The Rifle Barrel
By Chuck Hawks
A rifle barrel is usually a long (16 to 30 inches), tapering, tube made of steel with thick walls. It starts as a steel bar, which is then drilled and reamed to the "bore diameter" of the cartridge for which it is to be chambered. For example, the bore diameter is .300 inch for a typical .30 caliber cartridge, such as the .30-30, .308 Winchester, .30-06 or .300 Magnum.
The rifling grooves are then cut into the bore. The distance across the grooves is called the "groove diameter." This varies depending on the caliber, but measures .308 inch for the typical .30 caliber cartridges mentioned above.
The outside of the barrel is tapered by turning it down to whatever contour is desired. This lightens the barrel by removing excess metal. Tapered barrels are greater in diameter at the chamber than at the muzzle, because when a cartridge is fired, the pressure is highest at the chamber end.
Some barrels, called "bull barrels" are not tapered at all. These very heavy barrels, designed for extreme accuracy, are most commonly seen on target rifles and varmint rifles.
Materials and barrel life
Rifle barrels are usually made from steel alloys called ordnance steel, nickel steel, chrome-molybdenum steel, or stainless steel, depending upon the requirements of the cartridge for which they are chambered. The higher the pressure and velocity of a cartridge (pressure and velocity usually increase together), the more powder a cartridge burns and the smaller the bore through which the burning powder is forced, the faster it will wear out a barrel.
Big capacity, small bore cartridges operating at very high pressure, such as the 6.5mm PRC, .26 Nosler and .30-378 Weatherby, are notorious barrel burners. For example, I have read that, according to Hornady technicians, the accurate barrel life of a 6.5mm PRC rifle (143 grain bullet at 2960 fps; MAP 65,000 psi) is about half that of a 6.5mm Creedmoor rifle (143 grain bullet at 2700 fps; MAP 62,000 psi)--about 1500 rounds versus 3000 rounds!
Barrel wear is due to erosion from the extreme heat and pressure caused by firing a cartridge. Erosion starts in the barrel's throat, where the rifling begins, as this is where the heat from the burning powder is greatest; it literally melts away the steel a tiny bit with every shot. Erosion gradually moves down the bore with use and can be seen with the naked eye as it becomes more severe. Heat is bad for barrels, so letting a barrel cool between shots extends barrel life.
As erosion occurs more powder gas blows past the bullet before it can seal the bore. This increases the rate of erosion and also lowers muzzle velocity. Falling velocity, compared to a new barrel, is a sign that a barrel is wearing out.
To give a satisfactory service life, barrels for high velocity cartridges must me made from tougher and harder steel than barrels for lower velocity and pressure cartridges. The .220 Swift requires a tougher barrel than a .223 Remington, which requires a tougher barrel than a .22 Hornet, which requires a tougher barrel than a .22 LR. Manufacturers generally use more erosion resistant steel in barrels for high intensity cartridges and barrels for magnum cartridges are often made of very hard stainless steel.
Harder steels are more difficult to work and raise manufacturing costs (and thus retail prices) which, of course, is not desirable. The consumer has to rely on the manufacturer's judgment in this area. Fortunately, the major name brands, such as Browning, Henry, Remington, Ruger, Savage, Weatherby and Winchester seem to know what they are doing in regard to choosing appropriate barrel material for their rifles and barrel life is longer today than ever before.
The idea that there is some special "break-in" or cleaning routine required for new rifle barrels has gotten a lot of attention recently. My advice is to follow the suggestions of the barrel manufacturer. If the maker of your rifle barrel prescribes a specific break-in routine, it is probably best to follow their instructions.
Otherwise, my approach has always been to sight-in a new rifle normally, without any special break-in. Of course, I try to avoid overheating any rifle barrel, regardless of its age.
At the range, I generally shoot three shot groups with centerfire rifles and let the barrel cool between groups. With very high velocity cartridges, such as the .257 Weatherby Magnum, I let the barrel cool down after every shot.
Heat increases erosion and wear in any rifle barrel. I generally limit a range session with a new rifle to one box of ammunition (20 rounds) and I wait to clean the rifle until I have returned home.
The purpose of rifling is to stabilize the bullet to increase its accuracy. This is called spin stabilizing, and works because of gyroscopic forces acting on the spinning bullet during flight. American rifle barrels traditionally spin bullets to the right, but British barrels spin them to the left.
There are various ways to rifle a barrel. The old way was to cut the rifling one groove at a time on a rifling machine. A more modern method is to pull a gang of broaches through the barrel, which cuts the all the grooves into the bore simultaneously.
