AR-15-Point of Diminishing Returns?

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Mike J

Jul 3, 2007
So lately I have been looking around at different options for another AR-15. I have pretty much made up my mind what I want & it is not high end. That I know of AR-15 prices run from around $350 for a BCA to over $2000 for a Daniel Defense. I have no idea how much someone might spend on a build to get exactly what they want. So what is the point where there is the most value-that if one goes beyond they get less improvement for the money spent?
IMO the Ruger, or Smith AR's or similar in that price range do everything I need. PSA and several others are good too. If you know what you're doing it's possible to put together an AR of equal or better quality for less money but for the average Joe that wants something off the shelf one of those are good choices.

It's been a while since I've priced AR's, but I'm thinking $500-$700 will still get you a decent one.
There is no objective nor sensible inflection point where value is truly broken. There are under-valued models and over-priced models.

The trivial result is the truth - the best value in an AR is irrefutably found in the cheapest AR’s on the market. Buying a $350-500 AR can deliver 100% reliability in any civilian application, and accuracy with proper ammo which serves well. Things are different now than they were 20yrs ago during the ban - we aren’t stuck fabricating components just to get into a float tube, we can buy enhanced triggers at box stores instead of paying smiths to modify Mil-spec triggers to still relatively suck, we can get any number of shooter-friendly affects to improve shootability… chrome lined drain pipes are still chrome lined drain pipes, and quality barrels are more expensive than ever, but the reality remains - most bargain model AR’s shoot small enough to keep almost anyone happy, and again, reliability is a basal standard for civilian applications where AR’s are useful… it’s not a terribly interesting result, but more money above the lowest price which buys ANY AR for any given point in time is delivering less performance value.

That’s just a reality.
AR’s kinda like cars. A $30,000 dollar Toyota is every bit as functional of a vehicle as a $100,000 Mercedes, it just lacks some of the finishing and niceties.

If you just want a good functional AR then pick out your preferred flavor from PSA. If you know you want fancy coatings, match grade barrel, good trigger, etc… out of the box, then by all means pick out your Gucci AR of choice.

Also in my opinion just like with cars it’s getting harder to make a bad choice in AR’s as pretty much all the major brands have them pretty well figured out now, which wasn’t always the case. There will be many that say if it’s not a colt or Daniel Defense it won’t even function, but that just hasn’t been my experience.
From what I have seen recently, the bang-for-buck championship ends in 3 places, and all are worthy of the crown depending upon where you place the most importance.

PSA sells good stuff cheap. Flat out. Not going to be anything cheap about getting away from the basics though. Want something other than 5.56, 300 blk, or 7.62x39 then you quickly start paying through the nose for getting away from the most common calibers.

Bear Creek Armory. Good stuff cheaper. Might need to tweak it, but good stuff nonetheless. The rub here is that there’s a lot of complaints about barrel nut torque, and things not assembled with as much care as some more premium brands. If you know your way around the guts of an AR then you probably have the tools to fix it right and tinker if it’s needed, but in reality it probably won’t be needed. The beauty here is the variety of options without much change in price. Want a 5.56 then it’s a $200-300 upper. Want an oddball caliber like 450 bushmaster, it’s a $250-350 upper. Same for complete rifles, lowers, or barrels.

Then there’s the Omni. Almost as loved as the dodge POS that went by the same name. Light, basic, cheap, but pretty slick for being the absolute cheapest thing commonly found laying around at the gun shop. Plastic upper and lower with metal reinforcements molded into it. The early Omni parts didn’t have the metal bits and gave poly lowers a bad reputation for breaking at the back of the reciever just about where your palm touches between the grip and the buffer tube. A metal strut in the plastic has fixed that. I still have reservations about torquing a barrel on a predominantly plastic upper reciever, and I question how long it will last with a bolt reciprocating, especially when it’s hot, but whatever. The guns work though, and they are cheap.

So where’s the point where your dollars buying power starts diminishing with respect to added quality in an AR? Right above that price point. A bear creek complete gun runs in the 400 ballpark plus tax and transfer. Call it $500. A PSA upper and lower that you slip together will be about 450 plus tax and transfer. $550 should cover that. The last Omni I picked up recently was $419.99 in the store and there was a pallet of about 200 of them sitting there. After tax that’s still in the same ballpark. So I’m saying that the inflection point is right around $525.
For me it's not necessarily price, it's the component quality. That USUALLY is somewhat tied to price, but not always.

