Does An Expensive Carry Handle on Your AR Matter? – Ask Foghorn

Reader Thomas writes:

I’m a big fan of your series; you have helped me on dozens of firearms with solid, honest reviews. I had a quick question if you have the time: I think I speak for thousands of AR15 owners when I say I am uncertain what separates a $15 sight from a $60 carry handle from a $195 “Colt” carry handle. Perhaps you could make a review on these? Specifically I am looking for the best value for the money. If the $60 ones fall apart, I would happily pay for the $200 carry handle, if it will last a lifetime.

Carry handles and rear sights. In the world of flat top A4 style upper receivers more often than not your brand new AR-15 will ship without any sights whatsoever and allow you to pick your own, but that does complicate things somewhat. Which sights should you choose? Does it make sense to shell out for an expensive carry handle?

Carry handles are a design feature that may exist more due to institutional momentum than actual necessity. Eugene Stoner designed the AR-10 rifle for ArmaLite as an entry to the military program to find a 7.62 NATO replacement for the aging M1 Garand rifle (beaten by the M14 because of ArmaLite’s insistence on using a prototype barrel that Stoner thought was idiotic and failed in testing), and in the early production models the charging handle was a hook-like protrusion that was located along the top of the upper receiver. The “carry handle” was a protective enclosure (much like a trigger guard) to keep things like branches from grabbing it and pulling the bolt out of battery.

As the military moved towards adopting the XM16E1 and away from the AR-10 design the top mounted charging handle morphed into the charging handle we know today, a logical progression obvious to even the least gifted firearms designers (sorry, France). While the enclosure was no longer needed the structure was kept in place to provide a quick mounting location for optics and other accouterments, which used a screw hole in the center of the mount to securely connect the optic to the rifle. With the widespread adoption of Picatinny rails as the universal mounting option for optics and accessories the military finally transitioned to the A4 version of the M16 upper receiver which ships with a detachable “carry handle” and a full length rail underneath.

These days “carry handles” still exist for many reasons. National Match shooters prefer A2 type upper receivers (with “carry handle” and sights adjustable for windage and elevation) because it provides a more stable and permanent solution for iron sights which improves accuracy. Failing that, a detachable “carry handle” set of iron sights can still be purchased. The M16 rifles currently being produced for the military all ship with a detachable “carry handle” sight, partly because that’s what the spec demands and partly because it allows for the most mounting options.

The full “carry handle” sight does provide some benefits over smaller iron sights. While a smaller flip-up sight might take up less rail space, the longer form factor of the “carry handle” does provide extra stability and more firmly attaches the sights to the rail for added accuracy. That said, if you’re not expecting to attempt any shots over 250 yards you probably won’t notice the difference.

What’s the best option? It all depends.

If you have a flat top AR-15 rifle and just need a set of iron sights then I would highly recommend the Magpul PRO Sights (~$180). The low profile allows you to mount nearly anything to your rifle and leave the iron sights in place, from huge optics to tiny little red dots. The sights might seem a little small to some but they do the job just fine for 90% of what you need to do. And if you have a flat top AR-15 then you really should be looking into a red dot optic as a next purchase to supplement the iron sights.

For those who really want a “carry handle” style rear sight I highly recommend the Rock River Arms National Match carry handle rear sight ($165). I have used this exact rear sight setup in NRA High Power matches and it would hold zero like a champ even after many hours in a soft case in the crowded trunk of my car. If you only want to buy one carry handle rear sight then this is the one to buy.

Do you need a “Colt” carry handle? Not unless you’re a collector and really just want something stamped “Colt” before they finally go bankrupt and stop making things.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via thetruthaboutguns@gmail.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

comments

  1. avatar Renner says:

    I always figured the carry handle rear sight was sturdier in the EOTWAWKI scenario. Mine is like $60 bucks. Don’t know the brand but certainly more than adequate at 100+ yards. I don’t think I could justify 3 times that cost for one. Any shots longer than 100 yards and I would take something with a scope.

    1. avatar Pwrserge says:

      It’s REALY hard to break a high quality fixed magnification optic. I’ve seen all sorts of abuse heaped on ACOGs and they will still shoot straight.

      1. avatar Renner says:

        I was actually thinking carry handle versus flip up style irons, but you raise a good point about optics. My go-to AR has a Leupold that’s darned near bulletproof.

        1. avatar pwrserge says:

          Once you cross the $1000 mark, optics tend to become just as durable as your carry handle in terms of function and keeping zero. Quality flip-up irons are also just fine for the same purpose. I like the Magpul PRO sights as they are both very low profile, thus hard to damage, and made out of a solid chunk of steel. They aren’t going anywhere.

