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AR-15 Forward Assist: What It Does & Do You Need One?

Since its addition to the M16 rifle in 1969, the Forward Assist, or bolt-assist as it is sometimes known, has been a topic of much debate.

The original design for the AR-15 and M16 rifles did not include this feature, but the military insisted that Eugene Stoner include it.

AR-15 with Omega 36M
AR-15 with Omega 36M

Why has such a small part caused such a huge debate? Is the forward assist necessary, or is it more harm than good?

As with almost everything, the answer is…“It depends.”

Faxon Firearms Ascent AR-15 Charging Handle
Note the forward assist, just behind the charging handle.

To understand why that is, we have to look at the history of the assist, when it is useful versus when it can cause issues, and how the design has evolved in recent years.

So, follow along as we jump into the world of forward assists and learn more about this design feature.

By the end of this article you’ll have a better understanding of this part and, ultimately, know whether you want one on your AR-15 build.

Table of Contents

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History of the Forward Assist

To put it plainly, the forward assist is a relic of yesteryear.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century, semi-automatic rifles had a way of forcing the gun to go into battery.

This carried on throughout the mid part of the century, and it was something that the military was familiar with.

Modded AR-15s
AR-15s

The thought process was this: in the heat of battle, if your rifle suddenly wouldn’t feed or chamber a round, you could use the forward assist/bolt-assist to slam the gun into battery.

This sounds like a great idea in theory but wasn’t always the lifesaver that soldiers thought it would be.

In 1959, when Eugene Stoner and his corporation designed the first M16 (based on their AR-10 design), no forward assist existed on the gun.

Eugene Stoner
Eugene Stoner

Stoner believed it wasn’t necessary on his design. While the U.S. Airforce agreed, the Army, however, did not.

The Army insisted a bolt-assist be included on the M16 design to keep things familiar for soldiers and allow the forceful chambering of the gun.

Stoner conceded the point and included the forward assist on the M16A1. The rest, as they say, is history.

M16 and M16A1
M16, top, vs M16A1, bottom

Pros & Cons of the Forward Assist

There are two opposing schools of thought — as well as a ton of people who couldn’t care one way or the other.

Neither is necessarily right or wrong. Usually, it comes down to training and preference.

The first camp feels the forward assist provides value.

Aero Stripped AR-15 Upper Receiver
Some say the forward assist is handy.

Many of these folks served in the military or sought training by prior military. They like the security of being able to force the gun into battery if needed.

For instance, you can get a life-saving round into battery to fire the gun in an emergency, then fix whatever needs attention when you aren’t in a do-or-die situation.

how an ar-15 rifle works
AR-15 operation

In a recent Sons of Liberty Gun Works armorer’s course, co-owner Mike Mihalksi offered another scenario.

When chambering the first round of his magazine, Mihalksi pulls back on the charging handle far enough to check that a round was chambered.

He then uses his forward assist to put the weapon into battery — rather than slamming his charging handle forward or ejecting an unspent round and reloading it into his magazine.

BCM Charging

On the other hand, the other school of thought is that forward assists cause more problems than solutions.

Do you want to force a round into your chamber that wouldn’t go in the first place?

 Is the round damaged or out of spec? What caused the hang-up?

That’s a concern for many folks against forward assists. Honestly, it stands as a valid concern — especially in the case of a .300 Blackout round getting mixed into .223/5.56.

Size differences between 5.56 NATO, .300 BLK, and the 6.5 Grendel
Size differences between 5.56 NATO, .300 BLK, and the 6.5 Grendel

Another concern is that the plunger inside (not the pawl you press) or its spring could break and get into the cycling action of your gun.

This could also cause some fairly major issues, the very least of which is interrupting the cycle of operation.

Forward Assist Direction
Forward Assist

To that extent, instructors like Brian Hartman of Progressive Force Concepts encourage students at their carbine courses to consider upper receivers that do not have forward assists.

