When I got my first AR-15, I was bewildered. There were so many choices for me to modify the rifle, and because much of it was easy to do, it was hard to know where to start. But before beginning my AR-15 upgrades, I had a rough idea of what I wanted the rifle to eventually become: an easy-to-shoot, dependable, light-ish rifle that I would develop for years, if not decades.
The plan was to buy an affordable AR platform rifle with good guts from a well-known brand, shoot it, see what irritated me the most, then replace offending parts with other ones I thought I’d prefer. This squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease method has allowed me to plod along, stay within budget, and isolate and test the changes before moving to the next problem area. The upgrades I’ve made to my AR have made me reluctant to sell it, so it keeps hanging around.
I’ve had the good fortune to extensively shoot a bunch of ARs over the years, and I’ve bought and sold several. The most affordable (at the time) included 5.56mm-chambered rifles, such as a CMMG Mk4LE, an S&W Model M&P15 Sport II, a Mossberg MMR Tactical, a High Standard Flat-Top Carbine, and a Palmetto State PA-15 carbine, all priced under $1000.
Over or close to $2000, there’s the Ruger SR-556 Takedown, a DRD Tactical CDR-15, a Windham Weaponry RMCS-4, and most recently, a few models from F-1 Firearms.
The middle is pretty crowded, with a Rock River Arms LAR-15 Varmint A4, Ruger SR-556E Essential, a SIG Sauer 516 Patrol, and SIG M400 Enhanced. Also in this price range have been an Olympic Arms K3B-M4-A3-TC, a Springfield Armory Saint, SIG Sauer M400 Classic , and Battle Rifle Co.’s BR4 LIT Carbine.
Even though I liked many of these rifles, I wound up keeping a Daniel Defense DDM4v7LW chambered in 5.56 NATO I bought for $900. It had become discontinued, which helped me get it cheap. The Version 7 LW is 5 ounces lighter than the standard Daniel Defense M4 Carbine.
It had good internals. The DDM4v7LW is equipped with a single pinned low-profile gas block that is drilled, taper reamed, and press fit into place to securely attach the low profile gas block to the barrel assembly. The upper receiver is optics-ready with an A4 flat-top style. Inside, there is a chromed gas key and bolt carrier, and the bolt-carrier group is an M16-profile with a flared mag well and a six-position Mil-Spec receiver extension.
A Magpul MOE buttstock adorns the shooter’s end, and a chrome-moly vanadium steel barrel, 16 inches in length, sits out front. It’s chrome-lined and magnetic-particle inspected. The barrel includes an M4 feed ramp and has a lightweight profile. The DD 12-inch Modular Free Float Handguard came with three 3-inch Picatinny rail sections, much lighter than a quad rail. Overall length runs from 32.75 to 35.75 inches, with an LOP of 10.5 to 13.6 inches.
So, those are the basics of the rifle. But then I started working on it in the areas of fit and feel, trigger pull, barrel, sights, and function, and below are 10 things I did to maintain and improve it.
There are so many good AR-15 upgrade options out there, a single person could never get to it all. Because I’m always looking for ideas to make this rifle the best AR-15 it can be, I’d love to hear your upgrade choices in the comments below.
#10 Cleaning Kit
Yes, this isn’t a modification to the gun per se, but it is an integral piece in keeping it running for the long term.
In the AR-15/M16 Professional Cleaning System, Brownells brings supplies premium-quality components for detailed cleaning of the entire 5.56 NATO/223 Remington MSR, including bore, chamber, gas system, and bolt carrier.
For the bore, there’s a top-quality 36-inch Dewey cleaning rod long enough for any AR-15 barrel, 12 Special Line bronze bore brushes, and all-cotton flannel patches, plus tools specifically developed for the AR-15. The rod comes with a jag and an 8-32 thread adapter.
A hold-open link separates the upper and lower receivers and locks them in place so you can clean the bore and chamber the correct way, from the breech. A rugged Delrin plastic bore guide centers the cleaning rod in the bore and protects the rifling from damage, and silicone O-rings in the bore guide seal the chamber and keep solvent out of the action and trigger.