  2. avatar Vhyrus says:

    Which carry handle is best? Why, the one that matches your dinosaur’s eye color, of course. And don’t forget the oil lamp mounting accessory.

    Slow day, guys?

    1. avatar Mr Pierogie says:

      Hey, it could have been worse. Fuddhorn could have written another BS article about never ever permitting guns on airplanes, because apparently that’s where your 2A rights end (except if he’s the one carrying, of course). Each time I read that crap it’s similar to hearing a libtard arguing against silencers, based on nothing else except what they’ve seen in movies.

      1. avatar Ed says:

        All that fluff and yet nowhere in the article did I read a clear answer to the man’s question. Is a twenty dollar carry handle comparable to a $165 dollar one? No, the materials used could be cheaper (I’ve seen cast pot metal carry handles) and the sights may not hold zero as well. A colt for the money is probably overkill, but I’m sure you could find a quality take off for a bargain on gunbroker.
        How friggin hard was that? Fuddhorn strikes (out) again. We need someone to MAKE THESE ARTICLES GREAT AGAIN!

    2. avatar David Walters says:

      Lot’s of tacticool adherents think carry handles are for those of us who are prehistoric.

      Well, I’m 64 and served during and after VN. I wouldn’t be without one. But at my age I guess I’m prehistoric.

      But the one I run on my top pic rail is one of those cheap as dirt flip down types that one sees often on paint ball guns and looks a lot like the carry handle we used in the service on the M60 MG. They screw right onto the pic rail anywhere you like. And, if you insert a loaded magazine before you position it you have to option to choose a mounting site that allows you to mostly keep the muzzle pointed at a 30 – 45 degree angle towards the ground (useful safety feature in addition to the safety on if carrying hot).

      They’re no good for scopes. But it you use irons on the pic rail and a RDS, they’re perfect and weigh next to nothing.

      BTW, the Magpul sights are interesting and they’re advertised as if the front sight post can be elevation adjusted so as to provide for long range shooting. That’s a plus. But I find it odd that the elevation and windage adjustments aren’t on the same site. And, I wonder how well that setup works.

      1. avatar The Gray Poseur says:

        Hey, I’ll take this article over the Trump-Isn’t-Doing-Shit-Quick-Enough whining articles any time.

        I enjoyed.

  3. avatar VerendusAudeo says:

    You can’t compare the AR’s charging handle with a FAMAS. Putting it in the same position on a bullpup would have you pulling it behind your head.

  4. avatar Killjoy says:

    A buddy of mine thought that $90 for a set of irons was to much. When a set from amozon was only $25. Well our next range trip, to dial them in. He found out the hard way. The rear site did not want to stay put at all. And the front site tip broke off after just a few turns. What ever you decide to put on your rifle, don’t cheap out

    1. avatar jwtaylor says:

      I have often found, especially on this site, that people are often only willing to pay for something if it is worthless.

      1. avatar Renner says:

        JWT – I appreciate your service to the country and your firearms knowledge, I really do. But could you find it in you to lay off the condescension once in a while? It dilutes the effectiveness of your factual knowledge.

        1. avatar jwtaylor says:

          I’ll make you a deal. The day I go without hearing “I could buy X number of whatever cheap crap there is” for the price of one Y quality product” is the day I’ll stop pointing out that too many people don’t respect, or even recognize quality.

        2. avatar Kroglikepie says:

          Well now you listen ‘ere Mr. JWT. I coul’ make a perfec’ly usable silenc’r lik’n da movie-pic’ures wit’ nuthin more den some bubble gum an’ coke cans. Shee-oot, even buy me a china man can fer only $75 an’ fill ‘er full of water t’be like James Bond. Ain’t no need fer fancy alloys to contain no pressure or avoid meltin’ under sustain’d fire. An’ pee-oh-eye shift is a conspir’cy I tells yeah!

          /end *extreme* sarc

        3. avatar The Gray Poseur says:

          Don’t mess with the resident “hero” Renner.

        4. avatar The Gray Poseur says:

          Not everyone here has the bucks to spend thousands of dollars on a pistol and then jam it repeatedly into pieces of plywood until it fails. Like Taylor. Money may buy condescension. Who knows? I, in addition, appreciate his service, for all the high frequency we are reminded of it.

    2. avatar Norincojay says:

      I purchased a set of IMI defense polymer sights for 50$ last year and have had zero issues. They don’t spring up or have a locking detent, but for range use they work. I actually really like how the front post adjusts. But they are just backup. I normally just do Magpul polymers because I have optics on most of my ARs.