And finally, plenty of rifle owners simply don’t care. If you ask the average AR-15 owner how many times they used their forward assist, you likely will get a shrug.

Shrug Don't Know

The indifference is often due to lack of information, lack of training, or the feeling of having it but not needing it being better than needing it and not having it.

I want to reiterate that none of these views is “correct.” Ultimately, it’s up to each user to decide what they prefer and why.

You get to decide

The key is basing that decision on actual information versus what someone told you.

Take all of the information and opinions you can and use them to guide yourself to what you need.

Changing Designs

It’s been just over 60 years since Stoner designed the AR platform, and, in that time, every part of the platform underwent evolution.

The forward assist is no different, evolving in a couple of different ways.

Stripped Upper Receiver and Forward Assist
Stripped Upper Receiver and Forward Assist

First, some companies embraced the “no forward assist” thought, designing uppers without it.

These are sometimes referred to as slick side uppers and vary in terms of quality based on the companies that produce them.

Two standouts of consistently great quality — Battle Arms Development and Vltor.

Both offer an upper receiver without a forward assist, are well-respected companies with a long history of quality, and redesigned the upper receiver. 

Meanwhile, other companies kept the forward assist but altered it.

Two major standouts come from Forward Controls Design, one in collaboration with Hodge Defense.

LDFA by Forward Control Design

The focus of both variations of the forward assist from FCD involves reducing the pawl footprint in some fashion. Doing this means it’s less likely to snag or interfere with the manipulation of an ambidextrous charging handle.

FCD’s LDFA saw the rim of the pawl removed and the overall size of the pawl reduced. This limited the interference with the right latch of the charging handle without reducing the effectiveness of the forward assist itself.

39
at Rainier Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

The LSFA is a collaboration with Hodge Defense with a similar thought process. Removing the rim from the pawl helps prevent a user’s fingernail from snagging on the forward assist while manipulating the weapon.

48
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

In addition, the shape of the pawl is changed to more of a teardrop, allowing more surface area. This allows for more confidence and less slippage when actuating the forward assist in a hurry or under less than ideal circumstances.

Conclusion

Whether you believe in a forward assist or not, they are present on most standard AR upper receivers and offer a way to force a rifle into battery.

Forward Assist Installed

Again, it’s up to you to decide if this is necessary for your training or goals, but rest assured, there are some good brands out there if you are interested.

What are your thoughts on forward assist? Let us know in the comments below. Looking to get a new upper for your AR? Check out our list of the Best AR-15 Complete Upper Receivers & Stripped

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26 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar
    Flea

    Whelp... I've actually used mine at least once because I limpwristed a charging handle rack. But I guess that falls under the "operator error" category.

    July 20, 2021 12:05 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Ed in Tx

    I spent 22 months in 'Nam, U.S.Army. 2 months shy of 2 tours, back to back. Not one time did I need, the forward assist on my M16A1.

    July 19, 2021 1:13 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Mike A

    I stand with Eugene Stoner and Clint Smith on this: the forward assist is unnecessary and can cause more harm than good.

    July 18, 2021 9:07 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      John

      Define "can cause more harm than good".

      Anything wrong with the rifle "can cause more harm than good". You can take any part of the rifle and apply that. A bent/broken firing pin, a "stuck" extractor, a heavily fouled bolt, foreign body ingress into the weapon, a blocked barrel, etc...

      What kind of "can cause more harm than good" can a forward assist that maybe, might maybe, once in a blue moon with a chance of happening somewhere between a snowball in hell and pigs flying - for the common AR-15 in use today please define for the forward assist the kind of "can cause more harm than good" .

      July 19, 2021 5:30 am
      • Commenter Avatar
        Dave

        You point out that broken/defective/dirty parts or systems in the weapon can lead to bigger issues. No one disputes this. The point is that the forward assist, operating as designed, can be used by the user to force the weapon into an unsafe condition (out-of-spec/damaged round, foreign debris or wrong round forced into battery).

