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Best Side Charging AR-15 Uppers

One of my personal favorite obscure AR-15 uppers is the MCR Belt-Fed Upper, but it’s a little bit expensive for most people, especially for something that’s basically a range toy.

Flightlite MCR
FightLite MCR Belt-Fed AR-15 Upper – only $3,500!

Slightly more affordable, and more practical, is the side-charging AR-15 or AR-10 upper.

Side-chargers are a great way to have a more unique AR and you’ll also probably never see another AR like yours at the range. 

JP Enterprises PSC-11 Duel Charging System

Let’s dive into why you’d want to upgrade to a side-charging AR, how they work, and finish out with some of the best ones out there.

By the end you’ll know if a side-charger is right for you.

Why Use a Side-Charging Upper?

The chief benefit besides aesthetic concerns is the fact that you can clear a jam and charge the weapon without breaking your firing grip or changing your shooting position.

It also makes it easier to charge the weapon one-handed in an emergency or to cycle the weapon manually in the event of a failure in the gas system.

It also just looks really cool.

Best of all, other than the upper and charging handle itself, your AR doesn’t really change so you can use all the same parts, same barrel, same gas system, same everything, you just need the upper itself and charging handle, and the specialized bolt carrier.

How Do Side-Charging Uppers Work?

A normal AR-style rifle charges from the rear, right? You pull back on the charging handle, which extends from the rear of the receiver, that retracts the bolt and cycles the gun. Probably 99% of you are familiar with this process.

If not, reviewing our Best AR-15 Charging Handles article might help refresh your memory.

The Whole Lot
The Whole Lot

On a side-charger, you might have guessed…the charging handle on the side.

These uppers are specially cut to allow for a groove on the left side for a charging handle, as you’d find on a SCAR or an MP5.

MP5 Charging Handle
MP5 Charging Handle locked back, see the groove?

These charging handles are non-reciprocating and typically attach to a specially-machined bolt carrier group (which you can either buy, or have a standard BCG machined with the needed notch).

Some only need a new cam pin, however, so be sure to look at those options if you’re not looking to change your bolt carrier group too much.

Best Side-Charging AR-15 Uppers

So, if you’re sold on the idea of a side-charging upper, you have a surprising number of options to choose from. These side-chargers, in my humble opinion, are the best ones out there, and are the ones you should look at first.

1. JP Enterprises PSC-12 Side-Charging Upper

JP Enterprises is known for their high-end ARs and accessories, and their PSC Series Side Charging Uppers maintains that reputation for quality.

This upper comes in a lot of flavors from full-mass to low-mass 5.56, 9mm, and even AR-10 uppers that work with DPMS-style or Armalite/Knights pattern lowers. And, unlike most uppers, it actually has a standard charging handle and the side charging handle, giving you the best of both worlds.

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Though it is certainly pricey, you get a bolt carrier group, and an otherwise complete upper receiver, you just need to add a complete lower, barrel, gas system and handguard. The upper has Picatinny rail all along the top for optics mounting, and is easy to assemble, and disassemble as needed.

What’s your take on the JP?

Readers' Ratings

4.93/5 (435)

Your Rating?

2. American Spirit Arms Side-Charging Upper

American Spirit Arms is one of the progenitors of the side-charging AR-15 upper, and their ASA Side-Charging Upper was one of the first on the market in this category. The upper works just like all the others, but it does require a specially-cut bolt carrier group in order to function.

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

You can either send your current BCG to American Spirit Arms and have them cut it for you for a relatively low price, or you can order a BCG from Brownells with the specific cut you need. The machining on these is also great, as you would expect, and the charging handle is extremely comfortable, and non-reciprocating as you would expect.

3. Gibbz Arms G4 Side-Charging Upper

Gibbz Arms specializes in side-charging uppers, and their G4 upper receiver is a good-looking and hard-working upper that won’t let you down. They’re designed to work with standard AR-15 lowers, and other than a modified cam pin you have to install, there are no changes needed to the rest of your setup.

Editor's Pick
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The G4 uppers are available in a number of factory Cerakote colors, and are manufactured right here in America, Arizona specifically, and are some of the best-machined uppers I’ve put my hands on lately.

I’d put them alongside other high-end manufacturers like Aero and Faxon (who we’ll get to in a minute). Overall, not a bad choice at all for a side-charging AR-15.

4. Quarter Circle 10 Side-Charging Upper

Quarter Circle 10 specializes in pistol caliber parts, and their QC10 side-charging upper is simply awesome. This upper is modeled on the Gibbz G9 upper, and Quarter Circle 10 worked with the engineers at Gibbz to produce something reflective of their pistol caliber expertise.

at Rainier Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

This upper is designed specifically to work with pistol-caliber lowers and is the perfect choice for PDW builds, and the latching, the non-reciprocating charging handle is one of the most well-designed and easy-to-operate charging handles around. This is the upper I’d choose for a 9mm Glock-compatible lower, and would definitely be my first choice for a PDW-style build, especially a pistol-caliber SBR or AR-style pistol.

