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

Choosing gear for an AR-15 is a monumental task due to the sheer number of options out there. This article originally published by does an excellent job of breaking down the different types of rails available to you. It also goes on to highlight 7 specific things to consider when purchasing a handguard.

We have been given permission to post this article in its entirety. If you like what you see then go over to Zac’s page and check out his other articles.

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, I’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 avaialable. If I were you (I’m not 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.
Charles is the editor for 248 Shooter a midwest based gun news and gear review site as well as Online Content Director for On Target Magazine. He is an avid student taking classes from top tier trainers around the country. Charles shares his love for training as well as experience and opinions on some of the most talked about gear and products used by competitive shooters, military, leo and civilians.