Why Use A Free Float Handguard?
The hand-guard is the section that surrounds the barrel, and well….guards your hand against the built-up heat of the barrel under firing conditions. They are a practical addition that allows you to use the AR in any mode and in perfect comfort and safety.
The beauty of an AR15 or AR10 is the amount of tinkering that you can do with your gun. Outside of the military, there are probably no two guns in the country that are exactly the same, and that is part of the allure of these rifles. Owners carry out all sorts of modifications and customizations with their weapons, to suit their own particular shooting needs and style, but one modification that sometimes gets missed – mostly because people are so happy with other upgrades that they carry out, they forget to do it – is to modify the handguards. That’s unfortunate because customizing with this area of the rifle can have distinct advantages.
The AR handguard comes in two fundamental configurations – drop in and free floating – and they both have their advantages.
The drop-in type are regarded as the standard fitment on AR10s and AR15s and comprise a two-piece arrangement that literally just drops in behind the sprung delta-ring, which then moves to hold them in place. Drop in guards are also split neatly into two camps; Polymer drop-in handguards, and Railed drop-in handguards. Both types have an internal shield that prevents the heat of the barrel impinging on your fingers.
Free float handguards are slightly different in their fitting and mount directly onto the upper receiver, meaning that none of it touches the barrel itself. This is a subtle but far reaching difference and contributes significantly to giving the rifle better harmonics, which in turn result in slightly better overall accuracy. As with drop-in types, free-float rail guards can be either railed or non-railed
What are the benefits?
Accuracy: Many people who customize are turning to free-floats because of their increased accuracy, but because they allow adaptation to many different accessories that work with the handguard, including mounting of bipods, grips, lights, or lasers and optics. In fact, the free-float rail guard allows for a huge range of accessories, driven by the fact that their versatility make these the driving force behind many tactical rifle builds.
However, accuracy is one of the most-cited reasons for fitting a free-float guard. How much better accuracy? Well, many shooters attest to figures such as 0.5 to 0.75 Minute of Angle (MoA) and that really is significant! Given that MoA is one 60th of a degree, the measurement of MoA is about 1 inch of deviation for every 100 yards and varies at multiples of that figure.
Therefore, at 300 yards, a bullet placement my vary by three inches, and up to eight inches at 800 yards. The free-float guard can reduce that deviation by the stated 0.5” to 0.75”. Obviously, this is more of an issue for sniping, hunting, and longer-range targets, but it’s plain that this can be the difference between a kill or a wound. By comparison, the drop-in type handguard can always have a small wiggle about it as it is only secured in one place, so tends to feel slightly less secure too.
While the free-float hand guard isn’t as easy to fit as the drop-in type. Typically, fitting a free-float will require partial disassembly of the weapon and can take around 35 to 45 minutes to complete and does require some special tooling, notably a vise block and armorer’s wrench, but since you are an accustomed weapon tinkerer, you’ll have those at hand anyway.
Cost: Pricing is always a contentious issue when customizing your gun, and there is a notable difference between these types of guard. Drop-ins are generally cheaper with some- such as the Magpul MOE polymer guard being a cheap as $50 (at time of writing), and most elaborate version available from between $150 and $200 for well-made railed versions. By comparison, you should expect to pay around £200 to $300 for a good free-float, though you can find cheaper deals around if you look.
When it comes to choosing your guard type, you have two main criteria (kind of ignoring cost) to help you; heat deflection and increased performance. The heat deflection and dissipation effects are pretty much the same between both types, so we can discount that as a real factor too, so it really comes down to stability.
Undeniably, the free-float guards offer a distinct increase in accuracy, particularly over increasing ranges, and for many, that is the sole reason for them to carry out customizations. Less of an issue for tactical use, but almost essential for hunting, free floats can give you that extra edge, and who doesn’t want that?