The Great Handguard Debate
A little while back we wrote a blog on How to change your AR Handguard. In that blog we mentioned that there are a ton of different options out there for someone to choose from. We decided that we wanted to give you a deeper look into the three most common categories of Handguards: Quad Rail, M-Lok, and Keymod. We have the great handguard debate for you.
Starting With the Basics: The Quad Rail
The quad rail is probably the most widely known style of handguards, partly because it came out first. Coming to popularity in the late ’90s to early 2000s, the Quad rail was the best thing there was to replace that standard plastic handguard. It’s perfect for adding all the goodies to the AR that you couldn’t add before. With the quad rail you can have a sight on top, a light on the side, a foregrip, etc. The quad rail became the staple in both military and law enforcement around the world. And where the military and LEOs go, the civilians follow, because the military and LEO guys know best.
Quad rails differ from company to company, but they all have the same basic design.
The Good and the Bad
You’ll notice they all have picatinny rails for the full length of the handguard on all sides (hence the name “Quad rail.”) This allows someone to put an AR accessory anywhere on the length of the handguard. Therefore, the quad rail has great customizability. Someone looking to deck their AR out, however they want, more than likely ends up with a Quad rail.
The quad rail has many benefits, but with great benefits comes great downfalls… At least I think that’s how the Spider-Man quote goes. Many people will refer to the quad rail as a cheese-grater, and if you’ve ever felt one then you’ll understand why. They are very rough on the hands. To remedy this, some companies make covers for the rails you don’t use. (Magpul & Daniel Defense).
Another issue is the weight. Quad rails have a lot of metal, which means more weight. And because of all the room, people tend to put a lot of stuff on the handguards. They quickly turn a 6 pound AR into a 10 pound AR (I know, that’s drastic, but you get the point).
M-LOK to the Rescue
With scratched and messed up hands the world fell to its knees and cried out for something else. And behold, Magpul swung in for the rescue with the M-Lok system. Originally a part of Magpul’s Masada Concept Rifle in 2007, the “MOE Slot System” is designed to allow direct mounting of accessories only where they were needed without covering the whole handguard with rails. After a few years, and some design tweaking, Magpul released the newer and better M-Lok system.
The Good and the Bad
Where the manufacturer designed MOE for polymer specifically, the M-Lok design is created for both metal and polymer. It features the same direct mounting capabilities as well as new cammed t-nuts for mounting and recoil/impact mitigation lugs. M-Lok revolutionized the game by giving people the customizability of the quad rail while keeping the handguard light and comfortable.
Many different companies make many different M-Lok rails, but like the Quad rail, they all have the same style.
So why are Quad rails still the common standard? Well, there are many answers to that question. M-Lok is much newer than Quad rails and accessories for them are not as plentiful (soon to be rectified). To mount something to an M-Lok handguard you need an accessory that was made for M-Lok (fewer options). Or you have to put a rail where you want it to be and then mount the accessory to that rail. Some people have stated that they experience less stability with M-Lok rail sections since they aren’t directly attached to the handguard. Other users have stated that there is no other way to go than M-Lok.
The Plot Thickens
Since this is a world where things are always evolving and being created, M-Lok is not the only new modular rail system. Enter stage left; the Keymod System. Created in 2012 from the brain trust of VLTOR Weapon Systems and Noveske Rifleworks, the Keymod system is a modular rail system that features quick and easy mounting. Simply place the accessory into the bigger side of the hole, slide it back and tighten the screw and boom, you’re done.
The Good and the Bad
Keymod rails feature a 1913 Picatinny rail on the top side and keymod accessory “holes” on each other side. A number of mounting spots can vary depending on the manufacturer, but they all tend to have the same sleek and slim design. Keymod rails have a lot of openings, or cut-outs, that makes the rail very light (remember, less metal = less weight).
The strong mounting system on the keymod rails creates good stability that remains unaffected by recoil. However, Keymod isn’t widely available in polymer handguards, so M-Lok can be even lighter than some Keymod rails. As with M-Lok, Keymod accessories aren’t as widely available as picatinny, but you can mount a simple picatinny section on both the Keymod and M-Lok rails. Both keymod and M-Lok are highly coveted by shooters who use a “C” clamp grip on their handguard as it allows a comfortable hand position while moving target to target.
So who’s the Big Man on Campus?
As of right now, Quad rails are still widely established as the norm. Mostly due to being an established and older style. It’s still popular with Military and Law Enforcement personnel around the globe, which means it’s still got a good upper hand.
However, as of last year (2016) the United States Special Operations Command, or USSOCOM, has chosen the M-Lok Rail System as their new standard for future weapon systems. SOCOM decided this based off of a study done by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division, in which multiple different rail systems were rigorously tested.
So, more likely than not, M-Lok is going to make a push for the top-dawg spot. Keymod has been putting up a good fight recently, and quad rails have slowly been dipping in sales. So you’ll start seeing more and more people asking for the M-Lok and Keymod rails over the traditional Quad rails.
But which one is better? Well my friend, yet again, personal preference will always prevail. Where some people prefer the slim lightweight design of the Keymod system, others will prefer the tried and true quad rail system. We can only say that trends in this industry will always be flowing and switching; Once you find what you like, your question of which is better will be answered.