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The Best AR-15 Handguards

Michael Crites

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What are the best AR-15 Handguards?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of handguard makes and models out there, and often the first thing a new AR owner wants to do once they unbox their new black rifle is put a rail on it. 

And this lust for rails makes sense — they’re the foundation of every accessory and tactical bit you’ll mount to the rifle, so they have to perform. Determining what’s best for you or your build, however, takes some research.

Quick List: The Best AR-15 Handguards

The “best” AR-15 handguard is the one that does what you want and fits your budget. Some upgrades are cheap; others are not. Some are nice and lightweight, others… aren’t. Some are dripping with rail systems, others… you get the point. What’s popular or highly rated may not be the right choice for your build, so do your research.

  1. Magpul MOE Handguards
  2. Bravo Company Quad Rail
  3. Midwest Industries Two-Piece Forend
  4. Brigand Arms Atlas Handguard
  5. Geissele MK4 Handguard
  6. Aero Precision Atlas R-One

Magpul

Magpul is highly regarded and one of the most popular accessory brands for a reason. Their MOE series of AR-15 handguards are solid upgrades for the budget-conscious. In all cases, their drop-in handguards are easy to install on any gun with a standard delta ring and front sight base gas block. 

You can choose the MOE M-LOK handguard or slimline MOE SL series for carbine length gas systems, whichever is your preference. 

In both cases, they’re made from molded polymer, with a riveted aluminum heat shield. M-LOK rail slots are included at the 2, 10, and 6 o’clock positions, giving you a bit of modularity for mounting accessories if desired. 

They’re lightweight, known to be very durable, and also surprisingly cheap, starting at around $30.

If you have the garden variety AR with the standard round M4 handguard, it’s a low-cost slam-dunk, as it gives you a lot more capability as well as making your poverty pony a good shade cooler.  

Magpul is also a brand that stands behind their product with an amazing warranty and a level of customer service most brands could learn from.

Bravo Company Manufacturing

Bravo Company Manufacturing is certainly one of the most popular AR accessory brands – and their guns get rave reviews as well. 

They have a full range of handguards to choose from – be it full length, mid-length or any length gas system. You have your choice of modular handguards, as they manufacture KeyMod, M-LOK, quad-rail, and single Picatinny rails.  

For the budget-conscious, check out the BCMGUNFIGHTER handguards, which are polymer handguards similar to the Magpul MOE series. BCM’s are offered with KeyMod slots rather than M-LOK, but this does give you some modularity for mourning a sling swivel, flashlight or additional accessory parts of KeyMod is your jam.

Free-float handguards include the KMR Alpha, MCMR and QRF series. The KMR and MCMR both start as the same roughly octagonal 6061 t6 aluminum tube, but are milled for different modular attachment systems. The KMR series is KeyMod and the MCMR is M-LOK. 

The QRF AR-15 handguard – a free-floating quad-rail option made from aircraft aluminum – is a beast of a handguard. If you want a tank of a gun and, as far as you’re concerned “ounces are pounds” be damned, this is the handguard for you. 

All are available for multiple gas system lengths, ranging from 7 inches for pistols to 17 inches for rifle length arms. Prices vary by series; Gunfighter handguards are cheapest at less than $30, but the QRF will set you back close to $200.

Midwest Industries

Midwest Industries is one of the more popular brands when it comes to high-quality furniture and mil-spec accessories for the AR platform; their AK gun accessories are also well worth a look. They also offer some of the best handguards around. 

Midwest Industries’ AR-15 handguards are primarily free-floating, and most low profile gas block and barrel length configurations are covered. You have the choice of an M-LOK handguard or quad Picatinny rail systems. KeyMod fans, unfortunately, are out of luck. 

You can choose from a standard, lightweight and ultra-lightweight M-LOK rail system – the C4M, CRLW, Combat Rails, Ultra Lightweight, SlimLine and SP (for use with suppressors) series – as well as the popular Combat Rails T-Series rails.

The Two Piece Free Float Handguard is semi-drop-in, attaching over the barrel nut but requiring the removal of the delta ring around it. An extended-length carbine model allows rail systems to extend past the gas system and front sight post of standard carbines. 

Most models include a barrel nut, screws, and wrench, which is a nice touch. 

