Buyer's Guide to the 1911

Welcome to our buyer's guide to the 1911. If you're not interested in a long winded in-depth guide and just want an immediate and basic recommendation, buy an $650-$1200 pistol chambered in .45 ACP with a Government length (5”) barrel from Springfield Armory, Colt, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Ruger, or Remington. The decision between each of those models and manufacturers will come down to price and preference.


For the uninitiated, the M1911 pistol has been in continuous service with the United States Armed Forces since the year 1911 (hence the name), when it beat out the Luger pistol chambered in 9x19mm Parabellum for the initial contract. It has provided over one hundred years of continuous service internationally to date, and by the looks of things, it will continue to do so for some time. The important names which you’ll hear talked about surrounding this particular pistol are John Moses Browning and Samuel Colt, two industry legends.

Both the design and designer of the 1911 have a well-deserved reputation, with John Browning having been granted 128 firearms patents in his lifetime. Arguably, the 1911 was and still is his largest success in the firearms industry. Although, a number of his other designs such as the Hi-Power (GP35), M1919 machine gun, and the M1917 machine gun will hit their centennials relatively soon and are also well regarded firearms.

On the other hand, Samuel Colt, of the famous quote “God made man, but Sam Colt made them equal.” was actually quite dead by the time the M1911 was designed, having passed away in 1862, when John Browning was 7 years old. Instead, the credit for the fame of the “Colt 45” goes to his company, which was awarded government contracts for the production of a number of different firearms over the course of US history, including a new order as of July 2012 for more of the M1911 pistols.

The M1911 design has seen both World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a myriad of other battles locally and abroad. It’s no wonder that anyone would be interested in having their own piece of history, making the M1911 a very popular pistol. For the average consumer, choosing a 1911s is a fairly large quandary, with almost every company producing their own flavor of the classic pistol, with a variety of options and customizations, each of which may suit some people better than others.

Before continuing, as a point of note, when I refer to the platform as the 'M1911' or simply the '1911', what I truly mean is the M1911A1 and its modern derivatives. The original M1911 was modified with some small external changes in 1924 and was designated the M1911A1, although the longer title has never really entered common colloquialism.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

What To Expect

When opting for a 1911, you’re buying a 100 year old design. This does not mean the design itself is irrelevant or bad, merely that it will take a certain approach and recognition of inherent flaws in the design when it comes to maximizing the utility of the weapon.

Caliber Introduction

The modern 1911 platform comes in a variety of calibers, ranging from the standard ‘Big Three’ to more specialized calibers that have not been widely adopted and probably require a reloading setup to take advantage of. In this section I’ll be summarizing both the popular cartridges available for the design as well as some of the newer, boutique ones for more niche purposes. All magazine comments are geared toward people buying the single stack 1911 models, since the various double stack models have their own quirks and differences.

  • .22LR (Long Rifle): A very handy training cartridge, this round is widespread and generally fairly cheap to acquire. There are 1911s chambered in .22LR as well as .22LR conversion kits for 1911s that modify the barrel and internal parts to account for the lower pressure and operating force of this cartridge. There are also .22LR pistols designed to look like a 1911 on the outside, but have even more significant differences in the internal workings and will operate differently than a 1911 chambered in .22LR.
  • .45ACP: The cartridge the 1911 was originally designed for, this venerable round has been in service since the introduction of the handgun more than a century ago. Ballistics-wise, this cartridge is big and relatively slow. However, the in-depth discussion of it in relation to the rest of the ‘Big Three’ is a discussion for another day, though for a short introduction, you can check out our discussion of the ‘Big Three’ in our ZAUF series. In terms of magazine capacity, the original standard was seven rounds, with more modern standards set at 8, or if one is willing to use an extended magazine, 10. Of note, however, is that in a traditional 1911 chambered in .45 ACP, constant chambering and rechambering of the same round will result in bullet setback - when the bullet itself is pushed deeper into the brass from where it was originally seated. Cartridges suffering from bullet setback are dangerous to fire and should be removed from use.
  • .45 Super: A cartridge design based off of the .45 ACP, .45 Super has the same external measurements, but with thicker walled brass that is loaded to higher pressure specifications, making it a more powerful round. Some, but not all, 1911s that are chambered in .45 ACP are also rated for .45 Super firing. It is up to the owner to check with the individual manufacturers to see if their 1911 is rated to handle .45 Super.
  • 9x19mm Luger/Parabellum: With the rise in popularity of the cartridge itself as well as the adaptation of the M1911’s design, the 9mm cartridge works well on the platform and has been adopted in wider use by competition shooters and people looking to shoot a different caliber out of the 1911 platform. Magazine capacity for a standard 9mm model is about 10 rounds in a flush fit magazine, and more for extended magazines. In the author’s opinion, if you want a 9mm pistol and a Browning design, buy a Hi Power.
  • .38 Super: A popular competition cartridge that traces its roots back to a drawing board in Colt’s factory, this cartridge is actually surprisingly powerful for the amount of attention it doesn’t receive. Ballistically, when using the right loads this cartridge overpowers 9mm Luger and can give .357 SIG a run for its money. If you’re buying a gun in this cartridge, you probably don’t need me to tell you how great it is. Good luck in IPSC.
  • .357 SIG: This caliber is great - a solution to a problem that may or may not have existed - and has been adopted by a number of agencies including the Secret Service. However (and this is a rather large ‘however’), I do not believe the .357 SIG has any place in serious use with an M1911. With the .40 casing, this caliber only offers an absolutely minimal magazine capacity increase when compared to .45 ACP. It can also present issues caused by the necked casing. In short, if you want a gun in .357 SIG, the 1911 is not the best option.
  • .40 S&W: A fairly popular cartridge used by law enforcement after the FBI decided 10mm was too powerful for them, this cartridge has a reputation of being a legitimate compromise between 9mm and .45ACP while also being Short(er) and Weak(er) than its 10mm parent cartridge (in all seriousness, the S&W stands for Smith & Wesson). From a practical standpoint, while you can buy a gun in this caliber, I never recommend it.
  • 10mm: An interesting cartridge designed by Col. Jeff Cooper (who deserves a discussion in another article) in an effort to transcend the original pitfalls of the .45 ACP cartridge. This particular cartridge shoots flatter, farther, and is more powerfully than any of the ‘Big Three’ at the cost of increased recoil and in the current market, being significantly more expensive to purchase. So if you want a 1911 in 10mm, be sure you can handle the recoil, and be prepared to pay the price of ammunition.
  • 7.62x25mm Tokarev: Actually a fairly rare find, there are conversion kits available for 9mm caliber M1911s that involve changing out the entire upper assembly (slide, barrel, bushings, etc.) and magazine to accept the elongated Russian ammunition. 7.62x25mm Tokarev is fast and cheap, so if the cost of ammunition is a concern, it might be worth considering.
  • .400 Cor-bon: A more modern innovation focused on getting the ballistics of 10mm while still using the .45 ACP brass. This is a wildcat cartridge (meaning it is not mass produced and is not necessarily readily available) and is expensive to purchase in relation to the others on this list.
  • .50 GI: A very niche wildcat round that boasts a larger diameter and improved ballistics over the .45 ACP cartridge. As of this writing, it is purely a novelty that provides the satisfaction of having a larger bullet that hits a little harder.

Grip Safety

The grip safety is the lever-like protrusion at the rear of the pistol frame that is held up against the web of the firing hand and needs to be fully depressed for the pistol to fire. In theory, under stress the grip safety will be depressed because the firing hand will have an adrenaline-fueled vice grip on the pistol and won't be an issue that requires discussion. However, after over 100 years of observation, there have been a number of incidents in which someone with a hand wound was unable to make the handgun function under stress due to being unable to deactivate the grip safety. Many consider this particular pitfall of the design to be one of the major downsides of the 1911 platform.

Source: Original Image Wikimedia Commons - Modified by Not Operator
Source: Original Image Wikimedia Commons - Modified by Not Operator

It is of my opinion that the 1911 design is the only one that can get away with having a grip safety since modern handguns that lack the sliding trigger or the particular safety/sear combination of the original design have no reason to even consider it (looking at you, HS2000/Springfield XD.) Furthermore, the original design of the pistol lacks a firing pin safety of any sort, leaving the grip safety and manual safety as the only 'safety' features on the firearm. The 1911 is a single action handgun, meant to be carried 'cocked and locked', meaning that the hammer is locked back and there is a round in the chamber.

