At a Glance: Our Top Picks for Best AR 15 Handguards
Comparison Chart of the Best AR-15 Handguards
Our Top Pick
|Areo Precision AR15 ATLAS S-ONE M-LOK Handguard||View Latest Price|
Best Budget Option
|Magpul MOE® M-LOK® Hand Guard||View Latest Price|
|Brigand Arms EDGE Handguard||View Latest Price|
Besides the trigger group, the handguard is often a shooter’s first target for upgrading their AR 15. Choosing a new handguard is one of the most obvious ways to improve your rifle’s functionality and aesthetics.
As with everything surrounding firearms, there is no one best option. Your choice of handguard will depend on your use case, personal taste, and budget.
That said, there are some features that are obvious choices over the competitors. M-LOK, for example, is winning the battle over KeyMod as the standard mounting system. It is even encroaching on the Picatinny rail’s turf, There are now many M-LOK compatible sighting options including open sights, lasers, red dots, and scope rings.
Our Guide to the Best Free Float and Drop-In AR-15 Handguards
Each of the models below come in a range of lengths to match your rifle’s barrel and gas system.
We have included both free float and drop-in handguards on the list. Although free float are arguably inherently superior, there are times and places where a great, affordable, easy-to-install drop-in model is just what the doctor ordered.
Our list covers a variety of well-respected brands and models at a wide range of price points. If you have a chance, get your hands on a few different designs before making a decision.
Areo Precision AR-15 ATLAS S-ONE M-LOK Handguard
Aero Precision operates out of Tacoma, Washington. The company got its start in manufacturing military aeronautical components but got into small arms out of the passion of the employees for shooting. Their ATLAS line of free float aluminum handguards are some of the best available on the market.
These are extremely lightweight and well-designed handguards. Unlike the R-One model, these S-One handguards do not have a full-length Picatinny rail. Why would you need one? This design, with short lengths of Picatinny rail only at the back and front top, allows the handguard to be lighter and handier. The mid-length version is only 5.47 ounces (plus 4.72 ounces for the mounting hardware).
The octagonal design also offers rows of M-LOK slots on the sides and bottom. The other four sides feature generous air vents to keep the heat down. The handguard is machined from 6061-T6 aluminum, a standard alloy in black rifle components. The coating is either a standard anodized black or an FDE Cerakote.
ATLAS stands for Aero Taper Lock Attachment System, a new and innovative system designed to make it easier to install your handguard. It also ensures even pressure across the custom-engineered barrel nut and provides great aesthetics.
Across the top of the handguard, there are indexing grooves to give you positive grip control. There are also quick-detach sling mounting points at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions. This handguard is compatible with any mil-spec upper receiver and barrel. It requires a low-profile gas block.
- M-LOK attachment slots
- QD sling attachments
- Strategically located Picatinny rail
- Great fit and finish
- Not cheap
- Not compatible with M4E1 receivers
Magpul MOE® M-LOK® Hand Guard
Magpul is an Austin, Texas company that is the absolute leader in black rifle accessories. Everyone from sportsmen to law enforcement officers and special forces swear by their products, and the MOE handguard is no exception. These drop-in polymer handguards are lightweight yet robust. The mid-length model is a mere 8.7 ounces. They come in a variety of lengths for every gas system.
These handguards are not excessively covered in mounting points, but they do have them right where you need them. There are rows of M-LOK mounting points along the 2, 6, and 10 o’clock positions. If needed, you can attach a Picatinny rail to the M-LOK system. The military recently decided to go with M-LOK over rival mounting systems. The design can’t be beaten. The polymer is reinforced and heat-resistant. Plus, there is an integrated aluminum heat shield inside. This handguard is far lighter and more affordable than a free float aluminum alternative.
It works great with a front sight block. At the front end, a lower lip and extended sides provide an ergonomic, slip-free grip safe from barrel heat. If you need a tactical-quality handguard at a reasonable price, you will not beat the Magpul MOE. This is a handguard that you can use and abuse in rugged, real-life situations without a second thought. Plus, you have four tactical color options to choose from.
The Magpul MOE handguard goes great with a full set of high-quality Magpul components from sights to your rifle stock. All Magpul components are made in the USA.
