One of the biggest reasons AR-15s are so popular is their customizability. And one of the most popular components to upgrade? The handguards.
So what are things to think about when it comes to these quad rail upgrades? Let’s go over a few best practices.
Two-Piece vs. Free-Float
Two-piece rails are the easiest to install. You simply:
- Remove the plastic handguards by pushing the delta ring towards the receiver.
- Lift off the pieces.
Sounds easy, but the spring behind the delta ring is strong. You need three hands, a friend or a handguard-removal tool such as Promag’s AR-15 and M16 forearm removal tool.
The new rails are a direct replacement for the plastic handguards.
Free-float rail systems require more work. They are usually one complete piece that mounts to a replacement barrel nut. No part of the rail touches the barrel. This helps with cooling and accuracy.
You will usually need to remove the flash suppressor, front-sight post or gas block, gas tube, delta-ring assembly and barrel nut.
This would be a great time to replace any part of your upper assembly like the barrel, flash suppressor, gas block and front sight since you would be removing everything.
Tools required to install a free-float system include:
- A Vice
- Upper AR-15 Action Block
- Small Hammer
- Small Pliers
- Hex Wrenches
- Torque Wrench
- A Good AR-15 Multi-Tool
If you acquire all of the tools necessary to install a free-float rail system, you also have all of the tools necessary to build your own upper from scratch.
Be prepared to have all of your shooting buddies bring you their rifles to install their rail systems. It is easy to do with the proper tools.
What Size Handguard Do I Need?
For the most part, AR-15 uppers have three different sizes:
- Rifle length
For the handguards:
- Carbine lengths are 16” or less
- Mid-length are usually found on 16” to 18” barreled uppers and use a mid-length gas system
- Rifle length handguards fit on a 20” barrel
For the rails:
- Carbines take 6-3/4″ rails
- Mid-length take 8-1/2″ rails
- Rifle-length rails are 12” long
Exceptions are Colt carbines, which are 6-7/8” long. Either way, when it comes to AR-15 quad rails and handguards, size matters.
Covers vs. Ladders
Once the rails are installed, they look great, although are not exactly comfortable to grip. The sharp edges of the rail can cut or rub your hand the wrong way.
Because of this, many AR-15 owners use rail covers or ladders to protect the rails and their hands when shooting.
- Covers completely cover the rails and offer the most protection.
- Ladders fill in the portion between the rails, providing some comfort and protection, but are not quite as bulky as covers.
Have any tips for upgrading AR-15s with quad rails? Let us know in the comments section below!
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in December of 2010. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.