There's a record number of lawful Americans who are choosing the AR-15 carbine as their firearm of choice. Go to any gun store in America, and they're sold out everywhere. Designs and high-priced items that typically sell slowly are gone.
What this shows is that the AR has become the rifle of the people. As current production cannot keep up, this indicates that a lot of first-time buyers are getting into the AR.
This is not meant to be an end-all and be all list of what you need, and wherever possible I'm going to avoid mentioning specific brands, unless I find something that really seems to work for me, in which case, I'll keep it brief.
I'm going to upset a lot of people here, but it's training. If you cannot afford to train yourself to a competent standard, I would seriously reconsider getting that gun. For me, a lot of that's the caliber choice. I want to like the .40. I really do. But when it comes to handgun and pistol caliber carbine training, I just can't justify the amount of training I have to sacrifice when I get into that expensive caliber. Rimfire versions and conversion kits really help with cost savings, but if we assume you're getting that AR, without a conversion kit or a dedicated .22 analog, you;d better be able to train with what you have.
After that, I'm going to say body mechanics. I know, I know, we said we'd be talking carbines but hear me out. No two people are alike. We have broad similarities, but everyone is different. The gun that works for my 6' friend does not work the same way when his 5'5" wife uses it. So, who is going to be using and relying on this gun? Is it for competition or bench accuracy? Are you going to hunt with it? If so, are you going to be carrying it into the woods, or having it on your ATV?
With the advancement in carbine technology, there's a lot more that you can do with the AR than you could. Collapsible stocks of all sorts makes it an easy weapon for newer or smaller shooters to use, and allow the gun to maneuver in smaller spaces while retaining a proper legal length. If your state allows it, I would pick an AR with a collapsible stock over a fixed stock, as you can adjust the system for your comfort or conditions. This goes back to body mechanics. I run my stock all the way out, and the gun seems a bit short sometimes, even with my flimsy stick arms. The same system can be used by my petite friend, who brings it in halfway when she shoots.
You can't do that with a fixed stock, and generally, if you buy a fixed stock, you're also buying into a rifle-length buffer tube, which isn't a necessarily a bad thing, but if you decide to go to a collapsible stock later, you'll need a new carbine buffer tube, spring, buffer, a castle nut, and probably a new lock plate. Essentially the entire ass-end of the rifle needs to be replaced. Not a big deal if you know how and have the tools, but a pain and an expense. So try the setup before you buy it. There are enough AR's out there that if you go to the range, you'll probably see one or two that look like what you want, and most owners are eager to share their build and how it works.
So, on to the carbine itself.
First, it needs to be reliable. Period. No fancy sight or high-speed grip will save you when your rifle goes "click" instead of "bang" when you need it. I'm not going to go into brands and such here, the web has plenty of info for you to check out, and I'm not starting a brand war.
For the most part, a properly-assembled AR will run fine no matter what you do to it. The weakest link in the chain is the magazines. The common green GI follower is essentially junk. Yes, I know a lot of guys that swear by them. I've used them, and they suck. Consistently. The Magpul anti-tilt followers turn the average stamped GI mag into a reliable source of ammunition. If you have GI mags, and most rifles these days come with GI-style mags, or PMAGs. If you get a PMAG, you're good to go. PMAGs in general are great, and I have more of them than anything else. However, many companies are producing GI mags with anti-tilt followers at decent prices (yeah, I know, there's no mag at a decent price these days). 6-10 working 30 round magazines are a good start, with the ammo to fill them at least three times. Now, if you're looking at this and thinking "he's talking almost a thousand rounds, that's nuts!" then I would encourage you to take a look at the versatility of the rifle.
The AR can be used to hunt, varmint, defend, plink, and so on. There are very few rifles with this kind of versatility. Sure you can plink with a .22, but do you want to go after a coyote with one? Sure, you can target shoot with a 30-06, but you're not going to have much of a target after you're done, and running a bunch of large-caliber rounds gets expensive.
Make sure the sights work for you eyes. Period. Don't wait until you've got the extra coin to get that ninjafied optic, run your irons, get comfortable with them, and make sure you can hit with them. If you're hunting with your carbine, you'll probably be fine with whatever glass you end up mounting. If you're intending to ever grab this weapon if your life is in danger, I'd make sure you have some backup sights. There are an expanding range of polymer backup sights (BUIS) out now that are fairly inexpensive, durable, and don't add much weight to your rifle.
The bottom line here is that it doesn't matter how much ammo you have, if you can't aim, you're just turning ammo into noise. And of course, you're liable for every bullet you send out of your gun.
Next, I find a sling to be essential. If you're going to be blasting rounds at paper targets on the range, a sling may not seem that important. If you're working with your handgun, and you have to go to it for any reason, where are you putting that rifle?
The point of a sling here is that you'll have some way to retain the rifle if you have to dump it, or if you have to interact with the world around you. Once you've got that brand spanking new carbine home, go ahead and move around the house with it (safely, of course). Open doors. Go up and down stairs. Pick stuff up and take it somewhere while carrying your carbine. Awkward? Now do it with a sling. It takes some getting used to, but if you do it a few times, it becomes second nature.
For my home defense carbine, I run a convertible one/two point sling. If you're getting a long-barreled hunting rifle, a traditional 2-point sling is probably better for the trek through the wilderness. If you're going for a high-speed loadout, a 1-point sling may suit you best.
Finally, a light. Yep. I prefer LED lights for their durability and their intensity. There are lots of great lights out there from reputable manufacturers that are designed to take the punishment of being mounted on a firearm. Get a good mount for and make sure that you can activate it with a minimum of effort.
Why a light? If you've ever heard something go bump in the night, or had a varmint or predator outside of your house or tent, you know why. Target identification is extremely important, and you should never be pressing that trigger unless you know what your target is, and its foreground and background. Unless you've got night vision equipment, I'd recommend a light.
The AR is a versatile platform, and it's possible to change out nearly anything. Stocks, grips, barrels, even calibers can be swapped out with relative ease. I could point out a few things here and there, but this article would become too long for the format. If you're one of the thousands of Americans that proudly choose this system as your "do it all" rifle, hopefully this article gave you some food for thought.
As always, we will be reviewing gear, guns and equipment that compliment the AR and other systems, and you can take a look at them before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.
Until next time, stay safe, have fun, and feel free to leave feedback if you have an opinion or something you'd like to see.