Best AR-15 Upgrades 2016: Handguards, Triggers, BCGs, & More

Want your AR-15 to be the best it can be?

We’ll cover all the best AR-15 upgrades such as handguards, triggers, BCGs, and gas blocks now that you’ve learned gotten some trigger time behind your AR.

Don’t have an AR yet?  Check out our Buyer’s Guide to the AR-15 first.

Why Upgrade the AR-15?

Typical AR-15
Typical AR-15

After you get some time with a more basic AR, you’ll likely start to realize could be improved to meet your specific purpose.  And the AR-15 modular system makes upgrading a breeze for most components.

Modded AR-15s
Modded AR-15s

We’ll start off first with possible upgrades to the upper receiver group followed by the lower receiver group and furniture.  We’ll also provide examples of what we think are the best in class for each type of upgrade.

Let’s get started!

Upper Receiver Upgrades

Best AR-15 Barrel Upgrades

If you haven’t read the Barrels section in our AR-15 guide, please do that first.  Now that you’re caught up, you might consider a barrel upgrade if you’ve worn out your barrel or if your current profile/length isn’t up to par for your purpose.

AR-15 Barrel Contours
AR-15 Barrel Contours

For more accuracy related tasks, you might consider a heavier contour which makes the barrel stiffer and more resistant to accuracy drop-offs due to heat and barrel whip.  If you’re wanting to reach out farther, you might consider a longer 18″ or 20″ barrel for that extra boost in velocity.  Stainless steel barrels are also known for being more accurate but at the expense of a shorter life (and more expense).

Or if you’re looking to cut back on weight and looking at sub-300 yard distances, you could go for a lightweight profile and drop to the standard 16″ or even 14.5″ with a pinned muzzle device.  And for critical use rifles, we would suggest both MP/HP tested barrels for that extra margin of safety.

For those looking for a softer shooting AR-15, you could look for a longer gas length, such as moving up to mid-length from a carbine.  The extra length gives more space/time for gas pressures to lower before cycling back.

Still with me?

Recommended AR-15 Barrels & Manufacturers

  • Spikes Tactical: Great company and we wouldn’t hesitate to use their barrels or rifles.  We use their 11.5″ carbine length in an AR-15 pistol build. ~$280
  • White Oak Armament: Another manufacturer of precision barrels.  Great reputation and more affordable. Wylde chambered match barrels for your particular precision requirements. ~$280
  • Daniel Defense (DD): One of the best complete AR-15 makers so it stands that their barrels are top notch too.  We have multiple 16″ carbine barrels.  On the pricier side ~$275.
  • Ballistic Advantage: Recently bought by the well known AR-15 manufacturer Aero Precision, they have “Hanson” profile barrels which have a shoulder-less design that limits barrel whip.  Looking to get the 16″ Wylde chamber for my competitive rifle. ~$240 but includes gas block.
  • Krieger Barrels: One of the best manufacturers of precision barrels.  Mostly made to order to your exact specs.
  • Bravo Company (BCM): Same tier as Daniel Defense.  Great rifles and great barrels.  Our next rifle will likely be a BCM pinned 14.5″ midlength barrel. ~$200
  • Yankee Hill Machine (YHM): Great AR maker that has great barrels too.  ~$200
  • CMMG: Well-known more budget oriented manufacturer.  ~$180.  One of the few where you could get a barrel with an attached front site block.  ~$230
  • Faxon: Relative newcomer to the barrel game, but so far great reviews, especially for their lightweight line. ~$180
  • Brownells: Budget in-house brand that I wouldn’t hesitate to put into a cheaper plinking gun. ~$100

Best AR-15 Gas Blocks

Low Profile Adjustable Gas Block
Low Profile Adjustable Gas Block

Having a low profile gas block allows you to put on a free-floating handguard which unlocks better accuracy and more rail space for your grip and accessories.  Some gas blocks will also be adjustable so you can tune your rifle to your specific ammo to create a softer shooting AR.

Be sure to match up the diameter of the gas block to your barrel profile.  Light profile is .625″, normal is .750″, and heavy profile is .936″.  Also make sure to have the appropriate length gas tube if you are not reusing your old one.

If you have a front sight base barrel, it is extremely difficult to remove and can result in a bent barrel if done improperly.  We recommend taking it to a gunsmith or just shaving it down yourself to have a makeshift low profile gas block.

