In the late 1960's, the US military began using an AR-15 variant known as the M16 rifle. The US service rifle has gone through several generations of developing and enhancements since the original model, and the result has been an improved “Black Rifle” for both military and civilian use.
Recently re-adopted as the M16A4, the AR-15 is the most tried, proved and improved battle rifle of the Western world - an excellent piece of equipment.
During the early phase of development, Eugene Stoner added a "carrying handle" to AR-15/M16. We’ve rarely seen any rational person actually carry an AR by the carry handle, though. But the secondary reason for the existence of the handle is reflected in another function - making a more rigid and stable rear sight base, but that’s another story.
The initial appeal of this revolutionary select-fire gun with the signature carry handle was based more on simplicity and effectiveness. But the modern AR-15 has an emphasis on modularity. The removable carrying handle is the main feature of the M16A4 MWS (Modular Weapons System), setting it apart from preceding M16 renditions. Its purpose is to accommodate mounting accessories such as scopes and other secondary devices.
The AR-15 is a commercial designation for the US service M16/M4 rifles and carbines. The main difference is that the AR-15 is semi-automatic only. The M16 is a selective fire weapon. Not all AR models have the carry handle. But the classic AR Sporter design is still quite prevalent in the gun safes of law-abiding citizens.
In the past, using carry handle-mounted optics was standard practice across all the armed forces. Civilians also followed the trend but most people had to adjust their purchases to their budgets. The military of course always had to worry a bit less about the price tag.
Lower priced scopes usually come with mounts that are somewhat inferior. They have more substantial deviations and tolerances and are made of lower-quality material. That makes them more susceptible to slipping off the carry handle groove or losing zero.
We’ve looked at some options for handling issues with mounts for carry handles in another post. But there are a couple of other issues to look out for with carry handle mounted scopes. One is the difficulty in getting a proper cheek weld. This often causes inexperienced shooters to cant the rifle, leading to widened shot groups.
Some carry handle mounts are drilled to allow you to still use the original iron sights. But they increase the scope height compared to a flat top AR receiver. The sight line is far too high for the average shooter to get a good cheek weld.
Also, the higher the scope is, the more force and torque will affect it during recoil.
To minimize or even neutralize such issues, the best option for most AR-15s owners is to purchase optics that attach directly to the carry handle. This may be through an integrated or a detachable base. Alternatively you can employ a rail on the carry handle and mount a scope on the rail.
The use of a carry handle does significantly limit your options for optics. But using a simple, secure mount, you can choose from several perfectly suitable and dedicated scopes that attach easily to the carry handle.
Quick Comparison Chart of the Best Carry-handle Scopes for the AR-15
Barska 4×20 Carry Handle Scope
Vortex Optics Sparc Carry Handle Scope
EOTech 512.A65 Holographic Carry Handle Scope
Reviews of the Best Scopes for AR-15’s with Carry Handles
Now that we know some of the issues that come with putting optics on an AR-15 with a carry handle, let’s look at some of the scopes that work best.
ACOG stands for Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight. It’s made by the world-renowned Trijicon Company, based in Michigan.
The ACOG series of telescopic sights are intended for tactical and sporting applications. The most popular ACOG is the 4x32mm used as standard military-grade optics in US armed forces.
With an innovative use of tritium and advanced fiber optics, this device is battery-free. A tritium phosphor lamp provides nighttime illumination. Fiber optics offer optimal daytime illumination.
The Trijicon ACOG is one of the few scopes that securely mounts on an AR-15 A2 carry handle through a special adapter while letting you get a good cheek weld and full view of the metal sights.
The ACOG base fits inside the carry handle channel. It’s fixed in place by the most straightforward method a mounting screw that stays flush. The ACOG attaches quickly and sits flat against the bottom. It gives you a decent cheek weld and unrivaled rigidity.
There are 5 types of reticle styles and two colors available, but the choice really comes down to personal preference. Several ACOG models use the Bindon Aiming Concept (BAC), an aiming technique for excellent both-eyes-open target acquisition.
Since the ACOG optic is first class, the cost of investment is far higher than its competitors.
