The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Matt Sandy for TTAG
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The AR-15 carry handle has long been a subject of come controversy. Is it a sight platform, a carry handle, or both? The original ArmaLite M16 design elevated the sights as a result of the charging handle that stuck out the top of the upper receiver.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Public domain image

But the carry handle design stuck, even after the charging handle was relocated to the back of the receiver where it is now. And if you have an A1 or A2 style rifle and want to attach an ACOG or other magnified optic, there are carry handle scope mounts for that.

ar-15 carry handle
courtesy opticsplanet.com

So no, it doesn’t seem like the AR carry handle was originally designed as a carry handle, but it sure made for a near-perfect one.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Courtesy Daniel Defense

That changed when flat-top rifles became the new standard. Flat-top rifles spurred the creation of detachable rail mount carry handles for those who still want their sights mounted high.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
courtesy Brownells and DPMS

The detachable version mounts to the rifle’s mil-spec Picatinny rail via two thumb nuts. But there’s one problem with most of these “carry handles”…most of them are not very good for actually carrying your rifle. That’s because they generally have more of a low profile than the originals and don’t allow enough space to really get your fingers in there. I doubt that was an accident.

If you really want to use your detachable handle to carry your rifle, buy one like this.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
courtesy liongears.com

Even if you have a detachable version that works as an actual carry handle, its status and usefulness depends on who you talk to.

Looking at it solely as a mount for rear iron sights, the “carry handle” is pretty great. It’s very solid, so good luck breaking it. More importantly, it provides a great sight picture.

Full disclosure: during my military career, I only shot red dot sights on my M4s. CCO in basic and EOTechs after that. That makes me a target-focused shooter.

Near the end of my service, I acquired a detachable carry handle sight for an AR I had just built for a 3-gun match. I was worried that I would be a lot slower with the irons, but was pleasantly surprised by how well they worked for me.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Tyler Kee for TTAG

Even though I was focused on the target and the sights were fuzzy shapes in my peripherals, the large wings on the sides of the rear sight made it easy to line them up and get accurate hits quickly. The dual aperture design helped with this too.

The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Image courtesy the author
The Truth About the AR-15 Carry Handle
Image courtesy the author

While the large peep makes it easier to pick up the front sight, the small peep refines the sight picture.  It also flipped a switch in my head so I would use the sights as intended and get good hits at range.

All that being said, a carrying handle attachment takes up a lot of rail space. If you have no interest in putting anything other than fixed sights on your AR, a carry handle is a great option. Otherwise, there are better alternatives.

AR-15 carry handle ultradyne sights
Jeremy S for TTAG

There are plenty of high quality flip-up iron sights on the market that feature similar sight pictures and don’t take up your rail space. There are also compact fixed sights, like these, that have the same sight picture.

Unless you have a specific reason for needing the carry handle design, it’s just not practical for most rifle owners these days. It may be a cool thing to have, but I can’t say I’d pay a lot of money for it.

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75 COMMENTS

  1. Don’t forget FAL’s and G3’s came with carry handles back in the day. Since during the same era the Army’s M-14 came without a carry handle, I suspect the carry handle on M-16’s was looked at as an opportunity for the Army to say me too.

    • The AR15 ‘carry handle’ originated with the 7.62 AR10 rifle and provided as a means to introduce the top-mounted ‘trigger charger handle’. When the charging handle was later moved from the carry handle area to the bottom rear of the carry-handle area, it was decided for economic purposes to merely retain the existing highly-elevated carry handle rather than to re-manufacture and entirely new upper receiver piece! End of story for the reason and purpose of the original AR/M16 carry handle issue. Fast forward to the GWOT era and the M4 flat-to design became prevalent and neither the position of iron sight or optics has been or become an issue with the new flat-top AR/M4 platform.

  2. During my time as an Infantryman in the US Army, from Basic all the way through to deployments, I clearly remember every NCO that was in a position of authority over me threatening to beat me to death with my own weapon if I was ever caught using the “carry handle” as an actual carry handle. Lol.

    • When I was in, you were dropped for push ups if they caught you using the carry handle on the your M16. I had an M16 long before I was issued the M4.

