The Ultimate AR-15 Guide For Beginners

updated by Charles Yor 06/04/2019

If there is one rifle that exists today that can be said to do it all and is undeniably American to boot, it would have to be the AR-15 in any of its many guises. The AR-15 is a versatile, dependable and highly accurate rifle suitable for home-defense, hunting and just about any other purpose you might need a rifle for.

This lightweight wonder has seen its fair share of controversy, fans and haters come and go over the years since its introduction, but it still reigns supreme as the very best all around intermediate caliber rifle you can buy today. If you need a rifle (and who doesn’t?) there is a high chance you’ll cover most of your bases by choosing an AR.

If you are new to rifles or guns in general and want to see what all the fuss is about concerning this polarizing and famous rifle then you have come to the right place. This article will serve as an intro and overview to the AR-15 family of rifles.

What is the AR-15?

Your standard, plain vanilla AR-15 of today is a lightweight semi-automatic rifle or carbine fed from a detachable 30 round box magazine and is nominally chambered in 5.56x45mm and can also fire the .223 Remington.

I say standard because the AR “family” today encompasses all kinds of variants and permutations, everything from little bitty 9mm’s with 7” barrels all the way up to 22” .300 WinMags and beyond. But for our purposes, when we are referring to the AR-15 in this article we are talking about the classic 5.56mm version, unless otherwise noted.

The “AR” in AR-15 does not in fact stand for “assault rifle” as some screeching talking heads would have you believe, but instead stands for “Armalite Rifle” after its original manufacturer.

When made to a proper standard by skilled technicians, the AR-15 is reliable, accurate and durable. Serving as the military’s M16 and M4 for decades the AR -15 has become truly ubiquitous, with parts, magazines and ammunition all easily obtainable in quantity almost anywhere in America. Together with its superb performance, light recoil and ergonomic adaptability, the AR-15 enjoys tremendous popularity.

As an all-purpose rifle, the AR-15 is hard to beat. It is affordable, easy to shoot, easy to repair and easy to find parts for. It is a cinch to keep it shooting and is adaptable to all kinds of roles and all kinds of shooters thanks to its fairly modular design. Quite a few enthusiasts build their rifles from the ground up, every pin and spring, with just a little know-how, attention to detail and a handful of specialty tools.

There is a shoe for every foot and an AR for every need and budget!

ar-15 rifle

Why is the AR-15 so Good for Beginners?

Taken piecemeal, there is nothing exemplary about an AR except its light for class weight. But taken together as a sum, the AR-15 is an extraordinarily good performer, and still today the standard by which all others are measured. Some rifles might exceed an AR-15’s performance in one or a couple categories, but none can beat it in all of them combined!

ARs are especially suitable for beginners for several reasons. As a class, your average AR is lightweight with an excellent control layout and typically features an adjustable stock that allows its length to be adjusted for shooters of all statures or the wearing of backpack straps or body armor.

The manual of arms (that is the steps needed to load and fire the rifle) are simple and easily learned. The rifle itself is very soft shooting, with little recoil and minimal blast with most loads while still being quite accurate and effective for several hundred yards.

The rifle is designed in such a way that when it is loaded and ready to fire the action seals very tightly, keeping out all but the finest dust and this contributes to its excellent reliability.

When it is time to maintain your rifle, the AR-15 quickly and easily strips into its base component groups which are easily cleaned and oiled. Contrary to “conventional” wisdom, the AR-15 is not a safe queen that requires copious, particular and frequent maintenance. If in doubt, a little oil through the ports in the bolt carrier will be more than sufficient to keep your rifle running until it can be cleaned.

Best of all for some, a good AR-15 can be had right around a $1,000, well within the budgets of most consumers. Note I said a “good” AR; while you can get one of these rifles as cheap as $600 or so, nearly all of the guns in this price category cut serious corners and may not run as well or as long as a better rifle.

Why is the AR-15 so Good for Preppers?

As mentioned, the 5.56x45mm cartridge that is the typical and traditional round chambered in AR’s is not the poodle shooter that detractors would have you believe.

Though it is squarely in the intermediate class of rifle rounds, the 5.56mm has plenty of punch against rampaging pillagers and large animals, the former being vital for defense and the latter a nice perk in case you need to put some meat in your freezer.

One of the biggest considerations for the average prepper when choosing any gun for long term self-defense and disaster readiness is the availability of ammunition, magazines and other necessary gear.

