AR-15 forward assist
Dan Z for TTAG
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The AR-15 forward assist, a mechanical feature found on most AR-15 pattern rifles, is something that newbies might not totally understand. You’ll find the forward assist assembly on the right-hand side of your rifle (for most guns) directly below the charging handle.

Some details may get glossed over for the sake of brevity here, and since this is more for newbies…bear with me. Or get angry in the comments section.

The forward assist is a holdover feature from an older time, as semi-automatic rifles of the early to mid-20th century (M1, M1 Carbine, the M14, and others) had the capability of being forced into battery. There is some discussion of whether they should even be installed on a rifle in the first place, which we’ll go over in a bit.

AR-15 Forward Assist
Sam Hoober for TTAG

A forward assist is used to push the rifle’s bolt carrier groups closed. To actuate it, you press the button on the forward assist assembly. This moves the bolt forward and chambers a round. The intended effect is usually to force a round into the chamber if it hangs up for any reason, sort of like the old trick of hitting the slide of a semi-auto pistol with the heel of your hand in the case of a failure to feed.

The AR-15 forward assist was added to the rifle at the behest of the Army as Eugene Stoner (and the Air Force) actually didn’t believe it was necessary on his original design that became the M16 rifle. Colt created the forward assist assembly, including a pawl (the thing you press) a plunger (which engages with the receiver to send it forward) a spring and a roll pin. To actuate it, you press the pawl, pushing the plunger forward. That engages with teeth on the bolt, pushing it forward.

When the bolt carrier group closes, the forward assist spring pushes the pawl back out. A fairly simple device, all in all.

Since forward assists are standard equipment on AR-15 pattern rifles, there is an aftermarket industry of different pawl designs to customize your gun, such as those made by Strike Industries and many others. The feature was kept on civilian market AR-pattern rifles as, after all, lots of people want to buy the guns (or a facsimile thereof) that the professionals use so it had better look mil-spec.

Why would you use a forward assist? Basically to close the bolt if a round doesn’t fully seat in the chamber and holds the bolt open. It wasn’t an uncommon design feature for the day. As mentioned, the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine and M14 all had external forward assist functions (you could slam the bolt home if needed) as well. In the heat of battle, that’s a good thing to have…on paper, anyway.

Sam Hoober for TTAG

Now we get to the discussion of whether a forward assist is necessary.

First, there are a few different reasons why a cartridge will fail to feed. One reason is that you just have a bad round, which happens. Another is that you have a dirty bolt carrier and/or receiver, fouled by carbon deposits and other detritus. Another still is that the bolt carrier failed to return to battery due to a bad spring, improper shooting, act of God or what-have-you as semi-auto rifles can be touchier than bolt-action rifles.

Each of these problems is caused by something that a forward assist does nothing to ameliorate, though in the case of a rogue failure to feed, it can get the gun back into battery.

In any case, a malfunction is an indicator that Something Is Wrong. Forcing the gun to operate won’t correct that and could actually result in catastrophe. Additionally, the forward assist could completely seize the bolt carrier and receiver by forcing a deformed round into the chamber.

Since most AR-pattern rifles are owned by civilians who use them to punch paper…are they really that necessary?

Arguably not. A round can be cleared and the rifle returned to battery by pulling the charging handle in many cases. If insufficient cleaning and/or lubrication is the issue, the fix is time spent with a cleaning rod and patches.

What is the best thing to do, then, if you have a malfunction?

First, perform a press check or visual check that a round is chambered by pulling the charging handle back enough to open the bolt and have a look. (Make sure the rifle is pointed in a safe direction first, of course.) Unload by taking out the magazine and ejecting the round. Reload, and see if the issue repeats. If so, try moving the bolt by hand by pulling on it with a fingertip or moving it with your thumb.

If it doesn’t move or fully seat when pulled by a finger, chances are you have an issue that a forward assist won’t help with.

