5 Best AR15s on a Budget: Red Dots, Tactical Lights, and more

It’s no secret that the AR15 is one of the most effective and versatile rifles in the world. It comes in thousands of varieties, with even more accessories. This can make it difficult to find the best AR15s on a budget, and what accessories you actually need to be effective. This article is going to be a simple and complete guide for purchasing a great budget AR15 setup. Keep reading for more.

Contrary to what large firearm manufacturers would have you believe, you don’t actually need to spend thousands of dollars on a rifle, and all the best gear, to have a very capable setup. Unfortunately, it’s also true that you can’t spend $400 dollars on a junk rifle, and expect reliable performance. This leaves us with a bit of conundrum. How much do you need to spend to get a high quality AR15 rifle?

For this article you will see rifles ranging from $650 to $1000 dollars. In my opinion this is the sweet spot for reliability and performance. Sure, you can get something cheaper, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. You will also see that most of the rifles I’ve included in this list come from larger manufacturers, in United States, for a very specific reason.

The biggest difference between a cheap, piece of junk rifle, and a very expensive home defense setup, is the quality control, and machining tolerances of the rifle. Large firearms manufacturers have already invested in quality control processes, and multimillion dollar machining equipment.

This means that they will use the same high quality machines, even on their budget offerings. If you actually do a detailed analysis of the components between their lowest and highest quality parts, you’ll find the materials might be different, but the quality and accuracy of the machining is likely the same.

I say all of that to say this. You’re more likely to find better semi-automatic rifles from larger companies, than smaller mom and pop manufacturers. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means it’s going to be more difficult. Here is the list of rifles that I’m recommending as the 5 best AR15s on a budget.

5 Best AR15s on a Budget

Notice I didn’t put these rifles in numerical order. That’s for a reason. At this price range each of these AR15s offers about the same quality, with different features for each one. This means that each rifle is probably better for different individuals.

It’s also important to point out that some rifles include things like: picatinny rails, free-floating handguards, and low-profile gas blocks. Where as others do not. This leads us to our next question. If quality and reliability are equal, what features are most important for a great modern sporting rifle setup?

The Best Features for Your AR15

Most entry level rifles come with similar features, but there are a few key features that I look for on any rifle in this category. First and foremost, I look for a free floated handguard. This means that the rifle’s fore end is directly mounted to the receiver, and does not touch the barrel.

As you might image, handguards that touch the barrel, that aren’t free-floated, will affect the accuracy because different pressures are being applied to the barrel depending on how you’re holding the rifle during use. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it can cost a lot of accuracy at distance.

The second most important thing I look for is a decent handguard system, already installed on the rifle. This is the entry level rifle category. It doesn’t make sense to buy a rifle, and then spend several hundred dollars more, modifying it with accessories that it should have come with in the first place.

It doesn’t really matter if the rifle has an M-LOK handguard or a Picatinny system, it just needs to have one of those installed from the factory, preferably in a free floated system, which increases accuracy at longer range. I generally stay away from old school plastic handguards, as they’re just wasted money.

Lastly, it’s nice to have a lighter trigger, but that isn’t a must have. The rifles I shot in the Marine Corps would make you cry to feel their trigger pull, but you can still shoot very accurately with them. It’s just easier / nicer to shoot a lighter trigger.

Now that we’ve some of our must haves figured out, let’s take a look at the individual rifles, to figure out which of these best AR15s on a budget fits your needs.

5 Best AR15s on a Budget

In this section I will cover the 5 best AR15s on a budget. We will be starting from the cheapest rifles to the most expensive ones in this budget category. Try not to get bogged down by thinking that the more expensive offerings are going to be better. This isn’t necessarily true, it just means they likely have some features you may or may not need. Keep an open mind, as all these rifles can get the job done.

It’s worth noting that all these AR15s are standard .223 / 5.56 NATO caliber. There are many other great rifle calibers, like my favorite 300 Blackout, but I’m sticking with 5.56mm for this list. The ammo is generally cheaper, and it’s just as effective as 7.62 for self defense. Don’t believe me, check this article out.

Smith and Wesson M&P 15 Sport II

The Smith and Wesson M&P 15 Sport II is by far the best bang for you buck rifle. As of this writing you can purchase it for $649. This is a screaming deal, considering the value it provides. It features a 16 inch barrel length, a carbine-length gas system, and a picatinny rail for mounting optics. Here are the specs below.

