The biggest problem you will have choosing a barrel is finding exactly what you want in stock. The standard barrels are all over the place. They are easy to swap out and are usually on hand. But if you have set your eye on a crazy fluted, intricately designed barrel, then you should stop reading, I can’t help you find that, I think it looks a bit ridiculous to spend that much money on a tool to look pretty when it doesn’t increase performance.
After shooting several hundred rounds through the most amazing gimmicks you have ever seen I will grab a practical barrel that shoots accurately every single time. Barrels matter too much to the function of a rifle to use them for personalization. This is why the barrels and companies recommended aren’t fancy, everything from the companies perform because they know how to build a great product.
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Barrels What You Need To Know
Length of your barrel determines how much velocity the bullet has once it exits the rifle. A longer barrel will use more of the powder to accelerate the bullet. The difference between a 16 inch and a 20 inch is about 100fps with M855 62gr 5.56x45mm. So barrel length doesn’t matter right?. Wrong barrel length aids accuracy in by increasing the length of plane that you, the shooter, uses to aim the rifle. 20inch barrels are more accurate because small movements are lessen by the increased length of plane.
Now that is very interesting, but I will always recommend a 16inch barrel unless you are looking for a supported tack driver. That 4 inchs increase is heavy and awkward to shoot from most positions and the 25% increase in length can make mauvering with the rifle difficult.
When possible buy a 1:8. The 1:8 stabilizes the widest range of projectiles. However, most AR-15s use a 1:7 to be able to stabilize much heavier projectiles than most people shoot, because the military needs the ability to stabilize tracer rounds. Given the choice go with the 1:8 but you will most likely not be given a choice.
The length of your gas system is how far down the barrel the gas port is and therefore how much pressure you will have to force your bolt carrier back into the buffer and chamber your next round. The most reliable is the carbine length. The most popular is the mid length. Rifle length on a 16 inch barrel is also known as a dissipater. The problem with the carbine is that the longer your gas system the soft shooting you will have and the less felt recoil you will experience. A mid length is a good choice between reliability and recoil. Make sure your gas tube and barrel are the same length.
The barrel material has a big effect on how the barrel wears luckily most shooters don’t fire enough rounds to see the difference
Chrome lined barrels are Carbon Steel barrels that have been lined with chrome for durability and ease of cleaning, because it is hard to line a barrel evenly there may be a theoretical accuracy penalty.
Carbon Streel barrels are cheap and easy to manufacture however they are more difficult to machine than stainless and wear faster.
Stainless Steel barrels are created from softer steel so it is easier to use a high degree of machining for accuracy, Stainless Steel has heat resistance and erosion resistance but many hit them for not being blued. Stainless Steel barrels will shoot to their accuracy potential until they don’t, at which point they will drop off dramatically.
Nitride treatment increases the hardness, makes the rifle easier to clean and reduces erosion, everything you want, but it costs a bit more
Does the material matter?
Not really, a very accurate barrel can be made from any of the materials but it depends on the machining process. 4140 steel vs 4150 steel, 416R or Stainless matter less than the manufacturer of the barrel.
The profile of the barrel is how much material was removed from the barrel blank. Government, M4, Hybrid, Pencil, Bull, HBAR, Hanson, and every other barrel profile made is available, how much the thermal mass or amount of steel matters is a hotly debated subject. The weight of your barrel should depend on how you are going to be shooting your gun. Most rounds before a cooling off period requires more weigh to keep from walking bullets up a target. However, hunting barrels should be lightweight because if you do your job one the first shot matters, while carrying a heavy rifle out and back is difficult. The problem with that theory is that a heavy barrel can weigh up to 2 lbs or 32 oz while a pencil barrel can weigh as little as 22oz. So if you want to save half a pound reduce your barrel weigh. This can also be done by much easier by reducing the weight of other components or by losing some weight by exercising.
I highly recommend losing a few lbs and carrying a hybrid profile barrel. They seem to give the bang for the buck accuracy vs weight.
Build a rifle you love and you will never want to stop shooting.
Now I know that was a lot of information, that doesn’t really help you make your choice. Usually the difference between premium and basic is around $50 to $100 depending on the manufacturer, since a $100 is about 100 rounds of ammo, I recommend grabbing a premium barrel that will outlast a cheaper alternative.
Barrels and Bolt carrier groups (BCGs) are the most important parts for building an accurate rifle. If you want sub MOA you have to find a barrel that will work for you. Mate it with a reliable BCG and it will shoot for thousands of rounds without a failure.
The Best AR-15 Barrels
Criterion has been one of the best barrel makers since they appeared in 1999, and they have really started to step up their game recently. Short of a custom made rifle barrel, these will be some of the most accurate barrels you can find let alone shoot. The hybrid contour barrel profile loses weigh when it can then beefs it up where it matters. All of Criterions barrels are available in 1:8 twist and in .223 Wylde. This barrel is made from 416R and is salt nitride bathed for increased barrel life and ease of cleaning
Not sold on the benefits of the 416R Stainless Steel, check out the same barrel in carbon steel chrome lined of course.
