Known as America’s rifle, the AR-15 is ubiquitous in today’s modern gun culture. One of its greatest features is its modularity – the ability to swap out any part easily and have it work.
No doubt, there are plenty of basic AR-15 rifles sitting all over America with plenty of owners who like to tinker with their guns. Because of the compatibility of all AR-15 parts and their interchangeability, there are several great upgrades these owners can make at home to improve their shooting experience!
Let’s look at some of our favorite upgrades!
Today, in our saturated AR-15 market, many manufacturers are currently selling rifles equipped with free-floating handguards and quad-rail systems from the factory.
However, many rifles still come with that round, cheap, plastic handguard that’s associated with basic rifles. You know the one we’re talking about. It’s flimsy, it doesn’t protect your hand from heat, and it doesn’t have any points for mounting other attachments such as foregrips or flashlights.
For a relatively low cost, Magpul offers a handguard that will replace a basic carbine handguard. Using the existing delta ring and retaining cap on a rifle equipped with an A2 front sight post. With direct M-lok mounting points and multiple slots for Picatinny rail mounting, this handguard offers you a much-improved platform for under $40. The thicker plastic offers better grip, better heat resistance, and accessory functionality.
Of course, (speaking from experience) fighting the Delta ring by hand can be a beast. While it is possible to replace the handguard at home with no tools, it’s highly recommended to invest in a simple Delta ring tool such as this one from Wheeler. It just makes your life easier.
Additionally, free float handguards make a great upgrade for your rifle. With no pressure point on the barrel, free-floating handguards can be used to support your rifle without changing the point of impact. They are also less sensitive to the effects of heat on accuracy, as the barrel can move freely.
If you have a basic AR-15 (or you built one yourself using a basic lower parts kit), you may feel that the trigger isn’t great. It works, of course. You pull the trigger and the gun goes “bang.”
But they do leave something to be desired. Often, stock AR triggers have a pull weight of 6-8 lbs. with some element of creep, and a sponge-y take up. They’re not great for precision shooting, and they’re not great for rapid-fire close-range shooting. Replacing your trigger is a simple process at home and can greatly increase your shooting capability.
One outstanding target trigger is the Timney Calvin Elite. The 1.5lb break is solid but incredibly light, with very little over-travel and a super crisp reset. 4 trigger shoes also allow you to change the trigger according to your needs. Because the fire control group is self-contained in a shell, installation is super easy with no fighting with springs. This would be one great option for precision shooters, but the trigger pull is light for hunting or CQB tactical or sport shooting.
For these types of shooting sports, Geissele makes a fantastic “3-gun” trigger with a slightly heavier, two-stage pull that breaks at 3.5 lbs.
Of course, the prices on these triggers may be a little heavy for some users. Make no mistake, these triggers are worth the price for those who shoot at a high level and are willing to make the investment. But, if you just want to bump up the performance of your rifle a little bit and not spend a fortune, there are plenty of options in the average shooter’s budget. ALG makes a great “enhanced duty trigger” at a very affordable price. While keeping the trigger at a duty-capable 6.5 lbs, the enhanced trigger cleans up the trigger pull to something that is smoother and more repeatable than a basic trigger.
Plus, if you’re feeling frisky, you can always invest in a binary trigger such as the one offered by Franklin Armory. These triggers fire on the pull of the trigger and on the release, greatly enhancing your potential rate of fire. In fact, a binary trigger can mimic a fully automatic rate of fire without any of the paperwork or hassle included!
Having a good stock fit is an important part of precision shooting and recoil control. A lot of factory stocks don’t do any justice to the platform in this regard. They fit poorly against the cheek, wobble, and have a lot of extra bulk. Replacing them with a better-fitting alternative can greatly enhance the shooter’s fit with the rifle.
For a basic mil-spec style adjustable stock, it’s easy to recommend the Daniel Defense Mil-Spec adjustable stock. It locks up tightly on buffer tube with no slop or play, which can be a problem with several factory stocks. Additionally, the rounded rubber butt pad provides an aggressive grip on the shoulder and allows the shooter to easily bring the rifle to shoulder while wearing body armor or a chest rig. The stock also includes QD sling cups for easily attaching and removing a sling.
For the more precision shooting market, one popular option is the Magpul PRS stock. The flat bottom of the PRS stock easily settles into a rear rifle support bag, which can be a problem with sloped stocks. An adjustable cheek piece allows you to get the perfect cheek weld for alignment with your scope. It also features an adjustable length of pull to fit any shooter and the eye relief. The PRS stock allows the AR-15 to fit right in in a precision shooting format.
For a more minimalist option, a Mission First Tactical Battlelink Minimalist Stock fits the bill. Although it is fixed, it provides a solid support for a carbine-style AR-15 with minimal weight and clutter. Another very cool choice is the Troy PDW stock. By using a telescoping stock and a special, compact buffer system, the PDW stock gives the smallest possible footprint to your rifle or PDW. A PDW style stock makes for greatly enhanced mobility and even concealability if combined with a short-barreled rifle.
We would be remiss not to mention the side-folding stock adapter by LAW tactical. One of the biggest obstacles to storage and transportation of the AR is the buffer tube system, a necessary component which sticks out well past the length of the receiver. With the LAW tactical side folding adapter, your stock folds neatly out of the well. Although the rifle cannot be fired in normal operation this way, it greatly reduces the footprint of your AR-15 – enough that it can be stored in a backpack or other convenient place of access.
The bolt carrier group is the mass that reciprocates when the rifle is in operation. It carries the bolt, which is the actual locking mechanism involved in the firing of the gun.
As a crucial component of operation, the bolt carrier group can affect the overall performance of the gun. Many drop-in options are available which the shooter can easily replace at home.
Because the bolt carrier group moves straight back into the buffer during firing, it can be a significant contributor to the felt recoil during firing. A low-mass bolt carrier group reduces this effect. By lowering the mass of the bolt-carrier group, it transfers less energy rearward during firing. This translates into lower recoil for the shooter, getting follow-up shots back on target that much quicker.
Even if you want to keep a full mass bolt carrier group, improvements can be made. One of the most-cited criticisms of the AR-15 platform is that the direct impingement gas system deposits carbon all over the operating components. This carbon can build up very quickly and gum up the operating system of the gun.
Unfortunately, some of the most popular coatings (such as black oxide and parkerizing) can be rough and grip right onto this carbon, holding it in place and requiring deep scrubbing. One way to solve this problem is with a bolt carrier group finished in a way that resists this build-up. This can be done through plating (such as chrome) or through ionization processes such as nitride.
Both chrome and black nitride provide high-lubricity, smooth surfaces. This means that carbon and other grit will have a harder time sticking to the smooth surface of the part. It also means the ability to wipe it right off with a cleaning cloth and get back to shooting, without lots of time spent scraping carbon.
The AR-15 is truly a mark of genius in its ability to swap out all the parts with little more than armorer-level knowledge and tools. This has allowed the industry to absolutely thrive with aftermarket parts and improvements.
Although we’ve gone over just a few basic options in this article, it’s true that almost every part in the AR-15 has been upgraded or improved in some way. We’d love your feedback! What are your favorite upgrade parts, or the problems you’d like solved? Leave your comments below for us to consider!
And be sure to check out our other guides to help you find the best AR-15 parts and accessories.