Here, the AR-15 beats all comers handily, with 5.56 being one of the most common cartridges available, and its magazines being a sort of defacto standard design used by many other rifles aside from itself. As good a shooter as an AR is, it is even better from a logistical standpoint! You won’t be tracking down parts, ammo and springs for fun on the weekends, you can trot down to any local gun shop or outdoor retailer and buy by the cartload.

The AR-15 of today is also rightly famous for its highly modular and adaptable nature. Like the commercial said, “there is an app for that!” The AR-15 at its simplest can easily accept an optic and alternate furniture (a term used when describing guns to indicate the parts you hold and touch, the grip, stock, forearm, etc.) to tailor it both to your shooting style, the conditions and your own preferences. Beyond those most common upgrades, the sky is the limit!

Your AR will accept everything from free floated handguards and enhanced action parts to muzzle devices for the taming of recoil or killing of flash to entirely new upper halves that will completely change the length and caliber of the rifle.

This level of easy and typically user installable customization is a boon for tailoring your rifle to your specific needs and no other ling gun even comes close to matching an AR in this regard. You might have a standard carbine for general duty and a tiny, short barreled 9mm with a suppressor for discreet and quiet shooting if called for.

While some holdouts that prefer the AR are purists and will change little or nothing on their rifles from the basic, factory floor design, these folks are in the majority. Almost any AR you’ll encounter has been tweaked to suit its owners needs!

The versatility of the AR-15 makes is a natural fit for preppers. It’s equally excellent for home defense, as a rifle and as a personal self-defense rifle to keep in your bugout vehicle and .And yes, the AR-15 is even good for hunting.

Is the AR-15 Good for Hunting?

Yes! The AR-15 is light and powerful enough to make for a great hunting rifle if you are after most medium or softer large game and you take care to choose an optimized hunting load. Compared to a bolt-action rifle, an AR is safer and faster into action. Fun Fact: most rifles are not drop safe. The AR-15 is safer than most.

AR-15s also have the chops to stand up to harsh handling and bad weather afield. Where your classic wood stocked bolt gun will swell, warp and lose or suffer a wandering zero, your AR will be accurate and ready to take the shot no matter the conditions.

Its magazine is easily swapped for one of limited capacity to satisfy regulations when hunting in certain locales and then, with just a magazine and perhaps an optic change it is right back to work as a home-defense survival gun.

A semi-auto, if allowed, is always preferable to any manually operated firearm including the beloved lever and bolt actions since the shooter does not need to reposition his hands in between shots.

This aspect of using an AR-15 as a hunting rifle could be extremely advantageous if hunting pack animals like wild boar or coyotes, where multiple animals might need to be taken quickly. Because the AR-15 is both low recoil and smooth shooting thanks to its gas operating system, these rifles are potentially more accurate than most hunting rifles.

AR-15 Fast Facts

  • The 5.56mm bullet fired by most AR’s is only .22 caliber in diameter, the same width as a common .22 LR, though it is far more effective with much greater range!
  • The M16 and M4 rifles used by the military look just like common commercial AR-15’s, but our soldiers are issued rifles capable of automatic or burst fire – a massive distinction liberal politicians and their fans in the mainstream media constantly fail to comprehend!
  • The AR-15 was originally manufactured by ArmaLite and later the design sold to Colt. While there are currently dozens of gun companies that make their own versions of this rifle, they sell them under various model designations since Colt still holds the registered trademark on ”AR-15.”. Nonetheless, when you hear someone mention AR-15 in common conversation, you know they are talking about this rifle as a class, not just a Colt-made one!
  • The AR-15 was originally chambered for 5.56x45mm NATO rounds, but plenty of versions are available in every caliber from .22 LR all the way up to stomping heavy hitters like the .450 Bushmaster and .50 Beowulf.
  • You can fire standard .223 Remington ammo in an AR that chambers 5.56mm, but you should not do the reverse! Most AR’s are designed from the ground up to handle the higher pressures generated by the 5.56mm, but some are not! Be sure you understand the difference, and if in doubt only load what your rifle is stamped for!
  • The AR-15 can accept detachable magazines with capacities anywhere from 5 all the way up to 100 rounds, with 30 being standard and the most common.

Smart Upgrades and Tips for Using the AR-15

Any rifle is just a starting point, and as good as the AR-15 rifles are right out of the box, there are always a few things you should consider for any long gun used for self-defense.

Flashlight – A good, bright flashlight will allow you to verify your target and see your sights in the dark. Important since most attacks occur in hours of low light!

