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.
BCA 2nd gen side charging upper has solved the handle coming loose issue
since my 1st ar build 6 years ago, I have only used side charging uppers without any issues.
simple straight forward design and dependable every time. they are most helpful on rifles since you dont have to reach under scope to charge like on a rear charger.
Been a collector 30+yrs and a sport, competition and recreational shooter for 40+yrs. I own for AR’s alone about 12+ half are SBR lowered, different calibers and lengths so about 20 uppers a few are side charging. All are from Colt, Hk, LWRC and Sig. The one thing I always hated was the T handle and everyone I knew in the military or other countries during co-training a great majority hated it as well. Fact is the T handle is the most universally hated thing about the AR.
I own AK’s SCAR’s, ACR’s, Tavor’s, X95’s, Bren 1-2, AUG’s, G3, FAL, PS200, PS90, Sig 553, Sig556 etc etc etc. I also own 2 G36’s or one is new TG36 and the other Tom Bostic converted an SL8 for me back in 09. But even my subguns like my new B&T’s to my older Mp5’s one a preban SD. I only own Rifles, hunting or long range rifles, subguns and handguns in my collection I just have ONE shotgun a KS7 a got this year for kicks as thought it looked cool.
Pardon the rant but as you can see almost NO in the entire industry uses the T handle except hk’s MP7 (training reasons but its why the US are dumping them for B&T’s) and for pete’s sake Sig why? Only newly designed weapons to come with a T handle is SIG’s MCX, MPX and Virtus etc and the one reason I did buy any of those guns.
Though I would by the Mp7 if it was 9mm or even .22 but only for collecting purposes. For the guns I like I buy 1-3 or 1 to shoot the others to keep mint, sell or trade etc. EG Gun collector no different than Art. I love piston AR’s (only own DI upper) and love my side chargers there’s reason why 99% of weapons don’t use a T handle. Even Stoner liked the top charger of the AR18 better and why his or no one else (except SIG USA) has ever bothered using the T handle since the AR.
Pardon the rant but yeah I hate the T handle and would convert all my AR uppers to side chargers even my AK’s many have a left side charging.
DARNIT. I JUST spent the entire day sifting through vendors and order all the parts needed to assemble a 458 and NEVER considered UNTIL coming across his article, about having to remove the bolt handle in order to removing the bolt.
I don’t like that. Don’t like it at ALL. DARNIT.
I was so focused on ordering the correct parts for the build that this concept completely went over my head. DARNIT.
I even kept going back and looking at the Gibbz Arms uppers but then getting drawn back to the Bear Creek upper because they had the 16″ mid-length gas barrel, and every part I needed to complete the upper for $300+.
Fer’ cripes sakes already, I spent $490 (which is still relatively cheap for what it is) just on fancy aluminum anodized parts and accessories for the lower, which is 60% more than the entire upper and had I gone with standard, stock OEM 223/556 parts and accessories could have done so for 3/5 less than that even.
Now I haven’t even had the time to think about the stuff I ordered and building it and already I’m feeling buyer’s remorse. SEVERE buyer’s remorse.
DARNIT. I NEVER, EVER listen to my gut instinct and I ALWAYS end up paying for that in the end.
I have bought my 5th BCA side charging this year. A couple for my friends. I own three. They all have issues with the handle coming loose, even using blue Loctite. BCA R&D or their vendor really needs to solve this issue! My son is a tool maker and he is going to do his best to help me/us out in the tooling. The 10-32 thread hex screw is too short for one. The handle fitment is bluntly against the face of the bolt. And I have had two when shipped to my residence the handle has wore through the foam packing and the cardboard , one upper was scarred extremely bad and the hex screw was bent. Contacted BCA and I’m waiting for that handle to be received.
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.
Spartan makes a side charging upper as well.
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.
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.
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.
What about putting the side-charging handle on the left side? As a right-handed shooter I would prefer that.
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.
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”.
I have a side charger on my AR because the charging handle obstructs my optics. Also it is easier on my hand.
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.
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.
I built a Sanders Armory side charger a couple of years ago and love it. Great to shoot off the bench and from prone.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Gibbz are amazing. I have been running them for years. Great for my suppressed 458 Socom SBR.
This charging handle will also reciprocate and the shooter will have to be aware of that.
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.
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.
Looks like a Easy Fix to an Old Problem doesn’t come Cheap! Upwards of $864.99 in some cases…
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.
Pro– you can look at the handle and see it and the position it holds.
Con– weakened upper, poor dirt and debris resistance