Setting Up a Go-To AR15
July 08, 2016
I get a lot of questions on my opinion of the perfect setup for a "go-to" AR15. Below I've listed several of the most frequently asked questions and my answers regarding how I set up mine.
The general-purpose AR15 rifle is so modular that we can easily pick and choose our setup, and if it doesn't work, we can quickly rethink the process and start over again. Configuring your AR15 is totally up to you, but I'll give you my thoughts on what has worked for me.
I will also try to answer most of the questions about what I use, why I use it and how it helps. Check out my setup, and see what you think. After some experimentation, you'll eventually come up with what works for you. I try my best to keep an open mind.
There are always new tricks and techniques coming down the line, so check them out, and see if there is any validity in them for you.
What is your preferred do-anything optic type and configuration?
I don't have a specific optic that is the only one for me. I have groups of optics ranging from red dot sights to fixed-power scopes right on up to the variable-power glass that is becoming more and more popular. In reality, the magnified optic has always been popular for accuracy, but speed often suffers.
If you select a variable-powered scope, you could have high magnification at the top end, which in turn means too much magnification on the bottom end.
This has recently been fixed with the introduction of several true 1X-to-whatever-powered scopes now on the market. I still shoot faster with a red dot up close, but when stretching distances from 50 yards out to as far as 500, the magnified scope makes the impossible pretty attainable.
My go-to choice for an optic is the Leupold 1-6X VX-6. Retailed at roughly $1,200, this scope is not that expensive and works well. With its illuminated center dot, you can drive the gun pretty quickly up close, and in hours of limited visibility, the dot is an awesome tool.
Another factor with regard to the Leupold is that it is designed, machined and assembled in the United States, just like the scope mounts I use: Alamo's Four Star DLOC mount or Unity Tactical's lightweight scope mount.
Backup iron sights (BUIS) go hand in hand with the optic-choice dilemma. If you select a magnified optic, do you really need BUIS? The truthful answer is no.
I don't believe that you need backup iron sights with a high-quality scope, but here's my problem: I have had BUIS on carbines for as long as I can remember. Even when soldiers and I were issued CAR-15s with carry handles, we were able to use the irons if needed by looking under our red dots.
Because of this habit, I continue to use them today. That said, my go-to choice for BUIS is Troy Industries' DOA flip-up sights, which are constructed of strong aluminum. Due to their rugged construction, they can be used as a primary sight if desired.
At what range do you zero your AR15, and why?
Once I have decided what sight to mount, I must determine the optimal distance to zero my AR15. For many years while I was in the Army, the common soldier was required to zero at 25 meters. This is a good example of what not to do. I would suggest that you study your ballistic curve in relation to the sight height of your selected optic and make an educated choice.
My opinion, which is backed by a stack of ballistic charts, has driven me to the 50-yard line. If you are shooting iron sights or red dot optics that are mounted 2½ inches above your bore line, the 50-yard zero shines. With this zero, you will be on at 50 and approximately 160.
Remember, this is with my loadings and their velocities, so check your ballistics with an online application or a ballistic program, and confirm with live fire. When I shoot a magnified optic on an AR15, I usually zero at 100 yards, which works well for me and allows easy holdovers at distances of 200 and 300 yards.
What's your choice for a free-floating handguard?
If I have the option of a slick, free-float tube with movable rails, I am on that thing like a hobo on a ham sandwich. Less is more with a system such as this.
My preference is to purchase an AR15 with a free-floated tube installed at the factory, and, as such, I use the Viking Tactics Carbine from Smith & Wesson for this very reason. Its gas system is secured with taper pins, resulting in a super-strong, reliable fit. I've never had a tapered-pin gas block come loose.
If you choose to replace your existing handguard with a free-floated system, I recommend either using the original gas block or replacing it with a well-fitted, securely mounted system.
Are you a fan of trigger replacement?
I like a nice trigger and prefer a single stage over a two stage in my 5.56 guns. The only time I use a two stage is in a .308/7.62 AR. I use a VTAC Modular trigger, as it's designed to my specifications. When I designed the trigger, I selected two trigger profiles, the standard curve and a straight trigger with a small bump on the bottom end.
Either will do the job, but I'm able to shoot faster with the straight trigger. The pull weights of most of my AR15 triggers fall into the 3½- to 4½-pound range. There are lighter triggers out there, but for a daily-use AR15, I'm comfortable with these weights.
Do you like 45-degree safety levers?
Picking up a student's AR15 from the line one day, I noticed he had a 45-degree ambidextrous thumb safety on his carbine. I tried it and was not impressed at the time.
A year later, I had a custom carbine built, and without my approval, the gunsmith installed a 45-degree ambidextrous thumb safety. When I received the AR15, I was not happy, but I spent some time with it anyway. I must say, an old dog can learn new tricks. I absolutely love the safety now.
The limited movement of it decreases the amount that the opposite side of the safety contacts my hand. This is a nice feature. With standard ambidextrous safeties, I always felt like they were binding against my hand. The other enhancement is the ease with which the safety can be engaged. With less movement, you can easily place the carbine on Safe. This is especially nice for those of us who shoot a lot from the support side.
Do you condone the use of a vertical grip?
The vertical grip is an enhancement that some feel is not needed on the tactical carbine. I would wholeheartedly disagree with this stance. The vertical grip allows for easy handling as well as use while shooting from nonstandard positions.
