The Escherichia coli clamp loader, γ complex (γ3δδ′λψ), catalyzes ATP-driven assembly of β clamps onto primer-template DNA (p/tDNA), enabling processive replication. The mechanism by which γ complex targets p/tDNA for clamp assembly is not resolved. According to previous studies, charged/polar amino acids inside the clamp loader chamber interact with the double-stranded (ds) portion of p/tDNA. We find that dsDNA, not ssDNA, can trigger a burst of ATP hydrolysis by γ complex and clamp assembly, but only at far higher concentrations than p/tDNA. Thus, contact between γ complex and dsDNA is necessary and sufficient, but not optimal, for the reaction, and additional contacts with p/tDNA likely facilitate its selection as the optimal substrate for clamp assembly. We investigated whether a conserved sequence—HRVW279QNRR—in δ subunit contributes to such interactions, since Tryptophan-279 specifically cross-links to the primer-template junction. Mutation of δ-W279 weakens γ complex binding to p/tDNA, hampering its ability to load clamps and promote proccessive DNA replication, and additional mutations in the sequence (δ-R277, δ-R283) worsen the interaction. These data reveal a novel location in the C-terminal domain of the E. coli clamp loader that contributes to DNA binding and helps define p/tDNA as the preferred substrate for the reaction.