For most AR-15 enthusiasts, a charging handle is only one long piece of roughly T-shaped aluminum. However, that cocking handle, or bolt handle on bolt-action rifles, was an incredibly important invention that turned in the history of warfare and had a spectacular effect across entire Europe about the mid-19th century.
Quick Comparison Chart of the Best Charging Handles for the AR-15
Bravo Company - AR-15 BCM Gunfighter
Radian Weapons - AR-15 Raptor
Badger Ordnance - AR-15/M16 Gen 3 Ambidextrous
Mega Arms AR-15/M16 Slide Lock
Phase 5 Tactical AR-15/M16 Ambidextrous
Function of the Charging Handle
Stoner’s AR-15 retains the old functions of classic bolt handle such as moving the hammer and striker into the gun’s ready position for firing. But there are a few other roles, too. The charging handle ejects spent shells or unfired cartridges from the chamber. It also clears stoppages such as jamming, double feed or misfire.
Finally, on most AR-15s this component has the desirable feature of releasing a bolt that locked to the rear in a weapon after the last round was fired - the so-called BHO (bolt hold open) mechanism.
A charging handle can come in many forms. But today it comes down to two common types. One is recognizable as a hook and is usually found on Kalashnikovs and their derivatives. The other is the AR-concept featuring the handle placed at the rear of the receiver and underneath the carry handle.
Unlike AK-pattern rifles with reciprocating charging handles (RCH), the AR-15 sports a non-reciprocating charging handles (NRCH). Since the AR-pattern rifles feature flat, level ones that do not move outside the gun, they are more complicated than the RCH. They are also normally not as strong. Some manufacturers do offer side-charging uppers on AR-15s, but they are not common and prevent the use of some standard parts.
The factory cocking handle works well enough for a casual day of shooting at the range or for any sort of casual plinking. However, it can be awkward to use and clumsy to manipulate if you put a large optics on your Black Rifle. It’s also tough to use in more intense and prolonged shooting activities such as competitions or engaging in tactical situations.
What to Look for in a Charging Handle
When you discover that operating a standard charging handle is not as perfect as you’d like it to be, you will probably want to upgrade. Fortunately, the modular design of the AR-15 allows this piece to be as easily replaced as almost any other part. In fact, this is among the easiest parts to upgrade. You can remove and switch it in a simple process during standard cleaning and maintenance.
The key word in upgrading this AR component is ergonomics. While the stock AR-15 charging handles are perfect for one-handed charging and are ambidextrous in nature, they are often too small to grip rapidly. And if you’re a lefty, the flat form offers a slippery, inadequate grip.
The second flaw is the handle’s thin release latch, which offers the user little leverage when pulled. The standard handle uses a failure-prone 1/16-inch roll pin that bears most of the applied force when the handle is pulled back.
These same issues of shape mean the standard AR version is hard to use while wearing gloves or in stressful conditions.
Taking into account these drawbacks, you should choose an aftermarket handle with fully ambidextrous function. Furthermore, you should also look for an extended latch with a large surface area on it as it allows when to wear gloves when operating it.
Modern ways of handling the AR-15 put more force on the charging handle than in the past. That makes it important to find well-designed ones that solve or alleviate the problem of leverage.
Quick Take - The Best AR-15 Charging Handles
These are our recommendations for the best charging handles for the AR-15:
Reviews of the Best Charging Handles for the AR-15
In the following buyer’s guide, we will propose several aftermarket charging handles that cover the points we’ve talked about above.
Bravo Company Manufacturing (BCM) has earned a reputation for producing outstanding AR-15 parts and accessories. They continue that tradition with Gunfighter line of charging handles. This second generation of their Gunfighter series is specially designed for one-handed charging, which is increasingly popular in modern times.
This BCM model is built from forged 7075 T6 aluminum with added metal reinforcing to the stress points and comes in standard or ambidextrous variations. Further, these variants are also available with several latch-length options. You can choose from small, medium or large latches that are up to ¼" longer depending on your needs.
The BCM charging handle is exactly like the original except it is redesigned to eliminate the stresses from the latch pivot pin. This heavy-duty tool has an oversized drop in the latch that distributes pull force evenly across the entire handle. This helps keep the critical roll pin from breaking.
