By Trampas Swanson

Perhaps the most loved yet most controversial rifles ever invented, Eugene Stoner’s AR-15, has managed to survive over 50 years of commercial sales. Although originally designed to be a lightweight and simple modular rifle chambered in 5.56 mm x 45 mm NATO, the AR-15 platform has evolved into a multi-caliber platform serving everyone from the law enforcement officer on patrol, the hunter looking for a new lightweight rifle option, the competition shooter, and the home owner wanting the ultimate in family protection. Leading sales year after year to hold on it its title as today’s “modern musket,” its longevity on the market has given spawn to more gadgets, upgrades and aftermarket accessories than any other firearm in existence. Today the AR-15 is considered by many as the “Barbie doll of the gun industry.” (Personally, I’m still waiting on the Malibu Dream rocket launcher, but the BATF keeps getting in the way of it coming to market.)

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One of the top three aftermarket options for upgrading the AR platform comes in the form of a simple handguard. Traditionally, the AR handguard is a simple plastic “clam shell” held in place by the tension created by a lip around one end of the barrel and a spring loaded delta assembly on the other. As the rifle’s use expanded, so did the need to add more to it. Whether it’s for accuracy or add-on lights or laser sighting systems, there needed to be a way to mount items to the handguard. The answer came by way of a picatinny rail equipped handguard. Two categories of handguard evidentially came to market in the form of “drop in” and “free float”.

Drop In Handguards

The first handguard option is the quickest way by far to upgrade your rifle’s standard handguard. By pulling back the delta ring and pulling up on the top half and down on the lower half of the handguard, both sides will be freed. For some shooters, the option for a cheap Picatinny rail drop in handguard from manufacturers such as CIA or Midwest Industries is the way to go with offerings in the $30 to $40 range. For most, the market has been captured by the MOE series of polymer handguards by MagPul Industries. These retail for around $50 and offer multiple colors to match their forward grips, pistol grips and stock sets. While smooth in appearance, these handguards come with small Picatinny rail segments that fit into slots along all sides to fit attachments. While other big names such as Seekins, Troy, and Bravo Company offer drop in rails, their “bread and butter” in sales come in the form of our next category, the free float handguard.

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Free Float Handguards

A combination of aspiring competition shooters looking for an advantage and advancements in CNC machining have recently brought about much better options over the past dozen years for fans of the AR-15. Shooters discovered that by free floating the barrel similar to those in bolt action rifles, their groups would be tighter. Several top names in the industry set about to produce the best free float handguard on the market. Pay attention, because this is where the real money in upgrading the AR platform can be easily spent!

Not only have the top names in the industry developed their own different ways to attach the rail to the upper by way of fancy barrel nuts, over clamping rails utilizing the factory barrel nuts, and even direct mounting options straight to the receiver, but the actual style of the handguards is beginning to change as well. First you have the free float handguard with the standard Picatinny rails molded into the top, bottom, left and right along its entire length. Secondly you have the smooth rail movement of shooters that want the option for just small segments of Picatinny to be attached in areas where accessories need to be mounted via small screw holes along the rail surface. No more, no less. This cuts down on overall weight of the rifle and provides better grip around the handguard.

As previously mentioned, the rails have taken a different look in recent years. One major change is the invention of the “keymod” rail. Like the name suggests, this rail can be easily recognized by key hole shaped cuts in the rail, similar in appearance of those industrial shelving, and these key holes allow for Picatinny rail segments to be clipped into the slots and secured instead of screwed into the rail itself. Admittedly, this is much easier than the original rail segments from manufacturers such as Troy. This set up included trying to line up a screw backing between the rail and the barrel while using your second and third hand to line the rail segment up and screw it in. While offering a distinct advantage over older rails, “keymod” and the new style handguards with rails that directly screw into the side are pretty much the same with the main advantage going to the “keymod” for less weight. Free float rails can start with low grade Chinese offerings off of EBay for $60 to almost $300 from top companies such as Seekins, Geisselee, A.R.M.S. or Bravo Company depending on length and style.

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One new design that has recently caught my eye is a hexagonal shaped free float rail by Devil Dog Arms. This rail has a meaty surface for a sure grip on the firearm when driving the barrel from target to target, but the rails are only where you wish for them to be by means of either their keymod holes or the more solid offering with drilled and tapped holes for direct screw mounting. After getting to know Joe Lucania, the CEO of Devil Dog Arms, I learned that unlike most complete AR manufacturers on the market, everything but the barrel itself is made in-house by their technicians. This raises innovation and quality control to the next level for their company by means of being able to put new products on the market faster.

Recently using handguards offered by Seekins, I updated two personal projects, one being a Noveske 5.56 SBR and the other being a Colt “Urban Sniper” 5.56 with a heavy fluted barrel. The first was left standard black and fitted over a 10 inch barrel with a Flaming Pig muzzle break from Noveske. The rail was large enough in circumference to allow for the large break to fit inside easily. The second handgun was refinished in DuraCoat to match the rifle’s ACU camo pattern. The rail fit snug and rigid hovering around the 24 inch match grade barrel. Even while inducing pressure from the sling stud mounted bipod, the rail remained tough and straight during a wide range of shots from the field. In recent months, these “keymod” handguards have become my favorite out of the dozen or so used lately.

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The Next Level of Custom Handguards

For those looking to truly customize their rifles with the ultimate in personal style while still taking advantage of light weight, easy handling handguards, one has to look no further than Unique-ARs. I discovered this small company over a year ago that makes top notch free float handguards in array of patterns that I had never seen before. Spider web designs, hearts, flames, octagons, etc. were cut out of the handguards using extremely precise machining to make fantastic gripping surfaces for your AR-15. If that was not enough, you can call and speak to them about designing any logo or pattern you want them to cut! Names, company logos, everything you can imagine cleanly cut and rounded out to allow for the best possible functional handguard you can imagine. The two samples I was able to try out over the past few months both have turned out to be personal favorites. The first came about 9 months ago while I was building a custom 6.8 SPC hunting AR-15. It arrived in the factory black color and within a couple of weeks was refinished in DuraCoat to match the rifle and installed over the barrel. The handguard was cut with one inch wide octagon patterns all the way around with small drilled and tapped holes between the patterns to allow for the 3 rail segments that came with it to be mounted. Inside each octagon, the edge was rounded off and flared outward to provide and excellent grip that allowed just the pads of my fingers to sink into. Not only did this offer great firearm retention, but allowed for a steadier off hand shot.

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The second of the handguards to arrive was on back order for quite some time due to its true uniqueness, but the wait did not disappoint. The new arrival was cut into a 15 inch free float spider web for an upcoming build you may see in a later review. Like the first rail, its clean edges and attention to detail were nothing short of amazing. Due to time constraints, the overall project was not finished in time for the article, but its pre-paint fit was dead on and straight as an arrow! Retailing between $175 – $275 depending on length and pattern, the standard and full custom handguards are a great way to show off a prized build or update a standard off the rack rifle.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of your tastes in handguards, there is a wide range of manufacturers on the market producing a product that is the right one for you; it’s just a matter of how elaborate and expensive you are willing to go. The real key to upgrading your AR-15 platform with a new handguard is to buy from a reputable company that makes quality products they stand behind. Most of the time you will get what you pay for if you go cheap, but you will end up spending twice the money afterwards on what you should have bought the first time!