Shaved AR-15 Front Sight Base
Shaved AR-15 Front Sight Base

Recommended AR-15 Low Profile Gas Block

  • Daniel Defense: They do what they are supposed to do and stay on. ($60)
DD Low Profile Gas Block
DD Low Profile Gas Block
Midwest Low Profile Gas Block
Midwest Low Profile Gas Block
JP Adjustable Gas Block with Rails
JP Adjustable Gas Block with Rails
BCM Low Profile Gas Block
BCM Low Profile Gas Block
Seekins Low Profile Gas Block
Seekins Low Profile Gas Block
YHM Low Profile Gas Block
YHM Low Profile Gas Block
  • Superlative Arms Adjustable Gas Block: My new favorite because you can easily adjust without taking off your handguard plus it bleeds the excess gas forward instead of all over the place like other adjustables. ($99)
Superlative Gas Block
Superlative Gas Block

Best AR-15 Handguards

We’ll focus on two types of handguards, drop-in and free float.

Recommended AR-15 Drop-In Handguards

Drop-in handguards are when you have a delta ring on the receiver and a fixed front sight base.

Delta Ring
Delta Ring

You’re limited in the established length from the receiver to the FSB.  Drop-in handguards are also in two pieces so they can fit without removing the barrel, delta ring, or FSB.

AR-15 A2 Handguard
AR-15 A2 Handguard
  • Magpul MOE M-LOK Handguards: Probably the most ubiquitous drop-in handguard due to their weight, affordability, and looks.  Comes in several colors and all the normal gas lengths: carbine, mid-length, & rifle.  Also allows accessories with extra Picatinny Rail Sections or standard M-LOK that attach to the handguard. ($28-$40)
Magpul MOE Handguards
Magpul MOE Handguards
  •  Midwest Drop-In Handguards: Aluminum rail options for the different gas lengths.  Pricier but from a reputable company.  We run multiple versions of their free-float handguards.  ($125-$140)
Midwest Drop In
Midwest Drop In
Troy Drop In Quad
Troy Drop In Quad
Leapers UTG Drop-In Handguard Model 4
Leapers UTG Drop-In Handguard Model 4
Leapers UTG Drop-In Handguard Super Slim, Mid
Leapers UTG Drop-In Handguard Super Slim, Mid

Best AR-15 Free-Floating Handguards

Free-floating handguards connect only to the receiver and do not touch the barrel.  This increases accuracy since there’s nothing interfering with the barrel such as the stock, grip, or accessories.

You can also choose the length of your handguard to be much longer to accommodate an extended grip and hang extra accessories.  Just be sure to measure your barrel + muzzle device so you order the right length handguard.

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My personal recommendation is for a 12″ or 13″ hand guard which will give you enough space for almost any arm position.

The trend is moving towards just Picatinny rails on the top instead of quad-rails (all around) to reduce weight.  And then just adding on rails where needed for flashlights, grips, etc.

C Clamp Grip
Free Floating Handguard
  • Yankee Hill Machine: Perennial favorite that has the distinct diamond lattice in between the quad rails. Lots of different lengths.  ($120-160).
YHM Free Float
YHM Free Float
  • Troy Alpha Rails: One of the best rated free-floating rails from a great manufacturer.  Comes with detachable rails.  Comes in several sizes and several colors.  $130-180
Troy Alpha Rail
Troy Alpha Rail
  • Midwest Gen2 Free Floating Handguard: One-piece design that comes with a super slim 1.5″ outside diameter and detachable rails.  What we run in two of our primary guns.  Multiple sizes and also quadrail varieties.  $140-190
Midwest Gen2 Free Floating
Midwest Gen2 Free Floating
Leapers UTG Pro Free Floating Handguard
Leapers UTG Pro Free Floating Handguard

Recommended KeyMod and M-LOK Handguards

Just like Blu-Ray vs HD-DVD before, there’s the current battle of KeyMod vs M-LOK handguards.  They allow you to directly add accessories to the sides without a rail adapter.  KeyMod looks like shelving unit holes (bottom of pic below) or as some people say, dicks.  M-LOK looks a little more normal with a rounded rectangle shape (top of pic below)

Keymod vs M-Lok
Keymod vs M-Lok

My advice is to look at the accessories you want to mount, and then choose your side.  Otherwise, the standard method of adding a Picatinny adapter for the above rails always work.

But if I had to choose a side, I’d go with M-LOK since it is backed by Magpul and I do love their accessories which will fit in nicely.

