What to Look For in an AR-15 Case?
Not all gun cases are created equal. Regardless of your choice between a soft or hard case for your AR-15, there are four criteria to keep in mind as you shop for the case.
You want a case for your gun that can handle a good amount of abuse. If it cannot hold up to daily wear, then at best the money you spent on it was wasted, and at worst, your expensive firearm can be damaged!
Hard cases are theoretically more durable than soft cases due to the nature of being made from solid polymer instead of soft fabric. However, when cheap plastic fails, it does so spectacularly and can even shatter.
Soft cases, however, will start to fray before they fail and can be repaired with a modicum of sewing skill. You still want to keep an eye out for double stitching and heavyweight fabric such as nylon. Also, look for handles that wrap under the case rather than stop as soon as they are sewn in.
No matter what, read the reviews to see if customers report durability issues.
The biggest reason to use a gun case is to protect your firearm. What’s the point if it fails at this task?
The more padding, the less outside force can affect the gun inside the case. A hard shell protects even better, albeit at the expense of weight and bulk.
Most soft-sided cases have a bit of water resistance. Tightly-woven fabric will keep rain out unless it gets soaked for too long. Hard shells are better at keeping out water, but unless there is a gasket to seal the edges, some moisture can seep in.
You do not want a gun case that is too large or too small for your gun.
If it is too small, your AR-15 will generally not be able to fit. You might be able to make it fit by separating the upper and lower, but not always. On the other hand, gun cases that are too large will waste space.
One way to determine the size you need is to measure the length of your rifle and add 2″. That should give you the size case you need.
Don’t forget to take optics into account! Some gun cases are designed for iron sights and are not tall enough to safely store a gun with a scope.
You may or may not need storage on your rifle carry bag, but it is almost always a good idea.
What do you intend to carry with the gun? Spare magazines? Earmuffs and safety glasses? Targets?
If you are already bringing a range bag, you may not need storage space for those miscellaneous items.
Magazine pockets are almost always good, however.
Soft vs. Hard Cases for AR-15s Compared
The question between a hard-sided case or a soft-sided case is a difficult one. I cannot answer it for you, but I can offer some advice. In the section below I’ll compare different categories of hard and soft cases, as well as specific pros and cons in certain contexts, and determine the best option for each.
Air Travel – Hard Cases
If you need a gun carrying case for flying in the United States, the only answer is a hard case.
Under TSA regulations, a firearm has to travel as checked baggage inside a hard-shell case.
The case also has to be locked using enough TSA-approved locks around the outside of the case that you cannot open a gap large enough to squeeze out the gun.
Economy – Soft Cases
Not everyone has an unlimited budget. While there are cheap hard cases and expensive soft cases, the average hard case is more expensive than the average soft case.
If you want to save money on your case so you can afford more ammunition, then a soft case is a great idea.
If you want the best case possible for your gun, then you can spend a hundred dollars or more on a hard case.
But most people are looking to get the most out of their dollar, so the budget-friendliness of soft cases wins out here.
Protection – Hard Cases
Basically, hard cases are tougher than soft cases. This is because they are made from rigid plastic and lined with a large amount of foam. The foam keeps the gun from bouncing around inside the case and the plastic protects against sharp objects, knock, and scrapes.
Soft-sided cases lack the impact-resistant polymer sides. If something knocks into the soft case, the force might get transferred to the gun inside.
There will be a tough woven outer coating and some padding on the inside of a soft case, but not as much as with a hard case. Guns are also more apt to sliding around inside a soft case.
So, a hard case will be able to protect its contents better than a soft case.
Water Resistance – Hard Cases
Hard cases sometimes have a seal all the way around their edges, so they are not only water resistant but waterproof as well. You may not want to store them underwater, but some can survive temporary immersion. As a bonus point, those cases might be able to float!
Soft cases may not be waterproof but they will resist rain. Tightly woven strands of nylon are pretty good at keeping water from flowing through. Immersion or being exposed to extended periods of rainfall can push water through the fibers, but most soft cases will still shrug off short bouts of water contact.
This means that they can breathe (and dry) better, while a waterproof hard case can keep any water inside stuck there. If you use your firearm in rainy conditions, you should wipe it down before putting it away.
With a soft-sided gun case, moisture can evaporate out of it even if you did not get all of the water off your firearm. However, a hard case is less permeable, so the moisture inside hangs around. This can lead to rusting on your firearm if you are not attentive.
Despite this, the advantage still goes to hard cases.
Modification and Repairability – Soft Cases
Hard cases cannot be modified except by adding external locks. You can also lock most soft cases, so this is not much of an advantage.
Soft cases, meanwhile, are made from fabric. If you sew, or know someone who does, then you can modify or repair a soft-sided gun case.
Stitching wears out over time, similar to how plastic gets stressed through repeated use. But hard cases are not modular and once a hinge breaks, that’s the end of the case.
But if a soft case’s stitching starts to fray, you can sew it back to normal. If a zipper comes loose, you can replace the zipper. If there is a tear, you can sew up the tear.
This also means that you can add on to a soft-sided case. Do you want more storage capacity? Sew it on! Need a shoulder strap when there is not one? Add one!
About the only modification you can add to a hard case is a sticker or glued-on Velcro patch. Soft cases, however, are easily modified however you want. So the advantage here goes to them.
