Saga of the AR15 Forward Assist: A Solution Searching for a Problem

In 1963, the US Army set out to purchase 85,000 AR-15 rifles as a one-time procurement to hold the infantry through until final adoption of the expected Project SPIW rifle. Where the previous Air Force purchases of the AR-15 had been simple over-the-counter transactions with Colt, the scale of this new contract prompted Robert McNamara to set up a committee to standardize the rifle requirements of all four service branches. One of the disputed items was the addition of a manual bolt closure device.

The Air Force, having tested the AR-15 for several years by this point, saw no need for such a device. The Army, however, insisted that it was necessary both as a confidence-building feature for the infantryman and because it might in some situation solve a malfunction. Today, let’s discuss the sequence of events that led to the eventual January 1964 adoption of the now-familiar plunger type bolt closure device.

50 Comments

  1. Ian, I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t weave Curtis LeMay into the tale. He was instrumental in buying the rifle for the AF, specifically SAC. As I understand things, Gene Stoner and Curtis LeMay were at a picnic or outdoor party of sorts, Stoner game LeMay a rifle, and LeMay took a few pot-shots at a watermelon.

  2. I am curious if they ever considered just cutting serrations or a depression in the side of the bolt to push it forward with a thumb if necessary. That seems like a much more cost effective solution that would have answered the mail for the U.S. Army.

    • Yeah, but most of the bolt’s main body can’t be even touched if locked open, and using a thumb to close it against some stupid thing like mud sounds like an exercise in futility. I could be wrong…

      • Mossberg actually did have a finger depression in the bolt carrier on some of their low cost AR clones around 2012 or so.

    • That would not be a good idea. The carrier on the M16 gets quite hot after just a couple magazines and could give you a nasty burn if touched.

      • Bolt-burn was common with other designs where the user was required to put his hand somewhere in the bolt-track during a reload cycle. Any rifles fed by stripper clips will require the dominant hand to load the cartridges by shoving them down into a fixed magazine. If the thing’s been blazing away like crazy, expect to get a sizzled thumb or lightly-toasted fingers. I could be wrong.

  3. Then, desparately searching a need for this mysterious addition, they ended with a naming as “ Silent Closure Device”…

  4. In 30 plus years of using the AR platform in various configurations, I have had to use the forward assist multiple times in less then ideal situations. I have never had that be the reason for a malfunction, at least not directly, and it has allowed me to get that next round downrange faster the trying SPORT would have

  5. On the Sa80 you have to forward assist; for it to work… In general. A2, whatever. Albeit this is the Ar180 platform. I think it’s telling the ar10 had a forward assist for that 7 lugged rotary bolt “which fosberry used” and that Johnson rifle which used said lugs for a quick open due to opening mech; wee bump up the ejector port ledge.

    I think without that “bump” is why you need a forward assist; on less tube like designs, Ar180 etc; it must wiggle over time out of spec. And thus need a forward assist.

    Interesting vid in how: Such a successfull rifle, came about.

    • FFW’d that. The Johnson had the “bump” the others; in a tubular design, it worked best (delayed gas impingement) ar15. Due to being inline. In ar180s etc; the bolt hanging out the front of the bolt.

      Sub-optimal.

      • I am 100% adamant those lugs are for no other reason than a quick turn “as per the Johnson” but this time you get a delay via the gas expansion chamber in the bolt. A slight delay, requiring lots of wee lugs.

    • “(…)which fosberry used(…)”
      Did you meant George Vincent Fosbery VC? If yes explain what he did to you to warrant corrupting his name and starting with lowercase letter.

  6. First, truth in labeling – I’m an old Army officer, not a zoomie, so my opinions may be colored by that.

    You have to remember how the Air Force got involved with the AR-15. They wanted a weapon for the Air Police guarding the BUFFS out on the flight line. And there were few places less “expeditionary” than a US Air Force base in the early Sixties. The likelihood of an air force weapon being out in a challenging environment of mud, dust, etc, like an army weapon was small. It was not until later that Air Commando (later Special Operations) units began training up (Project Jungle Jim -https://www.afsoc.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/163454/air-commandos-history-revived-in-1960s/) for counter-insurgency that deployable AF units went into the field armed with AR-15 type weapons. The Army, of course, had to be prepared to operate in the more challenging field environment “tonight”, and had experience that indicated a forward assist was necessary.

    BTW,
    AR-15 without forward assist = M16
    AR-15 with forward assist = M16E1, then M16A1 (Vietnam era standard)
    AR-15 adapted for NATO round, with 3 round burst limiter = M16A2

    • Sounds right, from a novice; in regards why they figured no forward assist was needed.

      When it is clearly needed in the field as we know.

