(EDITED TO ADD: This article was intended as a stand-alone piece, but readers asked a lot of questions, so I added two follow-on articles. The first deals with specific reader questions, and the second with ammunition selection.)
I mentioned a while back that I'm upgrading a few AR-15-type rifles for friends. In the process, I've had the opportunity to ask them why they're upgrading various features, and what they want to do with the rifles. Their answers have been illuminating.
All of them want to use the rifles as personal defense tools, in case of need; they see the growing political and social tensions in this country as worrying, and foresee a time when they might have to defend themselves and their families against rioters invading their hitherto peaceful suburbs, or as a defensive tool if the family has to "bug out" to a safer location. They want to take their standard entry-level AR-15's and equip them to be more suitable for that task. However, to my mind, they're ignoring the most fundamental aspects of any defensive weapon. Those can be summed up in two questions:
- How well can you shoot it?
- How well can you maintain it and keep it shooting?
The first question isn't as simple as it looks. It's easy to say, "I can get rounds on target out to 500 yards" - but that's probably not true in all circumstances. On a square range, on a calm, sunny day, with no interference or distractions, and a well-braced position, and using good optics, perhaps you can. Now, take a wild, stormy, windy day, with you out of breath, panting and puffing, sweat running down your forehead and into your eyes (having just run a couple of blocks to get away from trouble, with "bad guys" in the offing who are after you, and your family bunched behind you with the kids screaming in fear because they don't know what's going on), and you with just "iron sights" or a red dot sight on your close-combat carbine, and no time to take up a settled, stable shooting position . . . now make that critical shot, at whatever range. Go ahead. It's only your life at stake, and your families' lives.
The second question requires more than just owning a rifle. You have to get to know it and its parts, learning which may break and require replacement, and which are more robust and reliable. In the military, you can rely on a unit armorer, but in the civilian world you have to rely on a gunsmith who may be a long way from you. Furthermore, if trouble arises, you may not have time to get to him. You should be able to detail-strip your piece, and keep a stock of basic spares on hand with which to repair any breakages. This is basic stuff. (What's more, if your need for a defensive rifle is likely to be more than theoretical, you should have at least two of them, so that if one breaks, you can send it to the gunsmith for repair without being left defenseless.)
The late, great Jeff Cooper wrote the superb book "The Art of the Rifle" (which every serious rifle shooter should own and study, IMHO).
In it, he said this:
The object of the practical rifleman is the achievement of first-round hits, on appropriate targets, at unknown ranges, from improvised firing positions, against the clock.
That's a pretty good definition of what it takes to be a rifleman, IMHO. If you can do that, you're good to go. If you can't . . . not so much. Therefore, before worrying about what modifications to make to your rifle, and what gadgets and gizmos to hang on (or off) it, get the basic skills right first. That means getting instruction from a qualified, competent source; expending many rounds in training; and developing your skills to the point where you can accomplish Cooper's requirements, if not on demand, at least some of the time. By then, you'll know enough to be able to figure out what equipment will make your job as a rifleman easier and more practical (versus simply looking "cool" or "tactical" or whatever).
It takes a lot of effort to attain the status of "practical rifleman", as defined by Cooper. For civilian shooters, it's even harder, because we don't have military instruction and taxpayer-subsidized ammunition. I suggest one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to start is to attend a Project Appleseed course - if possible, more than one of them. You'll learn something every time. The .22 Long Rifle round they recommend for training is also very challenging at longer ranges or in stronger winds. If you can master it, within its practical range, under most weather conditions, you'll be a better shooter for it. Having mastered the Project Appleseed curriculum, if you can afford it, a rifle or carbine class (or more than one) at a major shooting school such as Gunsite, Thunder Ranch (where I've trained) or a similar institution is highly recommended. After such instruction, it'll take time, effort and dedication to keep your skills honed (as well as a decent ammo budget, I'm afraid!).
Assuming you've received appropriate and adequate training, and have mastered "the art of the rifle", we can look at useful equipment to mount on your weapon for defensive use. I have strong personal preferences in this regard, based on my own military and civilian combat experience on the African continent. Others will have their own opinions, so don't take mine as gospel. At any rate, here's what I consider important in an AR-15-style rifle or carbine.