The grip safety, the manual safety, and not pulling the trigger are the triad of conditions preventing the firearm from being negligently discharged. As a worst case scenario, if the manual safety lever is deactivated, the grip safety and absence of trigger pull are still there to prevent the gun from firing. Removing the grip safety from the single action only design only increases liability and potential hazard of misuse.

The single action only configuration is the confounding factor, with even some of the more poorly made 1911s having a relatively light and short trigger pull. That tradeoff is made for exactly those reasons, without the longer and heavier trigger characteristics of a modern design, the individual operator is able to shoot the pistol more precisely and consistently than its competitors.


As stated above, the original design of the 1911 comes with a manual safety lever that must be flipped down to fire the weapon. This safety lever interacts with the sear and hammer assembly to physically prevent the movement of the trigger to the rear as well as preventing the hammer from falling onto the firing pin. The original design of the lever is rather small and many modern designs have improved upon it with extended safety levers as well as adding the option to also have a lever on the right side of the pistol to make the weapon suitable for ambidextrous use. As a personal recommendation, unless you want a true to life replica of the older designs, the extended safeties are worth every additional penny.


The M1911 bears a slightly different terminology when it comes to the size of the frame and length of the barrel between different models. It is understood if you refer to the different sizes by their more universal terms such as 'Full size', 'Compact', and 'Subcompact', but the specific vocabulary for the M1911 is as follows:

  • Long Slide: Generally a barrel 6 inches or longer with a full sized frame, these are aptly named because these particular models generally have a custom made slide to cover the additional barrel length. This particular barrel length is significantly more common in competition circles and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
  • Government: A 5 inch barrel, generally considered the 'full size' version of the 1911. This particular length is the one that was adopted for widespread service by the US Government and bears that title.
  • Commander: A barrel about 4 inches long with shortened frame to match, this length is considered the 'compact' size of the M1911.
  • Officer: The smallest of the lot, referring to a barrel approximately 3.5 inches long with an even more abbreviated frame. This length is considered the 'subcompact' size.


The M1911 operates with a fairly unique trigger system uncommon in modern designs. Unlike other pistol designs, the trigger of the 1911 slides into the frame instead of hinging on a single point like a lever. This translates to a smoother, more consistently rearward trigger pull for the end user. This more 'luxurious' trigger pull benefits everyone from the most basic paper puncher all the way up to professional shooting competitors with highly tuned raceguns, which continues to drive the popularity of the platform.

Furthermore, the actual face of the trigger itself comes with various textures and geometry. The original design geometry of the trigger is slightly curved in a half moon shape, but modern innovations have different trigger geometries ranging from differently angled curves all the way to straight, flat triggers. The face of the trigger itself also ranges anywhere from smooth to serrated in various granular densities meant to give the shooter better tactile detail and control of the trigger pull.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Single Stack Magazine

The original design of the 1911 comes with a single stack magazine. (For more on magazines, see our Zen and the Art of Understanding Firearms series here.) Additionally, the original design of the magazine had feed lips optimized for the 230 grain FMJ ball ammunition that was prevalent during the time period. (For a very detailed discussion on 1911 magazines, click here).

Modern 1911 magazine feed lips come in 3 broad categories: GI, Hybrid, and Wadcutter.

  • GI spec magazine feed lips are designed solely for feeding FMJ ball ammunition (for more on bullet types, check out our ZAUF article here). The lips themselves are long and tapered toward the rear, maintaining full control of the cartridge through the entire firing and feeding cycle. This particular magazine type is actually fairly rare to find aftermarket and generally will only come in the 7 round capacity.
  • Hybrid spec magazine feed lips allow the cartridge to spring free of the magazine's control earlier in the feeding cycle for the purpose of improving reliability in feeding non-hardball ammunition such as hollowpoints and wadcutters. The lips themselves are generally shorter while preserving the taper of their GI derivations.
  • Wadcutter spec magazine feed lips are short and parallel, designed specifically for the wadcutter problem. Testing by the source cited above has shown that these short, parallel feed lips are a way to avoid double feeds when using rounds with a shorter overall length by way of preserving the intended feeding angle coming up out of the magazine.

Internal and External Extractors

A modern issue with the 1911 platform is the current implementation of various extractors. The original design of the 1911 stipulates an internal extractor and many purists will defend that decision to the death. However, opting for an internal extractor in a modern production pistol will entail a higher price tag due to the additional cost of fitting and finishing required to properly tune an internal extractor.

For anyone with any experience with modern handguns, an external extractor is par for the course: accessible visually from the outside of the pistol, in the production of a given firearm an external extractor is much easier to deal with and doesn't add any unforeseen costs to the production of the pistol. As it is with everything, mileage varied throughout some production models with various shifts in quality and reliability throughout the years, but modern production 1911s with external extractors will generally be reliable in their function.

Full Length Guide Rod

Referring once again to the original design of the 1911, the design required only a short rod tensioned with the mainspring against the recoil spring plug. A trend in modern 1911s has been to eschew that for an 'improved' design involving a two-piece full length guide rod that requires a tool (usually a hex wrench of some variety) to remove it from the frame. What many manufacturers will promise from this change in design is an inherent increase in accuracy for the weapon. From personal experience and the majority of anecdotes available for public perusal, there is no real evidence to support that statement beyond marketing hype. As a rule, I do not recommend opting for a full length guide rod in a 1911 purchase because it will only add unnecessary complexity without any added function.

Barrel Bushings

The 1911 is fairly unique in the field of modern production handguns due to the fact that it uses a removable barrel bushing. The barrel bushing is the piece at the front of the slide that surrounds the barrel, keeping it in place during the operation of the weapon as well as providing the cap which holds in the recoil spring and plug.

A few modernized designs will instead utilize a bull barrel (which is thicker than a standard barrel) that eliminates the need for the barrel bushing but requires the full length guide rod described above.

Aside from aesthetic reasons, the only reason to acquire these particular types of modernized designs is for competition purposes, and if you’re building a racegun you probably already know what you want out of your pistol and this guide is probably too basic for your needs.

Series 70 vs Series 80 1911s and the Firing Pin Block

The original design of the 1911 did not incorporate a firing pin block. For the uninitiated, a firing pin block is a safety system that prevents the firing pin from accidentally activating on anything short of having the trigger pulled, usually at the cost of changing the actual feel of the trigger pull itself.

The colloquialism used in the subsection involves the Colt manufacturing series of 1911s, the Series 70 models being made in the original style without the firing pin block and the Series 80 being made with a firing pin block.

As with most colloquialisms, this is not an entirely accurate description of the true difference between the 70 and 80 Series of guns, but in common parlance the lack or presence of the firing pin block is enough to cover the topic conversationally. For a more in depth discussion of this topic click here

As far as the practical concerns of the firing pin block, there will be a difference in the feel of the trigger pull when there is a firing pin block present. Usually this difference is described as being heavier and grittier, getting in the way of target trigger performance. However, if you’re willing to spend the money to get a trigger job done by a good gunsmith, the presence of the firing pin block will be a non-issue. However, the firing pin block is not required by the design in order for the firearm to be considered safe, as the existing safeties and mechanics of the gun are enough to prevent an accidental discharge. The firing pin block adds another layer of safety that the individual can opt for if they like.

Controlled Feed Principle

Simply put in this write-up the cartridge must remain in full control of the pistol from the time the magazine is locked in place to when the spent casing clears the ejection port. Once again referring to the original design of the M1911 platform, with GI spec magazines and the full metal jacket ammunition that the pistol was designed to use, this principle is held true through the entire loading/firing/ejection/feeding cycles.

Modern improvements and changes simply add another (or multiple other) dimension of issues to consider during the microseconds of ejecting, feeding, and chambering. The trend away from the GI spec magazine lips takes away from the full control of the cartridge during the feeding cycle in favor of entrusting proper chambering to the forward momentum of the new cartridge rather than pressure applied during the feeding cycle.

