I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a monumental uptick in firearms sales. Things like this happen from time to time, and they are usually driven by existing gun owners rushing out to buy the items they worry will no longer be available in the future.
The virus panic buy was different, though. Unlike prior rushes, this one came from first-time buyers worried about how to defend themselves in a post-pandemic world.
That means there’s an awful lot of new gun owners out there with shiny new rifles and looking for the next steps. There’s already a heap of articles and videos explaining the “what’s next” for these new gun owners, so I wanted to focus on something a bit different by digging into the most useful AR-15 upgrades in the real world.
I’m breaking down my best AR-15 upgrades list into three major categories that roughly scale to an individual’s experience level and likely requirements. To me, these categories break down into:
- Bare Basics
- Tactical Training/Defensive Use
Let’s start with some prerequisites.
The Most Important Rifle Upgrade of All
I don’t want to blow smoke up anyone’s rear end. Something to keep in mind is that none of these later upgrades matter if you don’t invest in the most important AR-15 upgrade of all: yourself.
As I mentioned in a recent podcast episode, you should always invest in your own capabilities first. Focus on yourself, then worry about the rifle. Beyond the bare basic upgrades, which I’ll get to in a second, everything else is window dressing.
Professional shooters, either competitive or “tactical,” put in countless hours and thousands upon thousands of rounds of practice every year to hone their craft. In the end, it doesn’t matter what kind of rifle you put in their hands, they will still outperform Average Joe.
A Navy SEAL with a full-size 20” M16A4 is still going to dominate the shoothouse compared to Tactical Timmy and his Mk18 CQB clone built to impress the residents of message boards and social networks.
So when I say the most important investment you can make is in yourself, I mean that before considering any upgrades beyond the minimum, you need to put in the work to master the basics. That means time, training, and quality ammunition.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about the basics.
The Best AR-15 Upgrades for Beginners
I ran a poll within The Everyday Marksman’s community, The Marksman’s Quarter, and asked what upgrades people thought were the most important. I also probed around the kind of budgets and costs members thought was appropriate to get started with everything.
The answers were a bit all over the place. Some people emphasized triggers, others were all about free float handguards. Throughout all of it though, I noticed three things that kept popping up among those who’ve invested the time into training and practice: sights, lights, and slings.
Of course, there might be some self-selection bias here since these are my readers after all and this is exactly what I advocate in my article about your first AR-15 and the Minimum Capable Carbine. But the trend was undeniable.
Assuming you have a bare-bones factory rifle out of the box, the first three things you should add to it are a set of quality sights (or an optic), a white light, and a sling.
AR-15 Sight Upgrades
I listed sights first in this list because they are that important. If you can’t aim your rifle, you can’t safely shoot it. I break sighting devices for beginners into two major areas: irons and optics. If your rifle didn’t come with irons, then you need to fix that.
When it comes to optics, you’ve got some decisions to make. My best advice is to keep it simple and reliable. If you can’t afford a known quality red dot sight like an Aimpoint PRO, EOTech XPS, or Trijicon MRO up front, then I typically suggest sticking with your iron sights until you save up for it.
However, I also realize that not everyone is going to prioritize the funds premium optics and becomes tempted to buy something more inexpensive “for now.” If that’s you, then there are some other inexpensive optics on the market that have pretty good reputations and backing behind them. In particular, I like the Swampfox Blade, Holosun HS503, Vortex Spitfire, and Sig ROMEO 7.
Of that list, you should know that the Swampfox Blade and Vortex Spitfire are 1x prism optics rather than traditional red dot sights. If you have astigmatism, which sometimes causes red dot sights to look fuzzy or distorted, then prism optics are a great solution.
There are, of course, many other great options for optics and they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Don’t get buried in the weeds and nuance.
For safety reasons, actually having sights or optics to aim your rifle is very important. But you also have to identify what you’re shooting at. If you think your new rifle will, in any way, be used in a defensive situation then you need to have a light mounted to it.
It is morally indefensible to shoot at targets you cannot identify in a defensive situation. That shadowy figure making noise in your kitchen in the middle of the night could just as easily be a family member as it could a home invader.
Your light should be reliable, simple to operate, and have enough power to identify your target. My personal opinion is that a lot of folks have gone “lumen crazy” and insist on nothing less than 1000 lumens for a weapon light. They want to sear the retinas of anyone who looks into it.
You really do not need that kind of power to be effective.
There are two ways to go here, either mounting a small flashlight to the weapon with some kind of mounting mechanism or purpose-built weapon lights. Both work fine. Whichever you choose, make sure you get a mount that’s compatible with your handguard (i.e. keymod, m-lok, 1913).
AR-15 Sling Upgrades
Slings are like holsters for your rifle. They hold it when your hands are busy, and they keep it attached to you should something go wrong. They can also help you improve your shooting. You need one.
The best sling for new AR-15 shooters is a quick-adjusting two-point configuration. No, I didn’t list any specific brands in that statement. The truth is that all of the top manufacturers make really great models and it’s really not worth the time to parse the nuances and agonize over the “right” choice.