Smith and Wesson M&P 15 II

This AR15 is extremely lightweight. It tips the scales around 6.5 pounds, and it features a 16-inch barrel, with standard A2 flash hider. It comes with a Magpul MLOK fore end, which allows you to mount almost any accessory you like. It also includes a fixed front sight, and pop up rear sight. This is great, as you can shoot it right out of the box, without buying any additional accessories, as long as you don’t mind iron sights.

The only bad part about this rifle is the handguard isn’t free floated, which means you are giving up some accuracy at distance. That isn’t a huge concern unless you plan on shooting at hundreds of yards. It also comes with a standard mil-spec trigger, which is less than ideal.

If you need a basic AR15 setup, that’s compatible with quality accessories, then this is your best option. You simply can’t beat this price for the value. This brings us to our next offering on the list of best AR15s on a budget, the Ruger AR556

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Ruger AR556 MLOK

The Ruger AR556 with MLOK handguard is a great option from a quality manufacturer. In fact, my very first AR15 was a Ruger SR556c, which is still running well today. Of all the rifles on this list, this is probably what I’d buy if I wanted a great home defense, multi-purpose rifle for the money. As of this writing it retails for $749.

Ruger AR556 specs
Ruger AR556

This rifle comes with everything you need and nothing you don’t. You will definitely need to mount your own sighting system, as it doesn’t come with any sights out of the box. No need to worry, we’ve got you covered in the accessories section below.

It also features a durable bolt-carrier group, which has been pressure tested from the factory. The bolt is made of 9310 alloy steel which should last a long time. The overall length is between 32 and 35.5 inches.

I particularly like that this rifle includes a great MLOK rail, that’s normally featured on more expensive rifles. This aluminum rail is 11 inches in length. It allows for a more comfortable grip for bigger shooters due to its length. You might notice it features angled M-LOK slots at the front of the rail. This is something that most shooters overlook, and it’s a great feature.

These angled slots allow you to mount things like lights and or lasers closer to your handguard. This makes these accessories easier to use, and improves the ergonomics. It seems like a “no big deal” feature, but it will make shooting this rifle much more comfortable.

The rest of the specs on this rifle are right in line with the other rifles on this list. The only real downside is the lack of sights with this rifle. This means you can’t shoot it out of the box with adding a sighting system. Now, let’s move on to the next rifle, the Sig Sauer M400 Tread.

Sig Sauer M400 Tread

The Sig Sauer M400 is a newer offering from Sig. They normally make high priced, premium rifles like the Sig Rattler, which is one of the best AR-15 rifles out there. It’s so good even Delta Force uses it. Most recently they’ve been in the news for wining the contract to provide the Army with their Next Generation Squad Weapons. If they can pass the Army’s testing, then they should be good enough for us! Right now you can purchase this excellent rifle for around $850.

Sig Sauer Tread M400 Specs
Sig Sauer M400 Tread

This rifle comes with a lot of premium features you just won’t find on any of the other guns in this list. In my mind, this makes it the best option for those that plan on shooting the gun a lot. The standout feature is clearly the trigger.

Most reviewers report that the trigger comes in around 5-6 pounds, which makes it lighter, and cleaner than a standard, gritty, mil-spec trigger. All things being equal, this feature alone makes the rifle worth picking up.

Next, it comes with a great Magpul stock that is going to be more comfortable than a standard collapsable stock. It’s flared slightly, which allows for a better cheek weld. While this is a relatively minor difference, it does improve the rifle’s feel.

The other feature that makes this rifle more comfortable to shoot is the slim M-LOK rail. Now, I know it looks a bit strange, coming off the upper and lower receiver, but this slim profile allows you to wrap more of your hand around it. It’s able to do this because of the low-profile gas block, at the end of the barrel. Personally, I find shooting slimmer handguards to be more enjoyable, and easier to control.

The last big ticket item for this rifle is the ambidextrous controls. The Tread has a dual sided safety which allows you to activate it no matter what hand you use to work the trigger. This is great for tactical and competition shooters, who need to be able to switch shoulders and still work the rifle.

I think this is your best value for shooters that want to shoot a lot. It would surely be a shame to buy a nice rifle like this, and leave it locked up all the time! Next let’s move on to the Springfield Armory Saint Victor.

