The modular design of the AR-15 allows its user to customize their rifle in a variety of ways. One very common upgrade for an AR-15 is the handguard. Upgrading a handguard is about both the accuracy and aesthetics of the rifle.
The Primary Reasons To Use A Handguard
There are quite a few reasons to use a handguard with a rifle. The first and foremost use is the grip and cooling. A handguard allows the shooter to grip the rifle firmly and create a proper stance and position for shooting.
It also protects the palms of the shooter from the high temperatures of the barrel, which tends to heat up while shooting. The latest handguards have a vented and grilled design. They offer better heat resistance compared to the retro assemblies.
Another reason to use a handguard is to gain some space for mounting accessories. Handguards with Weaver, Picatinny or Stanag rails allow the user to mount accessories like flashlights, lasers, forward grips, bipods, mounted optics and sling mounts.
One really popular reason for upgrading handguards these days is the aesthetics of the rifle. The AR-15 is a very popular rifle, so there are a ton of customized and amazing designs available for its accessories. This is definitely true for handguards. They can help you make your rifle look ‘cooler’ along with their more practical effects.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Handguard
There are quite a few important factors to consider before you buy a handguard for your AR-15. Before choosing a handguard, you must decide what you’ll use your rifle for and if you really want to spend money on some new features. Below are some factors to consider which will help you make a decision.
An important factor to consider in a handguard is its weight. A new handguard will probably add to the weight of your rifle (especially if it is a free-floating handguard). Weight doesn’t really matter for benchrest shooters, but if you take your rifle out for hunting trips, weight can be an important concern.
Handguards are generally made of aluminum so it’s comparatively lightweight compared to steel, but it's still a metal. There are polymer- and composite-based handguards available on the market, but in general a handguard will somewhat add to the weight of your AR-15. If you don’t mind adding a little weight in return for some extra mounting space and functions, you should go for it.
One very important and less talked feature about handguards is the accuracy. There are two types of handguard available on the market. With Free-floating Handguards (FFH), the handguard doesn’t touch the barrel. On the other hand, with Drop-in Handguards, the handguard does touch the barrel.
Free-floating Handguards are known to improve the accuracy of the rifle because they don’t touch the barrel. That means they don’t interfere with barrel harmonics related to recoil, grip, a bipod or other factors.
Drop-in handguards can meddle with barrel harmonics and can often cause the barrel to bend.
Free-floating handguards are generally used for sniper rifles and competition purposes and are expensive and a bit heavy compared to drop-ins.
Drop-in handguards, as the name suggests, are easy to install. You just need to pull back the spring-loaded ‘delta ring’ and drop in the new covers. Installing drop-in handguards does not require any modifications to the AR-15.
On the other hand, free-floating handguards are a bit difficult to install. That’s because they don’t touch the barrel and hold their weight as well as the weight of mounted accessories themselves.
The free-floating barrels are installed directly on the upper receiver, which means you’ll have to disassemble your front assembly to some extent.
If you want the most accurate choice and don’t mind the price, go for a free-floating handguard. But a drop-in will work fine if you’re on a budget or pin-point accuracy isn’t that crucial to you.
One of the primary functions of a handguard is to provide heat resistance. There are a ton of different handguard models on the market and each of them offers a different level of heat resistance. Free-floating handguards tend to offer better heat resistance because of their design.
Handguards with vents help with the cooling. Polymer is usually a better choice than aluminum for better heat resistance and cooling. But if you are more into full-auto shooting or prolonged shooting sessions, metal handguards will be a better choice.
We’ll talk more in-depth about both drop-in and free-floating handguards in separate articles.
You’ve got to look at the gas system length of your AR-15 before changing your handguard. The most common ones are rifle, carbine and pistol gas systems. Be sure to choose a handguard length compatible with your AR-15.
Longer handguards tend to provide a longer grip area and are especially useful for people with long hands. Plus the extra mounting space and larger surface area for cooling is a benefit.
Free-floating handguards can be made longer than the length of a gas system that uses a low-profile gas block. Free-floating handguards also open up more options for accessorization.
Mounting Options (Pros and Cons of Rail Options)
Different types of handguards offer different mounting options. That may mean include Picatinny or Weaver rails and rings.
It’s important to realize that there are some pros and cons associated with different types of mounting options.
For example, accessories compatible with a Weaver rail will fit a Picatinny rail but the reverse is not possible. Plus Picatinny rails are heavier so they add to the weight of your rifle.
Also, rails let you mount multiple accessories at a time. Picatinny rails, to be specific, are extremely durable due to the massive size of their parts. Handguards can either be railed or bear no design or frills just like the retro AR-15 handguard models. You can read more about AR-15 rail options here.
Our Choice for the Best Drop-in Handguard: Magpul - Ar-15/M16 Moe M-lok Mid-length Handguards
Our Choice for the Best Free-floating Handguard: Aero Precision - AR-15/M16 Enhanced Handguards
Handguards help with the accuracy, aesthetics, heat resistance and mounting options of your rifle. There are a couple different types of handguards available on the market - free-floating(FFH) and drop-in both have their place.
The FFH are costlier and difficult to install as compared to drop-in models, but provide better accuracy for the AR-15. Consider factors such as type, weight, accuracy, length, mounting options, installation difficulty and heat resistance before choosing a handguard. You can choose a handguard with a mix of these different qualities to upgrade your AR-15 to better suit your needs.