Another is to insert a very hard mandrel, which bears the reverse of the intended rifling pattern, into a slightly oversize bore. The outside of the barrel is then "hammer forged" (or beaten) to impress the rifling into the bore.
A fourth method is to pull a very hard, smooth, tungsten carbide rifling "button" through a bore lubricated with special "drawing" lubricants, usually either a wax or oil with special additives, turning the button it as it progresses. This "irons" the rifling into the barrel. All of these methods are entirely satisfactory if done properly.
Rifles have been rifled with from two to eight fairly deep grooves. Another approach, called "Micro-Groove" rifling by the Marlin Company, uses many shallow grooves. Barrels for standard centerfire cartridges of .30 caliber or smaller are usually rifled with four grooves. Barrels for most cartridges above .30 caliber are rifled with six grooves, as are .22 rimfire barrels.
Rifling twist rates
The rate of twist, expressed as one turn in so many inches (i.e. 1 in 10 inches, or 1:10), is designed to stabilize the range of bullets normally used in a particular caliber to a distance beyond the practical range of the cartridge. It takes less twist to stabilize a given bullet at high velocity than at low velocity. At the same velocity in the same caliber, longer (pointed) bullets require faster twist rates than shorter (round nose) bullets of the same weight. Heavier bullets require faster twist rates than lighter bullets of the same caliber and shape.
It is undesirable to spin a bullet a great deal faster than necessary, as this can degrade accuracy. A fast twist increases pressure and also the strain on the bullet jacket.
Fortunately, the rate of twist chosen by the rifle maker is usually appropriate for the intended cartridge. Anyone ordering a new barrel for a rifle will generally do well to specify the standard twist, as supplied by the major rifle manufacturers for that caliber.
Once in a great while, though, a manufacturer makes a mistake. One such case involved the .244 Remington.
When first introduced, barrels for this caliber were made with a 1:12 inch twist, because Remington anticipated that their new cartridge would be used primarily for varmint shooting. A 1:12 twist is ideal for best accuracy with varmint weight bullets (70-85 grains) in a high velocity .24 (6mm) caliber rifle. The heaviest spitzer bullet that a .244 with a 1:12 twist barrel could stabilize was 90 grains.
However, the customers also wanted to use their new .24 caliber rifles for hunting medium size game (deer and pronghorn), using 100 grain bullets. Needless to say, customers ignored the new .244 Rem. and instead purchased .243 Winchester rifles.
Remington soon saw the error of their ways and changed the rifling of their .244 barrels to 1 turn in 9 inches, but the damage was done. Sales remained so slow that eventually Remington had to discontinue the .244. The following year they reintroduced the exact same cartridge as the 6mm Remington and produced 6mm rifle barrels with 1:9 twist barrels, which can stabilize all .24/6mm bullets.
The usual twist rates for some of the more popular rifle calibers are given below. (For a more comprehensive list, see "Common Rifle Barrel Twist Rates" on the Rifle Information Page.)
.22 Short = 1 in 24"
Not all rifle barrels of the same caliber have the same twist rate. Someone ordering a custom rifle may have their own ideas about twist, as may the builder. For example, some .270 Win. barrels are rifled with a 1 in 12 inches twist, some .30-06 barrels are also rifled 1 turn in 12 inches, and some .300 Magnum barrels are rifled 1 turn in 14 inches.
Usually these variations make no great difference. These slower twists may give slightly lower pressure, as well as very slightly better accuracy with the lighter bullets in each caliber. They will still stabilize the heavy bullets over practical hunting ranges. However, they might not be such a good choice, or quite as accurate, for shooting heavy bullets at extreme range (like 600-1000 yards).
For those who like to do it themselves, here is a rifle twist formula:
Barrel weight and diameter
The barrel is usually the heaviest part of a modern hunting rifle. Therefore, the outside diameter, or contour (and hence the weight), of a rifle barrel is an important factor contributing to the overall weight of the finished rifle. Rifle barrels are often described as heavy (varmint/target), medium (sporter), or light. This refers to the thickness of the steel surrounding the bore.
Some custom barrel makers use numbers to indicate barrel contour/weight. E.R. Shaw, for example, numbers their barrels thusly: #1 Light Sporter, #1-1/2 Magnum Sporter, #2-1/2 Heavy Sporter, #3 Light Varmint, #3-1/2 Heavy Varmint, #4 Bull Barrel, #5 Heavy Bull.
