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The Best Side Charging Upper Receivers in 2021

Michael Crites

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The AR-15, when in well-trained hands, is one of the most capable weapons systems ever designed. That longstanding performance and adoption of the firearm across the globe is a testament to Eugene Stoner‘s engineering brilliance. 

Of course, no gun is perfect, and with time innovations give every platform an opportunity for an update.

One particular feature of the AR platform can be drastically improved: the charging handle. To be fair, it’s a lot better than it used to be – the original design had to be charged with something that looked like a second trigger, inside of the carry handle. Also, the original charging handle rode on a telescoping rail which just begged for malfunctions and snags. 

The current rear charging handle design is an improvement – but it’s still considered by many to be the most awkward part of operating an AR-15 rifle. Plus the rear charging handle requires the operator to remove their firing grip to clear a jam or charge the firearm. Not ideal if you struggle with grip strength or need to charge the weapon one-handed.

That’s where a side charging upper receiver comes in. Borrowing cues from other contemporary rifles, such as the AK47 and SCAR, a side charging upper moves the charging handle from the rear of the upper receiver to the left side. That is an improvement more than worth looking into as it allows you to address a jam and charge the weapon all with your non-dominant hand.

In This Article:

Comparison of the Best Side-Charging Uppers

Below is my list of the best side-charging uppers for 2021. I list the best choices in terms of value, performance, design, and cost.

Click on the name to head to the product page, read reviews and check prices or skip ahead to the list of upper receivers.

Side-Charging Uppers Reviews

1. Best Overall: JP Enterprises

Our overall top pick is the JP Enterprises upper: it’s a well-built, fully-featured upper that will almost certainly suit your needs. 

Optics mounting is a breeze, and I appreciate the included dust covers. Especially with both sides of the gun open, it’s vital to keep dirt from ingressing into the system. In addition, the folding handle is sleek and easy-to-use – plus it will prevent the handle from catching on straps or clothing while in use or being carried. 

It is a little strange that this configuration retains the rear handle, but overall this package is compellingly well done.

What We Liked

  • Comes with an ejection port cover
  • Has the forward assist, which some people will like
  • They designed the bolt carrier group to run especially well in this configuration
  • Fits with mil-spec lower receivers
  • The Side-folding handle keeps the receiver compact & prevents snags

What We Didn't Like

  • The brass deflector is a little small for our tastes
  • For some reason, still retains the rear charging handle
  • Expensive

2. Runner-Up: Gibbz Arms

If you want to run a less-common caliber or suppressed build, the Arms AR15/M16 G4 from Gibbz is a great way to build a side charging AR. 

While we’d have liked to see an ejection port dust cover, it’s designed to be able to work with a wide variety of calibers, which makes their design decision make a fair bit of sense. 

Also, it’s engineered to handle excess gas, which you would see when running a suppressor on your rifle. This won’t check everyone’s boxes, but for specific needs, this is a fantastic way to complete a unique build.

What We Liked

  • The overall look is slick, and has nice touches like the ejection port beveling
  • The rear bolt door is designed to work with suppressed barrels
  • Charging port cover on the left side of the gun
  • Optimized cam pin

What We Didn't Like

  • Could do with the addition of a brass deflector
  • I would also like to see an ejection port cover

3. Also Great: American Spirit

The Side Charging Upper by American Spirit Arms is a standout on our list because the charging handle doesn’t reciprocate, making it a little easier in terms of the learning curve on the shooter who is used to a standard AR.

It also does away with the forward assist, which has been made redundant her since you can, on a side charging AR, use the side charging handle in basically the same way.

What We Liked

  • Good size brass deflector 
  • Did away with the forward assist
  • Comes with an ejection port cover
  • Plenty of rail space to mount accessories

What We Didn't Like

  • Requires a non-included proprietary bolt
  • The branding is a little much for our tastes

4. Best AR-10 Option:

If you liked how the JP Enterprises model in .223 looked, but want to build an AR in .308, this is the solution for you. 

The 308 AR upper is an upscaled version of our top pick, meant to build an AR that would, thanks to the caliber, be a great competitor to a SCAR in your collection.

What We Liked

  • Perfect for an AR-10 build
  • Has an upgraded bolt and bolt carrier group
  • The ejection port and dust cover have been retained.
  • The design is attractive with the cuts in the receiver

What We Didn't Like

  • Doesn’t need to retain the rear charging handle
  • Also does not need to have a forward assist

5. Best Mounting Options: New Frontier

To finish out, this upper receiver by New Frontier has a cool trick: the handle doesn’t reciprocate and it doesn’t require a special bolt. 

