Choosing the Right AR-15 Handguard

Choosing the Right AR-15 Handguard

Deciding Which is the Best Charging Handle For Your AR-15

I often get asked about the best way to upgrade an AR-15. One of the most popular and practical upgrades is the handguard. The handguard is an essential component of the rifle that protects the shooter’s hand from the heat generated by the barrel. But, Choosing the Right AR-15 Handguard isn’t always easy. It also provides a stable platform for accessories such as lights, lasers, grips, and bipods. In this blog post, we’ll share our knowledge and expertise to help you choose the right AR-15 handguard

Why Choose an AR-15 Handguard?

Sig Sauer M400 AR-15

Before we dive into the different types of handguards, let’s talk about why you should upgrade your stock handguard in the first place. Here are some reasons to consider:

Improved ergonomics: Aftermarket handguards often have a more comfortable and ergonomic grip than the stock handguard, which can help you shoot more accurately and comfortably.
Increased modularity: Upgrading your handguard allows you to attach additional accessories to your rifle, such as lights, lasers, grips, and bipods. This can improve your rifle’s performance in a variety of shooting scenarios.
Better heat management: An aftermarket handguard can offer better heat dissipation than the stock handguard, making it easier to shoot for extended periods without burning your hand.

Types of AR-15 Handguards

There are three primary types of AR-15 handguards: drop-in, free-floating, and fixed.

Drop-In Handguards


Drop-in handguards are the most common type, designed to be an easy and affordable upgrade. As the name suggests, these handguards are “dropped in” to replace the factory handguard. They require no gunsmithing, and you can typically install them using basic tools.

Drop-in handguards are usually made of polymer or aluminum. Polymer handguards are lightweight and affordable, but they don’t offer the same level of durability as aluminum handguards. Aluminum handguards are heavier but offer superior durability and heat dissipation.

Free-Floating Handguards


Free-floating handguards are a step up from drop-in handguards in terms of performance and modularity. Unlike drop-in handguards, free-floating handguards don’t touch the barrel. Instead, they attach directly to the upper receiver and float above the barrel. This design improves accuracy by reducing barrel deflection caused by external forces such as bipods, slings, or other accessories.

Free-floating handguards are often made of lightweight materials like aluminum or carbon fiber. They offer excellent heat dissipation and modularity, allowing you to attach accessories to a Picatinny rail or M-LOK slots.

Fixed Handguards

Fixed handguards are the least common type of handguards and are usually found on military-style rifles. They are typically made of polymer or aluminum and are attached to the barrel nut and front sight post. Fixed handguards are not as modular as free-floating or drop-in handguards but offer better durability and heat dissipation.

Handguard Styles

The AR-15, one of the most modular firearms platforms in the world, offers an array of handguard configurations, enabling customization for many purposes. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most popular AR-15 handguard styles:

Custom handguards
  • M-LOK Handguards: Developed by Magpul, M-LOK is a modular locking accessory mounting system. It uses negative space slots to allow for the direct attachment of accessories without the full Picatinny rails, reducing weight and offering a sleeker profile.
  • KeyMod Handguards: KeyMod is an alternative modular interface to M-LOK. It uses keyhole-shaped slots for attaching accessories. While it was once highly popular, the M-LOK system has since overtaken it in widespread use.
  • Tubular Handguards: This style is often simple, sleek, and cylindrical. They’re mostly free-floating, and some models allow for adding Picatinny rail sections or direct modular attachment.
  • Ventilated Handguards: These handguards feature various holes, slots, or other designs that help dissipate heat more efficiently after sustained firing.
  • Picatinny Rail Handguards: Continuous rail systems that run the entire length of the handguard, allowing users to mount a variety of accessories. They can be bulkier and heavier than M-LOK or KeyMod designs.
  • Hybrid Handguards: Some handguards combine features, such as a continuous Picatinny rail on top and M-LOK or KeyMod attachment points on the sides and bottom.
  • Custom or Specialized Handguards: Many companies offer unique designs tailored for specific applications or aesthetic preferences. These might feature unique materials, lightening cuts, or color patterns.

