Fast, easy and inexpensive AR-15 upgrades.
What Are The AR-15 Upgrades On This Rifle:
Have you ever seen a NASCAR driver roll up his sleeves and dive, elbow-deep, under the hood of his machine? Yeah, me neither. Now, I’m confident that every driver has an intricate understanding of what goes on under all those logos while he’s chewing up asphalt at 200 mph, but when parts need swapping and tweaks need tweaking, there’s a guy on the team for that. The driver drives, and the mechanics wrench.
For the most part, gun owners work like this too. The majority of riflemen I know—and I’m referring to people who have multiple gun safes to house all their firearms—do little more to their firearms than pull the bolt to clean the gun. The thought of checking the torque on the action’s screws or pulling the trigger assembly for a clean-and-lube darned near paralyzes them. In their minds, they do the “driving,” and a qualified gunsmith does the “wrenching.”
Now, don’t misunderstand me one bit here: If you’re uncomfortable opening that hood, don’t do it. Tinkering with a firearm is always best left to the trained hand.
A Different ‘Racecar’
But, with that said, the AR is a completely different type of “racecar”—the type that can make even the newest of shooters (or those hardcore shooters who are completely new to the platform)—look like a master mechanic. While I don’t agree with those who refer to the platform as “Legos for gun guys,” the modularity advantage of this statement certainly stands up. And, as a result, it’s possible to change up the body and the handling of the rig without messing around with the “drivetrain.”
Here’s my point: Customizing something to fit your needs and personality is, simply put, fun … whether we’re talking about outfitting a truck or tweaking a firearm. I know a lot of hardcore gun guys—people who own a dozen bolt-action rifles, a half-dozen revolvers, a bunch of 1911s and even a few poly guns—who avoid the AR platform entirely, simply because it’s so different from what they know.
And none of them is wrong: The AR is quite radical by old-school standards. But, in this case, radical equals intuitive, and intuitive equals easy customization.
To prove my point in an effort to inspire you to find that special “this one is mine” Zen, I detailed a part-by-part breakdown of my most recent AR-15 upgrade project. And, to further prove my point about this being so simple that even an AR amateur can do it, I timed a good friend (who owns a bunch of rifles and pistols but has only shot one 20-round mag through an AR) during each phase. He knows guns, but he’s new to ARs.
For the install of each piece, I silently observed while the included instructions were referenced. YouTube was consulted for additional instruction, as needed.
For this article, I’m not going to crawl down the torque-spec rabbit hole. You don’t have to be the head cashier at Bass Pro to know that managed torque is extremely important in every firearm, regardless of platform. For torque specs, hit up the instructions or the website of the manufacturer that made your specific part(s).
All right; enough of that. Let’s get on with it.
Make: Rock River Arms
Model: RRAge AR-15 in 5.56 NATO
When ARs first entered the consumer market, ground-level guns were quickly replaced by the manufacturers with, “Let’s see what unique features we can slap on this gun to make our black gun different from the rest.” With that came a substantial jump in pricing, and that movement essentially created a forest of niche-based ARs with price tags that alienated many potential new-to-platform shooters.
Today, “budget-friendly” is a market phrase that’s re-infiltrated the lineups from most manufacturers. Finding a sub-$500 AR is very possible: There are some diamonds in the rough, but a cheap car isn’t really “cheap” if you have to replace the transmission within a few thousand miles. Get me?
I chose the Rock River RRAge as the chassis for this AR-15 upgrade project, largely due to the company’s outstanding reputation. As with others in this class (for example, Sig Sauer’s Tread or Springfield’s Saint), the reliability comes stamped with a company name that’s proven its competence.
The RRAge’s furniture wares are as expected from a budget-friendly rifle: an M4-style stock, six-position receiver extension, very basic, A2-style pistol grip and an ejection port cover. A 16-inch barrel with a carbine-length gas system and an RRA single-stage, mil-spec trigger are also included. Absent are a forward assist and a case deflector, but I honestly couldn’t care less (apologies in advance to any traditionalists out there).
Bolt Carrier Group
Make: Velocity Triggers
Model: Recoil-less Bolt Carrier
Time: 12 minutes
Notes: Synchronized removal of the bolt carrier group and the charging handle can be a delicate dance. It’s easy, but it’s gotta be just right. The same goes for the re-install of each.
I consider this AR-15 upgrade the biggest novelty buy of this build … but it was so damned easy! Although the low-mass bolt carrier can be purchased separately, this beauty (yes, the nano-diamond nickel coating visually matches my comp and trigger quite well) performs best with the fine-tuning capabilities offered with an adjustable gas block.
In case it isn’t clear, the entire premise behind the low-mass, Recoil-less bolt carrier is designed to do exactly as its name indicates: minimize recoil. Sure, the 5.56 NATO doesn’t produce much to begin with, but with recoil reduction comes a reduction in muzzle rise—which means faster follow-up shots, one after another.
Make: Rise Armament
Model: RA-434 High-Performance Trigger
Time: 14 minutes
Notes: Two pins remove the two-piece mil-spec trigger. Two pins secure the one-piece drop-in.
If you retain a single sentence from this entire article, let it be this one: Replace your mil-spec trigger immediately. Take money out of your child’s college fund to pay for its replacement if you have to, but get it done! It is, without question, the most impactful AR-15 upgrade equation … and, it’s not that expensive. While brand options are many, I elected to go with Rise Armament’s RA-434 because it operates in a sweet spot between speed (not a priority concern for my shooting disciplines) and smoothness (which should be everyone’s priority) from a single-stage function.