Known for flexibility, the original BCM Gunfighter design allows both left-handed and right-handed shooters to use it.
Bravo Gunfighter handles are compatible with all Mil-Spec direct impingement AR-15 rifles. But they will not work with adjustable gas-keyed bolt carrier groups.
This charging handle boasts sharp edges, requiring the almost mandatory wearing of gloves.
Radian Weapons Company is well-known for manufacturing professional-grade pieces of hardware. Their ambidextrous charging handle is more expensive than competitors. However, Radian uses 7075 aluminum that is 70 percent stronger than the 6061 aluminum found on standard handles.
The Radian Raptor version is constructed with double latches on either side of the handle. These latches are secured with heavy-duty axis pins.
The Raptor's handle isn't much bigger than a typical Mil-Spec original but it is wide enough to make support-hand operation a breeze.
While this ambi-handle allows you to charge or clear your AR-15 as easily with the left hand as the right with the standard finger/thumb grip, it can be less suitable for palm blading.
Besides that, the biggest disadvantage is the price. The Raptor is almost twice as expensive than other handles. However, the manufacturer has an excellent justification for the high price tag. This handle has been cycled in testing over a million times without failure.
A lot of people are not comfortable with the limited flexibility offered by the standard factory charging handles. Among the many different solutions that cater for the needs of various people, Badger Ordnance manufacturer stands out with its Gen 3 ambidextrous model optimized for use with Mil-Spec AR 15, M16, and M14 platform rifles.
With a standard-sized latch on the left side and a much larger latch sticking out the right side, this version uses an oversized design to clear the forward assist and provide easier manipulations.
The unique construction includes sturdy 7075 T6 aluminum forging for the handle and ordnance-grade steel for both latches. With an extended right-side latch with a large grasping area, this ambidextrous version allows fast, efficient operation. This is particularly useful with a large optics that would restrict access to the standard handle.
The extended latch measures 5⁄8”. It is a square contact pad that sticks out ¾” from the handle making it is easy to find under stress. It provides plenty of leverage.
Right-handers and left-handers as well shooters wearing gloves should be able to easily operate this charging handle, leaving it without any negatives except its high price.
Mega Arms offers a uniquely-designed handle which doesn't have a conventional latch like other items in the category.
The Slide Lock charging handle does not call for a latch to be pulled to release it. Instead, they rounded off where the "hook" would be on the standard version.
At first glance, this means that we get a fully-ambidextrous handle which only needs to be pulled straight back without pressing any buttons or levers to get it working. Mega Arms manages to achieve two goals - a minimum of moving parts and a simpler, straight motion.
The Slide Lock "T" charging handle is built from 7075-T6 hard-anodized billet aluminum and applies spring pressure to keep it in place. It has a large surface area with serrated edges on both sides that can easily fit into a gloved hand.
It is compatible with most AR-15 Mil-Spec upper receivers, but it’s more durable and doesn’t torque side-to-side.
A drawback is that less friction on one side can cause excessive wear on the upper receiver. This is because of the "detent" rubbing against it during operation.
Many AR fans like the look and style of Phase 5 Tactical charging handle. It makes a great finishing touch to the build. This assembly includes an ambidextrous battle latch. Its unusual design includes a lever that extends to the right side of the latch, allowing left-handed shooters to charge the weapon with their right hand.
The Phase 5 Ambidextrous Battle Latch Charging Handle has a solid construction. The serrations on the handle and on the battle latch allow for a solid, non-slip grip.
This convenient, practical design incorporates a large .1875 inch diameter coiled spring pin which allows for more uniform stress distribution.
While the Phase 5 integrated broader contact points for easier operation, the latch at the end is a little too long with too many edges. That extension could be easily caught in your gear or broken off in extreme situations.
As research has carried on since the AR’s inception, designers and engineers have developed more advanced charging handle architecture. They have implemented the newest technology to solve or ease the problems as mentioned above, such as the lack of ambidexterity in the original design.
An upgrade will give you the most flexibility and speedy and an easy way to improve your rifle.