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.

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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)

  • Glen Zediker

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    Folks, I’m just today figuring out how to log in and address comments and add to the articles. First, everyone is right that there are a lot of options in side charge uppers. I have Sanders also and it’s really good. I have also in the past had them modded by builders. It isn’t that tough. DPMS did one years ago that was a sort of H&K knock off. Non-reciprocating. Also kludgy! Did not like it. Worked from the left side. Overall I really like these uppers. The caution about loosening is really easily settled if you just give a tug on tightening it every now and again. Threadlocker and etc. depends on how often you break it down for a cleaning.

    Reply

  • Rick

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    Spartan makes a side charging upper as well.

    Reply

  • Kato

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    I too like the idea of a side-charging upper, but I’m not fond of most designs with the charging handle affixed to the bolt carrier. A couple years ago at the SHOT Show’s Industry Day at the Range, I ran across Adcor Defense’s booth and took a look at its gas-piston rifle. One of the best things about this very well-conceived design (IMHO) is that it features a side-charging handle that’s non-reciprocating AND can be switched from left to right side of the upper (though this requires tools)! In addition, it retains the standard charging handle, plus the barrel is free-floated. After a friend bought an upper, I used it in a match and was very satisfied with all aspects.

    Reply

  • noncompliant

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    I have an add on side charger from Devil Dog Concepts. It is an easy bolt on or off nonreciprocating charger which also comes with a charging handle so you can use either. It is pretty slick IMHO. The company is Vet owned and has some cool products, so check them out.

    Reply

  • Jim in Conroe

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    If the only modifications to a stock upper receiver and BCG are to machine out a slot for the bolt handle to cycle and tap the BCG to install the handle, why not go this route, rather than buy purpose built side charging components?

    It seems to me that a reasonably competent machine shop could make these mods quite easily.

    Reply

  • Donald

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    What about putting the side-charging handle on the left side? As a right-handed shooter I would prefer that.

    Reply

  • Smitty

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    I didn’t see any mention of Blue Loctite in your article. It has kept many an old shovelhead Harley parts in place for years with much success. Might want to try a field test. No you don’t have to use heat to remove the part when the need arises.

    Reply

  • BRUCE M

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    Has no one mentioned LANTAC E-BCG?
    Also their purpose built side handle receiver.
    Shop around they do not stay in stock long.
    Remove/block the gas system and enjoy your “bolt action”.

    Reply

  • Sam Murch

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    I have a side charger on my AR because the charging handle obstructs my optics. Also it is easier on my hand.

    Reply

  • Doug S

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    A novel concept – not! Think about the AR18/180 , which also used a reciprocating side charge handle. A later design from the same source – Eugene Stoner.

    Reply

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