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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105 COMMENTS

  1. This is the only time a forward assist was ever “necessary” for my shooting needs.

    “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.”

  2. It was good enough for my M16 in the Army, both my AR’s have it….used to it being there. Used it only once on my M16 but that was after lots of rounds and happy giggle switching. Got a little toasty, and dry. hit the FA then shot in some Break Free. Good to go after that.

    Better to have and not need than need and not have.

    • My SP1 didn’t have the forward assist. Never needed one because I used cheap factory ammunition. A few people with A2s with tight chambered match barrels and hand loaded ammunition needed to use the forward assist occasionally.

    • Stoner didn’t even design the weapon to have a FA because it added weight and didn’t do shit… and the only reason it is on there is because the procurement folks in the army demanded it. Here were Stoners thoughts… “Stoner stated that after many types of testing programs, “I never saw an instance where it would have done any good … under sand and mud and every type of firing conditions in the world.” He also stated, “… when you get a cartridge that won’t seat in a rifle and you deliberately drive it in (to the chamber), usually you are buying yourself more trouble.”

        • The designer of the gun himself said as much which is why he didn’t include it in the origina design, and the only reason it was retrofitted into the design was so that the generals would buy the product.

    • >Better to have and not need than need and not have.

      Yes, this is why I carry a boat anchor in my car — never know when a high wind might try to blow it out of the driveway.

  3. Oh no, a good feature.

    Minor correction:

    “That engages with teeth on the receiver, pushing it forward.”

    The plunger actually engages teeth on the bolt carrier, not the receiver.

    Although to be fair, the bolt carrier could be viewed as the receiver because it houses the bolt and firing pin…

  4. The only AR I have with one is a mil-spec I bought as-is (my first AR as it happens). I refuse to have one otherwise, whether a built or bought. They add unnecessary weight, complexity (admittedly, not much), but worst of all, incentive to do bad things. If you have a failure to feed or go into battery, you need to get that round out of the gun, not try to force it in. The chances are much higher that the round is bad or there’s some other obstruction, then there is that its just a fluke and it didn’t feed, assuming you aren’t using garbage gear (mag, BCG, excess fouling, etc.). Do a proper clearance drill, not the attempted “easy fix” that will probable just make things worse anyway. If a tap and rack doesn’t fix it, go to your secondary (you do have a secondary, right?) until you have a moment to asses the problem properly.

    • This. I have attempted to use the forward assist three times, and it just makes problems worse. Maybe if you have a worn out buffer spring that isn’t strong enough to reliably return the rifle to battery it could have some merit… but that’s a crutch.

  5. I got buttons on my pickup I ain’t never pushed yet. I didn’t have them removed to buy the truck.
    Don’t make issues where there are none.

  6. It’s the appendix of the AR15. I might not ever need it but it was born with one.

    I do consider it to be completely worthless for 9mm AR pistols. There are plenty of uppers made with no assist. That’s the best thing about building AR’s, have it your way.

    • Well no, it was added much later because of the calcium carbonate coating on the Olin ball powder being used in the cartridge, rather than the IMR that was speced by Eugene stoner.

      It seems the hygroscopic effects of the calcium carbonate residue in the gas tube and bolt carrier group absorbed moisture in damp climates and caused failure to fully chamber.

      The colt SP1 sporter also did not have forward assist.

  7. Got one on my Bushmaster XM-15 E2S. Never had to use it…Yet. It’s always better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it. As with most things in life proper maintenance prevents most, but not all malfunctions. Keep Your Powder Dry.
    P.S. Thanks for fixing the site…Especially the font.

  8. Better to have it, and not need it, than need it and not have it.

    What is the AR/M16 used for? Government wise, nasty fights. I would rather FORCE a gun to shoot, than have is not shoot, if someone is shooting back at me

  9. Well my Smith & Wesson Sport has no forward assist(or dust cover)…5 star review on TTAG! If I have a bad round I want it out…I don’t miss what I don’t have. Not a Hunter,recreational shooter or militia member. Just need it for the coming apocalypse. Thought it was here with TTAG skewing weird😕😕😕😕

  10. Its an unnecessary protruding device, period. What other weapon has to use this feature? Yeah 416s and others, which ive used still baffles me. Better have it and not need it statement, retarded. I got buttons on my truck i havent used statement, retarded. There is a reason why quality manufacturers like PWS don’t use them, past mod 1, cause they are worthless, you either have a inferior weapon or a malfunction in which there are remedies for both that don’t include an FA.

    • Yes, but how do you really feel about it? Is it retarded?

      Because using the word “retarded” multiple times against fellow TTAG’ers regarding a non-issue is the best way to get your point across… [/sarc]

    • You idiot…. keep your childish comments to yourself….
      The forward assist has a legitimate function, unlike your commentary….

