In December of 2010, I posted a review of the best AR-15 side charging upper receiver I had ever seen. Since then I’ve built several rifles using that upper and am still very happy with them. However, back in 2012, The Freedom Group acquired the company making them and production promptly halted. Over the last few years I’ve received quite a few emails asking about where those uppers can be purchased and until now, my only response was to keep an eye out for a used one somewhere on the Interwebs. That changed the day I stumbled onto the Blackwood Arms Side charging AR-15 upper receiver. I immediately contacted the owner, Andrew BeGole, and asked him if we could do a review and giveaway of one of his receivers. He agreed and shipped me 2 of them right away.
As it turns out, Blackwood Arms used to sell a lot of the LAR Grizzly OPS-4 uppers. When production stopped, Andrew picked up the ball and began developing his own design. The differences between the two are subtle but when comparing them side by side it’s obvious that Blackwood Arms is turning out a more refined product.
The Blackwood Arms Side Charging AR-15 Upper Receiver is precision machined from virgin 7075 T6 Billet, hard anodized and topped with a very nice Teflon Finish (as are the charging handles). The bolt carrier is machined from 8620 cold rolled steel. The included 5.56mm bolt is MPI tested and the entire BCG has a Nickel Boron finish. Those specs alone set it apart from the discontinued OPS-4. Blackwood Arms produces these uppers in fairly small batches allowing for better attention to detail which definitely shows in the finished product.
After posting the OPS-4 review, I received a lot of questions and some comments about the reciprocating side charging design. Some people were concerned about the handles backing out. Although this does happen if you hand tighten the handles, if you snug them up a little with an allen wrench, I haven’t had them break free. I really don’t see this as any sort of real concern. Other comments made mention of it not being a “battle proven” upgrade. OK, I’ll give you that. This is not the gun I would be taking with me when the SHTF. However, lets look at it for what it really is. The Blackwood Arms Side Charging AR-15 Upper Receiver is a specialty item that is best used in speciality situations. In my honest opinion, this upper is a perfect match for a precision bench gun, a varmint gun (I think I’ll build one in a .204 Ruger), for people with a disability who have difficulties with a regular charging handle, or somebody who wants to build a unique rifle or AR pistol.
When I first started looking at reciprocating side charging systems, I was told that the charging handle was also the forward assist and case deflector. Truth be told, the deflector part doesn’t stand true. I now own 3 different side charging uppers and each of them is plagued by the same issue…The ejection port gets quickly dinged up once you start shooting. As you can see in the 3 photos below, there is minor wear in the same place on all 3 uppers. The first 2 are brand new builds that, at the time the photo was taken, had 90 & 60 rounds each fed through them. I’m no engineer but it seems to me that if this area were beveled back instead of a sharp edge, it would cut down on the wear and tear.
The uppers that Andrew sent me are ambidextrous which give you the option of having a charging handle on the left, the right, or both sides at once. There are a few important things to consider here:
- A modified bolt catch is required (and included) for the left side. This is because the left charging handle would conflict with the bolt release paddle.
- A left handed person may prefer to only have a charging handle on the right. This upper doesn’t have a cutout that allows for the paddle on a standard bolt catch. If you install one anyway, the rifle will jamb and may become damaged. I forgot about this so when I first received this upper I put it on a standard lower and charged it. It got stuck and I had to pull the stock and buffer tube off to remove the BCG.
- If you’re the kind of shooter who uses the magwell as a grip, you really need to pay attention to how the gun cycles. As a right handed shooter, I like the handle on the left side but there’s isn’t enough space there to grab the magwell without the handle slamming into me. I’ve been careful to ensure this has never happened but I imagine it would suck if it did.
- Releasing the bolt is accomplished by simply pulling back the charging handle about 1/8 of an inch then letting go. Obviously this won’t work if you have an empty magazine in the well.
- The side charging handle can get caught up on clothing or gear such as a plate carrier. The handle also sticks out enough that under the right circumstances, it can punch you in the chest or back depending on how you sling it. This is the primary reason I wouldn’t use this upper on my SHTF gun.
Some people might consider the modified bolt catch an inconvenience. If this is an issue for you, keep in mind that at this point you’re building a custom gun. Because of this, it’s not a far stretch to implement another solution. One might consider purchasing a Teal Blue Bravo PDQ Ambi-Bolt Release and modifying the left side paddle to work with this upper. This would give you the ability to lock and release the bolt using your right index finger, similar to how the Magpul BAD Lever works but with a sturdier design.
As you may have noticed by now, the top rear portion of The Blackwood Arms Side Charging AR-15 Upper Receiver has a small screw where the typical side charging handle would exist. This keeps the BCG from sliding out when the gun is separated and allows the gas key to pass in and out of the upper when the screw is removed.
I’m all about building custom AR’s. In fact, I haven’t bought an “of the shelf” AR for over 23 years. For me, there’s a sense of pride in building my own guns and in making them unique. Side charging uppers are definitely different and while they may not be for everybody, I personally love them. The Blackwood Arms Side Charging AR-15 Upper Receiver is the best one I’ve gotten my hands on yet. There’s no question that I will be recommending this upper to my friends as well as building more guns for myself using it.
|Black Hole Weaponry
|16” Double Honeycomb
|13” Alpha Rail
|HK Style Tritium Front & Rear
|Low Profile Adjustable
|Wild West Guns
|Custom Trigger Job
|Battle Arms Development
|Primary Weapons Systems
|Magazine Base Plate
|Pins, Springs, Catches, Detents
|Tom’s Custom Coatings
The Cerakote work on this rifle was done by Tom’s Custom Coatings. I’ve personally known Tom and Tracy for over 15 years. In fact, I introduced them to Cerakote in 2013 and suggested they look into the business opportunities for certified applicators in their area. Shortly after, Tom’s Custom Coatings was born. :)
Although Tom is fairly new to the Cerakote business, he has over 10 years experience in the automotive paint industry. He took to spraying Cerakote like a duck to water during his certification class at NIC Industries. Since then, he and his wife Tracy have built their business and within the first year, they grew it enough to justify buying their own building in Blanchester, OH.
When I called Tom and told him I had a Black Hole Weaponry Double Honeycomb barrel that I wanted a two-tone coating on, he said Tracy was going to hate me. When you coat a single component in multiple colors you typically have to mask off one of the areas. In this case, that meant making dozens of honeycomb shaped vinyl masks, in two different sizes and placing them in all the honeycomb flutes. However, doing just that means only the bottom part of the fluting would be coated with the base color and that’s not what I wanted. :) We discussed a couple of different ways to accomplish coating both the bottom and sides of the honeycombs, without the nearly impossible task of cutting tiny vinyl strips to mask the sides, and they got to work. The first try didn’t look too good so they had to strip the barrel down and perfect the technique on the second attempt. As you can see, it turned out sexy as hell!
The custom two-tone barrel added about $200 to the price of the Cerakote job but IMHO, it’s well worth it. The colors used were Desert Sand (H-199Q) & Magpul Foliage Green (H-231Q).
If you need some Cerakote work done, please consider sending your work to Tom’s Custom Coatings. BTW, their shop can handle small to medium size batch jobs from manufacturers as well as one off custom coatings like this one.