        July 19, 2021 8:32 am
        • Commenter Avatar
          Nick

          You don't just push on it because the rifle doesn't fire, any more than you'd shove on the back of the slide of a semi-auto pistol in the same situation. If you didn't see a round eject and the weapon doesn't go into battery, you are not ready to go. You may have one of many possible problems that all require more attention before attempting to put it into battery, handgun and rifle, alike. I agree with the writer, it likely doesn't matter either way. Just buy the upper of your choice and have fun!

          July 19, 2021 1:58 pm
          • Commenter Avatar
            John

            You are correct, it doesn't matter. There is nothing inherent with the FA which causes an "unsafe condition", its nothing to fear. Get what you want, FA or not, and enjoy it - and always remember, the safe operation of your rifle is your responsibility.

            I think I'm going to invent what I will call ('cause I say so) an "out-of-spec/damaged round, foreign debris or wrong round" detector for the AR-15. I'll advertise it as "Correct the deficiency of the AR-15 Forward Assist with its many dangers of and detect these things before you can press that forward assist button. Get the worlds best detector now and shoot in safety. because we care about your safety we are offering a special discount price of $100.00 (regularly $160.00) because we think its important that all AR-15 owners with a forward assist be protected from the dangers of . So get yours today. (disclaimer : May not be available in your locale)".

            After all, it must be real and true 'cause a "company" (an entity) on the internet reinforced every fear there ever was about the forward assist by selling this thing. After all if all these bad dangers of the forward assist were not real then why would someone go to the trouble of inventing this thing, right?

            I'll come up with more complete advertising later.

            I'll bet I could make a fortune on it.

            July 19, 2021 2:49 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Brian

    Just had the pawl on my new 300 BO pistol sheer off. Grand total of 12-15 rounds through it. With almost 45 years shooting this weapon platform, I’ve probably only used the FA 6 times total and none with the 300. The pawl jammed in between the BCG and the upper reciever causing a catastrophic malfunction. I wasn’t able to clear it until I got home and had a friend help.
    As far as making sure you have a round chambered, consider dropping the mag and checking for crossover of the top round.

    July 18, 2021 5:55 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    David Nissen Kahn

    The advantage of the forward assist for the average shottist is that it allows the operator to assure that their bolt is fully seated. I've been trained by knowledgeable teachers. When I holster my pistol, I pull on the magazine to be sure it's fully seated, even though I've seated it vigorously. Needful? Maybe not. Reassuring? Yep, it is. When I take up my rifle and put it into carrying condition, I pop the forward assist a couple of times. Needful? Maybe not. Reassuring? Yep, it is.

    July 18, 2021 5:36 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      John Fitzgerald

      David I am with you on this. Also find it very convenient when it comes to silently chambering a round while hunting and making sure the bolt is in battery. Wouldn't do a build without it. A feature I rely on with my rifle. Guess just a carry over in habit from being trained on the M16A1.

      July 19, 2021 12:29 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    My pronoun is 300BO

    One point missed and the original reason for the forward assist is to assist a shooter that has a weak ‘grip’ as it were, they aren’t shouldering the firearm properly so the bolt doesn’t fully seat the round in the chamber much like a limp/weak wrist handgun shooter and doesn’t fully seat the next round. The forward assist provides the ‘slap’ you would do on a handgun for the rifle to put the bolt in battery or the slide for a handgun. This is the reason the army wanted it, they knew that you not always be in the perfect fighting position and more often poorly trained shooters will need the assist. The Air Force didn’t care because bus drivers don’t carry rifles. In the end, when this happens it’s quicker to use a forward assist then to chamber another round. If you recognize that’s the problem, otherwise Tap, Rack, Pull the magazine to ensure it’s seated, Asses that you still have a target and press the trigger if you still have a threat.

    July 18, 2021 5:14 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    bighead

    the average AR owner has not fired their weapon enough or under harsh environments to even need it, but leave it there, I know its worth.