Removing excess metal from a rifle barrel is an effective way to lighten a rifle, as is shortening the barrel. A lighter rifle is easier to carry long distances and faster to get into action. Mountain rifles, for example, traditionally have short, light barrels. However, there is a price to be paid in ballistic performance for a short barrel and (usually) accuracy for a light contour barrel.
Heavy barrels take longer to heat-up, thus maintaining good accuracy for more shots. They are also usually more consistent in the way they vibrate as a bullet passes down their length, which is very important for good accuracy. They resist outside bending forces, like changes in forearm pressure or pressure from a sling pulling the forearm against one side of the barrel, better than light barrels. They are less sensitive to how they are bedded in the stock. Their weight (within reason) makes it easier to hold the rifle steady. For all of these reasons, heavy barrels are generally more accurate than lighter barrels.
The medium weight sporter barrel (#2 in some brands) is an attempt to find a reasonable compromise between portability and performance. Standard weight hunting rifles usually have medium contour barrels, which have proven to be suitable for most purposes.
The arms makers try to select a barrel contour that complements the caliber and purpose for which the rifle is intended. To use the popular Remington Model 700 line of bolt action hunting rifles as an example, the general purpose 700 CDL is supplied with a medium weight barrel. The 700 Mountain Rifle has a lightweight barrel, while the 700 Sendero long range rifle has a heavy barrel.
Weatherby uses numbers to indicate barrel contour. In Weatherby Mark V Deluxe model rifles, for example, standard calibers are supplied with #1 contour barrels, magnum calibers from .257 Wby. to .340 Wby are supplied with #2 barrels, the .378 and .416 Wby. Mags. come with #3 barrels and the .460 Wby. Mag. comes with a #4 barrel. Mark V Accumark rifles are supplied with #3 barrels in all available calibers, which range from .240 Wby. to .338-378 Wby. Mag.
Barrel length, accuracy and ballistics
It is worth mentioning that a longer barrel is not inherently more accurate than a short barrel. Intrinsic accuracy is a matter of quality (and to a lesser extent contour), not length. However, a longer barrel is generally better in terms of practical accuracy, because a longer and therefore heavier barrel of a given contour (within reason) is easier to hold relatively steady from unsupported positions; thus it is easier to shoot a long barreled rifle accurately.
The length of the rifle barrel has a direct influence on the velocity obtained from the cartridge for which it is chambered. Ballistically, for centerfire calibers, longer is usually better. However, for carrying, handling and maneuvering in close quarters (like thick brush, or getting in and out of vehicles), shorter is usually better. Some sort of compromise must therefore be reached.
Very long 27-30 inch barrels are seldom seen these days on repeating hunting rifles, although they are still occasionally found on single shot hunting rifles and target rifles. The longest barrels usually seen on hunting rifles today are 26 inches in length.
26 inch barrels are usually found on rifles chambered for high velocity magnum cartridges. A long barrel is required to burn the large amounts of slow burning powder used in this type of cartridge. Unfortunately, most repeating rifles with 26 inch barrels balance too far forward; they are muzzle heavy and slow to swing. The long barrel seems to hang up on every limb and outcropping of rock in the area and a hunting rifle so equipped can be very awkward carry in steep terrain.
For this reason, many magnum rifles now come with 24 inch barrels, which sacrifice some of the magnum's velocity. 24 inches is about the minimum barrel length practical for most magnum cartridges. Cut a magnum's barrel down to 22 inches and the muzzle blast and flash become intimidating. In addition, magnum cartridges, such as the popular .270, 7mm and .300 numbers, lose so much velocity in a 22 inch barrel that they show little ballistic advantage over standard calibers like the .270 Win., .280 Rem. and .30-06.
The typical barrel length for a repeating hunting rifle chambered for high intensity cartridges, such as the .243, .260, .270, 7mm-08, .308, or .30-06, is 22-24 inches. These are useful all-around barrel lengths for such cartridges. The highest velocity standard cartridges (.243, .25-06, .270 Win.), which achieve muzzle velocities around 3000 fps, are at their best in a 24 inch barrel and 24 inches is the SAAMI standard for almost all American centerfire rifle calibers. However, for cartridges such as the 6.5x55, 7x57mm, .308 Win., .30-06, .338 Federal, .35 Whelen and .350 Rem. Mag., which typically operate at 2500-2800 fps, the velocity loss in a 22 inch barrel is not extreme and a rifle with a barrel of this length usually balances and swings well.
Cartridges with smaller cases that operate at lower velocity, such as the .30-30, .32 Special, .35 Rem., .38-55 and similar numbers, do reasonably well in 20 inch barrels. The very popular carbine versions of classic lever action rifles, such as the Henry .30-30, Winchester 94 and Marlin 336, usually come with 20 inch barrels.
