Why Side-Charge Your AR-15?

By Glen Zediker published on in Gun Gear

Usually thought of as a strictly “custom” component in a top-end precision AR-15 build, here’s a few reasons to consider a side charging handle—and a few reasons to avoid them.

AR-15 with side charge handle

A given benefit to going with a side-charge upper system is that all I know are built-by-billet and include top-grade bolt carrier groups. Don’t know where everyone stands on the importance of all that, but there it is.

This is an AR-15 upper receiver system I’ve long been a fan of, when I can use it. Actually, it is a pretty simple idea: eliminate the need for the standard charging handle. To get rid of the standard t-handle, there’s a hole drilled and tapped into the bolt carrier, into which a threaded bolt knob is added. Next, the upper receiver gets a channel cut to provide rearward travel clearance for the bolt knob shaft.

Simple.

However, there’s not much metal to work with at the point the handle is attached into the bolt carrier body. That means it’s a very short threaded section, and that means it’s not nearly as secure as we’d all like it to be.

So, the overriding negative is the (real) possibility that the handle will loosen in use. If that happens, the handle can then come off, and said handle can fly away. Likewise, said flying handle might hit you on the noggin, which can then hurt said noggin. I’ve never had that happen, and I also habitually put a snug-down on it prior to use.

Side-charge from Fulton Armory

Side-charge from Fulton Armory. A stock item. It’s not for each and every AR-15, but it suits me when I can use one. The little phenolic piece is from Eisenach Arms to fill the gap left open from canning the standard charging handle.

There are also varying takes on how best to attach the handle, and I favor those who favor using something involving a wrench. Some I’ve seen, and used, are hand-tight-only designs, and those I’m not so confident in I’ve not loosed one, but have had them loosen.

The side-charge was born from competitive shooting, and, as suggested earlier, the major impetus for the design was to eliminate the need for the charging handle. Why? One reason is that the handle puts a limit on the height of the buttstock top line. The charging handle has to be free to retract fully. When there’s no restriction on the height of the stock top line, then a better-designed adjustable cheekpiece, or simple elevated cheekpiece, can be installed—in the right location—and the result is a better fit, a better shooting position, higher score. All good. Another topic for another article, but the majority of adjustable AR-15 stocks have the cheekpiece too far back compared to where it really needs to be to get the most benefit from it, and the reason is, yep, to provide charging handle clearance.

As with many, and perhaps most, of the now-standard AR-15 accuracy add ons, the side-charge upper was initially a custom job. Now, it is available, boxed and ready to ship, from several different sources. Even better, they’ve become affordable—some rivaling the price of a routine upper/bolt-carrier-group combination package. Some have also become proprietary in design, meaning there are those that are not modified uppers but engineered and machined from the get go as side-charge.

AR-15 rifle with bipod and side charge handle

If you fire much from prone or a bipod, a side-charge makes life better. It’s easier to operate (only requires the shooting hand) and also allows easy use of an elevated cheekpiece for a better shooting position. The stock is from CSS.

Other advantages to this system include eliminating the functional need for forward assist. There’s debate over the need for that in the first place, but having the bolt knob out there means that either closing or opening a sluggish or stuck bolt is straightforward. That does have some application for a hunter who might want to charge the chamber quietly, and it’s definitely easier to clear a jam.

As a competitive shooter (NRA High Power Rifle), I like the side-charge mostly because it’s just easier to operate. There’s no awkward reaching and shifting the gun to retract the bolt carrier. The handle is right there, at the “front” of the receiver, pretty much the same as virtually all other popular mil-origin designs (including U.S. service rifles up until the AR-15). This design becomes very much appreciated by anyone who fires a lot from a benchrest or prone.

However, again, it’s not for everyone or every need. As suggested, it’s probably not the right thing for a high-fire-volume user: there is the potential that, after enough successive rounds, it could loosen and detach. That, in my experience, would probably be a few hundred rounds, but… I know some big-chassis match rifle shooters who have experienced that; an AR-10 or SR-25 has a honking lot more jarring thread-loosening capacity than an AR-15 (20+ ounce bolt carrier and all). The side-charge knob is also sticking out there on the side of the gun and some may not like that: it could be another snag-grabber. It also has to be removed to take the bolt carrier out for maintenance.

Fulton Armory set on top of a specialty defensive carbine project gun

I put this Fulton Armory set on top of a specialty defensive carbine project gun. Crazy? Yes, on the front end, but it dang sho makes this gun easy to operate and clears out a jam in a heartbeat, two most beneficial attributes on such a device as this.

I can’t see a side-charge finding favor with a serious tactical pro. I could be wrong, though. As said, it’s easy and straightforward to clear a feeding/extraction function problem by simply yanking or banging on the bolt knob. I think the main objection a hard-use operative might have is the overall sturdiness of the setup. No doubt, the knob attachment point isn’t exactly break-proof.

A side-charge can operate in the conventional function routine using the charging handle. That can, if wanted, remain in place as normal. The charging handle, however, doesn’t have to be there at all.

