The Humble AR15 Carry Handle

M4 Carry Handle
| January 18, 2023
| 2 Comments
Categories: Guns
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Since its invention in the 1950s, the AR15 & M16 family of rifles has always had a distinctive look. The original carry handle graced the top of the upper receiver for a good 40 years, creating this unique look. While you can still find them here and there, the M16 carrying handle and AR15 carry handle are not as abundant as they once were.

XM177 Carry Handle

An XM177 Carry Handle looks good with some ol’ fashion Tigerstripe.

If you served from the Vietnam era or up through the Global War on Terror, you probably learned firsthand that even though it is called a carry handle, you never use it as such. So, why does the M16 have a handle?

Its primary purpose was to house the rear sight and act as a scope mounting platform. The former worked perfectly, whereas the latter could be hit or miss, mostly miss.

M16 Carrying Handle

Where did this carry handle originate, and where did it go? First, we have to go back to the beginning with a different version of the platform. The AR10.

The AR-10

First revealed in 1956, the AR-10 was a truly radical design for the time. A full-sized battle rifle chambered in 308 Winchester; it had the ubiquitous carry handle. Most notably, the charging handle protruded vertically through the top of the upper receiver and rode down the center of the carry handle.

While it imparts a very cool look to the rifle, this reciprocating charging handle was fraught with problems. They tended to overheat and, in time, became fragile, often breaking. Due to a lack of spare part availability, this often sounded the death knell for the individual rifle.

Ironically, the carry handle acted as a housing for the charging handle more so than a convenient method of grabbing the rifle as with a briefcase or a lunchbox. It had the secondary benefit of housing the rear sight.

M16 Carrying handle

The design transitioned to the first four or five individual AR-15s when the AR10 was scaled down for a new caliber (223 Remington and eventually 5.56 NATO) but was deemed too much of a liability. So, the more traditional T-shaped charging handle, which protrudes from the rear of the upper receiver, but below the carry handle, was used.

M16 Carrying Handle

The M16 Carry Handle & AR15 Carry Handle

The original AR-15 was a select-fire weapon first purchased by the US Air Force in 1962. Armalite had sold the design to Colt, and it entered production as the Model 601 and military inventory as the M16.

M16 Carry Handle

“Recently @bluejeanoperator posted a video on the Alice gear and talked about how some “old-timers” would make  “@magpul we have at home” pull rings out of gutted 550 chord. So I dug out my magazines that I had during deployment to show you how dated I am. Also, the M16A2 was my first issued and deployed weapon. I also used the ACU/Alice combo with L-shaped red lens light in ROTC.” – @9holereviews on Instagram

With the charging handle moved to the rear of the receiver, as mentioned previously, the other significant change was the application of the rear sight in the AR15 carry handle.

M4 Carry Handle

This sight featured an L-shaped aperture giving the shooter the choice of short-range (0-300 meters) or long-range (300-400 meters). A disc mounted on the side was adjustable for windage. Parochial engineering made this adjustment using a series of holes and a detent on the sight wheel. To move the sight, a sight adjustment tool or simply the tip of a 5.56 NATO round would depress the detent and allow the shooter to rotate the wheel. This method prevented breakage by shooters but was not ideal for making adjustments quickly.

M4 Carry Handle

Mounting Optics

Additionally, the carry handle could serve as a scope mount base. Inside the top rail, for lack of a better term, is a small hole about ¼ of an inch in diameter. Colt manufactured a fixed 3X scope that mounts into this hole. Over the years, aftermarket manufacturers offered various Weaver and Picatinny scope mounts that also work.

M4 Carry Handle

Trijicon explicitly designed the ACOG to mount in this fashion. However, these mounting solutions left a lot to be desired. They often required a cheekpiece or another type of stock riser to allow the shooter to obtain a proper cheek weld. As a result, cantilever mounts that placed an extended eye relief type scope over the handguard became an option in later years.

M4 Carry Handle

M4 Carry Handle

“Today’s post will look at some pretty interesting images from early 2015 that depict Russian servicemen from the 45th Guards Spetsnaz Brigade training with what appear to be Bushmaster M4s. These rifles likely originate from Georgia where relatively large quantities were captured by the Russian army during the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War. The 45th guards Spetsnaz brigade is garrisoned at Kubinka, just outside Moscow, and are considered to be Russia’s premiere light infantry and special reconnaissance force directly subordinated to the VDV (airborne). However, the unit can also be operationally subordinate to the GRU (foreign military intelligence agency).” – @Streakingdelilah on Instagram

As the M16 evolved to A1, other changes were added to the rifle. These changes included a brass deflector to keep brass out of the face of left-handed shooters, a forward assist, an ejection port cover, and the rifling twist in the barrel. However, none of these changes would impact the carry handle until the early to mid-1980s.