- Very comfortable
- M-LOK mounting system
- 4 color options
- Drop-in design may slightly affect the accuracy
Geissele Super Modular MK16
Operating out of North Wales, Pennsylvania, Geissele is the leader in after-market AR-15 triggers. All of their products are made in-state. The company offers an ever-expanding range of AR 15 components, including their Super Modular Rails. These handguards have taken off in popularity. The key thing that makes this Geissele handrail stand out is the fit and finish. The quality of manufacturing is exceptional. The price reflects the quality, but the MK16 is not cheap, but not unaffordable. It comes in black or desert dirt color (DDC).
In the past, the Geissele MK4 handguards were real crowd-pleasers. These days, with the rise of M-LOK, shooters don’t need extra lengths of old-school Picatinny rail that the MK4 offers. The MK16 has a full-length of Picatinny rail up top for that classic look and great optics mounting options. The other seven sides of the octagonal design are covered in M-LOK slots for modern accessory mounting.
Like Aero Precision above, Geissele has designed its own proprietary Barrel nut to make the installation of its handguards easier. The design also offers superior rigidity and reliability. You will not find a more rock-solid handguard. It will neither rotate nor betray any looseness whatsoever. The MK14 is made of standard 6061-T6 aluminum, like most black rifle components, but the quality of the machining here is unsurpassed. It is type-3 hard-coat anodized.
- Unbeaten fit and finish
- Very light
- Solid proprietary barrel nut design
- M-LOK slots on 7 sides, full-length Picatinny rail up top
- Not cheap
- May get warm under sustained fire
Midwest Industries G3 Lightweight ML-Series One Piece Free Float Handguard
Operating out of Wisconsin, Midwest Industries has long been a household name in the world of black rifles. Their G3 series of handguards is a go-to for competition or tactical shooting for many professionals.
This lightweight model skips a full-length top Picatinny rail for an extra row of M-LOK mounting slots. There are short lengths of Picatinny rail at the front and back of the top side. All 8 surfaces of this handguard are covered with rows of M-LOK slots. That gives you the most possible mounting points for components compatible with the most modern mounting system. This layout also helps to make this super-slim handguard very lightweight and easy to maneuver. You even get 5 anti-rotation quick-detach sling swivel sockets.
The Picatinny rails are made of MIL-STD 1913 steel and the body of the handguard is standard 6160-T6 aluminum alloy. This handguard is built to last a lifetime. All edges have been dehorned for smooth, comfortable operation. It features standard hard-coat anodization.
Midwest Industries follows the industry trend in designing its own proprietary barrel nut. It comes with a barrel nut wrench. It even has a patented torque plate system. Sleep easy knowing that Midwest Industries products are all 100% made in the USA and covered by their industry-leading lifetime warranty.
- 5 QD sling swivel sockets
- M-LOK on 8 sides
- Made in the USA
- Lifetime warranty
- May not work with all billet upper receivers
Midwest Industries AR-15/M16 M-Series Two Piece Drop-In Handguard
Are you looking for a high-end, aluminum drop-in handguard from a very reputable manufacturer? This is it. Midwestern Industries has a legendary status among professional black rifle users. This model, in particular, has a very strong reputation. It isn’t the cheapest drop-in handguard out there, but it may well be the best quality. That’s backed up by a lifetime warranty. All Midwest Industries products are made in the USA.
You get a full length of Picatinny rail across the top and three rows of M-LOK slots at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock. The surfaces in between have huge circular cuts taken out of them for optimum weight and heat reduction. The mid-length version of this handguard weighs only 6.6 ounces.
The beauty of drop-in handguards is that you don’t need any special skills or tools to install them, this one only takes a couple of minutes to get on your rifle. It is made of standard 6061-T6 aluminum and the Picatinny rail is made of MIL-STD 1913 steel. As with the Midwest Industries G3, you get 5 quick-detach sling swivel sockets.
If you’re worried about drop-in handguards feeling a bit loose and sloppy, don’t, this is a top-quality model that locks up securely. If you want a no-nonsense, high-quality handguard with outstanding features, you can’t go wrong with the MI Two Piece Drop-In.
