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Setting Up Your AR-15 for Defense

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Article first appeared at Cheaper than Dirt.

Today’s market offers a multitude of options for personal defense. The plethora of aftermarket parts can be overwhelming to even the most gun-savvy individuals and picking the right components can be crucial to your success in building a gun that gives you the performance you are looking for. I am going to try and convey what I have found to work for me regarding the AR-15 platform, as a rifle that is widely deployed in a self-defense role. Let’s start with looking at the basics of platform.

By Michael Rodriguez

Midwest Industries AR-15

Midwest Industries AR-15s have FN hammer-forged and chrome lined barrels, a MPI bolt, M4 feed ramps and a staked castle nut.

I start by selecting a firearm centered on the role it is designed for. I make this decision on materials used in construction, manufacturing processes, and components that are used in the process to create a complete rifle. A way to simplify all of these options is to select a rifle manufactured by a commercial gun company or as it is commonly referred to as “off the rack.” The ability to purchase the AR you want preconfigured is available through a select few retailers and gun shops and you can expect performance to be on par with cost. The other route is to build (or have built) the exact rifle you want from the ground up.

If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.

If you like the AR-15 style flash hider, you can find one threaded to work.

Flash Hider/Compensator

As I stated before, the purpose of this article is discussing AR-15s for personal defense. These items are not in any particular order of importance, so I am simply going to start at the front of the rifle. A good compensator/flash hider is essential to assist in negating muzzle flash and supports faster follow up shots. Time is critical in a defensive scenario and anything that can help shave time, even if it’s tenths of seconds, is valuable.

Keep that in mind as we go through these items. There are several companies that make quality muzzle devices, I use theAAC Blackout as I find it efficient and it allows me to attach a suppressor without the use of direct threading.


For barrels, I generally find that a 16-inch heavy barrel works best and prevents you from having to involve laws such as NFA guidelines if you want to change muzzle devices. While a 14.5-inch barrel is acceptable, the muzzle device will need to be pinned and welded to comply with NFA regulations, hence my selection of a true 16-inch barrel. Other factors to consider when picking a barrel is the treatment process. They are usually chrome lined or cryogenically treated for longevity. I generally will select a cryogenically treated barrel, as it is a proven process.

AR-15 Stainless Chromoly Rifle Barrels by Glen Zediker

A truly good barrel is expensive. It also won’t last any longer than an equivalently constructed lower-cost barrel. But between barrels, you’ll be happy. Barrels are not a lifetime investment. To a competitive shooter, or anyone looking for the ultimate accuracy, barrels are a supply item. Because there are a few that are as good, I hate to mention names, but I will photograph them. This is my “go to” barrel maker.


Next, I look at the option of a free-float rail system. When looking at this product the options can become somewhat overwhelming. With the option of Key Mod, M-Lok, quad picatinny, or even just knurled with no mounting system, the key here is to make sure whatever you purchase as a rail system has a 1913 spec rail for placing your accessories. This decision is a personal preference and you need to do your own research to figure out what is comfortable for you.

The good news is the rail system is not nearly as “mission critical” as you might think. I employ several different hand guard systems over multiple guns—all of which serve me in a defensive role. One item I attach to my rail systems is the use of a vertical grip to pull the rifle into my shoulder. I try to stay away from plastic vertical grips as these can potentially break in a stressed environment.

Burris AR-F3 Red Dot Sight

This is a lightweight but effective red dot well worth your attention.


Choosing the optic on for the rifle for me usually consists of anunmagnified red dot or holographic sight that has generous eye relief and can take a beating and still keep working. For this option, I turn to the EOTech 522 and 512 series. They are reliable and offer a usable solution for close quarters work.

Backup iron sights I find are a necessity though, even with the use of a solid optic. All things mechanical or electrical are prone, or have the potential, to break and a backup system should always be in place if available. A good set of MagPul MBUISsights are affordable and will fold down to stay out of the way when the optic is in operation.


A good light is going to aid you tremendously in low light/darkened conditions. The key to a good light is not overpowering the surroundings. Anything around 200 lumens should provide enough coverage and prevent splash or bounce-back from white surfaces. Surefire and Insight make a couple of products that provide tremendous value and reliability.

Picture shows a black, adjustable AR-15 buttstock.

AR-15 stocks are either A2 fixed or collapsible.


For a stock, I prefer to try and keep the weight down, so I tend to gravitate toward a minimalist approach. I run the Mission First Tactical BMF stock paired with a ERGO grip. It provides a stable platform and the weight savings I’m looking for.


Lastly, I would like to cover trigger selection. It has been my experience that a standard weight, single stage, GI trigger is what works best. Again, you are working in a stressed environment so you want to make sure the components in your gun work the way they are supposed to work. Lightened or custom triggers can work against you in terms of reliability via light primer strikes and accountability to the law if you do have to use your gun in a defensive situation. There are several options that are standard weight but offer smoothness and reliability.

The items I have covered up to this point are what I would mostly consider the important factors in building out my rifle. Items like the BCM ambidextrous gunfighter charging handle and Phase 5 magazine release, are nice and convenient but are not particular necessary to creating a successful platform. The purpose here is to make your rifle work for you, efficiently, effectively, and every time. I have listed what works for me and my hope is that you don’t necessarily duplicate what I have done, but that it gives you thought as to what might work for you. It is important that you are comfortable and familiar with your gun. Then practice with your rifle. When you think you have it down get more training and practice some more. Stay familiar with your system.

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