Amidst all the debate about gun rights, gun types, and gun laws, it’s easy to miss the other fiercely debated topic in the gun world: rifle barrels.

The rifle barrel can, arguably, make or break your shot. Re-barreling a poorly performing rifle can increase accuracy. Some argue that a new barrel can take a gun to a whole new level.

Whether you’re using the gun for hunting or competition, there’s no question that a top notch barrel can create a huge advantage for your shooting game. The debate is what type and why.

Read this Rifle Barrel 101 Guide to learn all there is to know so that you too can weigh in on the barrel debate.

Rifle Barrels 101: The Options

Making barrels is an art form. Choosing the right barrel is equally an art form in some shooting circles. In orderto know what you’re choosing and why, here’s a breakdown of the basic options available in a rifle barrel.

Material Choice

Material is probably the first thing people think about when picking a barrel. This does not make it the most important aspect of a barrel.

Barrels are available in a variety of materials such as blued steel, stainless steel, and a variety of carbon fiber wrapped composites. Less widely available, but possible to find, are the more exotic metals like sleeved titanium or a nickel-based alloy.

The type of metal you choose for your barrel will have implications on the life of the barrel and the weight of the barrel. The vibration of the barrel during a shot may be impacted by the stiffness of the metal.

Each type of metal reacts differently to the heat generated during a shot.

The most common choice is stainless steel. It’s readily available, resists rust, and reportedly last longer than blued steel. It is a higher price point than blued steel.

A company like Ballistic Advantage makes barrels in all of the material choices and has something for every shooter.

Rifling Configuration

Rifling refers to the lands and grooves cut into the barrel’s inner diameter. These grooves and lands are spirals that force the bullet to spin as it is shot through the barrel and out of the muzzle.

The spin caused by rifling is what makes the bullet accurate.

There is any number of rifling configurations that can be purchased. You can opt for two grooves, eight grooves, or just about any number in-between. The most common number of grooves is between four and six.

The shape of the grooves and lands can also be a factor. You can go with traditional shapes, or pick a customized shape – such as Heckler & Koch’s polygonal-shaped rifling.

The varied methods of cutting grooves are also much debated. You can choose from cut rifling, hammer-forged rifling or button rifling. Hammer-forged rifling is common among mass-produced guns. Most custom barrel makers will opt to use the button or cut rifling.

Rifling is used to match bullets to the gun that shot it. Beyond that, the rifling does not seem to have a significant impact on the accuracy of the bullet shot.

Rifling is a type of fingerprint, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t affect your shot enough to matter. Pick whatever configuration of rifling makes you happy.

Twist

The twist rate, commonly shortened to twist, is likely the most important factor in choosing a barrel for your rifle.

Twist rate refers to the rate of spin of the bullet inside the barrel. This spin is caused by the rifling configuration. Twist is calculated in turns per inch and written as a ratio of the number of revolutions to the number of inches.

For example, a barrel that has a 1:10″ twist rate means that the rifling configuration will cause the bullet to spin 1 full revolution as it moves along 10″ of the barrel length.

Choosing a barrel with an adequate twist rate is important because it affects the stability of the bullet as it leaves the muzzle. Too slow of a twist rate means the bullet will wobble in the air and won’t be stable.

Generally, fast twist barrels are required for heavier and longer bullets. Shorter, lighter bullets need slower twist barrels. Know what kind of bullet you want to shoot. The bullet will determine a minimum twist recommendation.

Remember that it’s a revolution to length ratio. This means that a 1:8″ twist is a faster twist than a 1:10″ twist. If your bullet recommends a 1:9″ twist, a 1:8″ twist barrel will also keep the bullet stable because it is a faster twist than the minimum recommended twist. 

Length

The length of the barrel is important for the part it plays in the twist ratio.

The longer the barrel is, the higher the velocity you can achieve. A shorter barrel achieves a lower velocity.

The length of the barrel also affects the weight of the overall gun. If you are using your gun for a hunting trip, you’ll want to shy away from the excessively long barrels. It just becomes extra weight you have to haul around with you.

If you are using your gun for stationary competition shooting, you will probably want the longest barrel you can find.

You’ll want to maximize length for speed and accuracy, without picking such a long barrel that you can’t easily pick it up all day long.

Contour

Barrels come in a variety of contour. Contour refers to the shape of the barrel when looked at from the side. Think of it as the taper of the barrel.

The most obvious difference between different contours is weight. Bulkier profiles are going to weigh more than a sleeker contour.

A less obvious, and more difficult to explain, difference is stiffness.

What is stiffness? That’s the difficult-to-explain part. Stiffness has two aspects – static stiffness and dynamic stiffness.

Static stiffness can be thought of as the barrel’s likeliness to resist bending as weight is applied to it.  If I lock one end of the barrel in a vise and attach a heavyweight to the other end, will the barrel bend? That’s static stiffness.

Dynamic stiffness is the tendency of the barrel (as a result of rifling, material choice, how the barrel is attached to the gun, static stiffness and a million other factors) to resist vibration when a bullet is fired.

As a bullet rips through the barrel, the barrel vibrates in an almost-imperceptible up-and-down motion. This causes the muzzle to move as the bullet leaves the muzzle. Motion at the muzzle affects accuracy.

Contouring can make a barrel more or less stiff. For example, a fluted barrel will be stiffer than the exact same barrel without flutes. Because static stiffness affects dynamic stiffness, this means that a fluted barrel will also be more dynamically stiff.

Whether you want a stiffer or less stiff barrel is up for serious debate. Many people think it makes no difference at all. Like rifling, go with what feels right to you.

Lining

The lining or barrel coating is optional. Again, this is personal preference. You can opt to have the barrel lined or coated with chrome.

A chrome coating is easier to clear and increases the life of the barrel. It is expensive to choose a chrome lining. The military and others who fire their guns frequently often choose chrome lining.

The process of lining the barrel can cause small imperfections in the barrel. For this reason, most professional competition shooters opt out of a barrel lining.

Example: Choosing a Rifle Barrel by Use

Now that you understand all of the options for your rifle barrel, here’s a breakdown of what it all really means in practical application. So many of the options were a personal preference that it’s hard to know what you need to look for in a new barrel.

Here we walk you through what kind of barrel we’d choose based on one activity for which we plan to use our gun.

Best Barrel for a Hunting Rifle

You need to know what you’re hunting and what type of bullets you plan on using. 

Always choose the smallest caliber bullets that will get the job done. Then, check the twist rate recommendation for the bullet. You want to pick a barrel with a twist that will handle the heaviest bullet you plan to use.

A faster twist rate than is required will let you shoot a variety of bullet weights. You can use shorter, lighter bullets for a short range or small game. In the exact same barrel, you can shoot longer, heavier bullets for larger game and longer ranges.

The barrel length should be slightly shorter in order to reduce the overall weight of the gun. Typically, a 24″ barrel is sufficient.

You can probably skip the chrome barrel lining if you are a casual hunter. This will save some money and increase accuracy.

Contouring, rifling, and barrel material will not likely have a large enough impact to affect accuracy.

Join the Debate

Now that you have the 411 on rifle barrels, feel free to join the discussion. Which material, which rifling configuration, which twist rate makes the perfect barrel?

The debate rages on.

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