Another potential detractor from the wisdom to choose a side-charge is the same that accompanies virtually any billet-made upper. That detractor can come in the form of limiting accessory choices. Differently designed bolt-stops, and accessory handguard rails. The (deservedly) popular Geissele handguard rails, as an example, only reliably fit a USGI pattern upper.

Do have an AR with a side charge? What do you see as the benefits or disadvantages of a side charge? Share your answers in the comment section.


This article is a specially adapted excerpt from Glen’s brand-new book: America’s Gun: The Practical AR-15. Click here to visit the Zediker Publishing web site.

(link: www.buyzedikerbooks.com)

About

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, and specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s and Handloading. Glen has worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet, as well as leading industry “insiders.” And he does pretty well on his own: Glen is a card-carrying NRA High Master and earned that classification in NRA High Power Rifle using an AR-15 Service Rifle. Visit www.ZedikerPublishing.com and learn more, plus articles for download.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

 

Tags: ,

Trackback from your site.

Glen Zediker

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, and specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s and Handloading. Glen has worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet, as well as leading industry "insiders." And he does pretty well on his own: Glen is a card-carrying NRA High Master and earned that classification in NRA High Power Rifle using an AR-15 Service Rifle. Visit http://www.ZedikerPublishing.com and learn more, plus articles for download.
The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (23)

  • Dr.Hess

    |

    I have one I built in 300 BO, just to build something different. The handle coming loose is an issue. I’m thinking of maybe a dab of blue loctite to help with that. Another disadvantage is needing a tool to take the weapon down. And if you run a brass catcher, you have to move it out of the way to charge.

    Reply

  • Mike P

    |

    I built a Sanders Armory side charger a couple of years ago and love it. Great to shoot off the bench and from prone.

    Reply

  • Robert Gleason

    |

    Don’t leave the the charging handle at home after you clean your rifle lol. I did this ONCE!
    The other plus that was kinda touched on is running a can. There is no blow back gas in your face like with a traditional charging handle.
    I’ve seen guys do all kinds of crazy stuff like using RV sealant. A side charger is much better.

    Reply

  • Karl

    |

    As a southpaw,I’d be really concerned about brass hitting me in the face.The pre-deflector knobbed AR did that.
    I don’t kn ow if there are any port side ejecting ARs these days?

    Reply

    • HW Stone

      |

      Use Bing or Google and search for

      Standard Mfg AR-15 Model B Left-hand 5.56/223

      A friend just got one and a lot of sellers have them available.

      Reply

  • Matt

    |

    In my opinion, a much better option is the side charging upper from Gibbz Arms. It puts the charging handle on the left side and it’s non-reciprocating so you don’t have to worry about it working loose. Also the back of the upper where the normal charging handle would be has a cover to keep gases away from your face.

    Reply

    • Jon

      |

      Gibbz are amazing. I have been running them for years. Great for my suppressed 458 Socom SBR.

      Reply

  • Billy M Rhodes

    |

    This charging handle will also reciprocate and the shooter will have to be aware of that.

    Reply

  • TomC

    |

    As the author points out, a side charging handle is attached to the BCG by a relatively short thin set of threads which present a number of potential mechanical issues.

    I would agree with the author that a side charging handle is a great idea on a range competition rifle – for all the reasons pointed out in the article.

    At the same time I have to say that the disadvantages of a reciprocating charging handle far outweigh the possible benefits on a military weapon.

    Now if someone would just figure out a way to put a really secure non-reciprocating side charger on an AR, then we might have the best of both worlds.

    Reply

    • MEDIC

      |

      As an above commenter has mentioned, check out Gibbz Arms. I’m waiting for the coin to build one based on that matched receiver set.

      Reply

  • Secundius

    |

    Looks like a Easy Fix to an Old Problem doesn’t come Cheap! Upwards of $864.99 in some cases…

    Reply

  • Joe D.

    |

    Thank you for this article. I have a CrossHill XSR-15 upper on a Spartan billet lower. It is high quality, but, unfortunately, CrossHill went out of business a few years ago. I was concerned about how many other companies would make parts, in particular the BCGs for these types of upper receivers. This article takes away a lot of that concern.

    I love my side-charger. It’s on a high-end match grade build and I did so for the exact reasons you state in your article. The only negative is you cannot (or should not) suppress an ambidextrous side-charging AR. Mine is ambidextrous and I have the charging handle on the left side. This means both the left and right sides have openings, so hot gas blows out both and right into your face no matter if you are a right handed or left handed shooter. Other than this one drawback, I see no other deficiencies in design.

    I’ve never once experienced loosening of the charging handle. I attach it with a wrench and a small dab of Rocksett. Rocksett isn’t the strongest fastener cement, but it is heat resistant, so it works great and doesn’t prevent intentional removal of the charging handle as needed.

    Reply

  • HW Stone

    |

    Pro– you can look at the handle and see it and the position it holds.

    Con– weakened upper, poor dirt and debris resistance

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

%d bloggers like this: