Different AR-15 Handguard Types: Definitions and How To Pick A Handguard

Hunting, competitive shooting, and self-defense – AR rifles have gained immense popularity among firearm enthusiasts due to their adaptability, versatility, and customizability. A crucial part of that customization lies in your handguard selection. Handguards not only influence your rifle’s look and feel but also impact its performance. In this article, we explore different types of handguards and guide you in picking the best one for your specific needs. 

AR-15 Handgaurd

What Are Free-Float Handguards?

Free-float handguards are handguards you attach directly to the rifle’s receiver without making any physical contact with the barrel. These handguards “float” around the barrel, giving them their distinctive name.

Free Floating handguards have numerous pros. The pros I find most advantageous when using a free float include extra accuracy because of its smart design that ensures the barrel is free from any outside pressure. You can also add a lot of accessories like sights, grips, and flashlights.

However, free-float handguards are generally more expensive than drop-in handguards. They also tend to be heavier than their counterparts, which you can really start to feel when hiking with your AR.

While these handguards are generally heavier than your other AR handguard types, they excel in ergonomics – offering users a comfortable, sturdy grip. Many of the Best AR-15 Handguards are free-float handguards. Their design also ensures you do not get accidentally burned when the barrel is hot after an intense shooting session.

Overall, free-float handguards are excellent for precision shooters and competitive marksmen because of their favorable accuracy-enhancing design.

What Is The Main Benefit Of A Free-Float Handguard?

As I’ve said, free-floats offer several benefits, but the main benefit and many would agree, is the improved shooting accuracy due to its non-contact with the barrel.

What Are Drop-In Handguards?

Drop-in handguards, as the name suggests, are designed for easy installation. No professional help is required. All you need to do is drop the handguard in place and ensure the delta ring and handguard cap secure it. It is as easy as that!

The most significant advantage of a drop-in handguard lies in its simplicity. They are cost-effective, lightweight, and easy to install – making them excellent for beginners or those not looking to heavily customize their firearms.

On the downside, drop-in handguards do not offer as much room as free-floating handguards for accessories due to their compact design. Additionally, an AR with a drop-in handguard also has a reduced shooting accuracy compared to the free-float over long shooting distances as they attach to both the receiver and the barrel.

Drop-in handguards are much lighter than free-floating handguards, making them more comfortable for extended use. While they do not offer as many customization options, you do have enough space for a red dot or other accessories. You also have more than enough space for a solid grip.

Types of AR-15 Handgaurds

What Is The Main Benefit Of A Drop-In Handguard?

A Drop-In handguard is a perfect starter handguard type, thanks to its main benefit – being simplistic and having an easy installation process.

What Are Quad Rail Handguards?

Quad rails have a distinct four-sided rail system. This design provides the shooter with ample space for a multitude of accessories. They are truly an avid AR shooter’s dream rail because they offer such a highly customizable shooting experience.

Quad rails offer extensive customization, which allows users to add various accessories. This increases the versatility of the rifle and makes it a popular choice among tactical and military personnel.

However, it is important to note that quad-railed handguards are quite heavy because of that added metal for the rails. In my experience, a drop in quad rail is also less comfortable to grip, especially without the additional rail covers due to their distinctive angular design.

Nonetheless, these handguards are extremely sturdy, offering a stable platform for accessories. These AR handguards are heavier, but with the addition of rail covers, you can have an ergonomically comfortable shooting platform.

What Is The Main Benefit Of A Quad Rail Handguard?

The primary benefit of a Quad rail is its high level of customization. With the four rails, you can add a plethora of accessories, allowing you to customize your AR so that it’s tailor-made for you. Just be sure to keep your AR-15 handguard clean so that it lasts longer and performs better!

Which Type Of AR Handguard Is The Best?

It depends on your use case. Generally, I feel the free-float handguard is the best – providing a good balance of shooting performance (accuracy and handling) and customizability (rail space). Most of the Best AR15s have very good handguards. However, if we further define which AR handguard type is best for a specific use case, we can look at the following:

  • Accuracy – Free float handguard
  • Simplicity – Drop in handguard
  • Customizability – Quad rail handguard

AR-15 Handgaurd Types

What are the different materials used in the construction of handguards?

There are various materials used in the construction of handguards, each with its own benefits and disadvantages. The most common handguard materials include:

  • Aluminum: This material is excellent for people who want a lightweight, high-quality handguard with excellent heat dissipation.
  • Polymer: These types of handguards are perfect for beginners. They are lighter and more cost-effective than the other types of handguard materials. However, they do not offer the same level of heat resistance.
  • Steel: Steel is an excellent choice if you want a durable and high-quality handguard. But it is heavier than aluminum and polymer.
  • Carbon Fiber: This material is found in your top-of-the-range, premium handguards. It offers a perfect strength-to-weight ratio and is also very lightweight and heat resistant.

Do Free-Float Handguards Improve Accuracy?

Yes, free-float handguards are known to improve accuracy over standard handguards. They minimize the outer/external pressure applied to the barrel. This eliminates potential deflection and allows the ar15 barrels to vibrate freely upon firing.

What type of handguard is the easiest to install?

As mentioned, drop-in handguards offer a very easy installation process and are suited for shooters of all experience ranks. These handguards simply drop into place and are held by the spring-loaded delta ring that secures the handguard to the barrel nut.

If you are thinking of mounting a scope to your AR, then you’ll need to know all the steps required, especially when dealing with handguards and upper receivers. Therefore, you might find our guide on how to mount a scope on a rifle without a rail very helpful.

Different Types Of AR-15 Rails

Here is a list of the 3 main types of AR-15 rail systems.

  1. Picatinny Rail System
  2. KeyMod Rail System
  3. M-LOK Rail System

1) Picatinny Rail System

The Picatinny rail system is a bracket used on some firearms to provide a standardized mounting platform. A full-length Picatinny rail features a series of ridges with a T-shaped cross-section interspersed with slots. Each of these slots is precisely 5.23mm wide and is spaced at consistent intervals.

The Picatinny rail is specified in the MIL-STD-1913, an American military standard that provides specifications for this type of mounting platform. Therefore, the versatility of the Picatinny rail lies in its ability to accommodate a wide variety of attachments. These include optical sights, tactical lights, night vision devices, reflex sights, laser sights, bipods, and foregrips.

Essentially, any equipment for the MIL-STD-1931 rail specification can be mounted to a Picatinny rail – if you want to mount one of the best scopes for AR-15, chances are they will fit the Picatinny rail!

2) KeyMod Rail System

The KeyMod rail system is a universal interface system designed to replace the standard Picatinny rail. The system consists of two parts: the KeyMod slot and the KeyMod nut. This mounting system is characterized by its keyhole-shaped mounting slots.

Basically, you attach an accessory by inserting the lug of the accessory into the round channel of the keyhole. After you insert the lug into the channel, you slide it forward towards the narrower end, essentially locking it in place and tightening the attachment through the KeyMod nut.

You can mount any accessory on the KeyMod rail if it is compatible. The advantage of using the KeyMod system lies in its weight and flexibility. Unlike the Picatinny rail system, with the KeyMod rail system, you don’t need all that unnecessary bulk, resulting in a lighter firearm. This feature makes it excellent for someone who wants to mount a red on a short to medium-range weapon like the AK47. For additional info on this, feel free to check out our article on the best AK red dot.

3) M-LOK Rail System

The M-Lok or Modular Lock rail system is a free licensed, multi-directional mounting system. It allows you to attach accessories to your firearm to your weapon’s handguard without the need for Picatinny rails. It incorporates the use of rectangular slots. Matching accessories have T-nuts that securely lock them into place when attached. We also comared the M-LOK vs KeyMod mounting systems as well for those interested.

There are a lot of compatible attachments for M-LOK systems – if it is something tactical, chances are good that it is compatible with the M-LOK system. Some of these tactical accessories include grips, scope mounts, sling mounts, lights, and lasers. This allows you to customize your firearm to your specific needs, enhancing performance in a wide variety of situations. You should also check out our comparison on M LOK vs picatinny mounting systems!

The main benefit of using an M-LOK rail system is the direct attachment of accessories to the firearm. This results in a low-profile gas block and streamlined weapon system, reducing the overall weight of the firearm and providing a cleaner look than the standard Picatinny rails. This is why I use an M-LOK system on my 300 Blackout – the streamlined and lightweight finish makes it perfect for mounting a tailor-made red dot on the 300 Blackout.

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of handguard is the cheapest for an AR-15?

The cheapest handguard you can get for an AR-15 tends to be the standard two-piece polymer handguard or a drop-in polymer handguard.

Which type of handguard is the most popular for AR-15's?

The free-float handguard is the most popular type of handguard for AR-15s because of its balance between performance and customizability.

What is the most popular length for an AR-15 handguard?

The most popular length for an AR-15 handguard is generally around the 15-inch mark. This is because it provides a good balance between functionality, weight, and aesthetics.

The Bottom Line

In order to choose the right handguard, you should consider factors such as your use case, aesthetic preference, and budget. Each type – Free Float, Drop-In, Quad Rails – offers unique benefits and diverse attachment options. In addition, choosing the correct rail system is also pertinent to an enjoyable shooting experience. By understanding the specification of each handguard and rail type, you can personalize your AR-15 to align with your specific requirements. Happy shooting!

About the author

Patrick Howard

I have been working as a gunsmith for 20 years. Rain, fog, moisture, high temperature, or even snow are all the things a product must withstand in order to be recommended by me.

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