Spomer on Shooting: Barrel Weight in Rifles

Should you buy a heavy barrel, light barrel or medium-weight barrel on your centerfire rifle?


I don’t mean to be facetious, but there are reasons to answer “yes” to each barrel size. They all have their place. The trick is understanding what each place is.

Many shooters and manufacturers make the mistake of thinking thick, heavy barrels are necessary on predator rifles and long-range big game rifles, aka Sendero style. While mass for these uses certainly works, it’s hardly necessary. Long range rifles can be just as accurate with medium and even lightweight barrels. To understand how, we need to understand what barrel mass contributes to accuracy.

When a bullet is rammed down a barrel at two to three times the speed of sound, it is pushed by gas pressures of 40,000- to 65,000 pounds per square inch (psi). In addition, there is considerable torque due to the bullet being engraved and turned by the rifling. All of this creates vibrations, oscillations and a certain degree of whip in a barrel. The thinner the barrel walls, the more the oscillations and whip.

Obviously, a lot of barrel motion has the potential to throw bullets off target. Make a barrel so thick and stiff that it doesn’t oscillate and it will always point to the same place it is aimed, shot after shot. But this doesn’t mean lighter barrels can’t be accurate.

Some types of hunting and shooting are best done with thin, light barrels, some with thick, heavy barrels. It's your job to know which.
Some types of hunting and shooting are best done with thin, light barrels, some with thick, heavy barrels. It’s your job to know which.

Consistency can compensate for mass. So long as the barrel vibrates and whips the same way, shot after shot, it has a good chance of consistently throwing its bullets to the same place. If a barrel releases, say, a 150-grain bullet every time its barrel muzzle is at the bottom or top of an oscillation, it will shoot 150-grain bullets consistently and deliver tight groups (if the bullets are well balanced and the powder charge consistent.)

Temperature changes things. A hot barrel will vibrate differently than a cold one. The thinner the walls, the greater this effect. A thick, heavy barrel heats more slowly than a thin one, so you get more shots off before any potential shifts in consistently kick in. But once it’s hot, it takes longer to cool. Light barrels can be consistent, too — at least for three- to five shots. After those, heating can be sufficient to alter accuracy potential. But geez, if you haven’t hit your game with your first five shots, the next five aren’t likely to help much. You should be more concerned with shooting technique than barrel weight.

Another benefit of heavy barrels is reduced felt recoil. Pure mass also softens the blow to your shoulder. If you need or want less felt recoil, a heavy barrel can help.

The main advantages of lighter barrels are reduced weight for easier carry and operation. These, too, can enhance field accuracy. The hunter who drags himself and his 12-pound rifle back to camp two hours before sunset isn’t likely to hit any deer back in the woods. Struggling to get a heavy rifle off your shoulder and aimed can cost you a quick crack at a fleeting target.

So consider where, what and how you hunt when selecting barrel weight. For sitting on a stand and shooting off a support, a heavy barrel might be ideal. Ditto for shooting box after box of ammo at long-range rodents. For calling predators, a lighter barrel will allow you to turn, aim and swing much faster than a long, heavy one. While still-hunting thick woods eight hours a day, you might want something a bit easier to carry and whip into action. And when hiking several miles and climbing mountains all day, a featherweight barrel can pay big dividends.

Some types of hunting and shooting are best done with thin, light barrels, some with thick, heavy barrels. It’s your job to know which.

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One Response to “Spomer on Shooting: Barrel Weight in Rifles”

  1. Arno J Williams

    Being a Marine Scout/Sniper in Vietnam. I had a choice of carring a heaveybarrel inbeded in glass or an M-14 light barrel. Not going into bolt rifles and semi automatic with full auto selector. Heavey barrels have a habit of moving the projectile off target when the barrel is touching objects when fired. Leaves, branches, what have
    you. Plus it takes more effort to keep the heavey barrel accurate
    and some are real pains. If your shots are 750 meters or less the light barrel is the way to go. Also buy match ammunition only. But check the projectile for minor burs. Using 7.62 NATO Match
    ammunition always if you are using a 308. I hunt cyotes with a 22Hornet and have dropped them close to 500 meters. The distance was a guess because I was using a map to figure distance. Just remember you can think more about your shots with a light barrel then a heavey barrel.