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Best AR-15 Handguards [Hands-On]: Free-Float & Drop-In

Ready to upgrade your AR-15 with a new handguard?  Or choosing the perfect one for a new build?

Lots of AR-15 Uppers
Lots of AR-15 Uppers (And Handguards)

We’ll help with decisions such as going drop-in vs free-float or KeyMod vs M-LOK. 

By the end, you’ll know the best handguard to get for your specific purpose and budget.

Be it a first build or something purpose-built for lightweight run-and-gun…or even night vision.

11. Steiner DBAL with Unity TAPS
Steiner DBAL with Unity TAPS on a STNGR Handguard

Table of Contents


M-LOK vs KeyMod

M-LOK vs KeyMod, LuckyGunner
M-LOK (L) vs KeyMod (R), LuckyGunner

One of the first decisions you’ll make is which attachment system…M-LOK or KeyMod.  It used to be personal preference but recently USSOCOM (US Special Operations Command) released their results of testing.

And M-LOK is the clear winner due to much better impact test results.


Best Free-Floating Handguards

Your best bet if you are building your own AR-15 upper.

Free-floating handguards give you an accuracy advantage since it doesn’t contact the barrel…so your hand position and extra gadgets such as bipods don’t affect barrel harmonics.

Plus, you can choose any handguard length if you have the right low-profile gas-block for it to go over.  I personally like ~12″ handguards with 16″ barrels since I use the c-clamp grip.

To get a better grasp on the best length for you, check out our guide to choosing the proper handguard length.

1. STNGR USA Handguards

The STNGR VYPR is the handguard that recently bumped Aero off my Best Bang-For-The-Buck handguard list.

STNGR VYPR Handguard, Full Rifle
STNGR VYPR Handguard, Full Rifle

You get a really nice 13.5″ M-LOK handguard for $135 and a 15″ for a few bucks more at $140.

The VYPR is the most “standard” looking one and what I’d recommend.

STNGR VYPR (front) and HWK (rear)

Install was standard and there’s some strong feeling anti-rotation tabs built into the handguard.

Fit/finish/color were top notch and my only initial worry was that the top cuts were too aggressive/large so a finger could slip through.

STNGR Handguard Cutouts
STNGR Handguard Cutouts

However after a bunch of mags I found that it was fine (unless you have really thin fingers).  And no problem if you C-Clamp grip it.

Check out the video:

The logo isn’t too pronounced either which I like.

AR-15 Upper with 15 VYPR Handguard
AR-15 Upper with 15″ VYPR Handguard

Plus there’s sometimes some blemished versions so you can save even more if you don’t care to have a “perfect” rail.


Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

  • Price: $125
  • Length: 15″
  • Total Weight: 11.5 oz

What’s your take on VYPR?

Readers' Ratings

4.98/5 (581)

Your Rating?

*Update* The lesser-railed VLCN has become the basis of our night vision build (after a little paint job).

15. Unity TAPS Sync Zip Tie Rear Tiedown
Unity Taps System on STNGR VLCN

And we love it…the slick upper side makes it easy to mount buttons.

Check out how modular it can be in our Cable Management video:

Want a little more style?

There’s the HWK handguard which gives a more aggressive “prong-ed” look and the ability to add a light/laser to the bottom with the included rail.

HWK and VYPR, Front
HWK and VYPR, Front

I think it could look really cool with a 14.5″ pinned barrel so it sits flush with the cutout.

HWK Rail from STNGR Site
HWK Rail from STNGR Site

Plus it’s only $5 more than the VYPR for the 13.5″ and 15″ variants.


Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

I also tried out their rail covers which are definitely more affordable than other name brands.  Comfy and cool looking too.

Cyclops and Gecko Rail Covers
Cyclops (front) and Gecko (rear) Rail Covers

I personally like the look of the Cyclops more but the Gecko is probably the more useful one to maintain a good grip.

Check out all their stuff at STNGR.

2. Aero Precision ATLAS

Best Bang-For-The-Buck Handguard
at Aero Precision

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

One of my current favorite best-bang-for-the-buck free-floating handguards (but now my 2nd pick).

Aero Precision M4E1 with ATLAS Handguards
Aero Precision M4E1 with ATLAS Handguards, 12″ Handguard on 16″ Barrel

Here it is on their new upper that I’m testing (full review).

I love how it saves weight by not having a full Picatinny rail on top.