Sling – A rifle without a sling is like a handgun without a holster! Make sure you pick a quality, quick adjustable two-point sling for your new AR. The Viking Tactics VTAC Sling, Magpul MS series and Blue Force Gear VCAS are three of the best.

Iron Sights – Depending on your rifle’s options, your sights might be large fixed irons or lack sights entirely! Make sure you install irons that are suitable for your anticipated task. If you are going to use an optic, make sure your sights fold down so they will not obscure your view. If you plan to rely on irons alone, upgrade the aperture and post (the rear ring and front sight blade, respectively) for better visibility and precision. Some version, but not all, of the AR-15 come with stock iron sights.

Unless the manual covering your specific sights states otherwise, you should know that the two apertures, one large and one small, on your rear sight will not have the same zero. These sights are most common on AR’s with fixed sights. Some AR-15 sights will be specially made with a “same plane rear aperture.” This means both apertures maintain the same zero no matter which is flipped up.

Triggers – Most basic AR-15’s have single stage triggers that are non-adjustable. These triggers are inexpensive, strong, and consistently reliable even when exposed to the elements. They typically have a pull weight anywhere from 5.5 to 9.5 pounds.

While this type of trigger is highly beneficial when precision is less important and utter reliability and assurance more so, it might not be the best option for shooters with targets that are far away or for shooters who need as much precision as they can get.

Luckily, triggers can be switched out for all kinds of improved factory and aftermarket options. Some prefer a two stage trigger that is quite light, and others prefer a refined single stage trigger that is just a little smoother and crisper, but no matter what kind of trigger you prefer rest assured there is an AR trigger just for you.

Stock – An upgraded stock will have a better buttpad and ergonomics and also storage compartments as well, perfect for batteries and spare parts. One of the most popular is the VLTOR IMOD stock, the sloped cheek weld portion is likely the reason so many shooters find this stock so easy to use. It is lightweight and typically costs less than $100.

Grip – The most popular AR upgrade, and one that will typically cover up that annoying little gap right behind the underside of the trigger guard that will just plain rib your middle finger raw during long practice sessions. Of these, Magpul’s MOE is one of the most popular. It typically costs less than $20 for the standard version, and less than $25 for the anti-slip coated version. Both and comes in multiple colors.

Optic – Pound for pound, the single best performance enhancer you can bolt onto your rifle. A good red dot sight will drastically improve the ease with which you can sight your target, eliminating the need to precisely align two mechanical sight components.

A red dot sight, as its name suggests, employs a single red dot that you align with the target. Wherever the dot is is where the shot goes, so long as you do your part.

High quality optics are expensive, but you can get sturdy ones from Vortex for about $200 that are nearly as tough and long lasting as some of the biggest and most expensive names on the market.

The Top 3 ARs for Beginners

Best AR for the Cash Strapped – Smith & Wesson Sport II. While S&W is best known for their revolvers, they also make solid AR’s, and an especially good entry-level model. The budget AR market is flooded with crap, but this is one you can count on and grow from. When you upgrade, if you upgrade, it makes a fine backup rifle or one you can hand off to a family member or friend. About $750.

Best No Frills Quality AR – Colt LE6920. The standard by which all others are measured. While no longer the best in any regard, Colt still makes more than anyone else and has for some time. The 6920 line can be had today with nice Magpul furniture for better ergos and easy accessory mounting and best of all this hard-running gun can be had for about $900.

Best AR if Cost is No Object – Knight’s Armament Company SR-15 E3 Mod 2. State of the art in every regard, the SR-15 series from KAC benefits from improved and redesigned parts made from the very best materials by the best craftsmen anywhere. Their guns run harder, longer in worse conditions and are still more accurate than almost any of their competitors.

They have been the choice of certain military and law enforcement units for decades. Unfortunately they have a price tag to match, but these guns are so well equipped with so many standard upgrades there is literally nothing to improve on aside from picking an optic. Retails for an eye-watering $2300.

Find more budget AR-15 recommendations here.

Best AR-15 Upgrades

Magpul AR-15 MOE Grip – This is one of the most popular aftermarket accessories for this semi-automatic rifle. It is often considered the most comfortable and lightweight option currently on the market. It typically costs less than $20 for the standard version, less than $25 for the anti-slip coated version and comes in multiple colors.

VLTOR IMOD Stock – This AR-15 stock is adjustable and often deemed to be one of the most comfortable on the market. The sloped cheek weld portion of the buttsock is likely the reason so many shooters find this stock so easy to use. It is a lightweight and typically costs less than $100.

