Gear, Parts and Accessories

Tricking Out Your AR-15 – Top Upgrades and Accessories


While it is unlikely that your AR will ever see combat that does not mean it shouldn’t be considered something worthy of betting your life on. Now that the “Great Firearm Scare” and resulting panic buy has receded, there are some really great deals on budget AR-15s as well as top of the line flagship models. That means there has never been a better time to pick up a new AR or dress up your old AR.

Dressing up an AR-15 is the perfect way to make it your own while building a bond and familiarity that will make the difference whether it be in a gunfight or the first stage of a local competition. Those with an eye for the AR-15 platform appreciate the effect small changes can have on performance.

Pistol Grip

UTG Model 47 Ergonomic Pistol Grip
The UTG Model 47 Ergonomic Pistol Grip weighs just 5.4 ounces.

Operate an AR for any length of time and the first upgrade on your wish list will be a replacement for the standard A2 grip. It is likely too small for those with larger paws or simply provides less than adequate purchase when wearing gloves. Either way, it is one of the cheapest upgrades and the simplest ways to distinguish your AR in the sea of competitors at the range.

Popular grips include:


Although Glocks dominate the handgun market, you still hear debates about the texture of the grip. Some say the Gen 3 was inadequate while others feel the Gen 4 RTF2 was akin to 60 grit sandpaper. I am from the camp where I would rather feel the bite shot after shot and not worry about the gun slipping when caught in inclement weather or heaven forbid when shooting with a bloody hand if the wolf came knocking on my door.

Stippling is cheap and effective. For the artistically inclined, you can really add a touch of flare and customization like no other. For those like me who cannot draw a straight line with a ruler and a pencil don’t fret, there is hope. Of course, you could always send it out to a gunsmith or someone who specializes in stippling ( While I have not risked a firearm, I have spent a few hours improving my magazines risking no more than a few dollars. All you need to stipple is a cheap soldering iron. I picked a slightly used one up online for about $5. From pistol grips to magazines, stippling significantly enhances the grip and aesthetics of many firearms and components. At a minimum, you can number or place you initials on the bottom plate of you magazines to distinguish them for your buddy’s.


Tac-Con 3MR Trigger
The Tac-Con trigger group is completely self-contained and built as a drop in system for the AR-15.

Once upon a time, a trigger job meant a trip to the gunsmith if you were smart. I wasn’t, and it nearly cost me dearly. A buddy said he could tune up the trigger on my Savage Model 10 and boy did he. The trigger was much lighter and broke clean. It performed fine at my next range session. I hunted with it a few weeks later. I stalked a small herd of wild boar, picked the largest and took the shot; the remaining 10 or so hogs charged. I immediately cycled the bolt and bang! The shot slammed into the ground as the bolt slammed home. My mind raced and quickly I cycled the bolt again thinking my finger must have been on the trigger. Again, I was sickened as the rifle discharged into the ground as the bolt slammed home. Fortunately, the hogs raced by giving me a 10-yard buffer zone.

Today, dozens of manufacturers sell quality aftermarket triggers that will easily drop into place. Pick your poison and choose from single-stage, two-stage, match, 3-gun, adjustable, non-adjustable, straight or curved bow, cassette or combat from manufacturers such as:

Magpul AR-15 Back Up Iron Sight BUIS
If your only sighting system is glass, you are setting yourself up for failure.


The popularity of the A3 flat top design has proven to be the demise of the iron sight for most. At best, shooting irons has become a lost art for most. There are also people who do not understand the meaning of mechanical failure. Special Forces often use the phrase “two is one and one is none.” If your only sighting system is glass, you are setting yourself up for failure. Perhaps you attach and sight in your Back Up Iron Sight (BUIS) and never again use it. Great! That is some mighty cheap insurance against an emergency, but to be effective we both understand the importance of practicing with the irons, not just slapping them on…

Flip-up-designed BUIS most often serve as back-ups for red-dot optics and attach over the modular, free-float handguard extending over a low-profile gas block. Most popular is likely Magpul’s MBUS, however, in doing so you are opting for polymer over steel. I’ve never found this to be an issue, but others land in different camps so choose wisely. Don’t fret Magpul fans. Magpul also sells the MBUS Pro with steel construction.

Popular manufacturers of folding battle sights include:

Again, pick the model that sings to you, but be sure to exercise the iron regularly at the range.

Charging Handles

The charging handle is a simple and effective design. It has served its purpose for decades with a low failure rate, however, there is a better mousetrap. Gone are the days of grasping the charging handle with your index and middle fingers. Today’s enhanced models are larger and easily manipulated with the palm of the hand. Others are ambidextrous. Options are always good in competition as well as a gunfight—not to mention trying to operate a tiny standard charging handle while wearing gloves. Or with a longer optic hanging off the back.

BCMGunfighter used for support hand charging
Modern CQB doctrine dictates operating the charging handle with the support hand only.

Ambidextrous Safety Selectors

An ambi-safety selector is common among competition shooters. Why? Course designers often design stages forcing the shooter to go to shoot from his or her weak hand. This mimics the requirements of real world scenarios, so the lesson is easy. If you are a competition shooter, an ambi-safety is desirable. If you are not a competition shooter, an ambi-safety is desirable. Once when setting up a youngster’s gun, I included an ambi-safety. No, the young man was not a competitor, nor likely to be engaged in a gunfight. However, regardless of my positioning, I wanted the ability to inspect the gun visually from either side to show it was safe.


