Best Handguard Lengths for Rifles

Handguards are an indispensable rifle accessory. They offer protection from the heat dissipated from the barrel, allow slots to mount other accessories, and improve your grip on your rifle during firing, improving the accuracy to an extent. The handguard is such a crucial part of your rifle that without it, the scope of modifications is severely limited. Based on the purpose of your rifle build, whether hunting, range shooting, or home defense, there are multiple barrel sizes available and based on it the handguard types also change. Choosing the correct handguard length is important as the weight of the handguard will change accordingly and may cause the rifle to dip forward while aiming from the excess weight.

Why use a handguard?

  • Longer sight radius for Iron Sights: Iron Sights provide a larger sight radius because the rail may be pushed out past the gas block and closer to the barrel’s end. A wider sight radius enables accurate long-range shots.
  • Recoil control is improved: This depends on your shooting style and skill level. In general, you may have your support side hand further out if your rail is longer, regardless of the barrel length you use. Using an AFG, front grip, or the tried-and-true C-clamp hand posture, the wider you can extend your hand on the rifle, the better you’ll be able to manage recoil, resulting in faster follow-up shots.
  • Better Accuracy. According to some calculations, the rifle with a Free Float Handguard has a.5 to.75 MOA advantage over drop-in rails. This can imply the difference between a hit and striking the soil around the target at greater engagement distances. This is accomplished by allowing the barrel to float freely within the handguard, making no touch throughout its entire length. The harmonics of the barrel are unaffected by forces applied to the handguard.

Different Handguard Lengths

Out of the multiple handguard lengths, three are the most standard offerings by most manufacturers:

  • 10-inch
  • 12-inch
  • 15-inch

10-inch Handguard

This pistol handguard length is suitable for rifles with a barrel length of 10.5 inches or longer. These can be safely used on pistol, carbine, and mid-length gas systems but not suitable for Marlin loop lever rifles or similar build from Henry Repeating Arms. You can also install the 9.5 inch M-LOK handguard but about 1 inch of the barrel may remain exposed which might affect the accuracy. Not many manufacturers offer handguard lengths shorter than this, as the gun loses serious firepower. For smaller barrel lengths it is never recommended to go for a handguard that leaves the gun barrel exposed more than 2 inches unless you are sure about the build and have consulted a registered gunsmith beforehand. 

12-inch Handguard

This mid-length handguard is more suited for rifles with at least 12.5 inch or longer gun barrels. It is the most preferred handguard length for 14.5-inch rifles, even though it does leave a few inches of the gun barrel exposed. Most people prefer this arrangement as their hand will never come in contact with the exposed area and the absence of a handguard over the 2.5 inches of the barrel means the rifle is comparatively lighter and more stable due to the changed center of gravity.

15-Inch Handguard

Suited for full-length rifles, the 15 M-LOK handguard length is ideal for longer barrels used in precision shooting. Since they have more slots compared to the shorter ones, it is suitable for tactical purposes to mount things like Angled Forward Grips, hand stops, Keymod, or M-LOK accessories. Moreover, the extended length helps achieve accuracy in long iron sights and offers more space for hand placement. 

Factors to Consider while Buying a Handguard

Barrel Length

The barrel length of your rifle determines the length of your handguard. Having a handguard length shorter (to an extent) or even longer than the rifle barrel poses a safety hazard. If not careful, the gases expunged from the barrel can burn your hand in handguards longer than the barrel. The heat is also detrimental to the handguard’s lifespan. While this can be bypassed by adding a muzzle break, it is not an economical or practical solution.

Gas system

While this is only applicable in AR15 rifles, the gas system also plays a role in choosing the handguard length. Your gas system length is the minimum length of your handguard. Being the driving mechanism behind the smooth operation of an AR15 rifle, it is crucial to protect the gas system from dings and cracks.  If the gas tube gets bent, broken, or cracked, the rifle won’t work and becomes a very expensive paperweight.

Accessory Choice

The accessory quantity and their overall size also affect the handguard length. For long-range shooting, a bipod, a scope, and fiber optic sights are important. Optionally, you can attach a rangefinder for determining the shot. All this needs to be attached to the rifle using the slots in the handguard. If the handguard is small enough, the accessory clutter will alter the rifle’s center of gravity and may also hamper the working of any specific accessory. For tactical purposes, you may need a flashlight attached and a rifle sling. For competitive shooting, you need a longer handguard to extend the distance between the iron sights.

Which Handguard Length is the best?

There’s a lot to consider while designing your rifle, especially with today’s abundance of aftermarket assistance. When assembling your gun, keep in mind what you want it to do.

After you’ve decided on a barrel length, you’ll need to choose a handguard that fits the rifle’s purpose.

Keeping the rail approximately an inch away from the muzzle device will give you plenty of room to work, without risking damaging your handguard. If you want the handguard to extend past the barrel, make sure you choose the proper handguard and muzzle brake or flash suppressor combo. Your handguard may otherwise burst open like a flower.

Wrapping Up

For first-timers and novices, the handguard length may seem overwhelming and they might opt for the longest handguard for attaching the most rifle accessories. Later they realize their flaw and revert to the right handguard length only after an eye-opening mishap. As time passes, they understand that when it comes down to the right handguard length, you may utilize any handguard length you like as long as you stick to the minimum and maximum lengths specified.