HomeGunsBest AR-15 Handguards : Free-Float & Drop-In

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

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Weekly Newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, offers and special announcements.

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

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.

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

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

Summary of Our Top Picks

Table of Contents


M-LOK vs KeyMod

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

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

Best Free-Floating Handguards

Free-floating handguns are your best bet if you are building your own AR-15 upper.


These 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-inch handguards with 16-inch barrels since I use the c-clamp grip.

7. Rosco Gas Block
Rosco gas block

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-inch M-LOK handguard. The VYPR is the most “standard” looking one and what I’d recommend.

STNGR VYPR (front) and HWK (rear)

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

Fit/finish/color was 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 are sometimes some blemished versions, so you can save even more if you don’t care to have a “perfect” rail.

Best Bang-For-The-Buck Handguard



Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

  • Length: 15″
  • Total Weight: 11.5 oz

What’s your take on the VYPR? Rate it below.

*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-inch pinned barrel so it sits flush with the cutout.

HWK Rail from STNGR Site
HWK Rail from STNGR Site

Plus, it’s only a few bucks more than the VYPR for the 13.5-inch and 15-inch 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

Runner-Up Value Pick


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.

  • 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 sale), 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 Combat Handguards

Best Full Pic Rail


at OpticsPlanet

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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

Comes with seven 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
  • Length: 12.625″
  • Total Weight: 9.9 oz

4. UTG Pro M-LOK


at OpticsPlanet

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-inch models or a  17-inch for longer barrels.

Here is the 13-inch on my 11.5-inch pistol upper.

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

5. Yankee Hill Machine Quad Rail

Best Free-Float 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 inches but will cost you a couple more ounces in weight compared to M-LOK varieties.

  • 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.

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

7. Tyrant CNC Nexgen 15″ AR Handguard

This handguard from Tyrant CNC checks a lot of boxes for features and design. Made from 6000 series aluminum, the Nexgen 15″ Handguard comes with a custom barrel nut and wrench for installation.

M-LOK slots are located in the 12, 3, 6, and 9 o’clock positions, and short Picatinny rail sections can be found near the receiver and muzzle. There are also QD slots on both sides, near the front and rear of the rail.

One of the coolest features is the rubber grip panels plugged into the bottom that provides exceptional grip. These are removable by sections in case the shooter wants to utilize the M-LOK slots instead.

Tyrant has abused these handguards to make sure they stand up, including drop tests, torsion, hot and cold cycles, and even 10,000 rounds of fire using semi and full auto.


at Tyrant CNC

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Honorable Mention Free-Float Handguards

Yes…there’s going to be a lot of disagreement in the list. Here are 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 are 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 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

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.

Most Affordable Drop-In Handguard


at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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.

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 around $30 for a mid-length gas system…I think that’s a good deal.

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

1. Midwest Industries Two-Piece Drop-In Handguard

Best Overall Drop-In


at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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

  • 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).

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

3. Troy Industries Quad Rail

Best Drop-In Quad Rail


at Brownells

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

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

  • 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.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. That’s my list of the best AR-15 handguards for your AR-15.

Aero AR-15 10.5" Pistol
Aero AR-15 10.5″ Pistol

Any experience with the ones we listed? Let us know what you think in the comments below. And if you’re in the beginning stages of learning about the AR-15, you might want to check out our comprehensive AR-15 guide.

Read the full article here

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