Springfield Saint Victor MLOK

The Springfield Saint Victor is the most premium feeling rifle on this list, for good reason. It comes with an excellent free-floating handguard, easy shooting mid-length gas system, premium trigger, and excellent accessories straight from the box. It’s a great complete rifle; however, it’s also one of the more expensive offerings, retailing around $950.

Springfield Armory Victor Specs
Springfield Armory Saint Victor

This rifle includes several of the most popular add on features that most shooters ending up buying for their rifles. It has a great enhanced SOPMOD stock, and after-market pistol grip. It comes ready to shoot, since Springfield included flip up iron sights on the rifle, from the factory.

Like the Tread, this rifle includes even more M-LOK locations to mount lights / lasers which is nice. Unlike the other rifles on this list, this is the only rifle that includes a muzzle brake as its muzzle device. This means that the recoil is mitigated by directing the gas away from the shooter. This is both a good and a bad thing.

If you plan on shooting this rifle outdoors, then it’s great, and it will make follow up shots a breeze. If you plan on shooting this at an indoor range, or inside to defend yourself, then be prepared to feel some concussion from the brake. I find indoor shooting with brakes more of an annoyance, but it can bother some people.

This rifle also comes with a better than Mil-spec trigger, which most reviewers report breaking around 6 pounds. This makes the Saint Victor a nice all around package. If you plan on shooting something like a 3-gun competition with your rifle, then this would make an excellent choice. Next we’ll move on to the most expensive rifle on this list. The Colt 5.56 Carbine.

Colt Carbine 5.56

To be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t think you could actually purchase a new Colt Carbine 5.56 for around $1000. I randomly came across this offering when doing my research for the article, and knew I had to include it on this list. Colt makes a great rifle, and they’ve been making AR15s for decades. As you’ll see, this is a great quality rifle for right around $1000.

  • Barrel 1/7 Twist
  • M-LOK Handguard
  • MILSPEC Trigger
  • A2 Flashhider
  • 5.56mm NATO Caliber
Colt 5.56 Carbine

This rifle is a bare bones rifle. It doesn’t come with iron sights, a fancy trigger, or premium accessories. It’s also the most expensive rifle on this list. This begs the question why it’s even here.

It made the list because of Colts well deserved reputation for producing rugged, and extremely durable rifles for the military and civilians. They’ve been doing this for a long time, over 50 years, and they’ve figured out how to make a great AR15.

This rifle includes a great full length MLOK handguard, which makes it lighter than a standard picatinny railed version. This is the rifle to buy if you want a high quality option that can be upgraded to a truly premium setup.

We’ve covered all 5 of the best AR15s on a budget, but that’s only half of the story. We really need to cover the accessories you need to make the rifle useful. In this next section we’ll cover rifle sights, lights, and other accessories you might want to include.

Must Have Accessories to Complete Your Rifle

There is only one must have for all of these rifles, and that’s a high quality aiming solution. Sure, some of the rifles come with iron sights, but let’s be honest, they don’t work as well as a red dot sight, or a magnified optic. You can also purchase a high quality red dot sight for less than $150 these days, so there really is no reason to shoot irons.

Finding the right sight for your application is much more important than worrying about a chrome-lined barrel, or a special charging handle. It’s crucial to pick the right system for your needs. In the next section we’ll help you find your best option.

Choosing the Right AR15 Sight for You

There are a lot of myths when you compare magnified optics to red dots or reflex sights. Many less experienced shooters believe that a rifle scope is slower than a red dot, or that you can’t use a red dot at extended distances. These aren’t true, and I encourage you to read this article where I compare low powered variable optics to red dot sights. I use actual shooting times and data to dispel some very common myths for both types of sights. Give it a read if you want all the details. Now let’s review the questions above so you can find your ideal aiming solution.

What Level of Detail Do You Need to See Before You Shoot?

Most people talk about shooting at closer or longer ranges, but this isn’t the key thing you need ask yourself. You should really ask how well do you need to see your target before shooting. Given normal vision, and good lighting conditions, it can be hard to determine whether someone is carrying a pistol past 50 yards, with the unaided eye. You can probably see where I’m going with this.

If you’re using the optic for self defense purposes, or tactical purposes, then you’ll find that identifying a threat with a pistol past 50 yards becomes problematic. In a real world scenario you can use auditory clues, like gun fire, and other visual clues like tactical movements, to help make a threat determination. Given this info you might think that I’m advocating for a magnified optic, but wait there’s more!

