Black Rifles & Tactical Guns

Upgrading Your AR

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By Robert Kolesar, GUNS Magazine

The AR-15 is an amazing rifle. It can do most anything a rifle needs to do, except maybe slay a buffalo with one shot. It was a different situation 40 years ago: Colt was the only manufacturer (except for some military-only contracts), and it wasn’t viewed as a “sporting” rifle. The M1 and M14 ruled the target ranges in service rifle competition and 3-Gun was how many guns you owned in a certain caliber not a competition. The M16/AR-15 just wasn’t popular with civilian shooters as it was “an Army gun” and rumors of reliability problems in Vietnam were hard to overcome. I never owned one until recently, having access to M16’s and M4’s while on active duty, I never saw the need. I have an AR now though, and I’m glad I finally got one.

The newest Army M4A1 5.56mm is light-years ahead of the M16A1 I was first issued as a young trooper in the 82nd ABN DIV. Civilian versions are now manufactured in a dizzying array of calibers, barrel lengths, weights, twists, stocks, trigger assemblies and even colors. It’s almost too much of a good thing—deciding on what you need can be confusing. You can have a receiver made to your specifications, with the rest of your rifle built with whatever custom parts you want and in the AR caliber of your choice. Or you can order a complete rifle built by any of more than a dozen custom shops. Optics and iron sights are also available to suit any mission you decide to task your rifle with.

CNN stated recently the AR is now the most popular rifle in the US. All it takes is a look at the amount of .223 ammo being produced, or the popularity of AR magazines and accessories in most any gunshop. The AR is now called “America’s Rifle” by the American shooter, and rightfully so. The AR has seen combat, won national championships, defended citizens and is the preferred long gun for US civilian police forces. From the Bin Laden raid to plinking in the desert, the AR rifle can do it all.

When I started looking for an AR-type rifle I wanted one close to what I’ve used on active duty, but with a few add-ons to make it easier to shoot well. I’ve dealt with horrible triggers since the days of my first issued M16A1 in basic training, so a nice trigger, out of the box, would be a plus. After almost 40 years of using different variations during my Military and LE careers, I had a few ideas how to make it my rifle.


SGM (ret.) Kyle Lamb, owner of VTAC, shooting an S&W M&P “VTAC” rifle in a demonstration during one of his carbine classes.


Dress up your rifle as you wish, but keep in mind the accessories you really need.

The Rifle

I was selected to attend a carbine shooting school in 2009, sponsored by Smith & Wesson. S&W provided me with a brand-new VTAC rifle. It was accurate, reliable and had the basic features I wanted: good single-stage trigger, a free-floated barrel, excellent collapsible stock (VLTOR) and a SureFire flash-suppressor. It also came with a Surefire light and a VTAC sling. I ended up putting about 1,000 rounds of ball ammo through it during my carbine course, so I knew I had a reliable, good-grouping rifle. I liked it so much at the completion of the school I bought the rifle.

There are many other first-rate AR’s out there; I’ve used FN’s, Colts (a sentimental favorite), Rock River Arms and Bushmaster. All would be fine, set up the way I envisioned. Remember getting a rifle you like, which is affordable, accurate and reliable, is the key. Doing your research before buying will make for a more enjoyable purchase. And cruising the AR-related Internet forums and manufacturer web sites is fun.

A clean breaking, single-stage trigger is a must for accurate shooting, some manufactures know this and make sure they include them, but if they don’t after-market triggers are almost as prolific as rifle manufacturers and are an easy fix. I would also recommend a free-floating barrel. The older non-floated barrels on the issue M16A1’s and even the stiffer, heavy-barreled A2’s played havoc with your point-of-aim if you used a shooting sling or applied any pressure to the barrel. Twist should probably be between 1:7″ to 1:9″, to stabilize heavier bullets. My early (2009) S&W VTAC has a 1:7″ twist. The newest VTAC II is 1:8″ which works well. Lastly, a good collapsible stock and a flattop receiver for mounting sights, optics and accessories are mandatory. Everything else can be added after purchase.


Bab added an ambidextrous safety to his M&P VTAC—a necessary item for lefties, which makes the rifle much easier to manipulate, whether right- or left-handed.


Troy handguard worked better for Bob. The stock handguard had a tendency to work loose during firing.


Bob prefers 20-round magazines for most shooting. Both the Magpul and the GI-issue ones (right) work well. A 30-round Magpul magazine (left) is shown for comparison. 30-rounders are fine for sustained firefights. Anything else the 20-round mags can handle.

