At a Glance: The Best AR-15 Drop In Handguards
Comparison of The Best AR-15 Drop In Handguards
Our Top Pick
|Midwest Industries AR-15 Two-Piece Drop-In Handguard||View Latest Price|
Our Top Pick
|Brownells AR-15 Retro Drop-in Handguard Set||View Latest Price|
Our Top Pick
|Knights Armament AR-15 M5 Drop-in RAS Handguard||View Latest Price|
Like many AR-15 users, you may choose to customize your rifle to improve its comfort and safety. One upgrade that enhances both these qualities is the handguard. A top-quality AR-15 handguard can give you a better grip and provide a safer hold by reducing the heat from the barrel.
If you’re looking to upgrade your handguard, you first need to understand the difference between the two types available, as well as the features to look for. In this article, we will explain just that.
Read on to learn all about the drop-in style and what makes the best drop-in handguard. Furthermore, we’ll explain how a free-float handguard can improve your AR-15 too.
Our Guide to the 8 best AR-15 Handguards on the Market
To assist you further in your search, we’ve scoured the market and narrowed down the best drop-in handguards of 2020 to test and review. We’ve also uncovered the best free float handguards available and evaluated these too. Below you will find our thorough reviews with a list of pros and cons included for easy comparison.
The Best Drop-In Handguards for AR-15’s
Midwest Industries AR-15 Two-Piece Drop-In Handguard
The Midwest Industries AR-15 two-piece drop-in handguard is a versatile, Carbine length handguard that snaps in easily with no gunsmithing or alterations required. It is constructed with four 1913 Picatinny rails that contain 15 mounting slots for all kinds of accessories, including optics, lasers, and lights.
The handguard consists of two pieces that can be removed easily for cleaning and maintenance. The bottom piece can be removed to install a grenade launcher or shotgun. The design includes large vent holes to allow plenty of air circulation and reduce the heat from the barrel.
The Picatinny rails are laser etched with white alphanumeric position markings, helping you quickly mount your attachments. This drop-in handguard is 6 inches long, weighs 7.5 ounces, and fits AR-15/M4 16-inch carbine-length barrels with a round front handguard cap. It is machined from 6061 billet aluminum and features an anodized black matte finish.
I was able to install this AR-15 handguard in just a couple of minutes and was super impressed with the durable yet lightweight build. It is a shorter length handguard, but the vent holes do a great job of keeping the barrel from getting too hot.
Another plus of this model is that it can accommodate all types of accessories. This makes it one of the best drop-in handguards for versatility in customization. In summary, it’s a brilliant option for those who want a shorter handguard with maximum customization options.
- Quick and easy to install
- 15 mounting slots that accept all types of attachments
- Durable but lightweight aluminum build
- Large vent holes to reduce heat from the barrel
- Position markings on rails to help with mounting
- Troublefree to take apart for cleaning
- A shorter length handguard
Brownells AR-15 Retro Drop-in Handguard Set
The Brownells retro drop-in handguard set is modeled directly off the original M16 handguard to give AR-15 users the chance to recreate the classic American rifle. The set consists of left and right handguard halves with aluminum heat shields to protect your hand from barrel heat.
Brownells have created this model in three different colors; brown, green, and black, to create an aesthetically pleasing result on your rifle. While this handguard looks great, the construction is not of the highest quality. Made from Polymer rather than aluminum, it does feel a bit flimsy.
Moreover, the fit wasn’t perfect, and I did need to sand down some sharp edges. This was a bit disappointing as for a drop-in, you expect to install it with no modification required. That being said, as a replica, it does fit pretty good compared to the real thing.
The unique selling point of this handguard is undoubtedly the retro look it gives. For AR-15 owners looking to customize their rifle to look as original as possible, this is a great choice. It’s just unfortunate that the handguard lacks strength and durability.
- One of the most aesthetically pleasing handguards for AR15s
- Looks similar to the original M16 handguard
- Aluminum heat shields protect your hand from heat
- Available in 3 colors
- The construction feels flimsy and lacks strength
- Issues with the fit may be present, which could require modification
Knights Armament AR-15 M5 Drop-in RAS Handguard
The Knights Armament drop-in RAS handguard is an easy to install, drop-in handguard that utilizes the KAC M5 RAS (rail adapter system). Previously used on the US military’s M16A4, this is one of the most battle-proven systems available for the AR-15 platform.