Commercial Production

For general consumer purposes, the available firearms on the market can be separated into five broad tiers based almost entirely on cost:

  • Budget: This tier is dominated by the Philippine import companies such as Rock Island Armory and American Tactical Imports. The price range starts relatively low and is capped at about $600. Many of these companies are able to provide a decent product that may have more modernized amenities and features than their higher priced counter parts by taking advantage their location and labor costs to lower their prices.
  • Basic Commercial Production: This tier of production involves many commercial brands that lack the higher end features and hand fitting of their premium counterparts, but generally tend to be made in the US and come with quality guarantees as well as the custom shop capability to back their promises up. The general price range involved in this tier is anywhere from $600-$850
  • Premium Production: The luxury tiers of the commercial brands, these pistols are made from the same production parts as their basic brethren but spend a brief period in each company’s custom shop for some hand fitting and finishing. The general price range of this tier will run from $850-$1200.
  • Semi-Custom: Generally a very high end tier of pistol that has the option of being made to order and begin their lives entirely in the care of the company’s custom shop, these pistols receive extra care and quality control from beginning to end of their production cycle. The price range on these pistols will run generally from $1500-$3000
  • Custom: At this tier, you’re no longer dealing with commercial production, but instead generally with small custom shops and individual gunsmiths. These pistols are made to order to individual specifications and requirements and exist in a tier generally from $3000+.

Building a 1911

Some people will want to take on the project of building a 1911 from ‘scratch’, or hand fitting together parts from a premade slide, receiver, and barrel kit. I cannot express how strongly I advise against this particular course of action if you have no previous machining experience. While relatively simple in theory, there is a reason why gunsmithing is considered a professional trade that requires specialized tools. For a vast majority of people, the endeavor will be filled with nothing but pain and frustration.

However, if you are completely insistent on building a 1911 from a parts kit for yourself, read this as a way of familiarizing yourself with the process from start to finish.

The Round-Up

To reiterate the point, if after reading this guide and doing your own additional research you’re still unsure as to what to get, buy a $650-$1200 pistol chambered in .45 ACP with a Government length (5”) barrel from Springfield Armory, Colt, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, Ruger, or Remington. A decent pistol from a major brand will minimize the frustration and hassles of the platform while maximizing the shooting experience.

The 1911 platform is second only to the AR-15 in modern firearms in terms of the amount of variety and options available for purchasing and customization. For the average consumer, this can present a mind boggling set of choices that may not always make sense. Hopefully this guide has helped to clarify the features and choices available.

ZAUF: The Big Three

Since we’ve covered the basic types of bullets, the next logical step would be to discuss the ‘Big Three’ of handgun cartridges.

The ‘Big Three’, as they’re colloquially known, are 9mm Luger (9×19mm Parabellum), .40 S&W (Smith & Wesson), and .45 ACP. Since this is part of our ZAUF series, we won’t go too in depth on each one, but rather cover the basics of each of them.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons


9mm Luger is the most popular and widespread of the three. It is the smallest round and the most common bullet masses for 9mm are 115 gr, 124 gr, and 147 gr. The ‘gr’ refers to ‘grain’ (so ‘124 gr’ would be spoken as “one twenty-four grain”), and is a unit of mass. 1 gram is the equivalent of approximately 14.5 grains.

9mm is also the cheapest of the three, currently priced around $0.21 per round for 124 gr FMJ.

Another benefit of 9mm is that due to being the smallest of the three, more rounds of 9mm can fit in a magazine of an approximately equivalent size compared to .40 S&W or .45 ACP. The examples we’ll use are the Glock 17 (9mm), Glock 22 (.40 S&W), and Glock 21 (.45 ACP), since they’re all almost the exact same size. The Glock 17 has a standard capacity of 17 rounds, compared to the Glock 22 and Glock 21, which have 15 and 13 rounds respectively.

From our subjective point of view, the recoil of 9mm feels light but snappy, and tends to cause the muzzle to flip up slightly. It’s easy to shoot out of a typical full sized or compact pistol, but gets a bit harder to handle out of sub-compact pistols.

 .40 S&W

.40 S&W rides the line between 9mm and .45 ACP. .40 S&W was based off of the 10mm Auto round, but was made shorter and uses less powder in order to reduce the felt recoil when firing.

.40 S&W typically uses bullet masses of 155 gr, 165 gr, and 180 gr.

.40 S&W costs more than 9mm but tends to be cheaper than .45 ACP. It is currently priced around $0.25 per round for 180 gr FMJ.

As mentioned above, the Glock 22 fits 15 rounds of .40 S&W, compared to the equivalently sized Glock 17 (17 rounds) and Glock 21 (13 rounds).

Using our subjective view of recoil again, .40 S&W has the recoil characteristics of 9mm in that it’s snappy and causes muzzle rise, but it feels as though it has the heavier recoil impulse of .45 ACP. This makes it our least favorite of the ‘Big Three’. While it walks the middle on price and size, it feels as though it takes the worst of both worlds (of 9mm and .45 ACP) when it comes to recoil.

  .45 ACP

Finally, the venerable .45 ACP was developed by John Browning in 1904, and is most closely associated with M1911 pistol. Most .45 ACP uses bullet masses of 180 gr, 200 gr, and 230 gr.

.45 ACP is the most expensive of the three cartridges, currently selling for approximately $0.32 per round for 230 gr FMJ.

One of the main complaints of .45 ACP is that due to its girth, less rounds can be fit in a magazine. As in our example of the Glock 17, 22, and 21, the Glock 21 chambered in .45 ACP holds only 13 rounds, as opposed to the Glock 17 and 22, which hold 17 and 15 rounds respectively.

Going back to our subjective recoil analysis, .45 ACP clearly has the highest recoil impulse. However, the recoil characteristics make it feel as if the gun is pushing back towards the shooter rather than flipping the muzzle up. This makes the recoil easy to control which allows for rapid reacquisition of the target. Despite the heavy recoil impulse, the characteristics of the recoil actually make it one of our favorite calibers to shoot.

ZAUF: Introduction to Bullet Types

Let’s get back to bullets. There are many different kinds of bullets available on the market today as well as a wide variety of cartridges which utilize these bullets. The anatomy of a cartridge, which we glossed over earlier, consists of 4 major components: the casing, the bullet, the gunpowder, and the primer.

Bullets come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, even within the families of specific calibers. For our introduction, I’m going to split it into 3 very general categories: Full metal jacket, hollow point, and other - since that’ll be what you see the most in stores.

Full Metal Jacket (FMJ), as the name implies, means that the bullet (normally cast from lead [Pb]) is coated in a jacket (most commonly copper [Cu]) that leaves the base of the bullet exposed. For the most part FMJ bullets are the most common bullet types you’ll encounter on the market.

Full Metal Jacket
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP) bullets are true to their name, with a hollow cavity in the nose of the bullet that exposes the lead core and allows the projectile to expand on impact, increasing the terminal damage of the projectile through soft targets. The downside of this is that against even lightly armored targets, the expansion reduces the overall effectiveness of this ammunition type.

Jacketed Hollow Point
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Other’ category of ammunition covers everything from non-jacketed ammunition to extremely specialized ammunition such as Glaser Safety Slugs and snake shot (also known as rat shot). Almost all non-jacketed ammunition will lack the copper jacket the previous two categories sport and can come in a variety of shapes and purposes. For consumer purposes, these different types of specialized ammunition will become viable with experience and actual use cases.

Glaser Safety Slug
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For the examples listed above, non-jacketed reloaded ammunition can be found as an alternative to regular; Glaser Safety Slugs are a special type of bullet with a core made up of loose No. 12 birdshot capped with a polymer tip to prevent over penetration; finally snake shot (or rat shot) is fairly self-explanatory, with different caliber loads meant to be viable against snakes and vermin.

Snake shot/Rat shot
Source: Wikimedia Commons

ZAUF: Types of Firearms

Now that there’s enough information to know how to read and have a basic understanding of caliber, let us move on to the firearms themselves. On the whole, firearms are split between handguns and long guns. The names themselves are fairly self-explanatory; handguns are designed to be fired in one or both hands and are generally much smaller and shorter than long arms. On the other hand, long arms are designed to be held in both hands and braced against the shoulder when fired.

Now for something slightly more technical - handguns are subdivided into two different categories: pistols and revolvers. The term ‘pistol’ implies that the chamber is integral with the barrel, meaning the term covers most modern semiautomatic handguns. Revolvers in contrast have a revolving cylinder (hence the name) which contains multiple chambers and at least one barrel for firing them. While there are other odd firearms that have been made throughout history such as revolvers with multiple barrels and multiple cylinders, they are almost completely irrelevant in a modern discussion.

