You could easily call the AR-15 “America’s Rifle”. It is the most popular defensive rifle out there. It is estimated that there are over 20 million AR-15’s in the United States, owned by private citizens. So, what are the Best AR-15 Upgrades?
For me, it is my preferred defensive rifle. It is a time tested, battle proven design.
What I wanted to do with this article is list out some of the best upgrades to add to your stock AR-15, in order of importance. These upgrades are what I recommend for your defensive carbine, or homeland defense rifle. It can apply to many other rifles that you would grab in the case of SHTF, so it doesn’t just apply to strictly to AR-15’s in every facet. You could easily apply the first 4 items on this list to an AK-47, SCAR, M1A, or whatever else might be your go to gun.
However, the AR-15 in particular is exceptionally easy to modify and upgrade compared to most other rifles.
These are simple upgrades to a decent quality rifle, and training. Before you start adding any special upgrades, I recommend choosing a high quality rifle and getting some level of proficiency and training with it. The more training the better. Those things are far more important than any single upgrade, or even a fully upgraded rifle. Also, I am not including several high quality magazines and a decent stash of quality ammo – those are also something that should be a given in my opinion.
That said, here is my recommendation for upgrades to your defensive carbine.
A good quality sling is a must. Think of it as your rifle’s holster. I believe it was Clint Smith who said, “A handgun is for fighting your way to your rifle which you shouldn’t have put down in the first place”.
A sling assists in keeping your rifle close to you when you may have otherwise put it down. Clint said this about rifles for very good cause. A rifle is far more accurate and effective for gun battles in general. Get a good quality sling, and practice how you will use it. I like a good quality 2-point quick adjust type sling.
The next upgrade I would choose for my rifle would be a good quality weapon light. Most gun battles take place in low lighting. Not only do you want to be able to identify your target and what is behind it, assess the danger they are posing to you, you want to be able to accurately fire on your attacker. Your weapon light doesn’t just give you an advantage over most random attackers by helping you to see better, it can also impair the vision of your attacker.
After a sling, a weapon light is a must. There are a lot of options here, but a simple solution is a Streamlight in Odin Works mount or VTAC mount with a SureFire. Those are two methods I have employed for mounting weapon lights on my guns in the past and it has worked well.
Make sure to mount the light as far down towards the muzzle as possible as the muzzle can create an obstruction for the light, at least partially. Also, consider where you are placing it in relation to where and how you hold the rifle.
This can be an expensive upgrade, so if you cannot afford a good quality optic, I might recommend waiting to get a good one. That said, optics are getting better and better, especially among the lower end optics.
Another caveat to optics is to have backup iron sights (BUISs) – and to be able to use them at least on the most basic level. Your optic is more vulnerable to damage than BUISs are and they often require batteries which can lose power.
However, a good optic can really be a game changer in target acquisition. Having taken some rifle courses and shooting at different ranges and with various optics, I will say that the ACOG TA-31 is my favorite for outdoors and/or medium distance. Even at 25 yards, the ACOG makes a huge difference over something such as a red dot. The ACOG can make your AR-15 an extremely useful DMR.
That said, for close quarters battle, and indoors, a good quality red dot (Aimpoint is my recommendation) is best.
In most cases, a suppressor is the best choice for a muzzle device, but they come with several drawbacks. They are expensive, heavy, and they add to the overall length of the barrel. Additionally, while they are much quieter than without one, they are not exactly “quiet”. They will keep you from blowing your eardrums out inside of your house without hearing protection, so that is nice. They also hide flash much better than most other muzzle devices.
However, they are not so quiet that they cannot cause permanent damage to your hearing. Lastly, in the US, they are regulated and require special permission from the ATF, along with a sign off from your local sheriff and a $200 tax stamp.
If you cannot afford a suppressor or do not want to go that route for some other reason, I recommend a flash hider. The standard A2 birdcage has a lot of advantages IMO. It’s short and small, so it doesn’t add much weight or length. They direct the flash upwards, so they help keep recoil down a little bit, and prevent dirt from kicking up when shooting prone. They also do a decent job of hiding flash and they are inexpensive.
Some states do not allow them, so you may be stuck with using a muzzle brake or compensator instead. Those will help with recoil, though they are also loud for people close to you. It could be problematic if firing it in a squad of sorts.
NiB Bolt Carrier Group
I really like these and believe they make the gun more reliable and easier to maintain. Nickel-Boron is a special coating that adds lubricity to the bolt carrier group (BCG). If you add one to your rifle, make sure it is a quality brand and you may want to check the headspacing, but that usually is not a problem. See a qualified gunsmith about help with it if you do not have the expertise to check it on your own.
Also, because the bolt and firing pin are two pieces that are susceptible to failure after several thousands of rounds, it’s kind of nice to have your old bolt, firing pin, or whole BCG ready to pop in there as a backup.
In my opinion, things like ambidextrous controls, furniture upgrades, enlarged trigger guard, enhanced charging handle, extended bolt release, anti-rotation pins, extended mag release, trigger upgrades, vertical forward grips, etc. are personal decisions and are not all that crucial to upgrade, though they can be fun to upgrade.
They should probably be upgrades you add later on, after you have upgraded the rifle in all the other ways mentioned above first, or if they are somehow related to the upgrades mentioned above – and some should probably just not be changed at all unless you have a specific need.
I am not inclined to recommend heavy barrels for defensive carbines. The AR-15 is not a machine gun and was never intended to be. Lighter is better, in my opinion, no matter how macho you are, every pound matters when you are carrying your gun out and about. The lighter it is, the less likely you are to set it down and be without it.