Accessories And Add-ons

This is where you can get carried away, if you’re not careful. There’s lots really cool stuff to play with, but much of it isn’t really needed. Remember less is more, simple is better. The goal is to make the basic system perform more efficiently. Before buying anything, you should ask yourself what you’re actually going to do with your rifle. For example, will you be using your rifle at night? I don’t see myself doing this with my rifle, so I haven’t mounted a light, even though I have the capability.

First, let’s look at the basic controls. The magazine release and safety are properly situated and easy to use—if you’re right-handed. Fortunately, ambidextrous controls are available and easily installed. I’m a lefty, so this is a good thing. Something to remember is even though you’re right-handed, ambi controls are a good addition. Many times I’ve carried or needed to use my rifle from the opposite side, depending on my position. A working rifle with ambidextrous controls is something you should have. I installed a dual safety and lefty-magazine release, both of which are easily obtainable and fitted. Brownell’s keeps both in stock. I like the safety from Troy, if you’re using an issued M4/M16 burst or full-auto capable. My ambi mag release (“Ambi-Catch”) came from Norgon and is an excellent product; I tried one on an issued M4 before buying another for this VTAC.

I didn’t care for the handguard on my VTAC; it had a series of tiny hex-head screws securing it. The screws worked loose and were easily stripped if tightened up too much. I changed it out for a sturdier Troy handguard providing more options for accessory attachment. On the new Troy handguard I mounted a vertical rail grip. I like the ability of pulling the rifle tightly into my shoulder when shooting fast strings. The new VTAC II now comes with a Troy handguard as standard equipment. It has a full-length rail with enough room to mount just about anything you want. I also replaced the pistol grip—the standard M16A2 grip with the finger groove is uncomfortable. If you’re cheap, or don’t like the “grippy” surface of some of the newer pistol grip replacements, a standard GI black plastic pistol grip from an older M16A1 (with no finger groove) will fit. Many Service Rifle competitors make this swap on their National Match M16A2’s.


Good magazines are a must for an upgrade project. Surplus contract GI mags are generally OK, but there have been problems. Half of the brand-new aluminum contract magazines I was issued during my tour in Iraq wouldn’t fit into an M16A2 magazine well. Better would be to buy some magazines from Magpul. These are considered the industry standard and are a sought-after item for troops who are deploying. I like 20-round mags—I don’t see myself needing 30-rounders for the shooting I do now. I have a bunch, but don’t use them. The shorter magazines allow me to get into a low prone, which 30-round magazines inhibit. Bench shooting is also easier with 20-round mags. Magpul makes an excellent version. GI surplus 20-round magazines are also good, if they’re not trashed.

Get a good sling. There’s lots of room here for individuality: 1-point, 2-point, 3-point and other types of slings are out there. I like the VTAC sling. It’s fast, comfortable, easy to install and uncomplicated. All you need and nothing more.

Put together a compact cleaning kit and take it everywhere you go with your rifle. Surplus M16 GI green cleaning kit cases are perfect and will hold everything you need to clean, lube and service your rifle until you get home. Put in a jointed GI steel cleaning rod, patches, CLP tube, grease, Q-tips, bore and chamber brushes as well as punches and a small screwdriver for minor take-downs and repair. I still have an old M16A1 sight adjustment tool in my pouch; it came in handy when I ran into several older M16’s on my deployments.


A Trijicon 4X ACOG, mounted on the VTAC S&W. An excellent, tough optical sight, in use by both the USMC and the US Army.


Troy rear battle sight; an excellent aperture sight—rugged, easy to adjust and folds down, out of the way.


S&W-supplied Troy front sight. Both front and rear sights fold down and don’t obstruct the shooter’s vision when using optics.

Sights, Lights And Optics

I used to be a firm believer in only iron sights on a combat rifle. Not anymore. Optics have proven themselves in the harshest conditions on the planet during non-stop combat operations. Qualification scores have also risen dramatically when soldiers shoot optics. Mounting optics on your AR should be a no-brainer.

I like a low-power variable (1-4X) with a lighted reticle and a 30mm tube. It’s perfect for CQB (close-quarters battle, or what the Army calls “short range marksmanship”) and easily has enough power to reach out and hit a man-sized target at 500 meters. I store a couple of extra batteries in my pistol grip; batteries last awhile and are cheap to replace.

