Skip to main content

G&A Perspectives: Do We Need the AR-15 Forward Assist?

G&A Perspectives: Do We Need the AR-15 Forward Assist?

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.

Conclusion

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?

Current Magazine Cover

Enjoy articles like this?

Subscribe to the magazine.

Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Guns & Ammo TV: 6.5 Creedmoor vs. .375 H&H

Guns & Ammo TV: 6.5 Creedmoor vs. .375 H&H

The 6.5 Creedmoor and the .375 H&H are almost complete opposites, or are they? The 6.5 Creedmoor is a newer and popular cartridge that transcends long-range precision rifle shooting and hunting big game. The .375 H&H is more than a century old, but still a popular and versatile choice for hunting big and dangerous game. For this shoot, Pro Tom Beckstrand, former U.S. Army Special Operations officer and sniper team leader, faces off against Guns & Ammo TV cameraman Ben LaLonde in a challenge that highlights the differences between these two cartridges.

Benelli Lupo ATR

Benelli Lupo ATR

Quality. Art. Design. History. Precision. Innovation. Family. Passion. Love. These words come to my mind when describing anything Italian, and the same is true for a product bearing the name “Benelli.”

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

The people asked and Trijicon answered. Introducing the RMRcc miniature red-dot sight for compact, concealed-carry pistols. Trijicon's new RMRcc features the durability and reliable controls that have made the RMR so successful, but its reduced dimensions make the “Concealed Carry” model better suited for the popular small-frame pistols designed for discreet carry and personal defense.

Guns & Ammo TV: Wheelgun vs. Pistol

Guns & Ammo TV: Wheelgun vs. Pistol

In this segment of “Pros vs. Joes,” we put competitive shooter and author James Tarr against Guns & Ammo TV cameraman Nathan Wilt. With handguns, they see who can knock down plates the fastest on two Revolution Targets Heavy Duty Plate Racks. Here's the catch: Tarr has to use a Colt King Cobra in .357 Mag. while Wilt shoots a Smith & Wesson M&P9 M2.0 in 9mm.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a zeroed rifle scope. Here's how to sight in your rifle scope setup in five quick-and-easy steps.How to Sight In a Rifle Scope in 5 Steps How-To

How to Sight In a Rifle Scope in 5 Steps

Craig Boddington - June 04, 2018

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a...

Some guns are easier to work with than others, but the Ruger American Rifle doesn't require an engineering degree to tinker with; here's a look at some upgrade options to take your Ruger American to the next level, and make it something a bit different.Top Ruger American Rifle Upgrades Accessories

Top Ruger American Rifle Upgrades

Philip Massaro - March 15, 2018

Some guns are easier to work with than others, but the Ruger American Rifle doesn't require an...

In this segment of Air Gun Reviews: Ruger 10/22 Air Rifle Rifles

Air Gun Reviews: Ruger 10/22 Air Rifle

Guns & Ammo Staff - September 02, 2020

In this segment of "Guns & Ammo TV," Gun Tech Editor Richard Nance and Pro-Shooter Jim Tarr...

The Savage MSR 15 Competition is an out-of-the-box racehorse ready to help you win 3-Gun matches. Here's why.Savage MSR 15 Competition Review Reviews

Savage MSR 15 Competition Review

James Tarr - May 21, 2019

The Savage MSR 15 Competition is an out-of-the-box racehorse ready to help you win 3-Gun...

See More Trending Articles

More Rifles

Combining the proven Savage 110 action with an MDT stock, the new Elite Precision rifle is ready to compete right out of the box.Savage 110 Elite Precision Review – Accurate, Well-Equipped Competition Rifle Reviews

Savage 110 Elite Precision Review – Accurate, Well-Equipped Competition Rifle

Brad Fitzpatrick - July 13, 2020

Combining the proven Savage 110 action with an MDT stock, the new Elite Precision rifle is...

At 4.6 pounds, the T-­Bolt weighs less that what it weighed on introduction in 1965, thanks to the slender and weatherproof composite stock. Combine the stock with the fast-­cycling action, and the T-­Bolt promises to remain a favorite in the rimfire world. T-­Bolt models can vary from year to year, so if the Speed appeals to you, act sooner rather than later. Browning T-Bolt Speed .22 LR Review Reviews

Browning T-Bolt Speed .22 LR Review

Proofhouse - July 15, 2020

At 4.6 pounds, the T-­Bolt weighs less that what it weighed on introduction in 1965, thanks to...

For a $300 plinker or small-game getter, the Savage A17 in .17 HM2 is a fantastic little rifle. It's lightweight, accurate, incredibly reliable and fires a flat-shooting round that's much quieter than the .17 HMR. Compared to a .22LR, the .17 HM2 crushes it in every category but price per box. Ballistically, there's no contest between the two.Savage A17 HM2 Review Reviews

Savage A17 HM2 Review

D. Faubion - July 23, 2020

For a $300 plinker or small-game getter, the Savage A17 in .17 HM2 is a fantastic little...

Gun Tech Editor Richard Nance and Pro-Shooter Jim Tarr head to the range with both .177-caliber airguns to test their aim and demonstrate why the full-auto selector is often called the Air Gun Reviews: Full-Auto Fun Rifles

Air Gun Reviews: Full-Auto Fun

Guns & Ammo Staff - August 26, 2020

Gun Tech Editor Richard Nance and Pro-Shooter Jim Tarr head to the range with both...

See More Rifles

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Guns & Ammo App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now