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Gun Question: What Is a Carry Handle and Why Do Rifles Have Them?

M16 Rifle
Sgt. Marco Gutierrez, a public affairs specialist from Indianapolis, Indiana assigned to the U.S. Army Reserve’s 350th Public Affairs Detachment, fires his M-16A2 at the range on Camp Atterbury, Indiana Nov. 3. Army Reserve Soldiers qualify on their individual assigned weapon once a year in order to be “mission capable” should they need to deploy.

It might seem strange in some respects, by many rifles have what is commonly referred to as a carry handle. What exactly is a carry handle? Is it still needed or should it be considered old and useless? We asked an expert for his take: 

What do purses, suitcases, and automatic rifles have in common? They all have carry handles. Or well, a lot of them do. A carry handle on a firearm isn’t super uncommon. Lots of guns have them from the M16 to the M240 machine gun have them. These carry handles seem somewhat odd on your normal infantry rifle.

Machine guns weigh tens of pounds and their handles are often situated on the barrels. Barrels get nice and hot, so the handle makes it easy to pop the barrel off and change it with relative ease. So why did Eugene Stoner place a carry handle on his AR 10 and later AR 15 design? That’s the question we aim to answer today, and along the way, we’ll also answer why most guns have these handles.

What is a carry handle?

That thing sits on top of early to not that long ago M16 models — specifically the original M16, the M16A1, and M16A2. Weapons like the G36 and VHS also have carry handles. Those big, somewhat obnoxious oblong things sit on the top of the rifle’s receiver.

However, even though they’re called carry handles, I would never suggest carrying a rifle by the carry handle. Not because it would damage the weapon somehow, but because some NCO would come out of the woodline and rip your soul from your body. Even though it’s called a carry handle, in modern tactical environments it’s a major faux pas to use it as such.

Why do they exist?

We’ve established that you certainly can’t use one to carry your rifle. Then why? Why did the M16 have a carry handle and seemingly abandon it with the A3/A4 variants and all modern carbines?

Let’s start with the original M16 design. That early AR 15 and AR 10 design featured a charging handle placed on the receiver. It looks a bit like a trigger, but that’s how the weapon was designed to be readied. The carry handle protected this exposed charging handle.

By the time the AR 15 became the M16, the rifle ditched the top-mounted charging handle for the rear-mounted model we all know and love today. Yet, the charging handle remained in existence.

Looking through the sights

If you look at the design of the AR 15, notice how the barrel lines up perfectly with the stock. This in-line design makes a huge difference in how you aim the weapon. The sights must sit higher due to the in-line design. On the M16, the sights sit inside the carry handle. That extra height is required to ensure the sights can be properly used.

If they were lower, it would be near impossible to establish a good cheek weld. That in-line design of the rifle serves a purpose. It helps make the rifle more controllable and allows the user to effectively mitigate recoil and muzzle rise.

This is why almost all guns with carry handles have them. Examine the AK for a second. Notice how much lower the stock is than the barrel. This design allows the iron sights to sit lower and disregards the need for a carry handle.

These days the M16A3/M16A4, the M4, Mk 18, etc., all have a flat-top upper receiver. This flat-top upper receiver has a Picatinny rail and a universal mounting system for attaching accessories to a weapon. Accessories, including optics, now dominate the modern firearm world.


M16A4. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The time of carry handles is ending

While carry handles on rifles serve a distinct purpose, they are largely disappearing from the firearms world.

Although they tend to stick around on machine guns, from rifles, they are disappearing almost entirely. It’s a sad day to see the goofy little carry disappear, but that’s how the world spins.

Travis Pike is a former Marine Machine gunner who served with 2nd Bn 2nd Marines for 5 years. He deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan and again in 2011 with the 22nd MEU(SOC) during a record-setting 11 months at sea. He’s trained with the Romanian Army, the Spanish Marines, the Emirate Marines, and the Afghan National Army. He serves as an NRA certified pistol instructor and teaches concealed carry classes. This first appeared in Sandboxx. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.