The AR-15 bolt catch (also called the bolt release) is an essential part of any AR platform rifle. It adds to the rifle’s ergonomics and allows shooters to operate their AR faster. However, the AR-15 bolt release is a part that is neglected when it comes to upgrades and maintenance.
What Is an AR-15 Bolt Catch?
The bolt catch or bolt release is located on the left side of an AR-15, and in some ambidextrous rifles, it can be actuated from both sides. The function of the bolt catch is to simply catch the bolt and lock it back after the last round from the magazine is fired, extracted, and ejected. The bolt catch is also called the bolt release because it can be depressed to release the bolt from its locked position and make the rifle operational.
Mil-Spec/Standard Bolt Catches
Standard (sometimes Mil-Spec) bolt catches are the designs you’re most familiar with: simple, lightly textured buttons located above the trigger guard and slightly forward of the safety selector. While this standard configuration is popular, some shooters opt for a modified button design for easier (or ambidextrous) actuation.
Modified Bolt Catches
Some bolt catches feature modified buttons — the most common variations you’ll find are larger actuation buttons or highly textured surfaces for easier reach. Shooters with small hands can benefit from modified designs for faster reloading.
Ambidextrous Bolt Catches
Left-handed shooters (who often have few choices for gun modifications) might prefer ambidextrous bolt catches to simplify reloading.
Wing Tactical: A Quality-First Parts Source
At Wing Tactical, we pride ourselves on curating a quality-first firearm components collection. As a veteran-owned brand, we understand how critical consistent firearm performance can be — that’s why we work so hard to connect law enforcement officers, active duty military personnel, gunsmiths, and civilian builders with everything they need to build and maintain functional firearms.
If you need help selecting a product, have a question about an existing order, or simply want to chat with a fellow gunsmith, contact our dedicated customer service team.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is an AR-15 bolt release essential?
The bolt catch serves multiple functions on the AR-15 platform. First of all, it helps the shooter reload the rifle faster. If an AR does not have a bolt catch or the bolt catch is not working, the bolt will not lock back on the last round; this means that after the shooter inserts a new magazine, they will need to pull back the charging handle to load a round into the chamber and prepare the rifle to fire.
However, with a functioning bolt catch, the bolt is already locked back, and the shooter simply has to press the bolt release with their support hand after they insert a fresh magazine. This makes the reloading process much faster.
Moreover, when the bolt catch locks the bolt back, it is a clear indicator to the shooter that the rifle is empty and safe. The shooter can then instantly start a reload; if the bolt isn't locked rearward, the shooter may not know that the rifle is empty, and may waste valuable time pulling the trigger on the next shot.
The bolt catch can also be used in tandem with the charging handle to lock the bolt back manually. This can help clear malfunctions and misfires and make maintenance easier.
What are the benefits of installing a high-quality AR-15 bolt catch?
- Smoother operation
- Slower wear
- Ambidextrous operation
- Positive engagement
Shooters can also upgrade the bolt catch on their AR-15, which can have many advantages.
Enhanced bolt catches are made from steel or other metals and have smooth finishes that decrease friction between the bolt catch and the bolt. This allows for smoother bolt catch manipulation and decreases wear on the parts of your rifle. Moreover, some aftermarket bolt catches have extended levers. This will let shooters depress the bolt catch/release without changing their grip on the rifle. This can make it even faster and significantly improve the ergonomics of your AR-15. Also, some bolt catches have an enlarged paddle, so you can have positive engagement even when wearing gloves or in a stressful situation. Lastly, some people also upgrade their bolt catch on the AR-15 to add to the rifle’s aesthetics.
Is it okay to store an AR-15 with the bolt open?
Yes; you can store an AR-15 with the bolt open or closed. There are certainly benefits and drawbacks of each option:
- Storing an AR-15 with the bolt open can enhance storage safety — this is particularly important in homes with small children or where owners don’t have access to a safe.
- Leaving the bolt open can also speed up response time in home defense scenarios. If you’re unsure whether there’s a round in the chamber, you might waste time checking — in a situation when every second counts.
- However, leaving the bolt open can expose your action to more dust. Storing your firearm in a safe or case can help reduce dust exposure, but anyone storing their firearm with the bolt open should consider cleaning their rifle before shooting, if practical.
Why is my AR-15 bolt catch not holding?
There are a few reasons why your bolt catch may not be holding:
- The mechanism is dirty, and buildup is preventing a positive catch
- The catch has worn out, and it’s time for a replacement
- Your rifle is undergassed, and the gas system isn’t providing enough velocity to kick the bolt back when the magazine is empty (if this is the case, you might also experience slow or faulty semi-automatic function)
How long does an AR bolt catch last?
The answer will depend on the part’s manufacturer — read your owner’s manual or reach out to the manufacturer for a recommended replacement timeline.