The major split of long guns in the parlance of small arms (because this series won’t be talking about artillery) is between rifles and shotguns. Rifles are defined by as well as named after their rifling: lands and grooves on the inside of the barrel which impart a spin onto the bullet as it travels through. This spin (much like on an American football) gives the bullet increased stability in flight, granting an increased effective range.

Shotguns are defined by two things: the ability to fire shot shells and their smooth bore. Unlike rifles, the bore of a shotgun is generally unrifled. This is because the behavior of shot shells is unlike that of other single bullet cartridges, and rifling would have no effect on these projectiles. Shotguns have what is called a choke (either fixed into the end of the barrel or swappable) that controls the spread of the pellets as they leave the barrel.

As always, there are exceptions and combinations to these general definitions. For example, some shotguns have a revolving mechanism to hold shot shells and are technically a revolver shotgun. There are also smaller subcategories and middling firearms classified in such categories as carbines or submachine guns which are even more refined divisions of the above general categories.

ZAUF: Clips, Magazines, and You

Following the common theme of ammunition, let’s take a look at how they’re loaded into a firearm. In the early days of single shot cannons and later on hand cannons and muskets, the process was excruciating: a shooter would have to load powder in through the muzzle (the business end), tamp it down, shove a wad and bullet in the gun and tamp that down, and then use a separate trigger activated fuse to fire. Thankfully, the invention of the fully encased metal cartridges we know and love has solved all of those problems and made possible for weapons to be magazine fed.

What is a magazine? It is a container where cartridges rest before being cycled into use. A magazine can be internal or removable. An internal magazine is fixed within the firearm itself, and cartridges are added by hand or with the help of a piece of metal called a clip. We’ll talk more about clips later, but the important point is that they are not magazines. Generally, removable magazines come in a few flavors, the most common of these is the box magazine. All that means is that it is boxy and rectangular. Other types of magazines include things such as helical drums that are significantly more common on shotguns and high capacity magazines.

There are generally two types of magazines that are in common use today: Single Stack and Double Stack. What does that mean? Within the body of the magazine the cartridges rest on top of each other in either a straight line or a staggered column. The straight line resting method is called a single stack for obvious reasons, and the staggered column is the double stack. The latter method allows more cartridges to fit into a magazine because of the staggered design.


ZAUF: Introduction to Caliber

The next part of our Zen and the Art of Understanding Firearms (ZAUF) series is still part of the introduction. This entry in the series will teach you what it means when people say “.45 Caliber”, “9 millimeter”, or “12 gauge”.

With these designators, it comes down to differences between the region of origin: American vs the rest of the world. When someone says “a 45” or “45 caliber”, what do they mean? 45 of what? 0.45 of an inch, of course. So what does that mean exactly? The width at the widest part of the given bullet is approximately .45 of an inch wide in diameter. We say “approximately” because if you wanted to extend significant figures out to the thousandths place and beyond you’ll quickly realize that the measurements aren’t quite what you’d expect. In the case of .45, some 45 caliber bullets are commonly .451 inches and others are .452. Common calibers that you’ll see referred to this way are .22, .357, .45, .44, and .50. What you may also see are calibers such as .30-06 (pronounced “thirty aught six” in this case), wherein there is a hyphen followed by another number. These hyphenated numbers are completely arbitrary and their meanings range anywhere from total powder charge meant for use with the cartridge or even the year the cartridge was adopted.

In a metric world with international standards, bullets are measured using millimeters, such as 7.62x51mm and 5.56x45mm, or 7.62x39mm. What do these two numbers mean? The first number is the same as the American method of reference, meaning the width of the bullet at the widest point. The second number is the length of the casing.

So what is a gauge? Most commonly you’ll see gauge used in reference to shotshell measurements for shotguns. The real definition of what a gauge is is tangentially related to a similar density measurement of iron ball fitting in cannons that ends up being fairly obscure and technical, so we’ll spare you that aspect of it. What you do need to know and keep in mind is that usually the smaller the number, the bigger the shell, E.g. 10 gauge > 12 gauge > 20 gauge. The notable exception to this is .410 shotshell, which is measured in the American style of caliber mentioned above.

Sometimes there are cartridges that are very similar, or are slightly modified versions of each other that are designed for shooting at different pressures and will have both types of designations. Two common examples of this are .223 Remington and 5.56x45mm as well as .308 Winchester and 7.62x51mm. These two sets of cartridges are almost identical, and depending on the firearm, they will have cross compatibility. However, there are nuances I’m glossing over right now that will be explored later, so keep in mind that while they’re often interchangeable, that’s not always the case.

Zen and the Art of Understanding Firearms

There’s a Zen koan that goes,

“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’

‘Like this cup,’ Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’”


That serves as the foundation of any introduction to Zen and Zen Buddhist philosophy. While I won’t be attempting to teach you Zen here, I do recognize the fact that for many people, starting with tabula rasa is the best way to begin any form of education: free of preconceptions and prejudice.

That in mind, let’s begin this partnered meditation on firearms. What I hope to present to you, the reader, is a guide that contains all of the building blocks to understand, operate, and master firearms in general.

So beginning with nothing, the first topic that’d be best to cover is ammunition. What do guns shoot? The correct answer is bullets, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. What you’re most likely to find on sale in stores are technically cartridges. These cartridges are collections that involve a bullet, gunpowder, and a small explosive charge called a primer all wrapped up in a metal casing. These bullets can come in a variety of forms and names, but that’s for a later discussion. Similarly not all gunpowder is created equal. Nor are the primers the same across the multitude of different cartridges. To save time, though, the metal casing only really comes in a handful of different metal types.

The most common of these in modern production is brass. You’ll find brass casings commonly in modern production ammo and it is the de facto standard of modern ammunition. The second most common of these is steel. Steel cases tend to be a sign of Soviet and post-Soviet surplus ammunition, which has its own multitude of quirks that we can discuss later. Other less common and more brand-defined metals are aluminum and a much broader and more vague term called bi-metal which, as the name implies, consists of two different metals. A special note is given to shotgun shells, which are most commonly made with plastics these days, though there are ones made of solid brass.

So what happens to this whole cartridge in the process of actually shooting a gun? Once the trigger is pulled on any given firearm, something strikes the primer, which is a contact explosive. This primer ignites and causes the powder within the metal casing to burn. The burning of the powder creates gas and pressure, which pushes the bullet out of the top of the metal casing and out the barrel.

Simple, isn’t it?

Buyer's Guide to the AR-15

If you want an instant pitch on what you should buy from the market right now, then buy an AR-15 in 5.56x45mm with a 16 inch lightweight profile barrel, mid-length gas system, chrome lined barrel, and 1:7 twist from Daniel Defense, Bravo Company USA, or Spike’s Tactical.


However, if you’re here for a more in depth explanation of the AR-15 platform since you want to buy one, but all of the choices on the market are absolutely mind boggling, then stick around, because this guide is written with you in mind. This guide assumes you’re currently living within the United States when it comes to aspects of legality, however, all other engineering and technical information will be strictly correct.


The AR-15 rifle, invented by Eugene Stoner and having served since the Vietnam conflict of the 1960s under the US Government designation of M16, is currently one of the most reliable, rugged, and user-friendly firearms on the market. Since its introduction, there have been a number of gripes about its design, the notable one during the Vietnam War was that it would jam and render itself inoperable unless it was taken apart and cleaned out thoroughly. These problems have long since been sorted out, with the original jamming complaint isolated down to an issue with the ammunition the soldiers were issued at the time.

Since then, the platform itself has evolved with the addition of chrome lined bores, varying barrel profiles, as well as a carbine variant designated the M4 (Further developed into the M4A1). With these particular developments of the weapons platform, the back flow of variants, products, ideas, and opinions into the consumer market has exploded into a vast market of available options for the discerning consumer.

Knowing What You Want

Whether you’re looking for a new rifle to take with you on patrol or just a paper puncher, it helps to know exactly what you want to do with it. This guide won’t be pandering to any particular ideas that one caliber can do absolutely everything you would want from CQB ranges to mile-long sniper shots, but the variations of the AR-15 platform will allow a seasoned user to tailor builds and ammunition loads to hit targets from up close and personal to beyond 600 yards. The most important thing to take away from this warning is to know exactly what you want out of a semi-automatic rifle such as the AR-15 before you buy it.

Design Concepts

In knowing what you want, I prefer to separate AR-15s into a few categories: pistol, general purpose, and accuracy builds.