Plus the taper at the front perfectly fits my thumbs.

Note that the top where the rail would have been is rounded so if you’re thinking of putting a pressure pad for lights…you’re out of luck.

Aero ATLAS R-One vs S-One
Aero ATLAS R-One (Front, Full-Rail) vs S-One (Rear)

Otherwise the price vs fit/feel is perfect.

  • Price: $140
  • Length: 12″
  • Handguard Weight: 7.0 oz
  • Barrel Nut Weight: 4.7 oz
  • Total Weight: 11.7 oz

And now Aero has the full-rail version if you have more gizmos that need attaching.

Only negative about the Aero handguards is that sometimes (especially after a seasonal sales) they are out of stock for a while.

at Aero Precision

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

3. Midwest Industries G3M

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

This lightweight handguard includes a full Picatinny rail on top.  If you need to attach more things…this is our favorite pick.

Comes with 7 sides of M-LOK attachment capability.

I’ve been using the older version of this (non M-LOK) for years as my primary competition rifle handguard.  Check out the left two uppers.

Best AR-15 Handguards
Best AR-15 Handguards
  • Price: $190
  • Length: 12.625″
  • Total Weight: 9.4 oz

4. UTG Pro M-LOK

at Optics Planet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

My previous favorite for best Bang-for-the-Buck handguard until the Aero came along.  But still a great handguard if you’re looking to save a little and still keep the full top rail.

The UTG Pro is US-made and comes in 13/15/17 inch variants.  So it’s great if you’re looking for slightly longer than 12″ models or a  17″ for longer barrels.

Here is the 13″ on my 11.5″ pistol upper.

UTG Pro Handguard
UTG Pro Handguard
  • Price: $145
  • Length: 13″
  • Total Weight: 11.3 oz

5. Yankee Hill Machine Quad Rail

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

If you’re needing lots of Picatinny real estate…the perennial favorite YHM has got you covered.  “Rifle” length is equal to 12.6″ but will cost you a couple more ounces in weight compared to M-LOK varieties.

  • Price: $160
  • Length: 12.6″
  • Total Weight: 15.2 oz

6. Brigand Arms Carbon Fiber

Lightest Handguard
at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

When you absolutely positively have got to have the lightest handguard.  It was the best performing BY FAR in our Lightest Handguard roundup.

Lightweight Build Brigand Arms and Faxon Pencil 14.5 Pinned
Lightweight Build Brigand Arms and Faxon Pencil 14.5 Pinned

Combined with a pencil 14.5″ barrel…this AR was nearing 5 lb territory.

But keep in mind that you won’t be able to add anything to it…and since it is cylindrical all the way through…you’re going to have a harder time bracing against barriers.

  • Price: $296
  • Length: 12.4″
  • Handguard Weight: 2.9 oz
  • Barrel Nut Weight: 1.4 oz
  • Total Weight: 4.3 oz !!!

7. Bootleg PicLOK

at Rainier Arms

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

As you guessed from the name…this handguard combines M-LOK attachments throughout with Picatinny compatibility at the front sides.

Bootleg Upper with Faxon 18 Fluted Barrel
Bootleg Upper with Faxon 18 Fluted Barrel

I’m using it for my newest AR-15 precision build with a fluted 18″ Faxon barrel.

  • Price: $199
  • Length: 15″
  • Handguard Weight: 9.6 oz

Honorable Mention Free-Float Handguards

Yes…there’s going to be a lot of disagreement in the list.  Here’s some of the honorable mentions that are sure to pop up.

I’ve seen them around a lot in competitions but either didn’t like the look, feel, or price combination.

Drop-In vs Free-Floating Handguards

Standard A2 Handguard
Your Standard A2 Handguard is Purely Functional

If you have a delta ring and a front sight base (FSB)…your best bet is to go with a drop-in unless you want to shave down the FSB and remove the delta ring.

Delta Ring

You’re also limited in handguard length by the FSB.  Here’s a couple of the most popular lengths.

AR 15 gas systems
AR-15 Gas System Lengths

Many of them come in two pieces, which are placed on the gun and are screwed together to prevent the need to take off the barrel.  

The biggest advantage of going with a drop-in handguard is simplicity.  

You shouldn’t need to make any modifications to your AR-15 when installing a new drop-in handguard, and since they’ve got a relatively simplistic design, they’re usually cheaper than their free float counterparts.  