  7. Took me about 5 years to fully appreciate the AR like… Reckon I get it now, and 5.56mm finally; M4 lark, and yes… I do, think it is the best battle rifle “currently” in the world; fair achievement really, fair play. Your welcome, he he.

    • “(…)best battle rifle “currently” in the world(…)”
      How do you define battle rifle?
      How do you measure bestness of said weapon?

  8. As Ian was intimating, the BEST response to a round that wouldn’t chamber is generally to rack it out, hopefully taking mud or debris with it, and let the next one get the job done.
    I HAVE experienced the joys of forcing a round in with the FA, only to find that, on firing, the extractor tore through the rim, leaving you with a stuck round that required a clearing rod to deal with.
    Which is the EXACT type of problem that first batch of rifles experienced, when using bad ammo, that resulted in dead Marines in Viet Nam. Different cause, same result.
    You will never see me push that stupid button.

  9. Cmmgs 9mm delay was interesting for future AR’s in my opinion, the rest of the bolt could turn in theory in 5.56mm; self opening Ar whats not to like.

    19th c Tarts boudoirs, pommes frites.

  10. Col. Beausabre will correct* me, but I believe that in some Army units the drill is (or used to be) to work the button twice immediately after closing the bolt on a fresh mag. The rationale is that matter may have entered the receiver or chamber during the mag change, when the barn door is open. Or you might have dirty ammo; stranger things happen. I don’t suppose that those two nervous-looking clicks take much time, and they might prevent a rare but HIGHLY embarrassing malfunction. Better safe than etc.

    * As in “Drop and gimme twenty, yardbird! You aren’t authorized to have an opinion!”

  11. I joined the Army in February of 1966 with a guaranteed schooling at Aberdeen Proving grounds to become a 45B20 Small Arms Repairman. In basic we were issued the M-14. At Aberdeen we were trained first on the M-14 because that was the weapon we were most familiar with, next was the M-1 because it was similar to the M-14, then the M-16. They had only been in use in the Army for a couple of years but they had forward assists and brass deflectors . I ended up in Germany and never had to work on the M-16 again. The Army (7th Army, 4th Armored Division were issued M-14’s or M-3A1’s. The issues of chrome chambers and the wrong powder I learned about by reading gun magazines.. Thanks for the great video’s, I look forward to them everyday.

  12. The Air Force never purchased M16A1s, just M16s (no forward assist). The first Air Force weapon with the forward assist was the GAU-5A/A. The Air Force wanted more GAU-5/As, but Colt had stopped making smooth uppers, so the Air Force took what they could get.

    • It is much more complicated thatn that. The USAf armorers put together whatever what was avaiable. Putting replacement M4 uppers ordered through the supply system on old AR-15 lowers. They bought batches of carbine uppers from Colt. They assembled upper recievers from old AR-15 upper receivers (no brassd eflector, no forward assist) with carbine barrels of various lengths. Lots of non-standard frankenstein’s guns were in service with the USAF. Over the years most have been replaced with regular standard conforming M4 and M4 A1 carbines ordered via the normal NSN.

  13. I’m with Ian in saying the AR-15/M16 does not need a forward assist. I was taught that if a round won’t chamber its bad and get it out not cram it in.

    • Suppose I am coming from a different angle I.e. None will chamber, unless it’s crammed in.

      Anyway what a lovely gun with no “crammer” asthetically.

    • “(…)I was taught that if a round won’t chamber its bad and get it out not cram it in.”
      What was training at usage of that Forward Assist in various countries which used weapons sporting it? When users were supposed to use it?

  14. We Brits tried the same thing on the X8E1 and X8E2 trials FALs. Conclusion: forward assist is worthless.

    I don’t know anyone in the industry who likes the forward assist on the AR.

    The only use I can see for it is ensuring the action is fully locked after a “press check”., or, on a DMR, quiet bolt closing to retain stealth.

    Beyond that, it’’s at best pointless, at worst actively bad.

    • When I was in the austrian army, I learned that the foward assist of the StG-77 (AUG) is for “quiet manual loading” and not for solving problems with the rifle. It was also said that we should not use it. The AR-15 foward assist can be used simmilarily in principle but the question is if you need it. If you carry the rifle loaded proberbly not.

  15. So, it’s kinda like masks. It doesn’t help, but it can’t hurt.
    It’s a psychological confidence builder. Yay.

    • It’s also another pace for fouling to collect when using M193 loaded with ball powder. Hooray.

