Forward assist – Some rifles have it, some don’t. I understand the purpose and functionality of it. From what I see, all but one or two of DPMS’ offerings don’t have one, while, for example, RRA’s do. How crucial is the forward assist on a .308? Or, is it crucial to the AR platform regardless of caliber?
A forward assist on a modern civilian AR-15 is like a spoiler on a road car — you’ll probably never use it, and the only reason it’s there is because the “big boys” use it on their guns. Let me explain…
The original M-16 rifle issued by the U.S. Air Force didn’t have a forward assist. These so-called “slick sided” upper receivers just had an ejection port and nothing behind it, not even a brass deflector. And they worked fine. Well, except for that whole “bad ammunition, poor corrosion resistance and shoddy maintenance” thing. But the military powers-that-be wanted a forward assist installed.
One of the big differences between the M-16 and previous U.S. issue firearms is that the bolt carrier is not directly attached to an operating rod or charging handle of some sort. With the M1 Garand or M-14 the operating rod and charging handle would move back and forth as the gun fired and stay directly connected. One common failure in semi-automatic firearms is a failure to chamber a new round where the bolt doesn’t lock forward on a new cartridge. The failure is often caused by excessive dirt in the action or a lack of proper lubrication but it is MOST common when people “ride” the charging handle forward and don’t let the full force of the spring slam the action closed. The issue can be quickly fixed by smacking the charging handle forward and seating the round. The M-16’s bolt, in contrast to the previous guns, isn’t attached to anything and slides freely in the gun.
Another thing the military liked to do was something called “silent loading.” Military firearms are often carried with the bolt closed on an empty chamber but a full magazine inserted in the gun, reducing the possibility of a negligent discharge by keeping live ammunition out of the chamber when not needed. “Silent loading” involves purposefully riding the charging handle forward to keep the noise the gun makes to a minimum (as anyone who has ever hit the “ping pong paddle” on an AR will tell you it’s a tad noisy). This causes a “failure to chamber” condition that requires the soldier to nudge the bolt forward so that it locks and chambers the live round.
Because the M-16’s bolt carrier is not directly attached to the charging handle it can’t be used to push the bolt forward in a “failure to chamber” or “silent loading” situation. Stoner’s solution was to mill a recessed section into the bolt right in front of the ejection port that not only would allow the shooter to push the bolt forward using their finger but would provide room for the spring housing on the dust cover when the cover was closed with the bolt forward. The military was not impressed and the XM16 and XM16E1 models included a forward assist system that provided a mechanical device to replace Stoner’s simple solution. Ever since, part of the military’s manual of arms for loading the M16 and its variants includes a mandatory smacking of the charging handle even if it isn’t necessary.
So what good is a forward assist to a civilian shooter? None, really. It’s a feature that duplicates a function already available on the gun. But I still like it.
Take my competition rifle (pictured above) for example. I’ve customized just about everything on that gun to fit me and my needs perfectly, and it still has a forward assist. The reason is that even though I load my gun using the bolt release (as God and Stoner intended) I like the extra peace of mind that I get from tapping the forward assist before the stage starts and ensuring that the first round is properly seated. Especially in colder weather when normal lubricants may become slightly viscous and keep the gun from chambering properly the knowledge that the first round will definitely fire makes me feel a little less nervous. And having the mechanical device means I don’t need to get my hands dirty touching the bolt, something that might make me lose my grip during a stage.
Is it necessary on a .308 AR-10? Again, not really. Even if you get a failure to chamber issue in the gun it can be fixed either using the “finger through the ejection port” method or by treating it like a double feed malfunction. There’s no benefit other than you keep your fingers out of the ejection port. But for me that’s all the benefit I needed to make it worth keeping on my gun.
In the end it’s a personal preference. Your gun will run just fine without one, but for some people it provides quick and convenient peace of mind.
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