In 1954 Eugene Stoner and ArmaLite brought forth on this continent a new rifle, conceived in aluminum alloy, but not totally dedicated to the proposition that all were created equal, in particular: lefties. The original design, the AR-10, featured a charging handle on top of the upper receiver in the “suitcase handle.” This design, while bilateral in nature, didn’t make it to the final AR-15. Skip ahead 60 years: several factors have made AR-15 pattern firearms the most popular rifles in America.
On AR-15’s, efficient manipulations are particularly important. What is the use of all that firepower and inherent accuracy if we waste time fumbling with it? What’s more, the type of manipulations can change depending on the shooting activity. If your weak arm is tied up in a sling because you’re at Camp Perry, you need a different set of manipulations from someone proned out behind a bipod supported precision AR, which is different from someone running a carbine in unsupported positions. With the goal of simplification in mind, we want to keep as much commonality as possible between these techniques.
Why should we be concerned with all of these manipulation techniques anyway? Bruce Lee said: “Simplicity is the key to brilliance.” Simplifying techniques increases their efficiency. By increasing efficiency we reduce fumbling and develop smoothness, smoothness becomes speed and speedy manipulations give us more time for marksmanship. In a previous article I shared this story, but it is worth sharing again:
"Speed as it applies to mechanics or manipulations refers to efficiency and simplicity of motion. In a recent class I had a concealed carry student with over 40-years of firearms and shooting experience including 2 combat tours in Vietnam. When it was his turn to shoot, he picked up his 1911 in his shooting hand, flipped it over and placed the slide in his non-shooting hand, mag-well up. He then used his strong hand to retrieve and insert the magazine, smacked it sharply to seat it, flipped the firearm over, racked the slide, then adjusted his grip several times before finally presenting the firearm on-target. These manipulations took approximately 30-seconds. He then proceeded to empty the magazine at the target in approximately 7-seconds, scoring 2 hits on paper and 6 new holes in my backstop. This individual is generally not a poor marksman, but in this instance he rushed his shots. His assumption, which is a common one, is that we must shoot faster than our opponent because the first one to land rounds on target is most likely to prevail. The conventional wisdom on this is that we don’t need to shoot faster than the bad guy; we need to shoot better than he does. How do we do that exactly? We spend less time physically manipulating the firearm, which gives us more time for the proper application of marksmanship fundamentals.
If this student had spent only 7-seconds on smooth, efficient manipulations of the firearm and 30-seconds on marksmanship, his total time wouldn’t have changed, but he would have saved almost 4-seconds per shot… plenty of time for accuracy, even for most novices. So…what’s the difference between 8 shots in 37-seconds with only 2 hits and 8 shots in 37-seconds with 8 good hits? The difference is mechanics, or efficient physical firearm manipulations."
With that, there’s a whole lot to write about with these, so let’s jump straight in:
The AR-15 has 5 primary user inputs: trigger, selector switch, magazine release, bolt catch, and charging handle. I am deliberately not including the forward assist device because they can cause more harm than good and some rifles aren’t equipped with them. That’s controversial, I know, but it is consistent with my training and experience with these rifles. If you like using them, you are entitled to your opinion.
Not much to say about AR-15 triggers from a left-handed perspective, they are centered in the rifle and equally accessible from either side.
The standard selector switch is located on the left side of the rifle and designed to be quickly moved from the safe position to the fire position with a flick of the right thumb. For lefties to perform this, we either have to loosen our grip and move the left thumb over to the left side of the rifle – somewhat awkward...
...or hyperextend the trigger finger and use the bumpy part where the finger meets the palm, technically the volar or palmar surface of the second metacarpal-phalangeal joint, to brush it down. This maneuver also requires loosening the hold on the grip somewhat.
While neither of these are the ideal situation, they aren’t the end of the world either. To engage the safety with the left hand, we pull it back with the trigger finger, being careful that we are sure our finger is on the safety, not the trigger. If you don’t like using the trigger finger that way because you’re afraid of a negligent discharge, that’s your prerogative, you can use the bumpy part of the back of the trigger finger again to brush it back and up. Hardcore southpaw that I am, I don’t generally advocate doctoring up guns with a bunch of what they typically call "ambidextrous" parts, for reasons already explained. That said, I strongly recommend updating your rifles with a quality “ambidextrous” safety. If not for you, do it for the poor lefty sap who may need to use it to finish his gunfight with your rifle… after all, he might be on your side. The weak side of bilateral safeties is that the switch on the right side of the receiver is held in place with a screw that can loosen. Use some blue loctite on it and check the screw tension periodically.
If using a bilateral safety, we can use the left thumb to quickly flick the safety from safe to fire without even loosening our grip, but we re-apply the safety on the left side of the rifle as described above. That’s OK, we may be in a rush to take the safety off, but, as an administrative action, we probably don’t need to be in too much of a hurry to turn the safety back on.
