Handguards & Rails
Custom AR-15 Handguards and Rail Systems
When it comes to upgrading the front end of their AR-15, many shooters focus on their muzzle mounts, with what goes on over the barrel often coming as a secondary concern when weighed against the rest of the gun’s parts. However, handguards and rail systems can define the gun’s look, feel and functionality, so it’s best to take care because choosing what’s best for your rifle means that you’re ultimately going to be choosing what’s best for you.
You may prefer custom ar handguards or custom ar-15 handguards. You could be looking at custom ar-15 free float rails, custom KeyMod rail systems or custom AR-15 furniture kits. You may weigh free float ar-15 handguards vs. free float ar-15 rail systems. Whatever your interest, our guide can help you figure out which is right for you.
Handguard vs. Rail
So what’s the difference between a handguard and a rail system?
A handguard is simply a way to protect your hand from the heat generated by the barrel as you fire the gun. Handguards do not necessarily need to have points that allow for the attachment of accessories, though custom handguards with such options are becoming more and more readily available and even come standard for some builds.
However, handguards without places for the mounting of accessories or optics are often popular with shooters who like the no-frills look such handguards present. Probably the most traditional examples of handguards that offer no space for attachments would be the A1, A2, A3 and A4 model handguards that came standard with M16 rifles, as well as the wooden handguards supplied with the initial AK series of rifles.
Rail systems are very similar to regular handguards. Much like a regular handguard, a rail system also serves to protect the hands from heat generated along the barrel when the weapon is fired. However, rail systems also offer an area or areas for the attachment of accessories, usually via a rail along the top portion of the handguard, though rail systems also exist that feature rails on the bottom and sides as well.
Whether you use a regular single-rail system or one that includes attachment points along the sides and bottom, using a rail system is one of the quickest and easiest ways to build your own custom AR-15 handguard.
The most common form of rail used for the attachment of accessories is the Picatinny rail, which takes its name from the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey that evaluated the rail systems to ensure that they met federal standards.
Free Float vs. Standard Drop-In Handguards and Rails
There are two main styles of mounting systems for handguards and rail systems — free-floating and standard/drop-in. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but it’s ultimately up to you to choose which one you prefer.
Free-floating handguards, so named because they “float” around the barrel of the rifle without actually touching it, are designed to be secured to the barrel nut and then support their own weight as well as the weight of the accessories attached to them all along the length of the barrel.
For this reason, they’re often heavier and more expensive than drop-in handguards because of the amount and consequent weight of metal or other materials needed to ensure the handguard can support its own weight.
Despite this, free-floating handguards offer better accuracy than other options due to the fact that the handguard does not touch the barrel, meaning it cannot interfere as much in the overall accuracy of the firearm by weighing down the barrel. Free-floating handguards are some of the most popular choices for handguard selection, and many companies offer free-floating AR-15 rail systems and free-floating AR-15 handguards in a variety of styles, lengths and colors.
Drop-in handguards are usually a much simpler option than free-floating handguards. They’re held place by pressure from the handguard cap and delta ring assembly, which means they have more points of contact than a free-floating handguard, resulting in less weight.
However, they tend to move a bit when installed. This movement is also transferred to the barrel during firing because the handguard contacts the barrel at both ends. This movement can be offset by attaching optics, but one also has to be wary about pressure or bending when holding onto the rifle itself. While drop-in handguards are not as popular as free-floating ones, they are a much more plentiful, much more cost-effective option, especially for the budget or novice shooter.
Types of Rails
There are three main types of rails that allow for attachments to be installed, each with their own pros and cons. No matter what style you choose, though, a rail system is one of the best ways to start down the road toward making your own custom handguard.
Picatinny rails are probably the most common rail style seen on rail systems today. First developed for the U.S. military by the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, the Picatinny rail system is an enhanced, updated version of the Weaver rail system first introduced in the 1930s:
- The first Picatinny rails served as a way to mount optics onto the receivers of large-caliber firearms, but they have since become so commonplace many rifles now use Picatinny rails as a replacement for iron sights.
- Since they are so widespread, many parts and accessories are geared toward the use of the Picatinny system.
- In fact, many manufacturers offer custom Picatinny rail systems as one of the options available when purchasing parts or designing a firearm through their site.
However, the Picatinny system does have its disadvantages. Compared to other systems, such as the KeyMod system, the Picatinny rail system can be very front-heavy, especially if it requires any kind of adapter to fit a certain part or accessory.
A remedy for this is to find a Picatinny rail system that uses only small sections of rail in key areas so the weight the Picatinny system adds on is kept to an absolute minimum. Whether you go for several small sections or one long rail, the sheer ubiquity of Picatinny rails means you’ll always find a part or accessory you’ll be able to use.
M-LOK was designed in 2014 by the Austin, Texas-based Magpul Industries as a variation on the KeyMod system. M-LOK was designed from the get-go to work better with polymer accessories, and it accomplishes that by simply using a series of holes.
Accessories for the M-LOK system come with T-shaped, two-directional lugs that allow each piece be mounted on either the front or the back of the handguard, depending on user preference.