  3. My drill sergeant back in 2000 held out an M16A2 and stated the parts of the rifle for our company. He got to the carrying handle and said, “this is the carrying handle, but you will absolutely never use this to carry your rifle.” If you were carrying your rifle, it was in your hands, not slung, not held by the carrying handle. You only used the sling when you needed to perform a task with both hands or were in a formation that required it.

    I am actually putting an M4gery together and using the carry handle for it. I had an M4 clone I put together with the KAK rail, rear sight, and other stuff, but gave it to my cousin (following all applicable laws) as he didn’t have an AR yet and wasn’t sure if laws were going to be changing soon. At right around 6lbs, it’s a nice handy thing. I also have an M16A1 clone I will be putting together soon and I really like the thin front sight. It’s a Colt parts kit, Brownells A1 lower, and GM 1-12″ barrel and should be fun. I have an easy time hitting targets out to 300m with the M16A2 iron sight, and was surprised how easy it was during qualification.

  4. I have both, and find that the carry handle built into the upper is quite a bit better at doing iron sights than the detachable type. But the flat top upper is better at doing optics. There are scope mounts for the integrated handle(and I use one of those too) but they put the optic too high. It works, but its not ideal. It also makes it uncomfortable to use as a carrying handle.
    And it was not for the charging handle that the carry handle was designed. The sights must be elevated somehow because of the straight stock design, which puts the recoil directly into the shoulder(reducing muzzle climb), but necessitating elevated sights in order to get a sight picture. Oh, and “subject of come controversy”, doesn’t make any sense. But I let typos slide unless there are other substantial errors of fact, like there was in this case.

    • IMO, the best iron sights on an AR are A2 sights on an integral rail… After 20 years of trying to mount optics and lights on a couple A2’s using ‘several’ different mounts, and never being satisfied, I finally just broke down and bought a flat top, then another, where irons are only backups and optics and lights mount without jerry-rigging… Now, I can be happy with my Colt Sporters, once again, in all their iron sight glory; light, nimble combat rifles without frills and doodads!

      • That is just what I do. I have an integral handle upper with the ranging irons, but I prefer the original irons with just the two peeps, for 100 and 200 meters. If my shot is further out than that I just hold over a bit. I cant see much use for iron sights that are range adjustable in a 5.56. If I need to shoot at 800 meters I’ll have a different rifle. Or pass on the shot. Or if none of those fit, I’ll just dump the mag. A 5.56 is not a sniping rifle, no matter how many people think it is.

    • “And it was not for the charging handle that the carry handle was designed. The sights must be elevated somehow because of the straight stock design, which puts the recoil directly into the shoulder(reducing muzzle climb), but necessitating elevated sights in order to get a sight picture.” I disagree with this point about the elevated iron sits needing an elevated carry handle, since I have an AR10 with flip-up iron sights (not the carry handle) and thus no extreme carry-handle elevation is required to acquire targets.

      • The DIs might have said that in Boot Camp, however, in the field and rice paddies of Vietnam, you will see the M16 ‘Carry Handle” used exactly as a carry handle- not all the time, but frequently enough when grabbing a weapon by its large handle was most expedient and practical.

    • The AR15 ‘carry handle’ originated with the 7.62 AR10 rifle and provided as a means to introduce the top-mounted ‘trigger charger handle’. When the charging handle was later moved from the carry handle area to the bottom rear of the carry-handle area, it was decided for economic purposes to merely retain the existing highly-elevated carry handle rather than to re-manufacture and entirely new upper receiver piece! End of story for the reason and purpose of the original AR/M16 carry handle issue. Fast forward to the GWOT era and the M4 flat-to design became prevalent and neither the position of iron sight or optics has been or become an issue with the new flat-top AR/M4 platform.

  5. I thought the elevated sights were a result of the straight line recoil design which places the eye well above the bore. This feature was and is prevalent in military rifles. I think Eugene just decided to use the space for something, well, useful. Not that I was ever allowed to use it. If I had a $100 bill for every time I heard, “That’s a weapon, not a suitcase! Get down and knock out ten!” I’d go out and buy anything except an AR-15. As an aside, this despite that the army called it a carrying handle. Go figure.

    • DI’s aren’t always right. Except in boot camp. There, they are. Even when they’re stupid. One just has to be intelligent enough to know better than to piss off a guy who has complete control over your life, even for a little while. A little while seems a lot longer when you’re scrubbing a toilet with your toothbrush.