      • Saying a statement is retarded and directly calling someone an idiot are two different things. Which usually makes you and idiot, idiot!

        The finny thing is, you nor Haz has anything to add that defeats my statement that they are worthless protruding devices. So, f’off.

        • Well, since you don’t even have a grasp of basic English or how to properly communicate with it, we must wonder about your curious attempts to tell everyone their own comments are “retarded”. Hence the admonishment.

          Carry on.

      • The only time I use my FA is when I put my laser bore sighter in the chamber. You have to ride the bolt forward and it doesn’t always fully seat. If you just release the bolt, you’ve just destroyed the bore sight.

    • Something tells me (J.S.) Francis here didn’t have a good New Years Eve. Mommy wouldn’t loan him the car so he could go out and play. Had to stay in the basement and play with himself. Poor little Snowflake gonna melt in his own lap.

    • J. Smith – I suspect you too are the owner of an ‘unnecessary protruding device’…

      since we’re being juvenile and all

  11. Listen shitbird you can’t slowly close the bold without using it .I use it everytime I hunt with one. So don’t tell me it is pointless or crappy weapon.

    • I beg to differ. One can close the bolt quietly without forward assist. A simple push on the port door indent on the bolt carrier with the index finger works quite satisfactorily.

        • LarryInTX,

          While I agree with you completely, some states have hunting laws which forbid carrying a loaded rifle afield before or after official hunting hours. Thus it would be illegal to have a cartridge chambered in your rifle as you walk to your hunting location in the morning before first legal shooting light. In that situation your only legal option is to chamber a cartridge at your hunting location at the first second of legal shooting light.

  12. If I load my ammunition correctly I have no need for a F A,all ammunition is gauged thru a Sheridan minimum gauge.

  13. Ok, so the only real reason for the FA is for chambering a round quietly. Whereas this might be great for using an AR for hunting or possibly in some sort of defensive situation, it serves little good in any other circumstances. The whole “fixing a malfunction” thing is debatable and may or may not make sense.

    It’s a small thing that really isn’t worth much of a discussion (or argument). The more interesting aspects of it to me are more about the fact that people love to follow ‘mil-spec’ anything and that when they have a button of some kind there is a psychological need to push it. I think there was a Twilight Zone episode made about that.

  14. The person who wrote this must have never hunted with an AR15. Or they never understood why the game they were hunting, always ran away at the sound of the bolt slamming forward.

    • Maybe you missed this 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.”

  15. If viewed from a no shit combat engagement where weapons are in the mud, dirt, sand and have all manner of flora pinched buy the BCG and airborn debris flying at all angles : odds are some of it will create “temporary” minor failure to go into full battery position. The fwd assist may overcome slight impairments. These are “Stoppages” , an interruption in the cycle of operation, whereas “Malfunctions” require a higher level of maintenance to correct. Bolt Actions have been overriding minor debis for over a century without fanfare.

    Military Remedial Action drills like SPORTS, include “T” Tap the Fwd Assist. So the Line in the Sand is a. It’s unnecessary for a Range Toy. b. Might save you butt. Some ARs don’t have a Fwd Assist: your choice.

    • Using a forward assist is a good way to jam gunk into the chamber with the round so that you need to pound the spent case out with a rod. If you get really lucky, the extractor tears the head off and leaves the rest in the chamber, so you need a case extractor. Maybe that one round now is worth not having a functional rifle until you return from the field.

  16. There is no problem that cannot be made worse with forward assist. Also the USMC didn’t want it either, but yet the big green shoved it down everybody’s throat and then proceeded to screw up a perfectly fine design. And no less than Clint Smith, founder of Thunder Ranch, who when calling out specs for his signature rifle vehemently declined the addition of the forward assist.

    • Stoner designed a weapon that shits where it eats, which was fine as designed as he also specified WHAT it was supposed to be fed. Then money politics (DuPont) bribed the war dept. to specify the use of their ball powder which burned much dirtier than Stoner’s spec powder. The forward assist was made necessary by a change made post- design, not a design flaw… i.e., if it ain’t broke, fix it till it is.

      • Calcium carbonate coating on the ball powder, instead of the IMR specified.
        If memory serves me correctly, I understood that Olin had a sole supply contract and forced the use of their ball propellant.

      • Winchester made the ball powder, Dupont made the cleaner burning IMR stick powder.

        As a personal preference, I won’t have it on my guns, but, like many, I make my own guns, so it is my choice.

    • That is right.

      Your DoD, Defense Acquisition Logistics, awards the contract to the bidder who met the most requirements at the lowest cost.

      So, the M16, M4 etc is not the best firearm in production.
      Just the one at the lowest cost.
      And all those AR15 owners bought into that mentality.

      • I think it is hilariously funny that so many politicians have bough into the mentality that AR15’s are the most horrific weapons of war that they need to be removed from civilized society at ALL costs. No other gun matters. Just get the AR15 off the streets.

