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[How-To] Upgrade an AR-15 Without Weighing It Down

It's easy to get caught up in the world of AR-15 accessories, but how do you know when enough is enough? Come see how to balance your build.

If you have read anything I’ve written, you will probably notice I’m a big proponent of defined outcomes driving choices, a.k.a. mission dictates gear.

When building AR platform guns and adding accessories to them, a lot depends on what you intend to do with said firearm.

PSA .224 Valkyrie At High Bar Homestead
First step in the AR build plan…decide its purpose.

Figuring that out will drive your buying decisions.

As a result, when asking about the best accessories my answers are usually vague until I know more about the build’s goal.

Cue existential crisis…

However, while gear may vary from rifle to rifle, one thing is key when building out your AR – balance.

Lugging around a bunch of stuff is not only tiring but often unnecessary.  Balance in all things.

All of the Prism Scopes
Maybe not…

And that is the topic for today. How do you add the gear you need without going too far down the rabbit hole?

We’re going to talk about what you should consider, what to avoid, and ultimately help you build a better AR.

Let’s get to it!

Table of Contents


What to Avoid

Before we get into basic accessories to consider, some items do not belong on any gun.

These range from cheaply made optics to gimmicks that serve no real purpose.

Remember, everything you add to your gun should have a function, or else it eats up real estate and creates weight.

(Read up on what we think about the Worst Gun Ideas.)

Any optic that has multiple optics in one go is a terrible idea.

Pinty 3 in 1 at the Range
It might seem like a good idea…but is it though? (Read our review on this 3-in-1.)

I am, of course, speaking of the Amazon special that has a scope with a red dot on top, a flashlight, and a visible laser all in one package for less than the price of a decent meal.

It’s tempting, I know…especially if you are a slave to a tight budget.

99 poor meme

But stop buying these things.

They don’t hold zero and don’t hold up to the recoil of a basic AR. It ends up causing you to spend more money in the long run.

Next thing to avoid?

No guns attached to another gun (or spare mags attached to guns). The concept itself doesn’t hold, and in practice, it is not only cumbersome but dangerous.

Mule Glock in a Stock
Glock in a stock…hard pass. (Photo: GunsAmerica)

Run your gear to hold your spare mags and sidearm. Some things should just remain separate.

With that said, let’s move on to what you need for a balanced AR.

What You Need, Based on Mission

First and probably foremost, what role does your gun fill?

Are you slaying paper on the range?

Do you plan to defend your home and property?

Faxon Firearms Ascent AR-15 Shooting
A plinking build will look different than a competition setup.

Is this a gun that you built just for fun? (Note: there is nothing wrong with that, but you still want to use decent components.)

Or are you planning on hunting with your gun and need it to be ready when you are?

All of these are viable reasons to build out a gun, and all may require different accessories.

Let’s break it down and talk about making things work for you based on your goal.

Plinking and Recreational

Let’s start with a gun that is just to shoot for recreation.

Lead Star Grunt AR-15 (6)
A plinker doesn’t have to be complicated.

Your basic AR for plinking requires the least accessories. Shooting on a static range doesn’t require much else other than ammo and your gun.

(Good luck with the ammo part in 2021, though.)

Popular 5.56 and .223 Ammo
That’s like $1M in 2021 money.

You may find a foregrip of some sort helps keep the gun on target, or you might opt for a bipod if you plan to shoot off a bench or table.

Beyond that, some sort of sight or optic is all you need to send some lead downrange and enjoy your time.

at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Available Coupons

That isn’t to say you can’t add more, but again, when balancing your build, simple is better in this instance.

Precision and Competition

For precision shooters at the range, prepare to invest a bit more into the accessory market.

To accomplish precise shots, a bipod is certainly going to be of use, and some sort of scope or optic — LPVO, Red Dot, or Dot + Magnifier, etc. — will prove invaluable.

Aimpoint PRO Testing
Aimpoint PRO

Some shooters will find running a scope of some type and an offset red dot for having multiple zero distances the best setup.

This is popular amongst competition shooters for a reason and is gaining traction with the home defense/tactical shooting community.

The "Goldilocks" Red Dot
at Optics Planet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Available Coupons

If you plan on running and gunning, a sling is almost mandatory, and a foregrip is likely to replace your bipod.

Figure out what kind of shooting you’ll be required to do and adapt your build-out for it.

VTAC Wide Hybrid Sling
VTAC Wide Hybrid Sling


Hunting with an AR is not only fun but very effective.

