AR-15 Basic Upgrades – Fashion vs. Function

AR-15 Basic Upgrades

Expanding on my last article on the best AR-15 upgrades, in terms of AR-15 basics, there are still upgrades that are available to you as the consumer.  With all the parts, options, and information online, how is the average person supposed to know what is correct for them?  The key here is understanding fashion versus function when upgrading. 

 I want to make one thing clear before we dive into this.  I am going to be offering a lot of examples and all of them are rooted in my experience as a gunsmith, or from sources I trust to provide factual, data-based information.  The information is true at the time of writing, but may very well change over time (and I hope it does, companies listening to their market is how they grow and get better).

AR-15 Basic Upgrades
two very functional ARs from the author’s collection

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – “Snake Oil”

The term “snake oil” is something that gets used a lot in the firearms industry, and rightly so.  It seems like in every facet of the industry, some company or another has come out with a product that puts it head and shoulders above the competition and is too good to be true. This is something that needs to be weighed when choosing parts.

An example of this are coatings that makes it so your rifle requires no lubrication.  Any time someone tells you “you don’t need to lubricate your firearm,” take anything they say with a grain of salt. 

Snake oil…

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – “Enhanced”

Another buzzword in the firearms industry is the word “enhanced.”  Lots of companies offer parts that are “enhanced this or enhanced that,” but when it boils down to it, what is the enhancement?  As you research AR-15 basic upgrades, you might discover dust covers, takedown pins, and more.  Looking at individual products though, you’re left to scratch your head when you try to figure out what they enhance. 

Buzzwords like this are meant to catch people’s attention, to get them in the mindset that the part offers a functional upgrade or an upgrade in quality, and get so into the idea that they buy-in. Make sure if you are looking at an upgrade and the part says it is enhanced, that you can actually establish the enhancement it is offering.

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – The Importance of Vetting Information

One of the hardest things to do nowadays is to determine if the information is free from bias.  YouTube has THOUSANDS of gun channels, there are hundreds of blogs, and everyone knows someone who knows someone that is a former Delta/Ranger/SEAL.  So how do you strip away the layers of misinformation and find good data? 

Steve “Yeti” Fisher of Sentinel Concepts is a great place to start as you research what works and what doesn’t.

The answer is simple: more homework.  You’ll need to find out backgrounds on the presenter to see if they have an applicable history in the subject.  You’ll need to listen to what is being presented, then compare those statements with others that are available.  You’ll start to see trends on people recommending things that have no data to back them up. 

It is a daunting process, but once you find a source or two that provides valuable information, you’ll often find they mention other sources to check out too.  That’s one of the interesting traits about people who become subject matter experts, they tend to surround themselves with other, like-minded people, and build a network from there.

A solid source of info is Primary & Secondary….

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – Bolt Carrier Groups

Now that we’ve discussed some things to keep an eye out for and ways to aid in research, let’s look at some of the function versus fashion upgrades on the market.  Bolt-carrier groups are one of the products that have many options available, but not all are created equally.  I do need to preface this a bit by saying that I am talking from the perspective of a duty or home defense gun here.  Race guns are another animal and I will address them specifically throughout the article.

In the last few years, the industry has seen several coatings and styles of bolt-carriers come to market.  You’ve got companies putting out low-mass bolt-carriers, adjustable bolt-carriers, and then any number of magic surface coatings.  Typically these are not ideal for reliable function, as low mass involves a lot more tuning (and is thus better suited for a race or competition gun). 

Coatings can often offer more than they can back up.  Much like the snake oil mentioned earlier, Nickel Boron is another coating that boasts big claims but falls short.  Beyond making the surface slightly easier to wipe clean, the NiB coating can impact reliability with the extractor, the coating can flake quickly if not applied correctly, and if that occurs, you’ve paid more to make your gun less functional.  This can similarly happen with bolt-carriers that have titanium-nitride, or any number of cosmetic coatings applied if they are not done properly.

Example of a bolt from LMT

From a functional standpoint, upgrading your bolt-carrier can be a huge gain in reliability, but you have to do some research.  Products like the LMT E-bolt (one of the few “enhanced” products I’ve come across that offers a legitimate upgrade), the Surefire Optimized Bolt-Carrier, or a Knights Armament Sandcutter offer different build specs that have direct upgrades on a standard carrier. Not all will work with just any build though, which is why you have to do a bit of homework to figure out if they are right for you.

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – Triggers

AR-15 triggers, often an entire fire-control group replacement, are another part on the market with a slew of aftermarket options.  In the simplest divide, they are often classified as cassette-style (also known as drop-in) or mil-spec.  We’ll look at each group separately, as the benefits and drawbacks are different from each.

With cassette triggers, in my experience, the very casing that makes them drop-in ready is known to trap popped primers and debris which makes it very easy to lock up your gun.  They also aren’t user friendly in terms of disassembly, which can make cleaning harder for some folks. 

Additionally, many require the use of anti-walk/anti-rotation pins to hold them in properly.  This can create even more issues, as they fight the basic function of the parts.  Chad Albrecht from School of the American Rifle has a wonderful write-up on this very topic that is worth reading if you plan to go this route.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some great quality products available in this group, but the price on them is often higher than a similar trigger would be from the mil-spec group. 

AR-15 Basic Upgrades

 Mil-spec triggers require a bit more work to install, but oftentimes you can get much more quality at a lower price point when compared with cassette triggers.  With mil-spec triggers, the main drawbacks are spring tension and machining.   Lower-end companies tend to use underpowered springs to lighten the trigger pull, which can cause light strikes when fired. 

I’ve also come across some lower parts kits in the $30-50 price range that have glaring machining errors such as tool marks, burrs, or improperly specced parts which can lead to run away triggers, triggers that hang up, or ones that simply don’t function at all. The key here is to find the balance of quality and price that you are comfortable with. With offerings like the Larue MBT-2S coming in under $100, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a two-stage trigger of higher quality without a higher price point.

AR-15 Basic Upgrades – Small Parts

This is a broad category covering everything from pins and springs to detents and forward assists.  The things to look for with “upgraded” parts in terms of small parts is focusing on what the upgrade offers to enhance the gun.  A great example of this is the line of parts from Forward Controls Design. 

AR-15 Basic Upgrades

Things like their ambidextrous magazine release and the Quick, a joint effort from SOLGW and FCD on an angled, Ambi-safety, functional upgrades are apparent at a glance. 

You then look at the dimpled dust cover, the magazine release button, and magazine lock and you’ll stumble into a line of parts that are specifically angled to give a tactile response when touched.  This encourages your fingers to focus on the areas they should be while discouraging them from drifting into areas of the part that shouldn’t be interacted with.  This is a perfect example of a line of parts that offer upgrades that are focused on function, but also happen to be fashionable.

AR-15 Basic Upgrades
the fashion is there…the function could use some work.

In the end, when it comes to AR-15 basic upgrades, what you put into and onto your gun is up to you.   As long as the parts you include don’t inhibit function, you didn’t make a poor choice.  If your gun is designed to be used in home defense, or for duty however, you may want to approach it with the mindset of function over fashion.  Before doing any AR-15 basic upgrades, do your homework, vet your info, and stay safe!


Todd Gimian is a gunsmith based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. After receiving his degree from Sonoran Desert Institute, Todd has spent his time building and maintaining a variety of machine guns and product testing for various companies. His main focus is expanding his knowledge on the AR-15 platform and helping bring better quality products to the market for end-users to enjoy.  

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