AR15 Handguard Beginner’s Guide: Free Float or Drop In?
When it comes to the AR15, nothing defines the look and feel and functionality of your rifle than the decision over your handguard. Your AR15 handguard will allow you to accessorize (or not, or some) your rifle with extra tactical options such as scopes, bipods, red dots, lasers, and even flashlights. AR15 handguards absorb heat from the barrel allowing you to hold the rifle without burning your hand. If your handguard doesn’t have heat plates in it, it may get too hot to hold. And AR15 Free Float Handguard is often the choice of seasoned AR15 enthusiast because they tend to offer more tactical railing for add-ons.
But maybe you don’t even know the difference between an AR15 free float handguard and an AR15 drop-in handguard, or an AR15 free float tube. That’s what our ultimate guide is here to solve. AR15s are the best SHTF gun money can buy, but if you are new to them, they can be complicated to learn. Your handguard will ultimately serve to act as the centerpiece for your rifle, so understanding the differences between types of AR15 handguards is important stuff.
The next few sections should really help you get a better “grasp” on things (yep, pun intended).
What Is An AR-15 Handguard?
A handguard, in simple terms, is a cover for a portion of, or all of, your gun’s barrel. Without a handguard, your rifle’s barrel and gas line would be completely exposed. This would give you hardly anywhere to grip your rifle for purposes of firing shots. The gas line, which ultimately serves to utilize the firing of ammunition’s gas pressure to push the charging handle back, would be exposed. Once the gas line is compromised, your AR15 will no longer work to chamber new rounds. It doesn’t take much for the gas line to be compromised. An AR15 handguard will help assure that the gas line remains protected.
The second main reason for an AR15 handguard is to protect, or guard, your hand from barrel heat. If you grasp the barrel while firing 5.56 or .223 ammo through it, your hand can get seriously injured from heat emanating from the barrel. In order to adequately fire a rifle in most scenarios, you will need to grip the near portion of the barrel. Even if you are using a bipod or mount, you will likely at some point need to grab the barrel of the gun to transport or adjust it. Without a handguard, you can be scarred for life on the palm of your hand.
Many AR15 handguards can be utilized to attach tactical add-ons such as red dot optics, scopes, lights, lasers, grips, and so on. The items you intend to add on to your AR15 will be a driving factor in what type of handguard you go with.
Types Of AR15 Handguards
And so begins the unconfusing of a subject that new AR15 owners, or those interested in buying, commonly are confused about. There are several different types of handguards which all range in tactical capabilities, pricing, and how they affect the look and feel of the rifle.
Handguard rails can be utilized for attachments using a number of different type of attachment styles.
Whenever I refer to any of these, it’s relevant to understand which we are talking about. When buying an AR15 handguard, it is an important distinction to make because it will affect all future tactical attachments you purchase. For example, if you buy a red dot optic that’s made for Picatinny, you need to make sure your red dot optic is also compatible. If it isn’t, you will need to buy an extra piece to make it work.
AR15 Drop-In Handguard | AR15 Carbine Handguards
The AR15 drop-in handguard is the most popular one on the market. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily the best, but they are the most common style you see deployed in terms of AR15 handguards. One of the reasons is that they are pretty affordable and are commonly found on stock builds sold at gun stores. They are the mark of a carbine AR15 rifle.
These are typically made from polymer or aluminum or even plastic. The popular M&P Sport 2 AR15, which is a top selling rifle, often comes with a plastic one that most owners choose to replace. The cheaper handguard saves Smith and Wesson manufacturing costs which allows them to pass on the savings to consumers.
The term “drop-in” really means that you pull back the delta ring on the AR15 and “drop-in” the two-piece handguard.
This is easier said than done, in fact, there are tools that allow you to get more leverage on your delta ring as a way to pull it back and accomplish this feat. Its easier with two people because often times, getting leverage and handling the two pieces of handguard can be a bit much. It just depends on how firm your delta ring is and how coordinated you are with your execution.
A stock AR15 is typically made for drop-in handguards. People often replace them based on how they look and how tactical they are.
There are two types of AR15 drop-in handguards
Polymer drop-in handguards
Polymer guards typically have a metal heat shield inside of them to prevent the polymer from absorbing heat and therefore, protecting your hand from the same fate. Polymer is a light load, so it is often appreciated for not adding too much bulk or weight to the AR15.
Magpul is the most popular manufacturer of polymer handguards. They have a line of sharp, modern looking polymer handguards available.
Railed drop-in handguards
There are a number of diverse types of AR15 railed drop-in handguards. Most are quad rail style, which means each side has a rail which allows for additional attachments. The rails are typically Picatinny rails. You can typically put a lot of different tactical gear on these due to the Picatinny rail style. They are mostly made of aluminum.
AR15 Free Float Handguard
Without question, the free float handguard for the AR15 is the most sought after. These handguards often go the entire distance of the barrel, which makes for a complicated process because they require the addition of a gas tube. When you use a drop-in handguard, the front site serves to stabilize the gas line. An AR15 free float handguard does not utilize the front sight in the same way, causing an additional gas block installation. The installation of the gas block can be placed wherever the owner would like. This placement determines the length of the handguard.
AR15 free float handguards are known to make the rifle more accurate. They are also more associated with a “tactical look,” which many AR15 owners are going for.
AR15 Free Float Tube Handguard
An AR15 tube handguard is a type of free-floating handguard, but it has no mounting options. So why would anyone opt for an AR15 free float tube handguard? They are considered to help with accuracy.
AR15 Handguard – My Final Thoughts
No matter what, your AR15 is going to need a handguard, both for serving the purposes of protecting the gas line and shielding your hand from heat. In order to make a proper decision on which handguard you will choose for your AR15, you need to decide your budget, what tactical functionality you’d like it to have, and what style best fits your needs.
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.