The car analogy before is pretty decent. However I think a tool analogy is a better one. Buying tools means different things to different people. As a guy who occasionally does light maintenance and parts replacement on my cars, a 50 dollar impact wrench from Harbor Freight makes sense. My buddy who owns an auto performance shop and regularly builds 20k dollar racing motors probably wants something more like a Snap On.
My Aero & Anderson lowers with Del-Ton, AR Stoner and PSA uppers all are good guns to shoot. I won’t win any matches, nor take any trophy critters with them, but for afternoons spent shooting these are as fun as my much pricier Colt & BCM rifles are. :D

Stay safe.
So what is the point where there is the most value-that if one goes beyond they get less improvement for the money spent?
If value for money is what you're after, stick to the $350-$400 budget ARs. They work just fine and are accurate enough for most purposes, and most recreational shooters will not put enough rounds through them to wear out or break any parts.

Even if you do put thousands of rounds a year through it, replace the individual components that wear out or break with better ones over time. This is the most cost effective solution to shooting an AR.

A $700, $1200, or $2500 AR will be nicer to handle and maybe more accurate or marginally more reliable (not a guarantee!), but for that money you can buy multiple $350 ARs and have a spare if one breaks. :)

Now if you want a nicer, more pleasant, better feeling AR, I'd say the point of diminishing returns for these more subjective qualities is probably around the $700-$800 mark these days.
Something which should go without saying in threads like this is the definition of “diminishing returns.”

In this context, it’s fairly obvious that “diminishing returns” means “continuing to spend more without gaining as much performance or quality.”

“Diminishing returns,” isn’t necessarily the same thing as “negative returns,” more appropriately known as “losses.”

So simply, yea, in general, and almost unilaterally, spending more on an AR does buy a better AR, but less and less than the dollar before. $350-500 can buy a fully functional, reliable, and reasonably accurate AR-15. $500 more does buy a better AR. $500 more DOES buy a better AR still, but the gap between $500 and $1000 and $1000 to $1500 is smaller in performance and quality. $500 more buys a better AR still, and $500 more than that, still can a better AR than that, but by the time you’re spending $2000 or $2500, or more, on an AR, you’re obviously in a niche where specific application parameters levy very, very specific demands, dictating a very particular AR.

But… “objectively better” for the application remains to be “objectively better,” even if a dollar is buying as much difference as was bought with a dime at lower price points.
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I bought a Bushmaster M-4 years ago. Not the best AR but not the worst either. At least the gas key and castle nut were properly staked. It has never missed a beat in 1560 rounds fired. No malfunctions. No stoppages...nothing at all. I once put 500 rounds through it without cleaning it, but I kept it well lubed. It never missed a beat. (late edit ) It shot inch groups @ 100 yards.

I paid around $700 for the thing at a now extinct Gander Mountain. I can't imagine a more expensive AR doing any better.
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I am really not sure how you can do much better than this:

Colt OEM 2

I do have some Anderson's and some Aero's and have been please with them as well.

For my serious guns, I like Colt or DD. I am pretty sure that might be an old school view but they both work boringly well. My Colt's have taken more than an average beating and still work like the day I bought them.

I can't recommend the Colt OEM1 or OEM2 highly enough for the best bones you can buy to build out what you want without completely breaking the bank.
Three parts, and only three, make or break an AR. That's an AR-15 or AR-10.

Barrel, Trigger, and bolt. Not BGC...BOLT.
To a much smaller degree, albeit not nessasary, is an adjustable gas block.

The rest is just window dressing that adds absolutely nothing in the accuracy or reliability department. Nothing. Zero ZILTCH.

Handguard, long as it's free floated, doesn't make any difference. Just rails or slots to hang stuff on makes some more convenient than others.

Grip..whatever fits your hand best.

Named stamped on the lower...that's a stupidity test. The more you pay for the roll stamp..the dumber you are. If a lower is Mil Spec...nothing else matters. NOTHING.

Upper, not much difference here either. Mil spec..good to go. Heat fit like BCM (Not BCA), questionable benefit. Personally, didn't see a dang bit of difference other than price.

Verdict...paying more for a fancy name upper is an even bigger stupidity test...

Bottom line...paying more for a good barrel, BOLT and Trigger provides best value.