Many shooters make the mistake of buying cheap optics. Get the best you can afford—you won’t regret it. The Army likes Leupold, Nightforce, Aimpoint and Trijicon. Not bad choices as all are combat proven. I have a soft spot for Burris. I had a Burris 4X compact scope with a duplex reticle on my Colt M16A2 when I was in Iraq. It was an excellent scope and it didn’t fail me, despite being bounced around daily in a Humvee. I never felt like I needed more power—4X worked well for me.

On my upgraded VTAC I decided on a Burris 1-4X “Extreme Tactical XTR” set in a LaRue Tactical quick-release mount. I’ve have some experience with the Trijicon ACOG, mostly overseas; it’s an excellent, very rugged sight, but it’s a fixed 4X (actually 3.8X). I wanted a lower-power variable to be utilized in very short-range situations. I also don’t care for the ACOG reticle, but that’s a personal thing. Remember, when choosing an optic, choose wisely and don’t be in a hurry unless you know what you want. Best bet is to try several different brands before you decide. Again, make your decision based on what you actually intend to do with your rifle. Calling in coyotes requires different optics than a rifle dedicated to CQB. After shooting and evaluating several different brands, including some combat use, I’m very satisfied with my Burris 1-4X.


Texas lawman Richard Banduch holding an M4 used for SWAT tactics—a great example of an M4 set up for a specialized role, with suppressor, reflex sights and full-auto capability.

I haven’t mounted a light on my rifle because I don’t see myself needing one right now. If I were still a policeman, I’d have one on my rifle. I have the capability of mounting one though, so it’s no biggie to add one later for training or evaluation.

Another option for your rifle is a non-magnified optical sight or reflex sight. These are extremely fast, use batteries and have a lighted dot instead of the usual reticle. The Army has bought thousands of these (M68 CCO, or close combat optic) and they have performed superbly in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve used both the Aimpoint M68 CompM2 CCO and the later, improved CompM4. Both would work quite well if you will be confining your shooting to 300 meters.

Back-up iron sights are a must for me. I like the idea of iron sights on my rifle in case my optics malfunction. It happens sometimes and staying in the fight is critical. Many rifles come without sights; my VTAC didn’t have any. It gave me the option of adding sights I like. I put a set of Troy folding sights (sold by S&W for the M&P VTAC) on my rifle. These fold down low, with no interference with my optics. They’re first-rate aperture sights and are easy to adjust and very rugged. Not cheap, but well worth the price.

I think I have the perfect AR now. It’s right or left-hand-capable, accurate, comfortable and totally reliable. I’m ready to engage from just beyond the muzzle to 500-plus meters. I can upgrade further if I choose too. I’ve got my eye on a couple lights and maybe a suppressor one day. My wife and kids find it light, compact and easy to use, with no recoil. And it’s fun to shoot. Not an all-around rifle—but pretty darn close.


US Army issued M4A1, showing the selector lever with “auto” instead of the old M4 3-round burst. Newer M4A1’s will have ambi safeties, full-auto capability and heavier barrels to prevent overheating and warpage.

The M4A1 and the US Army

The M-16/M4 series is now the longest-serving service rifle in US military history. And some would say the most proven too, having gotten its baptism of fire early in the Vietnam War. It’s gone through numerous upgrades and revisions, with the latest version recently being approved for fielding to troops serving in Afghanistan. The “new” carbine is the M4A1, which will eventually replace all M4’s (now standard-issue to US Army deploying Soldiers) in the Army inventory. The military still has hopes of fielding a new carbine, which will, when developed and tested, eventually replace the M-16/M4. This may be awhile, though, because contracts for new M4A1’s as well as upgrade kits for M4’s have been signed—rifles and kits are now in the supply pipeline.

The M4A1 comes with a heavier barrel, full-auto capability (no more 3-round burst) and an ambidextrous safety. It’s basically the M4A1 issued to SOF (Special Operations Force) units for a while. The heavier barrel is more controllable in full-auto fire and reduces heat and warpage. The full-auto feature allows use of a better, simpler trigger with a cleaner pull. And there’s now (finally) an ambidextrous safety making lefty manipulation easier for us port-siders. All the other M4 features remain, like the flattop and the ability to take standard US add-ons (laser-sights, optics, etc.). The plan is to issue BCTs (Brigade Combat Teams) the rifles first. Rebuild kits for M4’s are being sent to Afghanistan for in-theater upgrades to M4A1 status. Eventually all 400,000 or so M4’s in the Army inventory will be replaced with new M4A’s or rebuilt to A1 specs.

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