Trick Out A Cheap AR15

The rash of inexpensive ARs clogging gun store shelves right now might not be the greatest battle rifles since the M1903 Top Survival BlogSpringfield, but they can advance well beyond their pay grade with a few mild upgrades that basically undo the cost saving measures installed at the factory.  In addition to cost-saving measures, many entry level ARs will lack a forward assist plunger, and a dust cover.  While the former might never be used by 99% of shooters, the dust cover can come in handy in certain conditions and environments.

By Doc Montana, a contributing author of SHTFBlog and Survival Cache

The Walmart Rifle

But neither should be considered a deal-breaker if you find a brand-name good deal.  A goal here is to put some dollar numbers on what it would take to bring a budget-priced AR up to speed for real-world challenges.

A required assumption here is that a reputable company that builds ARs will make them more affordable though a handful of forge_survival_supply_best_rifleminor shortcuts rather than some massive oversights in quality.  In fact it might take a doubling or even tripling of cost within the product line to get a functionally better barrel or bolt carrier group.  The difference between a $599 and a $1299 AR by the same company will be in the details across three main areas:
1) Those small parts where a few pennies are saved here and there
2) In finishing work done both by machine and by hand especially the trigger group
3) The number of minutes of quality assurance inspections along with accompanying lower standards of acceptability.

Companies known for making better rifles will not make cheap barrels and bolts.  That’s too risky and expensive for them.  Instead they will use the good stuff and cut costs elsewhere.  On the other hand if the AR company is known for inexpensive or poor quality guns with a few or no upper-end firearms in their product catalog, then those better ones are the exception to their rule so upgrading will be, as they say, lipstick on a pig.  Just remember that most folks cannot outshoot their rifles, and don’t worry about if or when your round count will overcome the quality of your AR parts since we’re not pushing theoretical limits here. Just putting a trustworthy AR in your hands for less money.   Before we get started, know that the fun stuff like optics, red dots, weapons lights, covert carry options, drum mags, bipods and suppressors are all fine goals for the financial future but the first principles are first for a reason.

Picky Begging

So to begin, hand select the best inexpensive AR on the shelf.  Or better yet, if the gun store really wants to make the sale, crack Top Survival Blogopen a few boxes in backstock.  Concentrate on the upper and lower receivers mating, the action of the bolt, and alignment of the gas tube any and rails.  There’s no point upgrading if the AR is already damaged goods.  Also avoid fixating on any part that will be swapped out.  Cheap buttstocks might rattle around or require extra force to slice back and forth.  Cheap sights are included to make the rifle work out of the box (a supposed selling point), but since they will soon be tossed into the junk parts box in your shop, don’t waste valuable store time on them.

Related: Magpul P-Mag Torture Test

Next, plan on swapping out the trigger, buttstock, handguard, mag, sights (as needed), and make a few additions while you’re at it.  Each replacement part has an important upgrade purpose, and each addition will take the AR up a pay grade or two in stature and use.  The new parts can be replace all at once or over time.  The point of this article is to give some focus when there you have a gnawing desire to buy a quality sale-priced new AR.  If considering a used one, all bets are off.

Breaking Glass

Triggers are an easy place to both cut costs and raise them.  Inexpensive ARs will often have worse-than-normal triggers. than spending your day trying to polish up the already crippled fire control mechanism, just get one of the newer but affordable drop-in trigger kits.  While not perfect, the inexpensive kits will put you much closer to the cool kids.  One of the $70 ALG triggers would make a good option, or a Mil-spec enhanced trigger group from Rock River.

Butt Out

The buttstock might seem to work fine, even look mil-spec, but cheaper ARs often have brittle plastic mildly adjustable stocks.  For the cost of a few boxes of ammo, the Magpul OEM stock can be had for less than $40 and will get you up to speed where your stock will work better, feel better, and hold up to abuse especially if your need pummel something or someone with your buttstock.