BCM Keymod KMR
BCM Keymod KMR
Midwest M-LOK
Midwest M-LOK
Midwest KeyMod
Midwest KeyMod
Leapers M-LOK
Leapers M-LOK

Best AR-15 Bolt Carrier Groups (BCG)

Whatever BCG came with your rifle and has run fine, will likely continue to run fine.  But if you’re dead set on fixing something that isn’t broken, or if you’re building a new rifle, you can take a look at new coatings for BCGs.  It may also help if you’re running full-auto or suppressed where the BCG tends to get hotter/dirtier.

The primary new coating of the week is Nickel Boron (NiB) which promises self-lubricity, easier cleaning, higher corrosion resistance, and a different look.  We run one in our race gun and do attest at least to the easier cleaning properties.

  • WMD NiB BCG:  We run the WMD in our race rifle that has worked great.  We still run the BCG with lube, but we can definitely tell that it cleans easier.  $190
WMD NiB BCG
WMD NiB BCG

And if you’re just looking for some regular BCG’s that will run.  You can try out the Brownells ($140), Spike’s ($140), or Daniel Defense ($180) ones.  And if those don’t suit your liking, here’s all of them.  For more budget oriented shooters, you can try Anderson’s ($115).

Lower Upgrades

Best AR-15 Triggers

In our original How to Choose Your AR article, we recommended sticking with the stock Mil-Spec (military specification) trigger and letting it smooth out with use.  We still advise that with critical use AR’s such as home/self defense.

As you go with “better” triggers, you’re skirting the line between performance and reliability.  And with some guns, you want to make sure they will always go bang.  For others such as range plinking, competition, or precision shooting rigs, you care more about the crispness and lower trigger pull weight.

Mil Spec AR-15 Trigger
Mil Spec AR-15 Trigger

We’ll cover three varieties of aftermarket triggers: upgraded mil-spec, single stage, and two stage.

Upgraded Mil-Spec Triggers

These still maintain the same geometry as mil-spec stock triggers but are polished for a better feel.  They maintain the same reliability with slightly better pull weight and crispness.

  • ALG Defense Trigger QMS: The go to brand for mil-spec reliability with some refinement at a 6.5 lbs trigger pull.  ($50)
ALG Defense QMS
ALG Defense QMS

Single Stage Triggers

These are are very crisp triggers that move back in one movement with a usually lighter trigger pull.

  • JP Trigger Kit: The best bang for the buck but you’ll spend a little time fitting the trigger to your lower.  It’s what we used to run in our competition AR-15 and precision AR-10.  Lowers your pull to a crisp 3-5 lbs with included lower power springs.  We’ve also never had a failure to fire in over 3000 rounds.  Make sure yours is the small pin or large pin (Colt) model AR-15.  ($115)
JP Trigger Kit
JP Trigger Kit
  • CMC Single Stage Trigger: Another reputable and drop-in match single stage trigger.  Choose between flat or curved trigger groups.  Breaks at around 3-3.5 lbs.  ($190)
CMC Single Stage Trigger Flat
CMC Single Stage Trigger Flat
  • POF Single Stage Trigger: Several varieties from 4lb to 4.5 lb as well as an Enhanced Finger Placement trigger.  ($190-210)
POF Single Stage Trigger
POF Single Stage Trigger
  • Timney Single Stage Trigger: Very famous trigger manufacturer.  These single stage trigger drop in easily and range from 3 to 4.5 lbs. ($225)
Timney Single Stage
Timney Single Stage

Two Stage Triggers

While single stage triggers require all the force to engage, these two-stage triggers allow you to take up most of the slack in the first stage before requiring just a little more pressure to fire on the second (about 1 pound).  Thus, two stage triggers are normally reserved for precision rifles but when pressed quickly act just like single stage triggers.

You can choose varying combinations of force required to “set” the trigger and the final force to “release.”

  • Geissele Two Stage Trigger : Super well known name in the competition trigger world, especially for their two stage triggers.  Good choice of types of triggers and different weights from 3.5 lb (2.3 + 1.2)  to 4.5 lb (2.5 + 2) total pull weight.  $220-240.  Also check out their enhanced reliability ($180) models and a more budget model ($170).
Geissele Two Stage Trigger
Geissele Two Stage Trigger

Current Favorite Trigger: Hiperfire

Hiperfire 24C Trigger
Hiperfire 24C Trigger

Hiperfire is a relative newcomer and their triggers definitely look futuristic.  What that extra set of springs allows is fine-tuning of your trigger pull (2.5-4.5 pounds) while actually increasing hammer strike strength.