      • “Boot Camp” is only designed to give you the ‘basics’ of military life and practice and to change you from civilian into a military entity, however, it is in duty/field operations, especially in a war zone, that you get your military ‘graduate degree’ and you quickly learn what ‘works’ and what does not work as far as practicality. You learn dangerous, but necessary ‘short cuts’ that are not in the field manual (FM) or which are not taught in boot camp. During defensive operations and positions, US troops and Marines used to peel-back the tight prongs of their hand grenade safety wire so that it took only a short tug to pull the pin and release/throw the grenade. Upon completion of the mission/operation. they would also re-arrange the grenade safety pin wire so that the devise was once again able to be carried safely.

    • Optics are the new ‘rich thing’ for the 2020’s military and technology evolves and progresses the weapon and its capabilities. Optics allow for better target engagement by the average soldier and not just for the sniper. More advances in technology will allow for indirect fires with small arms by the average infantryman or Marine.

  6. Great thing is you can have your A4 clone for the experience. It’s fun to shoot. The irons are nice and recoil is perfect for reacquiring sight picture. Now I’m not ex military, but I imagine my aimpoint would be far more useful than irons.

    • Nothing wrong with iron sights. You can shoot just as well with them as you can an aimpoint. Peep sights also make astigmatism a non issue.

  7. It might boildown to personal taste, and the fact that when I was shooting competition, the calibers were 30-06 which came first, followed by .308 Winchester/7.62 MM NATO. My first Target Rifle was a Winchester Garand, no I no longer have it, followed by bolt action rifles, mostly the Model 70 Winchester Standard Target Rifles, no longer offered as I recall, and a Remington 40X Rangemaster in .308 Win. The bolt guns all had scope mounts, as well as Iron Sight Bases, Redfield Olympic Sights. I preferred Iron Sights, possibly a hangover from the Garand and M-14 types. Strikes me as sad, the fact that proper Iron Sights, the rear sight adjustable for windage and elevation seem to be rare birds these days.

    • Alan. Well said. So many of these recliner commandos think if they don’t have a red dot they don’t think you can hit your enemy. Used lots of red dot, laser, whatever the hell sights. Retired now. I can afford them. Own none. And don’t need them.

    • Alan- true, buy really although I have seen military personnel use their elevation adjustments, I have never seen the windage adjustment being made, since in many situations the wind blowing is periodic not constant and aside from snipers, this function for the ‘average’ military person is practically useless. It’s more than useless on a pistol which is a close quarters weapon in any situation. In the next generation of options and fire acquisition weapons, there will be no manual elevation and windage adjustments, instead this will be performed automatically by electronics/AI.

  8. The carry handle sight was direct result of Stoner using the buffer tube to mount the stock, which LOWERED the bore line when mounting the weapon to the shoulder.

    Compare a bolt gun with dropped stock and sights mounted directly to the receiver and barrel. If you have a stock mounted IN LINE with the bore, you have 1) a weird slot to work the bolt thru, 2) crank your head and neck down to the sight line uncomfortably to even see the. Don’t forget, you do that in the shooters #1 combat position, PRONE.

    The required adjustment is to raise the sights far enough your eye can see them above the low barrel – or raise the barrel. Bolt guns with dropped stocks raise the barrel, in line stocks cannot therefore you mount the sights on towers to accomplish it.

    There was no agenda to be part of the cool crowd or such thinking on the part of a combat veteran engineers design. Stoner understood the ergonomic necessities and did what was necessary to get it all to work out. Mounting the optics to the rail? SAME ISSUE – they are mounted on bases to raise the optic line above the bore enough to see the target. You don’t place your temple on the stock, you place your cheek, and that is what forces you to have the sights elevated to your eye line.

    It’s really as simple as that, unfortunately, educating modern shooters in things sourced in non electronic information systems is leaving a gulf in our common knowledge. Guys: GO READ A BOOK ON GUN DESIGN. There are many secrets getting by you because you ignore them, to your loss.

