Top AR Handguards
There are a lot of options out there when it comes to replacement AR handguards. This guide takes the mystery out of your search.
Handguards are one of those AR rifle upgrades that are absolutely functional. While some handguards look exceptionally cool, which might provide reason enough to put one on your gun, most offer significant feature benefits too. If you’re going to upgrade the handguard on your AR-type rifle, you’re probably going to move to a free-floated barrel solution if your gun doesn’t have one already. While the original AR-15 had handguards that contacted the barrel itself, creating accuracy issues when gear was attached or when sling pressure was applied, new ones are almost exclusively mounted to the receiver only. The barrel floats freely inside of the handguard without contact, so no matter what you hang on the handguard or how you hold or rest it, the barrel won’t be impacted. That allows your AR rifle to shoot to its maximum potential. There’s another “more modern” consideration. Old-school handguards used to be covered with rail segments on all sides so you could attach gear anywhere. Not only did that create unnecessary bulk and weight, but it also wasn’t exactly comfortable for the hands with all those sharp edges. Newer styles have standardized cutouts that allow rail segment attachments only where you want them. There are two competing styles: M-LOK and KeyMod. We’ll avoid the “which is better” war here. Just know that both exist and that you’ll need to match your rail type and accessory mount approach. With that said, let’s consider some examples of top AR handguard offerings:
Brigand Arms Carbon Fiber Handguards
Brigand Arms took a radically non-traditional approach to handguard design. Of course, that’s only if you consider macramé, (or maybe woven) handguards non-traditional. The Brigand folks re-evaluated the basic requirements of a handguard and took them literally when designing something revolutionary. A handguard must have a place for your hand. It should be light since you might have to either tote a rifle around all day or hold it on target. It should offer a place to stick stuff like lights, lasers, or backup sights. It should not get hot with heavy use. Last, it should not hinder the rifle from shooting as accurately as possible.
The Brigand Arms Atlas, Blade, and Edge families are the lightest handguards on the market, period. That’s because they’re made of carbon fiber yarn. The company coats carbon fiber “strings” with a top-secret goo, which results in something with the feel of shoestrings, and weaves them into an interconnected cylindrical shape to form a handguard. A curing process turns those loose strings into a rock-hard assembly that creates the final product.
They’re insanely light because there’s hardly any material and what is there is made of carbon fiber. They don’t get hot because of the utterly unrestricted airflow to the barrel. They support accuracy because they’re free-floated and mounted to the receiver only. And the Atlas model offers short rail segments so you can attach accessories.
Enter the Octagon! The VLTOR Freedom Rail has eight, count ’em, eight sides. The top is a standard rail all the way from front to back. Surrounding that are seven other surfaces all covered with KeyMod holes so you can attach gear anywhere from front to back and at seven different angles around the handguard. That’s flexibility.
This brings up a benefit of both KeyMod and M-LOK approaches. All those holes are made of “not metal” so the handguard is as lightweight as possible.
The Freedom Rail also offers a wide variety of lengths. You can order one in eight different lengths ranging from 3.5 inches to 15 inches.
Aero Precision USA
The Atlas S-One series carefully balances function and weight. The first thing you’ll notice is that the top rail segment is not continuous. There’s a short segment near the receiver and another up front. The idea is that few accessories are ever mounted in the middle of that top section, so eliminating that provides an opportunity for weight reduction while creating a smoother surface for the hand. The Atlas is also slender with a 1.5-inch diameter.
The Atlas S-One is available in both KeyMod and M-LOK depending on your preference. With either, you can order four different lengths including 7, 9, 12, and 15 inches. The shortest handguards weigh just 4.8 ounces while the 15-inch versions tip the scales at a still light 7.95 ounces. The mounting hardware adds another 4.72 ounces regardless of which handguard you choose. In addition to the M-LOK or KeyMod slots, the Atlas also sports quick -detach sling swivel sockets on both sides just forward of the receiver mount.
So far, we’ve been talking about free-floating handguards. If you have a standard AR-type carbine with a fixed front sight and traditional two-piece plastic handguard, you’ll need to do a bit of surgery to install a free-floated system.
You’ll need to remove the fixed front sight and gas block assembly and replace it with a new low-profile gas block first. If you want a quick, no tools required upgrade so you can mount an accessory or two, consider the Magpul MOE SL. Made of polymer, it’s intended to be a snap-on replacement for those traditional round two-piece handguards.
The MOE SL will give you M-LOK slots for accessory attachment at the two, six, and ten o’clock positions. You can get this handguard in either carbine or mid-length. Subtle, yet handy features are the finger stops on the top and bottom. Those help you achieve consistent hand position and protect you from the hot front sight and gas block assembly.
Midwest Industries makes approximately 73 trillion variations of handguard upgrades, so it’s a great place to shop. You’ll find handguards optimized for suppressor use with an enlarged interior diameter. Others offer options like sling point attachments and different accessory attachment angle configurations.
Check out the G3M Series as a starting point. You can get this model in seven different lengths including 7.25, 9.25, 10.5, 12.625, 15, 17.5, and 18-inches. The G3M models include a continuous top rail section surrounded by seven sides of M-LOK slots.
The G3M models also include two quick-detach sling swivel points on each side. Whether you prefer to mount the sling farther forward or closer to the receiver, you’re covered. The 1.5-inch outside diameter guards are made from 6061 aluminum, so that, combined with all the holes makes them lightweight.
Bravo Company USA
Bravo Company also makes a variety of handguard upgrade solutions. If you want to go old-school standard, check out the QRF line – it offers traditional four-sided rail segments. You can also choose from a variety of KeyMod options in aluminum and polymer construction.
The MCMR family offers M-LOK accessory attachment compatibility and comes in 7, 8, 9, 10, 13, and 15-inch lengths. The guards are made of 6061-T6 Aluminum Alloy and feature a continuous Picatinny rail segment on the top surrounded by seven surfaces populated with M-LOK attachment holes. That allows you to mount gear not only and the top, bottom, and side positions, but on the angles in between.
One standout feature of the Bravo MCMR is the light weight of the barrel nut mounting kit. At just 2.3 ounces, it’s one of the lightest mounts available. As an example, the ten-inch MCMR weighs just 6.6 ounces for a grand total of hardware plus handguard weight of 8.9 ounces.