There are very few rifle shooters who aren’t familiar with the AR-15 platform. Not only is it one of the most popular rifle systems, but it is also one of the most versatile. With one of the largest aftermarket parts industries in the world, you can configure an AR-15 almost any way you want. Now you can even choose a different option for charging your AR apart from the traditional rear-mounted charging handle.
AR-15s are categorized by their conformation to a military specification that describes in great detail how the upper and lower receivers are machined and fit together. The traditional AR-15 uses a charging handle behind the receiver that moves the bolt carrier group to the rear to remove or load a round into the chamber. The location of standard charging handles often means the rifle must be removed from the firing position to charge or recharge the firearm.
Now manufacturers are offering different options for upper receiver configuration that give anyone building an AR-15 rifle options other than the rear-mounted charging handle. These side charger AR-15 upper receivers allows a different take on the traditional AR. With any custom build, you want to use the finest parts available. Let’s look at the best of the current side charging upper receivers available today.
AR-15 Side Charging Upper Receivers
Side charging AR-15 upper receivers are not your run-of-the-mill gun store rack offerings. In fact, at this time I don’t know of anyone selling a complete side charger AR-15 rifle. For the most part, if you want something that is different, it means you must build it yourself using available parts from OEM manufacturers.
We looked at the available side charger upper receivers and compared the features, price, and options to find what we consider the best AR-15 side charger upper receiver for your build.
The Ups and Downs of Side Charging Uppers
When choosing a side charge upper, there are some serious considerations that you must understand. Not all side charging upper receivers are equal. There is a distinct difference in the way these upper receivers operate and are designed.
Reciprocating Charging Handles
Some manufacturers use a reciprocating charging handle on their receivers. Basically, this means that every time the bolt carrier group cycles backward to eject a spent round and pick up a fresh round, the charging handle cycles backward and forward as well. This action has a number of consequences.
Added Motion and Moving Parts
A reciprocating charging handle adds vibration, movement, and additional instability as it moves backward and forward with the bolt carrier group. This adds up to more difficulty in controlling your aim and target acquisition. More moving parts are an invitation to failures that no shooter wants to experience.
Exposed Moving Charging Handle
We all know that the charging handle on a standard AR doesn’t move when the bolt cycles. The bolt carrier is concealed inside the upper receiver, away from fingers and other appendages that might be entangled in the movement. A reciprocating charging handle sticks out on the side of the receiver where it can become a hazard to the shooter or an entanglement hazard with any errant objects.
Bolt Carrier Group Modifications
Some reciprocating bolt upper receivers require a special BCG in order to operate properly. On some models, this is a proprietary bolt carrier group that only operates with the side charging upper receiver. My suggestion is that you avoid these side charger uppers and bolt carrier groups at all costs.
Non-reciprocating Charging Handles
The ideal situation as far as I am concerned is a non-reciprocating charging handle. Just like the standard equipment charging handle, a non-reciprocating charging handle does not move when the rifle is fired. The bolt carrier group is free to operate without engaging the charging handle. This minimizes the moving parts, vibration, and failure points in the system.
Some manufacturers utilize standard bolt carrier groups with only minor modifications to operate with the side charge handle. These are the preferable options for a side charging upper receiver AR-15 build.
My Choices for the Best Side Charger Upper
There are several options if you are wanting to build a side charging AR-15. I looked at each of these upper receivers and evaluated them from the standpoint of value, cost, features, and quality. You may different expectations from mine and I encourage you to do your own due diligence before you make your decision.
New Frontier Armory C-4 Upper Receiver
New Frontier Armory is a well-known designer, manufacturer and retailer of quality AR-15 aftermarket parts. From complete guns to individual parts, New Frontier Armory has built a reputation for great quality, exceptional machining, and innovative designs. The New Frontier Armory C-4 upper receiver keeps with this tradition.
There are several features of this billet upper receiver that I like, such as the fact that it uses all the same parts as a standard upper itself. As we look at the features, I think you will see why this billet non-reciprocating upper receiver is my first choice.
Beyond the fact that this side charging upper is meticulously crafted from billet aluminum making it an overall great upper, the ability to use standard AR-15 parts to finish this upper receiver is a standout feature. However, that is not the only thing that makes this upper receiver my top choice.
Materials and Finish
New Frontier Armory CNC machines these uppers from 6061 billet aluminum stock and then finish them with a black hard-coat anodized finish that meets mil 8625 Type 3 Class 2 specifications. The machining is top-notch and accurate. The anodized finish is smooth and affords great protection for this piece of equipment.
The New Frontier side charging upper is compatible with standard Mil-Spec AR components and most aftermarket parts. The receiver also has a milled pocket for use with the Magpul BAD lever. In addition, New Frontier machines their side charge upper receivers to accept any standard Milspec BCG. You can use your current BCG with your new upper by installing a new cam pin that is included with the kit.
The ejection port is milled oversize to be sure that almost any caliber AR up to .458 SOCOM will operate correctly and smoothly. The New Frontier upper will mate with almost all forged AR-15 lowers and will match lines with the New Frontier Armory C-4 Billet Lower.
