Since its development in the 1950s, and subsequent adoption as one of the main small arms on the planet, the AR15 design has proven itself to be tough, reliable, accurate, and easy to shoot. With almost totally interchangeable parts and a well-studied design, and all other things being equal, most ARs you can buy on the market are excellent sporting and defensive firearms.
There’s just one problem, however. Not everything is quite equal. With a market as large as the firearms industry, there are bound to be some outliers. Most of the time its just a matter of “you get what you pay for”, but sometimes companies truly don’t put the necessary time into ensuring they produce a quality product.
Here, we want to talk about some AR manufacturers we are skeptical of and some general trends you want to look out for when purchasing an AR.
1. DPMS Panther Arms
This company, called DPMS (Defense Procurement Manufacturing Services) or simply Panther Arms, began life as a machine shop in the mid 1980s. Through its evolutions, it sold parts for ARs as well as 1911 pistols, and eventually became a manufacturer of weapons in and of themselves.
Since 2000, the company has been bought and sold several times, having been owned by the somewhat infamous Freedom Group, which sought to cut costs in all of its subsidiary companies, sometimes compromising on quality to the point where even better-known brands under the Freedom Group, such as Remington, began to see notorious declines in build quality.
Even with the inflated prices on firearms that we still see into 2022, a DPMS complete rifle goes for about $750. Not too many years ago, a $400 Panther Arms rifle or pistol was not uncommon to see new at a gun store.
At a price that looks reasonable, Panther Arms attracts a lot of new buyers to the AR platform, and we certainly understand why: at a distance, their rifles and pistols certainly look up to snuff, and they offer several models for differing aesthetic tastes.
In the research we’ve done for this piece, a few patterns have popped up in terms of the problems people run into with DPMS firearms.
First, more than a few shooters complain about the guns not cycling. With a little bit of guesswork, some have figured out that, on their particular guns, this might be due to the receiver being too tight on the bolt, causing the bolt to slow down or stop prematurely on its rearward travel, causing failures to completely cycle the bolt. This might wear in with time, but is a concerning issue in and of itself.
Other users take substantial issue with the furniture included with some of the rifles, in particular the M16A3 style handguards (the chunky plastic ones without rails). People with this issue seem to rather dislike the fact that the handguards rattle upon shooting and seem to shift a little bit. This may seem like a small issue, but considering that a replacement that you prefer is likely to cost $50 or more, and installing a handguard, especially for the first time, is more than a little finicky, this sort of this causes major aggravation to new shooters.
2. Blackthorne / Hesse / Vulcan Armament
All of the company names above are the brainchildren of the same person, Robert Hesse. Hesse’s companies do not have the best reputation and track record when it comes to quality AR-15s. We recommend you avoid these guns.
Guns from these companies date back to at least the early 2000s if our research proves correct. Luckily, as you’ll soon learn in a moment, these various monikers under which Hesse sold firearms were typically small-time producers, and not many were ever sold. We decided to include the names here thanks to the scale and widespread reporting of the issues people faced, should you ever see one for sale at the local gun store for a price that looks too good to be true.
These ARs were often sold at budget prices for the time, and we’ve seen examples that were listed for less than half of what Colt would ask for something similar.
We’ve only found a few listings of these guns for sale. With their history, we would consider these rifles more like historical oddities rather than budget-minded ARs.
When Hesse was selling as Vulcan Arms / Armaments, their website claimed they sold “the machine guns of the special forces”, which then later became the inspiration for his next commercial name, “Special Weapons.” There are no records we can find of Hesse ever having a military contract and the headline was removed from the website in later years.
The main issue that people had with these firearms under all names was that the receivers, both upper and lower, were prone to cracking, and in some cases catastrophically failing, when fired. That is to say, some of the most important, pressure-bearing parts of the AR platform were coming apart as hot shrapnel. Luckily, we have not found a case where the shooter was killed by this, but this sort of failure is, by far, the worst thing that can happen in an AR-type firearm.
The sketchy marketing and outright lies over the years are one thing, but the potentially fatally poor quality of the upper and lower receivers appear to be the thing that put Hesse out of the AR business for good. Luckily, you’re not going to find one of these for sale new. With that said, should you find one used, we do not recommend buying it, and we forcefully recommend that you do not shoot any of these firearms.
A major lesson to draw here is to not get nostalgic: just because something is old, does not mean it is good. Anyone who has ever driven an AMC Gremlin, for example, can attest to this.
Note: Vulcan Armaments previously owned the domains vulcanarmaments.com and vulcanarms.com. From our research, it seems that the domain vulcanarms.com was sold around 2019 to a different company. The new company currently using the domain does not sell firearms, only firearm accessories and does not seem to be associated with the original Vulcan Armaments.
Finally, we turn to a relatively well-known manufacturer, Bushmaster. This company, which has more or less existed since the mid 70s, has had a troubled history, as it first went bankrupt in 1976, just after it opened. Once things got rolling under a third owner in 1990, legal troubles led it to be sold a few more times, winding up as part of our old friends in Freedom Group.
The Bushmaster of today is not the same as the Bushmaster you knew growing up. Many of the original guys apparently went on to create Windham Weaponry, which is more equivalent to the quality of the original Bushmasters.