For the upper receiver, there’s a combo cleaning tool that has a properly sized bronze brush and cotton mop to let you scrub away stubborn carbon fouling from the bolt carrier and lug recesses. Then there’s the combination bronze-and-stainless-steel chamber brush, originally designed for the M16, which digs out fouling that can hinder extraction.
All the gear comes packed in a rugged plastic storage/carry box with a top compartment and three slide-out drawers. Other items in the kit include cotton bore mops, gas tube cleaners, shop cloths, a 4-ounce can of Break Free CLP Cleaner, and a 24-ounce can of TCE Cleaner/Degreaser.
Of course, this isn’t a direct addition to the rifle either, but I’m really glad I bought it with the rifle. The seven-function AR-15 Multi-Tool by Wheeler, $26.50, lets you build and repair AR-15s without cluttering your shop table or range bag. The tool combines seven tools-in-one for maintenance, building, or repair of AR-15 series rifles. It’s well thought out and handy in a range bag, too.
#8 Stop the Rattle 1
If your AR-15 lower and upper are loose, and that bugs you, you can tighten them up with an ACCU-Wedge. It is a small plastic piece with a wedge-shaped extension on it. To install, push the rear disassembly pin out and push the upper away. Press the ACCU-Wedge in place in the rear of the lower, behind the rear disassembly pin and under the buffer tube. Close the upper and press the rear pin to the locked position.
You will likely need to put some weight on the upper to have that rear pin to line up. Also, on some rifles, you may have to shave a little off the flat portion for the upper receiver to fit. There’s the ACCU-Wedge from Brownells for $7.99.
If that’s too spendy, you can also use a hard-foam earplug and cut it to fit. Some will complain about pin wear, but I’ve not had that problem. I have also tightened the upper and lower fit on some guns with O-rings and the JP Enterprises rear tensioning pin, but the ACCU-Wedge is cheap and easy to install. Click here to see another TTAG discussion of the ACCU-Wedge. The video below describes installation of the piece, running from 1:35 to 1:55.
#7 Stop the Rattle 2
Shortly after buying it, I replaced the DD’s Magpul MOE buttstock with a Magpul CTR buttstock. The slack in the telescoping stock of most is just an irritant that I choose to fix. The Magpul CTR (Compact/Type Restricted) is a drop-in replacement buttstock for AR-15/M16 carbines.
They’re light, and the streamlined A-frame profile avoids snagging and shields the release latch to prevent accidental activation. It also provides an ambidextrous QD sling mount that will accept any push-button sling swivel. My rifle’s carbine receiver extensions, aka buffer tubes, were Mil-Spec size rather than Commercial.
The easiest way to distinguish between Mil-Spec and Commercial receiver extensions is to measure the tube diameter or read the manufacturer’s description. Mil-Spec receiver extensions have a slightly smaller diameter of approximately 1.148 inches. They also usually have a flat back. Commercial receiver extensions have a slightly larger diameter of about 1.168 inches and usually have slanted backs. Click here to see more on the topic.
To install, I removed the existing stock then gently mated the stock body with the carbine receiver extension and slid them together until the stock stopped just over 2 inches in. Then I depressed the release latch with one hand, and with the other hand, grasped both ends of the release pin and pulled down firmly. When the pins moved downward, I pushed the stock forward to complete the mount.
To adjust the length of the stock, fully depress the release latch and pull the stock rearward to extend it. Push the stock forward to collapse it. Intermediate positions may be selected by partially depressing the release latch and moving the stock to the desired position. The CTR has a supplemental friction lock system that minimizes excessive stock movement.
It’s available from Brownells here. There are several part numbers for different colors, but they run from $47 to $57 (100-002-946WB).
Read 7 Top AR-15 Stocks for Your Build or Upgrade to see some other choices TTAG has reviewed.
#6 Feeding The Beast
How many magazines is too many? Thunder Ranch Owner and Trainer Clint Smith has some thoughts on that in the video below.
A lot of folks in rights-restricted states will wish they had read this years ago and got ‘em some, and it’s no less true today: buy standard-capacity (30-round) magazines for your AR-15 right now. While you still can.
No, I do not have “1000 loaded magazines,” as Mr. Smith hyperbolically suggests in the video. But more is always better. I have about 40, and I rotate them in and out of range duty.