The magazine release on AR’s is specifically made to be activated by the right trigger finger for “standard” shooters. Lefties have a few options on how they do this depending on the situation.
“Emergency” or “Speed” Reload – This is a reload situation brought about by the magazine running
empty and the bolt locking back. Some instructors advocate bringing the rife out of the shoulder and into a
“workstation” position, similar to the way we do with a pistol, while performing reloads. If you have a heavy barrel and/or if you like to mount flashlights and sound suppressors and other heavy stuff on the rifle, it can make it more difficult for some people to hold the rifle up this way with just the pistol grip. The leverage just isn't in your favor. As a lefty, I recommend keeping the rifle in the shoulder with the muzzle between you and whatever you are shooting at for the majority of these manipulations.
Slide the right hand back to the magazine well and use the right thumb to press the mag release button, then strip the magazine out with the right hand and discard it. Retrieve a fresh magazine and insert it, pulling down after the “click” to ensure the magazine is seated. If you are in a prone or bench rest position, the magazine may be prevented from pulling free by the ground or bench. If that is the case, you can elevate the muzzle to create space or if necessary rotate the rifle counter-clockwise slightly until you have enough clearance to get the magazine out, whatever is appropriate for your environment.
“Tactical” reload – this describes a situation when you have a round in battery and an unknown number of rounds remaining in the magazine, coupled with time, opportunity, cover and a compelling need to insert a fresh magazine. People will be arguing the practicality and applicability of tactical reloads until metallic cartridge firearms are made irrelevant by laser weapons or at least until we collectively run out of ammunition and have to start throwing rocks. If you don’t believe there is any utility in tactical reloads, fair enough, you can skip this section and best of luck to ya!
For everyone else, I would have you consider these 2 methods:
#1 is a variation of the speed reload technique above, actually it is almost identical, with the exception that after you strip magazine #1 and insert magazine #2, you recover magazine #1 from the ground and stow it in a pocket or something. I don’t advise sticking it back in a mag holder, as this is slow and generally considered a bad habit. Nothing should go in mag holders except for full magazines.
Some people vary this technique by stowing the original magazine first, then inserting the fresh magazine. Neither variation of this technique gives me warm fuzzies. In the first case, I don’t like searching the ground for a magazine that I discarded, that may be lying in a pile of previously discarded empty magazines; it takes one’s attention away from the more pressing matters at hand. I dislike the second variation for the reason that it is too physically close to a speed reload, and we don’t want to start training muscle memory to retain empty magazines inadvertently. Also, we spend a lot of time with only one round in the rifle to defend ourselves with if we get suddenly interrupted.
#2 is the technique I prefer, which is to pinch grip the bottom of a fresh magazine and slap it against the magazine that is in the rifle just beneath the bottom of the mag well so as to form a sideways “T” with the open end of the magazine towards you and the rounds pointing up. (Magazines are obviously empty in these images, so use your imagination) Use the right thumb to activate the mag release...
...strip the partial mag, then rotate the right wrist thumb-forward to bring the open end of the fresh magazine into position under the magazine well. Insert and tug to make sure it’s seated.
The reason we use this particular hand position is that we have the support of the palm pushing the magazine in, which is stronger than trying to pinch 2 slippery magazines together and force the fresh one in with the standard “beer can grip.” Once the new magazine is seated, we can leisurely stow the old magazine, as the rifle is ready to fire.
The bolt catch actually performs both as a catch and release on the AR. Southpaws should move the right hand to a magazine well grip and depress the lower side of the bolt catch with their right middle finger while retracting the charging handle with the left hand if we wish to hold the bolt open.
Some have argued that one should always close the bolt by running the charging handle, not by depressing the bolt catch, as running the charging handle compresses the recoil spring more, which gives the bolt more closing power. While the physics behind the spring compression are correct, there is a problem with this. If we use the charging handle to release the bolt, the bolt must drag the charging handle back into the receiver as it shuts. Under normal circumstances this isn’t an issue, but if you have a very dirty, sandy or wet rifle, or if it is very cold and your lubricants are getting waxy (in which case you also might consider a different brand of lubricant), these factors can slow the bolt down, preventing it from closing completely. The forward assist mechanism was added to the M-16 A1 to solve this problem, and is about the only time it would be useful, but it also adds a step and additional manipulations. Not to mention, I once watched someone use the forward assist to almost blow a really nice Noveske build sky-high because of a squib load that left a projectile lodged in the leade. When they tap/racked, the next round wouldn't feed and they attempted to close the bolt by repeatedly slamming the forward assist. Fortunately, the class instructor stopped him and when he ejected the round he was trying to force into the chamber, the projectile had been pushed into the casing almost to the tip. For that reason, I don't recommend using the forward assist and I do recommend using the bolt catch, as Stoner originally intended, to close the bolt when it is locked back.