    July 18, 2021 5:01 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Mark

    Better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

    July 18, 2021 4:29 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    sound awake

    i use the fa in the woods for silently chambering a round and making sure its in battery afterwards
    the fa has also gotten me out of some bad spots where a round wouldnt chamber fully and i couldnt get it out with the charging handle
    the fa either got it into the chamber where i could fire and eject or get it in battery so i could separate the upper from the lower and beat the bcg out of the upper from underneath
    the only problem with the ar is you cant separate the upper from the lower if the bcg wont go into battery
    as a result i will never by an ar platform rifle or upper that doesnt have a forward assist

    July 18, 2021 3:15 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Nick

      yup

      July 19, 2021 2:01 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Bruce

    The relief cut in the bolt carrier by the gas vents is all you need. You can use your thumb for a press check to make sure it’s loaded and the bolt is in battery. If it takes more force than this stop!! Something is wrong. Many people forget the forward assist was added by the same big army that tried to kill the m16 program. They even got caught trying to sabotage it.

    July 18, 2021 1:05 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    John

    "The original design for the AR-15 and M16 rifles did not include this feature, but the military insisted that Eugene Stoner include it."

    Actually it did, but it just was not included in the rifle its self design. It was an added on separate design by Foster E. Sturtvant, the prototype for it was welded on to the receiver.

    July 18, 2021 5:53 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    John

    "That’s a concern for many folks against forward assists. Honestly, it stands as a valid concern — especially in the case of a .300 Blackout round getting mixed into .223/5.56."

    Only valid to drama queens and people who should not be using the rifle. If you can't tell the difference between the a .300 Blackout round and a .223/5.56 round when you load the magazine you should not be using the rifle in the first place.

    Seriously, I don't understand the controversy. It seems like more of an invented thing, like that little bit of rattle/slop/wiggle of the upper receiver on the AR-15 and the many claims of doom and despair for it that turned out not to be true. Parts dealers made a bundle selling those wedges and O ring things to stop that little bit of rattle/slop/wiggle that was suppose to be there in the first place.

    July 18, 2021 3:45 am
    • Commenter Avatar
      Monte Walsh

      Yep.

      July 18, 2021 4:38 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      todd gimian

      I agree you should be paying attention to what you are loading into your magazine, but for some reason that mix-up happens frequently.
      From the technical side, 300 bo will artificially headspace off the shoulder in a 5.56 barrel, which is why if you miss it while loading the magazine, it can lead to people thinking it chambered.

      July 21, 2021 8:15 am
  • Commenter Avatar
    Andrei

    You forgot to mention the added value of turning an M16 into a "sniper rfile" by holding down the FA with your thumb before firing - having to manually operate your rifle gives it "extra damage and range".

    July 17, 2021 8:43 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Chris

      Good luck with that...something will break with the force of rapidly expanding gas shooting through the gas tub back at the bolt key attached to the bolt carrier group....you must be obtuse to ever even think of a gimmick like this.

      July 18, 2021 4:31 pm
      • Commenter Avatar
        Andrei

        It's a joke, bro. Checkout "AR sniper button"; there were some people in, I believe, the Middile East, that were utilizing captured AR pattern rifles as "sniper rifles" because they thought that was the point of the forward assist.

        July 19, 2021 10:19 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Nick

      I think if I was playing that game, and I don't, I would just have an adjustable gas block and reduce the flow to prevent cycling. I'd be curious if there be any measurable improvement. I think that would fall into the user's margin of error with that rifle. idk. seems gimmicky. Maybe there's a youtube video, already. Let's go see...

      July 19, 2021 2:06 pm
      • Commenter Avatar
        Andrei

        It would be interesting to see if that'd, help, I agree. I was just referencing a meme regarding some guys who thought that was the point of the forward assist. There's videos on it, just looo up "AR sniper button".

        July 19, 2021 10:21 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Jim Hovater

    The only time I use my FA is on the deer stand, when I 'ease' a round from magazine to chamber and use the FA to confirm the round is fully chambered and the bolt is completely locked.

    July 17, 2021 6:43 pm
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