A rear dust cover trap door is included that seals shut when the upper is mated with a lower receiver. The charging handle has an adjustable tension slide lock as well.
My Views of the New Frontier Armory Side Charging Upper Receiver
The New Frontier Armory C-4 Upper gets the top spot on my list. There aren’t a lot of differences between the top contenders on my list so the decision boils down to basically one thing. In the end, the New Frontier Armory c-4 Upper usually comes in a little cheaper than the other contenders making it the better value for the money based on the features.
Gibbz Arms G4 Side Charging Upper Receiver
Gibbz Arms is a family-owned firearms business located in Arizona. The Gibbens family has been producing fine firearms and accessories for many years and their side charging AR-15 upper is at the top of the list. The Gibbz G4 upper receiver offers high quality, superior manufacturing, and excellent service.
Gibbz Arms makes it easy to customize your new rifle with an impressive list of features that most other manufacturers can’t meet. One of my favorites is just the visual appeal of this upper. The lines of this upper seem much more refined than those on other AR-15 systems. You are eventually going to have an AR that draws a lot of attention to the range and you want it to look as good as it shoots.
If a contest were held to judge the best feature list on an AR-15 side charge upper receiver, the Gibbz Arms G4 would probably win hands down. Just making a decision on which options to include on your Gibbz Arms upper can be overwhelming.
Charging Handle Options
When you order a Gibbz G4 upper the first decision to make is which style of charging handle you want. You can choose a Gen 2 handle with an optimized detent for better retention of the charging handle. The Gen 3 charging handle provides a positive latch action securing the charging handle under almost any conditions. The latch unlocks easily when you grasp the handle. The G4 is an upgrade option and adds cost to the upper assembly.
A competition handle is also available to further extend and enlarge the charging handle. The enlarged handle is easier to grip and faster to operate in some conditions.
The standard finish on the Gibbz Armory upper is a black anodized finish to the aluminum. You may elect to have Gibbz Armory apply a Cerakote finish to your upper for a more custom look. You can choose from twelve different Cerakote finish colors to make your AR-15 a one-of-a-kind personal statement.
Enlarged Ejection Port
For the most versatility in building your AR-15 platform rifle, the ability to utilize different calibers is a must. THe Gibbz G4 upper is designed with an enlarged ejection port that will handle calibers from .22 LR to .50 Beowolf.
Bolt Carrier Selection
You needn’t worry about changing your BCG when you do your AR build. One chief benefit of the Gibbz upper is its ability to use a standard BCG with no modifications other than to replace the cam pin with the new pin supplied with the upper receiver by Gibbz Arms.
Maintenance and Cleaning
These Gibbz uppers include a bolt carrier door at the rear of the receiver to allow you to easily remove the BCG for cleaning and maintenance. If you run a suppressed AR, this is an especially important feature.
The G4 upper is compatible with most Mil-Spec lowers and other parts. The only change necessary is to replace the standard cam pin with the Gibbz enhanced cam pin that accompanies the upper receiver.
Gibbz Arms also offers a line of lower receivers that are guaranteed to fit perfectly with the G4 upper. You can expect the same quality and personal service if you want a matched receiver and upper set.
My View on the Gibbz Arms G4 Non-reciprocating Side Charging Upper
The deciding factor in putting this upper receiver in the second spot on my list is the cost. The G4 is more expensive than the Frontier Armory upper. This cost difference grows as you begin to add additional options such as enhanced bolt handles, Cerakote finish, or a latching bolt. It is a very personal decision if you want the extra options and the visual upgrades for your rifle.
JP Enterprises PSC-21™ Upper Receiver Assembly
If you really want to cause a stir on the range, use a JP Enterprises PSC-21 upper receiver assembly for your next build. I guarantee that you will get a lot of attention with this uniquely designed upper receiver assembly. Not only does it function expertly as a side charging upper receiver, but it also has a standard charging handle that functions just as well. This dual charging design is certainly unique and will set your AR-15 apart.
There is some discussion about why have both charging systems on your upper receiver. One avid shooter exclaimed simply “Because I can!” Having both a standard charging upper and a side charging upper certainly gives you more options when handling your rifle. Just because it is unique doesn’t mean JP Enterprises skimps on other features or options.
Since this is technically a kit system it is important to understand what is included with each kit and what options you can select when you order your JP Enterprises upper receiver. The JP Enterprises side charging upper may be the most feature-rich kit available. Each kit contains the following.
PSC-21 Upper Receiver
You start with the JP Enterprises PSC-21 dual charging upper. This upper receiver is crafted from the finest billet aluminum and expertly machined to the highest tolerances. This upper receiver functions with both a standard charging handle and a side charging handle making it a best of both worlds choice.
Ejection Port Cover and Hardware
Each PSC-21 kit includes an ejection port cover and all the necessary hardware for installation. Unlike many side charging uppers, the PSC-21 upper accepts an ejection port cover to ensure added durability and reliable operation for your firearm.