- Full-length top Picatinny rail
- Very light
- M-LOK slots on three surfaces
- 5 QD sling swivel sockets
- Installation takes a couple minutes
- Only compatible with triangle handguard caps
Bravo Company was started in a veteran’s garage in Wisconsin in 2003. Since then it has come to dominate the market for high-quality AR-15 rifles and components. If you want only the best, Bravo Company Manufacturing should definitely be on your list. The MCMR is a very popular option for all AR-15 shooters no matter their use case, civilian or professional. For a pretty decent price you get one of the best-quality free float handguards on the market today.
Like many of the options on our list, BCM offers a proprietary steel barrel nut and lock up mechanism. This gives you a bomb-proof lockup and hassle-proof installation. Tolerances are very tight, so you may fight a bit to get it on, but that’s why you get an ultra-reliable lockup. It comes with the full range of hardware and tools you need for installation. The MCMR gives you the option of using a low-profile gas block or a front sight base.
You get a full-length Picatinny rail along the top and M-LOK attachment slots along the other 7 sides. The handguard has weight saving and heat dissipating vents cut out below the Picatinny rail.
With the hardware, the mid-length version weighs 8.8 ounces. It is made of industry-standard 6061-T6 aluminum that has been hardcoat anodized according to military specifications. In terms of high-end free float handguards, the MCMR is a bit more affordable than some alternatives in a similar quality bracket.
- 7 rows of M-LOK slots
- Comes with everything you need, tools and hardware
- Full-length Picatinny rail
- Proprietary free float barrel nut
- Will not fit over Mil-Spec barrels
Brigand Arms EDGE Handguard
If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like a lot of gimmicky bling hanging off the end of your rifle and you’d rather have something sleep and light, the Brigand Arms Edge handguard has your name on it.
This is a revolutionary design for an AR-15 handguard that keeps the weight down to an incredible 4.08 ounces on the mid-length version. Brigand Arms achieves this with a patented braided carbon fiber design. We know, most shooters raise an eyebrow when they first see the EDGE. At first glance, it doesn’t say ‘robust.’ It looks like an autistic boy scout constructed it in his spare time, but believe you me, it is about as rugged and reliable as they come.
The EDGE has aluminum end caps, and, like so many free float handguards, a proprietary barrel nut design. It includes a steel jam nut that makes adjusting for alignment easy while offering rock-solid mounting. If need be, Brigand Arms offers a proprietary system for mounting lengths of Picatinny rail on the Edge handguard.
If you need the lightest option out there, or if just want a rifle that looks like it’s wearing gothic lingerie, the EDGE is for you.
- As light as it gets
- Unique aesthetics
- Unsurpassed heat dissipation
- Not cheap
- No flat surface, hard to brace against an object
Faxon Streamline Carbon
Faxon is an Ohio company that is famous for its lightweight, high-end barrels. It has collaborated with Lancer Arms to design this, the Streamline Carbon handguard. It offers as rugged a design as you will find at an incredibly low weight. Including mounting hardware, the 10.2-inch model weighs a mere 6.24 ounces.
Faxon advertizes this handguard by noting that carbon fiber is ten times stronger than aluminum at less than half the weight. Sticking with the forward-thinking design, Faxon has skipped a top Picatinny rail and gone with M-LOK slots along all 8 surfaces of this handguard. This makes it perfect for mounting co-witnessing sighting systems.
Faxon has opted to go with the standard barrel nut and mounting system. This helps to keep weight down and offers peace of mind given how well-proven the design is. The barrel nut and hardware are all included. Installation only requires standard tools. Heat is not an issue with carbon fiber. Coupled with the lightness, that will help make for an extremely handy, maneuverable rifle. With its rounded edges, it is one of the most comfortable handguards you will ever use.
This isn’t the cheapest option out there, but you definitely get what you pay for. Many shooters will be shy of new, non-metal materials, but this carbon fiber handguard will last a lifetime or two.
- Incredibly light
- Uses a standard barrel nut
- Low heat transfer
- Very comfortable
- M-LOK slots on 8 sides
- Not cheap
- No Picatinny rail
Guide to Buying the Best AR-15 Handguard
An AR-15 handguard is similar to the forestock on a lever-action or a shotgun in that you hold it with your forward hand to steady the bore. It is called a handguard because it protects your hand from the heat that builds up in the barrel during sustained fire.
