James asks:

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.

If you have a topic you want to see covered in a future “Ask Foghorn” segment, email guntruth@me.com.

To browse previous Ask Foghorn segments visit http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/category/askfoghorn/.

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25 Responses to Ask Foghorn: What Does A Forward Assist Do, And Is It Useful?

  1. Nice explanation. I use the FA after chamber checking. I like to see/feel the round is in place, then hit the FA to insure that it reseats properly

  2. I use the foreward assist after I get into my deer stand and before I start hunting. Sure I can use the scallop on the bolt carrier but I choose the assist because it’s more sure with gloved hands in the dark.

  3. It’s something to fiddle with. Something that adds weight and complexity and an angular part that will gouge you in the chest if you’re using a chest rig left-handed. I’m very glad to see more manufacturers losing it, from $3000 JP competition rifles to $600 budget models like the M&P15 Sport. Give me a slick-sided model with a minimal brass deflector. If I want to fiddle with something, I’ll reach in my pocket and play with these brass things I carry around.

  4. A note on the lack of an operating rod on the AR gas-operated platform. Do NOT allow the bolt to close on an empty case. I did that with a DPMS .308 (I was trying to determine if I needed small base reloading dies), and I could not get the bolt open again to remove the case. Pulling back on the charging handle at the back of the receiver didn’t work, because it won’t pull the bolt back when the bolt rotates closed on an empty. You can’t push the case out with a cleaning rod, again because the bolt has rotated closed. After a brief period of cursing, I called the DPMS customer service folks. Their rep said, “do you have a solid buttstock or a folding/collapsible one? Solid? Good. Pull back on the charging handle (open the latch), hold the rifle by the fore-end, and buttstroke that sucker forcefully on a hard surface.” (NOT your coffee table). That imparts enough rearward inertia to the bolt to rotate it open, and you can extract the case.

    Your results may vary if you have a folding/collapsible buttstock.

    Lessons learned: Do not allow the bolt to close on an empty case with an AR gas system. The M-1 Garand/ M-14 bolt system is a great design.

      • Fired cases are exanded and much larger in size than a properly sized loaded round, additionally without a bullet in the neck it is very easy for an energetic bolt, like in the LR-308, to force the neck forward into the throat. “Mortaring” your AR is a time honored solution to most extraction problems.

  5. Thanks for addressing this in a complete and coherent manner. Trying to piece this particular topic together from forum talk is harder than most.

      • So, theoretically, eliminating the forward assist would not only simplify the lower receiver design, but would also reduce the amount of machining necessary on the bolt carrier. Interesting…

    • The recessed portion of the carrier group also allows the dust cover to close. When the carrier moves (forward or back) the lug on the dust cover is tripped and the door pops open. Eugene Stoner was no fool, and every aspect of the AR platform will easily stand as testimony.

  6. from talking to an old Marine i have to say i was given the impression that you should never use the forward assist, and his reasoning made sense to me. Its simple and goes like this, if your gun jams or malfunctions to you want to try the cram a double feed or malformed round into the chamber that may cause a Kaboom, or just eject the problem round and and not worry about risking your firearm blowing up.

  7. That is the problem with listening to old Marines. Try a google search for SPORTS acronym m16. There are lots of ways and lots of reasons for doing things and like anything else you never say never.

    • However the good part about listening to Old Marines is that when they learn something the hard way, they remember it!
      If you have a round that has failed to chamber, there is a reason for that. The best thing you can do is get that problem round out of there and get a fresh one chambered. FAing a problem round into the chamber is a great way to turn a quick remedial action into a stopped weapon.

      • In the Army we are not taught to use the forward assist during normal loading. SPORTS is considered to be Immediate Action and is used when there is a stoppage. We don’t FA the problem. SPORTS is an acronym that means: Slap, the magazine (to ensure the magazine is fully seated) Pull, the charging handle to the rear
        Observe, the ejection port (checking that rounds are properly ejecting)
        Release, the charging handle
        Tap, the forward assist (to ensure the bolt is fully closed) Squeeze, the trigger
        Remedial Action is the continued effort to determine the cause of a stoppage if Immediate action is unsuccessful in fixing the problem.

  8. As any grunt can tell you, the forward assist comes in very handy after you’ve fired a ton of blanks through your weapon. You can scoop the carbon out with a spoon and will eventually interfer with rounds chambering. Also, the last thing I want to do is use my finger to push a BCG forward after it’s been shot a lot.

    How does this relate to civilian use, as mentioned by the author, not one bit.

    • You beat me to it! I was going to say that the forward assist is really useful when firing dirty, nasty blanks! Foghorn also correctly identified the ability to “silent load” a round.

  9. I won’t buy an AR without an FA, period. I’ve had too many jams without them that were a bitch to clear, while the FA makes short work of a misfeed.

  10. I love when people say you should ditch the forward assist and just use that scalloped cut on the bolt carrier. That’s all well and good on a cold gun but try doing that after rapid firing a couple magazines…

    I imagine it would be a great way to get rid of your fingerprints.

  11. Because it is better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. As previous commenters have said, just try to seat the bolt with your finger when it is hot. I hope you have practiced dialing 911 with your left hand.

  12. The forward assist is useless if you’re a compitition shooter who puts fifty rounds through his gun and then packs it back in the case. Its useless if your rifle is a range or a safe queen and you never fire more than a hundred rounds through it at once.

    If you may need your rifle to work propperley after firing more than ten mags in a single day, then, yeah, you may find it usefull.

    I have no idea where that ‘silent load’ thing came from, though. When I was in the USMC, I never heard of anyone doing that. I figure if you’re close enough to the enemy where they can hear the sound of you chambering a round, and you dont already have a round in the chamber, you done screwed up and you are probabally beyond help in the first place.

    For everyone who uses the FA to seat the bolt forwards after doing a brass check: I added a Wolff high power buffer spring that actually seats the bolt propperley, even when its dirty. If you have an AR, you should probabally have a Wolff spring in it.

  13. Well thank you for an informative look into the forward assist. The article and the lively discussion that comes with it has answered a lot of my questions about FA.

    I know with my new-ish RRA LAR-15, the FA has come in handy a few times now. I figured that as the rifle gets more use and becomes well broke-in, I’d need it less; I see that might not be the case, now.

    Dr. Dave makes an interesting and seemingly obvious point that, with the proper spring, FA shouldn’t be necessary at all. (Sometimes the obvious has to be said out loud for it to be recognized as obvious.)

    • Polishing the inside of my buffer tube and putting in a high powered spring has probably made the rifle feel better and operate better than any of the other tweaks I’ve made. And it was a hell of a lot less expensive than most of them.

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