Tactical AR-15/M4/M4A1 Carbine Aftermarket Accessories for Military Combat Applications: The Competition-to-Combat Crossover, Part 1

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By Jeff Gurwitch

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July 4, 2012

Previously here on DefenseReview (DR), I wrote a piece titled Military Marksmanship Training Versus Competitive Shooting Training: The Match Up (January 2011). Towards the end, I mentioned the developments derived from both the military and civilian competition in regards to accessories for the AR/M4 platform. For this article, I would like to go into further detail on that subject. Even with all the various optics and accessories offered under the Special Operations Peculiar Modification (SOPMOD) program for the rifle, soldiers are opting to outfit their rifles with certain items. They’re seeing what the top shooting competitors are using to win competitive shooting events like 3-Gun, and what is working for the majority of shooters, and they recognize what wins in a match can also help them win on the battlefield.

Before I cover accessories, I think I should bring up one popular concept in regards to rifle setup, and that is the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. In its strictest interpretation, this means avoiding optics and electronics that could fail during use. I think I should address the “KISS” rifle concept because, despite its popularity with some civilian tactical/defensive shooters (see the numerous threads on AR15.com and m4carbine.net discussing “KISS” rifles), most soldiers are choosing rifles set up with anything that can help them consistently engage targets better and faster. In fact, today there is little difference between a soldier’s tactical rifle and an Open-class 3-Gun competition setup.

Far from KISS; Schmidt & Bender Short Dot tactical scope, extended rail, aftermarket stock and grip, take off the LA-5 laser and you could easily see this exact same set-up at any local 3-gun match, instead this is currently downrange being employed by a U.S. Infantry Soldier.

KISS Rifle: My Interpretation

While it’s true that plain old iron sights have carried us through a couple of world wars and numerous major conflicts, simpler is not always better, in my view. I would not want to limit my capabilities in terms of optics based solely on a fear of them failing. If using an electronic sight gives you the ability to shoot farther or faster, why not use it? For example, with iron sights I can hit a man-size target out to about 350 meters fairly consistently. But, using a red dot scope with a 2-MOA dot, I can hit 12-inch plates out to about 450 meters (450m). Thus, when going into harm’s way, I want to take advantage of any piece of kit that can aid me in staying alive by eliminating threats more quickly and consistently.

I don’t think the KISS principle is a bad idea. I just think it’s misdirected in its application. It should be applied not to the gear on your rifle but to your skill base. Instead of limiting yourself on what accessories you use for fear of failure, you should instead take advantage of the modern sighting systems while maintaining your proficiency with the basics.

This means I will use any piece of kit that gives me an advantage, but I will also train to shoot without all the fancy stuff in case Murphy’s Law goes into effect. All my tactical rifles have back-up iron sights (BUIS) on them. For my setups, I like to have a fixed front sight post and a fold down rear sight. I know a lot of shooters and instructors run with their back up iron sights up all the time so they can instantly transition if their optic fails. I prefer to run with my rear sight down, keeping it out of my peripheral vision while I look through my sight.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “What if your red dot goes down in the middle of an engagement and your back up sight is folded down?” To prepare for that eventuality, I practice with the red dot sight turned off. I use the method of looking through the tube of the red dot, shooting off the front sight. I am basically using the housing and lens of the red dot itself as my rear sight aperture and aligning it with my front sight. Using this technique, with practice, I can still engage targets out to a pretty good distance and at CQB/CQC (Close Quarters Battle/Close Quarters Combat) ranges. While I may not be able to shoot 1-inch groups, I can get center shots on targets almost as fast as I can with the dot turned on. The bottom line is that I’m not dependent on a fancy scope. I train to use just iron sights, and for the worst case scenario with no rear sight up at all, looking through a dead optic if I need too.

