Welcome to the “AR-Fu” Series. In this series, we will share gunsmithing knowledge and skills related to the AR platform (AR-15 and AR-10). From the basics to advanced skills, our AR-Fu series gives you the knowledge you will need as an AR owner.
In this AR-Fu series article, we present some basic (or limited) gunsmithing upgrades that you can DIY with your AR rifle.
The AR platform (or Modern Sporting Rifle) is comparable to Lego’s for adults. You can pretty much make your AR however you want and into whatever you want.
If you want a very light gun that is minimal but highly functional, then you can make one. If you want the “monster” version with every “dongle” you can imagine (and require a two-person carry), then you can make one. With the AR platform, given the extensive marketplace of parts that are available, your choices are pretty unlimited.
Given such diversity, the key thing I have found after building dozens and dozens of ARs is to start with a set of goals for an AR build. If you do not have these set of goals, then you will end up with a “Franken-gun” that does not or will not do anything you want it to do effectively. By setting some clear goals for what you want in your gun, then you can ensure those goals are met.
While future articles will cover and address goal-oriented upgrades to a build, this article will focus on upgrades we generally recommend, regardless of your goals for an AR. These are basic upgrades an existing (or new) AR owner needs to consider when upgrading in order to make the AR “better”. We focus on upgrades you can DIY, even with limited gunsmithing skills.
Some upgrades by nature, such as hand guards, can become dicey and may require significant gunsmithing skills. For instance, a traditional military style hand guard requires a gas block, a barrel nut and other fairly significant skills to deal with when changing out the hand guard.
Our core AR DIY upgrades are:
If you have a standard AR trigger, then you can replace it fairly easily. Most stock triggers are fairly stiff, heavy and often have a few hitches in them.
Want a nice clean 3.5 – 5 lb trigger?
This is not a hard job. The trigger group is a 2 pin removal job that you can DIY with a correctly sized punch and a roll of tape (for a bench block). Simply remove the lower from your gun, release the trigger (if activated), place it on the roll of tape (or bench block) and then gently knock out the pins (top one first). Given the spring-loaded nature of the assembly, you may have to “jigger” the assembly a bit to get it out, but it should be fairly easy to remove.
Well, you have two choices. If you feel uncomfortable with your gunsmithing skills, then you can get a pre-assembled (often called a cartridge) trigger assembly, such as the CMC Triggers Standard Trigger Curved (or Flat). We have used these triggers and find that they deliver on their promise. There are other drop-in cartridge triggers for the AR-15, so make sure that you do your own research.
Drop-in triggers are exactly that – take out the old, drop in the new and replace the pins. Ensure that you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the pin replacement.
One downside to cartridge triggers – they are a bit pricey. Entry point pricing for most cartridge triggers, unless you find them on sale, is around $200.
If you are feeling “froggy” and want to grow your gunsmithing skills, then we recommend a less costly replacement solution with the Hiperfire EDT trigger. We love the Hiperfire EDT3 Trigger.
Personally, I have installed this trigger in many gun builds and have had “trigger experts” think it is a high-end Geissele trigger (or similar). These triggers deliver a nice, crisp and consistent 4 or 6 lb trigger pull and lock-up like a demon.
While this option is not as easy as a drop-in, by following the instructions, installing the Hiperfire trigger takes only a few more steps than installing a cartridge trigger. One complaint we have with Hiperfire is that they lack videos for guidance to assist novice installers. Stayed tuned, we plan on doing some videos to provide this guidance here at TheGaGG.com. In the meantime, follow the written instructions that Hiperfire provides.
DIY Trigger Upgrade Cost:
- Cartridge style trigger – $190 – $250
- Hiperfire trigger – $99
So, get rid of that crappy standard AR trigger today! Your shooting will improve greatly!
Caveat: If your AR is a mil-spec, carry handle style upper receiver, then your sight changes are going to be limited or may require some additional gunsmithing. There are kits available in order to mount different sights to the carry handle profile ARs, but they are not as simple as we describe here for sight mounting.
Do you have standard peep-hole style sights? Why not upgrade them? The simplest upgrade is to use a fiber optic front sight such as the Hi Viz Front Sight. Changing the post sight to a fiber optic sight is pretty easy and most product kits effectively show how to do this change out.
Want more of an optic?
Thanks to the Picatinny rail system, you can mount an optic quickly and easily to any AR-15 (excluding our caveat above). Some optics even already have an integrated rail mount.
If you want to put a red dot on your AR, the Aimpoint T2 is a great choice. We have used several of them – they are low profile, lightweight, have a great battery life and are highly reliable. You can match it with other red dots, but it is hard to beat the Aimpoint T2.
Downside to the Aimpoint T2 is it is a bit pricey for a lot of shooters.
Want a more traditional optic like a scope? Do you (maybe) need a hybrid red dot, magnified scope combo? We recommend that you look at some tactical 1-4/6x scope options versus going with a separate red dot/magnifier combo. The latter option will cost you 2-3x more, while, also, ending up being “clunky”.
Several manufacturers offer really good $500 illuminated reticle scope packages. We conducted a review on these at TheGaGG.com in the following video. Here, they are re-stated (plus one extra):
All of these scopes offer illuminated quick targeting reticle options, as well as going down to a 1x (or near 1x) magnification to allow close distance engagement. We have used, reviewed and recommend all of these options.
In addition to the scope, you will need a mount. We recommend the Leupold Mark 2 IMS 1 Piece Picatinny Style mount. We have found these mounts to be consistent in their construction, they do not require lapping (due to integral ring/base nature) and they are easy to use.
DIY Sight Upgrade Cost:
- “fixed” sight upgrade: $20 – $50
- quality red dot with mount: $400 – $800
- 1-X scope with mount : $350 – $550
The buttstock may be the easiest of upgrades. There are four paths for this upgrade:
- Non-adjustable to non-adjustable: you have a gun with a non-adjustable buttstock, you are going to keep it non-adjustable, but you want a different buttstock.
- Adjustable to adjustable: you have an adjustable buttstock gun and you want to change the style, brand or type of adjustable stock.
- Non-adjustable to adjustable: you have a non-adjustable buttstock gun and want to make it adjustable.
- Adjustable to non-adjustable: you want to take an adjustable buttstock gun and make it non-adjustable.
Paths 1 & 2 are pretty straight forward. For the non-adjustable buttstock, you have to remove a screw in the buttplate region of the buttstock in order to change it out. For the adjustable buttstock, you pull the adjustment lever up to allow the buttstock to fully slide off of the tube.
If you want to keep your non-adjustable buttstock gun non-adjustable, but want some advantages of an adjustable buttstock, we highly recommend the Luth-AR MBA-1 Rifle Buttstock. This is a fixed (non-adjustable style) buttstock that is fully adjustable. While the price point may seem a bit high, when you factor in the parts and the gunsmithing that are not additionally required, then it is actually a steal!
If you want to keep your adjustable buttstock gun adjustable, but do not like the buttstock that is currently on your gun, then we recommend the following options:
Having used all 3 of these options on builds (and using the Mission First on several 308 Ar-10 builds), we have found them all to work and to work well – you can not go wrong with any of these!
If you plan on doing path 3 or 4, then you will have a little more work ahead of you. Either path will require some specialized tools and gunsmithing, so we recommend that you try one of the options above first.
DIY Buttstock Upgrade Cost:
- $50 – $150 (depending on stock)
For about the cost of a baseline AR-15 ($500 – $600), upgrading your AR significantly will give your shooting possibilities a significant boost. We have provided you with a range of upgrade options to improve your AR – a low-end cost of around $200 and a high-end cost of $1000.