Gun Gear

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

Midwest Industries AR-15
Midwest Industries AR-15s have FN hammer-forged and chrome lined barrels, a MPI bolt, M4 feed ramps and a staked castle nut.

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.

Sale ends July 28, 2019

Sale ends July 28, 2019

If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.
If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.

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.

AR-15 Stainless Chromoly Rifle Barrels by Glen Zediker
A truly good barrel is expensive. It also won’t last any longer than an equivalently constructed lower-cost barrel. But between barrels, you’ll be happy. Barrels are not a lifetime investment. To a competitive shooter, or anyone looking for the ultimate accuracy, barrels are a supply item. Because there are a few that are as good, I hate to mention names, but I will photograph them. This is my “go to” barrel maker.


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.

Burris AR-F3 Red Dot Sight
This is a lightweight but effective red dot well worth your attention.


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.

Picture shows a black, adjustable AR-15 buttstock.
AR-15 stocks are either A2 fixed or collapsible.


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.

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