I still run my first Bushmaster with a fixed stock; call me sentimental. However, that is the only AR I own with a fixed stock. Even guns that come with a cheap six-position stock will immediately find placement in the upgrade line of my man cave. Aesthetics be dammed; the right stock for the job enhances performance and reliability. Why would anyone sacrifice either of these? The key is to choose a collapsible stock offering a solid fit while maintaining accuracy, adaptability and adjustability. When replacing your stock, be sure to choose the correct replacement to fit the size of your buffer tube—whether mil-spec or commercial size.

Constructed of impact and temperature-resistant polymer, VLTOR’s IMOD (Improved Modular) stocks are available in Mil-Spec and commercial configurations as well as standard and clubfoot styles.

You have plenty to choose from depending on your setup, requirements and personal frame.


Few will put enough rounds down range to wash out a barrel; long-range shooters are likely the notable exception. Factors to consider when selecting a barrel include: length, profile, chambering, twist rate, quality, gas system length and barrel lining.

Heavy Barrel AR-15
A properly outfitted AR-15 is capable of very good accuracy at distance. The key elements for success are barrel and bullets.

Top manufacturers to consider include:

Black, extended handguard from the AK-47
Troy Industries offers an extended bottom polymer handguard and rail system in short or long lengths.


Looking to boost accuracy? A free-floating handguard is a quick, easy, and all but guaranteed to tighten. Free-floating handguards offer slight increases in accuracy over traditional two-piece, non-floating designs. With a free-floating handguard, you can hang all the furniture you want without applying pressure to the barrel, which would vary as the barrel heats up. This ensures an increase in accuracy. The most common culprits are slings and forward grips.

Most free-floating handguards feature quad-rails at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock. However, more often the tide is shifting toward lighter, modular variations with removable rail segments and direct-attach accessories.

Start your search with offerings from:


HAMR vs ACOG Rifelscopes
Trijicon ACOG on the left, Leupold HAMR on the right.

Having discussed the importance of BUIS, it would be a major omission to skip over optics. The most desirable AR-15 optic is dependent on the intended purpose of the rifle. Remember, you’ll be better served saving up for the right optic, than going cheap, regretting it and buying the higher dollar model later—or worse, blaming the rifle for the poor performance.

Red-dot, reflex and holographic sights are popular among competitive and tactical shooters alike for quick target acquisition. It is easier to put a single dot on the spot than aligning three dots. Top choices to consider are Aimpoint, EOTech and Trijicon. Paired with a 3x flip-to-side magnifier, these sights are capable of accurately engaging targets at varying distance out to about 300 yards. Additionally, you’ll want to look into a co-witness micro-sized sight. Commonly mounted on a 45-degree offset for quick transitions to short-range targets (Close Quarters Combat also known as CQB).

Top choices include models from:

Crimson Trace AR-15 MVF-515 Green Laser and Tactical Light Foregrip
Crimson Trace AR-15 MVF-515 Green Laser and Tactical Light Foregrip


Unless you are rolling large and have night vision goggles and an infrared laser, a quality weapon-mounted light is more than worthy of consideration and a real asset when things go bump in the night. In truth, the range of the light does not necessitate a free-floating handguard. You won’t be shooting far enough to affect accuracy. However, when training during daylight, you won’t be pulling off gear and reattaching it, which does necessitate a free-floating handguard.


Black ARR-203 Sling
CQB Sniper Sling

A few years back, I went turkey hunting in Mexico and forgot to include a sling. Mexico was fun, but not exactly a place where you can run down to the local sporting goods store and pick up forgotten supplies. Carrying a long gun for any distance without a sling flat out blows. There is no other way to say it—well, not in language I can use here anyway, but you veterans can fill in the appropriate colorful metaphors for me.

Again, this is an area where choosing a sling will be dependent on the intended use. One, two and three contact points all have advantages and disadvantages. Two tips I can offer. Paracord slings sound cool and I enjoyed making a couple—they are not comfortable for a long haul over a weekend or more. Second, we should all bow down to whoever invented the neoprene rifle sling—‘nuff said.

Quality slings are readily available from:

Select mounting hardware from companies such as:

Did we forget your favorite accessory or upgrade? Share it with us in the comment section.


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 (4)

  1. As a law enforcement officer, I fully realize my AR may one day save my life. So I don’t skimp on the accessories. A GL survival stock, eotech, and surefire light adorn my stag arms rifle. I also have flip up sights, a single point sling, and a 3x magnifier. Thing weighs a ton, but I trust it with my life.

  2. “A few years back, I went turkey hunting in Mexico…”

    You brought a gun into Mexico? I thought they were illegal there.

  3. Good stuff. I also like a bi-pod on mine to help me with my spastic-assed wobblies. (I’m awful old, boys) I prefer the military-issued fore-grip that pops the bi-pod out from the bottom when you push a thumb button. They’re god-awful expensive new, but cheap at the gun shows. Just make sure its Govt. issue and not a cheap clone. I paid $10 for the last one I found. A few other accessories I’ve added to my Mossberg MMR are: ladder rail covers for the quad-rail. (Holy Mackinaw-you could fillet a pike with them rail edges! ) I also put a single-point sling adapter on it, and a butt-pad. There’s a butt load of really neat stuff out there, but I’m trying to keep from needing a forklift to shoulder the damn thing.

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