“I got my new rifle! What upgrade should I do to it first?”
This is a question I get asked frequently, both by friends and from students who take my classes. Some may think this is a difficult question to answer while others may think the answer is plainly obvious. Before I explain my answer, let me first break this down a little.
To me, there are three (3) main categories that accessories/modifications for rifles fall into: Accuracy, Efficiency, and Functionality. Most people tend to focus on the first two categories (Accuracy and Efficiency) more than they do on the last (Functionality). Typical first upgrades to rifles often include different furniture, an upgraded sighting system, triggers, stabilization accessories (bipods, bags, etc.), and the list goes on. However, if you ask someone what accessory they would recommend to a new handgun owner, most people will list a holster near the top. Interesting that we take a different approach on rifles than we do on handguns. In my opinion, if something is not functional it doesn’t matter how efficient or accurate it can be.
Let’s quickly define these categories. Accuracy is the most easily defined, as that would be the ability to hit a target of a smaller size, at a further distance, or both. I would put items like red dot sights, scopes, triggers, barrels, and match-grade ammunition in this category. Efficiency is defined as the least amount of inputs to achieve the highest amount of output, such as in economy of motion. Items I would put in this category include larger-capacity magazines, extended components (safety lever, bolt release, etc.), components with better ergonomics (pistol grips, hand guards, etc.), and lighter-weight components. Finally, functionality would be defined as something that is in good working order, generally reliable, and not causing undue wear to parts during normal use. Things I would put in this category are items like BCG’s, buffer system components, springs, gas system components, etc. I suppose there is a 4th category that I’ve left out, Aesthetics. I’m sorry to say, but a lower receiver in the shape of a skull does nothing beneficial for the firearm in any way, nor does that battle-worn cerakote job. It just “looks cool” (to you).
Most accessory/modification components can overlap categories. For instance, a lightweight barrel with a slightly faster twist rate from a quality manufacturer can be viewed as both an Accuracy and Efficiency category item. However, some items are one-trick ponies. An example of this would be a gas tube. It won’t increase accuracy or efficiency but will help to promote the functionality of the firearm. Personally, I try to streamline modifications to my firearms that lead to multiple category benefits. Suppressors are an example of this. Not only do they help you be a good neighbor to your fellow shooter, but they can actually help with the accuracy and functionality of a firearm.
Let’s get down to brass tax, then. What do I recommend for your first upgrade/modification to your rifle? Simply put, a SLING. More specifically, a two-point sling. A sling to a rifle is what a holster is to a handgun. If you’ve ever taken a rifle class (of any level) without a sling you know just how heavy 8 pounds can feel after holding it for an hour. You also know how loudly your body screams at you for the next few days while it recovers from such an activity. A sling allows you to not only a chance to rest, but to perform other functions while still maintaining possession of your rifle. If you’re hunting, it means you can walk to your favorite spot and use both hands to keep the spider’s webs and branches out of your eyes. If you’re on a tactical mission, it means you can transition between platforms (rifle to handgun and back again) as well as perform administrative or medical tasks (opening a door, packing things, treating a casualty).
You’ve already got a sling for your rifle? Great! My next recommendation would be a light. Specifically, a light that will reach out as far as you feel you would realistically use the firearm. Think you might be taking a 300-yard shot on a coyote? Get a light that has amazing throw! Need something for a firearm you plan to use in case there is a bump in the night inside your house? Get something that has plenty of output with a wide beam pattern! Information is crucial, which is why every government in the world as an intelligence-gathering department/agency. Light allows us to see, and our eyes are what we rely on the most for information about our environment. If you’re interested in specific recommendations, understand that there are many factors that go into deciding on what light is best for you, your firearm, and your application of use. To quickly generalize a recommendation, however, I would say don’t go cheap (you generally get what you pay for) and there is no need to feel as though something is “too powerful for this use”. (As a quick side note, I would encourage you to remember that lumens are only a part of the equation. Look for products that also showcase candela and run time for each output level.)
I’ll leave you with this: no rifle is ever really “complete” or done being modified. If I had a dollar every time I’ve said that about any of my firearms, I would be able to easily afford more firearms! Don’t be afraid to move parts around (assuming interchangeability) and see what works. Cannibalize that old thing you’ve got buried in the safe and see if, by doing so, you’re able to bring new life to it or other safe-sharing members of the family!