It features Picatinny Rails along its entire length and securely locks to the barrel nut via a clamp and screw attachment. This gives it a much more stable hold than most other drop-in handguards and minimizes movement even with multiple accessories mounted onto the rail.
This handguard upgrade will fit all AR-15s that have a standard 2-piece, A2-type handguard with a rifle-length gas system and delta ring assembly. The handguard includes three KAC 11 rib rail panels and is made from strong aluminum. However, it weighs 1.145lbs, so it does add a bit of weight to your rifle, but the upside of this is that the additional weight minimizes recoil impulse.
This is one of the most rugged and well-designed handguards on the market, and it’s clear to see it is made to military standards. It installs smoothly and easily and gives a secure hold. If that’s not enough, it offers plenty of rail space to install all the accessories you could ever want, making it one of the best drop-in handguards for your AR-15.
- Rugged and durable RAS handguard made to military standards
- Includes three KAC 11 rib rail panels
- Unique design – securely locks to the barrel nut via a clamp and screw
- Holds securely with minimal movement or flex
- Smooth and easy installation
- Gives lots of rail space
- Not the most lightweight model
Yankee Hill Machine AR-15 2-piece Drop-in Handguard
The Yankee Hill Machine 2-piece handguard is a tough, drop-in forearm that serves as a strong but lightweight aluminum upgrade to a standard mil-spec, Polymer handguard on a Carbine AR-15 model.
The four fixed Picatinny rails provide solid mounting for all kinds of accessories, and the oversized cooling ports prevent heat buildup while allowing a clear view of the barrel to give a tactical look. Moreover, the bottom panel removes easily to provide clearance for grenade and flare launchers if needed.
The Yankee Hill forearm is made with tough aluminum with a black matte hard coat anodized finish. It is drilled and tapped in four locations to accept the Yankee Hill threaded swivel stud. Two models are available; standard carbine and Colt carbine. The Colt carbine model fits Colt-manufactured guns only, whereas the standard version will fit carbines from most manufacturers.
For us, this AR-15 handguard installed in seconds using the stock delta ring. It’s super durable too. It can take a beating but still look and feel great. It also gives a rigid fit with zero play once installed, which ranks it as one of the best drop-in handguards on the market right now.
- Durable, almost indestructible build
- Gives solid mounting with zero movement
- Cool, tactical look
- Easy to remove the bottom panel
- 2 models available for both standard and Colt carbine rifles
- Can be installed very quickly
- Sling attachment points only accept Yankee Hill sling swivel parts
The Best Free Float Handguard for AR-15’s
Centurion Arms AR-15/M16 C4 Carbine Cutout Rail System
The C4 carbine cutout rail system by Centurion Arms is a unique two-piece, free-float handguard consisting of four rails that clamp onto the barrel nut. It gives flattop receivers a continuous 1913 rail at 12 o’clock that extends around the sides and has T-marks giving a reference for mounting optics and accessories.
The handguard is made from solid 6061-T6 aluminum along with grade 8 bolts with a phosphate finish, creating a strong but lightweight component. Furthermore, it features a type III anodized hard coat finish. It is intended for use on all AR15, M4, and M16 carbine-length gas systems.
Being a free-float handguard, it does require some minor gunsmithing to install, but we found it well worth the effort as the fit and finish of this model is superb. It fully floats your barrel and gives plenty of space for mounting accessories. What’s more, you can install it to the upper assembly without removing the front sight post or muzzle device.
This forend rail system gives maximum functionality with minimum weight and is one of the easier to install free-float handguards on the market. We also really liked the length of this model. It covers the FSP, giving a much better forward grip and allows mounting space for a light closer to the end of the barrel.
- Uniquely designed to give continuous 12 o’clock rail.
- Features T-marks on the rail for mounting reference
- Installation is easier than other free-floats
- Strong aluminum construction with grade 8 bolts and hard coat finish
- One of the lightest, most rigid rails on the market
Midwest Industries AR-15 Combat Free Float Handguard
The combat M-LOK rail handguard from Midwest Industries features a unique, free-float design that has been built with customization in mind. The style offers a range of accessory-attachment options with seven rows of M-LOK-compatible attachment points.
At the top of the handguard is a continuous Picatinny rail for optics and other accessories, and there are two separate quick-detach sling sockets with an anti-rotation design. This handguard kit comes with everything you need, including a heat-treated barrel nut and an installation wrench.
The fully free-floated handguard is made in the USA from Aluminum, and there are many different sized models available from 4.5 inches up to 12.6 inches. It’s worth noting that it may not fit all billet upper receiver designs and is not compatible with gas-piston AR rifles.
