Choosing a handguard doesn’t seem like it’s that much of a decision; after all, it’s just an added bit of material to protect your hands as your AR’s barrel heats during firing. It’s not even a required component so, as long as it does the job, that’s all that matters, right? False. A handguard ought to have more thought given to it, because weight, length, and texture can have a sizeable impact on how comfortable you feel firing your firearm, depending on whether you’re at a range or going hunting. On top of that, a whole new layer of decision making opens up if you want a handguard that has a rail system on which to attach accessories. If you’re new to the AR world, it may feel overwhelming, given the plethora of options, so here’s the basic breakdown of handguard rail options:
The Picatinny rail system is the original and, in large part because of its age, one of the most common rail systems for the AR 15. In addition to being the original rail system, this handguard rail system was designed according to military standards, so it’s the rail system used on the M16, the US military’s specific adaptation of the AR 15. The Picatinny handguard rail system structure was designed in the 1980s, but it was based off a design that has been in use since the 1930s. Because it’s such a common rail system, a great deal of the most common AR accessories are made to attach on the Picatinny handguard rail.
However, just because the Picatinny handguard rail is the oldest system, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the only (or best) option out there. We’ve discussed before how the modular nature of the AR 15 opens plenty of doors for companies to innovate a wide variety of custom AR parts. The raised rails of the Picatinny add weight to the forend of the firearm, which many AR owners don’t care for. In response to the call for a lighter and more versatile handguard rail system, VLTOR and Magpul Industries both engineered their own handguard rail systems.
The KeyMod (KMR) rail system was originally designed by VLTOR as a Picatinny alternative. The KeyMod handguard rail system, released in 2012, stands in direct opposition to Picatinny handguard rail systems because it is both low profile and lightweight. Instead of raised rails, the KMR rail relies on rounded key shaped holes running the length of the handguard. The keyhole shape makes attaching AR accessories to the handguard rail easy and, because they slide into place and fasten with screws, are very sturdy attachment points.
KeyMod handguard rails come with a pair of additional perks. First, the design is open-source and within the public domain, so any company who wants to can produce custom AR parts with the KeyMod design. Second, the low profile design means a KeyMod handguard can have more attachment points. Instead of limiting the handguard to two or four rails to keep weight down, with a KeyMod handguard rail, some manufacturers make KMR rails with eight rails and the system remains lightweight.
In 2014, Magpul Industries decided that, while the KeyMod handguard rail was a good alternative to Picatinny rails, it didn’t offer a great attachment system for polymer attachments. To remedy this, they designed their own handguard rail system and thus, the AR world received the M-LOK handguard rail. Like KeyMod, the M-LOK is both an open-source design and low-profile in style. Unlike the KeyMod rail, the M-LOK is a series of long rectangular slots made to go with bi-directional attachment lugs for stability.
At Bootleg, Inc., we’ve seen the variety available, but we also know that many of the best AR accessories only come with attachments for one rail system. This is why we designed our specialty PicMod handguard; it is a combination of Picatinny rail system along the top of the handguard and KeyMod rails on the sides and bottom. With our combination of Picatinny and KMR rail, you can attach your favorite accessories without worrying about compatibility.
For the best handguard rail options, along with a variety of other specially designed custom AR parts, shop Bootleg, Inc. online today!