The apparent winner of the presidential race is talking about magazine capacity restrictions. That’s why you should stop reading this and buy more AR mags right now. If not, I watch for sales, and I buy mostly Magpul PMags and Brownells aluminum-body units when they’re on sale.
I also have a set of 10-round PMags because they’re easier to handle on a benchrest. I’ve also mixed in a few window PMags and haven’t had any failures with them, even after dropping them from various heights and other abuse.
I’ve even tried a couple of the 40-round PMags, and I like them fine as far as function goes, but I tend to bang them into things a lot. That’s not the mag’s fault.
#5 Getting a Grip
The original AR-15 grip is skinny and, for shooters with larger hands, it’s too small and uncomfortable to hold. I’ve tried several dozen grips over the years and I settled on Magpul’s MIAD Grip unit, an eminently functional and smart design.
Made of reinforced molded polymer construction, the modular grip system with interchangeable inserts lets you find the grip configuration that fits your hand size and mission requirements. All models come with a main grip body and detachable rubber core that holds a half-ounce lubrication bottle in the cap. Additional cores for storing batteries and other items are available separately.
Front- and backstrap inserts slide on easily, yet snap firmly into place and require no glue or screws to stay put. It comes with one straight and two different beavertail backstrap inserts, plus one straight and one finger-ledge front strap insert. Shooters looking for a cushioned grip might not care for its hard polymer construction, however.
Below is a 2-minute installation video. Pro-tip: Using a magnetic screwdriver tip or a properly fitted tip makes getting the grip screw back in pretty easy.
Click here, here, here, and here to see other TTAG articles on AR-15 grips.
#4 Offset Rail
Many shooters understand the AR platform can provide multiple sighting options, and I’ve settled on a small-magnification top optic and either a red dot or laser as the sight for quick target acquisition. YMMV. Irrespective of the in-close sight choice, it has to be presented in another sight plane than the optic.
The GG&G 45-Degree Offset Accessory Rail allows the shooter to install micro red-dot optics, flashlights, lasers, and other items at a 45-degree offset. Righties will put the rail on the right side so they can go from scope to dot with a quick counter-clockwise turn of the rifle, and without having to change head position. The unit is ambidextrous, so if lefties want to cant clockwise, that’s easy, too.
The offset piece mounts to a MIL-STD 1913 rail and offers five cross-slot mounting locations. It is 2.5 inches long, but only uses 1 inch of the top rail for mounting. It weighs 1.45 ounces and is available for about $33 and there are lots of other options out there as well.
The original AR polymer handguards, like on the M-16 and M16A1, were comfortable to hold and sat level on sandbags. The M16A2’s handguards were circular in cross section instead of triangular and had more effective heat shields in them. Then came free-floating hand guards with quad rails, which were bulky and heavy. So, the trend after that was to get rid of the M1913 rails and make the handguard free-float into a slotted tube. Then, different systems popped up.
KeyMod allows the shooter to attach accessories in the slots, when the accessories had the appropriate KeyMod hardware on them. M-LOK, by Magpul, was as secure as KeyMod, but M-LOK required less machining than KeyMod, and as a result, costs less. The current status seems to be that M-LOK won, but there are still plenty of KeyMod accessories to mount on KeyMod handguards. I’m Switzerland on that argument.
My Daniel Defense rifle has the company’s Modular Float Rail (MFR) 12.0 on it. It’s a 12-inch CNC-machined modular free-float-handguard that covers the low-profile gas block. I usually run the tube slick, save for the uninterrupted top rail that runs the length of the tube. Adding modular Picatinny rails at standard 90-degree or offset angles is easy. Currently, I’m running a TLR-2 HL G light/laser on the 9 o’clock rail. So I haven’t made a change in this area, yet.
But I recently took a trip to the F-1 Firearms factory in Spring, Texas, and that experience is resetting my expectations. I have my eye on the company’s Ultra-Lite handguard, but that’s a lot of spen at about $223. Also, F-1’s Miculek Handguard, $247, is also tempting.
