Why optics, lights, and slings are non-negotiable for your AR-15.
After buying your AR-15 with a clear purpose in mind—whether for home defense, general range use, or a combination of uses—the next crucial step is prioritizing your accessory list. For the first-time owner, the options can be overwhelming; however, focusing on a few essentials is key to enhancing your rifle’s functionality.
Vortex® Product Marketing Manager and tactical expert, Liam Ward, streamlines this selection process by highlighting the three foundational components: optics, lights, and slings. Ranked below in order of importance, these aren't just upgrades; they're the basic building blocks for all-around tactical proficiency, vital for any scenario you might encounter.
When he's not shooting wild hogs from helicopters, testing new products, or running drills at the range, Liam Ward serves as Vortex's Product Manager of Tactical Optics.
1. SIGHT AND SECURE: THE CRITICAL COMBO FOR VERSATILE ACCURACY
"A rifle without a sighting system is just a metal stick."
You cannot shoot something you cannot aim at, which makes a sighting system your top priority. For a general-purpose AR setup to cover everything from home defense, general range, or run-and-gun scenarios, a quality 1-6x low-power variable optic (LPVO) is hard to beat.
TOP PICKS (optics): Venom® 1-6x24mm
ESSENTIAL FACTORS: A super underrated, yet critical part of your sighting system is the mount. The mount pairs one precision instrument (the rifle) with another (the optic). Invest in a quality cantilever mount for reliable, repeatable accuracy. And make sure it’s mounted properly with all the screws torqued to spec. A torque wrench makes this process a breeze. Grab yours here.
TOP PICKS (mount): Sport Cantilever 30mm Mount
PEAK PERFORMANCE: Together with a quality mount, a good LPVO with an illuminated reticle like the Venom® 1-6x24 is extremely versatile. As a sighting system, it’s a little heavier than a red dot and takes up more space on your rail, but the first-timer will get more out of it. More capability. More versatility at close-range and more magnification for medium-range shots.
2. ILLUMINATE YOUR AIM: THE ESSENTIAL LIGHT-MOUNT DUO
"Being able to positively ID a target in any lighting scenario is key to determine friend or foe."
You cannot shoot at something you cannot see. In a home or self-defense situation, a tactical light illuminates potential threats, ensuring positive target identification in low-light conditions. It's an indispensable tool that enhances both accuracy and safety, providing clarity when it's needed most.
TOP PICKS (optics): Streamlight (ProTac), Modlite Systems (RED), Cloud Defense (REIN) , Surefire (M600DF Scout)
ESSENTIAL FACTORS: Dual-fuel lights—compatible with both CR123 batteries and 18650 rechargeable batteries—offer the most reliability and flexibility, ensuring that your light is always ready when you are. As with your optic, don’t skimp on the quality of your light’s mount if it doesn’t come with one. This duo works together to ensure your light stays fixed, precisely where you need it.
TOP PICKS (mount): Haley Strategic® Thorntail XT, Cloud Defense Torrent Mount, Arisaka
PEAK PERFORMANCE: An effective AR light hinges on balancing lumens and candela, not just high lumens alone. Lumens denote brightness, but candela indicates “throw” or how far the light travels and its focus, essential for distant target identification. In tactical use, candela's precision in highlighting targets ensures accuracy and, in home defense scenarios, safety with every shot.
3. SECURE THE SHOT: MASTERING THE TWO-POINT SLING
"Why wouldn’t you want a way to secure your firearm to your person?"
When talking about slings, the options might seem varied, with one-point and two-point designs, alongside convertible models. However, for tactical shooting scenarios involving an all-purpose AR, a two-point sling stands out.
THINGS TO CONSIDER: A two-point sling, offering dual points of contact with the gun, ensures that even if one point fails, the gun remains tethered. This setup is not only more secure but also more comfortable, easily adjustable to fit various body types and gear.
WHAT IT DOES BEST. Two-point slings are the best at securing the gun close to your body—a fundamental purpose of any sling—while also allowing you to go hands-free and still ready without the need to constantly grip your firearm. They’re ideal for quick transitions and steady shooting, while also providing control and stability when shooting on the move in dynamic tactical environments.
TOP PICKS: Ferro Concepts (The Slingster), Flatliner Fiber Co., Blue Force Gear
THE LONG HAUL: BUDGETING BEYOND THE RIFLE
"Buying your first AR is exciting but setting it up truly makes it yours."
As you embark on your tactical journey, recognize that the cost of essential components that enhance and grow with your skills will likely total at least half the price of the rifle itself. This mindset is crucial for any serious enthusiast looking to fully equip their AR for the long haul.
Buy once, cry once when shopping for quality components. Remember that skimping on gear often leads to additional expense as you find yourself having to replace or upgrade prematurely. Remember, investing in a quality AR is just the beginning. The real value comes from understanding that you're acquiring a comprehensive system and building that rifle out to meet your specific needs.
Want to learn more? Check out these helpful videos and blog posts to shorten the carbine learning curve:
Vortex Nation™ Podcast | Ep. 226 | AR-15's - Build vs Buy and In-Between
Vortex Nation™ Podcast | Real Life Defensive Training - The Fighting Carbine
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