    • As you’ve said, modern sights on flattops are all elevated. so you can elevate the sight without the need of a giant handle. The handle design added protection for the charging handle, as well as elevating the sights to the proper height. I saw it as both. But it was my mistake to not even address sight height. Unless the handle design was 100% sight elevation, and nothing more. Then I was completely wrong, my bad.

      • Well as I have previously stated, I used an AR10 with simple flip-up iron sights which are not grossly elevated and I have no problems using these in relation to a charging handle or proper check weld purposes. If you consider iron flip-up sights ‘elevated’ so be it, but IMHO these are just normal sights which are not much different from any other sights that I have used. maybe we are splitting hairs on this AR/M16 handle being used for elevated sight purposes, to me the point is moot since flat-tops use iron flip-up sights or optics.

  9. I recall about 25 years ago walking into an old gunsmith buddy’s shop, and he was busy cutting the handle off an AR-15. Ran the top through a milling machine to level it, drilled and tapped it, and installed a long weaver base. First “flat top” I had ever seen.

  10. I’ve always found that when carrying the rifle one handed doing so with my hand around the delta ring is just the most natural way to carry it due to the balance of the rifle. Handle or not I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve used that “handle” to carry the rifle around.

  11. My AR-10 NMBF came with a detachable carry handle. I have never used it for its intended purpose, but I’m not going to throw it away.

    Barbie dolls for boys, ya know. 🙂

    Charlie

  12. The “carry handle” profile prevents (reduces) your rear sight from catching on stuff… the front sight design is remarkably well designed for the same reasons.

    • Best answer that I have yet heard on this explanation of the rear carrying handle. The rest of the ‘elevation sight purpose’ is pure nonsense- a rumor just being spread around like an Old Wives’s Tale.

  13. i find it hard to believe that the “author” just guessed that the carry handle on an AR rifle was put there only because of the “charging lever”?????
    is the author to lazy to research it just a little ? the direct in line stock configuration should have been a dead give away ,,
    and equally scary is that it took 10 separate comments for some one to bring up the stock configuration,,
    there are half a dozen comments about NOT using the carry handle as a carry handle ,,
    BUT none of these former marines said squat about the authors glaring mistakes regarding the sight base/carry handle ,,,,,
    this really lowers my confidence in the average grunt writing here knowing much or anything about the subject on which they opine

    walks off shaking head . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    • I should have mentioned the sight height, for whatever reason I counted that as a given. Yes, it elevated the sights, otherwise, it wouldn’t work. It also covered the charging handle, which is hard to see as just a consequence of the sight design. Maybe I’m completely off, maybe the design was 100% for the sight picture and nothing more. I think its a little of both. My mistake for not putting that in the original article.

    • During my time as an 0311 i never carried my a1 by the carry handle. Either the pistol grip or the delta ring. Just forward of the magwell is the balance point…. 1st 5 or 6 posts must have been “pogs”…..

  14. I am convinced that upon adoption of the M16 series, there was some a%$hole thinking a great secondary function of the carry handle would be a crude torture device for the infantryman at the most inopportune time.

  15. Back around 1992 when my elected govenrment officials started “reckoning” that semi autos weren’t for the general public, the carry handle upper was about the only option when I started building ARs. Even the DCM(CMP?) match rifle has a carry handle and was a hell of a deal. I still have 4 or 5 of those and as actual shooters they’re fine. All have the standard A2 sights. (The rifling twist of those old guns except the match rifle tend to limit me to lighter bullets- NBFD- they’re still a dang .22…)

    Modern optics make the flat top a better choice, in fact nearly the only choice except for some odd reason Brownell’s has now stuck a lot of coin into the notion that a “retro AR” build would be a good thing. Who knew?

    • It (sic M16) was ‘good enough’ for Vietnam, however, modern optic usage and other new fangled add-on devices have made the carry-handle a hinderance. All this being said, the military now says that the 5.56/.223 is inadequate given modern body armor and longer range engagements, so a newer round and rifle are being sought. I hope that we get NATO buy-in this time instead of trying to force a non-standard cartridge upon the NATO alliance.

  16. Sight height is the same w/handle vs without.

    The reason is the straight-line design of the AR15 receiver-stock relationship necessitates elevated sights because your eyeline is not down along the top of the receiver. I’m pretty sure Eugene Stoner put the charging handle underneath the handle on the original AR10 because it was convenient to do, not the other way around. The fact that production AR15s did away with the top-mounted charging handle in favor of the rear-mounted, but retained the carry handle, makes this appear to be pretty clear.

