Gear, Parts and Accessories

Setting Up Your AR-15 for Defense

woman learning how to shoot an AR-15 rifle.

Today’s market offers a multitude of options for personal defense. The plethora of aftermarket parts can be overwhelming to even the most gun-savvy individuals and picking the right components can be crucial to your success in building a gun that gives you the performance you are looking for. I am going to try and convey what I have found to work for me regarding the AR-15 platform, as a rifle that is widely deployed in a self-defense role. Let’s start with looking at the basics of platform.

By Michael Rodriguez

I start by selecting a firearm centered on the role it is designed for. I make this decision on materials used in construction, manufacturing processes, and components that are used in the process to create a complete rifle. A way to simplify all of these options is to select a rifle manufactured by a commercial gun company or as it is commonly referred to as “off the rack.” The ability to purchase the AR you want preconfigured is available through a select few retailers and gun shops and you can expect performance to be on par with cost. The other route is to build (or have built) the exact rifle you want from the ground up.

Flash Hider/Compensator

As I stated before, the purpose of this article is discussing AR-15s for personal defense. These items are not in any particular order of importance, so I am simply going to start at the front of the rifle. A good compensator/flash hider is essential to assist in negating muzzle flash and supports faster follow up shots. Time is critical in a defensive scenario and anything that can help shave time, even if it’s tenths of seconds, is valuable.

Keep that in mind as we go through these items. There are several companies that make quality muzzle devices, I use the AAC Blackout as I find it efficient and it allows me to attach a suppressor without the use of direct threading.


For barrels, I generally find that a 16-inch heavy barrel works best and prevents you from having to involve laws such as NFA guidelines if you want to change muzzle devices. While a 14.5-inch barrel is acceptable, the muzzle device will need to be pinned and welded to comply with NFA regulations, hence my selection of a true 16-inch barrel. Other factors to consider when picking a barrel is the treatment process. They are usually chrome lined or cryogenically treated for longevity. I generally will select a cryogenically treated barrel, as it is a proven process.


Next, I look at the option of a free-float rail system. When looking at this product the options can become somewhat overwhelming. With the option of Key Mod, M-Lok, quad picatinny, or even just knurled with no mounting system, the key here is to make sure whatever you purchase as a rail system has a 1913 spec rail for placing your accessories. This decision is a personal preference and you need to do your own research to figure out what is comfortable for you.

The good news is the rail system is not nearly as “mission critical” as you might think. I employ several different hand guard systems over multiple guns—all of which serve me in a defensive role. One item I attach to my rail systems is the use of a vertical grip to pull the rifle into my shoulder. I try to stay away from plastic vertical grips as these can potentially break in a stressed environment.


Choosing the optic on for the rifle for me usually consists of an unmagnified red dot or holographic sight that has generous eye relief and can take a beating and still keep working. For this option, I turn to the EOTech 522 and 512 series. They are reliable and offer a usable solution for close quarters work.

Backup iron sights I find are a necessity though, even with the use of a solid optic. All things mechanical or electrical are prone, or have the potential, to break and a backup system should always be in place if available. A good set of MagPul MBUIS sights are affordable and will fold down to stay out of the way when the optic is in operation.


A good light is going to aid you tremendously in low light/darkened conditions. The key to a good light is not overpowering the surroundings. Anything around 200 lumens should provide enough coverage and prevent splash or bounce-back from white surfaces. Surefire and Insight make a couple of products that provide tremendous value and reliability.


For a stock, I prefer to try and keep the weight down, so I tend to gravitate toward a minimalist approach. I run the Mission First Tactical BMF stock paired with a ERGO grip. It provides a stable platform and the weight savings I’m looking for.


Lastly, I would like to cover trigger selection. It has been my experience that a standard weight, single stage, GI trigger is what works best. Again, you are working in a stressed environment so you want to make sure the components in your gun work the way they are supposed to work. Lightened or custom triggers can work against you in terms of reliability via light primer strikes and accountability to the law if you do have to use your gun in a defensive situation. There are several options that are standard weight but offer smoothness and reliability.