Best AR-15 Drop-In Handguards

at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

First off, if you’re looking for a fancy handguard with extra frills, the Magpul MOE M-LOK isn’t for you.  

As you can probably tell by its price, this handguard is pretty simplistic – and for good reason.  

What you get with the M-LOK is a heat-resistant polymer handguard that’s hardy enough to handle your clanging and banging and comfortable enough to grip onto.  

Despite its simplistic design, the M-LOK has slots on its 2, 6, and 10-o’clock positions where you can mount an optional Picatinny rail system.  But what you’re really getting when you go for the M-LOK is a lightweight handguard that can withstand anything you throw at it.  

At $33 for a mid-length gas system…I think that’s a good deal.  

  • Price: $33
  • Length: 9.2″ (Mid-Length)
  • Total Weight: 8.7 oz

1. Midwest Industries Two-Piece Drop-In Handguard

Another winner from one of our favorite manufacturers.  The drop-in version is M-LOK compatible and available in a couple gas system lengths.

  • Price: $130
  • Length: 9″ (Mid-Length)
  • Total Weight: 6.6 oz

2. UTG Pro Super Slim M-LOK

at Optics Planet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Looking for the easiest way to add a longer rail and still keep your FSB?  The Model 4 is the perfect solution (albeit a heavier one).

  • Price: $105
  • Length: 15″ (Mid-Length)
  • Total Weight: 14.1 oz

3. Troy Industries Quad Rail

Want the additional rail space?  Go with the Troy Industries Quad Rail.

  • Price: $160
  • Length: 9″ (Mid-Length)
  • Total Weight: — oz


Note…I don’t have any “cheap” rails on this list.  I’ve tried out a bunch of great deals I’ve found at gun shows and especially on Amazon and Ebay.  The rails look great when they come in…but something has always been off:

  • Attachment system sucks (too heavy, too many screws, etc)
  • Doesn’t align correctly to the upper receiver
  • Picatinny rails are not mil-spec (stuff doesn’t fit onto them)

I have a box of holsters and cheapo rails now that sit in the back of my shed.  Learn from my fails…you get what you pay for in rails.

Build It and Shoot It

There you have it.  

That’s my list of the best AR-15 handguards for your AR-15.  

How did we do?  Any experience with the ones we listed?  Or did we seriously miss some great ones?

And if you’re just getting into guns and are in the beginning stages of learning about the AR-15, you might want to check out our comprehensive AR-15 guide.  There, you’ll learn everything there is to know about shooting, maintaining, and customizing your AR.  


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50 Leave a Reply

  • William

    yikes. If JuStAsGuD could write an article, it would be this one.

    May 16, 2021 11:13 am
  • Clark

    Please add Knights Armament RAS to the drop in section.

    March 30, 2021 2:09 pm
  • Jack Smith

    I have the UTG Pro "13" free float on a custom build with Vltor upper and Daniel Defense pencil barrel with Vltor low profile gas block. I can vouch for the quality it's solid and never given me a problem. I like good stuff but I can't pay hundreds of dollars for a damn hand guard. I just found out that they now sell a titanium barrel nut and hardware for mounting it which I think I may get. It's about $60.

    February 13, 2021 10:39 am
  • Keb

    I'm not sure the weights on the STNGR handguards are accurate. I got excited because this review lists the weight of the STNGR VYPR 15" at 11.5oz. That beats the Atlas S-One 15" by about 1oz, at about $20 less. Except, something doesn't add up.
    STNGR lists the weight as 10.15ounces + 3.49ounces nut, for 13.64 ounces total
    That matches the weight shown here without nut as 10.15 ounces.
    That would make it 1 ounce more than the Atlas S-One 15" at 12.67ounces. In this range of handguards, I think I'd still pay more for the lighter, more proven Atlas. Even more so if you can manage to find a blem.

    February 9, 2021 1:52 pm
  • zakk

    to hell with Troy Industries, they hired that Ruby Ridge sniper, the son of a

    November 18, 2020 8:23 am
  • Thomas A Hudson

    What about the Odin rune or O2
    Or the Noveske AR-15 N4 NSR-SD KeyMod Handguard - 15" - Black - Chainsaw
    I'm building a Adams P1

    July 23, 2020 12:00 am
  • Victor

    Have you ever tested the VISM M LOK drop in handguard? Looks like a nice option at around 65 Bucks. I'm looking for a inexpensive drop in mlok handguard and it would be nice to hear your opinion about it, if you have any.

