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The 7 Things to Look for in an AR-15 Handguard

Free floating or drop-in? Aluminum or Polymer? Quad rail, single rail, or no rail?

Choosing a handguard for your AR-15 can be confusing, with all of the options that are available. Even the names can be confusing (handguard, forend, forearm, foregrip – they’re all the same).

But picking the right handguard is one of the most important decisions to make when building or accessorizing your AR-15. The handguard can define the functionality and appearance of your rifle, and allow for further accessorization.

So to help make things a little more clear, we’ve identified 7 main characteristics that you should look at when choosing a handguard.

So before reading any further, try to answer the questions below:

Look

What kind of look are you going for? Classic? Military? Tactical?

Mounting options

Do you want to mount accessories? What kind and how many?

Weight

How much weight are you willing to sacrifice for function?

Ease of installation

Are you OK with modifying your AR?

Accuracy

Free float handguards can tighten up your groups – do you care?

Price

What are you willing to spend?

Heat resistance

Will you be shooting enough where heat will be an issue?

Keep the answers to these question in mind as we look through the different types of handguards. There are 2 main categories of handguards - drop-in and free-floating

Main Category 1 - Drop in handguards

“Drop in” handguards are the classic, two piece handguards the M4 was originally designed to have. They are called “drop in” because to install/remove these handguards, you really just need to pull back the spring-loaded “delta ring” and drop in some new ones! So the big advantages of the drop-in family of handguards:

- Easy to install (just “drop” them in!)

- No modifications to weapon (the stock AR15 is made for these handguards)

- Usually the least expensive (not much to it!)

Within these drop-in category, there are really 2 main types of handguards, the “classic” polymer handguard, and “railed” handguards

“Classic” drop-in handguards

The classic M4/AR15 handguard is a 2 piece polymer handguard that has a metal heat-shield on the inside. They tend to resist heat well, even after lots of shooting. The polymer construction makes them very light weight. They are available in several lengths, and the proper handguard depends on the length of your gas system. These are the plain-Jane, run of the mill handguards, but they get the job done.

Look

Plain-Jane, but give the “classic” look

Mounting options

None

Weight

Very light and easy to grip

Ease of installation

Very easy to install

Accuracy

No accuracy boost

Price

Cheap and readily available, often less than $30

Heat resistance

Good heat resistance

“Railed” drop-in handguards

There are also several varieties of drop-in “railed” handguards (also know as drop-in rails). The most common type is the quad-rail, which gets its name from the 4 rails that run the length of the handguard.

These rails are typically designed in the MIL-STD 1913 (picatinny) specification, which allows the mounting of all different types of accessories on them. You can want to mount things like bipods, foregrips, and possibly lights or lasers on these rails. It is NOT recommended to mount optics on a drop-in rail, because drop-in rails have a lot of “wiggle” and your optics will not stay zeroed in.

Railed handguards are mainly made of aluminum, but there are some polymer rails available. With the exception of the Magpul varieties of these handguards which are good, I would be very careful buying polymer drop-in rails due to durability issues.

Look

Gives the rifle a bit of a “tactical” look

Mounting options

Allows mounting of bipods, grips, lights, or lasers – but cannot mount optics

Weight

Usually a little heavier than the classic handguards

Ease of installation

Very easy to install

Accuracy

No accuracy boost

Price

Usually reasonably priced, often less than $50. But some brands can be $150-200 plus.

Heat resistance

Aluminum drop-in rails can have serious heat issues, polymer is usually OK

Main Category 2 - Free Floating Handguards

Now things are getting fun! In addition to providing better accuracy, free floating handguards can offer great customization options for your AR15. The accuracy of the free floating hanguard comes from the fact that the handguard doesn’t touch the barrel at all – it is mounted directly to the upper receiver. This allows the barrel to “float” and gives better harmonics, resulting in slightly better accuracy (most people see .5-.75 MOA improvements).

But where the accuracy difference is especially evident is when using grips and bipods on a free floating quad rail handguard. When you rest a rifle on a bipod that is attached to the barrel (or a drop-in handguard) the bipod will create force that can very slightly warp the barrel. This small amount of warping can provide fairly significant accuracy issues down the range. But with a free float handguard, you can put all kinds of force on the hanguard and it affect the barrel whatsoever.

Also, one big advantage of free floating handguards is that you can make them longer than the length of the gas system, by using a low profile gas block. For instance on a typical AR15 carbine, the drop-in handguard is about 7” long. But with a free float + low profile gas block, you can use rails as long as 16”! This opens up a lot of accessorization and customization option.

There are 2 main categories of free float handguards – the non-railed handguards (we call them “free float tubes”), and free floating railed handguards (we call them “free float rails”)

Free Float Tubes

The free float tubes are a common sight on match-grade rifles that value accuracy above all else. They provide the accuracy benefits of free floating handguards but are pretty much no-frills in design. A common manufacturer of these type of handguards is Hogue.

 

Look

Fairly plain, but available in many different colors and lengths

Mounting options

None

Weight

Generally lighter than the free float railed handguards, but still a little heavier than classic handguards

Ease of installation

More difficult to install than drop in – requires partial disassembly of the rifle (about 30-45 minutes of work). Also requires special tools like a vise block and armorer’s wrench.

Accuracy

.5 - .75 MOA improvement over drop-in handguards

Price

Reasonably priced, often less than $50.

Heat resistance

Aluminum construction can cause heat issues – vents in the handguards will help

 

Railed Free Float Handguards

Free float rails are the most popular handguards for tactical setups. They are available in many different lengths, colors, and configurations. When used with a low profile gas block, the handguard can be as long as the user wants.

The “quad rail” design is the most popular, but there are also designs that have only 1 rail across the top of the handguard, and designs with detachable rail sections that can be mounted according to user preference.

 

Look

Tons of options available. Great for the decked-out tactical builds

Mounting options

Allows mounting of bipods, grips, lights, or lasers and optics. By far the most accessory-friendly handguard

Weight

Can vary widely between brands and sizes, but are typically a little heavier than the other handguard types

Ease of installation

More difficult to install than drop in – requires partial disassembly of the rifle (about 30-45 minutes of work). Also requires special tools like a vise block and armorer’s wrench.

Accuracy

.5 - .75 MOA improvement over drop-in handguards

Price

The most expensive of the handguard types, with some handguards costing $300+. But some brands offer rails starting in the $50-100 range.

Heat resistance

Despite aluminum construction, most quad rail handguards are vented well enough that heat is not an issue.

Hopefully this article was helpful in explaining the options available. If I were you, I would definitely research the free float quad rails as a first option. If you can’t stomach the cost or the install, there are many other options available.

One Last Tip

If there's anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it's the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.
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22 comments

Jim

September 01, 2016

Hey, for the railed handguards, I’d definitely recommend adding these multi-tool rail covers. They come in so handy when I’m out in the field Tool Grips

Russ

September 19, 2016

Great and impostant article, however, there are a couple things I’d like to bring up. First: “When you rest a rifle on a bipod that is attached to the barrel (or a drop-in handguard) the bipod will create force that can very slightly warp the barrel.” That aluminum/polymer handguard is going warp long before that chrome moly steel barrel is going to warp and to be honest, I’ve never heard of a bipod attached to a barrel bending it. I have heard rumors. Second: The effectiveness of free float handguards on the AR platform depend on a great deal of things. Was the barrel extension bent or twisted when the barrel was installed? Is the barrel extension straight? Is the barrel nut perfectly machined? Was the rail perfectly machined? Are the screws holding that rail on permanently secured? The point is the AR platform was never intended to be a tack driver, it is a combat rifle. I’ve seen several free float handguards that either weren’t attached properly or weren’t made properly. I’ve seen them come loose. In any of these instances they will not be “true.” Most free float handguards are secured to a special barrel nut by six screws, which itself is secured to the barrel and the barrel extension. Some have an end cap that is secured by more screws, which may or may not be touching the barrel. So yes, technically it is not attached to the barrel but it is attached to something that is attached to the barrel. Regardless of how many screws, the whole setup depends on no movement of the rail, that the rail is straight (if you have an iron sight) and those screws holding up. I personally have never seen a drop-in that wasn’t tight and locked up, being clamped in place with the delta ring, a VERY strong spring and the end cap. I’m sure there are exceptions if you go really cheap, as with anything.

