The popularity of the AR-15 has zoomed to new levels in recent times. From the buying sprees brought on by worries of new legislation to the rise of shooting sports like 3 gun, the AR now has has a permanent home in America's gun safes. If you're one of the thousands (if not millions...) of people who have purchased an AR in the past few years, you know how easy it is to re-configure an AR to your specific needs. But what makes a good AR? What makes one rifle stand out from the others?
The AR is built from the ground up to be flexible and expandable. An AR lower is a blank slate and can be turned into an almost limitless variety of guns. If you've got an AR that has been sitting in the gun safe unused, maybe it's time to give it a makeover and turn it into something that gets taken to the range or out into field more often. Thinking about hunting? A .300 Blackout or 7.62x39mm upper is a good choice for deer hunting, or stretch out your reach with 20" heavy barrel and take a look at long-range varmint or predator hunting.
Maybe you see your AR as a defensive tool, a task for which it's almost ideally suited. A laser, rail-mounted flashlight or red dot scope can turn a plain-jane AR into a rifle that's set up to defend your life and the lives of the ones you care about.
The introduction of the Sig Sauer pistol brace has brought on a renewed interest in AR pistols. A short-barreled AR pistol makes an excellent gun for close-range self defense, and they're a heck of a lot of fun to shoot as well.
Creating an AR that's suited to your needs is just half of what makes a good AR: The other half is making sure your AR is up to the task.
If you've gone car-shopping recently, you've noticed that cars are starting to look pretty much the same. The same platform that Chevy uses for its small cars is pretty much the same that Buick and Cadillac also use for their cars. Same is true of many of Ford and Lincoln cars, or many other brands as well.
While the mechanicals make look the same, the fact is, those cars drive very differently. Each manufacturer tweaks the basics of the car to meet their audience, sometimes with cosmetics, sometimes with performance tweaks that turn a plain-jane family car into a snarling beast.
The same is true with AR's. You can buy great AR's for a very reasonable price that work day in, day out, or you can pull out all the stops and buy something that's built to handle the worst that life can throw at you. A $700 AR and a $2000 AR may look the same, but the care that's taken to build those two rifles will show up under stressful use. There are other differences besides fit and finish, of course: A gas piston action (one that uses a pushrod to move the bolt) usually costs more than a direct impingement (DI) system that uses the propellant gases to cycle the action. Piston action AR's, as a rule, can go longer in between cleanings than gas guns can, but direct impingement guns have served in the U.S. military for decades, making them a very viable choice for almost every potential AR owner.
A well-built AR is like a budget AR taken to new levels. A high-end AR like a Patriot Ordnance Factory or LWRC gun are built to satisfy the needs of demanding customers like America's most elite military and law enforcement units and represent the state of the art in AR's. They're not for everyone, but if you demand a little bit more from your rifle, they may be right for you.
When it comes right down to it, what makes a good AR is up to you: Only you know what your budget is, what your needs are and what level of craftsmanship you demand, and that same flexibility and adaptability is a big part of why the AR is so popular. The AR platform allows you to build the gun of your dreams, and then change that gun when your dreams change. For that reason, (and many others) the future of the AR is bright indeed.