MI isn’t Gucci, but isn’t bargain-basement either. Depending on the series you select, expect a price range anywhere from $130 to $200 through most retailers, such as for the popular Two Piece AR-15 Free Floating handguards.

Brigand Arms

Brigand Arms handguards are a little higher-tech, lighter weight and also a bit pricier than other manufacturers. They specialize in carbon fiber handguards, a type as strong as 6061 t6 aluminum but typically half the weight, making for a lighter, more mobile gun.

The other benefit besides weight savings is also heat dissipation, as carbon fiber does not conduct like a metal. The heaviest handguard they make is the Atlas series, the 15-inch model of which weighs in at a mere 7 oz. 

All are free-float. Most gas system lengths will be accommodated (they’re available in 7-, 9-, 12- and 15-inch configurations) but none are compatible with piston systems or with integrated front sight blocks. 

The Atlas, the Edge and Blade series are made with carbon fiber braids that resemble netting with metal rings at both ends. The Atlas includes a rail at the barrel end, the Edge is the same handguard sans the rail, the Blade series has the barrel end ring angled backward toward the upper receiver at about a 60-angle. 

The Carbon Black series, which includes Edge and Blade models (90 degree or back-angled) are their M-LOK handguards. These are carbon fiber tubes with M-LOK slots at the 12, 9, 6, and 3 o’clock positions for mounting accessories. 

However, one area in which they are not light is on the wallet. The cheapest price you can get into one for is $229 (for the 7-inch Carbon Black Edge) and most retailers will afford you little to nothing in the way of sale options.

Geissele Super Modular Rails

Another popular brand to look for is Geissele and their Super Modular Rails series. They are offered in M-LOK or other configurations, so there’s one for any rail preference. 

Their products are only free-float handguards, made from milled anodized aluminum. You can choose from arguably lightweight and not lightweight at all, and black or FDE – whichever color is your preference. 

Their rail systems are a touch narrow at the top, so they may not work with all gas blocks, and none will work with a front sight gas block unit. 

Typically, you’ll also need to purchase a Geissele gas block to go with it, and every model ships with a Geissele proprietary barrel nut. However, they do not ship with Geissele’s proprietary wrench, which you’ll also need to purchase. 

Prices are steep when they’re even in stock; they sell like hotcakes even with a steep price compared to other handguards on the market. The entry-level models, the Mk 14 M-LOK series, start at $250 and – just like with Brigand Arms – even Brownells isn’t discounting them.  In short, Geissele doesn’t mess around.

They make some of the absolute top AR-15 handguards anywhere, with customers that include a number of federal alphabet law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, and elite military units including USA Special Operations Command, and National Match shooters. 

In other words, this is what the professionals buy. Geissele Super Modular Rails are as good as it gets (just don’t plan looking for much in the way of deals.)

Aero Precision

If the Geisseles aren’t available, check out the Aero Precision Atlas R-One handguards. Aero Precision probably has more AR-15 lowers in circulation than most brands, and no list of top products would be complete without their popular, easy-to-install Atlas S One handguards. These handguards from Aero are slightly less expensive than the Geisseles, but are popular for a reason – they perform.

Why Upgrade Your Handguards?

ar-15 handguards - stoner handguard patent
Eugene Stoner's 1963 AR-10 handguard patent drawings

Stock AR-15 products can be pretty terrible. Granted, the garden variety black rifle typically has the old M4 handguard, delta ring barrel nut and collar. They work, but that’s about the extent of what you can say about them. 

Most people want more utility, or a more tactical feel, from their rail system. A new, high-quality handguard will often fit the bill.

What does an upgrade get you?

What most people are looking for is accessory mounting options. Should they want to add a light, a laser or something tactical, they’ll need a railed handguard with multiple mounting points. 

Other reasons might be weight reduction, heat mitigation, or adding a high-quality free-floating handguard for a bit more accuracy over a stock handguard. 

After all, a free-floating barrel has less (or no) interference with the barrel vibration frequency when the gun is fired. When the barrel is connected to the stock (or handguard, in case of an AR-15) it can push the barrel slightly off-target. That’s why the stock on bolt action rifles doesn’t touch the barrel.

You could also be looking to add a more tactical look to your rifle or some additional Picatinny rail space. 

