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AR-15 Upgrades: Stock, Hand Guard, and Vertical Grip

By Erik Rodriguez

Tags: free floating rail, heat sheilds, hand guard, vertical grip, ACS stock, AR-15 stock replacement, magpul stock

This article provides information about common upgrades for the AR-15. Detailed links to more specific information is included for some of the listed options. You can find other links for the AR-15 by clicking here.


I am not a gunsmith, expert, or anything close. I am sure there are many people with more expertise than I, but here is what I know about the AR-15. I also have some content posted about the GSG-5. I welcome all comments and please correct me if anything I have here is not accurate.


The following sections explain different upgrades associated with the AR-15 platform. Some of these are very simple "drop-in" upgrades. Others are fairly complex and require some time and knowledge of the weapon. Be careful when disassembling your weapon. ALWAYS MAKE SURE THE WEAPON IS ULOADED. I caught myself with a live round in the chamber because I picked up a loaded magazine that was sitting next to a stack of unloaded ones. YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO SAFE!


One of the most common upgrades with the AR-15 is the stock. There are many different stocks available and they range from cheap to very expensive. Each stock fits over the "buffer tube" which can come as a commercial or mil-spec version.

Commercial vs. mil-spec

While the difference is very slight (something like 1/100th of an inch), you cannot use a commercial grade stock on mil-spec buffer tube and vice versa. I am not going to get into the differences, but if you plan on doing the upgrade make sure you find out which buffer tube your rifle has. Do not assume since you bought your rifle at a civilian gun store that it is the commercial buffer tube. I bought the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 which has a mil-spec buffer tube. Check around online and you should be able to find your answer. Magpul sells many different stocks in both commercial and mil-spec so you don't want to get the wrong one.

Some stocks are lighter than others, and some come with compartments, larger cheek swells, and other things that can be useful. Below are some of the most popular ones:


There are many different options when it comes to the hand guard. I hated the standard bone-stock hand guard because it made the gun look like an old M-16. There are many drop-in replacements, and there are also ones that are 2 and 4 piece "floating rail" systems. The floating rail systems do not touch the barrel or gas tube and are meant for adding accessories, weight (for recoil management) and in some cases improve accuracy. They usually attach or bolt more securely than snap-in hand guards which result in less "play" when shooting.

Drop in guards from Magpul are very cheap and easy to install. I did mine in less than 5 minutes. The free floating rails may require you to remove or change the barrel nut, use a pined gas tube block, and or remove your front iron sights. They are also significantly cheaper. Magpul MOEs cost around $30 vs. $150+ for a quality free-floating rail. You are also talking about metal vs. plastic, and the free floating rails usually screw in the lower receiver and will have no "play" in them. The plastic drop in hand guards basically clamp around the barrel and wobble a little which we call play. Both types of hand guards can be fitted with rail accessories.

Vertical grip

There is some debate of the use of vertical grips (sometimes called broomsticks) by experts, but I think they make a great addition. These are usually cheap, and come in my forms. Some as short, long, include flash lights, fold up, have bi-pods, store batteries. You name it. I don't actually grip my vertical, but use it as a reference point so that I know I am holding the hand guard in the same place each time.

More AR-15 related content:

Ammunition: .223 vs. 5.56
AR-15 Upgrades: Choosing an optic
AR-15 Upgrades: Stock, Hand Guard, and Vertical Grip
AR-15 Upgrades: Uppers and Bolt Carrier Groups (BCG)
AR-15 Upgrades: Sights, Ejector Door, and Pins
AR-15 Upgrades: Triggers, Breaks, Supressors, Sling Adapter

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