Paying more for fancy names stamped on side..dumb.
I agree with megawatt that the critical parts are the barrel, bolt, and trigger.
Most of mine were built on the cheap in the $300-500 range. I’ve shot friends’ $1200-2000 guns and was quite surprised that I didn’t think they shot any better than my own.
Just pick your preferred bargain configuration and spend another $100 on a trigger.

There are very few brands that actually make their own parts… there’s only a couple foundry’s that make all the receiver castings and pretty much all bcgs are by toolcraft. The big companies just buy bulk and etch/paint their name on them and jack up the price.
The uniqueness of the AR shows up in it's adaptability...

Where a $400 box stock AR might be the perfect balance of budget and performance based on the user, a $2000 Daniel Defense (using the example of the OP...) again, might be the perfect balance of budget and performance based on the user.

Because the role the weapon will fill, based on the needs (real or perceived) of the owner, can vary wildly... it's hard to pin down a Point of Departure where the money spent becomes a loser. Farkle bits, like a high performance BCG, or a special barrel, may really push the definition of 'diminishing returns,' but... at the end of the day... it's still a BCG or a barrel.
AR’s kinda like cars. A $30,000 dollar Toyota is every bit as functional of a vehicle as a $100,000 Mercedes, it just lacks some of the finishing and niceties.

In my very limited experience with Mercedes and also BMW the Toyota is much more functional than either. They just run and run and run unlike the other two brands.

As to the question I am going to pass as my experience is limited with the AR also. I own an early S&W M&P and it has never malfunctioned although I have never put it through hard usage. Varmint rifle only. Pick out a known brand in the price range you can afford and it should work fine. Everyone and their dog is making these things now or maybe I should say assembling them.
If looking for just a great quality carbine that lacks some of the niceties but is made to run hard and long, then I would look at BCM.

But much of the choice depends on what your use is for it. If it’s for carbine classes and self defense and just some range fun then BCM is the choice.

If your just wanting to dip your toe in the AR waters then a PSA Premium would be a good launching pad.
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For my last AR, I wanted what I consider quality without paying for a high dollar name plate. Got a Wilson air gauged Match grade barrel, really good but not really expensive trigger. Built the remainder of the upper and lower myself out of common parts. Without spending a lot of money I got something that will shoot very, very well.

There are guys here that know way, way more than I do about AR’s but IMO for accuracy (my priority) it‘s barrel, trigger, and everything else falls pretty much way down the list. Obviously optics need to match your objective
Yes, the $500 AR is cheaper than the $2K AR for a reason. That said, I would rather see a new shooter buy an entry level AR and spend the extra money on ammunition. This will allow them to get proficient with the gun before taking the next step up.

Marketing is a thing but performance and reputation are as well. I really like the price/performance/reputation of BCM products.

I went the cheaper route with DPMS and Bushmaster years ago. I bent the ejection port door pin on the Bushmaster. It was easily bendable by hand compared to the BCM pin I replaced it with, that I could not bend at all.

Barrel quality? Good barrels cost money. Years ago, most of the low end AR builders were using 4140 barrel steel rather than 4150, and skipping the chrome lining. I am surprised by the accuracy of some of the stainless barrels that Palmetto puts out on their low end uppers.

This all really depends on the user level. A person going to the range 2 or 3 times a year and shooting a couple boxes of ammo is going to have different needs than a pro level 3 gun shooter, military, or defense application.
No such thing as diminishing returns for a consumer.

I have no idea how much someone might spend on a build to get exactly what they want.
You can spend as little or as much as you want.. one can spend more on a barrel than what some people build complete rifles for.
I only just recently got baptized into ARs. Why I did isn’t relevant.
What is, is doing your homework.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that what matters are your trigger, bolt and barrel. The rest is just window dressing.
And don’t get all twisted about the axle over who’s roll marked name is on the lower. It’s the barrel, trigger and bolt that matters.
Spend your hard earned dollars wisely.
More expensive AR's are easier to clean, with coatings on BCGs.

They are lighter. Ounces are pounds, and pounds are pain. My favorite AR weighs in at 5#s with a Holoson on top.

They will withstand more heat. Continued use causes a lot of heat to build up. This destroys key parts.

They have cryogenically treated barrels that don't wander POI / POA as they heat up, while not weighing more than a truck.

They are able to withstand repeated butt-strokes to the face, without breaking. No matter how hard the head.
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