    • “Right on!’ The grunts in combat do what they have to do to handle their weapons. In Vietnam the carry handle was used not infrequently when embarking/disembarking helicopters and other vehicles or when coming back fatigued from a long mission.

  17. I tend to run irons only since I have yet to find an electronic optic that jives with my astigmatism. There’s something about the aesthetics of the carry handle that calls to me, lol.

  18. I guess I think differently about the more “modern conveniences”. Electronics may fail. If you become dependent upon these electronics and they fail, what then? Even bow hunting with a release was kinda sorta stupid in my way of thinking. If your release broke or you lost it, many bow hunters didn’t know or had forgotten the basics of shooting with the forgotten art of shooting with fingers. The same principle goes along with shooting with a basic rifle with, “no frills”, no electronics.

    The carry handle, for a novice, may make them feel that their weapon is more “military like” with the carry handle. Who the heck knows. I do believe that everyone should start with the basics, become proficient first with your iron sights and then move on to optics. Just saying…

  19. You forget Sir, that quite a few of us came up with iron sights and a carry handle, and did just fine……
    You might seem to see the value in it, but I assure you, we do….

  20. Drill Sgt Hernandez, 1973 Fort Leonard Wood was very clear on the fact that the sight ramp on top of your M-16 was NOT a carry handle, it was not to be called a handle and you dare not use it as a handle or you would find his perfectly polished black combat boot up your back side in a quick hurry.
    I still hold to that opinion today let’s say it was drilled into my head.

  21. I was taught in basic training (with the M16A2) to NEVER use the carry handle as a carry handle. Threat of many push-ups and all that. Recently, I did a competition (desert brutality 2018) where I was in the “classic” division, and used an M16A1 clone. When dropping to prone, firing, then moving quickly to another position, I used the carry handle. It made moving with the rifle MUCH easier. I was able to quickly and easily pick up the rifle, and move down range again while keeping the barrel pointed in a safe direction. It made me quickly forget my army training. Other competitors had issues trying to grab the rifle “around” their optics- I had no issue.

  22. So WHY exactly should you not carry the weapon with the handle? What’s the harm to the weapon or anything/anyone else…especially if you’re not in the military?

    • It’s a training/safety basic that no rifle or weapon barrel should ever be pointed in a direction other than up & down range or directly at the direction of the enemy. This is why the ‘British rifle carry’ position became prevalent after the 1991 Gulf War. However, training basics is one thing, close tactical combat is quite another and in combat, field expedient methods rule over basic training instructions. Actions and methods become modified to meet the threat.

  23. Was Army in the first half of the 90s. Had some fairly loose and shot out, and some still pretty good, A1’s in basic, depending on which one they handed you that day. Bullet tip is the best tool for adjusting those. Works good for pushing the pins out too.
    And good quality A2’s after that.
    No you don’t carry your rifle by the carry handle if you know what’s good for you.
    And don’t call it a gun either, it’s a rifle. One is for fighting and one is for fun.

    20″ barrel M16 balances at the delta ring/front mag well area. In other words forward of the carry handle.
    The sights have to be that high because of the design and they work great like that. Good, accurate, easy to use irons too. Allows the 25/300 meter zero which is exactly the right thing to have when you’re gathering together all kinda different people from all over the country, some of whom have never even held a rifle before and others who have for so long they have bad habits instilled, and get them all on the same page.

    Just aim in the middle and you’ll hit a body somewhere. Some a little high, some a little low, but you’ll hit them all somewhere.

    It’s a great design, and once you know the actual trajectory with that zero you can hold a little low or high and make precise shots out to 400 easy, no optics needed, at least with young eyes.

    Optics are great. Anything that gives our guys an advantage is a good thing. But the fundamentals of shooting with irons will never be “old school”. It’s called a fundamental for a reason.

    These days I’ve taken to putting a spot of bright colored nail polish on the rear side of my front sight posts (and rear notches where applicable, not unlike 3-dot pistol sights) to help my aging eyes. Might’ve even pulled back my personal “effective range” a bit, but still and will always keep plain iron sight shooting part of what I do.

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