Remember what your grandfather told you? “The gun should surprise you when it goes off.” Um, no. I want a trigger that breaks cleanly and consistently so I know exactly when it’s going to release during each and every shot cycle. I got that—at a 3.5-pound break—with the Rise 434. Plus, it comes packaged with anti-walk pins. And, in the name of true vanity, the trigger’s silver color closely matches the bolt carrier and the comp. (Hey, looks matter!)
Get On Target With The AR:
- Go Small With These 8 Economical AR Pistol Options
- 8 Budget AR-15 Options: More Bang For The Buck
- AR-15 Lower: Putting The Internals Together
- AR-10 vs. AR-15: How Stoner’s Rifles Stack Up
- How It Works:The AR-15 Upper
Make: Hogue Grips
Model: Rubber Overmolded Collapsible Buttstock
Time: Under 1 minute
Notes: It’ll take you longer to open the new stock’s packaging than it will for you to make the swap!
Pop the pin, slide the old stock off the rear of the tube. Push the pin on the new stock and slide it on. Don’t even waste your time YouTube-ing this step … you’ll have it done before you find a suitable instructional video.
I chose the Hogue for the AR-15 upgrade project because it markets its stock as being a “beard-safe design,” and anyone that creative and honest can have my money. However, more important than that was the rubber overmolding for a hard and comfortable cheekweld. There’s a bit of a recoil pad, but it’s semi-unnecessary with the light tickle of 5.56 NATO fire.
It’s also worth noting here that not all buffer tubes are created equal (yes, I learned the hard way during my first stock swap a few years back); thus, your stock must fit accordingly. In the sometimes convoluted world of the AR, there’s a “commercial tube” and a “mil-spec” tube. My RRAge has the commercial variant. Simply: The commercial buffer tube has a slightly larger diameter—about 3/100 inch. Whatever genius thought we needed two buffer tube sizes should be kicked. Hard.
Make: VZ Weapon Solutions
Model: Recon M-Lok Bundle
Time: 5 minutes
Notes: Remove the original grip slowly, and don’t take your eyes off that selector spring. It’s Houdini-like!
Remember when I said that looks matter? A good-looking AR had better have a grip and rail panels that match, and they’d better tie in with the rest of the build as well. But, alas, the form must have a function if I’m spending the money and the time to affix it to my AR.
Like AR manufacturers, the companies that offer AR accessories are thick these days. And, honestly, VZ Grips came out of left field. Like a bee to honey, I was attracted to the availability of a blue pistol grip to match my handguard. However, after a wee bit of digging, I also realized I’d be adding an increased palm swell for better control, as well as textured rail panels for grip indexing and control up front. It’s an excellent upgrade. I also swapped the grips on my 1911 Executive carry gun to match.
I have two words of warning here: First, clear your afternoon schedule before jumping onto the VZ Grips website. It’s like a grown man’s candy store. Second, keep an eye on that darned nomadic selector spring when you pop off the factory grip. It’ll wander off on ya.
Make: Velocity Triggers
Model: Sentinel Trigger Guard
Time: Less than 5 minutes
Notes: Pop a roll pin and a detent pin to remove the old guard. Three screws secure the new one.
For me, this AR-15 upgrade is a complete vanity item—for no other reason than to get some more beautiful blue onto this build. It’s very much true that the Sentinel does allow for a bit more finger room inside the guard; and, for some shooting styles, that little bit of room makes a big difference. Me? I just like the color!
Mag Catch Release
Make: Velocity Triggers
Model: VMR Magazine Release
Time: 6 minutes
Notes: Remove the original by pushing the mag release button in with a punch and unscrewing the mag release on the opposing side. The new one goes on just as easily.
The award for “tiny, but mighty” goes to Velocity’s “extended” mag release button. My mom always said that habits are just cobwebs that become cables. Still, even after countless rounds through an AR, I occasionally struggle to quickly and efficiently find the mag release button on a tactical reload. This little AR-15 upgrade not only matches in color (Velocity’s website lists 10 color options), it also adds just enough real estate for my index finger to find easily.
Make: Rise Armament
Model: RA-905 M-Lok
Time: 22 minutes
Notes: Most handguards will come with a replacement barrel nut, which means that removal of the gas system is mandatory. This isn’t as daunting as it sounds! YouTube is your friend here.
How does one not select a handguard with the color name, “Patriot Blue”? To make sure the function fits the form, the RA-905 is free-floating (as it should be), loaded with M-Lok slots and complete with Picatinny rail mounting options at both the muzzle and breech of the handguard. What I really like about this handguard is the slim profile through the center, which allows my fat mitts great control over the muzzle end of the gun.
Make: Rise Armament
Model: RA-701 Compensator
Time: 3 minutes
Notes: Keep an eye on how the washer references the barrel to avoid putting it on backward.
I know that a stainless steel comp is going to show shooting debris 10 times more than a black one, but when it’s clean … man, does it look sharp! Plus, top porting is designed to mitigate muzzle rise. Most importantly, I wanted the flash hider off my gun.
Unless you’re trying to do something with the rifle that you really shouldn’t be doing anyway, a flash hider does little more than protect the threads (and they make thread caps for that).
The Sum of All Parts
A handful of years ago, there was a movement within the shooting industry to try to relabel the AR as an “MSR” (an acronym for “modern sporting rifle”). The motives were a pure attempt to distance the platform from the “dark shadow” cast by the mainstream media’s interpretation of the tool. The efforts never really took root, and I’m good with that. After all, a rose by any other name is still a rose.
Regardless of its moniker, the AR-15 is, and always has been, “America’s rifle.” And, with a little creativity and about an hour’s worth of very enjoyable work, this one is mine.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.