An AR-15 is an AR-15

An AR-15 is an AR-15

Zach Dunn

Respectfully, I’m not a defender of any one brand of AR-15, any more than I am a defender of any single reputable AK rifle import.  Modern US manufacturing has created an industry all around one rifle, the AR-15.  Standardizations are in place on account of so many manufacturers buying parts from just a handful of companies.  The past 2 decades of AR-15 rifle manufacture in the USA has seen a nearly complete and total standardization to mil-spec even in the civilian AR market. Very few companies put out garbage rifle and parts. Why? Because they won’t be around long as a manufacturer if they do.

With an AK rifle, as has been hammered to death, it can be mass produced. But it has to be done correctly. This requires a forged trunnion, proper barrel population, a forged carrier, and bolt, etc, etc. Old school mass production methods. The same type of manufacturing that was seen in the Second World War. Which is why you see many American companies fail, trying to build a 1940s rifle on tools and machinery that are designed for modern production methods.

I digress, this is about AR-15s. Particularly the $400-$1000 “basic” AR-15. Be it a carbine, 20″ Rifle, or a Mid-Length from most of the popular manufacturers.  Rifles in this category are extremely close in quality and longevity to what is issued to an Infantryman by Uncle Sam.

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All AR-15 upper and lower receivers forged to mil-spec come from about 20-25 different forges across the US. These are the receivers that are used on all of Colt, FN, DD, LMT, PSA, etc. rifles. All of these receivers in their forged state come from these forges and all are pretty much uniform. The forging industry has been doing this a long time and whether it is Cerro Forge or Alcoa Forge, or any other forge in between it is pretty much uniform.

The milling process with modern CNC machining is likewise the same. Why? Because these manufacturers are using milling machines form a handful of different manufacturers. In fact, if you look at stripped receivers from all the major mil-spec companies, they are all pretty much the same in their stripped form. Pretty boring really, 7075 T6 aircraft grade aluminum forgings of uniform hardness and durability, milled out to military specifications on machines made from a handful of companies.  Very few companies make receivers that are routinely out of spec.

Barrels, as long as you are sticking with a 4150 or higher steel also fall into a narrow range of hardness and durability. There is not much difference between manufacture, and a 4150 barrel should last between 20,000-50,0000 rounds of semi-automatic fire at least, it all depends on how the rifle is used. There really is no standard on barrel longevity. That is until you throw in chrome lining or nitriding, or if the barrel is hammer forged. Again, there is a wide range of normal and I’m not going to get into it here in this article. A nitrided or chrome lined barrel will probably last a civilian shooter to 35,000-50,000 rounds of semi-auto fire. I’m not talking about the shooter who routinely mag dumps or bump fires his rifle. CHF barrels last a long time. With AKs, they can go up to and over 100,000 rounds. 5.56 is a much higher pressure cartridge and so the durability may not be as long with AR rifles, but it is at least 30,000 rounds of semi-auto.

Buffer tubes as long as they are mil-spec are uniform across the board.

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Mil-Spec triggers are uniform across the board. Gritty at first and with a heavy pull. Aftermarket triggers, well that’s a whole different subject.  And this is where you see costs rise.

Bolts? Carpenter 158 steel and Shot peened is again, pretty much uniform. All AR-15 bolts bite the dust on average around 25,000-35,000 rounds. Colt, FN, Palmetto State, Bushmasters, Windham, Springfield Saints, etc.  Yes, there are premium bolts that are above mil-spec quality, and you may see life expanded from 25,000-40,000 rounds.  But AR-15 bolts and carriers will die.  Which is why we buy spares…

So if you are going by just mil-spec alone, Colt, FN, Windham, Bushmasters, PSA, etc., are all the same. All are combat grade weapons. All could be carried off into battle tomorrow and function pretty much the same. The whole idea that one of these rifles is superior to the other is almost laughable. You mostly hear this from 60-year-olds on Harleys who swear if the rifle doesn’t have a Pony on it, “well son, that ain’t a Colt!”. Or by 20 somethings who grew up on call of duty and swear that Jimmy’s PSA is a piece of crap while holding their FNs. Sure, the FN sure looks pretty.  But longevity is about the same.  You’ll need to throw in a new gas tube and bolt at times like you will with other AR-15s.

Basic AR-15s ranging in price between $400-$1000 are so similar, you would be hardpressed to be able to tell the difference without the stamp on the lower.

AR-15 owners are, for the most part, shooting the same rifle. With parts made on the same machinery, receivers forged in the same forges and milled out on the same CNC machinery. These rifles group about the same, function the same and have roughly the same longevity before requiring parts replacement and rebuild (every 20,000-40,000 rounds ARs need a rebuild depending on usage).

Ar-15s are not AKs, where you have to build them on machinery designed for them, with older tech. The AR is the rifle of the modern production method. Stop looking at the rifles and the look at the material and machinery that is used to put them together.

Mil-spec is mil-spec. A colt, is a bushy, is a PSA, is an FN, is a ______

7 Comments

  1. Pete

    OK, Sure. A 400 dollar AR may be the same as a Colt, or FN. But’s its not a LMT…

  2. Bubba

    I’ve got 5k rounds through my Colt, and roughly the same through one of my PSAs. Not a dam difference. I honestly think the melonite freedom barrels from PSA are more accurate than Colt’s. Both have a Cerro upper, and I can’t see a different in trigger or the 158 Bolt. I’ve found Andersons to be out of Spec at times, but otherwise I concur with this article.

  3. Zach Dunn

    Off the shelf, between $400-$1000, you are carrying the same thing Uncle Sugar issues without the giggle switch. Tolerances are close, TDP is followed close if not exact. Material, machining, etc. is very close at this price point. My focus on this article is the mil-spec AR market. As I mentioned bolts, triggers and barrels can be upgraded or included in quality builds. For Bob or Bubba that can only afford the PSA middy or Bushy, or maybe scrimp for a Colt, they work and they work well for what they are. They are not race guns. They are not operator guns for operators who operate operationally. They are comparable to an infantry rifle, a no-frills tool that works. And while some snobs will scream at the sky and call their fellow gun owners “poors”, they neglect to research the topic. Get into building from scratch, take apart and shoot different rifles of this class. Visit factories if you can. Research hardness tests and material sources. It takes a while, but it will show you the same. Most companies stick to close to mil-spec. The data is there, the testimonials are there. With over 20 million AR-15 rifles now in circulation, yes it’s probably higher, you’ll hear horror stories, but you’ll find that quality for a basic rifle is what you would expect with an M16A2/A4 or an M4 carbine. There are guys who don’t maintain their rifles, and there is user error. There are lemons. But you have to look at the entire industry and the evidence is there, strongly, that these rifles work, work well, and do what is expected of them. I don’t build with Anderson parts. But FN, Colt, PSA, Windham, etc.

  4. Pete

    I don’t see a PSA holding up to abuse over a few thousand rounds. Show me…

  5. Bubba

    Can’t argue with real world testing. That and Battlefield Las Vegas has some pretty interesting insights into rifle longevity…

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About The Author

Zach Dunn

Zach Dunn is one of the owners of 1776TV and serves as Senior Editor. He is a passionate Constitutionalist. He enjoys the Outdoors, Firearms, and History. He is a passionate follower of Jesus Christ. Zach is married to Amy and they have a son and three daughters. He currently resides in the Mountains of North Carolina.

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