Got a handguard you really like? Share your experience in the comments below. Also, check other TTAG articles on the topic to round out your knowledge:
7 Things to Look For in an AR-15 Handguard
M-LOK vs KeyMod: Handpicking A Handguard
Lyman Products New Tacstar Carbon Fiber AR Handguards
#2 The B.A.D. Lever
The AR-15 M16 B.A.D. Lever by Magpul allows the rifle shooter to release the bolt with the trigger finger, keeping his hand in the ready position on the pistol grip. The Magpul Battery Assist Device, or B.A.D., is an extended bolt release. It streamlines bolt-catch manipulation to get the weapon into battery more quickly. The trigger finger can stay outside the trigger guard as you operate the lever.
The factory bolt catch retains normal function with the B.A.D. installed. It’s easy to install and remove, with no rifle disassembly required. The B.A.D. lever ($29) clamps securely to the factory bolt release with a Torx-head screw and extends a paddle through the front of the trigger guard to the right-hand side of the weapon.
#1 Replacement Trigger
I’ve shot several high-quality AR triggers, including the Rise RA-535 Advanced Performance Trigger, Ruger Elite 452 AR-Trigger 90461, HiperFire HiperTouch 24E Elite, HiperFire HiperTouch EDT AR-15/AR-10 Enhanced Duty Trigger, the Timney 668-S Trigger (small pin, 3-pound pull), Geissele’s SSA-E (Super Semi-Automatic Enhanced) Trigger and Hi-Speed National Match Trigger, and the factory triggers on the ARs, of course. For me, making the decision to replace the DD’s factory trigger was a no-brainer. It had to be done. The question was, with what? So here are some choices.
If you want a Mil-Spec trigger, but with better fitted and finished parts, then check out ALG Defense. These are standard triggers with enhanced parts. The $49 Quality Mil-Spec set has a honed sear contact surface and a pull weight of about 6.5 pounds. The ACT, or ALG Combat Trigger employs nickel-boron coating on the trigger and nickel-Teflon coating on the hammer, disconnector, and pins to increase surface hardness and reduce friction. Average pull weight is about 6 pounds for the $70 unit. Advice: Spend the extra $25 and get the ACT if you go this route.
There are several self-contained drop-in modules, either single-stage triggers or two-stage styles. I haven’t shot them all, so I hesitate to recommend one over another. One of the more affordable modules is Mossberg’s JM Pro Trigger. Much pricier but very good are various Hiperfire single-stage choices, starting at $199.
I prefer two-stage triggers, and I wound up installing a Geissele Super Semi-Automatic (SSA) 2-stage combat trigger ($240), which has a fixed 4.5-pound total pull weight and non-adjustable sear engagement. I have shot the Super Semi-Automatic Enhanced (also $240) and wish I had bought it instead. It provides a 3.5-pound pull weight with a first-stage pull of 2.5 pounds, followed by a 1.3-pound second stage.
Click the links below to see other TTAG articles on AR-15 trigger choices.
New from Timney: Fully Adjustable AR-15 Competition Trigger
Gear Review: KE Arms DMR Drop-In AR-15 Trigger
Gear Review: CMC Triggers Drop-In AR-15 Trigger
Here’s a quick tip about using two-stage triggers.
These are just a few of the available AR-15 parts out there. I haven’t even touched on replacement front sights and rear sights, backup iron sights, charging handles, muzzle brakes and other muzzle devices, additions for long-range rifles, lights for self defense and home defense, red dot sights, and a whole bunch of other AR accessories. The choices and options are virtually endless.
What has been the most important area of the AR-15 to upgrade for you? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below.
I am VERY sure that ANY out of state or behind the lines in cali… FREEDOM loving mag seller or maker WILL give you ahhh cough! back dated receipts for ANY mag bought or ‘not’ in cash (that lovely untraceable cash!) Just to stick it to the Gun-grabbers….heck they might even do more than that if you ask—lol
My philosophy is that just like with computers, it’s better to build than to buy. But not everyone can or will go that route and this really only applies to items of personal possession.
Biden’s not the “apparent” winner. He won the election. Trump’s lackey Barr even confirmed. If that’s not enough of a confirmation for Trump’s death cult, I don’t know what is.
Obvious troll is obvious. No, Biden is not even the apparent winner, much remains to be done before the election is actully over. Barr never said anything like confirming Biden’s win.
Biden is not even close to being the “apparent winner”. Trump clearly seems to have won the election, and it seems quite obvious that there was an incredible amount of fraud designed to overrule the voice of the people.
