Do you want to get into the AR world but can't afford the extras? Maybe you are building a new gun but want to get an affordable place to start. There are ways to start with something inexpensive, probably pretty basic, and reliable without breaking the bank. With some companies, there are even ways to get a few extra's that are affordable and fall within your plans. Let's take a look at five uppers that are basic, reliable, and under $500.
DPMS has been around for a while now and has a reputation for being reliable and priced right. I've had the opportunity, over the years, to shoot several DPMS uppers and rifles and can attest that they do run and fire reliably. The DPMS Oracle is such an upper. It is a 16" barreled complete upper in the M4 configuration. It has a lightweight "pencil" barrel made of 4140 chrome moly steel with a 1:9 twist, plastic M4 handguards, and A3 flat top receiver. It also has the dust cover and forward assist you come to expect in an AR, an A2 birdcage flash hider, and a single railed gas block. This is the ultimate in basic. It retails for $399.99 from DPMS but can be found closer to $300 on sale or regular priced.
Palmetto State Armory has been a favorite of mine for a while. I had the opportunity to shoot one and was sold on their price and quality. The 16" Mid-length Stainless Steel Freedom Rifle Kit is a great example. All the trimmings and trappings you'd expect out of a standard M4 complete upper with a few upgrades. This upper comes with the bonus of a stainless-steel barrel and a mid-length gas system, along with a complete lower parts kit to finish your build. The stainless-steel barrel will increase the longevity of barrel life along with accuracy. The mid-length gas system cycles the action a little further down the barrel giving the shooter a slightly lessened recoil by catching it at a different point in the pressure curve. This upper package retails at $599.99 (a little more than the $500 cap for this article). However, it comes with the complete lower parts kit and is on sale at the time of this article for $299.99.
Anderson Manufacturing is the new name for Bushmaster. It comes with the quality you'd expect from Bushmaster and has a reputation for reliability. The AOR 16" Complete Upper is an excellent choice for anyone looking for quality at a great price. It is a forged, optics ready M4 carbine upper with a manganese phosphate bolt carrier group. The barrel is a 1:8 twist with a standard .750" gas block location and M4 contour. The receiver and gas block are both railed, made to be optics ready so that you can fit it with whatever aiming platform you'd like. Whether you want a K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) upper for that simple M4 build or a starting point to upgrade from this is a great option. Retailing for $399.99, this upper will fall right along with the others for a complete upper that won't break the bank.
I've run Aero Precision products in 3-Gun for years now and can tell you their products are well manufactured. Their upper is no different. The barrel is a 16" mid-length, Chrome-Moly Vanadium barrel with M4 feed ramps and all the QC testing you can desire to ensure its quality. The upper receiver has been forged in a way that gives the appearance of a billet receiver. The Atlas S-One handguard blends into the receiver for a fluid appearance comes with either M-LOK or Key Mod cuts and has index grooves at the 12 o'clock position for positive grip control. Everything about this upper is designed to give you everything you need, including a free-floating barrel, and nothing you don't. The only downside is that the upper does not come with a bolt carrier group. However, that is a part a lot of people like to upgrade, so an excellent purchase for an on-going build. You can add a BCG from Aero for $129. All in all, the upper retails for $479 - $489 (depending on rail length) or $608 - $618 with a bolt carrier group. A significant upgrade to the standard M4 while still being cost efficient.
Stag Arms is another name that has been around a while and is known for being good quality. One of their major feats that they've gained a reputation for is developing and holding the patent for a left-handed AR. The Tactical Upper is an excellent choice for someone looking for an upper that won't cost a ton but still be a step up from the standard. The upper comes with a 16" 4150 steel barrel that is chrome lined, their 13.5" M-LOK free-floating rail, A2 birdcage flash hider, and A3 forged flat-top receiver. This is upper does not come with the bolt carrier group or charging handle (which you may be planning to upgrade), however, at a retail price of $449.99 (currently on sale for $379.99) you can see the value.
These uppers listed are pretty reliable but straightforward. They give you a platform to start having some range time and allow you to upgrade from there. No matter if you want an upper as close to the M4 used by the military or something to get you started, these are all great options. With the reputations of these manufacturers and the cost of these uppers, you'll know that you can go the range, have a fun day and even be able to afford the ammo.
Prices accurate at time of writing