Hunters will sometimes use the forward assist in the field. They will slowly ride their charging handle closed to chamber a round. The idea is to close the bolt quietly so as not to spook game. Sometimes that results in a round not fully seating the the chamber. That’s when they’ll use the forward assist to push the bolt closed and fully chamber the round.

While arguably redundant, a forward assist can quickly get the gun back into battery in the right conditions and so so quickly. They’re functional, to be sure, but are also arguably unnecessary…though that isn’t going to stop a lot of AR-15 rifle makers from installing them.

What do you think, though? Necessary feature or useless relic? Sound off in the comments.

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  1. the only people that really understand it
    are those that have had to use it to get their rifle back up and running
    or use it regularly in the field when hunting
    and btw
    theres lots of stuff
    that stoner didnt put on his original rifle
    that few people would go without today
    just like theres stuff he did put on his original rifle
    that few people would want on it today
    its time for a new argument

  2. I think they serve a purpose, though limited.

    the hunting, as mentioned in the article.

    they can also work in combat and self defense, if you’re firing from a bad position, such as being on your back, the excess movement in the rifle can cause a jam.
    this was evidenced clearly on film in the kyle rittenhouse shooting. while he was on his back(where he shot #2 & 3) he had a failure to go into battery because the rifle had excessive movement due to his improvised shooting position.
    after he popped skater boy he had the jam and he corrected it using the forward assist when he popped the guy in the arm that was pointing a gun at him.

    had he not had the forward assist, he’d likely have been killed. he wasn’t in a position to run the charging handle quickly enough.

      • What most people do not know is that Kyle Rittenhouse, although looked and portrayed a young man, was actually a 47 year old Texas Ranger working for the sea eye aye.

        • From a marsupial’s point-of-view, a hero like Kyle would look like a government agent… 🙂

      • If you were in the Army, at least when I read in the Army, the forward assist was a part of SPORTS for a misfire.
        -Slap upward on the magazine
        -Pull back on charging handle
        -Observe (ejection of round, clear chamber
        -Release charging handle
        -Tap forward assist
        If you didn’t practice this perfectly, in order, hell to pay.

        • In the Air Force. it was skipped and shortened to SPORT. Slap, Pull, Observe, Release, Trigger.

  3. The AR-15 Forward Assist … our cover story is blown ’cause the anti-gun has discovered its the secret button that makes a civilian market semi-auto AR-15 fire full auto.

    (yes, a lot of them actually believe this.)

  4. I’ll take anything that will keep an AR up and running. I’ve started on the range with a clean M-16 and had to use the forward assist after less than 500 rds. On the issue with the M-1, etc. The charging handle doubles as a forward assist. I think that’s convenient. Although, I’ve never had to employ it in that capacity. They’ve always worked. As for the deformed round being forced into the chamber; how did it it get into the magazine to begin with? You should be giving your ammunition a curisory inspection as you load it.
    As an aside. My agency has a weapon that is marked Colt and Armalite AR-15, pencil barrel, three prong flash suppressor, OD green furniture, full-auto. No forward assist. It was recovered from the cockpit of a DC-3 that had landed on a local crop duster air strip. Fuel issues. The cargo was an issue also. The pilot must have went looking for fuel and was unsuccessful. Anyway, the last time anyone knew where it was supposed to be was on a U.S. Navy base in Key West, FL. Oh, it has a hard chrome bolt, but not the chamber and bore.

    • “pencil barrel, three prong flash suppressor, OD green furniture, full-auto“

      Yep, one of the original military contract full auto AR15 that preceded the M 16.
      Probably a relative of the coconut AR15 military contract sample rifle.

    • That crop duster weapon sounds like my issue m16. It had no forward assist. Duct tape was holding the forward handguards on and a bent nail served to keep the forward sling swivel attached.

      It had character.

    • it’s a Colt Model 01, aka 601. If it has the original barrel, it’s a 1 in 14″. A factory made full auto .223 AR-15 made prior to adoption of the model 603 with the name M16 and NATO acceptance of the 5.56. Colt licensed the design from Armalite, so it has both roll marks. About 14k were made, and I think most went to the Air Force after Lemay saw one demoed.