The items I have covered up to this point are what I would mostly consider the important factors in building out my rifle. Items like the BCM ambidextrous gunfighter charging handle and Phase 5 magazine release, are nice and convenient but are not particular necessary to creating a successful platform. The purpose here is to make your rifle work for you, efficiently, effectively, and every time. I have listed what works for me and my hope is that you don’t necessarily duplicate what I have done, but that it gives you thought as to what might work for you. It is important that you are comfortable and familiar with your gun. Then practice with your rifle. When you think you have it down get more training and practice some more. Stay familiar with your system.

What are your favorite AR upgrades and accessories? Share them in the comment section.

Michael is a Reserve Police Officer and he travels all over the country to share in passion and knowledge for weapons, combat, and training with his students.  He is often requested to attend industry shows to supply his expertise on these systems and how they perform. He has earned several certifications from National Rifle Association and also has been trained in basic medical courses. Michael was also involved with The Knights of Scars and earned a Knighthood with that organization. The SCARS Institute of Combat Sciences is the first officially recognized Hand to Weapon Fighting System for the United States NAVSPECWARCOM. He has been placed in situations that assist him in training his students in real world applications of the skills his students learn from him in the classroom and on the range. Michael always makes time to assist all the branches of the military retired or active duty and can often be found on the range training with these service men and woman. It is his passion. To find out more about AWATT LLC go to and

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (25)

  1. Once again, you have chosen the “defensive category weapon”; I can understand that if you are choosing a sporting firearm that you would want something comfortable. I believe that the frailest of shooters when asked “how about the recoil” after firing in self defense, will likely answer “what recoil”. If you think that’s an issue then choose lighter loads in a smaller gauge. When choosing a defensive firearm, the most important thing to consider is dependability, the next thing to consider is “will it produce the desired effect”. Somewhere near the bottom of the list of things to consider is “comfort” and “fun to shoot”. Choosing a defensive firearm is kinda like choosing a race car….it doesn’t need to be comfortable to win the race, it just has to go fast and in this category, second place is not an option.

  2. Great comments from all on this thread. Here’s a couple thoughts, keeping in mind I don’t have an AR. Shotguns are good, as long as you are not recoil adverse. Same for handguns of defensive calibers. The women in my family are small and are not gun aficionados so they are put off by recoil. AR wins the light recoil contest when compared to handguns and shotguns. The women not being aficionados they are not as accurate as would be someone that practices regularly. AR with 30 round magazine wins again over pistol and shotgun. In regard to length of weapon this not a real issue. If you measure from back to end of barrel you will find that a handgun in the arms extended position is only a scant few inches shorter that an AR or a short barrel shotgun. My house is small so penetration of multiple walls in not a concern it is a certainty. That said if someone is trying to harm my family I expect them to discharge a weapon in the director of the person with nefarious intent. It is my belief that you are statistically more likely to suffer a less that optimal outcome if you don’t shoot because you are afraid that the bullet MAY strike an unintended target. Some of this can be addressed with an appropriate defensive point in the home, providing the intruder isn’t between you and your loved ones. For those with a population density issue couple with cheap(thin) building construction I suggest a well trained dog of 70 pounds or heavier might make you more comfortable.

  3. An M4 or shotgun are both poor choices compared to a pistol.

    A shotgun, when racked incorrectly (shortstroking) will cause FTF. You may only get one chance at defending yourself.

    Get a pistol, get a light, get trained.

  4. I can think of at least a 100 reasons why an AR15 is not the best choice for self defense. If that is the only weapon in your house then by all means some of the things mentioned should be considered. But, be realistic, when considering equipping an AR for home defense, all that really matters is that it shoots when you pull the trigger, every time. Sights, you really don’t need any. Threaded barrel, WHY? adjustable stock, maybe. Frangible ammo, absolutely. Even if you think that intimidation is a big consideration, your intruder would have to see you to be intimidated, why would you let that happen?
    Bottom line for home defense is, has and always will be the shotgun. Off the shelf, short barrel 12 ga at less half the price of most any AR, loaded with #5 bird shot or smaller is effective against any 2 legged intruder inside any size home, and with little or no danger to your neighbor. Talk about intimidation; have you ever heard the racking of a round into a shotgun inside a dark house?