Hands Off

The hard plastic two-piece tubes that form the handguard on budget ARs are heavy, slippery, and often lack any attachment Top Survival Blogpoints for rails, etc.  Again, the sub-$40 Magpul OEM handguard fits the bill and moves you and your rifle into a more productive tactical position.

Black Box

If your AR came with a Magpul Pmag of any generation, then move on.  But if it came with a no-name metal box, then assume the worst and swap it out with a ~$15 Pmag.  Not all GI-style metal mags are created equal, especially when you know that the chief selling point of the rifle it came with was a low price.  The main points of failure for the cheap mags, assuming they even fit and work in the first place, are with minimally functional followers and springs of marginal quality.

Zero Me

Likely, there will be a standard triangular.  A2 front sight pinned onto the barrel. While the finish work after tumbling out of Top Survival Blogwhat forge or press might be lacking, its function will be much the same as any other factory installed front post.  But the rear sight is another matter.  You might be lucky and the rifle came with a polymer Magpul MBUS. If so, great.  If not but a rear sight was included, take it off and feel its heft. Some weight a ton because cheap does mean light. Further, the adjustments might be coarse and limited.

Also Read: Best Survival Carbine

Since the point of the rifle is to land a projectile on a target from a safe distance away, the sighting mechanism is as important as any other critical part of the gun. Might be the best $40 spent thus far.

Nickels and Dimes

A few additions beyond the basics include an enhanced trigger guard base and Blackhawk single-point sling adapter.  Oh, and a Katrina Riflecouple of AR tools to become more intimate with your rifle. Start with a couple of punches, and an armorer’s tool.  Magpul makes a great enhanced trigger guard for about $9 that will greatly increase the internal space of the trigger guard allowing better and safer operation especially when wearing gloves.  The single-point sling adapter sells for less than $7 and allows you to quickly clip a sling to a spot on the buffer tube, or back on the buttstock.  When placed on the buffer tube, the rifle becomes single-point compatible without an expensive QD mount added on.

Related: DIY Survival Rifle

The last piece of kit to gentrify your AR is to get some Slip2000 gun lube.  I prefer the Slip2000 EWL30 because of its higher viscosity.  Since ARs are known for chain smoking gun lube all day long, the EWL30 puts up the good fight between metal surfaces assuring you that your AR is as healthy as it can be.

Check Please

By adding about $220 to your over-the-counter AR, you will be in great shape to do almost everything anyone buying a budget AR would do.  Given recent AR prices hovering under $600 and some holiday or promotional sales dropping in sight of $500, having a plan to capitalize on the savings but not the functionality will make the decision easier.  Remember, this strategy requires you start with a good foundational AR so keep with the known brands and compare the specifications.  An inexpensive AR from Bob’s Basement Budget Builds might be easy on the wallet today, but it will punish you for years to come.

Photos By:
Doc Montana
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28 comments… add one
  • Roger April 10, 2016, 6:12 pm

    I’m sorry, apparently I blinked! Was this a AR15 article or a Magpul advertisment? IMHO, the average person is better off with a hunting rifle with a basic scope! AR’s, AK’s, etc. just encourage the spray-and-pray method of ‘combat’; forget what Hollyweird is trying to sell you, most of those people are anti-gun anyway! In the Marines, I was taught that only well-aimed shots count, misses are a waste of ammo and only increase the danger that your enemy can and will shoot back! In Nam, the average rifleman fired about 100,000 rounds per enemy killed; a sniper fired about 1 1/2 rounds per enemy killed! I don’t know about you but I don’t have 100,000 rounds, not even close, nor could I carry that much anyway. The heaviest thing in your pack should be water, after air it’s your most pressing need. 200 rounds is a lot of ammo to carry, that’s 10 boxes of 20 rounds. When I target practice, I usually only fire about 40-60 rounds per weapon. Hollyweird makes you think that you’ll be there all day long exchanging shots, but unless both you and your counter are lousy shots, one or both of you are likely to be dead or injured before 20 rounds are fired; unless you spray-and-pray! Enough preaching, have a nice day! GLAHP!

