Top 5 Accuracy Upgrades For Your AR 15
Primary Arms Staff7/6/2020 1:22 pmwww.primaryarms.com
You have had your AR 15 for a while and it has become your favorite gun to shoot at the range. But for some reason, you just can’t achieve the accuracy you anticipated when you’re shooting it. You have practiced with the gun, but just can’t put together the groups that you want. Or maybe you are trying to shoot long distance, and that AR that worked great at 100 yards doesn't perform as well at 300 yards or beyond. Before you start thinking about replacing your rifle with something more expensive or switching to a differen platform for long range, think about adding some AR 15 accessories and upgrades designed to help your rifle shoot straighter.
Before we talk hardware, any experienced shooter will tell you that accuracy is more than a sum of parts in a gun. Accuracy is the ability to put many bullets in a single, bullet-sized hole, consistently -- on every shot you take. Yes, the gun and ammo need to perform reliably, but more importantly, you the shooter need to be consistent with every shot. Even the most budget-friendly AR 15 can outperform a novice shooter who is not using proper form and has no mastery of shooting fundamentals. So before forking over your hard-earned money for upgrades with the hope that you can spend your way to better accuracy, first and foremost, build a foundation of skills that enable you to shoot consistently. Learn proper form in multiple shooting positions, learn how to properly hand support or bench/bipod rest your firearm when you shoot, learn how your breathing affects accuracy and get the body mechanics under your control. As you build this foundation, you can start to look at the top components that will help you further achieve even greater consistency, and you will see your accuracy improve significantly.
What are the Best Upgrades to your AR-15 to Improve Accuracy?
When looking to improve your accuracy, these are the top 5 components that rise to the top of the list.
The single most important addition or upgrade to a rifle is a quality optic. If you are shooting with the equivalent of iron sights on your AR 15, with practice you will be able to achieve relatively good accuracy at short ranges, but you’ll see your effectiveness tapering off after a couple hundred yards. Especially if you have less than 20/20 vision, your ability to actually see the target at long distances will be your greatest limitation. The answer is a quality optic.
All optics, however, are not created equal. If you have a top quality AR 15 rifle that cost you $1,500 or more and you equip it with a $50 optic that you purchased at a gun show, you are setting yourself up to fail in regards to your accuracy. When it comes to riflescopes, you’re going to have to pay for quality -- corners cannot be cut on the way to a good optic.
However not everyone needs a supremely powerful and costly optic, it depends on what you want to get out of your rifle. One thing is certain, though, any quality optic you put on your rifle will increase your accuracy and provide you with a tactical advantage over iron sights.
The AR 15 is the most popular rifle in America because it ’s versatile and people put them to use in all sorts of applications. From target shooting just for fun, to competition, small game hunting, self-defense, and tactical shooting. Your optic choices are just as varied as the potential uses of your rifle, and there is an option for nearly any scenario you can imagine. Are you in search of a hunting scope, a target shooting scope, tactical scope or defense optic? Based on your intended use, you may want a red dot sight, a fixed magnification compact prism scope, or a variable magnification scope. Each option has Pros and Cons to consider depending on your intended use for the rifle, so let’s take a look.
Red dot style sights are very popular for AR 15s. They are unmagnified, are quick to get on target, and allow the shooter to keep both eyes open for full use of peripheral vision and better situational awareness. A properly zeroed red dot provides the shooter with a consistent point of aim, and excel at close combat ranges from 0-100 yards for most shooters. But they are not for everyone. Shooters with an astigmatism may be unable to see a crisp dot, making exceptional accuracy almost impossible. Instead, these shooters see things that have been described as a “smudge,” “comma,” or “comet”. If a red dot sight looks a little undefined to your eye when you look through it, chances are you have an astigmatism and you may want to consider another option. Let's break down the Pros and Cons.
Prism scopes are fixed-magnification, compact scopes with a reticle etched onto the interior glass instead of projected onto a lens like a red dot sight. Prisms typically range from 1x to 5x and are ideal for the AR 15 or M4 style platform. 1x magnification prisms are comparable to red dots in features and intended usage. Without magnification, they perform in the same role, yet have advantages for shooters with eye issues as the etched reticle is easy to see without distortion. For those with trouble seeing long distances, or for those who want to shoot out to even longer ranges, 1.5x to 6x fixed magnification prism scopes provide an excellent option to give your AR some distance potential. You can choose from many advanced reticle designs too, like the Primary Arms ACSS CQB, which are incredibly versatile and take the guesswork out of long-range ballistics.