  5. At first, I didn’t want to open this article. Anyone who knows how to read the end of an ammo box should be able to discern the risk of shooting a projectile at 3,000+ fps indoors as opposed to shooting something sub-sonic (45acp – 600 to 900 fps) or near sub-sonic (9mm – 800 to 1100 fps). Using hollow points reduces the risk of the bullet passing through a threat (i.e. perp) or through a wall (my 9 year old sleeps on the other side of the hall). I’m not saying a low grain hot load of 45acp or 9mm couldn’t go through a wall, but I choose to focus on standard or lower pressure loads simply to reduce the risk of pass-thru on interior and even exterior walls. Using 00 buckshot indoors is also a bad idea. Shot diameter is similar to that of 38 special and will move through more than a feweek walls. Don’t believe me? Go watch YouTube. I think even goofy fps Russia shows 00 buck moving through walls and a ballistic gel dummy from 15 yds. Last word of advise… I teach CCW and tell my students to avoid using magnum caliber pistols or revolvers unless they are using standard pressure cartridges with them (i.e. 38 special instead of .357 mag). Remember, once the bullet exits the smoking barrel (hopefully not from an AR or AK unless that’s all you’ve got), you own it. If it goes through a wall and kills someone in your neighborhood, you will own that too.

  6. EOTech is no longer an acceptable sight for any rifle. They just settled for $25 million with the U.S. Government because of countless failures involving zero shift that can cause a 1 foot or greater point of impact change at 100 meters. The day the suit was filed by the Feds they settled. The CEO has resigned as they knew this was a problem and concealed it.

    1. Except for someone like you or me the EOTech product is MORE then ample and is only inaccurate at temperature extremes. I have several and would GLADLY take a few more if anyone wants to sell for the cheap out of paranoia. If you have ever used one and not just read the legal mumbo nonsense you will know they are spot on accurate and actually really good product. I personally don’t expect to be in the dessert of Antarctica any time soon.

    2. EOTech is no longer an acceptable sight for any rifle?
      WRONG, it just has accuracy issues with EXTREME temp changes.
      Just don’t leave it on your dash in your car on a hot summer day.

    3. Exactly. Eotechs are garbage. I’ve used them in military, private security, law enforcement, overseas contracting, etc. on various weapon systems. FAIL FAIL FAIL.

      Are they reliable in any condition? Well, you don’t know. Do I want to depend on an optic that has a reputation for failing? Absolutely not.

      Eotechs may seem perfect on the safe-queen rifle that only sees the range once every 6 months. However on a rifle that sees the range weekly well… better have, and be proficient with your BUIS and your pistol for transitions.

  7. Did you ever shoot at an indoor range and forget to put your ears in? Well that’s what it’s like inside your home with a rifle. If you use a rifle for home defense get a suppressor if you can.

    The blast will ruin your eye sight and hearing, do you have time to put on glasses and ears?

    This is really all BS honestly. A person must look at his home and take everything into account, workout a plan and every possible scenario. Do you live in bear country? I mean everything. Pick a firearm that will do the job and practice with it.

    No two situations will have the same outcome, use what you shoot best with and again practice.

  8. My home defense AR is a custom built job with a 14.5″ Daniel Defense barrel pined to a BRT linear compensator to deflect blast and flash forward. ALG triggers with JP yellow springs. UTG superslim freefloat tube, MFT mimimalist stock and Aimpoint C3 red dot, it’s super lightweigt, nimble, short and easy to shoot.
    It also has a JP adjustable gas block to lower recoil. This is an excellent home defense set up with self defense special ammo.
    After trying some shooting into abandoned buildings, the AR is a better choice than my 9mm handguns for lack of wall penetration.