    • BamaMan April 11, 2016, 5:36 pm

      Next will be a knife made by Fällkniven.
      They own stock in that too.

      • Joel April 13, 2016, 9:50 am

        Hahaah – Fallkniven sends us knives to review, can’t help that they are good knives.

        • BamaMan April 14, 2016, 11:07 am

          Good knives…just joking.

    • Drew April 12, 2016, 11:09 am

      Magpul makes excellent, easily sourced, inexpensive, easy-to-install-by-the-layman gear that allows you to upgrade your AR effectively for dirt money. Why WOULDN’T he recommend Magpul? I don’t know of another company that will upgrade a cheap AR as well for less.

      The only suggestion I might make would be a light – a Streamlight Polytac can be bought for $40 or less and mounted on a rail using a bargain-bin 1″ weaver scope mount, or using a cheap light mount from Amazon. For less than $50 you have good-quality illumination.

  • Doc Montana April 10, 2016, 8:09 pm

    Thanks for the read Roger. Good points.

    Common beliefs about daily life in SHTF scenarios might be much like how Ron Alexander and Charles W. Sasser describe flying helicopters in the Vietnam War in their book Taking Fire: The True Story of a Decorated Chopper Pilot:

    “For us it was hours and hours of utter boredom followed by raw terror. Then we went back to the O Club for a beer….”

    So what particular firearm would serve that situation the best? One popular and well-grounded solution is the AR15. Sitting quietly for hours on end with brief bouts of utter mag-dumping madness. An apt description. Maybe?

    100,000 to 1 is a pretty poor record, and one that we learned from. But none of that will have any bearing on what happens when the SHTF since a tenth of a million rounds of .223 weighs about 2800 pounds.

    But if sniping is in your SHTF plan, then you should choose other long gun options. The only problem is successful sniping requires total situational awareness, planning, and no family baggage tugging on your pant leg.

  • KEVIN April 10, 2016, 8:24 pm

    the best rifle there is is the one that YOU HAVE IN HAND sometimes you HAVE to make do with WHAT YOU HAVE EVERY rifle there is out there improvements CAN BE MADE TO me i just as soon have a WELL TUNED AK47 than a shitty ar15 that dont shoot worth a damn the ar15 it takes WEEKS to properly learn how to take care of it and clean it right

    • Drew April 12, 2016, 11:21 am

      Funny, my AR armorer’s course was about 10 hours long.

      I’m all set drilling/pounding rivets to change broken parts. Give me an AR over an AK any day. I’ve seen both platforms fail miserably on the range and training grounds; nothing is infallible.

      • Doc Montana April 12, 2016, 12:22 pm

        Good points Drew.

        While I agree with the comments about the AR platform being a little persnickety and complex (I’d prefer one size of spring, one size of pin, one size of fastener), but the actual total number of absolute failure points is fairly small. More than a bolt action, but if you need the gun to fire (with cycling, accuracy, and even predictability being separate issues) the AR should function. Now 30 in a row during sandstorm is a different story. Might I suggest an UZI for that playground since it was borne for such conditions.

        Hunting is a personal preference. ARs are as effective as any lead tip bullet of ~62 grains impacting a target at ~3000 f/s. The rifle is usually no more than a few percent of the hunting equation. The rest is the skill of the hunter. I prefer a larger caliber since the critters around here that I hunt all weigh much more than me. But a .308 AR for hunting is in my future.

        In my article about the Magpul Armorer’s wrench recently posted on Survival Cache, I stressed the need to be familiar with the machine. Bolt actions are pretty simple and most are only ever stripped down to two or three pieces. But most see less than a box or two of shells per year. So reliability is also a question of use and expectations. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that a single hard day at the range for an AR might have the same round count as the entire use-life of a big game rifle.