  5. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. The author has his pawl and plunger mixed up though. The user pushes the plunger and the pawl engages the teeth in the bolt.

  6. Forward Assist is used to help silent charging the weapon. It is also used to test bolt function on both the AR-15 and AR-308. Forward assist lets one know if the extractor is too stiff and/or if the ejector is too stiff, sticking, etc.
    On an AR-15 a thumb push should close the bolt on a live round in a safe area. For an AR-308 a heel push should close the bolt on a live round in a safe area. Actually bolts should be fully disassembled to check for double O-Rings and an extra inner mini spring and remove them. Unnecessary extras are not so much a problem with the AR-15 BCG but are with the AR-308 BCG.

    For the assist to work best the extractor needs to be detailed for function and to limit scrapping brass off the case rim. The ejector spring and plunger should be deburred, polished and lubed. Although there are ways around it ejector removal/installation should be performed with proper tools.

      • I had a chevy dealer who’s repair shop would do the same thing. And you’d always find the spare parts on the floor when you got your car back.

      • gotta start somewhere but personally I’d rather start with a real rifle. never have liked the ar or the m16a1 my uncle gave me to use. much prefer the fal or a good ak variant

        • I’ve shot a few g3/hk91 and a couple hk93s. the g3 is a nice rifle, recoil seems somewhat harsher than the fal but I would rather have the 93 over the ar IF I had to use a 5.56

  7. How many shooters have actually had to resort to using the forward assist for its intended purpose? After sending tens of thousands of rounds down range during during many qualification & training sessions spanning 3+ decades, I know I never have.

    • IMO…Forward Assist is like having a spare tire even though you have driven around the world twice without having a flat. I suggest checking your forward assist for function and be glad it’s there just in case the target is the kind that shoots back.

      • I’ve changed plenty of flat tires. Just sayin’. It’s also good to check the pressure in your spare every now and then. It’s no fun to throw your spare on only to realize it’s low or flat too.

        • Once a month, I check mine, including the spare. Got a blowout a couple months ago, passenger rear tire, and all four were brand new. I was only going 25 MPH and it sounded like an airplane was landing behind my car! The sidewall had a catastrophic rupture in it. This was no nail or screw, but I found no evidence of a foreign object. It took 3 days for the dealer to source another tire of the same make and specs. All tires these days, it seems, are made in S.Korea.

    • Kyle Rittenhouse might be dead if he didn’t use his.
      He’s the biggest poster child for this thing now.

    • I’ve used the Forward Assist on an M16A1 several times. Also, Tap-Rack-Bang is simplistic … The author gets his immediate action for a malfunction completely wrong. Proper immediate action on an M16/AR15 is SPORTS – Slap (the magazine), Pull (the charging handle, Observe (the chamber), Release (the charging handle), Tap (the forward assist), Shoot ….. Seriously …. Press check to see if a round is chambered? This isn’t a frigging Sig P320 ….. Slap, Pull, Observe, Release, Tap, Shoot ….. it’s not hard. And yes, you should be using the forward assist.

      Then again, I’ve shot M-16’s in real life, not just on the pristine range, with brand new mags, clean ammo, etc.

      Tactical environment is not the range

  8. Forward assist is to make up for the AR’s inherent design flaws. It’s taken 40 years of technology to finally address them and have products available on the market.
    -Replace bolt head cam pin with POF roller cam pin ($35).
    -Use LMT, POF, LWRC, Surfire BCG, each of these companies have changed the geometry preventing out of battery situations or for cheaper get Teflon coated BCG as a start.
    -Go piston with new rifle or conversion kit

    If you aren’t trudging through mud or in the frozen tundra your rifle shouldn’t have any problems if it’s optimized properly, regardless of ammo selection.

    • Marketers like to create “flaws” which only their expensive parts will fix. With nearly 10 million AR’s built, millions in service for over 45 years in America alone, and millions overseas, the flaws aren’t there except in manufacturer catalogs. The basic parts of the 15 remain the same and have for a very long time.