  9. To each their own, and in my opinion only one of todays weapons needs constant praising in order to justify its’use for home defense, the AR 15 Black Guns and the why of that instead of turning us all into instant urban Rambos should at least cause a pause in gun choice for home defence.
    Do you carry an AR for everyday self defence?
    Then why is it that of a sudden in the dark of your home turf that your wonder 9’s, 45’S, 40’s concealed sidearms found lacking?.
    Now if one was living in Syria , YEmen or IRAQ and could expect a whole fn gang of fanatics arrival then. Ya I guess a weapon readiedfor war would be handy.
    Thankfully all we got is. Dopers and more dopers to contend with and they usually do not run around in . TOYOTA TRUCK CONVOYS ROBBING
    HOUSES , about 3 is the totaly of crack brains can coordinate.
    If one kills a perp with a 22cal pistol or a 500 S&W THE perp is dead.
    Aiming? In a home defence( inside your home not outside protectingg your cowboy ranch) who the hell is sighting?
    You point shoot, you should practice regularly enough it becomes instinctive.
    If a mil cop sec person can draw from holster hit perp target with double tap in second or less then he/ she has point shooting ingrained.
    HOw fn dark is it in your house?
    Do you need a flqshlight to head to can or a late night snack in kitchen?
    What is second thing one should do after grabbing weapon pointing it at your immediate doorway?
    Is it a game for gear freak black gun owners. is it survival,; protecting your wide screen, or as lords of the manner defending your castle?
    Today killing a bad guy seems to be a step from being sainted, and we all seem to be at war, kill or be killed; no warnings just sneak up on the bad guy and assassinate him before he does what.
    I do not agree with a fhlight, unless you live in cave darkness, for even if it is of a kind whose strobe incapacitates, it will not stop a trigger finger from squeezing off multiple shotsand why the hell announce an aimpoint for the perp?
    Agree that most home distance leaves no time for BS but if the perp is some 40 feet from your bedside stealing your Craftsmen tools, and you holler” I am armed and in 15sec I am coming to waste your ass” and he does not leave , now that is when a theft of goods. Becomes a life threatening event, for him that is.
    I apologize that I cannot fathom this seemingly gruesome wa na kill something rather than avoiding death, if one does not feel a need for adoration of macho warrior types an avoidance of dealing death can be a point to concider..

  10. one that has a good magazine, a good round, and it goes BANG every time! Then a good light, that’s it. Rails, high end triggers free floating barrels, come on its very close quarters fighting. I have used many brands, some inexpensive (the kind the basement commandos turn up their nose at) and high end guns. They all work, the only difference is the name on the side. Put your money into ammo for practice and get the right COMBAT MINDSET, that’s what is important!

  11. Encounters requiring self defense usually take place in a matter of a few feet. The AR15 with all of these attachments would be considered more of an offensive weapon. Most rational jurists and law enforcement personnel would have trouble seeing this weapon as configured solely for defense. These articles are part of the reason the public sees “assault weapon” when they look at the AR15.

  12. Liked the article, thanks, When it comes to sights, I like the Meprolight M21. It is on 100% of the time, no batteries, or on/off switch. Works in any lighting conditions even Dark with the tritium cell. Costs about as much as a good EOTech. It is used by the IDF, so there has to be something good about it. It is built about as solid as you can get with 2 quick release mounts.

    1. I agree with your comments on the Meprolight. Now if they would produce one with a green dot, that would be awesome!

  13. EOTech has gotten a lot of bad press lately due to problems relating to extreme temperature which may very well apply to guys fighting in a 120 degree sandbox or in the Arctic, but not really applicable to the average AR user. I have an EOTech 517 (basically a 512 with the controls on the side to allow a tilt-off magnifier behind the sight), and I love it — rugged, holds zero, and has better short range tactical sight acquisition than anything I’ve looked at.