If you have a magnified optic, and you’re target is only 10 yards away, you might very well find that the magnification will only show you a small portion of your target’s upper body. You may not be able to see their hands to determine if they’re carrying a weapon.

If you have any training you know that you should identify a threat before moving the optic to your eye. Now imagine your threat drops the pistol as you mount the scope. That can be a catastrophic problem, both legally and morally.

A Good Rule of Thumb When Choosing AR15 Optics

In general, if you expect to engage targets closer than 50 yards (home defense distances), then you should pick a red dot sight, or holographic sight. These optics project an aiming reticle onto the glass, allowing you to quickly place the dot on target, and engage as needed. Crucially, these optics do not require perfect eye alignment or placement. Once your optic is zeroed, you need only see the dot on your target before you can pull the trigger.

If you expect to engage the majority of your targets at further than 50 yards, then you’re probably better off with a variable optic. As you’ll see later on, you can purchase several quality optics that have variable magnification from zero all the way up to 10 power. Next let’s talk about about your budget.

Will you be betting your life on the optic?

Often times you’ll see folks agonize about their budget, an avoid the real question. If you’re betting your life on the optic, then you need to buy something that you can bet your life on. If you’re just using it for plinking, then you can forego some durability or fancy options that you won’t need or use.

These days you can find a duty grade red dot optic for $300 plus dollars. There are several options that are cheaper, one of which is probably duty grade, but you’ll find that $150+ dollars is the price floor for most quality red dot optics.

Quality magnified optics are right around the $400 dollar mark. However, you’ll generally have to purchase a good quality mount which is around $100 dollars, in addition to the scope. If you need extreme durability or magnification range, you can quickly get into thousands of dollars. Now let’s talk about folks with vision problems.

Do You Have Vision Problems?

This is the least important question, as there are technical solutions that can fix this problem for shooters with vision problems. Shooters with astigmatism, or other vision issues, will generally find that a magnified optic has a clearer reticle. This is because you can manually focus the reticle for your eye ball.

Red dot optics can be blurry for those with astigmatism, and there is no way to focus a red dot sight. There are some prism style optics that have no magnification. These optics can be a good choice for shooters with vision issues.

I will say that if I had astigmatism, and I needed to shoot at close range, I would still pick a fuzzy red dot over a magnified optic. The size of the dot at these close ranges is inconsequential compared to your need to see, and identify a target quickly. Here are my recommendations for budget red dots, and magnified optics. If you want even more recommendations then check out this article where I cover my top 7 recommendations for both.

Sig Sauer Romeo 5 Red Dot Optic

The Sig Sauer Romeo 5 red dot optic is by far the best red dot sight for your money. At the time of this writing, you can pick up one of these optics for less than $130. Normally I would say that an optic at this price point is junk, but there are quite a few videos on Youtube that show just how durable this optic is.

I’ve also seen this optic on some heavy use sub guns, and rifles, and it seems to work quite well. Of note, it does feature motion activation, which is great. This allows it to turn off automatically when not in use, greatly prolonging the battery life. This makes it the best choice for value in red dots.

Sig Sauer Romeo5 Red Dot for AR15
Sig Sauer Romeo5

You can see the specs are more than adequate for the price you’re paying. One of the important things to note is the objective lens size. It’s 20mm, which is on the smaller side. For some shooters this is fine, as they don’t want a large optic blocking their peripheral vision. Where as others prefer a larger objective lens to view more of the target, especially at close range. For me it’s not a deal breaker, it’s just an FYI.

Trijicon MRO Red Dot Optic

The Trijicon MRO is one of my favorite red dot optics. In fact, I did a review on the Trijicon MRO a few years back and really enjoyed it. It’s the optic that’s currently sitting on my bump in the night gun. It even has a few high end features like night vision settings. It also features a 25mm objective lens, which can improve your overall situational awareness when looking through the optic.

Trijicon MRO

This optic comes in right around $450, with an included mount. I found the dot to be very crisp, with some slight distortion in the glass. It’s only perceptible if you switch between several red dots regularly. It’s effectively water proof and has a solid battery life rating. Like any red dot optic, it is parallax free, and has unlimited eye relief. This is your Toyota Tacoma of optics. It’ll work for ever, and is a good value.

Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8X24 Scope

The Vortex Strike Eagle is a great value for your dollar, especially considering it provides up to 8x magnification. This particular deal provides a one piece mount, as well as the optic for right around $500. This scope is a big improvement over the first generation of Strike Eagles. It’s waterproof and shock resistant, and will always work because it has an etched reticle.