Variable Power Scopes
A variable power scope allows you to manually adjust the magnification, providing greater flexibility for your shooting experience. Very popular with hunters, competitors, and recreational shooters that shoot at multiple ranges, the adjustable magnification lets you tailor your scope to the shot you want to take. That flexibility comes at a cost though, as added weight can cause some scopes to feel cumbersome on the lightweight frame of an AR rifle.
There are two types of variable power scopes to choose from: First Focal Plane (FFP) and Second Focal Plane (SFP). With an FFP scope, the reticle visually grows and shrinks as you change your magnification setting. This ensures that your zero and bullet drop compensation marks that are etched into the reticle remain accurate at any magnification. An SFP scope’s reticle remains the same size as the magnification changes, resulting in a consistent sight picture. However, any bullet drop compensation marks will only be accurate at the maximum power setting. Do your research to choose which type is best for your specific shooting requirements.
A note on glass quality: This is something that varies widely among manufacturers. The simple truth is, the better quality the glass, the sharper your image will be as you view through the scope. Research what other people have to say regarding the glass quality of a scope before you purchase.
Most AR 15s come out of the factory with a MIL-SPEC style standard trigger. These triggers are machined to meet military standards and require an average of 4.5 – 5.5 pounds of pressure to fire the gun. The MILSPEC trigger is not fancy, but it is reliable and relatively inexpensive to mass produce. The typical stock trigger on a new AR 15 does not have a consistent “break” point -- or the point during the trigger-pull at which the hammer is released. They don’t often have consistent pull weights either. The reason for this is that there are many contact surfaces within a trigger group that cause varying degrees of friction. In addition to trigger pull weight, other factors such as length of pull, trigger reset, take up (or “slack”), over travel, production quality, and trigger shape all contribute to the overall shooting experience and performance of the trigger.
For many shooters, all these variables combine to produce an inconsistent shooting experience with a MIL-SPEC trigger. If you are shooting for precision and accuracy, you rely on your trigger to perform the same way each time you pull it. The standard AR trigger just doesn’t deliver that consistency. The remedy is a trigger upgrade. You can readily find many trigger upgrade kits for sale, as well as drop-in trigger assemblies that install in just a few steps. After you shoot an AR that is equipped with a quality trigger upgrade, chances are that you will not want to go back to the MILSPEC trigger ever again. It really is that much better.
A good AR trigger gives the shooter precise mechanical control over the fire control group. Precision machined components, tighter tolerances, better springs and even different shapes all combine to create a predictable trigger that “breaks” cleanly and consistently. This is more important than pull weight for accuracy, but can be further enhanced by a lighter pull. WARNING: Not all trigger pull weights are suitable for all purposes! If triggers are set to a pull weight that is too light, the probability of a negligent discharge increases dramatically. Most multi-purpose trigger upgrades are between 3.5 and 4.5 pounds in pull weight for safety.
AR trigger upgrades come in two varieties: single-stage and two-stage. Which style you choose is really driven by preference, so let’s examine the Pros and Cons of each one.
Single Stage Trigger
Since you already have an AR, you are familiar with a single stage trigger. In one motion, you pull the trigger until it “breaks.” It is simple and standard on most firearms. Match-grade single stage trigger upgrades make the break as consistent as possible, and the shooter exerts the same level of effort the entire time to pull through the “break.”
Two Stage Trigger
A two-stage trigger splits the force required to pull the trigger into two different operations, the “take up” and the “break”. Using a Geissele SSA trigger as an example, the overall pull weight is 4.5 pounds. The shooter applies 2.5 pounds of pressure through the first stage and then hits a clearly identifiable “wall”. At that point, and additional 2 pounds of pressure is all that is required to break the trigger in the second stage. After the first shot, the user only needs to reset the trigger to the 2-pound second stage for a follow-up shot.
Once you’ve decided on a single stage or a two-stage trigger, there are a nearly unlimited array of options for the physical construction of the trigger you may want to put on your rifle. Growing in popularity in recent years are flat faced triggers, skeletonized triggers, and even triggers with adjustable finger pad placement. Whatever you decide, it’s a good idea to buy from a reputable manufacturer like Geissele, CMC Trigger, Timney Triggers, P.O.F., or any other brand with a reputation for quality.
