If you are considering equipping your AR-15 with a side charging upper, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll start with the pros and cons of using a side charging upper. Then we’ll talk you through the factors you should consider when purchasing one. Finally, we’ll suggest the ones that we think are worth your consideration.
Say Goodbye to your Charging Handle
A side charging upper removes the necessity for the typical charging handle. A charging handle is used to check the condition of the chamber. It performs the critical function of moving the bolt into the ‘ready’ position so your AR15 can be fired. Located at the rear, the charging handle is retracted backwards.
A side charging upper eliminates the need for a charging handle altogether. Instead, the charging handle is moved from the rear to the side. Effectively, it makes handling the AR-15 similar to guns with a side charging handle such as the AK-47, SCAR or the Ruger Mini 14.
Don’t forget your bolt carrier group (BCG)!
Something that you should know about AR-15 upper receivers with side charging handles is they require a specially designed bolt carrier group. The standard AR-15 bolt carrier group you have in your rifle with a rear charging handle is most likely not going to work in an upper receiver with a side charger.
This is why modifying your existing upper receiver to accept a side charger is most likely not going to work. The simplest solution possible is just to buy an entirely new upper receiver that comes standard with a side charging upper. This is also most likely going to be the cheapest option for you as well.
Modifying an existing upper receiver to accept a side charger and a new bolt carrier group will cost a lot more in terms of labor and extra parts than simply purchasing an entirely new side charger upper receiver will. Speaking of parts, if you are starting a new build make sure to check out our other articles as well, including one on AR-15 triggers.
Benefits of a Side Charging Upper
Well, let’s get straight to it.
The origin of the side charging upper for the AR-15 is in competitive shooting. By removing the need for the charging handle altogether, which needed clearance to be retracted completely, shooters could take advantage of better designed cheek-pieces. Moreover, it means that shooters do not have to awkwardly change their shooting stance while checking the chamber.
- Easy to clear a jam and charge the AR-15 without changing your shooting position or firing grip.
- More comfortable and ergonomic for those who are used to the AK-47 or Ruger Mini-14 model but want to enjoy the AR platform.
- Improved eye relief due to no space taken up by the charging handle.
- Some shooters have reported the side charging upper handle becoming loose with intensive use. We recommend occasional tightening.
If this is still not clear, we recommend this excellent video from Texas Plinking which demonstrates the side charging upper clearly.
Side Charging Upper: Buyer’s Guide
What important factors should you consider?
Reciprocating or Non-Reciprocating?
What does this mean?
A reciprocating side charging upper gives you complete control over the movement of the bolt, which enables you to engage force to chamber or eject difficult or damaged cartridges. Moreover, the position of the handle shows you whether the chamber is clear or there is an obstruction.
A non-reciprocating side charging upper does not give you complete control. The charging handle stays in place while you fire the AR-15 rather than moving back and forth. With fewer external moving parts, the shooter has greater flexibility handling the weapon when firing. However, this is marginal upside assuming you are using the AR-15 as it has been designed.
- Simple engineering and very easy to manufacture.
- Easy to force the bolt to operate during a jam.
- Usually cheapest to manufacturer.
- As the handle moves alongside the bolt while firing, if you’re not careful you can hurt your fingers!
- No external moving parts (your fingers are safe).
- More flexibility when handling your AR-15 particularly in awkward environments or positions.
- More expensive.
- More parts means less durable.
First and foremost, your side charging upper needs to be as durable and well-made as possible. The best receivers will often be constructed out of a combination of both aluminum and steel components. For example, many of the upper receiver housings will come constructed out of 7075 aluminum, and then will also have steel components such as the bolt carrier groups.
Rust Resistant Finish
Beyond your side charging upper being constructed out of durable materials, it also needs to come with a very rust and corrosion resistant finishes. Examples include hard coat anodization, melonite, or QPQ finishes.
Smoothness of Operation
When you rack the side charging handle to the rear, it should be as smooth as possible to do so. If it isn’t, you’re most likely not going to enjoy operating your AR-15, and if anything, you may miss the original design with the charging handle in the rear instead. A smooth charging handle will do wonders to help make your AR easier to operate.
