In our continuing series on what Amazon won’t sell you but we will, we turn to a popular AR platform accessory: the handguard. Amazon lists these prohibited items as: “Multi-rail systems, including quad rails and rail covers, free-floating and drop-in handguards.” The handguard is one of the most popular aftermarket AR accessories available, and it provides several advantages over the standard handguards found on low and mid-ranged AR-15s. Before we profile some popular models, let’s clear up a few details about the function and types of handguards.
Handguards have many functions on any common AR platform. First, they provide a surface to place the non-trigger hand while shooting. They also cover the barrel, and many times help shield the operator from excessive heat buildup as the rifle is fired. Heat management can be accomplished by either heat shields or porting in the handguard. Finally, if a handguard is outfitted with rails, a wealth of accessories can be mounted to the handguard including bipods, weapon lights, lasers, optics and grips. There are a variety of lengths available in handguard models to match AR barrel length and other factors, so make sure to pay attention to the length before ordering.
Drop-In Vs. Free Floating
Handguards come in two distinct varieties, commonly referred to as drop-in and free floating. The first, drop-in, is the basic or traditional variety of handguard that attaches around the barrel and covers it to protect the non-trigger hand. Often drop-in handguards have a heat shield on the inside of each half. Drop-in handguards can be outfitted with rails or be used only as a standard grip.
A drop-in handguard from CMMG ($24.95), you can see how it splits in two portions to attach around the barrel, and the heat shield is visible on the inside.
Free floating rails are generally regarded as superior to that of drop-in handguards, both in appearance and function. Unlike drop-in handguards, free floating handguards do no touch the barrel, which typically results in better accuracy for most users. Handguards that touch the barrel have been known to “warp” or slightly alter the trajectory of the barrel when pressure is placed upon the handguard. Often the effects are minute, but not without consequences for some. Free floating handguards offer a diverse amount of rail mounting options, which is why they are often referred to as “quad rails” because of their four sides of rails. Heat shields are not often used in free floating rails, and rather heat dispersion is encouraged through extensive porting in the handguard.
Keymod vs. M-Lok
Before choosing a rail, there is one other difference to note in some free floating rails. A new system of rail attachment has been developed by two companies to supplement the common picatinny rail setup. The first to come along was the Keymod system by Vltor. This system uses slots in the rail to mount accessories with key-like screws. Magpul has created their own rail mounting system known as M-Lok. This system uses horizontal slots to mount accessories instead of the key shaped ones found on Keymod rails.
You’ll find these mounting systems available on a wide variety of handguards from different companies because they are open source. Both mounting systems have their strengths, and part of the selection process involves brand preference and ensuring that your favorite accessories support the mounting system.
CMMG Mid-Length AR-15 Handguard
This CMMG Mid-Length Handguard is of the traditional drop-in variety. It is inexpensive and easy to mount. You can also get this handguard in rifle length.
Price: $25.16 mid-length and $33.98 rifle length right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com
Magpul MOE Rifle Length AR-15 Polymer Handguard
Magpul makes a popular line of polymer handguards that serve the same purpose as the traditional drop-in handguard. They come in mid-length, carbine length and rifle length sizes, and they are available in a variety of colors like many other Magpul accessories. You can even get a similar handguard for shotguns like the Remington 870. The polymer construction helps with heat shielding, but there is also an internal aluminum heat shield. Additional picatinny rails can be mounted on the side of the handguard, and it accommodates most overhanging optic mounts.
Price: Starts at $18.99 for carbine length and $33.99 rifle length right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com.
CMMG AR-15 7in. Handguard Kit
Now we move into some free floating options like the CMMG AR-15 7in. Handguard Kit. This is CMMG’s standard free floating handguard, and it offers Keymod attachment points for those interested in the system. This handguard style is available in longer versions to suit the needs of the user.
Price: $124.16 right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com.
Aero Precision AR-15 7in. Handguard
Aero Precision’s free-floating AR-15 7in. Handguard offers the M-Lok system as well as a continuous top rail. This rail configuration can be found in longer lengths to suit the need of the user.
Price: $110.00 right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com.
Spikes BAR2 AR-15 12in. Handguard
Spikes Tactical puts their own spin on the free floating handguard with this heavy duty aluminum handguard. In addition to a continuous top rail, side rails are fixed to the handguard with Torx screws. This model also offers 5 QD sockets for sling attachment. This handguard only uses standard picatinny rails and does not offer M-Lok or Keymod attachment points.
Price: $235.00 right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.com.