Unlike some of the other manufacturers in this list, this recommendation is more of a matter of bang for your buck. The Bushmaster rifles aren’t terrible, but they’re not just great either and we feel like you can get more for your money elsewhere with superior quality.
There was a brief moment in potential commercial viability wherein Bushmaster bought the rights to the ACR, a civilian version of a rifle that Magpul produced and attempted to sell to the US Government. This potential competitor to the SCAR looked awesome, and featured in several popular first-person shooters, but did not prove to be the golden goose that Bushmaster needed. Currently, Remington owns the rights to the ACR, and Bushmaster sells exclusively variations of the AR theme.
Looking at Bushmaster’s site today, you’ll find that the cheapest firearm you’re likely to find is about $850 dollars. For that price, at most manufacturers, you’re likely to have something that includes optics, has nice furniture, or, in the case of some (quality) budget makers such as Palmetto State Armory, comes with several magazines.
Herein lies the major problem with Bushmaster. Whether it was with the ACR project or, now, the inclusion of binary triggers in a whole series of their firearms, the company seems to place gimmicks over the basics of making a good rifle that performs well. Even on rifles that are $1000 or more, you’re going to have to provide your own optics, and they come with furniture that looks not dissimilar to the furniture you see people taking issue with on DPMS firearms at half the price.
Perhaps adding insult to injury, Bushmaster seems stubbornly committed to making and giving out their own aluminum magazines that work less well than the standard, cheaper, polymer magazines that Magpul has been making for years.
All in all, the major issue with Bushmaster seems to be that they’re selling budget-tier ARs, but for premium-tier prices, all for the sake of chasing whatever the current fad in AR design might be at the moment. Bushmaster, then, tries to go for form over function, leaving the shooter wanting more of both and a magazine that feeds reliability.
Look instead at Windham Weaponry if you are interested in getting an OG Bushmaster rifle.
Warning Signs to Look for When Purchasing an AR-15
While the three manufacturers that we’ve mentioned so far suffer from different issues, there are some broader patterns you want to look out for when shopping for an AR to avoid the kinds of manufacturers and problems we’ve defined here.
🚩 The Company is No Longer in Business
One of the very few things that we know for a fact is that Americans absolutely love the AR-15. That’s why we buy them in the millions. If in a market wherein the customer is always looking for the product a company cannot survive, something is seriously wrong to the extent that it gets out attention in a negative way.
Whether its a used AR15 or a new one at a store, be sure to look up the original manufacturer and ensure they’re still in business.
🚩 There’s Not Much Detail In the Listing or Website
On some of the worst offenders for super-cheap ARs that either explode in the user’s hands or suffer from reliability problems, we notice a trend that the manufacturers do not report the metallurgy of the barrels, the kind of aluminum used for the lower receiver, the supplier for the bolt carrier group, and so on.
Listings that seem to talk a lot about special properties but don’t have a lot of data to back that up are a good sign that the manufacturer is hiding something from you in terms of quality.
🚩 The Furniture Looks Like a Movie Prop
Many people buy their first guns with an image in their minds from a movie, video game, or television show. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. One day, for example, we hope to put together an M14 build mimicking one of the guns from Blackhawk down.
But, if you plan on using a firearm for self-defense, the things that should sell you on a rifle are its effectiveness. Today, that usually means a handguard that has some rail space and the ability to include a red dot sight. Older, more dated designs might look like something from your old favorite game, but it might also be a cheap marketing trick to get you buying an inferior gun.
AR-15 Parts That Are Not Worth Getting Cheap
On an AR, some of the parts matter more than others in terms of safety and quality. These have to be made to a high standard for the rifle to shoot well, and, more importantly, for you to remain safe as a shooter.
The Bolt Carrier Group
The set of parts that makes up the bolt carrier group, or BCG for short, is a lot of what makes an AR function, or, in the case of some of the ones that we mentioned here today, not run.
If a manufacturer is not willing to give details about the metallurgy of the bolt for you to do some research or won’t quite commit to saying it’s been heat treated properly, then consider looking elsewhere.
The barrel is the part of the firearm that perhaps most closely determines accuracy. Barrels that do not have proper rifling, or are not made to safe standards, mean an inaccurate firearm that poses a massive risk to the shooter. Again, if there’s a lack of details about the barrel, look for a different manufacturer.
An AR 15’s upper receiver holds a lot of important parts together, such as the BCG and the barrel, and itself has to withstand a lot of pressure as the rifle cycles. Here, the quality of metal, heat-treating, and finish matter a lot. Upper receivers are one place in the firearms world where you almost certainly get what you pay for the vast majority of the time.
Are all of the ARs produced by the manufacturers that we list here awful and dangerous? Absolutely not. And, in fact, many of them shoot well.
But, in a market with dozens of choices in manufacturer, we recommend going for one that has a good reputation, is still in business, and provides its customers with a good rifle or pistol for the money.
In general, terms, being willing to pay a little bit more than the bottom of the market in price means that you’ll get a better feature set, and, vitally, a better-funded manufacturer that might be able to put more time and money into things like quality control.
Agree with our list? Think we misjudged one? Let us know below!
George has been an avid shooter for twenty years. He began shooting when he was gifted a Browning SA-22 for target practice. Now, as an academic, he combines his love of firearms and knowledge of history to write for firearms blogs and is still a frequent sight at the local range.