ELF Ultralight Stock – This stock is not known for how comfortable it fits a cheek, but it is incredibly lightweight – about five ounces. This stock typically sells for less than $150.

Faxon Firearms Barrel – This AR-15 aftermarket barrel is 16 inches long and known to be incredibly accurate. It’s manufactured with Gunner’s aerospace expertise.This barrel commonly sells for less than $200.

White Oak .223 Wylde Barrel – These AR-15 aftermarket barrels are made out of carbon fiber and cold hammer forged. They typically sell for less than $300 each.

JP Industries Adjustable Gas Block With Rails – A gas block permits the shooter to attach a free floating handguard which can pave the way for enhanced accuracy. Gas blocks can also offer more rail space if you want to add a scope, bipod, or grip to the semi-automatic rifle.

BUSHNELL AR OPTICS FFP ILLUMINATED BTR-1 BDC – Many AR-15 owners prefer to use only iron sights on their rifles, but if you are looking for a quality scope, the one by Bushnell offers a 500 yard view field. It also boasts exceptionally clear views in low light situations.

The PCL Throw Down quick view feature permits the shooter to change fields of view at a rapid pace. The scope has been applauded for its Target Turrets because they too allow for quick viewing field changes. This scope is easily mounted and often makes transitioning from using open iron sights.

Should You Build Or Buy An AR-15?

Over the course of the past four years or so, there has been a mad rush for AR-15 parts, the lower receivers in particular. It is the lower receiver that bears the serial number and is actually the “gun” according to the government.

When mainstream media and politicians start blaming the gun after a mass shooting, threats of banning the AR-15 and rifles like it prompt the panic buying of semi-automatic rifles, replacement parts and parts kits to build a rifle by folks who cannot afford a manufactured rifle at the moment.

My husband once paid more for an AR-15 lower receiver than he eventually did for a quality second hand complete rifle, long after the liberal gun ban hysteria died down!

Talk about economics in action! It can be less expensive to build your own AR-15, but if you don’t have any gunsmith skills or abilities you could inadvertently choose subpar parts or assemble a gun that does not quite work properly or safely.

If you are new to ARs, just buy a quality factory gun and save the build-out for when you have more experience.

My Journey to Becoming an AR-15 Fan

My husband wanted an AR-15 for quite a while and about four years ago, after a knee-jerk reaction to a mass shooting that had liberal politicians clamoring for a ban, I gave in. Christmas was only a few weeks away and so an AR-15 is what I placed under the tree for my beloved Bobby that year.

I loved watching him shoot his new rifle, but I have to admit to being a bit intimidated by it at first. The adjustable stock was attractive to me as a short woman; all the rifles we have with solid wood stocks can be difficult to shoulder and I have a hard time getting behind the sights.

The AR-15 also lacked the massive kick of a shotgun, which I also considered a major plus! Our daughter has loved shooting shotguns since my husband first taught her how as a young teenager, but I would never consider those big boomers my weapon of choice! I hesitated when Bobby offered to teach me how to shoot the AR-15, but ultimately took the rifle into my hands and learned how to load and fire it.

Before the first mag was empty, I turned to my husband and said, “Oh, I want one!” My Valentine’s Day gift that coming year was an AR-15 of my very own – beats the heck out of chocolates in my book!

My brother has his CCW (concealed carry permit) and has a semi-automatic handgun strapped to his waist, and yet, wants to yank my AR-15 out of my hands and ban them from use.

So, as a bit of payback for all of the frustrating discussions I have had on this topic with my big brother over the years, I chose his son, Conner, a former Marine, to demonstrate the AR-15 in this article.

man with ar-15 rifle
This is my nephew Conner as he prepares to demonstrate how to fire an AR-15 rifle.

Useful Resources

Here’s how to disassemble and clean an AR-15:

Here’s How to fire and AR-15:

Conclusion

There are approximately 5 million AR-15 owners in the United States. That equates to about 60 percent of all the rifles sold in America. The AR is an unbeatable combination of accuracy, reliability and easy care and feeding that makes it an ideal long gun for novice and expert alike.

As your skills grow or your requirements change, your AR is easily adapted to keep pace with your changing mission and changing preferences. The AR is America’s rifle, and should be the first choice of preppers!

ar-15 guide pinterest

About Tara Dodrill

Tara Dodrill
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, 'Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out', Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.

7 comments

  1. Avatar

    “The versatility of the AR-15 makes is a natural fit for preppers. It’s equally excellent for home defense and as a personal self-defense rifle to keep in your bugout vehicle. And yes, the AR-15 is even good for hunting.”