    3. avatar strych9 says:

      This is the reason that reviews exist.

      Truth be told, you don’t need the highest dollar item BUT generally speaking you’re going to get what you pay for.

      The question is where the price point meets usability for your purposes. This is generally called “value”. Cheap junk that breaks under your normal usage has very little value, however so does high end stuff if you’re not using it even close to it’s potential.

      The question that each person must ask is where they reach the point of diminishing returns, how many dollars past that they’re willing to go and what they feel they’re getting for those dollars. That’s where serious and honest reviews come in because they give you a bunch of free information to help you make that decision.

      For example if you’re looking at a high end pistol, say, a Wilson Combat, it’s a complete waste of resources to buy one if you can’t hit the broad side of a barn from the inside with a handgun (I just witnessed this with a WC pistol at the range the other week) because you’re not going to simply buy handgun skills (or bo staff skills or nunchuck skills). This old guy dropped thousands of dollars on this pistol and couldn’t shoot it for shit because he’s bad embarrassingly atrocious with a handgun. Of course he blamed the sights and everything else and went on a tirade about how the gun was an overpriced POS. Sorry bud, there ain’t no handgun out there with sights so bad it shoots a five foot diameter (literally) pattern at seven yards. Even old smooth bore black powder flintlock pistols are better than that. If he’d been decent to good with a handgun before he bought it he may well have found some value in that Wilson piece but as it is he ended up buying a multi-thousand dollar paperweight.

  5. avatar James69 says:

    Also need to watch what front sight you have. Some are lower than the GI and can cause problems when using a GI carry handle. I had a chicom one that worked, then switched to a cardinal stamped one. Ran the adjustment all the way up and still low. Didn’t feel like fooling with it that day. I just switched to the 7.62×39 upper and blasted stuff. When I have more time I’ll look at it.

  6. avatar Curtis in IL says:

    “Not unless you’re a collector and really just want something stamped “Colt” before they finally go bankrupt and stop making things.”

    Umm… Colt has already “gone bankrupt.” They filed Chapter 11 in June of 2015 and emerged with a court-approved reorganization plan about seven months later.

    Bankruptcy is a judicial process, not a financial term. My guess is Colt will be around, in one form or another, for a long time. Whether or not they regain their former position as a market leading manufacturer of military arms remains to be seen.

  7. avatar YAR0892 says:

    Matech and Knights Armament both make a nice flip-up rear-sight for the Army and Marines respectively. They range out to ~600m with quick adjustments and are adjustable for windage as well. I prefer the Matech version as it’s what my issued weapons have, but I’m sure both work fine. As far as carry handles go, I have no idea. I don’t personally care for them as flat-top additions, but if that’s your thing then rock on. One of my ARs has the cary-handle rear sight and it’s a surgical instrument once zeroed properly.

    1. avatar B says:

      Our new Navy rifles actually came with Matech’s as well. I love the sights, use them on my personal rifle, but everyone else doesn’t seem to appreciate them. I think they’re awesome.

  8. avatar anonymoose says:

    They changed from the top-charger to the T-handle within the first few AR15 prototypes, long before the Air Force picked it up as the M16, and long before the Army came up with the XM16E1.

    1. avatar Pwrserge says:

      There are quite a few export production top-charger AR-10s floating around. It’s not a horrible design, (no more than the G36 handle is) but it doesn’t really jive with the 90s – 2000s obsession with pic rails on every useable surface.

      1. avatar anonymoose says:

        Yeah, I know, but I’m talking about on the AR15/M16. There used to be a “retro” model AR10B with the trigger-charger too for a while, and you can get trigger-charger repro AR15 uppers from Nodak Spud. Eventually they did figure out a way to mount a scope on the original, real top-charger AR10s by mounting a bracket on the sides of the carry handle, but normal AR15 carry handle scope mounts are incompatible with top-charger AR15s (original and repro).

  9. avatar Cucamonga Jeff says:

    I have a BCM carry handle on my BCM upper because its all BCM. It works just fine but I don’t have it on any of my other rifles because I wanted a magnified optic and they look like a monkey humping a football on an A2 carry handle.

  10. avatar No one of consequence says:

    Another vote for the BCM handle. Roomy enough for my thick sausage fingers to get around.