  17. I was trained by the Air Force on the M1 Carbine (many many moons ago). The forward assist on the Carbine is the slide operating handle. We were instructed that, when loading the piece, we were to let the slide (and bolt) fly forward and then give the operating handle a nudge with the heel of the (right) hand to make sure the first round Seated properly. I always thought it was because a fully loaded magazine might not want to let go of the first round. But, now, I can see where that nudge might be necessary in dusty or muddy conditions.

    Anyway, old habits are hard to break. I have an M1 Carbine (replica), and I still give the operating handle that little nudge when I load it. However, I don’t think I have ever had an actual loading hang up either then or now. And I’ve always shot the M1 Carbine with factory-fresh ammunition. But then, I never have had to shoot the thing in dusty or muddy conditions, or with reloads.

  18. Sometimes the US Military may use ammo from other suppliers in NATO (or other non-aligned countries) 5.56

    The FA allows chambering when ammo might be slightly off as well. Contrast that with how loose a 7.62 AK tolerances are.

    If it’s me and I need to put rounds down range I’m shooting what I got on hand, jammed in or not, but that’s a personal decision I reckon.

  19. The Forward Assist is completely unnecessary in the AR’s I own and shoot. But then these are not combat weapons they are target shooters, paper punchers, now and then coyote whackers. For my needs I would have prefeed the upper receivers of my guns not have the thing.

    The military use question is a very different animal. All theory aside, my question is who has been in combat and found the FA to be a life saver?

  20. Just wanted to say I really have my doubts about the FA helping you in most cases. If you’re shooting your AR and it doesn’t go bang when you pull the trigger, you’ve probably dropped the hammer down. (If you haven’t you’ve gotten a problem that a FA probably won’t fix.) At the point you use the FA it’s not really going to do anything for you since the hammer needs to get reset. It seems to be false security to me.

  21. You can push the bolt forward with your thumb, that’s what the grove on it is for, if that won’t do the job, forward assist would only make the issue worse, it’s nothing but a bureaucrat added snag point and dirt hole. 🙂

      • I don’t believe the “groove” is for that purpose as you can buy bolts w/o it and the cover still works. It’s the original forward assist and if it’s hot you won’t push hard enough to force debris into your chamber.

  22. Never used it as a civilian, but used it a few times doing SPORTS remedial drills and when firing blanks during FTXs when conditions were poor and the blank ammo extra carbon-y.

  23. I’m on the internet and I regurgitate other opinions about things to sound smart. I also disregard the experience of an entire military force and their research that led to a device because they didn’t digitize that information in a way that was easily searchable by the people I copied my opinion from. I also disregard all the tactics and current experiences that have been taught and used over the last 50 years because I never needed it.

  24. When I built my one and only AR-15 I selected a slick sided receiver without a FA or a shell deflector.. When I first took it out, it kept jamming, but that was an issue with the chamber not being drilled right (the throat was too short). Got that fixed and all is good. I can put a box to my right and just behind me and it will drop the cases right in it. Since I just shoot paper, I am happy with my set up.

  25. Have used the forward assist only a few times. Usually a cartridge that for some reason is a bit impeded by debris or lube issue. Otherwise just eject with charging handle of course. Don’t have a high end AR, but likely it’s comparable to what Vietnam era soldiers used (could be wrong). In that case certainly after some intense usage, but between opportunities to clean, I can imagine why the forward assist was eventually felt necessary in the field, even if rarely used. The stakes were high.
    It’s a clunky half assed solution to a problem that seems wasn’t supposed to exist for the AR-15 design and function (except proving Murphy’s Law). Perhaps unnecessary these days for most uses. But why depend on something just about as klugy as a charging handle? What’s the opinion on getting rid of two controls in opposite directions for just a plain old unfashionable, simple bolt lever?

  26. All my ARs have a forward assist. I’ve never had to use it but I just think it makes the rifle look complete and cool. And gun aesthetics matter.

  27. Uh, actually that little dished out area in your bolt carrier is intended for the rare times you might need to nudge it forward.

    The external forward assist likely ties its lineage to when the Army refused to use the correct powder and tried to turn the M16 into the jamamatic since they were ticked their own weapon was beat out.

    I prefer slick sided uppers, but the ones I have with provision for a forward assist instead get the EGW (I think) plug. Cheaper, lighter and simpler.

    • “…Uh, actually that little dished out area in your bolt carrier is intended for the rare times you might need to nudge it forward…”

      I believe I read an interview by Stoner a long time ago that stated exactly that. Can’t locate it now but I believe he was talking about an original AR with charging hook under the carrying handle as well. Pre-forward assist.

      Older I get the more stuff I can’t remember. lol

  28. Your paragraph is what I use it for.

    “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.”