It looks like the SC will look at an unconstitutional last minute election law change implemented by the PA court. How do you even remedy that without a new election? We’re in uncharted territory here.
You know there’s something nefarious going on because the media and tech companies are telling everyone to move along with zero scrutiny of any possible fraud. Yet for the past several years, including this year, every major media outlet, including the likes of CNN and NPR, discussed the (then) real possibility of fraud.
Agreed. Move on people! Nothing to see here!
Eric Swalwell 2020
Biden is the apparent winner, and will be declared the official winner. Neither of those realities necessarily mean the win was legitimate.
The reality also is that with all the refusals to fully examine ballot reading/counting procedures, or even in several cases to entertain the notion that Republicans have any standing to challenge at all, nobody will ever know for sure how much cheating really went on — but all the darkest suspicions will remain. And they will fester.
Meanwhile, as an intelligent observer of those realities, I feel fully vindicated in treating lifetime corruptocrat Biden and his communist whore of a VP as illegitimate occupiers of my country’s highest office, and their party as a poison in the body politic. Even if they won fair and square (which I personally doubt), they’re STILL unwelcome and should be actively resisted at every turn by every red-blooded American.
Contractor for Dominion Voting Systems, who worked at Detroit’s TCF Center on Election Day.
“I called my manager to a specific tabulating machine and I showed him a number on it that was over 500. They shouldn’t be over 50. Ballots come in batches of 50. I said that we have a severe problem here Nick,” said Carone, of her attempt to notify her manager about the issue.
“He [Nick] said, ‘Melissa I don’t want to hear that we have a problem, we are here to assist with IT, we are not here to run their election.’ And at that point, I was really frustrated and upset, I could tell what was going on,” she continued. “They were cheating. It was very, very apparent.”
Don’t worry, the FBI is on the case! 😉
For some reason, that’s not reassuring in the least.
If Sorro’s liberal judges want take the case he can declare martial law and military judges will hear the case. Big problem is if they find wrong doing they sentence them in a military court to do time in a military prison, OUCH!!!!!
Oh please, Frank. The democrats acted FAR worse when Hillary lost. Attempted Faithless electors, complete mental breakdowns and panic protests and riots. Then spent the next four years constantly making up false allegations, investigations and impeachment hearings all the way up until the 2020 election.
I’ve got news for you. The 2020 election is never going to end, just like 2016 didn’t, and it’s you democrats fault.
You seriously think the republicans won’t respond in kind, especially after Adolph Harris steps in? Get used to maximum obstruction forever and you can thank your democrat betters for making it this way.
I joined the fraternity of AR owners only 8 years ago. At that time, none of my circle of shooting buddies owned one as well. I was a complete newbie, and ended up buying a DPMS Oracle, as it was very affordable. Since that purchase, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve spent a lot to get that gun up to the Mil-Spec Standards. The only parts on it that are still original, are the upper and lower receivers, and the barrel (though I have a better barrel on hand, I’m holding off until the original wears more). At this time, the parts I’ve replaced, have exceeded the cost of the original purchase. Long story short, I would have been better off spending more for a moderately mid level AR to begin with, than going cheap. The only plus is that its given me more from the ground up familiarity with building and assembly of the platform.
Joining forums like TTAG has been a positive experience, and I thank the membership for that. You guys and gals rock!
In your case, you should have just kept that basic AR in its stock condition as a backup AR15, and then bought a higher quality rifle as your primary. There is nothing wrong with having multiple AR’s. Frankly, I think you ought to have at least two.
Hey frank m.
The fat lady may be warming up, but she aint singing yet, just counting unhatched chickens and fradulent votes.
Fat lady has lost how many court cases now?
Serpent_Vision brings up a ginormously important point:
Trump actually winning the election is a moot point if his campaign and/or the Republican party are unable to demonstrate his victory in the courts and the public square.
Military courts are quite different.
Valkyrie is defeated the fat lady is dead. After Jan 20th you are only going to hear Patriots sing praise to their Lord. Bite me will not see Christmas. As for improving your AR all good stuff but the best option is a 20″ 6mm ARC upper from a quality provided. Not exactly inexpensive but in the long run worth the investment.
All good stuff until you can’t shoot it in low light/night situations because you didn’t put on a flashlight. This is ten times more important than having two rattle fixes.