      I used the M16 and AR15 off and on from 1975 to 1999. I never had a reason to use the “dumb button” even once.

      cheers

      eon

  16. In using M4s in the Army & playing with AR15s in civilian life, I found the only time I ever had to use the forward assist was when dropping the bolt from open on brand new GI aluminum magazines when fully loaded. The bolt would not always get enough momentum to overcome the spring tension on that first round. That’s why many people recommended you load only 28 rounds. I have not had this issue using Magpul mags & it goes away on GI mags after a few loading cycles. And if does happen, I can push against the port door detent slot on the carrier & the bolt clicks shut.
    During firing, the FA only works in full auto. If a round doesn’t fully seat, the rifle stops firing & the hammer is held by the auto sear. When you let off the trigger, the hammer drops to the disconnector, you seat the round & continue firing. On semi auto ARs, you know the round didn’t seat when the hammer drops to the underside of the partially open carrier. You will need to operate the charging handle anyway to re-cock the hammer.

  17. It is difficult to reason about the sequence of iterations.
    The handle on the AR10 and the first AR15 quite allows you to use the forward assist as on the Stoner 63. Why did they not do this, but went to complicate the design? ..
    Perhaps, when shooting at melons, someone did not like the through groove in the upper, through which gas escapes and mud can enter…
    I think Mr. Sullivan knows the answer.

    In any case, the benefit of such an addition is doubtful, and the harm is undeniable.
    If something is wrong with the rifle or ammunition, it can only exacerbate the problem.
    I once so managed to drive in a deformed cartridge, that I almost ruined the handle while trying to pull it back out.

    And a quick-change barrel on a service rifle is useless garbage that only complicates and confuses everything, but has no practical sense.
    Banal marketing trick.

  18. Only regular use for the forward assist I have found over the years is, that it closes the bolt after firing a rifle grenade or from an under barrel grenade launcher, because that can knock the bolt out of battery on an M16 or M4. And the bolt carrier gets hot when firing, so pushing into battery with the thumb through the ejection port is not advisable or you get burned.

  19. “And the bolt carrier gets hot when firing, so pushing into battery with the thumb through the ejection port is not advisable or you get burned.”(C)

    In addition, the M16 BC is too thin and goes too far back for this.
    The M16 has an excellent charging handle.
    And in general, IMHO, the M16 is the best service rifle ever.

  20. I was issued an M-16A1 when I was in the Army back in the 1980’s. Most of these were tired rifles. I needed to use the forward assist on multiple occasions:
    1. I had an ejector port cover with a tired spring, so it was always popping open at the slightest excuse. Sawdust from the gig-pit would work its way into the chamber and this became really caused problems until I had the downtime to field strip and clean.
    2. In the nice hot muddy water, the water would work its way all over the bolt carrier and then dry out leaving mud on everything. This again required the forward assist.
    3. After two magazines of rock and roll, much of the lubrication had burned off, there was carbon build up on the bolt near the gas rings, and the bolt carrier key. Between the unreliable 30 round issue magazines and this carbon build up, there were increasing reliability problems.
    4. Most of the time when easing the charging handle back to see if a round is chambered, I needed to palm the forward assist to get the bolt back into battery.
    Where I have a lot of respect for the M16 family, is that you can take kids who have never held a firearm before and in just a few weeks train them to operate and maintain the rifle. These same kids could reliably hit targets at 250 meters and make the guys seek cover at ranges beyond 300 meters.The M16 does not have an adjustable gas tube so I feel the forward assist is a reasonable alternative.

  21. I enjoyed your video on the forward assist. It reminded me of the only time in my life that I ever really needed that feature. In the 1970s I was a young Houston Police Officer, not long out of the military. We were running an arrest warrant on a violent criminal at his house. I was sent around back to cover the rear door. I was a rookie and the senior officer instructed me to shoot anyone coming out the back door. I had an early model AR15. I remember it was a very cold night. As I took up a position, I retracted the operating rod and released the bolt. I remember something did not feel right as the bolt moved into battery. I was wondering if a round was fully chamber or not. I was shaking from the cold and watching the door at the same time. I probably should have tried to cycle the action again but was expecting to have to fire any second. Young rookies make mistakes.The suspect was arrested with out any problems. I remember wishing there was some way I could have verified that the bolt was in battery at the time. After it was over, I inspected the rifle in the light and verified that the bolt was not fully locked. I was very embarrassed and never told anyone about it until now.

  22. My limited US Army experience (early 1990’s) was similar to Gaston. I was issued an older M16A1 and later an M16A2. These rifles operate best when “wet” (highly lubricated) from what I’ve seen. The A1 had a weaker (worn out?) spring. But with enough firing, or not enough CLP from the previous cleaning, it could dry up a bit and sometimes the bolt wouldn’t go into battery. The BA allows that to be corrected. I thought it was useful.

  23. It is obvious that, like a fire extinquisher, this device is usefull but not usable every now and then… It is also user friendly… Costs more for manufacturer but gives more to the user… What important and hard to understand here, could it be made in another more simple, less expensive and easily capturing way…

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