There are two small protrusions on the top rear of the handguard. These align the top rail perfectly with the upper to ensure there’s no movement whatsoever. For a free float style, we found it to be easy to install, and it boasts an excellent fit & finish. Considering these qualities, it could easily be the best free float handguard for your AR-15.
- Seven rows of M-LOK-compatible attachment points
- QD sling sockets with an anti-rotation design
- Available in various sizes
- Gives a perfect fit with zero movement
- Easy to install
- Comes with a heat-treated barrel nut and a wrench
Knights Armament AR-15/M16 Free Float RAS Handguard
The Knights Armament KAC Free Float Rifle RAS is a versatile and rugged handguard that features the military standard rail adapter system with three KAC 11 rib rail panels and full-length M1913 Picatinny rails at the 12-, 3-, 6-, and 9 o’clock positions. This makes it compatible with most rail-mounted tactical accessories.
Because the rail free-floats the barrel, it gives consistent barrel harmonics upon firing, increasing accuracy potential. The 12-inch handguard is made from aluminum, features a black anodized finish, and works with any AR-15 rifle with a carbine or mid-length gas system and low profile gas block.
Installing this handguard will require disassembling the rifle’s gas system and removing the factory barrel nut. This is replaced by a proprietary barrel nut that can be installed using a standard AR-15 armorer’s wrench and by following the instructions included.
It’s not the simplest handguard to install nor the most ergonomic, but it does give a solid and durable hold. This is a handguard that will hold up against regular and even heavy-duty use. You can easily fire a few thousand rounds and the rail will not come loose at the slightest. Moreover, this model is the best free float handguard if you’re building an MK12 mod 1 clone as it will fit perfectly.
- Rugged, heavy-duty, and durable build that was built to last
- Uses the military standard RAS system
- Increases accuracy potential
- Includes three KAC 11 rib rail panels
- Compatible with most rail-mounted accessories
- Installation can be fiddly and requires some tools and gunsmithing skills
- Not the most lightweight or ergonomic design
Aero Precision AR-15 ATLAS S-ONE Slimline Free Float Handguard
The AR-15 ATLAS S-ONE handguard from Aero Precision is a free-floating slimline handguard with an M-LOK rail. It has been created with size and weight in mind, which serves as a high-quality handguard upgrade for lightweight MSR builds.
Despite the slim profile, the S-ONE does not lack in strength nor stability and is constructed with a tough 6061-T6 aluminum, giving impressive durability. The build includes front and rear Picatinny rails, and the center of the top rail is absent to reduce weight. Moreover, indexing grooves are set in the 12 o’clock position to provide positive grip control.
This Aero Precision handguard uses the Aero taper lock attachment system (ATLAS), which consists of two mirrored tapered locking nuts that give even clamping pressure across a custom barrel nut with a turnbuckle screw. The handguard comes with all mounting hardware required for installation and is available in either black or FDE. There are various size options – from 7 inches to 15 inches to fit all barrel sizes.
We were impressed with the fit and finish this handguard gives. Installation was not too difficult, and the handguard-to-barrel nut design makes it easy to remove too. When mounting accessories, we did notice the M-LOK accessory screws can hit the gas block because of the slimline design, so you might have to grind down the screw a little. Despite this minor issue, it’s certainly one of the best free float handguards for an AR-15.
- Slim and lightweight design
- Strong and durable aluminum construction
- Features indexing grooves for positive grip control
- ATLAS system gives an even clamping pressure
- 8 sizes to choose from
- Easy to remove thanks to the handguard-to-barrel nut mounting
- Accessory screws can hit the gas block
Drop-In Versus Free Float AR-15 Handguards
A handguard is designed to improve the frontal grip on your rifle. It also creates a safe, heat-proof surface for you to firmly grip by eliminating any chance of heat from the barrel burning your hand.
There are two types of AR-15 handguards that you will come across on the market; drop-in and free float. Let’s explore the differences between the two.
Free-Float AR-15 Handguards
A free-float handguard securely attaches to just one point of your AR-15 (on the barrel nut by the upper receiver) to give no movement or wiggle. The rest of it floats around without making contact with the barrel. This floating design prevents barrel warping, conducts very little heat from the barrel, and improves accuracy between 0.5-0.75 MOAs.
AR-15 Drop-In Handguards
A drop-in handguard is a two-piece accessory that is designed for comfort and safety. It is held in place by pressure from the delta ring assembly and the handguard cap. The simple drop-in style makes it lightweight and easy to install on any gun with a Delta ring and a front sight base.
