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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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29 comments

James

January 19, 2017

Thank you for this article! I have a Firefield carbine length drop in quad rail handguard on my spanky new M&P 15 5.56 and it does get quite warm. Is there anything that can be done for this? I want to get the Magpul Magpul AFG2 Angled Forend Grip, but I don’t want it to melt with use… Any advice?

T

January 20, 2017

James, assuming your handguard is heating up due to your barrel temperature rising, there are a few things you can do to remedy the situation. One option is to get a heavier contour barrel. Thin barrels tend to heat up quicker since the heat from the expanding gasses only has to heat a small abount of metal to reach the outside. The trade-off of a heavy barrel is that it will take more time to cool completely, for the opposite reason.

Another option is to buy a freefloat handguard. Freefloat handguards minimize contact with the barrel, so it shouldn’t heat up from firing much, if at all.

But before dropping big bucks on new parts, consider evaluating how you are firing. If you are shooting in such a manner that your barrel is heating your handguard to the point that you’re worried about something melting, that tells me that you are firing quite quickly and not giving your rifle a break. If you are doing some sort of speed competition, that’s fine, but be aware of the problems this will bring up.

For one thing, as your barrel heats up, your accuracy will visibly decrease. Hot barrels are more “flexible” than cold ones. This causes what is known as “walking” of the barrel, where your barrel may shift a few degrees from shot to shot, causing a matching point-of-impact shift.

In addition, heating up your barrel, then continuing to fire without break is hard on your chamber and the beginning of your rifling. This practice will reduce barrel life by quite a bit.

Ideally, if you are shooting for accuracy or even just want to make a plinker last as long as you can make it, you would shoot slowly and methodically. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been guilty of doing a couple of mag dumps, but most of the time I will fire off five to ten rounds with a few seconds between each shot, then wait a couple of minutes to relax my barrel. Once I feel the barrel becoming noticeably hot, I let the rifle sit for ten to fifteen minutes (less if it’s cold out) or until it is back to the atmospheric temperature. Even shooting slowly for too long without a break can heat up a barrel too much.

Honestly, I’ve used Magpul products and they are very well-made. I wouldn’t worry too much about an AFG melting, since it would require a pretty high temperature. My biggest worry would be the waste of ammo and how hard on your rifle that much heat would be. A hot barrel is a bigger problem than a hot handguard. Hot handguards should just warn you of how hard you pushed your barrel.

farulixos

January 23, 2017

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Johnny Paysinger

March 10, 2017

Great piece of information! Thank you very much.

Bill King

March 16, 2017

Thank you for forearm article. I’ve been thinking of this upgrade but was confused as to options. One question though. How can i tell if my gas block is small enough for float quad rail and how do i install?