  • Pistol: You want an SBR (Short Barreled Rifle) but your local laws say you can’t have one. Next best thing is to build a shortened AR-15 that’s classified as a pistol by the ATF, so you can get the ‘shooting a tiny rifle’ experience in a sans-tax-stamp package.
  • General Purpose: What most people want their rifle to be/do. If you’re new to AR-15s or shooting in general, I would suggest you stick to doing this instead of immediately jumping into accurized builds or anything more niche. What this build will generally be good for is getting your shooting out to approximately 300 yards with iron sights, or beyond that if you’re good at shooting.
  • Accuracy Build: This is a bit of a niche sector, home to the 18+ inch barrel club, with fluted barrels and stainless steels that open up a world of hurt in terms of ballistic coefficients and barrel harmonics. If you’re building here, then you shouldn’t really need this guide since you should know what you’re doing. (To clarify, this is not a beginner’s category for an initial build. You’ll be spending a lot of time and money on something that you may not like in the end.)

Weapon Design: Upper/Lower

The AR-15 is a gas operated, magazine fed, semi-automatic rifle with a rotating bolt originally actuated via direct impingement (though that itself is somewhat of a misnomer, but that's a different discussion for a different day), meaning that the expanding gasses from the fired cartridge are redirected back at the bolt to make it cycle.

The major components of the rifle can be separated along a major line into the upper and lower receiver groups. Inside the United States, the only part of the system that is considered the firearm (serialized and regulated) is the lower receiver. Attached and within the lower receiver, you have the stock, buffer system, pistol grip, and trigger group. Attached to the upper receiver, one will normally find the barrel, hand guard, front and rear sights, as well as possibly a forward assist. Any other attachments that may end up on a rifle, such as a bipod, laser aiming system, or optics will be solely on purpose and user preference.

Caliber Introduction

Originally designed for the 5.56x45mm caliber that revolutionized combat theory in the modern age, the AR-15 platform has since evolved into other roles, taking on the ability to use anything from .22 Long Rifle to .50 Beowulf. This particular modularity brings about choices for the consumer that will likely be very confusing at first glance.

For the beginner, I recommend simply sticking to what it was designed for and buying a rifle in 5.56x45mm. This will not only save you the hassle of finding specialized upper receivers in the caliber you want, but it will also allow you to get more bang for your buck when it comes to ammunition. However, if you simply must buy a rifle in a different caliber (due to local laws or even budgetary concerns), I will go over some of the available alternative calibers below.

  • .22LR (Long Rifle): This venerable varminting and target shooting caliber will give you the cheapest shooting experience for your money. Since this is a rim fire cartridge, the prices will be much lower in comparison to any center fire alternatives. However, also because this is a rim fire cartridge, any malfunctions that occur in your rifle because of ammunition will be much, much harder to fix.
  • 9x19mm Luger/Parabellum: This NATO standard cartridge does well in the AR-15 platform, transforming it into a technical submachine gun rather than a rifle platform. This is probably the most prolific alternative caliber for shorter barreled AR-15s on the market and will provide you the same enjoyable shooting for less than you would need to spend on 5.56.
  • .45ACP: A very American caliber that is older than the AR-15 platform, the .45ACP cartridge provides an alternative pistol caliber for the discerning shooter. However, I cannot personally recommend this decision based on the relative prices of the ammunition between this and mil-spec 5.56 being so close to each other.
  • .223 Remington/5.56x45mm: The important note to make here is that .223 is NOT the same as 5.56 caliber. Sparing the details, a rifle chambered in 5.56 is compatible with .223 ammunition, but not the other way around. .223 is a perfectly fine caliber used for hunting small and medium sized game where local laws allow, and is priced similarly to its military standard brother. 5.56 operates at a higher pressure than .223 with a different (looser) headspacing to allow for a much wider selection of ammunition to be used.
  • .223 Wylde: This is a proprietary chambering which addresses the pitfalls of the .223 Remington versus 5.56x45mm compatibility issues. This, and other ‘hybrid’ chamberings, are proprietary, and generally will market themselves as being able to shoot both .223 and 5.56 ammunition equally well. This is a good thing to look out for if you’re building a general purpose rifle.
  • .300 AAC Blackout: A relatively new caliber to the market at the time of writing, this cartridge was designed to bring the punch of a 7.62x39mm cartridge to the platform as well as improving performance through a suppressor while still maintaining the general brass size and setup of most of the other 5.56 parts. However, expect to pay extra for the novelty.
  • 5.45x39mm: The newer Russian standard cartridge that earned a name for itself during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, this cartridge provides a decently performing round for a lower price when using Russian surplus ammunition.
  • 6.8mm Remington SPC: A cartridge designed to perform better than 5.56 from a 14.5” M4 carbine barrel, it offers better terminal ballistics and 44% more energy transferred downrange, but at a much higher price.
  • 6.5 Grendel: A recently SAAMI standardized cartridge; it offers a middle ground between 5.56 and 7.62x51mm, with a flatter trajectory and greater terminal energy than 5.56. Furthermore, with certain setups it offers sub-MOA performance at 600 yards and out. Unfortunately, it is also relatively expensive.
  • 7.62x39mm: A time tested cartridge of the Soviet Union and insurgent militias, this round is now currently being offered by a number of different manufacturers in their rifles, and may offer a decent alternative to others in the AR market. The round can also be found cheaper than 5.56 as a surplus round, but be aware there have been many documented cases of AR-15s having reliability issues with 7.62x39mm.
  • 7.62x51mm: This isn’t actually an AR-15 caliber; instead it belongs to the AR-15’s predecessor, the AR-10. If this is the caliber you want, this is not the guide you need, as there isn’t the same level of compatibility between AR-10 parts as there is with an AR-15.
  • .50 Beowulf: This cartridge is good for interdicting engine blocks, solid walls, and heavy targets where a 12 gauge slug would be a good option. This cartridge in particular approximately emulates the performance of .45-70 Government in terminal ballistics and has found a certain niche in both the tactical world and the hunting community. As one would expect, it is not a cheap caliber.

Barrel Profile, Material, and Length

Since the invention of the AR-15 platform, the overall contour of the barrel has been offered in a variety of sizes for different purposes. Speaking here, unless otherwise referenced for the M4 platform (14.5 inch long barrel), the standards will be for a 20 inch long barrel.

  • Lightweight: The lightweight profile was originally adopted with the M16A1, allowing for a very light and maneuverable gun. The look of the profile is thin all the way along the length of the barrel. In military applications, it became inappropriate since it would quickly warp under the heat of constant (read: full-auto) firing. On the other hand, this barrel profile has found widespread adoption in the civilian shooting community for its weight savings and negligible performance difference.
  • Government: The current standard profile for service rifles, the shorter M4 style incorporates a notch forward of the gas block to allow for mounting of the M203 40mm grenade launcher while the 20" length profile is simply thinner underneath the hand guard with a significantly thicker portion forward of the gas block.
  • HBAR: The HBAR profile finds its home in long distance shooting and hunting, with a very thick barrel all the way along to the end. This is not to be confused with the bull barrel.
  • Bull: A thicker profile than the HBAR, a bull barrel will perform a bit better in grouping sizes than its thinner counterpart.
  • SPR: The SPR profile was developed in recent years with the Mk12 SPR (Special Purpose Rifle) program. This profile is ‘supposed’ to be at an 18” barrel length, with thickness running past the front sight, but tapering slightly after it as well as allowing for threading at the end of the barrel for a muzzle device.

Along with different barrel profiles, a savvy consumer has to worry about the barrel length. This ties back to the initial point of knowing what you want. 5.56x45mm was originally designed with a 20 inch barrel in mind, using a 12 inch gas system: this setup is ideal since it allows for much lower pressures in the action, higher velocities, and a longer sight radius if an A2 style front sight is being utilized. Furthermore, on most military standard ammunition, velocities at or above approximately 2700 fps are essential to terminal fragmentation of the round, something which the shorter carbines do not always reliably achieve. Eschewing any in-depth discussion of barrel length interaction with different gas lengths, popular barrel lengths include:

  • 20 inches: the old standard for the AR-15 platform, this provides maximum velocity for any cartridge. In the right profiles and twist, this length will do just as well as a regular battle rifle and a precision build.
  • 18 inches: A popular hunting and marksmanship length of barrel in certain profiles and twists. This is also the minimum length of barrel commonly available that will function with a rifle length (12 inch) gas system.
  • 16 inches: This is the US Federal minimum length for a rifled barrel without being classified as a short barreled rifle. Good balance of modularity and compactness for the average civilian owner.
  • 14.5 inches: The standard M4 Carbine length barrel delivers workable performance from a much smaller package than the M16. For civilian ownership without a tax stamp, this length will require a pinned and welded muzzle device that makes it meet the 16” federal standard.
  • 10.3 inches: The standard length for a MK18 CQBR rifle, this is normally used for ‘pistol’ designated AR-15s or registered short barreled rifles.
  • 10/10.5 inches: Another short barrel length one may find on the market that is good for pistol type guns.
  • 7 inches: The shortest common barrel length one may find on a given AR-15 pistol. This will be the loudest and flashiest of any of the barrel lengths, since it doesn’t have the length to allow all of the powder to burn up before the projectile leaves the barrel.

