-only platform, especially for those who probably won’t modify their rifle very much.
- The Ruger AR556 and S&W M&P Sport II can both support tandem optics and iron sights, and a number of other upgrades.
- The PSA PA-15 has an excellent floating handguard, and makes a great foundation on which to build and customize.
- The Radical FCR is loaded with high-end features at a reasonable price, potentially limiting the need for extensive aftermarket purchases.
Next, we’ll be covering how you can customize one of these great rifles from the ground up! Stay tuned.
One Last Tip
If there’s anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it’s the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.