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.