    May 19, 2020 6:05 pm
  • Iggy

    Can I install Magpul MBUS flip up front sight on Atlas S-on MLOK Handguard

    May 7, 2020 11:26 am
    • Eric

      Yes, I have a magpul MBUS on an Atlas S-One rail

      January 30, 2021 8:44 pm
  • Phil

    I’ve been running UTG Super Slim free float for about 3 years, reasonably priced and solid.

    February 16, 2020 7:00 pm
  • Tom Smith

    Glad to STNGR in the running and winning BEST BANG for the BUCK!! BUT..... How you can you NOT mention the RPTR???? HOLY SH*T BATMAN!!!.. Between the RPTR and the HWK, I'm not sure which I like better!! I too put the 15" HWK over a 14.5" Got the 8.25" RPTR on a 7.5" 9mm.. muzzle device just peaks out past the RPTR.. They are my favorite hands down...

    February 9, 2020 8:16 pm
  • Ted

    Great site brother. Excellent resource.

    January 11, 2020 7:59 pm
    • David, PPT Editor

      Thanks! Glad we can help!

      January 11, 2020 8:11 pm
  • Nathan Lang

    I was considering a BCM Upper, interested to know your reasoning for excluding their MLock rail? I have not had time to touch one yet and would be interested in some feedback to keep in mind when I start touching them.

    August 5, 2019 1:06 am
    • Tom Smith

      Check out STNGR...seriously.. They make great rails at a great price. Nothing wrong with BCM, if you want to pay for them..

      February 9, 2020 8:22 pm
  • Samuel steinmetz

    I own several AR platform rifles and I enjoy the light weight Brigand arms hand guard. Very light and strong.

    July 22, 2019 11:28 pm
    • Tom Smith

      WIsh I could afford one!! Good to hear!

      February 9, 2020 8:17 pm
  • Jack

    Love the hand guard but I wished it would have matched the rest of my fde, it looks more grey than fde!!

    May 23, 2019 7:54 am
  • Aria Mcgramary

    This is one of the best sites i have come across when it comes to inhaling knowledge about guns and handguards, thank you for helping out a newbie like myself!

    May 8, 2019 9:48 pm
    • David, PPT Editor

      Glad we could help!

      May 9, 2019 7:32 am
  • Steve

    It would be interesting to see how the super cheap M-Lok handguards on ebay stack up to the much more expensive competition.

    April 13, 2019 8:38 pm
  • BigDeep

    Eric and team PewPew, I have been enjoying your up-to-date articles and reviews for a couple of years now. Thank you! My first question is an easy one. I am looking for a drop-in and wonder why you specified the Leapers-UTG model 4 (mtu015ss) and no mention of the M-Lok version (mtu015ssm). The M-Lok version seems to have more versatility but wonder if you tested and concluded it didn’t have the same durability as the Pro model 4?

    January 28, 2019 6:53 pm
    • Eric Hung

      Hey! That M-Lok version seems to be the upgrade to the regular model. It should be good to go! We'll be updating the article shortly.

      January 29, 2019 9:58 pm
  • Elliot Stabler

    I understand you wanted to only list M-lock due to the study you mentioned. But a lot of people are set on key mod due to some gear they already have, or what they can pick up used from a buddy since everyone is jumping to M-lock. I would have appreciated like a "JV team" listing of good key-mod options. For example: Bootleg Pic-mod.

    December 8, 2018 6:58 am
  • Jose

    Thank you for creating this site! I'm a noob and this is exactly what I've been looking for to learn.

    November 6, 2018 7:04 am
    • John

      Our pleasure, Jose! That's exactly why we're here.

      November 6, 2018 10:39 am
  • Bob McNamara

    My favorite does not seem to get much love on the interwebs: the ALG Defense EMRv2 M-Lok. Relatively cheap at ~$150, light at 9 oz. for the 13" model, no rails to add weight or cut my fingers (except for the front BUIS), 1.75" diameter, and M-Lok slots EVERYWHERE. You can hang anything you want on this rail with the M-Lok slots without the weight penalty of quad rails. Designed by Bill Geissele and sold through his wife's company ("ALG" stands for Amy Lynn Geissele), it is simply an excellent piece of kit that does not get the publicity it deserves.