I’m not an engineer so I can’t detail how exactly it achieves this little trick, but I appreciate the clever design and we’d be excited to try this one out on a long-term test build. 

What We Liked

  • Non-reciprocating handle with a standard bolt carrier group
  • You can adjust the tension on the charging handle
  • Can fire a wide variety of calibers
  • The rear is sealed well against dirt intrusions

What We Didn't Like

  • Would have liked to see an ejection port cover
  • The rear lip may deform over years of hard use
  • Non-folding handle

Why bother with a side charging upper? 

In addition to the ergonomic improvement on the AR’s original design, side charging handles can make operating an AR much easier for people with compromised finger strength, left-handed shooters, or anyone looking to set-up an ambidextrous, side-charging AR-15. 

Effectively, side charging borrows some of the best ideas from the AK platform, including its ability to quickly resolve jams, and applies them to the AR, which is a match made in engineering heaven.

Competitive shooters benefit from a side-charger thanks to the ability to charge their AR or check for jams without changing grip or stance. They also get full control of the bolt, which is much more straightforward than with a typical charging handle.

For those with non-standard cheek weld requirements, a side charging upper opens up the buttstock top line — allowing for the installation of any kind of dynamic, adjustable or custom cheek piece.

What to Look for in a Quality Side-Charging Upper

1. A Complete Upper

First and foremost, I recommend looking for a complete upper receiver. While some use mil-spec cam pins and bolt carrier groups, many do not. Also, almost all of these have a specific side charging handle and specific colt-carrier group (BCG), so buying a complete upper will save you some headaches (and probably cash) down the line.

2. Precision & Durability

Since side chargers are a little more complicated in terms of internal operation, I recommend a 7075 billet aluminum upper receiver.

Billet aluminum can be machined with incredible precision, which helps to avoid jams and issues you may encounter with a standard, cast AR-15 upper.

3. Optics Support

You’re also likely going to want to attach optics – so I looked for 1913 rails and included only those which offered optic mounts. I also chose uppers without barrels: anyone building a side-charging AR probably has a barrel in mind, but I have included some general suggestions for caliber and use cases.

4. Reciprocating vs. Non-Reciprocating

As noted below — I consider reciprocation a con of side-chargers. Some would argue that the additional control and ability to force engagement or ejection of a round may be worth the price of admission, but the risk of malfunction and injury isn’t worth paying the iron price.

5. Fit & Compatibility

Nobody wants to open a box, get their AR on the bench only to find out there’s a problem with fit. Double check handguard, optics, and handle clearance to ensure you won’t be disappointed.  

Shortcomings

One thing worth talking about: the charging handle. With a standard AR, the charging handle does not reciprocate, and thus poses no risk to you, the shooter.

Some side chargers, on the other hand, may have reciprocating charging handles. I avoided these in our recommendations but if you build your AR around a reciprocating handle there are a few things to keep in mind.

When that handle comes back, a few things can happen. Ideally, it will run its course, be pushed back by the buffer, and cycle the weapon as intended. But – if your hand is in the way – two bad things will happen at once. First, stopping the bolt’s momentum will likely prevent the spent cartridge from ejecting. Should this happen late in the cycle, it’ll also induce a double feed that you would need to drop the magazine to sort out the jam. 

It will also smash the heck out of whatever flesh and bone happen to be in the way, so you’d be notified of your malfunction with a fair bit of pain. In general – make sure to keep your firing hand out of the way of the charging handle and you should be fine. Either that or avoid reciprocating handles altogether.

Conclusion

Here, I wadded deep into the best side charging AR upper receivers on the market and recommended the models by JP Enterprises as top picks. 

Although all of the uppers on this list are high quality, I appreciate the inclusion of dust covers and brass deflectors to keep some of the creature comforts of a standard AR.

With that said, I hope this list is useful and will help you to build an exciting (and more useful) AR.

Sources:

  1. Museum Collections, National Park Service, Assault Rifle
  2. Forgotten Weapons, Semiauto Portuguese AR-10 on a Sendra Receiver, March 23, 2018
  3. Polenar Tactical, How to reload an AK, November 9, 2017
  4. Jason J. Brown, Smooth Operator: A Brief History of the FN SCAR, October 20, 2016

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