For sure. 1. sights, 2. light.
Couldn’t agree more. Two things every fighting rifle needs: a weapon light and a quality sling. Everything else should be secondary
I recommend checking out the LaRue Tactical MBT2 two stage trigger. $87 dollars and good as functions as light and crisp as any drop in I’ve tried.
I bought 1, then an extra for me and gave a third as a gift. The fact I bought 3 is my endorsement.
I’m fairly close to “upgrading” my AR. Quad rail,red/green dot,3x magnifier,mounted light and a Magpul little vertical grip on the quad rail. I’m OK with the trigger,the bcg,the Smith & Wesson stock,the charging handle etc. Getting a sling and mebbe a LPVO. For now…bought another 30 round mag today at a new to me gunshop(in ILL). They already sold out of ammo but had lots of affordable gats. I’ll go back! Sheepdog Firearms in Monee,ILL.
Every AR needs a Magpul B.A.D. lever and a decent trigger. The former makes the gun easier to use, and the latter makes the gun easier to shoot accurately.
The rest of it is akin to putting clothes on a Barbie doll. It’s fun to make your gun unique and makes for great conversation at the range.
Yeah, a trigger is at the top of the list for upgrading my budget AR (which is my only one). Although I did start getting used to the milspec trigger…it’s not too terrible, really. It breaks cleanly and predictably, it’s just that the pull is very heavy.
A better stock is also on the list. I don’t know what brand it is that came with the Palmetto upper kit, but it rattles like a mofo, which bugs the hell out of me.
Probably the single best thing that would help me shoot it better would be a low-magnification optic. I always did great with open sights before, but my eyes aren’t what they used to be. (Most of the rest of me isn’t what it used to be, either…sensing a theme here…)
Go with a drop in trigger. They are a snap to install because you don’t have to fight the springs to get the pins in. Get one that has adjustment screws in the bottom of the trigger pack as this eliminates the need for anti-walk pins. A 4.5lb trigger is a vast improvement over what you have. (There are lighter ones but not really necessary to a knock around rifle.) Shop around and they are not too difficult to find for about $100.
Aha, good to know. I’ll look around. Most everything I’ve seen mentioned is more like $200+, but I don’t need some snazzy competition trigger on what’s meant to be a durable, no-frills rifle.
Go to Brownells. They are having a sale right now. Rise trigger for $100, others for $150. Can’t miss savings.
Jeremy (I think) did a trigger round up. I bought a Velocity 3 pound trigger based on his article and put it in a Ruger SR556 AR that I have. Closer to 3.5 lb’s, but a really nice trigger for the money
My first AR build was a build it as you go project that started with an 80% polymer lower (later replaced with a spikes) and a slick sided upper (DD?). I did originally go with the ALG mil-spec set up and regretted it, but later fixed it with lighter springs that work quite well. (My second build has a single stage Rise trigger that I like since it has a very clean break and short reset.) I started with a PA parts kit including collapsible stock, but then the laws changed in California. First I I had to install a Maglock. Then I made it a fixed stock with a fin grip (totally sucked); later converted to single piece stock from Thordsen that is probably the best solution to the problem of the pistol grip ban. An A-2 birdcage was replaced with muzzle brake, again due to California law. I don’t remember where I bought the barrel. It is a varmint profile with a .223 Wylde chamber. (It is kind of heavy.) Topped it off with a TRS-25 red dot. And when all was said and done, I was able to delete the MagLock release button with a standard release for my “featureless” build.
If you own a 3d printer you can print out an Accu-Wedge. I’ve made a few for people before. TPU works well since that end is away from the hot parts. Print them at 90% infill and 6 layers for walls top and bottom. TPU likes thicker layer heights so I went .24mm. You can print them in PETG too but they will loosen up after a few uses so you need to print more than one.
Do it right the first time and you don’t need a bunch of upgrades.
Offset rail not withstanding, though I prefer canted irons.
First thing I do is toss the stock trigger in the “discarded trigger pile”, and put in a 2-stage trigger.
Have I mentioned that I really detest single stage triggers.
extended charging handle latch
nitrided bolt carrier group
45 degree back up iron sights
1-4 or 1-6x lpvo with illuminated reticle