Practical Enhancements for Your AR-15–Part 1

By Mark Fosterheadshot
Master Gunsmith and AGI Instructor

This is part 1 of 3 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. Nearly everyone loves these “black guns” and their ability to be customized.

The AR-15 is a versatile semi-automatic rifle platform that can be configured to be very effective for a number of different purposes, from personal protection, law enforcement duty, target competition, hunting small and medium sized game, as well as for just having fun. The AR-15 platform has the unique ability to accept different caliber barrels or complete upper receivers and a myriad of add-on components to configure it to a wide variety of purposes. Most people know that the M-16 platform has been around for over 55 years. However, in the last few years, the AR-15 civilian sporting version has dramatically increased in popularity and the number of components available have gone ballistic.

I recently completed a video with the American Gunsmithing Institute (AGI #346DVD), AR-15: Practical, Tactical, or Tacti-Cool, which looks at many of the current components that can turn your AR-15 into a rifle that best suits your needs or wants. There are many great companies making quality rifles and even more companies making great add-on components to upgrade those rifles. Some components are very practical and enhance the rifle platform with minimal cost or work. Some components are more “Tactical,” meaning they assist in a specific mission or purpose, whatever that may be for you. Some components are “Tacti-cool”, meaning they don’t necessarily help with a real need… but they enhance the look and you “just gotta have it.”

You can take any AR-15 rifle and reconfigure it yourself to fit whatever purpose or desire you have. In my video, we take a look at many components, add-ons, optics, and tools. We discuss gas impingement vs. gas piston systems, along with the pros and cons of each. Let’s take a look at just a few of the components that I think are the most practical enhancements to a rifle.


Other than the fit of the upper and lower receiver, barrels and trigger groups are, in my opinion, the most important components for an accurate rifle. After that, handguards or fore-ends and optics are the most practical or tactical upgrades to any rifle.

Downsizing the barrel

Downsizing the barrel

If you are only using your rifle for close distances or for plinking, don’t spend a lot of money on a barrel. Currently, inexpensive barrels are in the $100-$150 range and are usually not chrome lined. Chrome lining prevents corrosion and aids in cleaning – nice to have but not necessary if you clean and lube your rifle properly. If you are one of the lucky group that shoots full-auto for fun or you shoot at close range, why spend a lot of money for an expensive barrel? Spend your money appropriately to get the best “bang for your buck.”

If you are shooting long distance, participating in competition matches or any other precision shooting and need sub-“Minute of Angle” accuracy, don’t buy a cheap barrel and expect to be in the winner’s circle. For the best accuracy, go with top of the line barrels from Krieger, Hart, or Shilen but expect to pay $600 plus for the barrel. These barrels, when properly installed, will give you the best chance at superior accuracy.

For barrels that offer MOA accuracy or better, expect to pay in the $250 – $500 range. Barrels from Noveske, Criterion, Wilson Arms, Wilson Combat, Spike’s Tactical, Daniel Defense, and others are very good barrels capable of MOA groups or better. These barrels are practical upgrades that can give you the potential for better accuracy in hunting rifles, law enforcement dedicated marksman rifles, or any other purpose that requires above average accuracy.

If you are only going to change out a barrel on rare occasions, have a competent gunsmith do it for you. If on the other hand, you will be doing it often and are willing to buy the proper tools, you can learn to do it yourself. In the AGI video AR-15: Practical, Tactical, or Tacti-Cool, I show a barrel change and installation of a free-floating handguard using two different methods, along with the tools needed for a proper barrel change. The torque settings and checking headspace of the bolt are critical steps in the process but that does not mean that only a gunsmith can do it. If you have the proper tools, headspace gauges, and an understanding of the process, just about anyone with mechanical aptitude can do it. You can also get the AGI video on building the AR-15 rifle (#323DVD) and go through the procedure even more in depth.

Make sure you don’t miss parts 2 and 3 of this article–coming soon!

© 2017 American Gunsmithing Institute. Reproduction of this article by any means without approval is not permitted.

17 Responses to Practical Enhancements for Your AR-15–Part 1

  1. Barrel, trigger, light, laser, optic. That’s what you need: barrel, trigger, light, laser, optic. You can add a good set of backup iron sights and a vertical foregrip if you like, but mostly it’s a barrel, trigger, light, laser, optic.

  2. Great to see something from you again Mr. Mark Foster. I appreciate and value the tips and knowledge sharing from your expertise. However I do not own an AR-15 because it is classified as restricted in Canada so I purchased a Benelli MR1 (.223), which means the MR1 can be shot at other shooting areas (and packed around in a vehicle and travel freely with it) versus only being able to fire any restricted gun at licensed/government approved shooting range(s).

    Pardon me everyone if my following question is too far off topic but I was wondering if anyone knows of a heavier barrel available for the Benelli MR1? The factory barrel is fairly thin and if I shoot 10 fast rounds through it it gets fairly hot quickly in which concerns me in such that the heat may wear out the barrel’s rifling faster?

    Do AR-15’s barrels heat quickly like the Benelli MR1 barrels do (as I mentioned above in my comment)?

    Thanks for the article Mark. Hope all is well with you Sir. Cheers.

  3. Dana,
    I don’t know of a heavier barrel available for the MR1. I do know when I got my first AR that’s the first thing I noticed. The barrels heat quite quickly. My first AR was a Colt HBAR competition. It wears a .950″ barrel if memory serves me correctly. I guess the 5.56 and .223 are just so high velocity that they heat life up quickly. The M16 and M16A1 wore .625″ contour barrels and they were fired full auto! I’ve seen the cyclic rates reported anything from 600-800 rounds per minute. The actual automatic rate was something like 100-200 rounds per minute.