      As said, Command wanted some way to jam a round into the chamber and at the time they were dealing with repurposed powder being used in the ammo, tight chambers from the ramp up in production, and micromanaging a solution when the subject matter experts were being ignored creating the first two problems. SPORTS was the second solution, which avoids jamming up a bent round that should never have been loaded, but doesn’t always fix the real problem.

      Two major myths are press checking and silent loading. If you have done it right, you press check when you read the magazine hasn’t picked up a round. Look to see which was presented, left or right, load, drop mag, and see that it’s been chambered. You do that BEFORE leaving the wire – or the hunting grounds parking lot. That fixes the second issue, silent loading in the field, which means you didn’t do that in the parking lot? Why not? You are already dealing with car doors slamming etc, why make the mistake of potentially making alarming noises by accident in the field plus forcing your self to press check to see if it was done correctly.

      When I go hunting and I step off the base rock in the lot, Im hunting, right then – and I can’t remember all the times I jumped a deer just a few minutes up the trail where they had bedded down. Wandering around with an unloaded rifle isn’t hunting, it’s an example of how not to do it right.

      Load it before you leave the wire and quit resorting to band aid processes later. Wandering around with an unloaded rifle it a lot like carrying concealed with nothing in the chamber. Just no.

      The origins of the Forward Assist are pretty well described but I would suggest its a matter of pressing the Plunger to force the Pawl forward engaging the serrations in the bolt carrier.

  9. My lowly S&W Sport has no FA. Or a dust cover. Never needed. You DO know you can manually push the gat into battery???🙄Oh & I want the round out…my buddy gotta one with and thought he should loaf it like that!

  10. Better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. I personally have only seen on used just once on a two way firing range. But for the guy that used it. It very well may have saved his life.

  11. Your paragraph, “Hunters will sometimes use the forward assist in the field. They will slowly ride their charging handle closed to chamber a round. The idea is to close the bolt quietly so as not to spook game. Sometimes that results in a round not fully seating the the chamber. That’s when they’ll use the forward assist to push the bolt closed and fully chamber the round.” is really the only times I’ve had to use the forward assist, it is handy in those cases.

  12. The gun world is full of all sorts of funny little things like this. From survival rifles to turkey guns. Shot shells measured in drams and zombie bullets. Let’s not forget assault weapons and Saturday Night Specials. There are reasons the variable choke never really lasted.

    Some things are niche and others are just horrible design. But never let it be said that the world hasn’t been done everything under the sun to advance firearms along.

  13. The “silent charging” is one reason for it, but the most important reason is using a press check.

    It would be foolish to press check and then trust that the bolt is fully in battery, without tapping the forward assist.

  14. The only time I might have used a FA on my AR15 (it is a slick side), there was something wrong with the rifle that needed a repair. Otherwise, since I am not slogging through mud, ducking branches in the forest, or on a two way range (and at my age never will), I have no need of a FA to shoot paper.

    • Those Iraqi troops were so screwed on so many levels, it shouldn’t have been funny, (yet it was 🙂 ) some of those poor bastards were told they didn’t need to precisely aim, that Allah would guide their bullet to the infidels…

  15. One thing I think many have missed is that we have been manually closing the bolt since we have been loading firearms from the breech. Why is this a question?

  16. I’ve actually used it, in Iraq none the less. Rifle was dirty. Not something you use frequently but good to have in less than ideal conditions.

  17. Holdover my ass. Outside of a clean pew-pew play range, out in the real world of the field this weapon system really needs it. Cosplay dweebs may not believe it is so but I’ve used and needed it, Kyle Rittenhouse used and needed it. Many of the combat arms soldiers I served with needed it too. In the real world there is grit and sand and other detritus that can snd will find itself into the bolt group which can be just enough to cause things to fail to go completely into battery.