What Makes a Great Handguard?
Handguards come in several lengths and profiles to pair with your barrel and gas system. A good handguard should:
- Offer a solid grip
- Remain cool to touch despite sustained fire
- Protect your gas system
- Offer ample mounting points.
Unlike the average forestock on a traditional long gun, an AR-15 handguard wraps all the way around the barrel.
The original AR handguards were drop-in models made of synthetic material. They had an ergonomic design, with extra width at the bottom. A cylindrical, polymer design with ribs for grip became standard in the late 20th century.
Since the rise of the M4 carbine, free float handguards have started to dominate the market. They promise slightly better accuracy and more flexibility with sighting options. Yet they are harder to install and usually require low-profile gas blocks rather than the AR-15s iconic front sight base.
Types of AR-15 Handguards
There are two main types of AR-15 handguard, free float and drop-in. Within these two categories, there is a range of design and mounting options.
Quad-rail handguards, with Picatinny rails on four sides, used to be popular before the rise of modern mounting systems. Picatinny rails are still common along the top, either full-length or at strategic locations. Some handguards are entirely cylindrical, without any mounting points at all.
Free Float Versus Drop-In Handguards
The question of whether to go with a free float or drop-in handguard depends on your personal priorities. For example, a drop-in handguard will generally be lighter than all but the most expensive, technologically advanced free float handguards. Drop-in handguards are usually cheaper than even the bottom-of-the-range free float models.
The drop-in handguard is the original design for the AR-15. They generally fit over your barrel, often in two pieces, between a delta ring and a front sight base.
Drop-in handguards are easy to install (hence the name), light, and generally more affordable than free float handguards.
On the downside, they often have a less exacting fit and finish and allow less heat to escape. Also, they may slightly hinder your accuracy because of contact with the barrel.
Free float handguards attach to the rifle with a barrel nut and make no contact with the barrel, giving you better accuracy. Usually, you are required to trade in your front sight base for a low-profile gas block that will fit underneath.
The best float handguards are well ventilated, especially with modern mounting slots. Better heat dissipation without compromising on grip. Aluminum is the most common material, helping free float handguards integrate seamlessly with the upper receiver
Free-Floats can cost ten times as much as drop-in handguards. These handguards tend to be much longer, providing more gripping area and a good resting surface. Also, allows for more mounting space.
Attachment Systems Used on AR 15 Handguards
There are four common attachment systems for AR 15 handguards:
- Picatinny rail
- Quad Rail
Picatinny rails are very common, though not as much as they used to be as new, more ergonomic, streamlined options take over. Still, many outstanding sighting options are available for use with Picatinny rails so they are not going to disappear anytime soon. Today, you usually find them running the length of the top of the handguard. Sometimes, to save weight, only short strips are offered at the very front and very back.
Quad rail systems, with Picatinny rails along all four sides, are less common than they used to be. The modern quad rail that we are used to seeing started its life in 1995 when the design was sent to the Picatinny Arsenal for a lengthy test and evaluation period and would later come to be known as Mil-STD 1913. Some of our readers may not remember a time in history before red dot optics and AR-15’s downloaded with accessories and laser designators on them, but I assure you there was a time.
The Late 1990’s was an amazing time for gun owners, it was the first time that red dot style optics could be purchased on a working man’s wage and people began to use their AR-15’s like the Barbie doll of the gun world, all via the Picatinny style quad rail.
One thing is clearly evident, the Picatinny style quad rail is obsolete, people are abandoning the quad rail in favor of the Key Mod and the M-Lok systems.
You still find options that have short lengths of rail on all four sides at the front end. This gives you the option, for example, of mounting a sight, a light, a laser, and a bipod at the same time.
M-LOK Versus KeyMod
There has been a battle in the tactical firearms world among two systems of low-profile mounting slots, M-LOK and KeyMod.
This system has a modular offset design with keyhole-shaped mounting slots for flexible accessory placement. It’s lightweight, supports all kinds of attachment, and is super easy to install accessories.