5. CMT Tactical UPUR-3A Side-Charging Upper

Are you looking for a precision rifle side-charger build? Do you need the most accuracy possible from your side-charger system? Cross Machine and Tool (CMT) has you covered with their UPUR-3A side-charging upper.

at Rainier Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

CMT has designed this to be an extremely accurate and reliable upper for precision rifle builds, and they’ve brought their trademark precision machining to bear in the manufacturing process. These uppers are machined from 7075 T6 aluminum, which is almost 70% stronger than the standard 6061 mil-spec aluminum.

They also utilize a five-axis machining process that allows them to be much more precise and turn out a much more well-finished product.

Overall, this is the upper I’d go with for a super high-end precision build that I needed to squeeze all the accuracy possible out of.

6. Faxon Firearms ARAK 21 Upper

Let me get this out of the way now: I freaking love the Faxon ARAK-21 Upper. I want one of these sooooo bad, and I’ve wanted it since I first got to handle it over a year ago.

This upper is designed from the ground up to be a side charger, and it actually moves the charging handle forward a good bit, almost like an HK G3, rather than the typical side-charging AR-15 position with the charging handle in line with the bolt carrier group.

at Faxon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The ARAK is, as you may have guessed from the name, designed to be a cross between the AR-15 and the AK-47, and it truly does bring you the best of both worlds.

As you would expect of an AK-ish design, the ARAK is a piston-operated system more so than it is an upper, and it includes a barrel assembly, integrated gas-piston system, and best of all: it comes with everything you need to swap from 5.56x45mm to 7.62x39mm and back as your needs change, or just as the mood strikes you.

The upper is extremely reliable and comes with an adjustable gas system so you can tune your gun for suppressed use, or even manual operation with the side charging handle. Overall, this is the option I’d go with if money wasn’t an object because it gives you some extremely practical benefits, and is truly unique.

You definitely won’t find many of these at the local range.

Parting Shots

Side-charging uppers are a great way to add some pizzazz to your AR-style rifle, and they bring some practical benefits and functional improvements as well.

If you’re looking to upgrade your AR, start a new, unique build, or just want to try the side-charging life, there’s never been a better time to get one.

What do you think of these side-charging uppers? Do you want one for your next build? Let us know in the comments below! Ready to put a great optic on your rifle? Take a look at the Best AR-15 Scopes & Optics!

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26 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Unlicensed Bozo

    Forgot brownells BRN-180uU

    July 24, 2020 7:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    American Spirit is dead dude, been dead well before this article was last updated.

    May 2, 2020 2:25 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    I really want a side charging 9mm AR pistol for home defense and range fun, but I'm relatively new to the AR world and don't want to venture into building one myself until I have more experience. Say I was to get the Gibbz or Quarter Circle (most likely Gibbz because they have a complete upper assembly), could I use any 9mm BCG and any 9mm/Glock mag compatible complete lower receiver?

    March 24, 2020 4:36 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      David, PPT Editor

      If you're using a Glock lower then yes, any Glock cut BCG will work as will any Glock lower.

      March 24, 2020 4:52 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I’d say another advantage of a side charger is if you have an adjustable cheek riser (like the XLR), you can have it closer to the scope. The standard charging handle limits you how close you can get the riser without the charging handle hitting the riser on pull back, especially on an AR10.

    March 1, 2020 10:06 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Michael B Godard

      Truth......I make the Sorbothane cheek pads and that's the biggest grip I hear about AR's ! Michael @ godagrip.com

      November 17, 2020 10:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Prosser C

    Thanks folks for the input. My interest in side chargers is due to a life changing accident. My hands and fingers work so poorly that it is hard for me to manipulate any top charging handle. I am hoping the straight back pull with my best hand, ( the left ) will be an easier process. Does anyone find it easier to pull then from the top ?

    February 9, 2020 9:30 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Magnum Mike

      I can't answer your question directly, but I can say the stroke of side-charging uppers seems to be shorter, no? If that's the case, the spring tension would be higher than what is experienced on a standard charging handle.

      February 28, 2020 9:51 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    John K

    I did a build using the Bear Creek Arsenal side bolt. Actually, seeing this piece online inspired my build. Works smooth and clean, no operational "flaws" to report. Just put a bit of blue Lock-Tite on the handle threads. After roughly 1000 rounds, no complaints at all, still smooth as silk in operation. Only (small) downside is you have to remove the handle to get the BCG out for cleaning.

    January 29, 2020 6:42 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    What about New Frontier Armory or Wolfpack Armory?

    October 26, 2019 3:44 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Gibbz makes NFA's stuff too

      March 20, 2021 12:39 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    Any recommendations for a 300 AAC pistol build? Anyone familiar with Sanders Armory?

