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I have a few go-to AR-15 handguards. My selection criteria is based on a few key areas in handguard construction. And the SLR Rifleworks ION Mid Handguard covers all the bases that I consider important.
One of the bases that the SLR Rifleworks handguard doesn’t cover is the budget base. SLR Rifleworks handguards are definitely not budget handguards. By comparison, you can get a Bravo Company KMR or MCMR for around $100 less. And Bravo Company handguards are really good.
But this is my argument in favor of the ION Mid handguard: you get what you pay for.
What exactly are you paying for, though? Here’s what you get with this handguard, and why I think it’s totally worth the price.
Barrel Nut Design
For me, the barrel nut is one of the most critical pieces of an AR-15 handguard. There are two things that I give the most attention: ease of installation and removal and handguard fit.
I prefer barrel nuts that can be installed or removed with common tools. Keeping proprietary barrel nut wrenches on hand is annoying. And it’s even more annoying if you need to remove your handguard, and your barrel nut wrench is nowhere to be found.
Additionally, even if your handguard has anti-rotation tabs or an anti-rotation insert (which it should), there’s almost always a tiny bit of play. It’s incredibly minor. But it’s enough that your handguard could shift enough to cause zeroing issues with iron sights, if your handguard is torqued hard enough.
A snug barrel nut fit assists the locking nuts and increases the amount of force it would take to twist your handguard. That reduces the chances that your handguard will twist at all.
However, you don’t want the barrel nut fit to be so snug that you can’t take your handguard off, if you need to.
With that out of the way, the SLR Rifleworks barrel nut perfectly meets both of these criteria.
Yes, there’s a proprietary barrel nut wrench in the box. But, you could use a large crescent wrench to install or remove the SLR Rifleworks barrel nut.
Admittedly, the proprietary barrel nut wrench makes installation or removal much easier than using a crescent wrench. The crescent wrench works, though. And that’s what matters here.
The next thing is barrel nut fit. The handguard body slides over the barrel nut smoothly. But it takes a bit of force to get it completely seated.
I didn’t have to hammer it into place or anything. However, the handguard fit is stiff, even without the locking wedges installed (I’ll talk about the locking wedges in a second).
But there’s one caveat about the barrel nut. Tolerance between the barrel nut and gas tube is tight. It’s no problem with a standard gas tube. However, you’ll have fit issues if you use a non-standard gas tube like the V Seven Extreme Environment Gas Tube.
The V Seven gas tube is slightly thicker than a standard gas tube. And the SLR barrel nut causes gas tube alignment issues because the gas tube presses against the barrel nut.
I solved this issue by filing the barrel a bit to create enough tolerance for the gas tube. The barrel nut is still totally reusable. Using a standard mil-spec gas tube makes this a non-issue, though.
Overall, the barrel nut gets two thumbs up. It’s easy to install, and it delivers excellent handguard fit.
One of the standout features of the ION Mid Handguard are the locking wedges. It’s a well-designed locking mechanism that delivers a solid lockup.
The first thing I noticed about the SLR Rifleworks locking wedge system is how easily it installs. The wedges only fit one way. If you install the wedges incorrectly, they won’t fit squarely. This helps make the installation dummy proof.
Additionally, the wedges install quickly and easily. Just insert the wedges into the slots and tighten them down with the allen screws. That’s it. The wedges lock the handguard in two ways.
First, the wedges clamp down on the barrel nut. Then, as you tighten the wedges, they also pull the handguard body down, so that you get additional friction on top of the barrel nut, the 11 and 2 o’clock positions. It’s a solid lockup.
The next thing that’s nice about the locking wedges is the anti-slip ridge. One of the locking wedges has a ridge that fits into a notch on the barrel not and stops the handguard from slipping forward.
This is a robust anti-slip system, because it distributes pulling force along almost the entire bottom side of the barrel nut. It would be nearly impossible to overpower the anti-slip mechanism on this handguard. And it would absolutely destroy the handguard if you managed to do this.
There’s only one anti-slip system that I can think of which is as robust as the SLR Rifleworks locking wedges: the Bravo Company anti-slip system. The bolts that keep a BCM handguard from slipping deliver a super secure anti-slip lockup.
It’s arguable that the bolts are more breakable than the SLR Rifleworks locking wedges. But, at the end of the day, you probably have much bigger problems than your handguard coming off if you break the SLR Rifleworks locking wedges.
The only possible complaint about the SLR Rifleworks locking system is the bulk. The locking wedges definitely add a blocky bit to the bottom of your handguard. However, it’s not any bigger or blockier than the locking mechanism on other high end handguards, like the Geissele rails.
Overall, the locking wedges are an outstanding locking mechanism that’s easy to install and incredibly durable.
The anti-rotation insert gave me a little bit of pause at first. Then I realized my concerns were unfounded.
The anti-rotation insert nests inside the handguard, over the gas tube. The gas tube itself is what acts as the anti-rotation stop. For a second, I thought, “What if the anti-rotation insert bends or breaks the gas tube?”