The other consideration available for the end user is the actual metal the barrel is created from. There are generally three types of barrels currently on the market: milspec, non-milspec, and stainless steel.

  • Milspec: This simply means the barrel meets the military specification of durability and longevity. Generally for a civilian consumer, if it meets the military’s specifications, it is probably a good choice.
  • Non-Milspec: These barrels do not meet military standard specifications and do not demand equivalent pricing since they may have lower pressure or heat tolerances. However, if your usage is not going to involve firing thousands of rounds through your barrel in one sitting, you may never know the difference.
  • Stainless Steel: This particular type is popular on accuracy oriented builds. Durable in its own right, an equivalent stainless steel barrel is 2% heavier than its carbon counterpart and will typically come in a heavier profile than their standard steel counterparts. These also cannot be chrome lined, nor are they as heat resistant, so extended rapid fire should usually not be in this type of barrel’s normal use.


Barrel twist is the distance a bullet needs to travel in order complete one full rotation, so a 1:10 (read "One in Ten") twist would be one full revolution every 10 inches. The internal twist rate of the barrel has changed with the development of the 5.56x45 cartridge, with the original M16 prototypes sporting a 1:14 twist. All twist comparisons below are meant only for reference in using 5.56x45.

  • 1:7 : The current US military standard twist rate, it performs well, stabilizes a wide variety of ammunition, and in general will perform well enough for most end users using 50-80 grain ammunition.
  • 1:8 : A relatively new twist rate at the time of this writing, it is designed to bridge the gap between 1:7 and 1:9 twist (obviously). However, a number of manufacturers do not make a ‘true’ 1:8, instead rounding up from 1:78 or thereabouts. I personally recommend 1:8 twist if you can find it, since it provides better performance from a wider variety of bullet weights without making some of the sacrifices 1:9+ will.
  • 1:9: An older twist rate popular with the hunting and target shooting community after the decline of the .222 Remington cartridge which 5.56x45mm is based off of, this one will provide support for a wide variety of cartridges, but lacks some of the range 1:8 provides.
  • 1:12 : The early M16 twist rate that has fallen out of style. This twist is meant for 55 grain or lighter bullet weights.

Chrome Lining

To prevent corrosive ammunition from quickly eating away at the barrels when left unmaintained, manufacturers use a chrome lining on the inside of the barrel. This has a number of advantages as well as disadvantages depending on the purpose of the rifle. Choosing a barrel with a chrome lining opens up the market for a consumer, since a large majority of quality manufacturers these days are vying to make military type barrels, and aside from the added durability in maintenance, a chrome lining will extend a barrel’s round count lifetime.

The disadvantages of chrome lining treatment however include a possible reduction in accuracy. This does not mean a significant difference in accuracy for the shooter unless one is using the rifle for extreme accuracy in target shooting and will most likely go unnoticed by the average consumer.

Gas System / Piston

Originally, the AR-15’s recoil system was designed on the idea of direct impingement, where the hot gasses of an expended cartridge leaving the barrel are partially redirected back at the bolt carrier, causing the action to cycle. In recent times, a new pattern has become popular that utilizes a short stroke piston, using that to move the bolt and cycle the action while also venting hot gasses at the gas block. The only noticeable advantage in this new system is that the carbon buildup that would normally flow back into the action is now at the gas block, and hot gasses are vented there, leaving the bolt cool to the touch immediately after firing. I cannot recommend a piston system on a civilian AR-15 platform for sheer pragmatism; it does not provide enough advantages over the direct impingement system of the AR-15 platform to outweigh the adoption costs.

Direct impingement brings on a whole host of other issues, with the need to account for different pressures in chamber and gas port hole sizes. A good rule of thumb for optimal barrel length is “gas length plus 5 inches”. By and large, this is all fairly standardized and the AR-15 gas length offerings on the market will be one of the following:

  • Pistol (4 inch): This is the shortest gas length system on the market, and will cause the most wear and tear on your action because of its high pressures. This gas length is probably only truly appropriate for barrels between 7 and 9 inches.
  • Carbine (7 inch): The current military standard for the M4 Carbine and the Mk18 CQBR, this gas length provides workable, but not ideal, pressure and dwell time for AR-15 platforms. The felt recoil will be a bit harsher, and the wear on the action will be a bit more than longer alternatives. This gas length will work best for barrels between 10 to 16 inches.
  • Midlength (9 inch): A relatively recent development in the AR-15 world, this gas length gives the best balance for 14-16” barrels. With a softer felt recoil while maintaining operational reliability, this is definitely a length the author would recommend over the traditional carbine length.
  • Intermediate (10-11 inch): A mostly proprietary gas length, Noveske in particular uses this gas port distance on their 18” rifles.
  • Rifle (12 inch): The traditional gas length that came with the original AR-15 and stays strong and true in the M16 series, this provides the softest felt recoil due to its low pressures (because of the distance from the chamber), and will cause the least amount of wear and tear to the action.

The Upper Receiver

The upper receiver itself is simply a hunk of metal that the barrel needs to be screwed into to properly chamber a round in the functioning of the weapon. This description, however, does not mean that the upper is a low impact part. The whole of the upper receiver is the higher impact half of the AR-15 system, since that is where the explosions happen when the cartridges are ignited and hot gasses are vented down the barrel. The two types of receiver made commonly on the market are forged and billet: between the two it doesn’t make much of a difference to the end user and both will perform well under normal circumstances.

A ‘Billet’ receiver means that it was carved out of a single contiguous block of aluminum, allowing for variations from the standard AR-15 upper design. A single passing advantage of the billet make is that it has the potential for tighter tolerances than its forged counterpart, which may be beneficial to a precision oriented build.

A 'Forged' receiver, as its name implies, is a receiver made from forged aluminum. In general, forging will produce a consistently stronger product than its billet counterpart.

The Forward Assist

The part of the AR-15 that has probably received the most chagrin in the whole design is the forward assist. Originally ordered as part of the Army’s M16A1 (in contrast to the Air Force Security order for the true original AR-15 series without a forward assist), the actual use for this particular part of the gun is to force the bolt to close home from an out of battery state. With any experience in the field or even at the bench, a majority of modern shooters have never had to use their forward assists and many shooting instructors will recommend against ever using it since it has the propensity to catastrophically jam a problem that may need a different type of attention than forcing the bolt shut.

As a civilian consumer, this is not the most ‘necessary’ of parts, however a majority of reputable manufacturers will continue making their upper receivers with a forward assist. Aside from one model of the Smith and Wesson M&P 15 which lacks the forward assist and dustcover, to have a rifle without it on the upper receiver, you’ll have to hunt down a custom manufactured upper receiver that does not have it built into the metal (Rainier Arms, VLTOR, Les Baer).

Bolt Carrier Group

The bolt carrier group (BCG) is arguably the most important part of the rifle. This is the part that will be taking most of the hammering when it comes to action, and comes in a number of flavors, but only one of them really matters. I generally recommend using an M16/Full Auto bolt carrier group for both market availability and ease of parts replacement as well as proper functioning.

The M16 or Full Auto bolt carrier group, comes with a fully shrouded firing pin and no material removed from the bottom portion, which makes it the heaviest of the types available.

The AR-15 bolt carrier group has a significant amount of material shaved off of the rear of the unit, mostly as a corporate ‘safety precaution’ to prevent it from being used in a fully automatic configuration. This removed material leaves the firing pin open and lightens the weight of the unit, which may cause problems for extraction and timing.