These short rifles ride well in a saddle scabbard, are easy to carry in rugged terrain and handle fast in close quarters. Because they are lightweight rifles with under barrel tubular magazines, they balance well with a 20 inch barrel. The muzzle blast from these cartridges in a 20 inch barrel is less severe than from the larger, high intensity cartridges in a 22 inch barrel. Velocity loss is still considerable, however, usually 150-200 fps.
Combine a high intensity cartridge with a 20 inch barrel and the velocity drops sharply, while the muzzle blast becomes annoying. Exceptions might include the .356 Win., .358 Win., .350 Rem. Mag. and .375 Win., which are still effective woods cartridges when fired from carbine length barrels. These cartridges kill by bullet weight and diameter and retain enough velocity from a 20 inch barrel for medium range shooting. The stubby barrel is less likely than longer tubes to get hung up on branches, overhangs and so forth. However, their muzzle blast is considerable.
To my mind it is hard to justify barrels shorter than 20 inches for big game hunting. I have owned big game rifles with 18-1/2 inch barrels and in every case I wished they had come with at least a 20 inch barrel. Very short barrels of standard contour (not bull barrels) tend to make the rifle muzzle light and unsteady to hold and swing. I like a rifle to balance between my hands with a slight weight forward bias, not toward the butt.
Even .22 rimfire rifles balance better with 20-22 inch barrels, although in this instance the longer barrel has no ballistic advantage, since the .22 LR cartridge burns all of of its powder in about 16 inches. Very short barrels also increase the muzzle blast from high intensity cartridges to very annoying levels and the velocity loss is excessive.
Revolver cartridges adapted to rifle actions can, of course, be fired from barrels at the legal minimum length and still show large velocity gains compared to the same cartridges fired from typical 4" to 8" revolver barrels. Carbines chambered for the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum and .45 Long Colt revolver cartridges are often supplied with 18" barrels and are fun to shoot.
Velocity loss (or gain)
It is worth noting that the velocity figures published in ammunition brochures and reloading manuals are sometimes taken in barrels different in length from those supplied on many rifles. I have seen various estimates of how much velocity is lost (or gained) when a barrel is not the same length as the test barrel in which a cartridge was chronographed. Here are some of them.
The 2001 Edition of the Shooter's Bible states, in the introduction to the Centerfire Rifle Ballistics section, "Barrel length affects velocity, and at various rates depending on the load. As a rule, figure 50 fps per inch of barrel, plus or minus, if your barrel is longer or shorter than 22 inches." However, they do not say what category of load to which this 50 fps average pertains.
Jack O'Connor wrote in The Rifle Book that, "The barrel shorter than standard has a velocity loss which averages about 25 foot-seconds for every inch cut off the barrel. Likewise, there is a velocity gain with a longer barrel." He went on to illustrate this using a .30-06 rifle shooting 180 grain bullets as an example, so his estimate was obviously for rifles in that general performance class.
Other authorities have tried to take into account the different velocity ranges within which modern cartridges operate. The Remington Catalog 2003 includes a "Centerfire Rifle Velocity Vs. Barrel Length" table that shows the following velocity changes for barrels shorter or longer than the test barrel length:
MV 2000-2500 fps, the approximate change in MV per 1" change in barrel length is 10 fps.
The 45th Edition of the Lyman Reloading Handbook also has a table showing Center Fire Rifle Velocity Vs. Barrel Length. Their figures apply to barrels between 20 and 26 inches in length and agree with the Remington figures. The Lyman table shows the following approximate velocity changes:
For rifles with muzzle velocities in the 1000-2000 fps range, the change in velocity for each 1" change in barrel length is 5 fps.
The 43rd edition of the Lyman reloading Handbook gave some concrete examples of velocity loss for specific calibers and loads. The Lyman technicians chronographed some high velocity cartridges in rifles with barrels ranging in length from 26 inches down to 22 inches with the following results:
The average loss for the .243 Win./100 grain bullet was 29 fps per inch.
For standard high intensity cartridges in the same test, the Lyman technicians chronographed the cartridges in barrel lengths ranging in length from 24 inches down to 20 inches with the following results:
The average loss for the .270 Win./130 grain bullet was 37 fps per inch.
After a bunch of disclaimers, the Lyman people concluded, "The rule of thumb is that high speed, high pressure cartridges shed more speed in short barrels than do the low speed, large bore types." It's funny, but that is what I had suspected all along!
Copyright 2001, 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.