Just like the KeyMod system before it, Magpul’s M-LOK is an open-source system, so you can choose from not only Magpul’s own extensive range of accessories but also the ranges of every firearms company that chooses to stock the M-LOK system, such as:
- ODIN Works
- Spike’s Tactical
- Seekins Precision
- Strike Industries
The wide variety of firearms companies that stock M-LOK-compliant accessories means you’re one step closer to owning your favorite custom M-LOK rail system.
The KeyMod system was first released in 2012 through a partnership between VLTOR Weapon Systems and Noveske Rifleworks. The KeyMod takes its name from the keyhole-shaped mounting slots used to attach the guard to the barrel.
The KeyMod system enables the direct attachment of accessories such as red dot sights, flashlights or foregrips, all without the need for an adapter. Simply line up the lugs on the part with the round ports on the KeyMod rail, slide the new accessory into place and tighten the screws.
Since no additional adapter is needed, using the KeyMod system cuts down on the overall weight of the gun itself, making it easier to use, control and transport. The KeyMod ports are also rounded off, giving them a much better feel against bare hands or even gloves than the sharp edges of traditional Picatinny rails.
Additionally, the KeyMod system is open-source, meaning manufacturers can use KeyMod as a blueprint to produce accessories without having to pay for rights from the original developers — which only serves to increase the number of KeyMod-friendly accessories out there and bring you one step closer to your custom KeyMod rail system.
AR-15 Handrail Parts and Accessories
Since there’s such variety in the choice of custom AR-15 rail systems you can use when designing our gun, so too do they have a large selection of parts to choose from, with a huge number of companies making after-market parts in any style or combination you could think of.
Picatinny Rail Sections
Several different companies make Picatinny rail sections, including AB Arms, Seekins Precision and JP Enterprises. Usually, these come mounted to a rail system as a full set, but companies like AB Arms also offer them as individual pieces that mount onto your existing handguard.
KeyMod Rail Sections
KeyMod rail sections are incredibly plentiful, with companies like Fortis, Rainier Arms, Odin Works and Strike Industries making them in a variety of styles and sizes, including full-on handguards. Odin Works offers a 9.5” and a 12” handguard, while Fortis offers its REV KeyMod handguard in a 9” and a 14” size, respectively.
M-LOK Rail Sections
Magpul’s M-LOK rail system is a strong contender for the rail system market, and several different companies support it, including Seekins Precision, Strike Industries, Spike’s Tactical and Odin Works. Odin Works even offers its O2 M-LOK handguard in a variety of lengths, ranging from 9.5” all the way up to 15.5”.
Sling attachment rings are one of the most ubiquitous pieces of gear, and they show up on rifles worldwide, whether as stock parts or as after-market pieces purchased from a retailer. Many companies offer sling attachment pieces on their parts list, and almost all of them strive to include the three main rail systems. Companies that make sling attachment pieces include Magpul, Noveske, Fortis and even relative newcomer Tactical Link, which offers a Picatinny rail sling mount in a variety of colors.
Handstop kits are another name for the front grip or vertical grip, which many shooters use to offer a better point of contact to the rifle than gripping the handguard itself. Of course, Magpul has its M-LOK offerings, but other companies have joined in on the handstop game, too — including Fortis, Odin Works and ERGO.
Getting dirt or grime all up in your rail system can mean the difference between a tight fit and attachments that wobble with every shot you fire. One way to keep said dust and dirt off your rail is through the use of a rail cover, and there are several companies that make them. As always, Magpul pushes the M-LOK line, but other companies offer solid contenders as well, including Strike Industries and Seekins Precision.
While flashlights are a common accessory for nighttime missions, not many companies seem to make dedicated flashlight mounts. Many, like Burris and Aero Precision, roll them in with their dedicated optics mounts or scope rings, but Odin Works actually makes a 1” flashlight mount that’s compatible with the KeyMod rail system.
Many companies make bipods in a variety of styles, options and sizes, including ones that mesh with Picatinny rails, M-LOK, KeyMod or even all three at once. However, true adapters are few and far between, with only Odin Works and Accu-Tac making any kind of bipod adapter system. Odin Works makes bipod adapters for all three of the major rail systems, while Accu-Tac has a Picatinny rail adapter offering.
High Rise Mount
While being able to increase how high your optics sit relative to your rail system is definitely an appreciated feature, only UTG seems to make dedicated high rise mounts, in half-inch, .59” and .83” heights. Rather, many companies instead attach the riser mounts right to the optics in question, as is the case with Bushnell’s TRS-25 Hi-Rise AR Optics.
Wing Tactical Is Your One-Stop Shop for Custom AR-15 Parts
Whether it’s custom AR-15 rail systems, custom AR-15 rails, or even just a simple custom handguard, Wing Tactical has it all. Founded in 2013, we pride ourselves on providing exceptional customer service and quality merchandise, whether you’re here looking at parts for your first rifle or your fifteenth. We cater to the needs of law enforcement, military personnel, hunters, target shooters, your regular run-of-the-mill civilian gun enthusiast or anyone else who might need or want some of the best quality firearms accessories, parts and kits on the market.
In addition to our AR-15 rails and rail systems, we offer a wide variety of rifle and handgun accessories and parts, including:
- Barrel assemblies and lower receivers
No matter what you’re looking for, Wing Tactical has the part or parts you need, whether it’s something simple like a new barrel or something more complex, like a brand new rifle. If you’re looking to get parts to customize your AR-15 or build your own custom AR-15, we can help. Contact us today.