Vortex 1-8x Scope AR15
Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8x Scope

One of the best features with this AR15 scope is the built in bullet drop reticle . This means that you don’t have to dial the turrets for long range shots, or guess which stadia lines you should use. Once you understand the reticle, you know your holds intuitively.

Similarly, this optic features and illuminated reticle, which allows this scope to function like a red dot optic at low power. It has numerous brightness settings, allowing for usage in bright or dim conditions. I’ve used this style of illuminated reticle in other Vortex optics, and I’m a big fan when shooting quickly, at close range.

The only down side to an optic this size can be the weight. If you include the mount, this package comes in around 1.2 pounds. This might not matter for most folks, but if you’re looking for a light weight build, this isn’t ideal!

Now that you have three great choices for your budget AR15, let’s talk about the only other accessory that most folks are likely to need, a tactical light.

The Best Budget Rifle Lights

In this section I will include two great options for tactical lights. Both of them come in right around $150 dollars. They are both rugged and durable. If you plan on using your rifle for self defense, then I highly recommend adding one of these lights on your rifle. Bad things happen at night, and shooting at shapes in the dark is likely to end in jail and heartbreak.

Inforce WMLx Gen 2

I think the Inforce WMLx Gen 2 is the best bang for the buck AR15 tactical light on the market. As of this writing it costs less than $150 dollars, making it a great choice for your AR-15 rifle. The best thing about this light is that it doesn’t require any remote pressure pads or other accessories.

I’ve used tons of pressure pads, and they can work well, but I can tell you that they fail on a semi-regular basis. They require cable management, and they can become snag hazards if you don’t run the cables smartly along your weapons rails. As you’ll see this doesn’t preclude lights with pressure pads from making the best budget flashlights for ar15 list a little later on.

Inforce WMLx specs
Inforce WMLx Gen 2 best budget flashlights for ar15

This weapons light has some great features including an 800 lumen output, and a light weight of around 4 ounces. It also has a manual lockout if you really don’t want the light to turn on, like when you’re carrying it in a case. It also has different modes, like a strobe mode.

Lastly it mounts directly to your picatinny rail without needing an adapter. This Inforce tactical light is ready to go right out of the box, which makes it very good value. Quite often you need a special mount, or other accessories to actually use the light in a tactical environment.

I would also like to respond to some of the haters out there that say a plastic flashlight is junk, and no serious user would rely on it. I think you’ll find that they don’t have to consider the best budget flashlights for AR15 use and yet the SEALs (including DEVGRU) are still using them.

Streamlight TLR RM1

The Streamlight TLR RM1 is a great compact light for smaller pistol style AR15s. If you have a shorter barrel then you probably want to consider this light. As of this writing the RM1 can be purchased for right around $150. This is a good deal considering all of the accessories, like the remote switch, that you get with the light.

Streamlight RM1 specs
Streamlight RM1 tactical lights

This is also one of the lightest options, coming in at 2.74 ounces. It’s half the weight of the next lightest light, the Inforce WMLx. This is partially because it only takes one CR123 battery. This does have the side affect of limiting light output to 500 lumens.

Personally I’ve found 500 lumens to work well for home defense, but don’t expect to light up the night if you’re using your gun outdoors for some night time plinking. For most compact AR15 style pistols, like my POF Renegade Plus, you tend to need the remote pressure switch.

You have less rail real-estate to mount a light, and as a result most folks tend to mount it on the 3 o’clock side, putting the pressure pad around the 12 o’clock position. This is generally the most comfortable option.

This has been a long article, but it had to be, to truly include all the things you need to consider for the best AR15s on a budget. Let’s wrap it up.

Final Thoughts

I always like to remind my readers that while I include a lot of detail, you don’t need to sweat the minutia, which is a good thing when considering the best AR15s on a budget. Any of the equipment on this page will serve you well. You can put together the best AR15 on a budget, with these accessories for less than $1000. However, equipment alone isn’t good enough.

You need to learn to use your setup, and practice with it, until you develop competence with your rifle. If you’re newer to shooting, then I recommend finding a reputable instructor, like the guys at American Warrior Society. If you already have the basics down, then makes sure you put several hundred rounds through your rifle after you get the sight zero’d.

If you have any questions or comments put them in the section below, and I’ll get you an answer. Now get out there and get training!

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