I’ve found myself asking the question “What’s the ideal handguard length?” time and time again, but after having experimented with many different configurations on the AR-15, I find that there’s no “perfect” combination but rather the answer simply depends on what the shooter wants and needs.
The best way to figure out the best setup is to ask yourself: What is my preferred grip? Is a free floating barrel important to me? Is weight and bulk a concern? And, What kind of crap am I going to hang off of it?
Your answer may vary from rifle to rifle depending on their purpose as well (after all an SPR is likely going to be set up differently then a patrol carbine).
Grip and stance
As a man standing 5 foot 8 inches tall with a stocky build, I’m comfortable shooting hips squared to target, head forward and stock around center chest. My support hand goes extended out on the handguard, pulling back on the vertical grip with much of the palm contacting the side of the rail and my thumb rolled over the top. With an extended grip, I am more partial to a longer handguard whereas someone who uses a broomstick grip or shoots cross body with the stock in the shoulder pocket may not be.
This is by no means supposed to be an article covering “the correct way” to hold a rifle and shoot, but this has to be addressed in order for you to assess your needs. We’re all different. The practical information listed in this article is based on my personal experience and preferences so apply them as a frame of reference and figure out your needs.
Carbine length: 7 inches
The standard M4 handguard is about 7-inch long, no matter if it’s railed or plastic. Midlengths have had a huge surge in the marketplace over the last several years. However, the carbine is still a popular option.
For me, if the handguard is bare with the stock one-click in from all the way extended, I can get good extension with my hand and wrap well around the guard (except the M4 double heat shield plastic handguard is too thick for me). The problem arises when a flashlight, laser, etc, starts crowding up the front of the gun. From here I’ve found that I can maintain a decent grip, but am forced to compromise in some way. A flashlight on the support side takes up enough rail to push my hand back a few inches and depending on the size makes that placement unfeasible.
On the firing hand side a tape switch or a broomstick hold is required for quick activation and should you have to transition to the weak shoulder — again a compromised grip. Mounting on the bottom will cause the same issues only ambidextrously. When using a PEQ or other laser, I prefer top mounting for balance and zeroing purposes and with the size of most models will prevent me from wrapping my thumb over the top of the handguard.
Midlength: 9 inches
Midlength handguards allow for a front sight base in front on a midlength barrel or work on a carbine with a low profile gas block, and it provides the shooter a few extra inches to wrap the supporting hand around.
My grip moves a bit forward on these handguards and with a fixed front sight base and without accessories is quite adequate. I still find this length to be a tad short for my preference with crap on the end of my gun, but it’s nonetheless an improvement.
I have one of these with a scout light mounted on the firing hand side with a tape switch and during weak side shooting definitely still feel some crowding. The extra length on the top rail frees up some space that helps get a PEQ out of the thumb’s way and this is the shortest length I would recommend for a bipod as well.
Midlength extended: 11 inches
These handguards will partially cover or fully cover a low profile gas block on a carbine or mid gas system. If you still want to use irons, the front site will have to be mounted to the handguard.
Generally speaking I really like the 11-inch rail length. It offers enough space to get an ideal extended grip on the gun with extra room for most accessories so that they won’t interfere with a proper support hand grip, but note that in order for that to be true I find that lights have to be mounted at an angle and either a fixed front sight or folding one in the up position or mounted backwards. When folded rearward I can feel my thumb contacting the front sight post and that doesn’t really give me a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Rifle length: 12 inches
Most of these, depending on manufacturer, are the correct length to use on a rifle length gas system with a fixed front sight base or for use with low profile gas blocks.
I feel like the rifle length rail, which is about 12 inches, is ideal all around for my size and stance. It offers the perfect amount of rail estate past where I grip for back up irons, lights, lasers, bipods, etc, without unneeded metal on the gun.
Beyond rifle length: 13 to 15 inches
Handguards between 13 to 15 inches or longer is, in my opinion, often unnecessary. There is a point where I just don’t feel I need the extra space, however, there are several applications why someone would want a handguard this long.
First and foremost what comes to mind is barricade shooting. With that long of a tube it would be very easy to rest the rifle on a support surface without worrying about contacting the barrel. These longer rails offer additional sight radius as well. The other use could apply to some of the shorter rails mentioned depending on their diameter and barrel length, but using the handguard as an outer sleeve for a suppressor. Those suckers get hot and running a can under the handguard could definitely pay dividends to unwary hands or other body parts it may contact when you sling a hot gun.
Civilian shooters faced with a market full of excellent accessories and a limited pocket book so hopefully this has helped someone figure out what is right for them.