I know it appears I’m doing a “hatchet” job on this article – I am not and it is well written, however, there are potential issues with free float handguards that people should know. I will add that a nice drop-in will likely be in the $60 – $120 price range, a nice free float setup (handguard, barrel nut, shims, sleeve, screws) will cost $180 and up (potentially $300+). A “classic” drop-in can be had for $20 – $30. Installation of a drop-in requires no tools and is hard to screw up, a free float probably shouldn’t be installed by a novice and they require special tools (vise, torque wrench, upper receiver clamp, etc.) and knowledge. Additionally, many people attach a front sight to the end of a free float – again, if it’s not straight or secure, it will be useless. I’ve never seen anyone attach optics to a drop-in handguard, only “tools” (light, sling attachment, laser, etc.). All said, I have four AR’s with both types of handguards. I like both. If accuracy was my prime concern I would go with free float as the author states. As for who I am: I build my own rifles (AR’s), I’ve served in the Army/Army Reserve for 38 years, I’m a retired state trooper and a POST certified firearms instructor/range master. I am very familiar with the AR platform and again, I wish to stress that it was designed as a combat rifle – it was never intended to be a sniper rifle or a tack driver, it’s design for this purpose is flawed. If you want superb accuracy go with a glass or polymer bedded bolt action rifle. I hope I’ve made it clear this is a great and informative article – I’m in agreement with the author on many points – I simply wanted to point out some additional issues to consider regarding handguards.

Lynn Anderson

September 22, 2016

Very informative. glad to know about difference between drop in and free float fore grips.

Case250

October 21, 2016

Jim you make some important points. A bipod will never warp a barrel. The downside to a hanging anything on a dropin handguard has nothing to do with warping the barrel trust me the barrel is never ever ever ever going to warp through using a bipod whether you attach it to the handguard or directly on the barrel. Rumors are best filed under “Untrue”. A bipod afixed to a barrel or dropin handguard does dramatically affect the harmonics (think of a vibrating tuning fork) of the barrel while the bullet is traveling through the bore. The result is inconsistent vibration. Which results in the bullet exiting the muzzle at inconsistent intervals. For example if the barrel is perfectly free floated or properly bedded the vibration within a given load will be the same. That is the barrel will flex imperceptibly up and down (for simplicity sake) in waves down the barrel. If the barrel is properly floated or bedded then the bullet will always exit at the same wave interval for example at the top of the wave crest or bottom trough what ever the case may be. However if one shot exits at the crest of the wave and the other at base of the wave the bullet placement will be very inconsistent. This kind of inconsistency will never show up on a target 5 feet in front of the muzzle just be one ragged hole. However as distance is increased the angle difference between crest and and trough expands massively and at 100 yards can create shot to shot spreads of several inches. Think of two bicyclists traveling side by side, there is a “Y” in the path that angles the cyclists paths only one degree and the cyclist take opposite off shoots on the “Y” so now they are traveling at an angle to each other. As they both cover the first 10 feet down their respective new paths they are now just a few feet apart from each other, but as each continues straight in their new directions their separating distance will increase to the point they can not even see each other.

Matt C

November 04, 2016

Thank You AT3Tactical for this extremely helpful and highly informative piece in the various AR15 rails. I couldn’t have stumbled across this article at a more better time than today. I’m currently in the market for a custom hand guard rail and after talking with many friends and going to my local firearms store, I was amazed at how many different kinds of rails their were and the pros/cons of each one. Of course, everyone I talked to all had their own opinion, but the general consensus was that ultimately, it boils down to personal preference and what’s the most comfortable for myself. Fortunately for me, I came across this article and not only did it provide me with enough information, it also provided me with enough to actually make a determination on what specific kind and style that I wanted. So this weekend I’ll be out shopping for a new rail and I’ll save a ton of time because I already know which one I want to purchase. Thanks again AT3 Tactical for posting this informative and in my opinion “A must read” article if you’re in the market for a new hand guard rail for an AR15.