Different Types of Handguards for AR-15 Builds

When you are searching for AR-15 handguards, it is easy to get bogged down with the choices available. Should you go for free floating or drop-in?  Is aluminum or polymer construction better? Should you choose a quad, keymod or m-lok?  What about the names?  You want a handguard, so why do you keep hearing about forend, forearm, and foregrips too?  For the record, they’re all the same.

Picking the right forearm is a major decision that will define the functionality and appearance of your rifle. There are a few main characteristics you should think about when choosing AR-15 handguards.  As you review your choices, ask yourself these questions:

  • Would you like a classic, military or tactical look?
  • What kind of accessories do you want to mount, if any, and how many?
  • Extra functionality requires a weight sacrifice, how much are you willing to add?
  • Installation wise, how comfortable are you with modifying your AR?
  • Free Floating AR-15 handguards can affect your accuracy by tightening your groups, is that a point of concern for you?
  • Will you be shooting to the extent where heat resistance will be an issue?
  • What is your budget?

Free-Floating VS. Drop-In

There are two basic types of AR-15 handguards – drop-in, and free-floating:

1)  Drop-ins are classically styled two-piece handguards.  The M4 was designed to use a guard of the drop-in variety.  They get their name from their simple installation, which includes pulling back on the delta ring and dropping in a new component.  They are cost-effective, and you can buy them as polymer or railed.

Polymer drop-ins are light and easy to grip.  Magpul supports M-lok attachments, but other varieties have no mounting options.

The most common drop-in AR-15 rails are the quad-rail.  They are generally designed in the Picatinny specification, but Keymod and M-Lok mounting rails are available.  They are typically made of aluminum, so they are heavier.  A limitation to them is they are not suitable for use with optical mounts because they wiggle.

2) Free-floating handguards are able to provide increased accuracy as they don’t contact the barrel. They afford significantly more customization because they can be lengthened beyond the gas system, using a low profile gas block, to lengths of up to 16 inches.  The main free floating varieties are float tubes (non-railed) and free float rails.

The most popular type of free float AR-15 rails are quad rails.  They have a variety of lengths and colors, a four Picatinny style, require significant machine work, and are expensive.  They are heavy, but the machine cut out accessory attachments of Keymod and M-Lok styles cut down on the weight. Heat concerns are negligible.

Free float tubes were built for accuracy.  They have a simple design and no mounting options, but there are color varieties.  They are lighter than their counterpart, but still heavy.  Installation is involved, but their price is modest.

From the assembly of your AR-15 lower parts kit to the picking of your rifles accessories, there is a great deal of pleasure in creating a firearm that reflects and serves you, which is why so many of us covet the AR-15.

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