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.
My 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 55AE160, an S&W Model M&P15 Sport 811036, a Bushmaster C15 SuperLight ORC 90689, a Mossberg MMR Tactical w/Sights 65014, a High Standard Flat-Top Carbine HSTX6551, and a Remington R-15 VTR Predator Carbine, all under $1000.
Above $2000, there have been a Ruger SR-556 Takedown 5924, a DRD Tactical CDR-15, a Windham Weaponry RMCS-4 package, and most recently, two models from F-1 Firearms.
The middle is pretty crowded, with a Rock River Arms LAR-15 Varmint A4 AR1520X, Ruger SR-556E Essential 5912, Stag Arms Model SA6L LH Super Varminter in 223 Rem., a DPMS RFA2-AP4A Patrol Carbine, a SIG Sauer 516 Patrol R516G2-16B-P and SIG M400 RM400-16B-EC. Also in this price range have been a Bushmaster Stainless VS PCWVMS 24-9SS in 223 Rem., an Olympic Arms K3B-M4-A3-TC, a Springfield Armory Saint ST916556B, SIG Sauer M400 Classic RM400-16B-C, and Battle Rifle Co.’s BR4 LIT Carbine.
Even though I liked many of those 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 sliding buttstock adorns the shooter’s end, and a chrome-moly vanadium steel barrel, 16 inches in length, sits out front. It is chrome-lined and magnetic-particle inspected (MPI). 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 upgrades 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, 080-000-573WB, $150, 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 DPMS, $48, lets you build and repair AR-15s without cluttering your shop table or range bag. The brawny DPMS powder-coated steel wrench combines seven tools-in-one for maintenance, building, or repair of AR-15 series rifles. It’s well thought out from one end to the other.
A wide hole in one end of the wrench keeps it handy. Hang it flat on a wall peg in your work area, and you’ll always know where it is. A big-slot screwdriver head makes removing buttstock screws a snap.
A semi-circular cutout with an inset area fits collapsible stocks. A ¾-inch-square slot on the top of the wrench makes changing out compensators simple. Opposite the compensator slot is a 5/8-inch wrench slot that fits buttstock tubes. Next is a half-inch-square hole for a socket or torque wrench. A ridged slot will remove and install peg-style barrel nuts and standard barrel nuts. Pins on the front of the Multi-Tool will help install and disassemble free float tubes.
#8 Stop 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. The ACCU-Wedge is available from Brownells (080-000-663WB, $5.99).
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 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 is no less true today: Buy standard-capacity (30-round) magazines for your AR-15 right now. A bunch of Californians are wishing they took advantage of the recent one-week suspension of that state’s magazine-capacity law.
No, I do not have “1000 loaded magazines,” as Mr. Smith hyperbolically suggests in the video. But more is better. I have about 40, and I rotate them in and out of range time.
If your state legislators are talking about magazine restrictions, stop reading this and buy more AR mags right now. If not, I watch for sales, and I buy mostly Magpul PMags (Brownells 100-006-987WB, 10-mag pack on sale) and Brownells aluminum-body units (078-000-454WB, on sale now for $11).
I also have a set of 10-round PMags because they’re easier to handle on a benchrest (100-011-418WB).
I also have a few window PMags and haven’t had any failures with them, even after dropping them from various heights (100-011-219WB) and other abuse.
I’ve also had a couple of the 40-round PMags (100-012-633WB), and I like them fine as far as function goes, but I banged 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 large hands, the original grip is too small and uncomfortable to hold. I’ve tried several dozen grips, and I settled on Magpul’s Mission Adaptable (MIAD) 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.
The color scheme for my rifle is OD Green, and Brownells had the green MIAD (100-019-347WB, Magpul part number MAG520ODG) on sale while I was writing this, so I ordered it for $26 today. Click the link above to see the black, FDE, and grey versions available at Brownells for $34. This is one of the easiest AR-15 upgrades to accomplish.
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.
#4 Offset Rail
Many shooters understand the AR 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 (GGG1526) 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 $30 from Brownells (336-000-053WB). Brownells also carries other 45-degree offset mounts here.
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 spend, $204.25 at Brownells (100-020-543WB). Also, F-1’s Miculek Handguard (100-020-542WB), $247, has some appeal.
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:
#2 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 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. It’s available from Brownells (100-004-755WB, $29).
#1 Replacement Trigger
I’ve shot several sets of 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 to have a Mil-Spec trigger, but with better fitted and finished parts, then check out ALG Defense. These are standard triggers with enhanced parts. The $46 Quality Mil-Spec set (100-009-796WB) has a honed sear contact surface and a pull weight of about 6.5 pounds. The ACT, or ALG Combat Trigger (100-009-797WB) employs nickel-boron coating on the trigger and nickel-Teflon coating on the hammer, disconnnector, and pins to increase surface hardness and reduce friction. Average pull weight is about 6 pounds for the $71 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, $100 (631-000-387WB). Much pricier but very good are various Hiperfire single-stage choices, starting at $190.
I prefer two-stage triggers, and I wound up installing a Geissele Super Semi-Automatic (SSA) 2-stage combat trigger (100-003-620WB, $240), which has a fixed 4.5-pound total pull weight and non-adjustable sear engagement. I have shot the Super Semi-Automatic Enhanced (SSA-E, 100-006-357WB, also $240) and wish I had bought it instead. It provides a 3.5-pound total 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.
Here’s a quick tip about using two-stage triggers.
These are just a few of the available AR-15 parts out there, and I haven’t 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. What has been the most important area of the AR-15 to upgrade for you? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below.