M-LOK is similar to the KeyMod design, but it has elongated slots instead of keyholes and T-shaped lugs instead of circular ones. This gives two advantages to the KeyMod system.
- The M-LOK design lets you mount accessories anywhere along the length of the slot, whereas you can only mount on the rear, narrow end of a KeyMod rail.
- M-LOK has been proven to perform better than KeyMod. A study by U.S. SOCOM concluded that M-LOK ranks higher in repeatability, endurance, rough handling, drop testing, and failure load, compared to KeyMod.
Despite these two advantages, KeyMod is still much easier to install attachments than M-LOK and remains a high-quality system. In fact, because of the ease of use, KeyMod makes a great option for novice AR-15 shooters.
The Key Mod and the M-Lok are similar but different in some ways but still share some common traits with their predecessor the quad rail.
- They are both available in free float and nonfree float configurations and that is about where the similarity ends between quad rails and the new generation of rails.
- Both of the replacement systems offer the user a great deal of choice whether or not to install rail sections on selected areas of the tube. This lets users like myself have the flexibility of being able to install a tripod on their rifle and still have large areas of smooth material to slide their hands on.
Having been chosen by the US military, M-LOK can now be considered the winner over the more cartoony-looking KeyMod. According to military tests, when dropped, M-LOK accessories stay attached 100% of the time, while KeyMod accessories stay attached only 33% of the time. Both require an Allen wrench to mount accessories. As choosing one or the other is a bit of a commitment, the best advice is to go with the winning team here, M-LOK. However, it is worth noting that KeyMod components align perfectly automatically, unlike M-LOK ones. M-LOK already has three times the industry support and available components of KeyMod, and that lead is only likely to increase.
One of the nice things about these modern mounting slot systems is that they also act as excellent heat vents while, unlike a rail, reducing the weight of your handguard. Most handguards have an octagonal profile. You can find models with rows of mounting slots on all 8 sides, just on 3, or something in between. Another great benefit of mounting slots is that you can attach short lengths of Picatinny rail exactly where you need it, keeping weight down.
So readers, where are you at in the great debate? Quad rail ?, Team Key Mod ?, Team M-Lok ? or is there another dark horse in the race that we don’t know about? Drop us a line and let us know where you stand in the debate, maybe you are still using old M16A2 style handguards and iron sights.
AR-15 Gas Systems, Handguard Length, and Material Options
There are 4 common lengths for AR 15 gas systems and handguards:
- Pistol: 4 inches
- Carbine: 7 inches
- Mid-length: 9 inches
- Rifle: 12 inches
Carbine length is the US military standard used on the M4 rifle. However, the carbine-length gas system is designed to work best with barrels shorter than 16 inches, which is the minimum length for civilian use in most jurisdictions.
Mid-length is the no-brainer option for civilian use. By putting the gas port closer to the muzzle, a mid-length system has less dwell time, the time the bullet spends between the gas port and the muzzle.
That reduces the rearward pressure inflicted on your rifle components, reducing wear and tear. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to drop a grand or so on a product, I want it to last.
You will want to get a handguard that matches your gas system length. If you’re using a front sight block you won’t have any choice. If you use a low-profile gas block, it is possible to use a handguard that is longer than your gas system.
You may choose to do this for aesthetics or to get more gripping area. Getting the right grip will improve your rifle’s accuracy and maneuverability. Whatever you do, don’t use a handguard that exposes your gas system.
The most common AR-15 handguard materials are:
- Carbon fiber
If you want that old-school, mil-spec look, you could opt to go with a classic, cylindrical GI handguard. These iconic components are made of polymer and have an aluminum heat shield inside. Other polymer options exist, like the wildly popular Magpul MOE drop-in handguard. Polymer is generally the most affordable option. If designed right, like the GI model, a polymer handguard will serve you well in any scenario.
If sustained fire is a regular part of your weekend (or workday), you might prefer something that offers better heat dissipation. Most free float handguards are made of standard 6061-T6 aluminum. This is the same material used to make most AR-15 receivers. It offers a great combination of low weight and toughness. Today, most aluminum free float barrels are designed with as much venting for heat dissipation as possible. Modern mounting systems like M-LOK contribute to this.