The AR-15 enhanced bolt carrier group is a blend of the above two, with only a small amount of material removed from the body of the carrier group to prevent it from being used in a fully automatic configuration. These generally will serve you no better than an M16 BCG.

The mark of a good bolt carrier group comes in its testing, the most common of these being a High Pressure Test, Magnetic Particle Test, Shot Peening, and Gas Key Staking.

High Pressure Tested means that the part has been checked to make sure that it is within the design parameters for pressure exerted on the part.

Magnetic Particle Tested means the part has been placed under magnetization and checked for irregularities below the surface.

Shot Peening is a mechanical process that improves the durability of the part.

Gas Key Staking is indenting the metal around the screws that go on top of bolt carrier group to prevent them from backing out. This is not entirely necessary in the function of the AR-15; however it is a nice touch of preventative maintenance. A properly staked gas key is normally a sign of a good manufacturer.

Some of the companies which meet these mil-spec standards for bolt carrier groups are Daniel Defense, Colt, Bravo Company USA, Lewis Machine & Tool, and Spike’s Tactical.

Muzzle Devices

Muzzle devices can be divided generally into three camps: Flash Hiders, Muzzle Brakes, and intermediate devices.

Flash Hiders, as their name implies, are meant to reduce/eliminate the flash signature of the rifle from the ignition of unburned powder after leaving the barrel. These will normally come in two flavors: Pronged and birdcage. The pronged variety are like tuning forks which will ring distinctively with each shot whereas the birdcage varieties will be more muted in their tone.

Muzzle Brakes are designed to reduce muzzle jump by venting the gasses in a meaningful direction (Usually the 180 degrees ‘upward’ from the rifle). Because of the way these are designed, most will also cause annoyance to anyone directly to the side of the shooter, since every shot will emit a concussive wave. These devices also normally have little to no flash suppressing properties, so during low-light and night conditions both shooter and observer will see a distinct muzzle flash.

Intermediate devices cover a broad range of ‘other’ products on the market that claim to do a little bit of both in terms of flash suppression and muzzle braking. However, do not expect them to excel at both of these characteristics at the same time; the majority of these products will only be passable at either function.

Furniture (Stock, Grip, Hand Guard)

The parts the user interacts with and rests on are generally the stock, grip, and hand guard. As a whole, these are referred to as the AR’s ‘furniture’.

Stock - Fixed vs Collapsible

Stocks generally come in two types: fixed or collapsible. Before getting into what exactly that means for you, there are two terms that need to be discussed: the overall length of the stock, which is self-explanatory, and the ‘length of pull’(LOP). The LOP is the distance between the end of the stock to the front face of the trigger. This becomes important in measuring your own length of pull (distance from elbow to bent forefinger) to make sure that you’ll be comfortable shooting the particular stock design you want. The total length of a fixed stock will be longer than a fully collapsed adjustable stock. As a general rule, I recommend a collapsible stock to everyone unless you want a stability oriented precision-build since it will be more modular and allow you to find your preferred length of pull and setup.

The standard US military fixed stock is the A2 stock, and is referenced as such in most literature. This is the baseline standard of modern stocks with an overall length of 10.5 inches, and a length of pull of 13.5 inches. Otherwise, if you want a fixed stock, there are other variants shorter than the A2 stock marked as ‘entry’ or ‘stubby’ stocks, which emulate a fully collapsed adjustable stock. Other than the military style, companies such as VLTOR, Magpul, Rock River Arms, and ACE have some decent fixed stock options.

The standard US military collapsible stock is a Colt collapsible stock, which by all means is not the best stock on the market for features. A technicality before dealing with collapsible stocks is that there are two different types of carbine buffer systems that are on the market today: milspec and commercial. The key difference is that the commercial spec tube has a slightly larger outer diameter that forces you to buy commercial spec stocks. I cannot recommend this, as milspec provides a larger pool of options to choose from. There are a plethora of collapsible stocks available on the market today, with major name brands such as Magpul, LMT, VLTOR, ACE and many others producing quality products that will give you a maelstrom of choices.

Grip – Options Other Than A2

The standard pistol grip for the AR-15 that normally comes prepackaged in lower parts kits for builders is the A2 pistol grip. In the author’s opinion it is uncomfortable, cheaply made, and not worth its own weight in plastic. However, if cost is an issue, the A2 grip will work, and you can sometimes find it being given away for free since people rarely want it. As with collapsible stocks, there are innumerable variations available on the market today from major companies, and one would do well to replace the A2 grip if it is uncomfortable.

Hand Guard - Freefloating vs Non-Freefloating

The hand guard or fore-end of the rifle is the part that covers up the gas tube between the receiver and the front sight. This usually comes in two flavors: non-free-floating or free-floating. What this means is that some hand guard designs use a proprietary system to make sure that the hand guard makes no contact with the barrel, allowing for less interference on the whole of the rifle. The advantages of having a free-floated hand guard are that the barrel will have significantly fewer points of contact from outside forces and as such will be much less subject to any tension being put on the hand guard (Sling, grip positions, pressure, etc). The disadvantages to a free-floating system are that you will have to deal with a proprietary barrel nut (if installing aftermarket, you need a specialized setup for this), and of course figuring out which rail system you want the most, since these tend to be a semi-permanent decision if you don’t have the equipment to add or remove them.

It is this author’s opinion that there are enough merits to using a free-floating rail system that make it a superior choice in this particular matter.

Sights (Fixed vs Folding)

Rifle sights come in two different formats: fixed or folding. Before any discussion, it is generally noted that the longer sight radius (distance between rear and front sight), the better it is for accuracy. Fixed sights are standard on military issue rifles, with the rear sight integrated into a carry handle attachment and the front sight being part of the gas block. Overall, what this provides is a very stable and very durable sight platform that will perform exactly as advertised without many frills.

Folding sights tend to be more modular than fixed sights, with the rear assembly allowing for different shapes and sizes of rear aperture and the front becoming an entirely new system. Both front and rear folding sights sometimes also come with a spring assisted deployment. Folding front sights offer the ability to have them mounted onto the hand guard of the rifle instead of being integrated with the gas block, thereby allowing a longer length hand guard to be used in conjunction with a low profile gas block, giving the user the option of a longer sight radius, or even mounting a flashlight in front of the front sight. Other variants of folding front sights are integrated with the gas block, which allows the user to put the sight out of the way of an optic in case one is mounted, drawing a mid-line between a rail mounted sight and a gas block integrated sight.

Of note are the dimensions folding sights will come in, with variations ranging from gas block height, rail height, and 'micro' sized sights. The gas block height front sights are taller than the 'standard' rail height front sights to allow them to be mounted on a railed gas block instead of the front of a free floated hand guard. Rail height sights are the most ubiquitous variety, matching the rail atop the upper receiver and the hand guard. Micro sized sights are shorter in height, meant to match up to particular rail heights of other rifle series such as the SIG 550, HK 416, or SCAR rifles, generally there won't be a reason to even consider this height if you're dealing with market standard AR 15 parts.

My personal recommendation on this is to buy a set of metal, non-spring assisted folding sights and mount them to the rear of the upper receiver and as far forward on a free float rail as possible. This is for a number of reasons; chiefly I recommend metal sights (at least for the front sight) since certain polymer back up sights that are on the market have a tendency to melt if mounted on the gas block.

Trigger (Single Stage vs Two Stage; Aftermarket Options)

The default trigger system in mil-spec rifles is a single stage trigger. What will come in the standard build lower parts kit will be a mil-spec style single stage trigger. This will generally be a fairly heavy trigger pull for a heavy snap feeling break. While it works and is good enough for most general purpose rifles, many shooters decide to upgrade to a two-stage trigger later.

A vast majority of aftermarket triggers are two-stage triggers, changing the trigger pull feel to some amount of no-effort take-up to a light, crisp break. The two largest names in the AR-15 aftermarket trigger industry are Geissele and Timney, however there are other brands out there producing their own triggers such as Rock River Arms and Spike’s Tactical.

My recommendation for a good trigger upgrade is to wait until you know how you shoot and the way you want to shoot before throwing your lot in with any particular trigger system. Many companies make specific triggers for combat, precision shooting, 3-gun competition shooting, etc. Working with a mil-spec single stage at the first part of your AR-15 ownership will provide you with valuable experience before being pampered by a two stage system.