I really don’t see very many single point or three-point slings anymore. Single points have their place for very small carbines and pistol caliber carbines (PCCs), but anything longer than that is liable to bounce into your crotch. Three-point slings should die a fiery death.
Another option you might come across is a traditional shooting sling. These are great for specific purposes but are more suited to particular types of rifles and marksmanship uses. These are better as a second or third sling choice down the line after you’ve gotten a lot of practice.
Keep it simple. Keep it reliable.
The best place to start is a modern two-point adjustable. My personal preference in this category is the unpadded Blue Force Gear VCAS. It’s been my go-to for more than 10 years, it’s simple, and it works.
Other really good options here include the Magpul MS-1, Ferro Concepts Slingster, Frank Proctor Heavy Duty Sling, SOB B-Sling, and the Viking Tactics Sling.
Those last two are great quality, but I shy away from them because they have long loose tails during adjustment. Some people like that, but it’s not my preference. I much prefer the sleeker sliding mechanisms of the others.
I wanted to throw a quick note here about bungee slings. There are only two that I recommend, and both come with caveats.
First, I own and use a Rifles Only Multipurpose Sling. I use it with both my carbines as well as long guns.
Second, I like the TAB Gear Carbine Sling.
Both of these have sections of very strong bungee material on the rear half of the sling. You want this to be extremely strong because they would otherwise bounce around a lot as you ran or navigated obstacles. More than a few folks have had the buttstocks of their carbines pop them in the mouth due to some stretchy bungee.
There are two possible benefits to the bungee. First, it allows you to raise the rifle even if you didn’t have time (or forgot) to loosen the adjustment slack from the “stowed” position. I don’t think this is all that relevant to most people.
Secondly, and more interestingly, the bungee helps pull the rifle into the shoulder when used with traditional marksmanship positions. That could help increase your accuracy.
However, I don’t think bungee slings are worth the much higher cost for new shooters and instead suggest sticking with one of the more basic slings I mentioned earlier.
The Best AR-15 Upgrades for Tactical Shooters
This list is actually short and easy because the requirements don’t change all that much.
When it comes to upgrading your AR-15 for defensive or tactical use, the basic requirements are still sights, lights, and slings. The best upgrades you can do here focus on increasing weapon reliability and/or correcting known deficiencies of your current rifle.
Despite what gun store counter dwellers say, not all rifles are created equal. There are subtle, but important distinctions between “budget” rifles and “quality” rifles even if they look the same from the outside. These changes usually involve tiny dimensional tolerances on the internal parts, the metallurgy of high-stress components, and proper assembly.
What you choose to start upgrading in this category depends a lot on where you started and what you’ve already got. I have another article discussing the technical specifications of a quality AR, so let’s start with that. You should compare your rifle against those specifications and make notes about what you can fix.
For example, if your new AR-15 has a commercial dimension receiver extension (AKA buffer tube), swap it out for a mil-spec one. If the manufacturer did a poor job of staking important components, then fix it. Or perhaps the barrel is made from 4140 steel with a 1/9 twist and no pinned gas block.
Beyond reliability concerns, this is where you should upgrade your sights and lights from the basics section to something you couldn’t afford when you started.
If you’re an average person and not using night vision or anything like that, the biggest upgrade you should think about in the tactical realm is your optic. You can bump up to a low power variable (LPVO), fixed magnification, or even a combination of optics. All of that is fair game, but if you’re going to make that jump then make sure you’re getting something reliable.
Moving past the weapon itself for a moment, I started off by saying that the best upgrade you can make for your AR-15 is yourself. Once you get the basics hammered out and own a reliable weapon, you should instead invest in better training, magazines, load-bearing gear, and lots of ammunition.
Notice that I haven’t touched on triggers or handguards. Those are great and fun, but they are hardly the most important things to worry about. Too much emphasis on those kinds of things is a telltale symptom of becoming a geardo.
Avoid the Geardo Syndrome
As you start upgrading your AR-15, you will probably develop a chronic case of BRD: black rifle disease. It hits all of us at some point as we realize that the number of changes and upgrades available to us are practically infinite.
There are a lot of companies out there built on the idea of fixing things that aren’t broken. They will sell you skeletonized receivers, lightweight bolt carriers, binary triggers, and go-fast devices that increase your reload speed a fraction of a second.
All the while they will tell you that if you aren’t taking every advantage in a gunfight, then you’re just asking to die.
This is BS.
I’m not a combat veteran, but I’ve done enough training and talked to enough people to know that if the difference between winning or losing a gunfight is the little lever you installed on your bolt release so you could drop it faster, then you’ve got bigger problems to work on.
Competition Rifle Upgrades
If you didn’t go down the tactical route and want to upgrade your AR-15 for competition, then the world is open to you.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that you’ve put in the countless hours and tens of thousands of rounds of practice needed to make these upgrades matter. Where should your priorities be?