A new option is carbon fiber. The strength to weight ratio of carbon fiber handguards is exceptional. These offer very forward-thinking aesthetics and usually a very ergonomic grip. However, they are definitely not the cheapest options out there.
Handguards often incorporate other materials for some of their components. You will find many steel barrel nuts and Picatinny rails. Steel is only used when that extra strength is mission-critical. You don’t want the excess weight it comes with on the front end of your weapon.
AR-15 Handguard Finishes
There are two main options in finishes for an aluminum handguard:
At least 80% of the aluminum AR 15 handguards out there are anodized. This is an electro-chemical process than offers great protection. If you want to get pedantic, there are a variety of anodization methods out there, with the mil-spec Type-III hardcoat the most common. Anodized finishes are generally more durable than Cerakote. Plus, they are cheaper. Anodization is not a layer applied to the surface, rather it is a reaction with the aluminum itself.
Cerakote is a layer applied to the surface of your handguard. It is very durable and can over a unique, customizable aesthetic look. Compared to anodization, it is easier and safer to apply yourself if you end up going for a naked handguard to finish yourself.
If in doubt, go with an anodized handguard. There is a reason that it is the military standard. Plus, it has a more classic, tactical look.
Handguard Installation Guide
Free-Float AR-15 handguard
Most free float handguards come with their own proprietary barrel nut, so the specifics of attaching them will vary. Generally, you torque the barrel nut down and make sure that the bolt holes are aligned. That can require a special wrench depending on the model. If everything looks good, slip on the handguard and bolt it on.
Tighten the bolts as you would a car wheel, by gradually tightening the bolts directly across from one another. Don’t tighten them completely one at a time and don’t tighten each adjacent bolt one after the other.
Make sure that it isn’t touching your gas block. If it is, either get a handguard with a wider inner diameter or get a lower-profile gas block.
Blue Loctite is always a good idea when installing free float handguards. Recoil can work the bolts loose over time.
Your handguard should not rotate or jiggle in the slightest. Check the alignment, take it out shooting a time or two, and make sure it stays solid.
Drop-in AR-15 handguard
Installing a drop-in handguard usually requires no tools. First, you’ll have to remove the standard drop-in handguard. Pull back on the spring-loaded delta ring. This will free up the upper and lower halves of the handguard, simply pull them out.
Start with the lower half of your replacement drop-in handguard. Hold the delta ring back and slip the lower half into place. They often have one end tapered to fit into the delta ring.
Follow the same procedure for the top half of the handguard. make sure that both halves line up as they should. Often, a replacement drop-in handguard will come with some bolts to secure both halves together. If so, you will probably need an Allen key. Blue Loctite probably won’t hurt.
Make sure everything is aligned and secure and go shooting.
What to consider when choosing an AR15 handguard
As you can see above, there is a lot to take in when it comes to AR 15 handguards. Here is a list of priorities to consider when choosing the best handguard for you, in descending order of importance:
- What length of gas system and type of gas block will you use?
- Do you prefer free float or drop-in?
- Is the handguard made by a reputable manufacturer?
- Does it offer you a comfortable, positive grip?
- Does it manage heat effectively?
- Does it give you the mounting options you need?
- Is it within your price range?
- Do you like its aesthetics?
Answering these questions will get you a long way toward zeroing in on the handguard you need. Remember, there is nothing wrong with having a few handguards for different use cases with the same rifle. Consider going with different upper receivers with different free float handguards. You can even have them in different calibers. Drop-in handguards are easier to swap out while sticking with the same upper receiver, but still give you plenty of flexibility.
If you’re not sure what to choose and your weapon has a front sight base, go with the Magpul MOE for now. It is a massive upgrade on the classic GI handguard and you simply can’t go wrong. If you want a practical, top-quality free float model, the Aero Precision, Geissele, Midwest Industries G3 and Bravo Company options above are all spectacular. Personally, I swear by the G3. The Brigand Arms Edge is a great way to stand out, while the Faxon is a great balance of cutting-edge technology and practicality.
Whichever handguard you choose, have fun, practice shooting as much as you can and remember, it’s the shooter, not the gun.