Here is the final part of this educational and informative article by Mark Foster on the AR-15, one of the most popular platforms on the market in recent years. This time he finishes up with hand guards, sights and optics.
If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of this article, look under the “Authors” tab above for Mark’s archives.
There are lots of choices in handguards and stocks. I think that they can be generally segregated into six basic styles – standard, standard free-floating, full quad-rail, full quad-rail free-floating, round free-floating, and combination round/rail free-floating. There is no “best” handguard, but there are better choices depending on the purpose of the rifle.
The standard military style triangle or round plastic types are very practical. They will work adequately for almost all purposes. If you have a basic military or law enforcement, home defense, plinking, or any other general-purpose rifle, the standard handguards will work just fine. I prefer Magpul MOE handguards as an upgrade to the practical and tactical rifle. They feel better and have options for light rails. The Magpul handguards are a little more difficult to install because they have a top and bottom piece and the bottom needs to be “rocked” into place. Not really difficult but it takes a little more practice than the standard handguards. Brownell’s sells handguard removal/assembly tools that use leverage to make the job easier for any handguard that uses the standard “Delta ring” system.
Full quad-rail handguards are everywhere and made by dozens of companies. I consider them more in the tactical category, better suited to law enforcement and military CQB. Why? Although they have the capability to add on lights, lasers, sights, etc., they are generally heavier than the standard plastic and can have sharp edges that are best suited to gloved hands.
Surefire makes non free-floating full quad-rail handguards that use the standard Delta ring system. Daniel Defense, Yankee Hill Machine, and others make free-floating full quad-rail handguards. The free-floating types use special barrel nuts that will require that you disassemble the barrel. Free-floating handguards may aid in accuracy but require more skill and tools to install. In AR-15: Practical, Tactical, or Tacti-Cool, I show how to replace a standard handguard with a free-floating type, including the tools needed to do the job properly, and they are not that expensive.
You may wear gloves while hunting, but if you want something more practical for that purpose, I prefer the combination round/rail handguards, such as the Yankee Hill Machine Jarrett series. I prefer this type or the round free-floating type for hunting.
There are aluminum or carbon fiber handguards that offer round, round with quad-rail sections, or have rails that mount anywhere they are needed. These types are great for varmint or 3-gun competition rifles. The Troy Industries Alpha Rail or Geissele Automatics are great choices for 3-gun competition rifles.
Buttstocks come in fixed length, collapsible, skeleton, and adjustable – any style to fit you and your needs. Fixed stocks are generally more practical for hunting and most competition shooting, collapsible are better suited to law enforcement, military, or home protection.
The great thing about the myriad of handguards and buttstocks available is that you can make the rifle suit your needs. It is highly probable someone at your local range already has one and you can ask to try it to see how it feels before you spend your money. In the video, I show lots of examples of different styles of handguards and buttstocks to help you decide which is right for you.
Sights and optics:
The standard A-2 style sights on most modern rifles work well – in the hands of a good marksman, they are capable of accuracy to 600 yards or more. For us mortals, optics are probably a better choice. I suggest getting a reflex sight that is military grade, it will generally hold up better to harsh conditions. I consider reflex sights to be very practical – easy target acquisition and, since you can keep both eyes open, better overall vision of what’s going on around you. I have used EOTech and Aimpoint sights on law enforcement and personal rifles for over 10 years. I prefer Aimpoint optics because of their durability and have the T-1 micro sight on my personal and Patrol rifles. The new Aimpoint PRO is another great choice and has the ability to stay continually on for more than a year before the battery needs replacement.
For magnification, your budget is the deciding factor. There are decent scopes for $200-$300 but high quality glass is expensive, with some scopes going over the $3000 mark. Get the best you can afford that meets your needs. Besides LE and military types, many experienced hunters think nothing of spending more on high quality glass than their rifles. The rationale is if you can’t see your target clearly under all reasonable circumstances and have full confidence that the sight will continue to survive and perform in the harshest environments, it doesn’t make much difference how good your rifle/cartridge platform is.
If you need back-up iron sights, there are lots of great choices. Aluminum, steel, and polymer sights are available and can be fixed or flip-up style. The SWAT team at my department has tested the Magpul MBUS polymer sights for over a year and they have not had any malfunctions or loss of zero. Very practical and tactical!
If you are into 3-gun competition and can’t have multiple optics, there are 45-degree offset iron sights available. I’ve tested the Dueck Defense offset sights – they are durable and allow a quick transition from optics to iron sights. Get them if you really need this type of auxiliary sight for competition but I think they are more in the “Tacti-Cool” category because of the limited need for this type of sight system.
What are the best components to put on your rifle? That really depends on the end use of your rifle. To make a general-purpose rifle better while still being practical, I like Magpul MOE handguards, a Magpul ACS-L collapsible stock or MOE rifle stock, and a two-stage trigger. Add optics to fit your purpose and you’re good to go.
How about a more tactical rifle? For my law enforcement patrol rifle, I have a free-floating quad-rail handguard to assist with installation of lights, lasers, grips, or whatever. I have a new style Rock River Arms stock (similar to the Magpul CTR stock) which gives a better cheek weld, a two-stage trigger which aids in accuracy, an Aimpoint T-1 micro sight for fast sight picture, and VTac sling. It is ready for anything.
Upgrading a hunting rifle depends on what it is intended for. My varmint rifle has a Wilson stainless bull barrel and a round free-floating handguard with a bipod. I have a 4.5-14 scope so I can see ground squirrels at long distances. I have a Magpul PRS adjustable stock, so I can adjust the length of pull for prone or bench shooting. The trigger is a match two-stage for accuracy. It is a very practical set-up for varmint hunting but too heavy for carrying around all day.
For a walking around hunting rifle, I prefer a mid-weight barrel, preferably stainless. The handguard of choice for me is the Yankee Hill Machine Jarrett series – round and vented, with short rails for a light or bipod. I like the Magpul MOE rifle stock because I don’t have to worry about adjustments and it is very comfortable, both are practical considerations. My .300 ACC Blackout has a stainless Wilson Combat barrel, a Geissele SSA-E two-stage trigger, and a 1-4x scope – it was assembled as a pig hunting rifle but is capable of taking other small game at reasonable distances.
There are many other add-on components for the AR-15 platform such as lights, muzzle brakes, compensators, buffers, stocks, grips, etc. There are tools available to assist you in installing all the different add-ons to your rifle. In the video, I show dozens of examples of add-on components from various manufacturers and give you some of my reasons for choosing them. I show why some are practical, why some are great for tactical situations (whatever that means to you) and why some are just so cool you may have to put one on your rifle, just ‘cause. I also show you the tools for a barrel change and the proper method to change barrels and handguards. Check out the AGI video AR-15: Practical, Tactical, or Tacti-Cool to see all of the components and then to decide what is right for you.
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