Reasons for Upgrading the M4/M4A1 Carbine

Awhile back during a deployment, a fellow soldier, after seeing my M4A1 rigged up with all the accessories I consider normal for me (Arredondo extended mag well, left-handed mag release, extended bolt release and some other items), made the comment “I don’t see why you need all that fancy stuff. The basics work just fine.” While the M4/M4A1 does work well in its standard issue form–and again through the SOPMOD program there are some really good accessories and optics offered,–I still see the need to make up for shortcomings I find with some standard items.

The issue M4/M4A1 stock is, in my opinion, pretty substandard and suffers from a few issues. First, it’s pretty fragile in terms of taking abuse. “Mortaring the rifle,” as David Crane calls it [Editor’s Note: This term and jam-clearing technique were both learned from tactical instructor and DR writer Mike Pannone at a CTT-Solutions (CTT-S) tactical rifle/carbine course], is one of the best ways to clear a stuck round in the chamber when you can’t get the bolt back. It involves pulling back on the charging handle and simultaneously banging the butt stock on the ground, letting the force help pull the bolt back. It’s a great technique; unfortunately if you do it too hard or bang the bottom edge of the butt plate on the ground and not square on the plate, the issue stock tends to break pretty easily. Even with good technique, I have seen numerous broken stocks that have the bottom half of the butt plates broken off from mortaring them to clear jams.

Another limitation, and probably the biggest reason you see a lot of aftermarket stocks being used, is the standard issue stock adds no extra cheek weld from the buffer tube. Stocks with a larger surface area for your cheek aid in getting faster and more consistent cheek-to-stock placement. Being able to mount the rifle faster means faster first shots on target. Having solid cheek/stock placement can also aid in multi-shot strings as you can settle the gun faster between shots.

Although the Crane NSWC/Lewis Machine & Tool (LMT Defense) SOPMOD stock (which I think is still one of the best stocks out there) is issued as part of the SOPMOD kit, it is limited to Special Ops troops as a standard issue item. In some cases, units that are supposed to have them do not, due to supply limitations.

The military still issues the Knights Armament Co. (KAC) vertical foregrip, which has always had the issue of coming loose, as it lacks a good locking mechanism. The newest-issue vertical foregrip is from TangoDown. The TangoDown BattleGrip Vertical Grip (standard length) is a rock-solid grip and an improvement over the Knights Armament version. However, like the LMT Defense SOPMOD/Crane NSWC stock, it’s not in full circulation with all soldiers. Plus, I find it a little too long for my taste. I don’t need something that long sticking off my rail. [Editor's Note: TangoDown also makes a BattleGrip Stubby Vertical Grip that's shorter, as well as the new TangoDown BattleGrip Quick-Detach Vertical Grip models.]

Below from basic to all out; top rifle minimum upgrades Magpul STR stock, XTM rail panels and a Surefire G2X in a VTAC offset mount. Bottom rifle everything minus the Crane Stock and receiver has been switched out to fit the user’s preference. (Ergo grip, Troy rail, Magpul AFG and Surefire Scout light on a 10.5 barrel).

Top Accessories/Upgrades

Magpul Industries has turned out to be one of the top brands when soldiers choose accessories. The two most popular upgrades to the M4/M4A1 Carbine are stocks and foregrips. A stock with a proper length of pull and a good cheek weld, combined with a foregrip that facilitates a straight pull back on the rifle, can improve your shot cadence and help your accuracy.