        In the end, however, being prepared means making smart decisions. My bug out vehicle is not a Rimac Concept 1. My bug out watch is not a Calatrava Pilot Travel Time. And my bug out pocket knife is not a Lancet Ouroboros. As hard as it would be to leave those at home when bugging out, I’d be better off with a Ford, a Seiko, and a Buck. Or in my particular case, a Toyota, a Suunto, and a Benchmade. And an AR.

        • Tank June 15, 2016, 6:06 am

          Not to be an a$$ but UZI is an open bolt weapon not a very good idea in a sand storm.

  • Ray April 11, 2016, 6:09 am

    The AR “range barbbie” is the worst possible choice as a survival rifle. It is a fragile , dirt sensitive, under powered parts whore. In its cheap incarnation it has the round count lifespan of a butterfly. In its 1000USD+ “hi end” incarnation it still only has 10% of the reliability or life span of an entry level AKMS. And I agree with Roger. My banner Mauser , M-1903 or my Garand are far and away better hunting, survival and SD weapons than any AR ever made. “One shot one kill” beats “three shots might kill” every time.

    • Doc Montana April 11, 2016, 9:33 am

      While I agree that the AR has its flaws, perhaps even more than its fair share, but it’s hardly the “worst possible choice as a survival rifle.” Double-shot derringers, Hi-Point 9, single shot .22, even the .50 BMG are worse choices but still popular in the prepper literature.

      Any others on the list?

      • Ray April 11, 2016, 12:55 pm

        Prepper lit. AKA DOOM PORN. is a really sad choice for any kind of information. The single shot .22 is in fact a great survival rifle within its limits. At least that’s what most professional trainers and the USAF thought for about 60 years. “50 BMG?” Straw man much? Let me modify my statement with this; ALL “assault weapons” suck as survival rifles. Hand guns suck double. The 65 year old 5.56 X 45 stoner “system” just sucks the worst. The Stoners have more wrong with them than right and most of what is wrong with the AR cannot be fixed. It may have been a good idea in 1950 when Stoner came up with the idea of glomming a failed gas system from Norway onto the failed bolt system of the “withdrawn from service in 1942” USMC Johnson rifle, then smacking it all into a rifle made of recycled beer cans and cheap plastic, and then again maybe not. I got my first SP-1 in 1978 , I have owned at least two Stoner types in every decade since. They were all crap, that couldn’t hold a candle to the worst built WW2 era civilian or military small arms. I will never own another rifle that I KNOW will fail when most needed. That rifle is ANY stoner designed weapon. I have had too many of them fail me to ever trust one again.

        • Freeze Dried April 11, 2016, 5:33 pm

          Well that explains why we keep loosing wars. Our guns don’t work.

          Wish you would have said something about it sooner Ray.

          • Anonymous April 12, 2016, 12:21 am

            Lmfao, well played sir.

        • 3rdMan April 12, 2016, 11:16 pm

          Just more ARs for everyone else!!!!!!

  • BamaMan April 12, 2016, 10:23 am

    Pandora’s Box has officially been opened. Next is 9mm or .45 ;-)
    Maybe there should be a survival rifle and defense rifle category. Because the AR is really not a good hunting weapon.

    • Drew April 12, 2016, 11:03 am

      I beg to differ. I shot a nice fat five-pointer two years ago with an AR. The quick handling of the AR plus a “tactical” two-point sling actually worked out really well to keep my hands free to move brush and branches, yet have it ready utilize quickly. My brother uses an AR to excellent effect for coyote control on the farm her works. The same qualities that make it a good choice for a battle rifle translate to hunting.

      • Doc Montana April 12, 2016, 12:32 pm

        Glad you mentioned the sling. The ones commonly used on bolt action hunting rifles have barely evolved beyond the cordage used by the Kalahari bushmen to carry their bow and quiver. In fact, some of the paracord solutions popular now can be a big step backwards in my book.