    Dave, could you comment a bit more on the pluses and minuses of different types of flash suppressors? They’re an accessory that rarely gets talked about.

    1. RNS,
      I will get it on the schedule and have an article in a week so. Thanks for reading and thanks for the request. ~Dave Dolbee

  14. As mentioned above, location is everything. At home in the city, we live in a fairly dense neighborhood. AR is not a good choice because of travel distance on the projectile. In town, it’s a KSG with 22 rounds of shortie 12 ga mixed buckshot and #2. A good light, a red dot and home defense has a whole new meaning. At the weekend ranch, it”s a LR308 frame, PRS stock, UTG slim front end, 24″ medium profile 6.5 Creedmoor barrel. 4-14 scope gets me out to 500 yards on pinpoint, 850 yards for anything the size of a car. The hounds let me know at 1,000 yards there are visitors in the area, 2 or 4 legged. Location is everything, Use what makes sense for the location without putting the innocents in harms way.

  15. Excellent article if you use a rifle for defense. The author did not mention what kind of “defense” he was referring to. I, personally use a high capacity .45 for home defense because of furniture and house layout considerations not to mention the range of a rifle round. He also did not note whether he prefers a piston operated or a direct impingement AR-15. I believe an impingement operated rifle is best because of the reduced recoil. As to barrels, my pick would be a stainless steel one because it will last longer than a carbon steel one although it is slightly heavier. I got mine from Lothar-Walther because they use “machine gun” SS.

    1. .223 ammunition is more frangible with less penetration than most pistol cartridges in building material. As for barrel choice it would take more shooting than 99.9 per cent of shooters will ever do to wear out a rifle barrel. I prefer gas impingement. If I want a piston driven gas system I do to the AK!

    2. I agree with Bob once again. The purpose of a piston is to defend yourself long enough for you to get to a long gun. The concerns of over penetration and what the jury will say are all Internet lore. A 223 will penetrate less then then the 45 cal pistol round suggested and surely any other caliber handgun especially if they are FMJ or ball. The weight and cost of Stainless is one of those that is left to the guy who needs to tell his friends he has the best of the best but most likely can’t outshoot the equipment. I have never met anyone who has over fired a barrel in civilian or LEO use. I have friends who have in military and competition use but never in just normal use and that be either parkerized or chrome coated. The issues of EOTech are in my opinion elaborated on by the fact they were in violation of the mil spec and had to pay a fine and recall many. If I were in Afghanistan or down at McMurdo Base I might be concerned but the three I have 512 and 522’s they are workhorse mules that honestly I should take better care of but I don’t and they work as purchased. I also agree with Bob if I want a piston and or bigger sized ammo I will by an AK but I don’t and in fact don’t own any but do have “a few” ARs. The AR platform is a very versatile accurate self defense weapon for use in anything from 200 yards down to dinning room ranges and not only will give you options no pistol will ever be considered for. Once drawn out might very well be the end of the engagement which lets face it is the WHOLE goal of the process of self defense to begin with. I don’t carry a gun to use it to kill I carry a gun to stop anyone from hurting me or my family and if that means just showing it to them is enough then so be it. I KNOW that showing any current bad guy a hand gun won’t affect them but breaking out the AR fully dressed is many times more then enough to see a urinary tract release on the carpet.
      Dr D former Director Federal Drug Interdiction Task Force and Surgeon.

    3. Thank you sir. It gets so old hearing all the misinformation on the AR/556. It is evident by many comments that most people have never actually been in an armed engagement or even have done realistic training. There is actually even a comment on here that you shouldn’t use a flashlight. Are you Freakin kidding. Again thanks for the refreshing post. I rarely post as it would take a book to debunk these myths. I have done testing myself as well as viewed others and consistently 230gr 45acp jhp or fmj will easily penetration more layers of drywall than 55gr fmj 556. Yet the myth of the magical 556 that penetrates 500 sheets of drywall still exists(sarcastic exaggeration for anyone who actually thinks I believe a 556 will do that).

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