Black Rain’s AR-15 Side Charging Handle: Good or Bad Idea?

Black Rain Ordinance is an up-and-coming name in the gun world. They started out small and have never stopped growing. Besides the fact that their guns are American-made, they are known for their quality and variety of colors with their custom Cerakote finishes. But custom finishes are not all the company offers. They think outside the box and are not afraid to try something different. For example, the side charging handle in their ION series.

Black Rain ION series AR-9
The Black Rain ION series of guns use a side charging handle instead of the traditional one at the top of the gun.

The AR-15 platform is the most popular style of rifle in the US. It’s been around for decades and shows no sign of going away. The AR-15 is easy to customize and honestly, that’s part of what makes them so popular. Black Rain took this idea to a new level by modifying the receiver to work with a side charging handle. This replaces the traditional charging handle we are accustomed to. And I’m not talking about an aftermarket part. They reworked the upper receiver to function with a side charging handle. But does an AR-15 need a side charging handle?

What did they change?

As you know, the AR-15 uses a charging handle that pulls the bolt back from the top/rear of the gun. I love the AR-15 rifle, but this is the one thing I have always wished were different. I like side charging handles. This is my preference, but I was thrilled to see someone making an AR platform with this design. The model I reviewed is the ION 9 Series by Black Rain Ordinance. This 9mm PCC model accepts Glock mags and is the perfect size for home and self-defense. I have tried some aftermarket side charging handles, but they have never held up for long.

Black Rain side charging handle.
The side charging handle consists of more parts than a traditional one but is easy to take apart.

Black Rain’s design is simple and extremely reliable. They added a groove to the left side of the receiver and attached a handle. The groove in the top of the receiver allows a standard bolt to function. There is an external track on the left side for the charging handle to travel down. It is non-reciprocating and large enough to get a good grip on when racking the bolt. The motion of racking the slide is smooth with almost no play at all. I haven’t tried breaking the charging handle yet, but I would bet money this thing will hold up to nearly any type of abuse.

How does it compare to the traditional charging handle?

You can tell the charging handle is solid by looking at the receiver. But the only way to really tell how it compares to the traditional style is at the range running drills and shooting a ton of ammo through each one. What I really wanted to compare was the process of racking the bolt during reloads or malfunctions. What people want right now is short rifles/pistols. Shorter guns are easier to move around, and they work great for home defense. I find side-charging handles easier to rack on guns that are closer to your body.

Back view of the upper receiver, with side charging handle
The side charging handle slides into a groove on the side of the upper receiver.

When running drills on the range, the Black Rain Fallout was quick and easy to use. The placement of the charging handle reminded me of my B&T. The handle is constructed of heavy metal, but it rides in the track like it’s lined with glass. The rest of the gun functions just like any other AR, so you still get a genuine AR-15 platform.

The only concern I had with the size of the charging handle was it getting caught on things. I rarely shoot any rifle platform without a sling, and slings like to catch on things. To test this, I maneuvered the gun around on a sling to different positions. The sling slid across it a few times, but the handle is slim with rounded edges, so the sling went across without catching.

Other Considerations

The side charging handle has more parts than an AR-15 charging handle. I’m not sure it would need to come off for anything, but it’s not hard to remove for cleaning or repairs if needed. Because the bar connected to the charging handle rides on the outside of the receiver, it wouldn’t be hard to clean while attached to the gun. Another benefit of a side charging handle is the ability to rack the bolt while keeping a target in your sight.

Shooting the Black Rain AR-9 with side charging handle
On the range, the Black Rain did great, and the side charging handle was easy to work.

With an AR-15, you can hit the bolt release after loading a new mag. But if there is a malfunction and you need to rack the bolt again, the charging handle is in front of your face. This means you must move the gun away from your face to pull on the charging handle. With the Black Rain ION, though, the charging handle is on the left, so you can change mags and rack the bolt without moving it away from your line of sight.

Is it a good or bad idea?

After using the side charging handle on this PCC, I have become a fan. It will feel more comfortable for those used to a sub-gun-sized weapon like the Scorpion, B&T, Stribog, and others.

If you train a lot with an AR-15, a side-charging handle could throw you off. Muscle memory is hard to retrain, so there could be some retraining obstacles to overcome. Some people may prefer the traditional charging handle and there is nothing wrong with that. Black Rain Ordinance offers both versions so those wanting a standard charging handle are good to go. 

If you like side chagrining handles, I would check out Black Rain Ordinance and see what they have been up to. They offer a ton of custom colors and designs. Their quality is top-notch, and they offer a wide range of calibers in their AR-15 platforms. You may not be able to switch out the charging handle on this version, but there are plenty of other parts to dress up if you really need to customize something. I think this style is a great idea and will only grow in popularity. Check one out and let us know what you think.

Sheriff Jason Mosher is a law enforcement generalist instructor as well as a firearms and tactical weapons trainer. Jason graduated from the FBI-LEEDA (Law Enforcement Executive Development Association) and serves as a Sheriff for his day job. When he’s not working, he’s on the range, eating steak, or watching Yellowstone.

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