Handguards are often one of the first things to get switched out on a new rifle. When modifying your AR-15, the main considerations are weight, accuracy, style, and ease. Most handguards seem to fall victim to the “pick 2,” or if you’re lucky “pick 3,” problem.
If you find a handguard that’s sleek and light, it ends up being hard to install and messing with your accuracy. If it’s accurate and easy-to-install, it’s too heavy or looks clunky. But does the perfect handguard exist?
Comparison Chart of the Best Free-floating Handguards for the AR-15
1. Aero Precision - AR-15/M16
2. Midwest Industries, Inc. - AR-15 G3 M-series M-LOK
3. Yankee Hill Machine Co., Inc. - AR-15 Diamond Pattern
4. Brigand Arms LLC - Edge Handguard Woven Carbon Fiber Lightweight
5. Geissele Automatics Llc - AR-15 Mk14
Why Choose a Free Float Handguard
When it comes to choosing a handguard there are two types: Drop-in and free-float. This article will focus on free-float handguards. You can see the article I wrote about drop-in handguards over here for more information.
When it comes to choosing a free-float handguard, you’re gaining a huge advantage in accuracy. This is for two reasons: the first is that the handguard is fitted snug to the barrel nut of the gun. The snug fit means less drift or play in the handguard.
The other reason is that free-float handguards better accommodate laser sights & scopes. Again this is partly a function of the snugness of the handguard. It's also because free-float handguards offer a snugger fit for the accessories themselves.
Free-float handguards can accommodate as many accessories as a drop-in, including optics, flashlights, forward grips and more. In fact, free-floats often have more space and a better fit for these accessories.
It is worth noting that the accuracy does come at a price: free-float handguards tend to be heavier than their drop-in counterparts. But the weight of a free-float handguard also adds sturdiness and steadiness.
And there is the price point: free-floats are usually more expensive than drop-ins. But drop-ins encourage using multiple handguards for different needs since they are easy to switch out. With a free-float you’re much more likely to rely on a single handguard that “ticks all the boxes.”
The other factor to consider is that installing a free-float handguard can be tricky. This may be different than what you’re used to with a drop-in. A drop-in just takes a delta-ring adjustment and a few screws. Free-float guards will require quite a bit of hands-on work.
How Hard Is It To Install a Free Float Handguard:
Installing a free-float handguard is a very hands-on process. If you’re already comfortable dismantling your AR-15, it shouldn’t be too complicated. If you’re new to the gunsmithing game, installing a new handguard is a great way to learn and get comfortable with your AR-15.
First I’d recommend watching one of the many free-float install videos online. Of the ones I’ve seen, the Brownells video seems the best to me.
Before you start, always follow standard safety procedures: Make sure there is no clip and the chamber is empty before working on your gun.
Some tools that you need before you start your installation will be a Brownells AR-15/M16 combination wrench, a vise, padded vise jaws (or an upper receiver vice block), a cup-tip punch, a hammer, a barrel nut wrench, a 1/2" drive torque wrench rated for 20-100 pounds. For an idea of some other useful tools, watch the Brownells video.
To prepare your AR-15 for the installation of your free-float handguard, do the following:
- Basic safety procedures before beginning
- Remove the old handguard
- Remove the flash hider if you have one
- Remove the lower receiver
- Remove the pins from the front sight (a front sight block is useful here) and remove the front sight
- Remove the gas tube
- Clamp the upper receiver in the vice using a receiver clamp or padded clamps
- Remove the delta-ring assembly using the AR-15 combination wrench as well as the arm retainer.
To install your new free-float handguard, place the upper assembly in the vice:
- Install the tube barrel nut where the delta ring was before
- Make sure the barrel nut is aligned, then insert the gas tube
- Thread on the free-float tube
- Line up the gas tube on the new front sight tower gas block, then insert the retaining pin
- Remove the upper assembly from the vice and reinsert the other retaining pins
- Reinstall the flash suppressor
- Reinstall the lower assembly
Quick Take - The Best AR-15 Free Float Handguards
These are our recommendations for the best free float handguards for the AR-15:
Reviews of the Best Free Float Handguards for the AR-15
A free-float handguard represents a considerable investment in time and dollars. Let's look at some of the best ones available on the market. Obviously your choice in handguard is going to come down to your own needs–what’s comfortable, what’s in-budget, what features you need. But it’s a wide world out there, so here are a few that I think are excellent and exciting starter models:
Aero offers an excellent line of AR-15 handguards ranging from 12” to 15” with both M-LOK and KeyMod functionality. They range from a bout 9 to 11 oz, depending on the size.
- Great grip in the hand
- Plenty of room inside the handguard to accommodate a suppressor
- Good accommodation for accessories
- It is sometimes difficult to line up the gas tube on this model, so be extra careful during installation.
Midwest Industries G3 M-series handguards are an excellent option with a wide range of sizes. You can get them as small as 10.5” and as long as 18”, all with M-LOK functionality. At the largest size, the handguard weighs only 12 oz, while the smallest is just shy of 7 oz. These are great lightweight and customizable handguards.
- Low profile
- M-LOK functionality
- Wide range of sizes
- This handguard can get very hot–much hotter than most others–while shooting
Yankee Hill’s diamond pattern AR-15 handguards are a great variation on the standard free-float. The diamond patterns allow for advanced cooling and make room for several Picatinny rails.
- Full, free-floated Picatinny rail system
- Great value (one of the cheaper offerings on this list)
- Doesn’t get hot
- Heavy at 13 oz for the smallest and over 16 oz for the longest handguard.
The Brigand Arms lightweight handguards are a great carbon-fiber alternative to heavy metal handguards. It comes in 7”, 9”, 12.375”, and 15”. They are absurdly lightweight – only 3.75 oz for the 7” to just over 5 oz for the 15”, and surprisingly solid.
- Lightweight construction
- Solid, sturdy construction (Which can be a challenge with carbon-fiber handguards)
- High breathability for the barrel
- No M-LOK, Picatinny, or KeyMod functionality (unless you buy a separate Picatinny rail)
The Super Modular Rail Handguard is an excellent aluminum-construction handguard. It has both M-LOK functionality and a full Picatinny rail. They are relatively lightweight at 10-13 oz, and much lighter than other products in Geissele’s handguard line.
- Both M-LOK and Picatinny functionality
- Proprietary barrel nut makes it easy to install
- Low-profile diameter
- Check out the statement about “desert dirt coloring” for this product before choosing that option
All in all, a new free-float handguard is a great investment. It may seem intimidating trying to install it, or the price tag is off-putting. But think of it instead as an opportunity to learn a little bit more about your AR-15. It’s an investment in a solid piece of long-term equipment.
Keep in mind my advice about installation and selection, and you’ll see improvement in your accuracy without a doubt. If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for on this list, there are hundreds of others options. But keep this guide in mind when you start wading through them!