Telescoping/Collapsible Buttstocks

One big reason I think MagPul stocks do well with soldiers is because of price. Their Adaptable Carbine Storage (ACS) model, which is considered one of their higher end stocks at $109.95, is still almost half the price of an LMT SOPMOD/Crane NSWC stock at $199. The most prevalent MagPul models I have seen in use are the MOE, CTR, and ACS. All have increased cheek weld surface area, rubber butt pads, and multiple sling attachment methods. The MOE seems especially popular, even though the cheek weld area is only slightly larger than the issue stock, but at $59.95 the price cannot be beat. Fore grip and pistol grip: The MagPul Angled Fore Grip (AFG) seems to be a top choice among soldiers. The popularity of the C-clamp method of shooting (non-firing hand thumb on top of the rail, palm on the side rail, fingers form a C around the rail) is on the rise, and the Magpul AFG facilitates a C-clamp grip. Ergo Grips, Hogues, and the Magpul MIAD Grip Kit seem to be among the most popular pistol grips. I have not seen any one brand or model stand out more than another. All offer a much more ergonomic and fuller grip on the AR than the current issue A2 grip. I think most shooters find the A2 grip allows your hand to ride up on the receiver. Just about every other aftermarket commercial grip out there does a better job at keeping your firing hand straight behind the trigger, facilitating a more consistent trigger pull.

As you can see from the photo these 3 rifles have a lot in common, besides the SOPMOD issue items the users have all chosen to upgrade certain parts of the rifles to fit them better (stock, grip or fore grip). Here is also a perfect example to show how popular Magpul items are with the troops. Each rifle has at least one Magpul item on them and two have P-mags. Also check out the Noveske KX3 flash hider (middle rifle). .

Innovation from the competition world; Dual optics have been in use with the military for some time now, as you can see in some of the previous photos ACOGs and Elcan Specter DRs are issued with Doctor sights on top. What has been slowly catching now as a direct result from their effectiveness with the 3-gun crowd are offset mounts. Problem with the Doctor sight mounted on top of another optic is the hold off is too much. Even with a 25 meter POA/POI zero you are still looking at as much a 4 inch hold off at room distance. With the offset mount it’s less than 2 inches. Plus I find it faster and smoother to roll the gun in my shoulder to pick up the offset sight. I have been using Matt Burkett’s 45 degree offset mount with a Doctor sight for 2 tours now and on 2 different rifles; M4A1 and a SCAR light.

One other item that is pretty popular is the Grip Pod vertical foregrip/bipod/weapon stabilizer by Grip Pod Systems International (GPS), which consists of a spring-loaded bipod enclosed in a forward grip. It has two advantages over the conventional style metal bipod; the Grip Pod is much lighter. Being both a forward grip and bipod, it saves space on your rifle for other items. And, since the legs collapse into the grip, you don’t have to worry about them catching on stuff when not in use. Personally, I find the Grip Pod vertical grip a little too long for my taste. I find that it sits up too high when using it in bipod mode in the prone position, . I therefore have a difficult time trying to get into a comfortable position behind the rifle.

M4A1 equipped with Grip Pod

Tactical Weapon Lights

SureFire is the most prevalent brand in use over the current issue SOPMOD light (the L3 Warrior Systems/Insight Technology M3X/SU-33/PVS). The M3X is a pretty basic light with only one brightness setting and a momentary switch. It’s also not that bright compared to many other lights on the market. Bulb life is also relatively short, about a year if you do a lot of shooting.

The Surefire Scout Weaponlight is pretty popular along with the new SureFire G2X and SureFire 6P series, both used in conjunction with a Viking Tactics (VTAC) offset light mount. One light that I am pleased to see making headway with the troops is the Inforce WML. I have reviewed this light in the past for DR (published on 12/16/2011). The WML incorporates a new innovative 45-degree activation push button that allows you to go from constant-on to momentary-on and strobe. With a flip of an easy-to-reach toggle lever, you can go from white light to IR (infrared). With all those features and a price around $180.00 (I have seen it online as low as $150.00) the WML makes for a great compact weapon light.


Even with the adoption of the improved 30 round GI magazine, commercially made magazines are pretty popular items. The reason for this is the perceived poor performance of standard issue military magazines. Personally, I have never had an issue with GI mags, even the older style with the green follower. I have several of the green follower mags that are at least 5-6 years old that I have used on multiple deployments. The issue is not the quality of the magazine, but rather how they are handled. Instead of treating the magazine as an expendable item, soldiers in some units have to sign for them, and losing a magazine is looked down upon. This leads to the same batch of magazines floating around in a unit for a number of years, going from soldier to soldier.