Factors to Consider

Now that you know the different types of handguards, let’s discuss the factors to consider when choosing the right handguard for your AR-15.

AR-15 Quad rail handguard


Handguards come in various lengths, depending on your shooting style and the shooting you plan. Here are some common handguard lengths and their recommended uses:

  • 7 inches: The shortest handguard option, suitable for CQB and lightweight rifles.
  • 9 inches: A mid-length handguard suitable for all-around use.
  • 12 inches: A longer handguard that provides more rail space for mounting accessories and is suitable for long-range shooting.
  • 15 inches: The longest handguard option available that provides the most rail space for mounting various accessories. Suitable for long-range shooting, but can also be used for CQB situations if preferred.

Additional Handguard Factors

When choosing a handguard, it’s important to consider the length, material, weight, and mounting options. Here are some additional factors to consider:


Handguards can be made of various materials, including aluminum, polymer, and carbon fiber. Aluminum is the most common material, as it is lightweight and durable. Polymer handguards are also lightweight and can be more affordable, but they may not be as durable as aluminum. Carbon fiber handguards are lightweight and extremely strong but can be more expensive.


Handguards can vary in weight, affecting the rifle’s overall balance and feel. A lightweight handguard may be preferred for faster target acquisition and maneuverability, while a heavier handguard may provide more stability and accuracy.

Mounting options

When choosing the right AR-15 handguard, you should have enough mounting options to accommodate any accessories you plan to use. Some handguards have Picatinny rails on the top and bottom, while others have M-LOK or KeyMod attachment points. Some handguards also have integrated QD sling mounts.

Heat management

The barrel and gas system can heat up quickly when firing a rifle. A handguard with heat shielding or ventilation can help to dissipate heat and prevent the shooter from burning their hands.

In addition to the above factors, choosing a handguard that fits your preferences and shooting style is important. Some shooters may prefer a handguard with a slimmer profile, while others may prefer a handguard with a more ergonomic grip. Ultimately, your right handguard will depend on your needs and preferences.

Choosing the Right AR-15 Handguard Conclusion

The handguard is a critical component of an AR-15, as it provides a platform for mounting accessories and protects the shooter’s hands from the hot barrel and gas system. When choosing a handguard, it’s important to consider factors such as length, material, weight, mounting options, and heat management. By selecting the right handguard for your needs, you can improve the functionality, accuracy, and overall performance of your AR-15.

How to Choose the Right AR-15 Handguard FAQs

What is an AR-15 handguard?

An AR-15 handguard is an accessory that attaches to the front of an AR-15 rifle’s receiver, allowing the shooter to hold the rifle while protecting the shooter’s hands from the heat generated by the barrel during firing.

What materials are AR-15 handguards typically made of?

AR-15 handguards are made from a variety of materials, including aluminum, polymer, carbon fiber, and other composite materials. Some models feature a combination of materials.

What are the benefits of using a free-floating handguard?

Free-floating handguards attach to the rifle’s barrel nut, which means they do not touch the barrel itself. This results in increased accuracy and improved overall performance of the rifle.

How do I install an AR-15 handguard?

The installation process for an AR-15 handguard can vary depending on the model and type of handguard. In general, installation involves removing and replacing the old handguard with the new one. It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully to ensure proper installation.

What length of handguard should I choose for my AR-15?

The length of handguard you choose will depend on personal preference and the rifle’s intended use. Generally, longer handguards provide more space for accessories and a longer sight radius, while shorter handguards are lighter and more maneuverable.

Are AR-15 handguards interchangeable?

AR-15 handguards are not interchangeable across all models. Choosing a handguard compatible with your specific AR-15 model and configuration is important.

How do I maintain my AR-15 handguard?

Maintenance requirements for an AR-15 handguard will depend on the material it’s made from. In general, it’s important to keep the handguard clean and debris-free. Aluminum handguards may require occasional lubrication, while polymer handguards can be cleaned with soap and water.


  • Michael Hodgdon

    A firearm, shooting, outdoor, and hunting enthusiast for over 35 years. Thank you all for the suggestions on topics you would like to see; we'll keep posting as you keep sending them in. Please comment; we will try to answer all comments quickly.

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