Terrain largely determines the accessories you use on an AR. Additionally, the game you plan on hunting and what is legal in your state will also play a part.

varmint hunting

Some sort of optic is a must — be it a red dot or a scope.

You want to be as precise as possible to minimize the animal’s suffering.

A sling also does wonders for trekking through woods or hiking out to where you plan to set up. It can aid in shot placement, too, if you use it to pull the gun into you.

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Available Coupons

Some states allow hunting at night, especially varminting.

If this is the case, a flashlight is probably a solid add-on, and if you are so inclined (and it is alright), maybe some sort of thermal or night vision set up.

Looking Good with NVGs in the Desert
Looking Good with NVGs in the Desert

Note: Some states allow hunting with rifles but not AR pistols, while others only permit certain types of cartridges (straight wall only, for example.) Make sure you know your local laws before accessorizing and heading out on the hunt.  

Home Defense

Home defense or personal protection is something I am very passionate about and have written on before.

I consider a few things mandatory on any home protection gun, though adding more is not always a bad idea.

First, you need some sort of optic.

Cheap Red Dots, Side
Budget Red Dots

If you opt for a red dot, know the strengths and weaknesses.

Does it require you to turn it on because the battery dies out quickly if you leave it on all time? Is the optic zeroed? Is it so bright it obscures any targets you hold it over?

TRS-25 Glob

These are all things to consider.

Need some recommendations? Check out our article on the Best AR-15 Scopes & Optics.

After that, you need a weapon-mounted light. We have some thoughts on the best models here.

The WML should be bright enough to illuminate your target at whatever the furthest distance you would need in your house.

at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Available Coupons

I prefer something with rechargeable batteries to create a schedule to swap in fresh, but you can opt to replace regular batteries if you prefer.

Our Tested AR-15 Flashlights
AR-15 Flashlights

You do need to consider how you are activating your light. Is it push-button or a pressure pad? Does your light wash out the illumination on your optic?

Food for thought, you’ll want to practice walking around your house and illuminating things to see how it affects your vision. Running the light constantly on is not advisable.

Inforce WMLx Beam
Really brightens up the place.

But doesn’t a WML mean the baddies can see you? We tackled that subject in-depth, so read more on whether a WML Makes You a Target.

A sling is the final piece of the AR puzzle. I consider it essential for home defense.

There are times you will need your hands free to pick up a child or move a loved one.

What I carried AR and Beretta and Sling
A sling is pretty important.

You don’t want to ditch your gun to do that.

Slings can also keep the rifle anchored to you if a struggle ensues. However, that’s a double-edged sword.

With your gun anchored to you, someone can also use your sling as leverage to throw you or keep you tied up. So, be ready and know how to respond.

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Available Coupons

What else can be useful in home defense?

A foregrip isn’t a bad idea to help control the gun or even bracing into objects to shoot from behind cover.

How about adding a tourniquet, say on the side of the buttstock, to provide first aid to yourself or loved ones?

Best Tourniquets

If you are patrolling your property, some sort of IR illuminator and night vision setup may prove useful to you to gain an edge in the dark.

Think about your home, your property, and what you might need to defend it.

Sometimes Less is More

We all want our guns to serve us as best they can, but sometimes that means editing what you tack on to your blaster.

We aren’t living the life of The Walking Dead just yet, so maybe that bolted on chainsaw isn’t needed…right now.

Walking Dead
I mean, we’ll take it if you’re offering.

There is a fine line between tactical and tacticool.

But how do you know the difference?

It all comes down to application.

Does the thumb rest on the side of your handguard help you shoot better?

AR-15 Upper with 15 VYPR Handguard
Choose what feels comfy.

If you’ve tried it and the answer is yes, then to hell with what others think, run with it.

Do you need the thumb rest, an angled grip, AND a foregrip with a stowable bipod in it, though?

Maybe not.

Super Tacticool AR-15
Super Tacticool AR-15


Remember, things you add to your gun should serve a purpose, fill a function, or make something better/easier. That’s the key to a balanced AR.

Some Upgraded AR-15s
Some upgraded AR-15s

There’s no shame in testing accessories to figure out what works best for you, but don’t fall victim to thinking you need something when you aren’t even sure what it is supposed to do.

Again, it’s all about balancing your lifestyle and needs with your rifle.

What are your thoughts on the best way to balance a build? We want to know in the comments below. If you’re looking to upgrade your AR, we have a few ways to help. Check out our Best Upgrades for the AR-15.

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