    The difference between theory and practice is that in theory there is no difference…

    • This is what folks don’t get …. In the real world your rifle or pistol gets gunked up. It’s reality. You better know immediate action for that malfunction. Not talking the malfunction that happens on the pretty range with the clean gun. The malfunction when your M16 or AR15 is being used in the real world while you are crawling around in crap. Do you know what SPORTS is? Bet you don’t ….. I’ve used SPORTS in combat while shit was going sideways.

      If you plan on using an AR15 as a self-defense weapon, you better assume the worst and train for the worst.

    • Agreed. This seems like a product of the wars ending. Not saying the wars ending is a bad thing, but the real deal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been over for awhile now. You just don’t have the same combat tours rotating back to the states sharing their experiences like you did 10/20 years ago. The vast majority of people in the military these days under 30 have never deployed. Law enforcement weapons typically don’t endure shit tons of sand and mud. Civilians shooting at range typically don’t abuse their weapons. So you have a lot of shooters these days who have never had to use it wonder why it’s there.

  18. Presumably it does not take much to get an assaulter to move forward , evidently there are times when they need assisted.

  19. Back in ancient history, I have had to make use of the forward assist. Crawling around in jungles and sand dunes is a world of difference from a nice neat range. In my civilian issue Ar, I may have used the FA a couple times busting coyotes or racoons etc.
    As a combat weapon, I was not a fan of the M-16 A-1 or A-2 models. Later models had dealt with early issues. Current models seem to be less prone to feed or ammo problems.
    Personal preference for a combat rifle would be either the M-14 or an FAL. While the AK is a very reliable rifle, accuracy at range is limited. Not an issue with soviet/Russian doctrine. Their doctrine is hold on to the belt buckle and slug it out. We see the results in Ukraine today. Lots of dead soldiers for limited gain.
    And I have seen badly abused and poorly maintained AK’s still function. With enough crud and dirt in them that would have locked up an M-16. Of course, hitting a man sized target beyond 100 meters was pure luck.
    So, under nice clean range conditions, or light use as a varmint rifle, you likely won’t need an FA. In the dirt and crud of combat or extended use in the field or unusual firing positions, there just may be a real need of the FA. If it could be the difference between life or death, or eating or starving, best to have it and not need it rather than need it and not have it.

  20. So there I was,bangitty bang bang. Oooagggh they got me. Wasn’t dead yet but they was crawling into my burrow, so I faked it. I could hear em talking, ” “Sonabitch, we shot this guy up for a fckn HiPoint,,,, some rotten turnips,,,, and , whats this???chicken bones. FCK”. Then they got busy digging around in my corn shucks and tuna fish cans, digging around looking for other sht to steal. They was busy watching for rats and looking for sht to take that they forgot about me cause they thought I was dead. I kept one eye squinty eye open, you know the squinty eye. Well I waited till one was swatting at a rat and the other guyses was watching, thats when I made a sneaky exit out of my other tunnel hole. Lucky for me I was just about to the entrance of my other tunnel hole when they found the AR that had a wire wrapped around the knob on the forward assist.
    Nice thing about being frugal, blowing them clean out of the ground would have had me and the buzzards fighting over the bits and pieces scattered everywhere. This away the ground just sagged in with not much dirt in the air or shaked up like you get and they suffocated to death nice n peaceful.
    So there you have it.
    To much explosives is bad.
    And a Forward Assist is useful.

  21. As mentioned in comments above, the charging handle on the M1 Carbine doubles as a forward assist. The first couple of rounds in an M1 Carbine magazine can bind, and the bolt carrier spring might not be strong enough to overcome that bind. So, I was taught (in the Air Force) to give the charging handle a nudge with the heel of my hand automatically upon loading a fresh magazine. It’s a habit I’ve never broken to this day with my own M1 Carbine.

    • Even with a fresh mainspring my Garands also usually need a little punch to close on a new clip. I imagine that experience with older designs drove the forward assist requirement even though ARs only need it when you heavily ride the charging handle.

  22. “Additionally, the forward assist could completely seize the bolt carrier and receiver by forcing a deformed round into the chamber.”
    The one and only time I ever used the FA, this happened. Removed them from all my AR’s after that.


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