Last but not least, you’ll want to get a side charging upper that is fully compatible with most other AR-15 parts. At the very least, you need to make sure that your upper will be compatible with your lower of choice, and any other parts that you plan to add to it. The best way to ensure that your upper will be compatible with other AR-15 parts will be to make sure it’s a mil-spec design.
If you’re a leftie or your AR-15 is likely to be used by various people, you may want to opt for am ambidextrous upper. These feature charging handles on both sides of the upper receiver at once.
Also Read: Best AR-15 Pistol Lowers
Our top rated Side Charging Uppers
Gibbz Arms AR-15 G4 Side Charging Upper
The Gibbz Arms AR-15 G4 Side Charging Upper is designed to be installed right out of the box with any compatible AR-15 lower. Non-reciprocating, the G4 is built out of durable materials and coated in a nice melonite finish to ensure that it can properly withstand everything from small scratches to rust and corrosion.
The side charging handle of the G4 feels easy and smooth to operate. A rail permits the easy addition of lights, lasers, optics, or other accessories. Any accessory that is compatible with an M1913 Picatinny style rail can be easily added to the G4.
Just note that you must install a free floating hand rail to the G4, or else it will most likely not be able to function correctly as you could encounter reliability issues.Overall All in all, the G4 AR-15 Side Charging Upper from Gibbz Arms is a solid pick. It’s durable, rust resistant, and compatible with most mil-spec AR-15 lowers. The side charger itself is also very smooth to operate. Just make sure that you pair it with a free floating hand rail to ensure optimum function.
- Compatible with most mil-spec AR-15 lowers
- Comes coated in a rust and corrosion resistant melonite finish
- Side charger is very smooth to operate
- It must come with a free floating hand rail in order to function correctly
New Frontier Armory AR-15 C-4 Side Charging Upper
This New Frontier Armory side charging upper comes well recommended. It is non-reciprocating and will accept any lower designed for the AR-15 platform.
Moreover, it is uniquely the only non-reciprocating side charger to accept any standard MILSPEC BCG and they provide a modified pin to complete the installation. It is finished black hard-coat anodized and machined from 6061 billet aluminium.
Ultimately, it operates very smoothly. I like that it can eject large calibers up to .458 SOCOM shells. However, do take note that it is designed for flush mounting rails and standard hand guards.
We also love the veteran owned New Frontier Armory – great company.Overall The New Frontier Armory AR-15 C-4 Side Charging Upper comes recommended. There are plenty of other reviews out there that confirm this is an excellent option – well-built, compatible and reliable.
- Only non-reciprocal upper compatible with any standard MILSPEC BCG.
- Mil 8625 Type 3 Class 2 Hard Coat Anodizing.
- Ejection port can handle large calibers (up to .458).
- A caution more than a con, designed for flush mounting rails and standard hand guards. Check your AR-15 before buying.
LANTAC USC Billet Side Charging Upper
The LANTAC USC side charging upper is shipped with a cam pin to enable easy installation. Like the New Frontier Armory upper, it is anodized however the 7075 aluminium is markedly stronger and more durable.
Non-reciprocating, this upper has the most smooth handling out of the uppers we experienced. LANTAC use a proprietary system they call SMOOTHCAM which means a low friction cam pin and highly burnished bore. In simpler terms, it’s designed inside out to be smooth and it shows.Overall The New Frontier Armory AR-15 C-4 Side Charging Upper comes recommended. There are plenty of other reviews out there that confirm this is an excellent option – well-built, compatible and reliable.
- 7075 aluminium is among the strongest in the industry.
- LANTAC have spent particular care on the smoothness of this upper’s operations, and they do not disappoint.
- Includes its own cam pin.
- One user reported difficulty with installation.
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And that concludes our list of the top three best side charging upper receivers for an AR-15.
Installing a side charging upper receiver is one of the best things you can do to your AR-15 if you want the manual of arms to be more similar to an AK-47 or a Ruger Mini-14. Any one of the side charging uppers that we have covered here today represents a solid option, or alternatively, you can follow our buyer’s guide we outlined and discussed above to help you find a good option too.