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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.