In short, unless you have exactly the one you want, there’s little downside in checking out an upgraded handguard.

What to Look for in Quality AR-15 Handguards

1. Drop-In vs Free-Float Handguards

Generally, the AR-15 handguard comes in two categories, drop-in and free-floating. Both offer loads of attachment points, but they differ in significant ways.

The former only requires the use of a few parts – the delta ring barrel nut and collar to replace the stock handguards. The latter requires the handguard (typically) be threaded over the barrel nut, timed (aligned with the receiver) and the mounting bolts tightened to secure the product in place. 

A drop-in handguard is easier to install. They’re fairly light, fit over any gas blocks and require no tools. However, the barrel doesn’t free-float, which may cost you in the accuracy department. Some provide slots for mounting accessories, but not all.

two-piece AR-handguards
A classic finned two-piece carbine handguard assembly

2. M-LOK or KeyMod

Side-by-side Handguards
Every handguard rail system has its advantages and disadvantages, the most important thing is to be consistent. Mixing and matching can cause headaches.

There’s a great debate in the world of AR-15 handguards – M-LOK or KeyMod rails? The topic is deep enough that we did a comparison of the two.

Both KeyMod and M-LOK provide a huge number of options and are proven mounting systems in both duty and recreational sporting rifles. The main differences come down to the shape of the mounting slots and hardware used on the respective rail system.

The KeyMod Rail System

The KeyMod rail system uses unidirectional keyhole shapes for accessory attachments. This helps keep the weight and profile to a minimum by using negative space mounting points – accessories mount into the handguard rather on top of it. They were developed to replace Picatinny rail systems, which are additive – meaning they add weight and dimension to the gun.

KeyMod rails are modular and designed to work well with modern, lightweight, polymer handguards. The project was open-sourced in 2012, allowing anyone to create their own KeyMod-compatible products.

The M-LOK Mounting System

M-LOK, short for Modular Lock, is another easy-to-use, negative space accessory rail mounting system. M-LOK rails use a slot-based design which originated way back 2007 on their Masada Concept rifle.

The Masada used three horizontal mounting slots in the polymer handguard, which provided negative space accessory attachment points at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions.

In 2014, Magpul debuted the M-LOK rail system, which had larger, more durable, squared-sided slots. This rail system uses t-shaped mounting hardware and is bi-directional – giving you the option to mount at the front or rear of the accessory slot, for a slightly more flexible rail system than KeyMod, quad-rails, or single Picatinny rails.

3. Easy installation

Replacing a stock AR-15 handguard with one that’s designed for your planned build isn’t exactly rocket surgery, but popular free-floating handguards are more complicated than drop-in. You have to have some basics covered, like the right handguard length for your rifle, some tools and maybe a few spare parts. 

Drop-in handguards are typically only installed on the specific rifle or carbine designed to accept them. Otherwise, a new low profile gas block with a front locking ring has to be installed. They typically come in two parts (often polymer) with an aluminum heat shield inside.

To install a drop-in version, you depress the collar on the delta ring to relieve tension, and pull it back. After removing the old guard, you keep the delta ring pulled back, and put the front tab inside the locking ring behind the gas block. 

The rear tabs go into the delta ring, you hold the two pieces together and let the delta ring go.

The popular free-floating option, however, gets a bit more complicated.

After removing the old handguard, you may need to remove and install a new barrel nut and gas block, as well as the muzzle device unless it’s flush with the barrel. After that’s done, you gently slide the handguard over the gas block until it starts to seat over the barrel nut. 

Just be sure to check that you have a compatible barrel nut and gas block BEFORE installation! 

You’ll need to ensure the handguard is completely flush with the upper receiver at all points. There are typically two clamping bolts underneath the barrel nut, and often a set screw on the bottom of the handguard that sets on the barrel nut. Make sure they’re all good and firm and you’re off to the races.

Conclusion

There is no real “best” AR-15 handguard – there are popular products and brands and then there’s what works for you. You need to ask yourself what you want out of a rifle, as well as what you’re willing to pay or able to achieve when it comes to installation. 

In general, a drop-in rail is easier; it takes a few moments and barely requires any AR tools. Free-float handguards are easy to install if the handguard works with the barrel nut and gas block you already have…but gets complicated if you don’t, as you’ll have to replace them.

Sources:

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