XM177 Carry Handle

The M16A2

After nearly 20 years of service, the M16 was due for some updates. Upgrades unveiled as the M16A2 included better handguards, a heavier barrel, and the first significant update to the carry handle.

Rather than make elevation changes off the front sight, they added an elevation wheel to the rear sight from 0 to 800 yards. In addition, a drum mounted on the left side adjusted windage without using a tool.

Although the A2 was more of a target rifle with these enhancements, its capability found favor in the Spec-Ops community over the older A1s. However, the next major change to the platform came from the private sector rather than the military. This adjustment eventually made its way back to military service.

Despite the ability to mount a scope in the carry handle, many shooters wanted to mount a scope closer to the bore axis. It’s hard to pin down an exact date or who did it first, but some gunsmiths began cutting off the carry handles to weld a section of Weaver rail to the upper receiver. D&L Sports and JP Rifles come to mind as early innovators on this front.

This modification led to other improvements on the platform such as removing the front sight tower, free-floated barrels, and eventually Picatinny forend rails.

Shooters began to fully realize the inherent accuracy in the M16 & AR15 platform with modifications such as these. By the early 1990s companies began offering factory ARs without a carry handle so the shooter could mount a scope.

The M16A4

Eventually, the military caught up to the civilian sector. In 1997, the fourth generation of the M16 series was adopted with the M16A4; the A3 was a minor footnote and had no change to the carry handle.

On the M16A4, the carry handle was removable simply by turning the two mounting screws. Removing the handle gave the shooter a Picatinny rail platform to mount an optic, much as civilian shooters had been doing.

This upgrade sounded the death knell for the carry handle. By the next generation, carry handles were no longer offered because combat-ready optics were now more available.

CAR-15-Carry-Handle

“My Modelo Prison CAR-15. A rifle that I set up to replicate the carbine I used on that mission – the high point of my military career” – @vickers_tactical

The AR15 carry handle today

Nowadays, carry-handle upper receivers are more of a novelty. Flat-top upper receivers are now the standard, and what was typically a 3-4 MOA rifle was now known for shooting sub-MOA. There is a demand for carry handle uppers, but nobody seems to be manufacturing them.

Ar15 Carry Handle

I have talked to several manufacturers known for offering AR15 carry handle uppers as an option, and the simple answer is that none are found. The major forging houses that produce upper receiver forgings for rifle manufacturers build strictly flat-top upper receivers.

Ar15 Carry Handle

This trend may turn with enough demand for retro-styled carry handle uppers because one thing about this obsolete design is that they still work well.

AR15 Carry Handle

Two of my favorite rifles still use A2-style upper receivers. One is a sub-MOA rifle that was remarkably accurate at 600 and 800 yards using iron sights. The other has a storied personal history with me.

AR15 Carry Handle Lego

Hopefully, we will see a little resurgence in carry-handle upper receivers. They have their place in history, and many shooters like to emulate the various rifles that the military has used. Throughout the years, popular models have included M1 Garands, 1873 Springfields, or even the M16 & AR15 series.

More AR15 Carry Handle Pictures from Social

AR15 Carry Handle

“Sight pictures as requested. Scroll through. 1. A2 carry handle and FSB iron sights (approx. 2.6″ HOB) 2. Primary Arms SLx 1x Microprism (approx. 4″ HOB) 3. Same as 2 but illuminated (setting 11 of 13) The FSB doesn’t appear in the optic viewing window during use. It’s the angle of the camera.” – @bunny_operator on Instagram

AR15 Carry Handle AR15 Carry Handle

2 Comments

  1. Richard T Brue

    I just wanted to let you know of some mistakes that were made. The brass deflector didn’t find its way to the M16 until the A2 model. Also when the A2 was released, the automatic setting was replaced with 3 round burst. The butt stock was shortened by about an inch. The front sight went from 4 positions to 5 positions.

    Reply
  2. GIJOOOE

    I built my dad a milspec M4 clone and the first thing he asked me was “where’s the carry handle?” I couldn’t find an A4 carry handle for sale, so I installed the A2 rear sight from a supplier. He still wants the carry handle.

    Reply

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