    May 7, 2019 8:13 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I don't disparage anyone's choice in AR-15 modifications, but I don't agree that side-charging is functionally better or faster for clearing jams than rear. Side charging introduces another dust & debris intrusion path. It's not ambidextrous. There is nothing to be gained from being able to use the support hand for charging the handle. Unless the weapon jams, you'll hardly ever be using the charging handle--you use the bolt release to engage the bolt into battery after changing magazines. On the rare occasion of a jam (every 1000 rounds or so), using the rear handle is as effective as a side charger, maybe better since you get more leverage in case brass is really stuck in there.

    April 2, 2019 12:07 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      I have to call BS on this inexperienced opinion. With a left-side charging handle, you can keep your right trigger finger on the trigger and ready to fire in a multitude of scenarios:
      1. Once a jam is cleared, no matter how rare, because if it can happen-it WILL happen, and if you don't have to lose your sight picture or your finger on the trigger, why choose a weapon that insists you do both?
      2. When shooting with the gas system set for shooting suppressed and/or long-range precision shots from a prone position, the shooter need not decompose their position so they can use the awkward rear charging "T" handle (for you slower readers, that means moving your head away from the charging handle - or vice-versa). This allows them to keep their target picture stable & sighted without interruption from the aforementioned awkward rear charging handle.
      3. If a combat-designed rifle cannot deal with field conditions that includes sand, dirt and mice, it isn't worthy for the field.
      4. If properly designed and implemented, a non-reciprocating left-side charging handle WILL NOT allow any more dirt into the receiver That's what makes the ARAK-21 such an unmitigated success (that means there's no downside to using it).

      I remember when short-stroke pistons were poo-pooed even worse than the left-side charging handle. I consulted with an inventor who developed it for LWC back in the '90s and that's about all they offer now (along with a LOT of other worldwide manufacturers). Personally, I would never buy an AR-type rifle until the short-stroke piston and left-side charging handle became standard equipment because of all of the gasses and unburnt powder being forced into the receiver and ending up in my face. I considered it barbaric. Evolve, people!

      July 28, 2019 9:53 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        A Morgan

        I am not understanding your explanation in your first section. If one needs to clear a jam, with a side charger one can certainly keep their trigger finger in the ready to fire position and simultaneously not disrupt his line of sight on target. This is specifically the main practical point of improvement over rear charging handle operation, unless as the Prosser C mentioned above that rear charging will be more difficult now due to physical impairment, and of course what has since become the very best advantage to having a side charger (not including one made by the aforementioned JP Enterprises and CMT Tactical) is for running suppressed. The gas to the face is nearly completely gone with a side charger.

        April 10, 2020 8:07 pm
        • Commenter Avatar
          A Morgan

          Sorry man, I replied to the wrong comment.

          April 10, 2020 8:09 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Texas Tom

      Side is better.
      The REAR is in your face and you have to totally disengage.
      Some mfg have optional sides if it is so important. What military style AR is ambidextrous?
      And dirty? Get a piston system, the best! If you use the old style, clean after each session, not 1000 rounds. Piston leaves chamber spotless...
      Dirty gun stuck brass, use piston gas system...time to get with the improvements.

      February 11, 2020 12:38 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    1SG Larry J. Lawyer

    I have a Rocker River Arms LAR-PDS. It operates very well & have no issues with it at all. A lot of fun & great shooting for a side charge, piston carbine rifle.

    March 14, 2019 1:06 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    great overview. been wanting an faxon arak but they've been sold out forever. guess ill keep waiting.

    February 24, 2019 11:40 pm
  • Commenter Avatar

    I have a Bear Creek Arsenal Dual Charging Upper and love it. Like the first upper mentioned above, mine has the standard charging handle, as well as the side charging handle on the BCG. I got the entire complete upper for under $250 about a year and a half ago. Have had no problems with it. The only very small issue is that you have to remove the side charging handle from the BCG with an Allen Wrench, in order to remove the BCG from the receiver. Can't just slide it out like you can with a standard AR upper. Not a big deal.

    February 24, 2019 10:25 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Ho Lee Chit

      I purchased a Bear Creek 300BO 16" HB upper after shooting one at a local OD range and I was really impressed with the quality of the upper so much so I got another 16" in 223 Wylde in 410R SS and I got .75 groups @100 with Walmart ammo. Sure one can spend a lot more but why? when this is fine really well made

      April 30, 2019 8:11 am
  • Commenter Avatar

    The one from X-Products works great.

    February 24, 2019 7:04 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Racer X

    no mention at all of the Bear Creek side charging, and dual charging receivers and complete uppers? I know they are budget components, but anyone can afford them. Spend the money on a good barrel and optics.

    February 24, 2019 5:53 pm
    • Commenter Avatar

      Bear Creek may be the best buy for the money.

      February 24, 2019 7:43 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    bill Weatherholt

    You must need a special BCG for a side charger does that come with those outrages priced striped uppers ?

    February 24, 2019 4:08 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      David, PPT Editor

      It depends on the upper. Some of them require a different BCG, some can use a standard BCG, and some need a standard BCG that they then mill to fit.

      February 25, 2019 1:41 am