In this article I will be describing two different types of AR-15 handguards. I will be examining the differences between free floated and non-free floated handguards. I’ll be describing the pros and cons of each setup and will try to assist the reader in choosing the setup that works best for them.
A non-free floated handguard is characterized by direct contact with the barrel. This in effect puts any pressure applied to the handguard onto the barrel as well. This pressure can come from attachments such as bipods, vertical grips, or even added tension on the sling. This can have the effect of changing the point of impact even for the same point of aim. This is done because even though your rear sight will not change position your front sight, if mounted to the barrel, will change slightly due to the pressure. This is not a huge deal at short distances but it becomes more pronounced when you go to the further ranges. For a person shooting only close range and not in need of pin-point lifesaving accuracy then this is a very viable option and can cut down on the price of an AR if you’re looking at your initial purchase. This is some companies consider free floated handguards a special item or an upgrade and will price accordingly.
The other option you have in the debate is the free floated handguard. This is done by installing a free floating barrel nut that should come with your free floating handguard. This will break the contact from the barrel and will in turn ensure that the pressure on the handguard does not transfer through to your barrel. This lends an immediate increase in accuracy to any rifle that was originally built with, or changed to non-free floated handguard. This is not always necessary in the case of the casual shooter but for extreme, long range accuracy it is an almost vital and certainly effective way to increase accuracy.
There are different kinds of handguards to choose from in the free floated category and the two main choices are one piece and split handguards. The one piece guards are going to be more difficult to install because the installer must remove the front sight post and any other muzzle break or flash hider that is installed. If you’re having it installed by another person this can add to the installation time and therefore add to the price. If choosing to do it yourself it will just add to your work and you will need to purchase some specialty tools. One advantage that the one piece system has is that it doesn’t have multiple parts to move around and rattle. There are also no connecting screws to come loose and mess you up at the worst possible moment. The second option is the two piece or split handguard. This option is often easier to install as it takes less overall work. To start with it is not always necessary to remove the front sight post when doing a split guard install. It might still be required if removing a single guard to start with unless salvaging it is not in your plans. The second and more obvious advantage to this setup is that it’s easier to do by yourself, and involves fewer tools. This can drastically cut down on your cost out of pocket because you’re really only paying for the cost of materials and there is no labor to shell out your money for.
In summary, both of these solutions will work for most casual shooters and the non-free floated guard will be the most cost effective way for a beginner that might be on a tighter budget. If you do end up deciding to use a free floated handguard then you can rest assured that if you get a good product from the manufacturer then it is money very well spent. That goes for those casuals shooting readers and the ones with more ambitious shots in mind.
Operation Parts is a leading supplier of parts and accessories for the AR-15 platform. For more info. please see our web site http://www.operationparts.com