Ammunition for your AR-15 comes in varying types and grades. What you feed your rifle has a huge impact on accuracy. Cheap steel case ammo is very popular choice for plinking at short distances on the range, but it is not known for being able to shoot a consistent, tight group at distance. Mass produced brass ammunition from large companies improve upon accuracy and reliability, but these cartridges are designed for combat effectiveness where larger groups are acceptable. You will notice a significant improvement in accuracy and consistency if you shoot with precision match ammunition.
Quantity versus quality. That is the major differentiator with match-grade ammo. If you are wanting to accurately shoot your AR at 300+ yards, you do not need to be buying all-purpose, bulk 223 or 5.56 ammo. Precision is what you’re after. You need the quality of a match round that uses a specific bullet weight and powder combination to attain those small groups at long distances. Yes, you will pay more to get less for match ammunition, but it will enable closer groups with far less effort and luck.
A Note on .223 Rem and 5.56x45: .223 Rem ammo may be safely shot in a barrel chambered for 5.56x45. There may be a slight decrease in accuracy as the rifling on a 5.56x45 barrel is designed for a higher-pressure round. It is UNSAFE to fire a 5.56x45 round in a barrel chambered for .223 Remington. The barrel may not withstand the additional pressure of the military-grade round. A .223 Wylde barrel will safely fire both rounds.
Free Float Handguard
Many inexpensive AR 15s come in a configuration that has an A2 front sight post and gas block, with a polymer handguard fit between the front sight and the upper receiver. On a carbine-length gas system, your handguard covers around 7 inches of the 16-inch barrel. This short length restricts your options for supporting techniques and AR accessories that can greatly improve stability. Furthermore, a standard handguard has multiple points where pressure is exerted on the barrel, which can interfere with ideal barrel harmonics and impact accuracy. The solution is a free float handguard.
A free float handguard reduces pressure points on the barrel and allows for lengths up to 15 inches on a 16-inch barrel. All that extra real estate, combined with a picatinny rail, Keymod, or MLOK system for attaching accessories can provide numerous additional options to stabilize your rifle and improve your accuracy. For many shooters, the ability to move your support hand out towards the end of the rifle provides a major improvement in shooting stability. Attaching an AR bipod can create a platform suitable for precision shooting. Even attaching foregrips and forward sling points can increase stability. Your rifle is going to look way cooler too.
This upgrade involves some additional modifications, so you need to make sure you’re prepared. You will need to remove your delta ring, possibly your barrel nut, and the A2 front sight (if you have one), replacing it with a low-profile gas block. Research the best methods on how to do the modifications to ensure that your rifle and gas system will function reliably after the upgrade.
Most of the items listed above are upgrades that help you be more accurate with an AR15. The barrel, on the other hand, is the heart of your AR 15’s accuracy. Essentially, the barrel is the most important part of your rifle. Accuracy doesn’t end with the barrel, but it most certainly begins with it. There is a saying: "you can’t build a good gun around a bad barrel.” So why is it not in the number one position on this list? Most ARs will ship with barrels that are accurate enough for the recreational or new shooter. Mastering the other elements of shooting fundamentals will give you the greatest improvements accuracy. In most cases, finding the best upgraded barrel will take those vast improvements in your accuracy and fine tune them into precision shooting at longer distances. Here are the things to consider when shopping for an AR 15 barrel upgrade.
Material and Production
There are some myths out there that need to be dispelled regarding barrels. The first is, many shooters believe that the best barrel for accuracy need to be a Hammer Forged Chrome-lined Heavy Barrel. This is simply not the case. These materials and production techniques have little to do with accuracy. They have everything to do with durability and reliability during sustained automatic fire. For most civilian shooters of semi-automatic AR 15s, their typical usage does not require these materials. The most popular material for precision barrels today is 416 and 416R steel. Quality precision barrels made with this steel can turn your AR into a tack driver. As for barrel profile and width, since precision shooters typically do not shoot at a high rate of fire, a variety of thicknesses, barrel profiles, and fluting techniques can be combined to craft some match-grade barrels.