Besides its cost, another negative is the eye relief, at about 1.5". It’s the shortest eye relief among the models we’re reviewing here. Also, your zero is going to shift every time you remove and replace the ACOG in the carry handle mount.
Many experts will claim an ACOG might be the only option for a carry handle. But on the other end of the spectrum there is BARSKA 4×20 Carry Handle Scope. This is a budget-friendly and quality low-end model.
The Barska 4x20mm has an old school retro look. Many people try to compare it to the classic Colt optics. But in fact, it’s a copy of the Israeli El-Op Eyal 3x20 from the early 1980's, which was made for M-16 Armalite rifles.
This compact and small scope with a tubular design attaches by a unique self-locking thumbnut features. It sets at a good height, neither too high nor too low for a good cheek weld. It also provides decent 2.7-inch eye relief.
The Barska 4x20 has an integrated base that easily mounts onto the inside track of an AR-15's carry handle. This will allow you to use the iron sight during close shooting.
The riflescope has side-adjustment knobs for windage and elevation. It features standard solid-line crosshairs and a bullet drop compensator.
This fun little scope does have a problem in its weak attaching bracket. Be careful when installing it or you could break it right off. Also, the elevation "quick adjustment" turret is a little too easy to turn.
Vortex Optics has recently released very compact Sparc I and II generation red-dot optics. These are designed to fit both on the AR-15 flat top receiver as well as on the carry handle through a sturdy mounting system.
This light and user-friendly red dot utilizes a crisp 2 MOA dot. It’s perfect for precise, slow shooting as well as fast rapid shooting with unlimited eye relief.
With a streamlined design and weatherproof and shockproof construction, the Sparc allows movement without hindrance. That’s an obvious key for hunting and other outdoor activities.
The Vortex Sparc offers ten settings for brightness and an automatic shut off setting after 12 hours.
As a mid-priced option, the Vortex Optics Sparc is a nice option. It’s a well-thought-out and well-made scope but not an excellent one.
The main complaint refers to lower dot clarity than comparable models. The Sparc red dot is a bit hazy and becomes distorted after the first 3 or 4 power settings.
The other drawback is related to the lens caps. They tend to dangle and obstruct your field of view because it’s hard to snap them together.
As a point of advice and maybe a slight design flaw, try never to lay your gun with a Vortex Sparc on its right side. Even such slight pressure on the buttons can turn it on and quickly drain the batteries.
The next suggestion for the best AR-15 carry handle scope comes from a completely different line of technology from the previous sights.
The flagship of the Electro-Optic Technologies line is the EOTech 512.A65, a holographic sight that offers a basic but accurate round red dot reticle. Its strength is that this carry handle scope will allow you to shoot at medium or close range with high precision.
This holographic sight is used exactly the same way as a reflex sight. But Holographic Weapon Sights (HWS) are becoming more and more popular with their laser light illuminating the holographic red reticle projected on the target plane.
The EOTech 512.A65 holographic sight is the favorite sight of many hunters because it is completely waterproof, shockproof, and fog proof. Also, like reflex sights, it has unlimited eye relief.
The best way of mounting an EOTech 512 is through an adjustable gooseneck-style mount that fits AR15’s carry handle. It will help you line the reticle up perfectly with the iron sights.
The EOTech sports an excellent standard 1-minute dot with a 65-minute circle. That means it’s fantastic for targets at 5 to 200 yards.
As an added value, it offers 20 brightness levels with a programmable 4- or 8-hour auto shut-off.
The complaints about this scope are related to both its size and weight. Most of the blame is due to its AA batteries. In addition, despite EOTech’s claim that batteries will last for up to 1,000 hours, the battery life is really not as good as the competition.
This would have been a perfect sight to make night-vision compatible. But unfortunately, it’s not.
We hope this guideline may help you choose the right carry handle scope. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of the great opportunity to equip your AR-15 with an excellent all-around optic.
There is no reason to switch to a flat top upper receiver, especially if your budget allows you to invest in higher-end scopes or red dots that guarantee the tightest tolerances possible, a consistent cheek weld and continuous zero holds.