  11. avatar Norincojay says:

    The only carry handle I have came with my only factory AR a 20″ FNH. I’ve had no problems. I like Troy Battle sights for aluminum flip ups. The Daniel defense non-flips are also real nice. I have them on an AR without an optic. The Magpul polymer are nice backup if you have a primary optic. Never buy Mission First Tactical (MFT) polymer sights they are absolute garbage. The IMI defense polymer are ok as a range sight or backup. They aren’t spring up or detent locking, but do work well at the range for only $50ish.

  12. avatar jwtaylor says:

    Dammit. Now I miss my A2.

  13. avatar Nigel the expat says:

    I’ve have a Aero Precision carry handle for some time. Been bounced around a bit on the upper its mounted to. Set up for RIBZ and love it for an irons trainer.

    I’ve also got an LMT rear tower that is basically the A2 rear sight tower, but no carry handle. Fantastic rear sight, if a bit bulky.

  14. avatar alex says:

    Iv gone trough a few sights/optics for my 16″ upper. Magpul Mbus Gen1/Gen2, Eotech 512 w/ FTS 3x mag, Aimpoint Comp M4 on a LaRue QD lever mount. Iv also played around with a friends Mbus Pro, and Troy flip ups. While the Aimpoint is my favorite (and the only one I still own) I now use Daniel Defense Irons. They are not flip up, but by far my favorite. The DDs also co-witness with the aimpoint if I want to use it, but the DDs alone are my favorite. Highly recommend them.

    Also have used a Vortex Viper HD 4-16×50 FFP in a LaRue OBR mount and a Nightforce 1-4x in an ADM QD that use to go on the 16″ but have since bought a 20″ upper for longer range work.

    Also another vote for BCM charging handle. I use their ambi now. Excellent.

  15. avatar Dan in CO says:

    Soldiers will spend more time carrying their weapons than firing them. That’s why the carrying handle was there. I can’t believe the cognitive dissonance I was reading in this article.

    1. avatar Redfoot says:

      Because most people use slings and the pistol grip. Carry handles may be useful for an M249 and up, but for an M4-type weapon they are largely outdated. RRA makes some nice uppers with an integrated rear sight, otherwise the real; estate taken up is way too much. We are taught to low crawl using either the sling or two handed while on your back. By carrying the rifle by the handle, especially if you have large hands, you have a good way to bury your muzzle or sprain fingers. Lets not even start about weapon retention.

      1. avatar Dan in CO says:

        I have so much to say to you about this, but so little time.

  16. avatar MeRp says:

    I just bought two used (reasonably lightly) Colt carry handles for $70 (for both, after shipping). Not much reason to go for the $160 option when there’s so many of the Colt ones out there, unless you just gotta have new. As for the actual original question (which wasn’t actually answered int he article, as far as I could tell); the cheapo carry handles will work-ish, and they seem pretty solid, but the machining on them sucks. The one I have, for example, adjusts the windage slightly every time you switch between the peep sizes. I wouldn’t recommend them unless they really are basically just for looks (you could use them as back up sights, but it really would have to be in a pinch, and you’d want to make sure you never mess with anything about them after you zero).

  17. avatar Southern Cross says:

    From someone who has to use iron sights in competition, once you are used to them they are not an impediment. When I had my AR15 SP1, I set the sights for spot on at 200m, which set the “L” setting as spot on for 300m. At 100m the impact was 2″ high but that was expected.

    I didn’t mind the carry handle as it was a part of the original design.

    .223 /5.56 is very forgiving with impact. I have found in general anything from 50g to 70g will at least hit the bullseye with the following settings from a 100m zero:

    200m: up 4-5 half-minute clicks.
    300m: up another 10 half-minute clicks.

    At 300+, alot of the fundamentals of shooting come into play, including sight picture, alignment, and follow through. Optics make it easier to see the target but you still need to know how to shoot.

  18. avatar Skoon says:

    Daniel defense 1.5 rear sight. accurate and holds zero also the correct height for an a2 front sight. Doesn’t take up much rail space.

  19. avatar BLAMMO says:

    … And if you have a flat top AR-15 then you really should be looking into a red dot optic as a next purchase to supplement the iron sights. …

    Or just get a Vortex Spitfire prism red dot. Still works with a dead battery or turned off. No need for a BUIS.

    1. avatar Anon in CT says:

      And very astigmatism-friendly. No blurring, flare or bleeding.

    2. avatar int19h says:

      It’s a 1x scope, not a red dot.