    September 16, 2018 10:25 am
  • Rob

    Is it possible to use a low profile adjustable gas block with the magpul drop-in hand guard?

    April 12, 2018 1:47 am
    • Matthew Collins

      Unfortunately no, as the magpul drop-in MOE handguard is designed to attach to an A2 front sight post.

      April 12, 2018 7:12 am
    • jason

      Yes. it can be done. It may look odd sitting in front of the handguard. But all that is required it the use of the standard handguard front end cap installed behing the low profile gas block

      April 30, 2018 9:49 am
  • MuhammedS

    I only wish that the author had taken more time to evaluate the handguards for heat transfer especially with high throughput and handling in a cold environment, If I had to guess, the $30 Magpul might prove an overall better choice than some of the milled metal options.

    November 19, 2017 1:10 pm
    • Eric Hung

      Good point, next time! I don't multiple mag dump to really heat it up...but 60 round rifle competition stages are all fine through these handguards.

      November 19, 2017 2:10 pm
  • Yourdaddy

    You said that you can't add attachments to the Brigand Carbon handguard but they make 2.5" picatinny sections you can put on it.

    Here is what it says on the link you provided:

    "Want to add some accessories? No worries, check out the Brigand Arms 2.5" Picatinny Rail Segment, sold separately. Allows you to add as few or as many accessories as you'd like while maintaining a lightweight rail. It comes with a special backing plate to make sure any accessories you add remain secure at all times."

    October 26, 2017 11:59 pm
    • Eric Hung

      You're right!

      November 7, 2017 5:13 pm
      • Big Mike

        But you can't use it up front for a BUIS. But they do make them now with attached rails just for that.

        October 13, 2018 6:39 am
  • SteveMc

    WOW! You have listed some expensive gear, Eric. Name brand, but expensive.
    I bought two hand guards from Mentium-USA with steel nuts for less than $125. They are located in Houston TX. I just checked out their website and they are growing! Check them out. I'm not affiliated with them - just a satisfied customer.

    October 26, 2017 7:30 am
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks Steve, I haven't heard of Mentium but maybe I'll check them out.

      I've had bad experiences with cheaper rails from gun shows and Ebay. They sit in a box in the back of the shed now.

      October 26, 2017 2:39 pm
  • Wealker

    Please do not refer to the AR as an assault weapon it’s not an assault weapon by Definition. You lose credibility when you do this

    October 25, 2017 10:02 am
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks, fixed!

      October 25, 2017 3:22 pm
  • Brian H

    I love all your post, but I feel you played a few favorites in this one. Maybe like you said it's just the Handguards that you are familiar with. That's fine you always write a good blog.
    I wish you would try a Fortis, also an Odin. I just put an Odin on an F1 308 skelonitized build and the mounting system was one of the best I have ever used. Thanks and keep up the good work.

    Brian H

    October 25, 2017 5:03 am
    • Eric Hung

      Hi Brian, I've tried out a Fortis Night Rail before...but the attachment system was really difficult and I bent one of the front rails the first time I brought it out.

      October 26, 2017 2:35 pm
  • Sparky

    I’ve purchased 2 from Unique ARs out of Idaho. One of their stock models and one I designed. I think they are worth a look. Good article btw

    October 25, 2017 3:25 am
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks Sparky!

      October 26, 2017 2:35 pm
  • Jim M.

    I've been curious about that Brigand Arms carbon fiber. Thanks. Great article.

    October 25, 2017 2:56 am
  • Wzrd

    Love my Geissele & SLRs. Not cheap though.

    October 24, 2017 4:06 pm
    • Eric Hung

      That's for sure! My handguards get all beat up so I try to balance best-bang-for-the-buck.

      October 26, 2017 2:34 pm
  • Paul R Shaffer

    Have you looked at the STNGR rail systems? Would be interested to see how they stack up to the competition in your opinion. Love mine, as I have purchased 2 so far and will be using them as my go to rails in the future. Very similar design to Spike's and the Aero Atlas.

    October 24, 2017 3:33 pm
    • Wzrd

      Never heard of them but I just looked at their site. Style remind me of Fortis. Will keep in mind for future builds.

      October 24, 2017 4:08 pm
    • Eric Hung

      Hey Paul, thanks...I haven't heard of them but may try them out in the future.

      October 26, 2017 2:34 pm