- Your basic, unadorned rifle should be able to shoot at least 2" groups at 100 yards from a firm, rested position. That's the fundamental, mechanical, intrinsic accuracy you need. Your rounds will impact within a circle up to 2" across, around your point of aim at that distance (i.e. within an inch to either side of it, or up or down from it). That also means that at longer practical ranges, they'll hit within the span of the human torso; for example, at 300 yards (which Jeff Cooper considered - and I agree - to be a maximum practical range for most civilian rifle shooters), your bullets will impact around your point of aim within a circle 6" across. At 500 yards, the circle will be 10" across.
- Equip your rifle with a stock, pistol grip and forward hand guard that fit your body and are comfortable to use. Since everyone's different, you'll have to experiment to find which options you prefer. I've standardized on Magpul for my needs, as have many in the shooting community, because they offer very ergonomic solutions. YMMV, of course.
- You'll need a sight suitable for the conditions in which you expect to use the rifle. A red dot or prismatic sight has been proven effective in combat by many armed forces out to 200-300 yards (although it's not very useful beyond that range). A telescopic sight, particularly with an illuminated reticle, can provide longer-range accuracy while substituting for the red dot sight at lower magnification settings at shorter ranges. Choose the sight that will best suit your operating environment. (I usually recommend a good-quality red dot sight, such as the Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic, as a general purpose solution. If that's too expensive, the Primary Arms SLx red dot sight is basically a clone of the PRO at a rather lower price point. There's an almost infinite selection of scopes out there if you prefer that option.)
- You'll need backup iron sights in case your primary sight malfunctions or is rendered ineffective. These can be mounted in line with your primary sight, and "co-witnessed" through its optics, or they can be offset to one side on canted mounts. I regard them as essential, having had too many items of equipment fail at just the wrong moment. Others say they aren't necessary. You pays your money, and you takes your choice. (I use Magpul's MBUS [plastic, lower cost] or, for preference, MBUS Pro [steel, more expensive] backup sights. The MBUS Pro is also available in an angled offset version, or you can mount the standard sight on an angled offset base. There are many alternatives out there.) Remember, too, that you need to zero those backup sights! They won't automatically be on target just by installing them. I zero mine at 50 yards (which equates to a 200-yard zero as well from the AR-15 platform) as a good general-purpose setting.
- A good trigger is important, but you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to get one. In AR-15-style rifles and carbines, the single-stage ALG Advanced Combat Trigger ($69 - my personal choice) or, if you prefer a two-stage trigger, the Larue Tactical MBT-2S ($80) are all most shooters will ever need. You can spend $200-$300 on bigger-name triggers, but I question whether they're worth their added cost.
- A light of some kind is a very useful accessory if there's any likelihood of needing to use your rifle at night. You shouldn't be shooting at a target you can't identify (unless that target is already shooting at you, of course!). There are many weapon lights out there, and you should pick one that's of suitable power for your needs, at a price you can afford - but remember, you get what you pay for. There's a reason why established brands such as Surefire, Streamlight and Olight have come to dominate the field, despite their relatively high cost. They've earned their reputation the hard way. Take note, and be willing to spend what it takes to get a good-quality light.
- You may find a forward grip to be useful, particularly if your AR-15 has a slimline metal handguard that allows heat from the gas system to pass through to the area where you hold it. You can buy covers for the handguard to protect your hand from the heat (my preference, because they're less bulky and heavy), or use a vertical or angled foregrip to remove your hand from the heat source altogether. There are many such grips available from multiple vendors: here, for example, is Magpul's selection. Choose whichever suits you.
That's about it, as far as I'm concerned. Add your choice of options in those categories, and you're good to go. However, I'll add one word of caution. If your rifle is too heavy, it'll become a burden rather than a useful companion. Light weight is important. I therefore select accessories with that in mind, and will almost always take a lighter option over a heavier one. I suggest that your fully loaded and equipped AR-15 rifle or carbine need not weigh more than 8-9 pounds, and can weigh substantially less if you can do without some of the bells and whistles. The Bushmaster Minimalist (sadly no longer available, but reviewed here) came in at an unadorned 6 pounds even, and one can build an equivalent weighing no more (or even less) than that by careful selection of components.
I hope this article has provided some food for thought. If you'd like to contribute your suggestions, please do so in Comments.
(EDITED TO ADD: I've had a number of questions via e-mail about this article that deserve an answer. I'll write two follow-up articles next week, responding to reader questions and discussing ammunition selection.)