Need lightweight, Criterion Pencil Barrels drop the weight without sacrificing accuracy or their high quality.
Make sure your grab a barrel from Criterion fast, as of writing this article they only had 10 in stock, backorder is usually 1-3 months. While Criterion’s customer service is great, covid and supply issues are affecting everyone.
You’ve seen the best so why buy the rest.
The largest difference between barrels like Criterion and the others is that with Criterion you will always have an amazing barrel, while others can be very accurate or not, it can be very hit and miss. Criterion laps their barrels basically take a small amount of abrasive and remove small tool marks, this increases accuracy and better fitment. Since the cost increase for a Criterion is only a couple hundred dollars, it doesn’t make sense to not purchase the best barrel you can afford. Whether it is Wilson Combat, Noveske, or our favorite, Criterion.
WHAT About Larue Tactical And Noveske?
They are great barrels but they just don’t deliver bang for the buck like Criterion. Larue PredatOBR is nearly $900, while Noveske costs nearly as much and is just as hard to find.
LaRue Tactical has been making the best barrels for sub-moa groups for quite some time. The AR-15 forums sub MOA challenge features the most LaRue Tactical barrels for a sub MOA rifles barrel of manufacturer. Unfortunately, Larue Tactical barrels are some of the most expensive and most sought-after barrels available on the market. The PredatOBR is an especially fine barrel, on par with POF P415 or GAP Precision
Noveske makes some of the best barrels that will shoot sub-moa all day long. I don’t mean one or two of your 10 three shot groups will be sub moa, I mean that you can shoot 50 rounds at a target and only have a ragged hole dead center at the end. This barrel will out shoot you, not can out shoot you, will!
Noveske, the All American Badass Rifle Company out of Grants Pass, Oregon, has been making the best AR-15 parts for years, if you can find one and afford it, you will never need to buy another rifle. Unfortunately, because they place such high demands on their products they are nearly always out of stock. Their turnaround time is very fast so it may be a month instead of 7 days to get your barrel but you can’t go wrong with Noveske.
The difference between Ballistic Advantage and Aero Precision it the trademarks both are made by Aero Precision and are high-quality barrels for the price point. Basically if you want a shooter on a budget you go with Aero Precision/Ballistic Advantage. Most are 4150 Chrome Molly Steel Melonite coated for durability.
FN was established in 1889 in Belgian, partnering with John Moses Browning, the patron saint of American firearms. FN has produced a massive number of firearms for the US Military as well as military’s worldwide. They have the experience and tooling to produce firearms such as the M16, M4A1, SCAR, P90, FAL, M2 Browning, M249 Saw and so many others that the Wikipedia page goes on for quite some time.
FN Chrome lined barrels are perfect for building a reliable shooter, Cold Hammer Forged, Chrome Lined barrel, Bore and Chamber will last several thousand rounds, Cleaning is easy and accuracy is superb, not as good as Criterion for accuracy but it has the benefit of being a much tougher barrel.
The 20 Inch barrel, rifle length gas system, is perfect for producing a M16A4 clone, highly accurate, A2 profile and 1:7 twist.
The 16 inch Cold Hammer Forged barrel mid-length gas system is cut to a M4 profile High Pressure and Magnetic Particle inspected, includes a Delta ring and barrel nut as well as an A2 F-marked gas block. The Delta ring and gas block are easily removable if you choose to use to free float your barrel.
Palmetto State Armory is the go-to AR15 shop in the United States, their barrels aren’t terrible and all CHF barrels are FN marked but their Melonite barrels are on par with Ballistic Armaments. What they lack in quality they make up for in price. At nearly ⅓ the cost of Criterion or FN they are perfect for building a fun gun to shoot steel, or train with at low cost. A higher-quality barrel will give you sub MOA groups, PSA’s cheap barrel will allow you to afford to shoot enough to become a sub MOA shooter.
PSA Nitride and Melonite barrels are available in 16, 18, and 20-inch barrels in carbine, mid, or rifle length as well as pistol barrels.
What a bad barrel can look like?
If you lack experience building AR-15s it is possible to assemble your build incorrectly. Our example, unfortunately, was our Faxon trial barrel has a chamber cut too deep and so we were getting light strikes from our test barrel. Faxon is a good company making many mid-tier barrels but after dealing with the customer service, we can’t recommend them compared to other manufacturers, offering a 50% discount on a new barrel is not adequate for a bad barrel.
Andrew Maurer is a Precision Rifle Series competition shooter and gunsmith. Building competition rifles for over 12 years. He works as a big game hunting guide in Iowa, South Dakota and Arizona. He is also a political scientist studying the effects of gun control on society. He teaches youth rifle shooting.