Different Types of AR 15 Handguard Styles You Should Know About

The AR 15 is one of the most popular rifles in the United States, with more than 60,000,000 in the hands of the populace. The weapon is versatile enough to fit the needs and desires of nearly anyone who wants to own a firearm. With so much popularity, many owners find themselves looking into AR 15 handguard styles.

If you’re one of the many rifle enthusiasts that’s searching for the best AR 15 handguard, we’re here to help. We’ve collected all the information you need to make your choice. Read on for some great information on the many AR 15 handguard styles. 

Handguard or Rail?

If you are just now starting your enthusiast journey, there are some vocabulary terms that may confuse you. One of those pairings is the difference between a handguard and a rail. The difference here is that there is no difference.

A handguard is anything that, fittingly, guards your hand against the barrel. A lack of a handguard can lead to burning your hand or other injuries as you shoot the barrel. It also helps to protect, stylize, and accessorize your AR 15.

Rails are often used for attachments and customization. While you can get a handguard rail that doesn’t allow for accessories, the most popular handguards are heavily customizable. The trade-off comes with added weight and cost when picking this AR 15 handguard

Different Handguard Types

Now that we know what we’re discussing, it’s important to decide if you want a simple handguard or a rail. Rails will give you the customization options but have some drawbacks that purists may not want to worry about. If you’re looking into a simple handguard, you’ll have a functional cosmetic item that won’t offer much outside of function and aesthetics.

Looking into the different styles of handguards first means looking into the different types that are active. Here are the two main types of handguard rails to utilize with an AR 15.

Free-float Handguards

Free-float handguards are the most popular handguard rails by far. Quad rails in particular see use in most rifles for their heavy customizability and versatility. As the name suggests, this rail is popular for the four “Picatinny” rails across the rifle, allowing for attachments.

Free float quad rails are available in many different lengths and colors. Configurations are also endless to help bring your customizability to the next level. They are also extremely durable, capable of being withstanding use for years on end, especially when paired with a low-profile gas block.

The drawback here is that they are also relatively heavy in comparison to other rails. They use more material in construction, are designed to last, and need to provide structural integrity to the rifle when paired with so many attachments. This can make them undesirable for long-term uses like endurance shooting or hunting where a heavy rifle exhausts the user.

Drop-in Handguards

An AR 15 drop in handguard is also an extremely popular choice with some great perks. One thing to note is that drop-in handguards are extremely popular with beginner enthusiasts. This is mostly because of their ease of use in comparison to other handguards.

For example, the drop-in handguard gets its name from the incredibly easy installation. To install a drop-in handguard, the user simply needs to pull back their rifle’s delta ring and drop in a replacement. This makes them simple to install and customize for enthusiasts that are not yet familiar with their weapon.

The simplicity also leads to them being significantly cheaper than many free-float models. There aren’t too many moving parts to worry about, making their construction simple enough to keep cost down. Most are a simple two-piece polymer handguard with a heat shield to keep the heat off your hand.

Additionally, this also makes them lightweight. This isn’t true for all of them, and four-rail models like the free-float example given above do still exist. Still, the average drop-in will be considerably lighter than the average free-float.

The trade-off for drop-in handguards is that they aren’t always the most stable. Many offer no mounting options, and what few do should not be used for installing optics. This is because these handguards tend to wiggle, making it difficult to use any optics that were installed.

Heat resistance also depends on the construction of the handguard. Many are made using aluminum to help in keeping cost and weight down, but these rails increase in heat after prolonged shooting. Polymer handguards usually are able to avoid this issue.

Decide Handguard Length

Another crucial thing to decide is the length of the handguard you will be using. There are a number of different lengths that you can go for, though you should try to match lengths between barrels and handguards. Consider looking through sites for AR-15 parts to browse a multitude of lengths for your rifle.

Here are the three standard lengths for a rifle handguard.

Carbine Length

A carbine-length handguard is the standard handguard. These handguards are usually combined with a carbine gas tube, which is approximately 7.5 inches long. Most AR 15s will come with this installed, making a carbine-length handguard the stock that many are accustomed to.

The handguard is slightly shorter than the gas system but provides adequate coverage and safety. These carbine handguards are 6.5 to 7 inches long, with the extra half-inch being based in preference for the user. Custom barrels can call for custom carbine-length handguards to be extended to the taste of the user.

Middle Length

A middle-length handguard – more often called a mid-handguard – is the longest handguard system. These match with mid-length gas systems, which are generally about 9 and a half inches long. The longer handguard can help to improve reliability and reduce the system wear on your rifle.

This gas system was made to reduce dwell time on your bullet – the amount of time it remains in the barrel after passing the gas port. These handguards help to reduce this pressure on your hand and provide a longer, more rugged lifespan. An additional benefit is that this increased handguard length gives the user more of an area to grasp, increasing accuracy and comfort.

That additional room also gives more space for attachments. A mid-length AR 15 handguard rail is extremely useful if you intend to put a decent number of attachments over your AR-15 handguard. That said, it also will make it heavier, so consider the consequences before you slap as many attachments onto your rail as you can.

Pistol Length

Pistol gas systems are the shortest standard and usually are placed on an AR 15 as a custom job. These systems are about 4 and a half inches long and are generally the least common, though it still remains in use. 

Due to being as small as they are, these will give little room for attachments and grip. They are limited in what they can provide and what benefits they give, but are also lightweight and simple. Another benefit is that they are usually much cheaper than the other options, though this is because of their drawbacks.

More Than Style

With so many lengths and styles, it can feel somewhat limitless. While your AR 15 handguard provides a great deal of customizability, that doesn’t mean everything goes.

In fact, there are some drastic consequences if you use a handguard that doesn’t fit your gun. This is especially true for the length. One of the primary uses of a handguard is to protect the gas system from damage.

This means that it is crucial you use a handguard of the proper length. Placing a pistol handguard on a carbine-length rifle, for example, leaves much of the gas system available for damage. This can end up causing damage or even destruction of your rifle.

It also makes it less safe for you and any other users. Leaving the gas system exposed gives you the risk of clamping your hand over it during shooting. This can lead to burns and other injuries depending on how long you have been firing.

The best AR 15 handguard is the one that provides the most safety, comfort, and customizability. Make sure that you aren’t ruining your shooting experience by going for the cheapest option and leaving your gun and yourself exposed to damage.

AR 15 Handguard Styles

There are many AR 15 handguard styles to keep in mind while you’re shopping for your rifle. The best thing you can do is try out a decent number of them and see which fits your preferences the best. The best AR 15 handguard is hard to find, but trial and practice will narrow down your choices.

If you have further questions or concerns over your AR 15 handguard rail, feel free to contact us with your questions. Our informative site contains plenty of information for you to learn as well.

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