There is one, and one thing only, that makes an AK-47 better than an AR-15: the charging system. Side chargers are more intuitive to use, don’t require shooters to break firing position, and look cool (the most important consideration in any gun-related decision). That’s why there’s nothing sweeter than a side-charging AR-15.
Unfortunately, side-charging AR’s aren’t what NATO considers “standard issue.” Most options are expensive, especially these days, so I was curious to get my hands on the M-TAK Side-Charging Handle Kit from Devil Dog Concepts. Devil Dog’s side charging system, the Hard Charger, doesn’t require any special bolt carriers or uppers. You can slap it on your current flat-top AR, and it offers most of the benefits of a side-charging system without costing an arm and a leg.
On-a-budget kits can sometimes be gimmicky and not worth the investment, but my experience so far with Devil Dog’s product has been great, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to give their AR an upgrade.
Material: Mil-Spec Anodized 7075 Aluminum, Stainless Steel, and Impact Resistant Polycarbonate.
Warranty: 5-year manufacturer warranty
Compatibility: Any standard forged (.223/5.56 size), flat-top AR-15/M-16 type rifle upper receiver. Not designed to work on billet receivers, left eject rifles, and is not .308 compatible.
In Package: Charging Handle. Receivers: Standard, Tactical, and Rear Hard Charger. Pull Handles: Traditional, Tactical, Competition, Subdued, Extended Competition.
Side-charging AR-15’s offer a number of advantages over the traditional pull-handle design. Most obviously, they allow a user to rack the BCG, clear jams, and charge the firearm without changing shooting positions.
In normal use situations, this advantage doesn’t change the world. It’s not that much more difficult to pick your head up and pull the charger than yank the handle on the side of a firearm.
But it’s also not hard to imagine emergency situations when a side-charger would be helpful. In the event of a gas system failure, for example, side-chargers allow a user to rack another round quickly and easily without taking his or her eye off the target. Same thing for jams and other failures to cycle.
Even in the absence of an emergency, a side-charger can be handy if your AR is outfitted with a large scope that impedes access to the charging handle. Handle extenders can mitigate this problem, but they’re less convenient, look dumb (in my opinion), and are prone to breaking.
And let’s be honest: side-chargers are cool. I know high-speed, low-drag operators like you and I aren’t supposed to consider such impractical benefits, but a side-charging AR will attract attention at the range. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to test and review the Brownell’s BRN-180, and I can speak from experience—it gets noticed.
Devil Dog’s Side Charging System
The M-TAK full kit comes with three “receivers” that attach to the flat-top picatinny rail. The standard Hard Charger mounts to the front, the Tactical Hard Charger mounts in the middle, and the Rear Hard Charger mounts to the rear. This means that, no matter your optic or iron sight setup, you’ll be able to find a receiver that fits in an open picatinny slot. (If you opt for the one-receiver kit rather than the full M-TAK kit, be sure you select the receiver that will fit your firearm.)
The M-TAK kit also comes with a wide variety of pull handle options. The competition handles are larger and protrude more than the tactical and subdued handles, so users can select a handle based on the firearm’s intended usage.
Installation was easy. After removing the BCG and charging handle from my rifle, I selected a receiver that would work with my optic (a Vortex SPARC Solar) and mounted it to the rail. Then, I selected a pull handle (“Traditional”) and screwed it into the push rod attached to the DDC charging handle. To complete the installation, I inserted the new DDC charging handle into the upper receiver and slid the push rod along the DDC receiver.
The instructions call for a break-in period, which can be expedited with a little grease or gun oil. At first, the charging system was difficult to operate, but after applying more gun oil and working the bolt maybe 30 times, the system loosened up. Now, it’s buttery smooth.
Benefits and Drawbacks
I like this system. I think it’s well-designed and well-built, and the price is reasonable. I’ve already discussed the benefits of side-charging AR’s in general, but there are a few additional things you should know about the DDC design.
First, the handles that come in the M-TAK kits are polycarbonate, but DDC also sells aluminum handles, which you can purchase separately for $28. I spoke with the company, and they told me they plan to switch all their handles to aluminum in the near future, but that process has been delayed by some shipping and manufacturing issues. While the polycarbonate handles work fine for range use, they recommend the aluminum handles for duty or personal defense.
Second, you shouldn’t worry about the durability of this system. The company told me that the Hard Charger is used by law enforcement, SWAT, and Game and Fish units all across the country, including by specialty helicopter teams. The Iowa State Police, for example, require all aftermarket products to pass durability tests, which the Hard Charger passed with flying colors.
Third, you should know that the system protrudes more from the side of the rifle than a purpose-built side-charging upper receiver. I don’t fault DDC at all for this. Their product is designed to attach to a standard AR-15 upper, which means it’s necessarily going to be less streamlined. That’s the tradeoff. It’s not good or bad; it’s just reality. It also comes with certain benefits, such as the ability to rack the charging handle on static objects even when running bulky optics. And I will say that the M-TAK system protrudes much less than I was expecting. The DDC receiver doesn’t stick out any farther than my handguard, and the Subdued pull handle only sticks out another inch beyond that. For a product like this, I can’t imagine a better design.
Finally, this product slightly reduces the benefits of a side-charging system because it operates by manipulating the charging handle rather than the bolt. Most side-charging systems do away with the charging handle entirely and attach directly to the BCG. The DDC system attaches to a proprietary charging handle to allow users, essentially, to manipulate the handle from the side rather than from the back. This means that when the user pulls the side handle to clear a jam or charge the weapon, the charging handle still moves to the rear—and potentially strikes the user in the face.
To avoid this problem, I operated my rifle with the stock in the most extended position. I usually keep the stock fully extended when I’m running a red dot, so this wasn’t an issue for me. But if you have to position your face any closer to the receiver, the charging handle will probably touch your nose when you operate the side-charger unless you cant the rifle slightly to the side. Obviously, this eliminates one big benefit of a side-charging system because you might have to break shooting position to cycle the bolt.
Even with this drawback in mind, I’m still a big fan of Devil Dog’s system. I love creative products that offer a solution to a common problem while remaining within a reasonable price range. The Hard Charger Side Charging Handle system falls within that category. It’s perfect for folks who don’t want to spend the money on an entirely new barreled upper and or replace their current upper receiver with a purpose-built side-charging receiver. I installed the DDC side-charging kit in about 10 minutes and didn’t have to disassemble anything beyond removing the BCG.
If you have the cash to purchase a new upper or the knowledge to swap upper receivers, those might be better options. But if you want the fun of a side-charger without spending the time or money on a new receiver, the Devil Dog Concepts Hard Charger side charging system is the way to go.