        But the sling options that ARs and other autos/semiautos have provided us are changing the game for the better. I’m constantly tweaking my slings now figuring that tradition is for museums. I need performance, versatility, quick adjustments, and even a little comfort would be nice.

      • Jon April 12, 2016, 11:17 pm

        The AR is weapon of choice for hog hunting here in Texas

        • BamaMan April 14, 2016, 11:08 am

          But you probably do not eat the hogs.

      • BamaMan April 14, 2016, 11:10 am

        .223 is not a good hunting round. It barely does the number on a deer and is way too much for small game. If you AR is a .308 then maybe.

  • Roger April 12, 2016, 5:29 pm

    Sorry Doc, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful to you or your opinions! I appreciate the time and effect you obviously put into each article! The only sniping that I’m (hopefully) not forced to engage in would probably be defensive in nature; defending the homestead. My main complaint is with the mentality that seems to go with ‘assault-style’ weapons such as the AR’s and AK’s. IMHO, single well-aimed rounds are always more useful than quickly-emptied magazines. While massive firepower on a designated target is a standard tactic for military forces, the likelihood of the average prepper/survivalist being part of an actual professional military in any SHTF situation is quite unlikely! I.E.- no Abrams parked in my back yard! Army’s have elaborate supply systems and a lot of manpower, I certainly don’t, so my tactics have to reflect that to allow me any real chance of surviving (hopefully thriving) any SHTF situation. I do have ‘assault-style’ weapons because they are fun to shoot, but my hunting rifle(s) will always be close-to-hand!

    • Doc Montana April 12, 2016, 6:16 pm

      Thanks Roger. I know we are all in this together and a passion for this topic is as valuable as gold.

      My go-to rifle for my bug out location is a composite stock stainless steel Browning X-Bolt in 30-06 topped off with a Leupold VX3 3-9x and several mags (yes, it takes removable box-like mags). It has a threaded barrel and I’ve got a SilencerCo Omega supressor for it (yes, there’s an article brewing). For redundancy, I have a threaded Browning A-Bolt in 30-06 as well, along with several of it’s truly boxed mags.

      “Assault” weapons are both fun and functional. Inordinately complex? Yes, perhaps. But being able to walk in your shots does have advantages when the usual options are in the toilet.

      The reason behind this article is that I’ve frequently encountered both inexpensive ARs and folks who are itching to buy one just because of the price, but then want to overcome some of the cost-saving shortcomings of the rifle. I was just at a gun show this weekend and there were base model ARs for a touch over $500. But while the gross parts were fine, the smaller pieces were bargain basement. I just want to offer help when making go/no-go decisions.

      And while I’m on it, the show was filled with knock-off counterfeits of Magpul, EOTech and others. Seems there is no shame. Oh, and for BamaMan, I did see a counterfeit Fällkniven A1. And I do take article requests if you have something of interest that I can get ahold of, and is of interest to our reader base.

  • Anonymous April 12, 2016, 10:13 pm

    All this talk about AR problems but I’ve yet to encounter one. Don’t have 100k rounds through it either. Keep it clean and lubricated been running just fine.
    I shoot the AR better than the other options at my disposal.
    Accurate shots are the ones that count. I get a chuckle out of people obsessed on long term durability. Is it important, sure is. But seriously God forbid it ever comes to this, how many shots do you think you will make in anger? More shots your taking the more likely you will be receiving too.

  • Fanboy April 16, 2016, 4:10 pm

    Trick Cheap…Cheap Trick.

    Haha, I get it.

    • Doc Montana April 17, 2016, 11:26 am

      About time someone noticed.

  • kevin April 19, 2016, 9:06 am

    im not a young man anymore i guess you could say i believe in the old saying the KISS method KEEP IT SIMPLE STUPID the more complex something is the better the odds are it will FAIL thats why i thinks that are not complex


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