All the best drop-in handguards will easily drop in and clamp over the muzzle section of the rifle without any alteration required, unlike the free-float models. You simply push the delta-ring forward to release the tension on the guard.
Perks Of Choosing A Drop-in Handguard Over A Free Float
The main benefit of choosing a drop-in handguard over a free-float style is the ease of use. The drop-in style is much easier to install and remove than the free-floating version, and you do not need to alter your AR15 to do so. Moreover, you can install a drop-in yourself in just a few minutes without the need for a gunsmith.
- Drop-in handguards are lighter as free-floats need to be stronger to support the weight of any handguard accessories, thus they have a heavier construction. This means drop-ins won’t add any additional weight to your rifle.
- Drop-in styles are significantly cheaper than free-float models too. This makes them suitable for all budgets as you can buy a high-quality drop-in handguard for a very affordable price.
Despite this, free-float handguards do have some advantages over a drop-in. The best free float handguards will absorb less heat and give better accuracy than drop-ins, and they are generally more stable too, so they allow you to attach more accessories.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Handguard
Once you have decided between the two styles, there are some other key considerations when it comes to choosing the best AR-15 handguard for you.
When it comes to length, the longer the better. There are a few reasons why we advise this.
- A longer handguard means you can grip further down the rifle. Look for one where that allows you to reach the end of your barrel or as far as you comfortably can. This will prevent you from touching a hot barrel.
- The longer the handguard, the more space you will have for mounting accessories. This is key if you plan on using many accessories and optics as you can spread them out without your rifle looking clustered.
- Longer handguards on a rifle are also more aesthetically pleasing and are commonly seen among competitive shooters.
Mounting Systems: M-LOK V.S Keymod
An AR-15 handguard will have one of three mounting systems:
- Picatinny Rail
Picatinny rails are the original mounting system for mounting all kinds of accessories, including foregrips, bipods, and flashlights. Although once popular, Picatinny rails are becoming less favored as they add a significant amount of weight to your rifle, especially towards the front end.
That being said, you can use a combined system of a Picatinny rail on top and M-Lok or KeyMod on the sides and bottom. This style will lighten your handguard and allow you to attach more types of accessories. Here are the main differences between KeyMod and M-LOK:
- Most AR-15 handguards on the market are made from 6061 (T6) aluminum. This is durable enough for a handguard, as it is a low-stress component, but it can add weight to your rifle.
- If you’re looking for the very best free-float handguard, opt for a Carbon Fiber construction. This is a stronger-yet-lighter alternative that absorbs less heat than aluminum. Bear in mind that Carbon Fiber is significantly more expensive though.
- Some handguards will use a Polymer along with an aluminum heat shield. This makes the handguard lighter, but it may be less effective at securing accessories.
How To Install A Drop-in Handguard?
Drop-In handguards are very easy to install and require little time and effort. That being said, if it’s your first time, here is a brief step-by-step guide.
- Before doing anything, ensure the mag well and chamber are empty.
- Make sure you have the proper size hex key for your new handguard and an AR combo tool.
- If removing an old handguard, use a handguard removal tool to pull back the Delta ring and release it.
- Use an Allen wrench to take the new handguard apart if needed.
- Place the non-tapered end of the top part in the area around the front-end cap. Using the handguard removal tool, insert the top piece into the Delta ring, ensuring the grooves in the barrel nut all align.
- Repeat step 5 with the bottom part, making sure everything lines up.
- Lastly, fasten the handguard together with the included screws.
Best AR-15 Drop-in and Free Float Handguards
Whether you’re after a drop-in or a free-float handguard, you’re bound to find the right option on our list. While all are high-quality AR-15 components, there were a couple that stood out to us the most.
Firstly, if you’re opting for a drop-in style, we believe the Knights Armament drop-in RAS handguard is the best drop-in handguard for your money. We were impressed with the RAS system it uses and the stability and durability it gives. It ranks high in both construction and design and offers plenty of rail space for attaching accessories too.
For the best free-float handguard, we could not fault the Midwest Industries combat free-float handguard, so we feel this is the best free float handguard on the market. There are several sizes available, making it a versatile option for all AR-15 users. There are seven rows of M-LOK-compatible attachment points, and once installed, it gives a 100% stable hold with zero movements.
We hope the information in this article has deepened your knowledge of these aftermarket products and helped you find the best AR-15 handguard for your money.