Another myth is that longer barrels are required for accuracy. A poorly-made 24-inch barrel can easily lose out in accuracy to a well-made barrel that is 10 inches shorter. When good quality precision barrels are used, barrel length becomes more important as the length of the shot being taken increases. The longer the barrel, the faster the velocity of the round. If you are shooting at 100 yards, a 16-inch barrel is ideal. If you want to be more accurate at ranges beyond 300 yards, 18, 20 and 24-inch barrels will propel the bullet faster and flatter. Match your barrel to your anticipated shooting distance.
Gas Tube Length
Your gas system operates your AR 15. Gas from the explosion is directed through a hole in the top of the barrel into the gas block. From there it travels down the gas tube into the receiver where it pushes back the Bolt Carrier Group (BCG). The closer to the chamber the gas block is situated on the barrel, the higher the pressure of the gas that pushes back on the BCG. A pistol length gas tube (shortest) increases the felt recoil of the gun. This, as a result, influences accuracy –, especially on follow-up shots. From pistol-length gas systems, we move to longer lengths which are carbine, mid-length, and rifle-length. Longer gas tube lengths result in a shooting experience that is smoother and has less recoil. Most precision rifles have longer tubes for this reason.
Few things confuse new AR 15 shooters like twist rate. 1:7, 1:8, 1:12 – what does it really mean? Twist rate describes the rotation – or spin -- of a bullet as it travels down the barrel. The first number in the twist rate ratio represents one full rotation of the bullet as it travels down the barrel. The second number represents the number of inches the bullet will travel down the barrel to complete that one rotation. So, as an example, a 1:7 twist rate means that there will be one rotation for every 7 inches of travel the bullet completes down the rifled barrel. Heavier bullets require more spin to achieve a stable flight trajectory and be accurate at long distances. Lighter bullets can suffer from over-stabilization and become less accurate if they spin too much. Therefore, it is critical to match your choice of ammunition to barrel twist rate if you want to be accurate. The below chart provides the ideal twist rate for different weights of bullets. If you want the most versatile twist rate available, go for something in the middle like 1:8 or 1:9.
1:8 or 1:7
1:7 or 1:8
This list was compiled based upon the input from several of the firearms experts at Primary Arms. Not everyone agreed on what parts improve a shooter’s accuracy. There are two AR 15 parts that contribute significantly to accuracy but didn’t make the cut for the top 5 list. Not only do these two parts help you shoot better but they can also make your shooting experience better and much more enjoyable. These two parts are the AR buttstock, and a good, recoil-mitigating muzzle device.
More than any other component on the rifle, what stock you choose is a matter of personal preference. Ultimately, you want a stock that provides a solid check weld to help you stabilize the rifle as you shoot. Depending on your shooting requirements, comfort level, and desired awesomeness, there are numerous options. Fixed length, collapsible and even PDW style stocks. Choose the one that works best for you. As you get into more precision shooting using more powerful optics, eye relief to your scope becomes a major consideration. For precision long-range shooting with powerful optics, many shooters opt for an adjustable precision stock like the Magpul Precision Rifle Stock (PRS), Luth-AR Modular Buttstock Assembly or the Seekins Precision ProComp 10X.
Muzzle Device that Mitigates Recoil
When a bullet exits the barrel, it is followed by a cloud of expanding gas that pushes back against the rifle. This can contribute greatly to felt recoil. Most budget AR 15s ship with the equivalent of the A2 “birdcage” flash hider. This muzzle device was designed to mitigate the effects of the muzzle flash on a shooter’s night vision in low-light engagements. It doesn’t do much to impact recoil. What you need is a muzzle brake, or compensator. A muzzle brake is designed so that the expanding gasses are redirected and harnessed to act in opposition to the natural force of recoil caused by firing a bullet. A good muzzle device can dramatically reduce recoil, improving your shooting experience and make it easier to get back on target for follow-up shots. Our staff favorite muzzle brakes are the LANTAC Dragon, Seekins Precision ATC, and the JP Enterprises Barrel Tactical Compensator.
All the parts discussed have the potential to improve your accuracy, but that will only occur if you continue to build your shooting fundamentals, increase your knowledge of firearms and ballistics, and practice regularly. Accuracy is about consistency, but that consistency will never be realized unless you practice. The bottom line is this: upgrading your rifle and customizing it to be unique to you is fun. And it can help you shoot better. So build your foundation of skills, understand your options, install some parts and go shoot.Did you enjoy this article? Check out some more of the most recent blog posts from the Primary Arms Blog!