The forward assist is a spring-loaded button on the right side of an AR-15 upper receiver, which is used to manually force the bolt carrier group forward and into battery.
Despite being a simple device, composed of just a few parts and performing a straightforward function, the forward assist is the object of a great deal of debate. When should it be used? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Does it even need to exist?
Below, we’ll take a look at how the forward assist came to be on the AR-15, how best to use it, and if you really need one on your rifle.
Why Does the AR-15 Have a Forward Assist?
Originally, the AR-15 did not have a forward assist. Before the AR-15 was ever brought to market and before the military adopted a modified version as the M16, back when it was nothing more than a prototype weapon at Armalite, the AR-15 did not have a forward assist at all.
It was the opinion of Eugene Stoner that the rifle did not need a forward assist. If a round was unable to chamber under the pressure of the recoil spring, then the safest course of action was to eject the round, clear whatever problem was preventing proper feeding, and rechamber a fresh round.
The majority of the U.S. Military, however, did not look fully agree with this view. Most of their rifles at the time had reciprocating charging handles, which, being solidly attached to the bolt carrier, could be used to force the bolt into action. The M1 Garand, a rifle that was in very recent memory for servicemen at the time, was known to occasionally need an extra tap on the back of the charging handle to strip the first round off a fresh clip.
Fearing that soldiers would be unable to expeditiously clear feeding malfunctions by forcing the bolt into battery while in combat, the Army requested that a forward assist be added if they were going to adopt the rifle as a service weapon. This was justified in the Army’s 1963 TECOM Product Improvement test, where the Army concluded that the AR-15 rifle experienced frequent enough ‘Failure of the Bolt to Close’ stoppages in extremely adverse conditions and that a plunger-type manual bolt closure device assisted in expedient remediation.
Armalite acquiesced, and the forward assist became part of the Mil-Spec standard. Here, the path of the M16 and the AR-15 diverged, as the M-16 was adopted as a service weapon and the AR-15 became a distinct rifle as it entered into the civilian market. Despite the many differences between the rifles, though, the AR-15 retained the forward assist, likely as a way to save money by using the same tooling to manufacture both upper receivers.
What is the Purpose of the Forward Assist?
The purpose of the forward assist is to manually force the bolt forward and into battery, but that’s not the full story of how it’s used. There are several different scenarios in which a forward assist can be helpful.
The primary instance in which a forward assist is useful is a failure to feed due to insufficient spring power or slightly excess friction on the feed ramp. In these cases, the malfunction can be cleared almost instantly by hitting the forward assist with a thumb or the heel of one’s hand.
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to determine the exact cause of a failure to feed without examining the rifle. If a failure to feed was caused by a more serious issue, such as a stuck firing pin or extractor, attempting to jam the bolt carrier group into battery with the forward assist can make the malfunction several orders of magnitude worse. Critics of the forward assist will also say that using the forward assist will contribute to more failures to extract, but it’s difficult to say whether these issues are unique to the forward assist or just a symptom of an already malfunctioning rifle.
Regardless, operators are well advised to determine the cause of the malfunction before using the forward assist—which often means racking the AR-15’s charging handle and ejecting the round in order to view the chamber and feed ramp. In ideal circumstances, a simple ‘tap, rack, bang’ is enough to clear most stoppages.
On the other hand, if the original malfunction was a failure to feed due to the bolt not falling into battery, running the charging handle will very likely induce a double feed. This is because the BCG’s extractor has not snapped over the rim of the casing, so the bolt cannot eject the partially fed cartridge.
This gives the forward assist a specific purpose within remedial action. It is not intended as an ‘immediate’ solution unless the user is aware of the failure to feed and relatively confident that it will not be worsened by sending the bolt into battery. This may sound likely an excessively niche benefit, but failures to feed/go into battery are among the most common stoppages for an AR-15 in adverse conditions. If the stoppage is caused by friction, either due to a lack of lubricant or increased friction from cold weather, wet weather, or fouling/dirt/sand, the forward assist can help keep the rifle partially operational.
Beyond malfunctions, the forward assist can also be used to re-seat the BCG after a press check, particularly in situations where noise signature must be kept to a minimum, such as when stalking game. Easing the bolt forward and seating it with the forward assist is much quieter than pulling it back far enough to seat itself and letting it fly.
There are a few other minor functions of the forward assist, such as aiding in water drainage or forcing the bolt forward for disassembly in certain cases, but for civilian users, clearing a malfunction or seating the BCG after a press check are the primary uses.
Do I Need a Forward Assist on my AR-15?
It’s largely a matter of personal preference. If you’re buying a complete rifle, you’ll have significantly fewer options without a forward assist. Of course, if you build your own upper receiver then you’ll have much more freedom to pick and choose your desired features.
Many AR-15 owners prefer models with the forward assist under the logic that it’s better to ‘have and not need’ than to ‘need and not have.’ That said, the average AR-15 owner will probably never need it.
In many cases, users can simply use a thumb to press forward on the scallop cut in their bolt carrier group in place of a forward assist. However, some rifles with stiff extractor tension do require a forward assist to be able to manually seat the bolt. You can always verify this on your rifle using snap caps.
As long as you use it correctly, a forward assist offers essentially no drawbacks other than a few ounces of weight and provides a little extra capability, which is why it’s so commonly found on modern AR-15s, and why it’s making a return on the new SIG XM7.
If you do opt for a forward assist on your AR-15, it’s essential to learn how to use it, and equally as important, when not to use it. A failure to feed in a critical scenario is bad, but a thoroughly jammed rifle that requires tools to restore to working order is much worse.
For many rifles, a forward assist may not be necessary. Firearms that are only used at the range or in competition gain very little benefit from them, and if used incorrectly, they can even introduce other malfunctions.
For defensive firearms, however, they can be a useful tool, if you know how to use them. A forward assist can rapidly clear a failure to feed, and used properly, in no way detracts from the function of your rifle. And if it helps you keep your rifle running, if even partially, then many would say that’s worthwhile enough on its own.
Also, as suppressors become more common on civilian rifles, the benefits of a forward assist may become more noticeable—especially in cold or inclement conditions. To help counteract this, AR-15 owners should invest in quality cleaning and maintenance gear, ensuring their rifle performs reliably for as long as possible.