Extras (KNS anti-rotation pins, etc)

Of course, as the nickname goes, the AR-15 is ‘Barbie for men’ with more accessories than you can shake a stick at. These little gizmos and doodads range from anti-rotation pins in the receiver to accurizing wedges in the lower receiver or even cant mounts for putting alternative 45 degree angle sights on your rifle. I won’t be recommending anything in particular in this section, but it is worthwhile to note that a beginner level consumer should probably look around before committing to any single particular set of extra gadgets that may be unnecessary to their shooting style.

DIY vs Pre-Assembled

Having finished with all of that, the remaining question is “Do I buy a rifle that’s already been fully assembled, or do I try and build one for myself?” There are distinct advantages to a pre-assembled rifle, with the most recent one being a cheaper overall price tag. Recently many companies have pushed down their prices for buying complete rifles from them, which gives an additional level of warranty service over simple individual part guarantees. With a complete rifle, if your rifle doesn’t function as advertised or experiences some severe failure, the company will normally have it sent back to them and they’ll fix it for you, unlike a self-built rifle which will require the attention of an experienced gunsmith if the system as a whole does not function properly even when the individual parts are fine.

However, building your own rifle also has its advantages. If you decide to build your own AR-15, starting with a stripped lower receiver, you can make it exactly the way you want it, tuning everything down to the type of detents and buffer weights you want to start out with. The downside of all of this lies in building the upper receiver assembly, which will require a vice and specialized tools needed to deal with the AR-15. The level of modularity available to the AR-15 platform in the consumer market lends to a very personal build, allowing you to satisfy what you want in the gun instead of languishing over what-could-have-beens and selling the gun later as a result of this disappointment.

To split the difference, it is also perfectly viable to build a complete upper receiver or complete lower receiver and then just buy a pre-built assembly from a major manufacturer and put the two together. The only warning I have here, again, is that the upper receiver takes more effort and a few more tools to build than the lower receiver does, and this is a major stopping point for most people.

My personal recommendation on this matter is to build a lower receiver on your own and customize it to how you want it and then buy a pre-built upper receiver. Most of the hard work will be done for you, allowing you to customize your gun to how you like it from there.

US Rifle vs Pistol Designation

Particular to US law, you can buy AR-15 lower receivers designated for either a pistol or a rifle. The rifle option is fairly straightforward; you can put a stock on it and throw any upper receiver with a 16” or longer barrel on it with no repercussions or extra paperwork. However, if you want a barrel shorter than 16 inches, you have to be in a state which allows Short Barreled Rifles for civilians and will have to fill out a form and pay for a tax stamp for the SBR.

The pistol designation goes the other way, it may never have a stock or vertical fore-grip attached to it, although you can use whatever length upper receiver you feel since it is considered a long barreled pistol.

Author and Editor Opinion (The Round-Up)

To reiterate my opinion, if this is your first AR-15 (or even first semi-automatic long arm) I would recommend you buy a complete rifle with a 16” barrel (for modularity of the muzzle device) with a 1:7 twist, chrome lined barrel, mid-length gas system (and therefore a 9”+ rail) in 5.56x45mm from a major manufacturer (I happen to like Daniel Defense). What other accessories or furniture you decide to install on it can be cultivated over time (for a lot less than what it would cost to change barrels and upper receivers). From there I would recommend 3 or 4 times the amount spent on the whole rifle be spent on ammunition to go out and practice shooting it since that’s what will make you successful.

However if this is not your first rodeo, I would recommend building your own AR-15 from a stripped lower receiver and buying a complete upper receiver to match the purpose that you’re looking to shoot the gun in.

I’ve avoided discussing any form of optics for sake of brevity, that would require another guide unto itself to really explore even a beginner’s set. Learn to shoot with iron sights first before you rely on glass.

Lessons From Not Operators

1. Research is key


Firearms - Before buying anything firearms related, research it in detail. Read reviews, research the ammo ballistics, check out the competition. Know how it works, how to take it apart, and how it shoots. Don’t buy into the hype that it’s ‘mil-spec’ or made for DEVGRU or was used by the SAS. Military contracts are cheap and lowest bidder and serve only as the lowest standard of form and function. You want to be sure you’re buying the best tool for your purposes, and you don’t want any surprises. Make sure you research prices and market fluctuations as well, and be on the lookout for deals to save yourself some money.

Technology - Before buying any device, research it. Read reviews, research specifications, licenses,  hardware, build quality, software, and check out the competition. Know how it works, how to take it apart if possible, and what the benefits/disadvantages are. As with the above, don’t buy into the hype and ecstatic promises; benchmarks and independent verification are the most important factors. You want to be sure you’re buying the best tool for your purposes, and you don’t want any surprises. Make sure you research prices and next generation release dates as well,  and be on the lookout for deals to save yourself some money.


2. Save up for what you really want


Firearms - If what you want is a $2000 AR15, do not buy a $700 AR15, do not buy a $600 AK, do not buy a $700 Galil. If what you want is a $1700 Nighthawk Custom 1911, do not buy a $1200 Kimber 1911, do not buy a $700 Sig Sauer pistol, do not buy a $600 Glock, or even a $500 CZ. You will not be content with a substitute. If you think it will “tide you over until you can afford it”, you are wrong. It will cost you more money overall to keep “tiding yourself over” than it would to save up and buy your original desire, and you’ll ultimately be much happier with the gun you really want.

Technology - If what you want is a $1500 Digital Storm PC, do not buy a $1000 Dell PC, do not buy a $600 HP PC. If what you want is a $650 Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, do not buy a $480 Motorola Droid Razr M, do not buy a $300 LG Nexus 4 phone. You will not be content with a substitute. Keep in mind your computer/tablet/phone/etc will probably be with you for at least a few years. Do not buy something mediocre and expect to be happy with it for 2 years, or even expect it to last that amount of time. Spend the extra money because you will be happier with the end result. $700 spent on a device you won’t enjoy is $700 you’ve thrown away, $1500 spent on a device you’ll love is $1500 you’ve spent wisely. If you can’t afford it, save for it, don’t compromise. While you are saving, be sure to keep an eye on the news of what’s coming for the next generation: a vast majority of technology is refreshed in yearly periods, with new models and improvements being released constantly and consistently. Though you may not have the money now for what looks like the best thing, a greater, better thing is usually on its way.


3. Focus your spending on what will provide the most value


Firearms - This means your money is better spent buying more ammo than buying more firearms. Shoot the guns you have and become proficient. Put in the time and the money to master the guns you have rather than to expand your collection. Buying more guns will not improve your accuracy, precision, or speed, but buying practice ammo and a shot timer will. Feel free to diversify once you’ve sufficiently mastered what you have, it’ll be a well deserved reward. However, do not neglect those skills, buying a new gun doesn’t mean you can stop practicing with your old ones. This also means you should both select and put more money into a primary firearm. A better sight on your one rifle is worth more to you than having two rifles with poor sights.

Technology - This means your money is better spent on your primary computer/device. Having a variety of different computers/devices is great, but if you insist on spreading your cash around, you’ll end up with 10 bargain bin devices rather than 1 or 2 truly spectacular ones. Your primary device is the one that will get the most use, make sure it gets the attention and upgrades it deserves.


4. Specialize


Firearms - Unlike Alton Brown’s advice on unitasker tools, purchasing a firearm that does one thing well is a better idea than trying to find something that does everything all at once. This means that you want to put together an awesome setup that does one thing and does it very well. There’s been a recent craze on a buzzword termed the “Jack” rifle, short for “Jack of All Trades”, which is a noble goal in the high level view but if you can afford to spend money building a boutique ‘do everything’ rifle, you have the money to define specific roles you want from a certain set of firearms and define purchases therein. Furthermore, attempting to use any individual firearm to accomplish two roles on either extreme end of the engagement spectrum is asinine, and you’ll only be met with sorrow in attempting to do so.

Technology - Buy devices that will best serve the purposes you plan on using them for. For example, if you plan on taking pictures that need to look professional, do not rely on your cell phone’s camera. Buy a dedicated camera that will get the job done. If you need a high performance computer that can also play games as well as a portable computer to take with you daily, do not buy a “gaming laptop” believing that it will kill two birds with one stone, build yourself a high end desktop PC, and buy yourself a decently portable laptop. An “in between” device will end up being something that can do one or the other, but won’t do either one very well. Buy the device that best fits the purpose you have for it, avoid compromising on a jack of all trades, because you will be unhappy and unproductive with the result.