So it’s no wonder a soldier might have no confidence in a standard issue magazine when the ones he has could be well worn out from overuse. To this day some do not understand that double feeds come from bad magazines, which compounds the issue. Time and again I have seen double feeds occur on the range, and instead of throwing the magazine away or marking it "bad", it just gets reloaded and used again.

Prior to any deployment, I load up all my magazines I plan on using and shoot them at least one time to ensure there are no bad ones. If I do come across a bad magazine, before I throw it away, I will step on it, crushing it just to make sure it does not get picked up and used by someone else.

The top choice among soldiers for commercial magazines is the Magpul PMAG 30 M3 (also written P-MAG 30 M3). In fact, they are so popular I have seen at least one out of every three soldiers with a PMAG in their rifle as opposed to any other magazine. Personally I prefer the Lancer L5 Advanced War Fighter Magazine (AWM). I give the edge to Lancers solely for the reason that it is possible to accidentally load 31 rounds into a PMAG. That will result in the inability to seat the magazine in a rifle with the bolt forward on a tactical reload. This is not to say I do not use PMAGs at all. Currently my basic load consists of Lancer mags and Magpul PMAGS and EMAGs.

Left to right; Lancer L5 Advanced War Fighter Magazine (AWM), Magpul EMAG and Magpul PMAG. On the far right; standard issue magazine with issued Magpul follower, Center standard USGI mag Green follower and the new Improved USGI magazine with Tan follower. One thing to be aware of, because the Improved magazine follower has the bullet push on the left when loaded with 30rds the top round sits on the left (Opposite of most other magazines).

One Item You Don’t See…

Despite its popularity with the 3-Gun crowd and shooters stateside, you won’t find compensators in wide spread use on tactical rifles. Even though compensators do an excellent job canceling out muzzle rise to facilitate faster strings of fire, the increased muzzle blast and noise associated with them makes compensators impractical for tactical use. Imagine having a buddy with a comp shooting his rifle right next to you and all the excess gas being vented off right into your face.

I have tried a lot of the “tactical” comps offered, and although they do a great job minimizing the excess gas, they are still much louder than flash hiders. As a soldier you won’t always have the luxury of shooting with hearing protection on. The last thing you want if you end up shooting in super-close confinement (such as a vehicle) is a very loud rifle.

The Wrap Up

Thanks to competitive shooting sports like 3-Gun, vendors are now offering more shooting accessories of all types than ever before. Today’s gunfighters are benefiting from the same accessories that have proven successful to both top shooters and the everyday competitor. This vetting of gear through shooting matches is helping highlight some of the best and most durable gear out there that is in turn being used to get an extra edge on the battlefield.

Author's current set-up; because I’m a lefty I like to add ambi controls: Norgon ambi-mag release, DPMS dual selector lever (military full auto version), Redi-Mag extended bolt latch. Additionally Arredondo extended magazine well, Magpul ACS stock, Samson field survivor grip tool (in the pistol grip), Midwest Industries single point sling mount, Blackhawk Gladius flashlight (for the strobing capability) and Burkett offset mount w/Doctor sight.

About the Author (Jeff Gurwitch):
– Currently serving with U.S. Army Special Forces
– Competitive shooter: USPSA, IDPA, and 3-Gun.

© Copyright 2012 DefenseReview.com and Jeff Gurwitch. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without receiving permission and providing proper credit and appropriate links.

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About David Crane

David Crane started publishing online in 2001. Since that time, governments, military organizations, Special Operators (i.e. professional trigger pullers), agencies, and civilian tactical shooters the world over have come to depend on Defense Review as the authoritative source of news and information on "the latest and greatest" in the field of military defense and tactical technology and hardware, including tactical firearms, ammunition, equipment, gear, and training.

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