The forward assist is one of the features we've come to expect on the AR-15 and its multitude of clones. But how many of us ever use it or even understand why it's there? Does it belong on the modern sporting rifle, or should it go the way of the carry handle?
To understand the forward assist, we need to take a step back to the early days of the M16 and its baptism in combat. U.S. troops fighting in Vietnam experienced numerous stoppages that undermined the soldiers' confidence in the reliability of the then-new weapon. Though the bulk of the malfunctions (failures to extract) were ultimately traced to unsuitable ammunition, some significant upgrades were made to the M16 to enhance its reliability and it was redesigned as the M16A1. Chambers and bores were chrome-lined to resist fouling, and the forward assist was added to the receiver, located to the rear of the ejection port. If powder fouling or other matter prevented the bolt from going completely into battery, the forward assist could be used to force the round into the chamber and the bolt into its firing position.
To this day, the army's immediate action drill for addressing stoppages, an acronym by the name of SPORTS, includes tapping the forward assist. SPORTS stands for: Slap, Pull, Observe, Release, Tap and Shoot.
Though the M-16 has gone through numerous redesigns since its widespread adoption in the 1960s (M16A2, M16A4, M4, Mk18, HK416, etc.) all subsequent designs have retained the forward assist. Interestingly, the military's 7.62x51mm AR variants such as the SR25/M110 do not feature a forward assist.
Some argue the forward assist was never really a reliability fix in the first place. Rather, that it was added to make generals accustomed to the Garand happy, and to give the troops a recognizable sense of security that the M16 had been "fixed." That all seems irrelevant now; the question is whether the forward assist belongs on the receiver today. I've heard some men whose opinions I respect, Clint Smith among them, argue if a round won't chamber, something is wrong, and forcing the issue with the forward assist could complicate the problem further. This is a sound argument for not blindly banging away at the assist in the event of a malfunction, but should it be deleted altogether?
My opinion on the matter comes from the AR's fundamental design. Previous closed-bolt self-loading service rifles in the U.S. arsenal (M1 Garand, M1/M2 Carbine, M14) had reciprocating operating rods that allowed the shooter to exert forward force when necessary. Many other combat rifles, notably the AK, have such a capability. On the AR-15, the charging handle only engages the bolt carrier group in rearward movement; other than the forward assist, there is no good way to put manual forward pressure on the bolt.
I've had numerous occasions where semi- and full-auto guns didn't go "bang" and required a slight bump into battery to regain their operability. This is usually a sign that something's wrong (or really dirty) but the ability to push the bolt in the battery works in a pinch. Also, in situations where silence dictates that you must "ride" the bolt forward to load the chamber (i.e., while hunting) the forward assist is valuable in making sure the bolt is fully closed. The way I see it, it doesn't hurt to have it, and in certain situations, it can be very useful.
I have my opinion, but I've never carried an M16, or anything else for that matter, in combat so take what I say with a grain of salt. To get some truly expert opinions, I reached out to some of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals available anywhere and asked for their input.
Kyle Lamb: Former Army SOF, Instructor, Author, Co-Host of Guns & Ammo TV
I feel naked without it even though I never use it.
Probably could go away, but a bolt carrier cut that would be used to assist the bolt forward in an emergency may be needed.
Chris Barrett: Firearm Designer/Manufacturer
I would never own a rifle for serious use that depends solely on a spring to return the bolt carrier to battery with no option to mechanically assist that action if required.
I can think of no downside to having the mechanism on an AR-type rifle. I'd rather have it and not need it.
I use the forward assist to fully close the bolt carrier every time I hunt with an AR and have stealthily chambered a round. When you quietly ride the bolt home, it usually needs a little help to close.
I also like to smack the assist twice with the palm anytime a round is chambered from a full magazine. Same philosophy as tugging on a mag after insertion to know it will not fall out seconds later.
Larry Vickers: Former Army SOF, Firearms Design Consultant, Instructor, Host of TAC TV
In extreme conditions, you must have the ability to insure the bolt is fully closed. I have used enough weapons without forward assists — early AR's, FAL's and G3's — in a wide enough variety of conditions to tell you that, in my opinion, a fighting rifle must have the ability to insure full chambering: end of story
It's like four-wheel drive capability or a reserve parachute: You don't need it very often, but when you do, you generally need it bad!
Rick Shuck: Former Army SOF, Security Contractor/Consultant, Instructor
I think it's a benefit. In the hot and dusty environments our guys are fighting in nowadays, things don't always function 100-percent — the ability to get a round into a dirty chamber may save a guy's life. On the range if your weapon malfunctions, you go home — in combat, you're SOL.
I've never used a forward assist in combat, but I've never had to transition to a handgun either and I'm not about to stop carrying a sidearm.
James Jarrett: Former Army SF, Law Enforcement Officer, Instructor
My experience with military M16s is dated: from the '60s-'80s. Since that time, my experience has been with various models of the AR-15 platform as an instructor for CQB, and as a law enforcement officer and drug agent.
The only time I have ever used the forward assist is on my own personal weapons when I deliberately let them get dirty enough to fail for testing purposes and when using brass with tarnish on it. Those were essentially administrative shooting situations.
As a tactical shooter, my thoughts are these: If the forward assist is needed on the initial charge, what confidence will you have when the action starts that cycling will be mechanically sound? If the weapon fails to go into battery in the middle of a shooting environment, the automatic response should be a reflexive IA [immediate action] drill of a strike on the bottom of the magazine and a vigorous cycle of the charging handle, being careful not to "ride" the bolt home. The extra time to hit the forward assist and then maybe have to do an emergency IA drill anyway wastes vital time in a lethal environment.
It doesn't hurt to have it, but it should not be relied upon in lieu of an IA drill.
There you have it: A handful of experts and no real consensus except that most agreed it doesn't hurt to have a forward assist. Every one of these guys has either carried an AR-15/M16/M4 extensively in combat, or in the case of Chris Barrett, designed, tested, and manufactured an AR variant (the REC-7). Besides their own operational experiences, the above experts who are instructors see hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of rounds go downrange every year during their classes. Their opinions are not based in theory or Internet rumor, but rather what they've observed firsthand.
I vote to keep it. Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to use it. What do you think?