But the gas tube is made of stainless steel. And it’s relatively high grade stainless steel (or, in my case, inconel). If the handguard gets twisted hard enough to bend or snap the gas tube, the shooter likely has much bigger problems than their rifle being broken. It would take a ridiculous amount of force to both overpower the locking wedges and damage the gas tube.
Long story short, my concern about the anti-rotation damaging the gas tube was unrealistic.
On a brighter note, the anti-rotation insert is easy to install. You just tuck it into the notch on the handguard and seat the handguard against the upper receiver.
My only complaint about the anti-rotation insert is that it leaves a little bit of play. I suspect that they gave it some tolerance to accommodate variance in upper receiver dimensions and gas tube port locations.
However, even with the anti-rotation insert installed, it’s still necessary to check and verify that the picatinny rails of the handguard and upper receiver are aligned. There’s enough wiggle in the anti-rotation insert that the picatinny rails can be misaligned by a millimeter or so.
It’s true that most anti-rotation inserts and tabs leave a tiny bit of wiggle. It’s also true that the wiggle is probably necessary to ensure handguards fit the majority of upper receivers. I still don’t like it.
But it’s not the handguard’s fault. It’s me.
The anti-rotation insert is well-designed and does it’s job just fine. The insert is also probably unnecessary, because the locking wedges are so secure. So there’s that.
Utility and Ergonomics
One of the reasons I chose this model over some of the other SLR rifleworks handguards, such as the SLR SOLO Mid or the SLR HELIX, is because the ION Mid has the most utility.
It might be a frivolous preference, but I like having the scout rail at the diagonal positions. Do I use the scout rail all that much? No. It’s there, if I need it, though.
The reason I don’t use the scout rail all that much (and the reason that I decide between M-LOK and KeyMod by looking at what’s on sale) is because I mound most of my attachments on a picatinny rail.
That brings me to the second reason I like the utility of this handguard: the picatinny rails on the front end. They’re awesome because I can mount just about everything on a picatinny rail, without having to put my support hand on a cheese grater.
I don’t run a forend grip. But, if you were to add a forend grip, you’d have to put it in a KeyMod slot. For those of you who are more invested in getting the absolute most rugged mounting platform, there's the ION Mid M-LOK. It’s the same handguard, but with M-LOK slots.
And that leads us neatly into my last point: ergonomics. The midsection is narrow enough that it’s comfortable, no matter what grip technique you use.
It’s easy to get your thumb over the top for a thumb over grip. But, if you use a thumb forward grip, the ION Mid is substantial enough to give you something to hold onto, with a decent ledge to press on with your thumb.
The only issue is that this handguard gets hot pretty quickly. You may notice the Burn Proof Gear Rail-Rap in the pictures. There’s a reason for that: This handguard heats up pretty quickly.
Now, any handguard will get hot eventually. However, I’m using a short ION Mid model on a suppressed rifle with a relatively short barrel. That’s a bad combo for heat distribution and dissipation. So this isn’t really a fault.
Fortunately, the ION Mid comes in other lengths. If you get a longer handguard, you’ll get slower heat build up. But it’s something to be aware of on the shorter models.
All in all, though, I think this model offers the best combination of utility and ergonomics of all the SLR Rifleworks handguard designs. And it beats out most handguards from other manufacturers.
Looking cool shouldn’t be overlooked. And SLR definitely put a little bit of design work into the ION Mid.
There are aesthetic cuts at the base of the handguard and around the picatinny rail sections. The locking wedges also add a bit of visual appeal.
But the thing I like is that nothing is overdone, especially with the KeyMod scout rails. There are just enough aesthetic touches to make this handguard look cool without trying too hard. That’s my preferred style.
However, to the credit of the SLR Rifleworks design team, this handguard still pairs really well with aggressively styled receiver sets (in fact, the SLR-B15 Upper Receiver is rather aggressively styled). That’s a tough trick to pull off. But they seem to have done it.
This handguard looks awesome on a standard upper receiver. But it also works great if you’re going for a more modern or aggressive build.
From a visual perspective, this is kind of a do-it-all handguard.
Handing in the Verdict
Although it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the ION Mid is one of the few handguards on my short list of go-to handguards. It’s got just the right mix of durability, utility, and aesthetics for my taste. And it’s relatively affordable.
This handguard hits a sort of sweet spot between the Bravo Company KMR or MCMR and the Geissele Super Modular Handguard Rail.
The ION Mid is slightly more robust and offers a bit more utility than a BCM handguard. But the ION Mid is more expensive than a BCM rail. Conversely, the SLR handguard isn’t quite as burly as a Geissele handguard. But the ION Mid is also a touch less expensive than the Geissele. And I find the ION Mid to be more comfortable than a Geissele rail.
As such, I often find myself defaulting to the ION Mid if I don’t have a specific reason to go with a BCM rail or Geissele handguard.
And that’s my verdict: if you need a solid jack-of-all-trades handguard that falls within the “reasonably priced” section of the price spectrum, you can’t go wrong with the ION Mid.