Charging Handle Selections
When you order your PSC-21 upper kit, you also get to choose from several options for both the rear and the side charging handles. You can choose from a standard rear charging handle, a Radian Raptor-SL, or a Radian Raptor-LT charging handle. The side charging handle options include a low-profile charging handle or a competition-style charging handle.
You needn’t worry about a bolt carrier for your new rifle. Your JP Enterprises kit will include your selection of different style bolt carriers. You can choose between the following
- A Full Mass Carrier
- The Black Low Mass Operating System
- You can select a polished stainless low mass operating system
- JP Enterprise offers an aluminum low mass operating system
- The Variable Mass operating system is also available.
Each of these bolt carrier options can be used to fine-tune your rifle to the appropriate operating conditions depending on caliber, velocity, and your expectations.
Every upper side charging kit from JP Enterprises includes a PR EnhancedBolt group that includes the bolt, cam pin, firing pin, and firing pin retaining pin. You can specify the caliber for your rifle bolt carrier group in .223, 6.5 Grendel, or SPCII/.224 Valkyrie
The JP Enterprises SPC-21 side charge upper receiver kits are compatible with most other AR parts and lower receivers that are built to stand MIL-SPEC dimensions. For a truly unparalleled fit, consider mating your JP Enterprises SPC-21 upper to a JP Enterprises lower.
My View on the JP Enterprises SPC-21 Side Charging Upper
In reality, this is probably the highest quality upper on my list. It is also the most expensive incomplete upper I chose. The JP Enterprises upper can easily cost three times what the New Frontier Armory or Gibbz Arms parts cost. You get a lot in the way of quality and parts, but it is still very expensive. It is a cool concept with a dual charging upper configuration. I just am not sure it is worth the extra cost to have the coolest AR on the range.
Faxon Firearms ARAK-215.56 Ambi Upper Non-Reciprocating Side Charge Upper
Last on my list is another innovative company with a completely different take on a non-reciprocating side charge upper receiver. Faxon Firearms offers a complete line of AR-15 parts, complete guns, and accessories. The ARAK-215.56 Ambi Upper Kit is sold as a complete upper assembly. The major difference in the Faxon offering is the gas system that drives the action.
Faxon is well known for the quality of its parts and rifles. This unique design offers several features that are not available on the other side charge upper receivers. The Faxon name and their line of products are the cream of the crop according to many shooters.
One great feature of Faxon ARAK-215.56 complete upper assembly is just that. You don’t need to do any assembly. Open the box and fit this upper to your ready lower and you are good to go to the range. For many shooters, this single feature makes the rest of the products on the market pale in comparison even though a considerable amount of money is involved in the purchase.
Unlike the other uppers on my list that use a direct impingement system, the Faxon Firearms upper is a gas piston system that directs the gas from the gas block to the gas system to operate. Many shooters prefer this arrangement since it replaces the buffer tube, spring, and buffer assembly.
Complete and Ready to Shoot
No need to change anything on your AR -15 lower. Simply use the standard front and rear take-down pins, attach the Faxon upper to your lower and you are range ready. No modifications and no parts to interchange. This is probably the easiest and simplest side charge build you can accomplish with what is available on the market today.
Materials and Construction
Faxon uses aircraft-grade 6062-T6 billet aluminum to create these upper receivers. The receiver includes a full-length rail system with three additional rails on the muzzle end of the receiver.
The Gas System
Each Faxon 215.56 upper is designed around a long stock variable setting gas piston system. You can choose from three options for gas flow. Maintenance is also a design feature including a clean-out port for the gas block between the cylinder and the barrel.
Ambidextrous Non-Reciprocating Charging Handle
Need a lefty rifle? No problem. The charging system on the Faxon upper receiver is ambidextrous and can be changed from left to right quickly and easily. In addition, this design incorporates a folding charging handle to minimize the change of the charging handle being caught by other objects.
Bolt Carrier Group
The ARAK 215.56 upper requires a custom bolt from Faxon which is included with the kit. Faxon uses an eight-lug extractor system that operates for either left or right hand configuration. To change the orientation of the extraction process, simply remove the cam pin from the bolt and rotate the bolt 180 degrees, and reinstall the cam pin.
Faxon understands where the greatest wear and tear on an aluminum upper occurs. The rails in the Faxon ARAK 21 line of uppers have bolted-in steel rails on which the bolt carrier group rides. This makes these uppers much more durable and resistant to wear through thousands of rounds.
My View of the Faxon Firearms ARAK-215.56 Ambi Upper Receiver
There is a lot to be said for convenience and the Faxon ARAK-215.56 upper receiver is certainly convenient. You get a top-of-the-line upper with no build time and a proven gas operated internal operating system that can be used right-handed or left-handed with a few simple changes to the bolt carrier. The concept is certainly innovative and new. My one concern is the cost of this system from Faxon.
The Final Judgement
In the end, I stand by my choice of the Frontier Armory upper receiver as the best choice for most AR-15 shooters who want to build a non-reciprocating side charge AR-15. Most AR-15 shooters won’t use their AR for much more than range time and are looking for something different and unusual. Keeping costs low on such a rifle makes sense to me and should for many others. However, your opinions may differ.