Handguards are handguards, right?  Wrong. There are actually a few differences between a free-floating and drop-in AR-Style handguard, besides looking cool and getting all the chicks. In today’s blog, I will cover the major differences between free-floating and drop-in (often referred to as standard) handguards and list a few pros and cons to both options.

Free-Floating Handguards

Free-floating handguards don’t touch the barrel. Instead, they kind of hang out secured to the barrel nut. Basically, free-floating refers to the relationship between the barrel and the handguard, and it’s a slightly distant one, compared to that of the drop-in handguards.

The big difference that’s easily noticeable on free-floating handguard isn’t just about looks, but the fact that there’s a piece or two missing.

First up, we have the missing delta ring. If you decide to upgrade, you’ll forgo the delta ring and use a barrel nut. This is how your new handguard will stay secure because it’s not magic, something has to keep that handguard “floating.”

Another component missing with free-floating handguards is the plate that sits behind the front-sight post. You don’t need the delta ring and this plate because these pieces are used to apply pressure and tension, keeping your handguards secured to the barrel. Free-floating handguards do not rely on pressure or tension. 

Instead, a free-floating handguard relies on a few screws that hold the handguard secured to the barrel nut.

What’s less obvious is what’s happening to your barrel when it’s allowed to float freely between the handguards.

Did you know, when you fire your weapon, the barrel moves? And I’m not talking about recoil, but oscillation and harmonics. When you fire a round, your barrel has a slight, but natural oscillation. This means there’s a bit of rotation going on. There’s also something called harmonics, and that’s the vibrations coming off the barrel.

Now, here’s your argument often brought up between free-floating and drop-in handguards. When you have free-floating handguards on your rifle, it’s not restricting this natural movement. Drop-in handguards, on the other hand, are a little more restricted because there’s all this pressure and tension added, which affects accuracy. Now, how much accuracy is affected will depend on a few other things, but it can, in fact, to some extent mess with accuracy. I wouldn’t go blaming your poor shot placement on drop-in handguards, right away; it’s probably the user. But, for those further shots, you might possibly see a difference when using one handguard over the other.

If you look up Larry Vickers’ videos, there’s a ton of videos on YouTube where you can actually see the barrel’s movement when a shot is fired. If anything, they’re kind of fun to watch.

So, a quick re-cap. Free-floating handguards let the barrel’s natural movement happen because it lets the barrel float freely under the handguard. And since barrels are designed to be accurate, shooters should let it do what it’s naturally designed to do (oscillate with harmonics).

Free-floating handguards are actually quite simple, and if you’re looking to do an upgrade, all you need is a barrel nut and some designated set screws.

AR-15 Barrel Nut for Free-Floating Handguards
Photo Credit: Brownells/Barrel Nut

Now, what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t give you the arguments on both sides of the table? Here’s what you might hear for those not in favor of free-floating handguards…expenses, potentially a lot of them.

Yes, free-floating handguards can be more expensive, especially if you want quality. But the biggest argument is, once you change one thing, you’ll have to change others. And once you start shopping around, you’ll have sellers in your ear telling you, “oh, you need this upgrade and that upgrade.”

Depending on your handguards’ length, one upgrade you might have to make is with the gas block. Yes, you might have to purchase a low-profile gas block. But, when it comes to needing new this and new that, well, it’s your gun. If you are going for tacti-cool, then go for it (ain’t my gun, ain’t my money). 

 

Besides safety and maybe some shooting advice, my job isn’t to tell you what to do and not to do with your weapon (so long as it’s legal). We’re clearly pro 2A in this office. Although what I will say is, if you want to do an upgrade simply because of looks, but you don’t actually know how to shoot the thing, well, you might want to take a step back. Because that’s where we get into safety. Shooting isn’t about looking cool. It’s a plus; I have some pretty decked-out rifles myself. However, if you can’t be safe, if you don’t know how to be accurate, if you don’t know the legalities, you should probably get that figured out before you start spending money on a tool you don’t know how to use.

Pros and Cons of Using Free-Floating Handguards

Pros

  • Can be slightly lighter
  • Allows for natural oscillation and harmonics of the barrel
  • Provides a more stable platform for accessories

Cons

  • More expensive
  • Might be required to change out for compatible components, such as a low profile gas block (not always necessary, depending on the length of your new handguards) 

Drop-In (Standard) Handguards

Drop-in handguards get their name because they literally drop in. And depending on which gun you’re touching that day, they can be easily taken off or make you want to throw the entire rifle out a 10-story building (if you don’t have a helpful tool in this situation). 

AR-15 Handguards
Photo Credit: Fab Defense/Handguards

I worked in an armory, way back when, and I found myself often having to remove handguards—unfortunately, we didn’t have that kind of money, or maybe the person in charge of our spending account didn’t care, so there were no tools, other than my hands to get the job done. 

I was working with the drop-in handguards, and for the most part, they’re pretty easy to work with—until you get that one. This is why you’ll sometimes see people using tools—the thing we didn’t have in my armory—to remove the handguards on their AR. Ideally, you just pull down on the delta ring, and then the handguards pop out—takes all of two seconds. As you can see in the video above, the individual uses a tool to remove the drop-in handguards. Below, you’ll see the individual using his hands.

AR-15 Delta Ring Assembly for Standard Drop-in Handguards
Photo Credit: Bravo Company USA/Delta Ring Assembly

Anyway, sidebar over. While drop-in handguards are held in by the pressure from a delta ring and the plate behind your front-sight post, they do move around some. They shouldn’t move so much that it gets in the way of your shooting. If that’s happening, something isn’t right. This movement is also the reason some shooters choose to upgrade to a free-floating handguard.

The above might not be an exciting video, but it covers the basics of getting your drop-in rail in place. What I want you to see in this video, besides instructions, is the fact that you don’t necessarily need a tool to push your delta-ring down. It can be done with your hands if it’s not being stubborn.

Pros and Cons of Using Drop-In Handguards

Pros

  • Typically cheaper
  • Don’t need to purchase a low profile gas block

Cons

  • Can be slightly heavier
  • Doesn’t allow natural oscillation and harmonics of the barrel
  • Can hinder accuracy

 

 

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