    These statements are true under certain conditions. First of all is caliber – the “default” of .223/5.56 is marginal for most purposes, particularly defense, large game hunting and small game hunting. Yet it is important to have for a prepper due to the commonality of the round. The nice thing is that you can have one lower in 5.56 or 223 WYLDE (the only two which can safely fire both .223 and 5.56) and another one (or more) in a more effective caliber(s).

    For defense inside a building, any rifle is often not a good choice. Over penetration is a major concern; a handgun or shotgun is a safer choice. Outside, of course, the rifle can come into its own – if a suitable caliber. Not because over penetration is not a problem there as well, but at least you can see who is at risk if the round penetrates or misses.

    The weakness of the .22 calibers can be overcome somewhat with a proper expanding bullet. Unfortunately, these rounds tend to be harder to find and more expensive. But then again, this is also true of better calibers.

  2. Avatar

    As a defense rifle you can keep your AR15’s a will stick with my tried and true M1. I will be firing 30.06 150 gr verses .223/5.56 55 gr. I will take the bigger bullet ever time. And remember you will not be able to use the radio to call is a ammo drop when you have blasted all you ammo any. The on thing that matters is hits on target.

  3. Avatar

    .223/5.56 is a sub-optimal round for hunting large game and a truly bad round for small game. .223 is a varmint round were you did not plan on eating the game shot, 5.56 is military round designed to wound the enemy.

    That is way there are so may different cartages offered for hunting. and most of them are not offered in the AR15 style rifles.

    If you use .223/5.56 in a AR15 rifle for a home defense you will be penetrating several walls with each round fired and YOU are responsible for each round fired!

    If you live out in the country and have reason for needing long shot in defense then there might be a reason for a AR15. Note that I have shot feral dogs that were after some young livestock in the past and used a Mini 14 to do it. using the “3S” shot, shovel and shut up.

  4. Avatar

    There is a fair amount of misconception and bad info here in in the comments regarding the 5.56x45mm and .223 Rem. cartridge.

    There is nothing marginal about the innate performance of the 5.56mm or .223 against humans assuming solid shot placement and correct load selection. Hunting of animals is not my area of expertise so I won’t comment on that. Do keep in mind not all bullets perform equally at all tasks, but this does not mean you need to be shooting the latest and greatest top-tier soft point or total-copper hollowpoint for good terminal effect. Of course if you are serious about self-defense and can afford it you should be seeking the best possible loads for the purpose, though their greater cost will make keeping large quantities on hand an expensive proposition.

    The common trope that 5.56mm will overpenetrate structures is overblown to a huge degree: yes, naturally the hazard to bystanders from a missed shot piercing a wall or two is significant and must be trained for, but ALL common defensive handgun and shotgun calibers/gauges also penetrate multiple walls. The argument that you should disqualify an AR for home defense due to overpenetration risks is toothless. Argue a shotgun or handgun for their other merits, but less penetration is not one of them.

    If the 5.56mm was designed to merely wound then the designers of the cartridge failed abysmally. The 5.56 cartridge, fired from AR family rifles, has turned thousands upon thousands of enemy combatants and domestic scumbags into room temperature meat with efficiency. It was so terribly ineffective that the Soviets created the 5.45×39 to duplicate its most essential performance metrics for their AK-74 family of rifles.

    The AR, and the 5.56mm, are not the same guns that they were when they premiered in Vietnam.

  5. Avatar

    The AR-15 platform can support at least 35 different calibers usually by switching out just the barrel.
    And, one can build a rifle to meet one’s desired match using numerous accessories available on the market by a multitude of companies producing quality items.
    There are firearm owners building weapons inexpensively for less than $500US.

  6. Avatar

    To the anti-AR commenters: your argument makes sense if you’re already in a position where you can safely store heavier ammo & parts without any need to travel very far. For the rest of the country, the AR-15 remains a better choice.

    The .223/5.56 cartridge was selected by the Army to replace the .308/7.62 because the smaller round had much better stopping power at typical combat range (<500yds). The .308 is great for longer-range shooting, but the rounds are much heavier and more expensive to make. If you're thinking of long-term survival, especially in a migratory or semi-permanent setting, this may be an important consideration. The AR-15 is a jack-of-all-trades, but in a survival situation, that's better than the .308 or .30-06, which is only a master of one.

    • Avatar

      You lost my attention and my patronage by trying to turn a discussion about firearms into a petty political rant. Stop politicizing everything and learn to find common ground. You’ll be less unhappy (besides having more friends and viewers) that way.

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