Bulk – Soft Cases
Soft cases have some padding and a form-fitted design, which means that they take up only a small amount of space around the gun they are holding.
Hard cases, by contrast, take up a large amount of space. This is because of the hard plastic and the foam necessary to keep the gun from bouncing against the hard outer shell, all of which adds to the dimensions of the case.
If you have a smaller vehicle then a hard case may be too long to comfortably fit inside. This is especially the case with smaller cars. I have even had to angle a hard case vertically, as if it were another passenger in the car!
Even with magazine pockets on the outside, you can often fit several soft cases in the same amount of space as a single hard case. Or you can fit them into a stealthier position.
The advantage therefore goes to soft cases here.
Storing the Case When Not in Use – Soft Cases
The bulk of a case is especially important when you are not using the case to carry a gun. Ideally, your firearms will be locked in a gun safe when not in use, but you will still need to store the empty gun case.
Hard cases take up the same amount of space whether they are empty or full. Owning cases for multiple guns adds up fast, and before you know it, your closet is overflowing with gun cases.
Soft cases, however, collapse down when they are empty. You may even be able to fold them into a smaller shape.
If you have a small living space with not much storage area, then a soft case is doubly advantageous.
Theft Prevention – Hard Cases
Hard cases are generally better at protecting your AR-15 against sticky fingers than soft cases.
You can often lock the zippers of soft-sided cases, but a knife can easily cut the fabric and render that lock moot.
Also, because they are smaller and lighter, a soft case makes it easier for someone to pick up and walk away with your gun!
Hard cases, however, are impervious to cutting implements. A potential thief will be unable to slice their way in. They will have to go through the locks or steal the case itself.
Since hard cases are larger and heavier, it is easier to spot someone trying to steal your gun case.
Just make sure to use all of the lockable areas around the case. If you do not, it may be possible for a thief to open the case just enough to pull the gun through the gap, even with a lock on the case!
Stealth – Soft Cases
While hard cases are harder to steal from, they are also more obvious targets. It is more difficult to conceal a hard-sided gun case in your vehicle than it is to conceal a smaller soft case.
Soft cases tend to be more obvious as a carrier for firearm equipment, which makes them a prime target for thieves, whereas hard cases can look like other types of sporting goods, such as fishing gear.
However, nearly any type of sports item is a good target for thieves, so this does not swing the advantage in favor of hard cases. Soft cases still take the lead when it comes to stealth because of how much easier they are to conceal.
Storage Space – Soft Cases
Soft cases often have additional storage compartments attached to the side of the carrying case. These can hold magazines and more.
Hard cases do not always have the capacity to store more than the gun itself. Good ones will often have cutouts for magazines or even personal safety equipment, but this is almost always a smaller amount of storage capacity compared to a soft-sided case of the same size.
Also, as mentioned before, you can add additional storage pockets to soft cases, so the advantage here goes to soft cases.
Hard Case Pros
- Can be used to transport a firearm on an airplane
- More protective than a soft-sided case
- Some are sealed and waterproof
- Resistant to theft
Hard Case Cons
- Bulky so they are harder to store and harder to travel with
- Cannot be repaired if they become damaged
- Heavier than soft cases
Soft Case Pros
- Can be repaired with a sewing kit
- Can be modified and upgraded at home
- External storage
- Not bulky
- Often cheaper than hard-sided cases
- Stores better when not in use
Soft Case Cons
- Cannot be sealed against the elements
- Easier for someone to cut into and steal your gun
- Not as protective as hard-sided cases
- Unsuitable for airline travel
Top Rifle Case Brands
Bulldog focuses on ways to store guns. Mostly these are gun bags and cases, but they also sell holsters, vaults, and pistol rugs.
The various bags put out by Bulldog are all fair in price. They are not the fanciest products on the market, but if you buy a Bulldog case, you know it will work well.
Some of their cases have fancy camos not seen anywhere else, such as the Muddy Girl Serenity Camo. They also sell purses designed for concealed carry, and even a lace thigh holster.
Bulldog Cases products may not be the fanciest, but they are a good deal. Bulldog even makes Colt branded gear.
Most hard cases on the market are from one of three manufacturers, though there are exceptions. Flambeau is one of these big three and is my favorite hard case brand. The other two are Pelican and Plano.
Flambeau has a nice balance between innovation and tradition. They offer some of the least expensive hard cases on the market. These cases do not lack quality, though—in fact, they have advantages not matched by other manufacturers.
For instance, Zerust is used in a large number of Flambeau products to prevent corrosion on the vulnerable metal inside.
Pelican is the big name in hard cases. If you buy a Pelican-branded case, you know it can withstand the most dangerous environments.
Pelican cases are used by many professionals around the world. They are not only used by law enforcement officers and the military, but also by the aerospace industry and in industrial applications.
Without a doubt, Pelican cases are the toughest available. This does come at a cost, however, as Pelican is also the most expensive gun case brand.
But if you buy a Pelican case, you’ll never need to replace it.
VISM is a division of NcSTAR, which is a well-known firearms accessory brand. NcSTAR’s offerings are mostly aimed at buyers on a budget. The idea behind VISM is to produce high-quality and innovative equipment.
Some of NcSTAR’s products can have quality control issues, such as their optics. VISM-department products tend to be better, and that trend holds true with their gun cases as well.
Though VISM gun cases may not be the most expensive or the cheapest on the market, they do offer a good value.