One possible problem with traditional upgraded triggers is that in an effort to get the trigger pull weight down, the hammer strength is reduced too.  This might result in light hammer strikes…which equals NO PEW.  I’ve seen this happen a good amount of times during rifle competitions.

I’ve tried out their Hiperfire 24 Elite ($215) and also their top of the line Eclipse ($275), and both offer almost no initial creep, a crisp reset, and actual 2.5 lb trigger pull.  The Eclipse is what I run in my competition rifle now.

Best AR-15 Ambidextrous Safety

For the lefties out there or for poor Californians running “featureless” AR-15’s who need to be able to flick their safety on the right side.

  • Battle Arms Ambi Safety: Lower profile safety lever on the right side that won’t interfere with right-handed shooting.  What we run in our competition guns.  ($60)
Battle Arms Ambi Safety
Battle Arms Ambi Safety
  • DPMS Ambi Safety: More budget minded version that still gets the job done.  ($34)
DPMS Ambi Safety
DPMS Ambi Safety
  • JP Ambi Safety: Or if you’re looking for some flair and quality ($37)
JP Ambi Safety
JP Ambi Safety
CMMG Ambi Safety
CMMG Ambi Safety

Overwhelmed yet?  We’re almost done!

Misc: Magpul BAD Lever

  • We love the BAD Lever since you can manipulate the bolt release using your right hand and not resorting to hitting the paddle with your left hand.  Also great to easily lock your bolt back during cease-fires at the range.  Great for competitions and what we have on all our AR-15’s.  Super easy to install.  ($28)

Misc: BCM Gunfighter Charging Handle

  • Goes on every one of our competition/defensive rifles.  Makes it much easier to rack the charging handle without worrying about flex or premature wear.  We’ve tried the cheaper options of just switching out the latch, but it just doesn’t feel as robust.  We go for the medium size Mod 4 for the balance of ease-of-use and potential to snag.  ($50)
BCM Charging Handle
BCM Charging Handle

We’re Done?

That should get you through most of the major upgrades for the AR-15.  But there’s still tons of things to upgrade such as AR furniture and optics/lights, and we’ll cover them in our next installments.

If you’re planning on upgrading a lot…you might be better off building your own.  Check out how with our Lower Receiver and Upper Receiver build guides.

14 Comments

  1. Even though I have 30+ years of AR experience, the last 12+ years have focused on the modernized M14. I picked up an AR over the weekend, and your AR upgrades page is going to be very helpful. Thank you.

  2. Hi Eric. I just bought the armalite Eagle-15 and its my first fighting gun. My problem is that I don’t know how to break it down and customoze it. The armalite manual and customer service is terrible and unhelpful. Can you help by showing us how to actually break it down?

  3. Fantastic info! This is a must read for anyone wanting to dabble in upgrading/building an AR. The speed at which these upgrades are coming is hard to keep up with, so this article was a great resource to bring me up to speed on all of the options out there. The links and descriptions were a huge help also! Thanks for taking the time and research you put into this article!

  4. A very timely article. My wife is insisting on buying me an AR (I know, terrible) for an anniversary gift. I have pretty much been a handgun guy for the last 25+ years so my knowledge regarding ARs is limited. The internet is a great source for information but, it can be a bit overwhelming at times. I am all but decided that I will buy a decent “starter” AR (probably a S&W M&P Sport II) and do some customization a little along. The information in your article has been very helpful.

  5. Thanks for the great articles on this website! They are very informative and helpful, especially for those new to shooting. I was wondering what the model of the pistol grip is, shown on both of the rifles in the photo titled “Modded AR-15s” (towards the top of the article)? Is it an Ergo Deluxe? It looks very comfortable. Thanks!

  6. Nice article but…….the second picture of Modular AR15’s has LaRue Tactical Handgurads with their index clips on Spikes Tactical Lowers but no mention of LT in the article. I suppose to each his own but I am a huge fan of their rifles and products especially their handguards. Their proprietary barrel nut and locking technology are second to none. Their service is second to none also and the fit and finish is fabulous. Just my opinion.

  7. Im making ca rifle sporting grip for ar15. Prototype finished. Working on molding next. You can reach me at my gmail attached to my posting name.

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