Well, that depends a lot on the kind of shooting you’re doing. The requirements of a NRA High Power competition rifle are different from a USPSA rifle. But the thing we can all agree on is that we want the rifle to be accurate, absorb recoil well, and help you see the target (assuming we’re talking something in the mid to long-range realm).
Again, there are a lot of companies trying to sell fixes to problems that don’t exist. Skip over all that stuff and focus on the basics: accuracy, recoil, and optics. The key to accuracy is consistency. You want everything to be the same from shot to shot.
AR-15 Upgrades for Rifle Accuracy
Three things will offer you the most benefit towards accuracy: the barrel, the trigger, and the handguard. These three things also represent the vast majority of “what should I get” questions about the best upgrades for an AR-15. Again, try not to overthink this.
I have a much longer article on AR-15 barrels, and I touch on a lot of aspects about barrel selection there. So give that article a read as well. The short version, for competition purposes, is that you want a barrel with a consistently machined bore so that it launches the bullet the same way every time. Minimal variation in the bore means tighter groups on the target.
Secondly, on barrel upgrades, you want something heavy enough that it soaks up heat from shot to shot. Barrels tend to lose accuracy as they heat, so you want to slow down how that heat collects. Heavier barrels heat slower over long strings of shots (as in competition), which is why they work well for competition.
Heavier barrels also help the rifle absorb more recoil, which makes it easier to shoot quickly.
Third, you want something long enough to give you a “flat shooting” edge. Longer barrels have more velocity, which means the bullet drops less over the same distance as a shorter barrel. It’s not a huge concern if you know your holdovers, and you should. But longer barrels in the 18” range also allow you to use longer gas systems, which have a huge impact on recoil.
The lower pressures of a rifle length gas system make for wonderful shooting guns.
Triggers are a world unto themselves. Good competition triggers reduce the weight of the pull, which means you introduce less error to your shot. They also break at the same weight consistently and cleanly. Remember, consistency is the key to accuracy.
There are many quality triggers on the market to help you get that rush. But I’m going to make this simple for you. If you don’t know what you want then pick up a LaRue Tactical MBT-2S and be done with it.
I love my high-dollar Geissele triggers, and I’ve shot some fantastic models from other companies as well. But the ground truth is that they are all $250 or more. The LaRue MBT is every bit as good and usually comes in at less than $100.
Can I tell a difference when I’m sitting in my basement doing dry fire drills nice and slow? Yes, barely. But when I’m actually running a match and shooting quickly, then I don’t even notice. The LaRue MBT is a great trigger at a wonderful price.
Generally, I wouldn’t say you need to upgrade your handguard for competition unless your rifle came with a plastic one. If your rifle already has a free-floated handguard, then run it as-is. The distinctions between weight, stiffness, and all the other nuance that manufacturers use to compete against one another really doesn’t make that much a difference to you.
If you’re making the jump to free float, then I like ALG EMR, BCM MCMR, Centurion Arms, and SLR models. It’s a personal preference, really.
AR-15 Upgrades for Fun
Of course, not everything you upgrade has to have a purpose in mind. I get that, and upgrading your AR-15 just because you want to is always a valid way to spend money. If you’re not in the “serious use” category, and not everyone is, then feel free to mix and match from above. Make your rifle yours.
Swap out the stocks until you find the one that tickles your inner geardo. Install triggers that make your rifle a joy to shoot. Experiment with optics, rails, muzzle devices, pistol grips, and more. It’s all good.
Then, when you want to come back and prioritize your upgrades, I’ll be here.
Thank you for doing articles like this. They’re important for our community — and sustainably growing it so that our rights are protected and even expanded/restored. A couple notes — I tend to recommend the Streamlight Rail Mount 1 that takes both CR123a and AA batteries. At $100 most can afford it. And if you have 45* Mlok on your rail, I highly recommend the newer cantilevered aluminum magpul mount over just the picatinny mount that comes mounted… Also, I add the green filter to the light as well. In dark at CQB distances still more than enough light for… Read more »
It’s so true about skimping on mounts. I wonder how many times I’ve had people tell me that otherwise quality optics don’t hold zero is because of the mount. The other upgrades you mentioned, such as the buffer/extractor are obviously important. This ties back to some of my older suggestions for first rifles, though. Most of the brands I usually suggest already include the extractor springs/inserts out of the box. That said, I think the most important upgrades really come back to making the rifle reliable first. The rest of it doesn’t matter if it’s not reliable. Mags are a… Read more »
I enjoyed your discussion with NC Scout on your podcast. I think a quality white light, and sling should be your first upgrade. The carry handle works, and so does the simple mbuis sights. I like optics on the carry handle even though its awkward because I can easily use my irons. Its all about the intended purpose of the rifle. I think you’re discussion about MOA was very useful. People forgot all these cool accessories add weight, and possible reliability issues to their rifles. If you are using your patrol rifle to dispatch pests, out of box accuracy will… Read more »