There are things you can do to make your AR-15 perform better without spending a huge amount of money. The trick is to put your money into things that actually matter. Some folks look down on people who don’t buy a quality milspec AR, and some folks look down on people who waste their money on buying crappy entry level milspec ARs. But the truth is that right now there are more options for a good entry level AR than there have ever been before. If you bought a brand where the upper receiver was put together correctly, and the buffer weight is correct, then no one will be able to tell whether or not the milspec magic fairy dust was blessed upon your rifle.
So say you buy an entry level AR carbine, no sights, no optic, and your magazines are some second hand green follower GI aluminum bodied mags. Where do you go from there? Specifically where do you go from there to “good enough” without hitting “retarded tacticool” pricing?
Here are where I would put my money.
Magazines. In any sort of reliability test the magazine has always been the weak link in causing “stoppages.” There are many people out there who advocate for one brand of magazine or another, and if you have the money to drop on new mags that’s awesome. If you don’t, and you are still using GI aluminum style mags with a black or green follower, I recommend getting the Magpul anti-tilt follower. If you are using tan follower GI mags, you are good to go and don’t need to upgrade. You can generally buy the Magpul followers for less than two bucks before shipping from midway. http://www.midwayusa.com/product/2319633504/magpul-enhanced-self-leveling-magazine-follower-ar-15-polymer-package-of-3
Before anyone says that GI magazines are like ten bucks a piece and Magpul magazines are only like 15 bucks a piece, yes I know. But if you are like me with a stash of old green follower aluminum GI mags, a two buck upgrade beats the heck out of a 15 buck new purchase. If you are buying new magazines, go with whatever you like and feel is a good deal for you.
Next up is the trigger. How much you spend on the trigger depends a lot on what you consider acceptable performance. I shoot service rifle, so I need a 4.5 lb trigger pull, which limits my selection and price range. For a standard “combat carbine” a grit free trigger like an ALG ACT is probably 70 bucks well spent, although the Palmetto State Armory “Enhanced Polished Trigger” is probably the lowest cost upgrade to a standard milspec trigger that is worth purchasing.
If you really did buy a carbine without sights, you can’t really get buy with a sub hundred dollar purchase here. But you don’t have to spend Aimpoint and Nightforce levels of cash either. But there is a definite “bottom” in terms of price to “worthwhile quality” and that level now starts with Vortex.
For a no magnification solution, Vortex Strikefire II comes in at 240 MSRP, but is right at 180 with free shipping off of Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/Vortex-Optics-StrikeFire-Cantilever-Baseball/dp/B01H7QWB56
For a magnified option, the Vortex Crossfire II comes in at 177 off of Amazon, not including a mount. https://www.amazon.com/Vortex-Crossfire-1-4x24mm-Rifle-Scope/dp/B00HYRGO48/ref=sr_1_2?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1487799229&sr=1-2&keywords=vortex+1-4
Lastly, and this is getting pretty subjective, you need some sort of automotive grease for your lubrication. There are companies on the market that will sell you very small bottles of very expensive grease that they claim can can prevent stoppages through the thousands of rounds. That’s great and all, but I don’t like spending 15 bucks for a single ounce bottle of any sort of fluid. So go to your automotive store, purchase some grease (I like Mobil1 synthetic because it is red) and purchase some automatic transmission fluid. Use the ATF like you would CLP for cleaning your rifle, and lube your bolt at the gas rings and wear ring with the grease, then lube the bolt carrier “rails” (the four flat surfaces) very lightly with the grease. If you do that, you’ll get all the reliability you’ve ever wanted out of an AR if everything else is working (gas system, buffer weight, etc). You can literally buy any brand of grease and ATF you like, and you can even substitute plain old engine oil for CLP in a pinch although you’ll lose some of the copper removing qualities it will get the carbon out just fine.
So there you have it, don’t pay more than ten bucks a magazine, 70 bucks for a trigger, or 180 bucks for an optic, slap in a two buck Magpul follower for your old 30 round GI mags, and you can show up at any action shooting competition with a cleaned and lubed rifled and your setup that won’t give you any excuses about your performance.
Things that I haven’t talked about…slings, mag pouches, rifle case, etc. All of those are important to actually securing and using your AR, but there are so many options and preferences that I think individualized advice is better than a blanket statement.
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