    The sustained rate on these rifles with the .625″ barrels was 12-15 rounds per minute. Meaning that they will deliver this 12-15 rounds per minute for an indefinite period of time without overheating.

    I don’t know what your MR1 contour is but I’d say so long as you don’t exceed the 12-15 once it’s hot you would probably be ok. I have found in my HBAR a particular 69gr load with a particular powder seems to stay cooler than some of my 55gr military fodder. Maybe anecdotal maybe not, and as always your mileage may vary. Just some of my findings.

    • Dan,

      The contour of the Benelli MR1 barrel OD is .610″ near the mid section and .545″ at the muzzle, which seems on the lower end of the “thickness” scale here. I’ve only shot 55 grain FMJ through this gun so far so those bullets may scream a little faster through the barrel than the heavier bullets, thus creating more heat in the barrel.

      I appreciate the provided guidelines to follow to monitor the barrel temp pertaining to rate of fire. With that I would like to say thanks for your conclusions, insights and for your time to help me understand.

      • Overheating the barrel will shorten your barrel life, but under normal conditions it isn’t much of a problem. If you’re doing full mag dumps you can burn up a barrel pretty quickly, but you’re going to burn through a lot of ammo before that happens. If you’re just shooting a mag or two (30rd mags) before stopping to reload your magazines and let your barrel cool off you’ll be fine.

      • Another thing to consider is that, while thinner barrels do heat up faster than heavier barrels, they also cool down faster.

        • Good point – I over-looked that! I feel better now, thanks.

          Actually the first time I took the Benelli MR1 out to the local shooting range to shoot I met a gentleman there and we fired each other’s guns. I loaded a 10 round mag for him to shoot the Benelli, he fired 7 fairly quick rounds, felt the barrel and with concern showing on his face he gave the gun back to me saying the barrel should be let to cool before shooting it it anymore. I will add that this was during summer and was a rather warm Canadian summer’s day.

          He said to remove the mag, lock the bolt open and keep the gun standing muzzle up in the gun rack so that the air could “chimney through” the mag well and through the barrel and thus cool the gun quicker.

          The fellow said to me he didn’t want to remotely induce any wear to my gun’s barrel (he was being polite by showing respect/concern for the barrel by handing me the gun back after only shooting 7 out of 10 rounds. He’s a really nice guy and we are friends to this day.

          Thanks again for the comments.

  4. On my 16″ 5.56 upper, I have a medium weight profile barrel with a diamond-shaped pattern in the barrel, and a rather open pattern free-float hand guard. If I put on my bump-fire stock, it is easy to empty a 40-round magazine in 20 or 30 seconds. You won’t want to touch the barrel at that time. However, by the time I reload the magazine, it is almost back to ambient temperature. If I just switch mags, then I suppose I could overheat it. If I just keep the normal stock on it and shoot at 200 yard targets, it never seems to get especially hot. I don’t think it has ever gotten hot enough to cause a problem–I can still hit golf balls at 200 yards using a bi-pod.

    • Hey Gary.

      Thanks for posting the comment. I actually seen your video a while back shooting the AR with the 40 round mag and with the bump-fire stock … no doubt the barrel must have gotten warm/hot there!

    • I can think of a couple of reasons. Perhaps the rifle you bought had a good “foundation” but some of the parts were not precision parts at all. Or perhaps the rifle you already own just doesn’t suit your style anymore, so you want to personalize it with some better parts.

      Building an AR-15 is like building a hot rod. You can either make one from scratch as you suggest, or you can buy an old junker and then start changing parts to make it your own. Banjos are the same.

      Just depends on the individual I guess. And if you are having fun, hang the expense!

    • Most factory rifles are mass produces, meaning they are built on an assembly line by trained monkeys. When you want something other than a basic rifle you either replace factory components or build your own.

  5. As a gunsmith (and occasional contributor to this site), I can think of a couple of reasons for not buying “junkers” (guns somebody else put together from mixed components) or no-brand sub-assemblies (uppers or lowers). Reason 1 = safety, Reason 2 = proper function. I’ve had customers bring me such guns that unexpectedly went full-auto when fired because somebody didn’t fit the secondary sear properly. I’ve also seen “bang-bang” guns — ARs that fire once when the trigger is pulled, then again when the trigger is released, because the primary sear wasn’t engaging when the secondary let go. But I’ve gotten the most business from ARs that wouldn’t cycle because of various gas block / gas tube issues. I’ve seen upside down gas tubes, loose gas blocks that worked forward until they didn’t line up with the port, and most recently a gas tube that had been installed with the roll pin in front of it instead of through it.

    Note that I have NEVER seen these issues with an unmodified factory AR (though maybe some others of you have). Factory rifles may be assembled by trained monkeys, but they are at least checked for proper function at the end of the line.

    • Thanks John. You always are a great and accurate source of information and I agree with your comments.

      I may have been unclear in my original comment. When I said “you can buy an old junker and then start changing parts to make it your own” I was referring to the hot rod analogy, not an AR-15. I would never suggest that someone risk life and limb by buying “junK” firearms unless they really know what they are doing.

      • I would certainly agree with that. Surprisingly most of the issues I have found have not involved junk components — in fact some of them have been top of the line, brand name parts that have simply been put together by someone with no experience. For anyone without such experience who is going to build (or customize) an AR, I would highly recommend AGI’s excellent Bob Dunlap video course on building your own AR.

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