Best AR-15 Handguards [2019]: Free-Float & Drop-In

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

Best AR-15 Handguards
Best AR-15 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.

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.

1. Aero Precision ATLAS

Best Bang-for-the-Buck Handguard
140 at Aero Precision

Prices accurate at time of writing

My current favorite best-bang-for-the-buck free-floating handguard.

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.

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.

2. Midwest Industries M3 GL

My favorite handguard that is featured in Best Lightweight Handguards.  Comes with 8 sides of M-LOK attachment capability.

Also has extra Picatinny rails removed from the top.  And is flat so you can stick on your pressure pads.

  • Price: $190
  • Length: 12.625″
  • Total Weight: 8.8 oz

Readers' Ratings

4.98/5 (205)

Your Rating?

3. Midwest Industries G3M

190 at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

The non-lightened version of the above rail that includes the full Picatinny rail.  If you need to attach more things on top…this is our favorite pick.

Still 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

145 at Optics Planet

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

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

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

199 at Rainier Arms

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

Most Affordable Drop-In Handguard
33 at Brownells

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

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

Pricing

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.  

32 Leave a Reply

  • Jack

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

    14 hours ago
  • 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!

    2 weeks ago
    • David, PPT Editor

      Glad we could help!

      2 weeks ago
  • Steve

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

    1 month ago
  • 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?

    3 months ago
    • 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.

      3 months ago
  • 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.

    5 months ago
  • Jose

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

    6 months ago
    • John

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

      6 months ago
  • 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.

    8 months ago
  • Rob

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

    1 year ago
    • 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

      1 year ago
    • Matthew Collins

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

      1 year ago
  • 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.

    1 year ago
    • 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.

      1 year ago
  • 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."

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      You're right!

      1 year ago
      • 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.

        7 months ago
  • 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.

    1 year ago
    • 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.

      1 year ago
  • 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

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks, fixed!

      1 year ago
  • 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

    1 year ago
    • 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.

      1 year ago
  • 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

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

      Thanks Sparky!

      1 year ago
  • Jim M.

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

    1 year ago
  • Wzrd

    Love my Geissele & SLRs. Not cheap though.

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

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

      1 year ago
  • 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.

    1 year ago
    • Eric Hung

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

      1 year ago
    • Wzrd

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

      1 year ago
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