I also use the vertical grip when shooting with only one arm to hook knees, cars, feet or whatever happens to be handy at the time. It is important for me to teach folks how to continue with and win the fight, even when operating at less than 100 percent.
The vertical grip also dovetails nicely when used in conjunction with a light.
What about lights and light mounts?
I like lights and IR lasers on my AR15, but I don't participate in as many nighttime operations as I once did when I was in the military, so the laser is only used when I have a chance to play in the dark with night vision goggles.
As far as lights go, here are my prerequisites: The light must be lightweight, have an extremely bright focused beam, include a switch that allows for constant on without holding a button and work with my light mount.
So far, I've found a couple that fit perfectly. One is the SureFire VTAC light that it produces for our company, which features a Scout Light head mated to a round L4 body and a clickable tailcap with a raised rim designed to protect the button from accidental activation.
My second choice is a Streamlight plastic light, which has three settings: constant, strobe and low. I wouldn't be a fan of this light except it is programmable and easy to use. It's inexpensive and has proven to be durable thus far.
What kind of sling do you prefer?
Slings are important in the business I am in. If you have a tactical AR15, you must have a sling, and it shouldn't come as a surprise that my go-to sling is a Viking Tactics two-point quick-adjust sling. Judging from the number of copies being produced by others in this market, I'm guessing they like it, too. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, at least that is what someone once said.
For several reasons, I prefer a two-point that is adjustable. Foremost is the need for a sling to control the rifle when you can't keep your hands on your AR15. If you use a single point, you are going to have an AR15 swinging in the wind, clanking on everything from cars to concrete walls, knees and occasionally the family jewels. Single points do not work well when crawling over walls, cuffing suspects or treating the wounded.
When it comes time to climb or transition to your pistol, the two point quickly adjusts to allow for these events. Having the AR15 secured to your chest or back makes these tasks a breeze. I do prefer to have the sling rubber-banded to the AR15 when carried in a case or vehicle, which allows for easy access without getting tangled in the sling or catching it on shifters or emergency-brake levers.
How many rounds are in your magazines? Where are your go-to magazines?
I am tired of the "28 versus 30 rounds in the magazine" debate, but until you figure it out for yourself, the debate will continue. I have been in situations when an extra two rounds mattered, so I have a soft spot in my heart for 30-rounders topped off to the brim.
I am a fan of 30, not 31 rounds in the magazine. Thirty-one rounds will cause issues with seating the magazine, even though some magazines allow 31 to easily be loaded into the magazine. With the exception of a few new GI magazines, most out there will have the last round on the top right when loaded with 30. This is the important fact to remember: I use the movement of the top round from the right to the left as an indicator for a correctly loaded AR15.
If you load 28, that's fine; just don't come running to me when you run out of ammo.
I store one magazine in the AR15, and the others are ready to go in a chest rig, on my belt or on my vest. If I have one magazine pouch, it will be located on my left hip, just behind my pistol magazine pouches, and it is what I affectionately refer to as the "Happy Mag." The only difference is that when I wear a vest, the pistol pouches move to my vest, whereas the Happy Mag stays on my hip.
Can you recommend an ammo type/barrel twist?
I would prefer to use the same ammo for both missions and training sessions, but since I am no longer an employee of Uncle Sugar, I've had to lower my standards a little. For duty or mission ammunition, my choice would be Hornady 70-grain GMX Barrier fodder. It performs well through auto glass, sheetmetal and wood; it just excels.
If 70-grainers happen to be scarce, the runner-up would be the 55-grain GMX. Hornady makes them in 50, 55 and 70. I would only choose the 50 as a last resort; heavier is better as far as I am concerned, especially when dealing with barriers. Black Hills Ammunition also loads a 70-grain Barnes Triple-Shock in 5.56, but it's not available to us mere mortals. It also offers a 55- and a 62-grain loading with the Barnes TSX bullet, which work nicely.
For training, I use what I can get: nasty, 55-grain, bulk-loaded ammo or even a few steel-case loads if I have to. I also utilize frangible ammunition for shooting steel during close-range training sessions.
Since I have selected weights in the 70-grain neighborhood, twist rate plays a role in success. If you use a 1:9-inch-twist barrel, you may have stability issues with loadings heavier than 65 grains.
For practice, I sometimes shoot 75- and 77-grain loadings, so a quicker twist rate is paramount. Standard Mil-Spec barrels can be had in 1:7 twist, and they will get the work done.
If I have a go-to twist rate for my barrels, it would be 1:8, as they have been the best performers so far and split the difference between the 1:7 and 1:9.
What's your preferred type of muzzle device for general purposes?
There is a difference between a muzzlebrake and a flash-hider. If you use a muzzlebrake, you're going to have excessive flash. The only way to reduce the flash is by adding a sound suppressor to the brake. I prefer flash-hiders.
This doesn't mean I don't have AR15 rifles with obnoxiously loud and brightly flashing brakes, but my go-to muzzle device is a flash-hider. My favorites are the SureFire 212A, which accepts the attachment of SureFire's sound suppressor; the YHM Phantom or a standard A2 birdcage.
Well, you asked for it. This is my go-to list for the AR15 rifle. What really matters is that you have your AR15 set up to your liking. I have tried many things and do deviate slightly, but I generally stay pretty close to the setup I have described in this column.
At the end of the day, if you bring the horse to the track, you have to ride it. Be sure you don't bring a nag.