With that in mind, I recommend lefties use one of these 2 ways to close a locked-open bolt. The first is accomplished by unfolding the fingers of the left hand from the pistol grip, and while keeping the fingers pressed together, use the fingertips to depress the upper portion of the bolt catch which will allow the bolt to close. Then immediately reacquire our firing grip.
The second method is to maintain the firing grip and use the fingers of the right hand to wrap around the magazine well and depress the bolt catch.
The charging handle is the Achilles Heel of the AR-15, whether you're right or left-handed. I’m not sure what the original intent of the design was, but it seems that it was meant to be operated by hooking the index finger on one side and the middle finger on the other. Conventional right-handed training doctrine favors pinching the left side of the charging handle between the left thumb and the knuckle of the folded index finger. This places uneven stress on the charging handle and can bend and eventually shear off the roll pin that holds the latch in place. Adding an extended latch can speed this process because it adds leverage. The BCM charging handles (for example) are designed specifically to prevent this, and their medium-sized latches promote easy manipulation without increasing the risk of snags. If you’re left-handed, I recommend you look at an enhanced charging handle, such as the BCM or a PRI Gas Buster. Recently, a few companies have been releasing high quality charging handles with bilateral latches. I applaud this, but I don’t currently use them because I would be training my muscle memory to be applicable only on a limited percentage of rifles so equipped. That’s a personal choice, I don’t blame you if you are a lefty and want to outfit your rifles with these, it would make life somewhat easier.
For those of us who don’t want to go with a bilateral charging handle, I have a few potential charging handle operation methods for you to consider, but a word before we continue…
Some folks have a stubborn mentality that we shouldn’t release the pistol grip to manipulate the rifle - ever. That is easy to say if you are in the right handed 87%, (but watch any of them run an AK and you will see them release the pistol grip to manipulate the safety). Look, if you have to run the charging handle, it means the rifle isn’t presently capable of firing. If the rifle isn’t capable of firing, whether that is caused by an empty magazine, a malfunction or an open bolt, having our paw on the pistol grip gains us nothing. That being the case, what is the great sin of removing the firing hand from the pistol grip of a rifle that can’t fire? …and if that is the case, why is it OK to remove the hand from the grip to run an AK safety? Oh, because you’re right-handed and that is the only way to do it? I see… Keep that in mind as we describe the following manipulations:
The first option and my personal favorite for running the charging handle starts with the butt of the rifle in the shoulder. Release the pistol grip with the left hand while supporting the weight of the rifle with the right hand. Hook the index finger over the latch of the charging handle, pinching it between the index finger and thumb. Slightly raise the head, (without sticking out from behind cover if applicable, and take a look at your environment while you're up there), then “smartly” run the charging handle all the way back as if ripping it out of the rifle. When the charging handle stops, allow the finger to slide off of the latch. This will release the handle and allow the bolt to close. Don’t ride the charging handle forward, let it slam, then immediately reacquire a firing grip and cheek weld.
This way has several benefits: it is fast, it is strong, and it keeps the rifle pointed at the last known threat. The downside is that since the only reason to run the charging handle is to load the rifle, clear a malfunction, or administratively unload the rifle, your support hand will not be on the hand guard as shown above, but probably in a mag-well grip. That changes nothing. The other drawback to this technique is that if you do it in a tacticool class, your right-handed instructor will lecture you about maintaining the firing grip on the rifle, which takes us to the next techniques.
Option #2: is to run it like a righty runs an AK bolt. Release the forearm with the right hand and reach underneath the rifle. Reach beneath the magazine, not around it. Use the base of the thumb to run the charging handle.
If you have one of the larger, enhanced versions, it is easier than if you have a standard charging handle. There is also a tendency to tip the ejection port skyward, which isn’t a good idea. If you have a stubborn case in the chamber you are trying to extract, this technique lacks strength. This technique can also be slow because we have to re-establish a stock and cheek weld, and although you can fire the rifle without gripping the forearm, there is a tendency to delay firing until we have reacquired a forearm grip.
Option #3: Rotate the rifle clockwise approximately 90-degrees with the ejection port down, release the forearm with the right hand. Hook the right index finger over the left side of the charging latch and pinch the rear of the charging handle with the thumb. Pull back sharply and release as before, rotate the rifle back into the shoulder and reacquire the forearm grip.
This technique, as with the previous technique, can be slow, it lacks strength and if you are using optics they tend to get in the way. The benefit of this technique over the previous technique is that it keeps the ejection port angled downward.
These are the basic functional mechanics of AR-15 style rifles. In the next article I will cover Malfunction clearance.