    In my 25 years of shooting and owning ARs I’ve never had to use the forward assist to force chamber a round, mainly because I clean and maintain my firearms properly BUT I can not count the many times I’ve used it to quietly prepare before a hunt.

  29. I have one with and one without. Never used them. Not even during combat. It’s there for a reason, just not a very good one or a very reliable one. Like every scenario, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  30. Command insisted in the FA, not the designer, who was a properly qualified engineer and Marine. As weapons were transitioning from the older bolt gun traditions into self loading actions, having an external operating handle connected to the bolt was still a concern for older soldiers who ignorantly required it. Hence, “you go to war with what you have” not what will be needed. The FA is an anachronism and “It’s MILSPEC” isn’t really a good reason – milspec is in reality the cheapest acceptable standard, not the leading edge gamechanger. Don’t forget it was the Air Force who got these fielded originally, not the hidebound black shiny boots and white name tape Army fighting in the bush with full color patches. And that the original M16 a nothings had no FA. That is how it was really sold.

    If the weapon is so dirty that it won’t chamber a round, running a patch down the bore isn’t going to fix it. Likely not the problem at all, as ammo, mags, and operator error are the top three causes of malfunction. Look at weapons again – most previous designs were Exposed Bolt, Stoner covered it up and there are only two major points of dirt ingress – the ejection port, which only exposes a small portion of the bolt carrier, and the magazine well, which is deeply shrouded. It goes to the ejection port cover would have been better off spring loaded to the closed position, not open, to keep dirt off the bolt carrier. But, that may have had other issues, like, freezing rain etc. Soldiering can suck, a lot. Today’s mindset is all about desert warfare, the survivors of the Battle of the Bulge may have a different idea of what causes a stoppage – ice and snow in the open action of a Springfield or Garand can be a cause.

    As for the mag well, dirt/debris entering it is much more likely inserted by the magazine itself. Hence the Army using full coverage mag pounches, drainage holes, and requiring the mags to be inserted bullets down, to shelter the open feed lips. Don’t insert a dirty mag, you don’t get a malfunction. As much as cleaning the M16 has been preached over the decades, magazine maintenance is horribly ignored. Compare the number of threads discussing what miracle oil to use lubing the AR vs what best practices cleaning magazines. Probably 25 to 1 in gun forums. We are doing it wrong.

    As for silently closing the bolt keep in mind other contemporary designs in the day weren’t attaching a handle to the bolt, the G3/HK91 for instance. It has a similar shallow in the side of the bolt carrier when exposed at the ejection port, and they even serrate it for more grip. The pressure of the action spring is all that is needed on a self loading design, if there are friction points, then the underside of the feed lips and how the round is angled off the mag follower to the chamber is likely as much a culprit as a fouled receiver slowing the bolt carrier. Considering the huge clearance carrier vs receiver vs mag spring pressure and slam bam chambering, it’s another area largely ignored by shooters.

    No, the FA was a knee jerk reactionary move by Command “who knew better” than the trained and experienced Subject Matter Experts who had used weapons in combat, had education and schooling in mechanical design, and who were ignored once the design had been sold to Colt. By that point, whatever Army wanted was OK to keep a profitable contract moving along, including reusing repurposed powder, contracting for barrels outside of Colt to keep up with a massive increase in demand, and worse yet, fielding them without cleaning kits because somebody sold the idea the M16 needed less. Compared to the previous generations with exposed actions, yes. Stripping down a gas cylinder on the Garand is not quickly done in the field during a lull in the action, and can actually render the gun inoperable due to that cheap low bidder powder that is still specified all too often.

    BTW, in this era of CCW, etc, why are people not loading their firearms in the parking lot? Deer have bounded from their layup more often than not when I walk into my stand, long before I have arrived. Hiking in with an unloaded gun slung over my shoulder has never been a smart move. You are hunting the moment you “cross the wire” – which goes to who are the real Fudds trying to “silently close a bolt afield?”

  31. I have rarely needed the FA — but when I needed it, I was happy it was there. So it may only help once in a blue moon, but I can’t think of a situation where it hurt to have one.

  32. As I’ve heard it stated elsewhere, maybe you shouldn’t be forcing your bolt to do something it really doesn’t want to do.

  33. There are people with very significant military credentials, on both sides of this argument.

    One instructor that I took a class with at Academi felt it was an essential tool to ensure the bolt was in battery after a press check. He also felt that only an idiot would try to pound a round into the chamber with one.

  34. My Air Force M16 didn’t have one. I never needed one, but never was in combat either.
    My personal AR does have one. Still never needed it but its not hurting anything.

  35. Kyle Rittenhouse has settled this discussion once and for all. He’s alive because of his forward assist. OF course he could have used a Mini 14 and it would have never jammed to begin with.

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