  20. avatar Charlie says:

    I have an Armalite AR-10BNMF that came with the detachable carry handle and front post. It’s the most accurate semi rifle that I own, and the attachments are cool from a collector’s standpoint, but we like to count the hairs on a flea’s ass at 500 yds and never use the things. lol

    Charlie

  21. avatar Grant says:

    I just purchased a Colt 6920 OEM1 and took it to the range today. Since the rifles come without furniture or a rear sight I dug around and found a BCM carry handle in the parts drawer. Since I’m in my mid 40’s I’ve started to put low magnification scopes or red dots on most of my evil black rifles. It was fun to spend a day at the range with an iron sighted AR15.

    A number of years ago I had a guy ask me to help him sight in the detachable carry handle for his new AR when I was finishing up practicing for High Power. The only problem was that he had spent $20 on a Leapers that was total crap. The rear sight was visibly crooked in it’s base and with the handle tightened down onto his upper you could grab the rear sight and push it a few mm in any direction. The sight was not even useable.

    If you want a detachable carry handle buy a quality one from Colt, BCM, Rock River, etc. For a new one you are going to have to pay $75-100.

    Unless you are going to shoot National Match style High Power I would avoid the really high dollar NM sights from Rock River and others. They have 1/4 or 1/2 minute adjustments and are made to use hooded aperatures. They are great in good light, but you can’t see much when it starts to get dark. You also lose the ability to flip between the small & large aperature like the issued sights. For a general purpose rifle they are a poor choice.

  22. avatar Steve says:

    I have bit of experience with AR “handles”. One thing – Colt and FN do not make the things. They are contracted out. Common forgers are Anchor, Cardinal and most recently, BAFE. If you are considering getting one, you want to make sure yours works properly, so its imperative you get a contract mil-spec handle. Current civilian FN15, Colt 20″ AR15A4 and pre 2013 Colt M4 carbines come with US contract mil spec handles and they are out there if you know what to look for.

    How do you determine milspec?

    First, with the rear sight elevation cranked all the way down, the top rail of the aluminum body should be level with the top of the steel wings of the rear sight assembly. If the rear sight assembly sits lower than the top of the aluminum body, it is an aftermarket and should probably be passed up.

    Second, there is a dimension I take using calipers. This measurement is taken on the vertical part of the aluminum body that is rearmost and sits right above the charging handle and under the movable rear sight assembly. Top to bottom, the dimension of this shelf reads .8355″ (+/- .0005). This dimension is part of the mil-spec forge specifications.

    Third, the weight of the complete assembly is 9.2 oz (+/- .1oz).

    Incidentals consistent with modern mil spec rear handles…
    The mounting knobs are dome shaped and the staking of the axles are clean, symmetrical, and x-shaped. On the elevation adjustment drum, there is a small “z” two clicks to the right of the 6/3 marking used by some for first zeroing a standard configuration rear sight to 25m.

    Most of my experience is with new Colt semiautomatics and the sights shipped with pre-2013 Colt M4’s have a square forge (from BAFE) on the right side of the aluminum body near the rear sight assembly. The right side of the steel rear sight assembly has two faint circular depressions at the bottom – one on each side of the windage knob.

    I’ve seen some crappy new rear sights. The ones from UTC should be avoided. UTC also make an adjustable rear sight without the handle and it’s practically unusable if you want the 600m-300m ranging to work as designed.

    Lastly…
    Speaking of ranging, I have all of my 5.56 rear iron sights configured for the “Revised Improved Battlesight Zero” (RIBZ). This is a reversible alteration which allows the rear sight to be clicked down below the 300m marking to be true to 50yd/200m and 100yd distances. Look it up. There are several places on the web that describe the setup and how to do it. Requires a 1/16″ hex key. If you are interested in trying either the IBZ or RIBZ, keep in mind that the clicks are different between the attached A2 drum marked 8/3 and the detachable A4 handle where the drum is marked 6/3.

    On a 6/3 marked A4 sight configured as RIBZ, you go down -4 clicks for 50yd (200m) and -6 clicks for 100m. On a 8/3 marked A2 sight, the -2 clicks is 50yd (200m) and -4 is 100m. Pretty close ranging with both M193 and M855 ammo.

    Read and re-read the instructions before doing it.

  23. avatar Roy F. Wilt says:

    The Carry handle is important if you have a Colt Built on front sight! You must have the correct angle for proper sight alignment! Get a Military manual on the M-16 for more information!

  24. avatar Pete says:

    Never been a fan of adjustable rear sights like the A2, outside of a competition rifle.
    Give ma a nice A1 setup, zero once and be done.

  25. avatar Alex says:

    I have a never issued military issue rear iron sight on my AR. I love it. It is sturdy, has elevation adjustment, and I can hit a 3/4 silhouette at 500 yards.

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