High velocity cartridges pushing small caliber bullets can be barrel burners. But that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot them and extend barrel life while reaping long-range performance advantages.
- Don’t fire long strings through hot barrels. If a barrel is too hot to hold barehanded, it will erode faster with each subsequent shot.
- You can cool barrels quickly by keeping them in shade, opening the action with muzzle up, blowing air down the bore, and draping the barrel in wet towels.
- Minimize load testing by accepting reasonable accuracy. Firing dozens of rounds in an attempt to shoot a sub-MOA group with a big game rifle is a waste of time. A rifle that keeps all shots inside 1.5 inches at 100 yards will hold them inside a 10-inch circle clear out to 670 yards.
Do You Want Eternal Barrel Life or Performance?
Don’t forego the pleasure of owning and shooting a hot, hyper-velocity, barrel burning rifle cartridge out of fear of short barrel life. If you need it or even just want it, get it, shoot it, and enjoy it. Skipping the experience of owning and shooting, say, a 26 Nosler and settling for a 6.5 Grendel is like pulling a trailer with a Mini Cooper instead of a RAM 6.4L HEMI. And buying the RAM only to pick up groceries wastes its potential. Why extend barrel life if you don’t get to use the barrel?
Barrels Are Like Tires — Drive ‘Em
Sticking with our truck analogy, you wouldn’t leave your RAM in the driveway for fear you’d wear the tires out, would you? Rifle barrels are like truck tires. They are there to make the machine do what it’s supposed to do. When they wear out, you replace them. And barrels cost less than new truck tires! A new, stainless steel barrel finished and installed should run you from about $500 to $1,000 depending on length, contour, brand, and who’s doing the installation. And, if you shoot an AR platform, a Blaser R8, or Sauer 202, you can swap out barrels on your own in seconds.
Simple Tricks to Extend Barrel Life
The core rule to extend barrel life is to not shoot it fast and hot. (Read how heat eats barrels here.) Let it cool between shots. A good motto is “Too hot to hold, too hot to shoot.” Certain target games don’t permit this, which is one reason moderate volume cartridges like 308 Win. and 6.5 Creedmoor are popular target cartridges.
Rodent control work is another shooting chore that can easily overheat barrels, especially with high velocity cartridges like 22-250 Rem., 220 Swift, and 240 Weatherby. I once shot in an alfalfa field where small ground squirrels stood like rows of cut cornstalks. The rancher was setting out bowls of anti-freeze to poison the little rats. That was the kind of venue in which a varmint shooter could darn near melt a barrel. Regardless why you get your barrel hot, here’s how to cool it quickly, get back in action, and extend barrel life:
- Rotate between two or three rifles, shooting one while the others cool. I usually keep a rimfire at my shooting station, too, for those “too close” shots, or just to practice form and trigger control at the range.
- An option less expensive than buying extra rifles is to wrap a terry cloth towel around the barrel and pour water over it. The evaporative cooling will get you back in action sooner. Ice water makes cooling even faster. Don’t do this if it risks getting water on a nice wood stock. Synthetics only. An option is to brush common rubbing alcohol over the barrel to evaporate.
- Stick a rubber hose in the chamber of a hot barrel, muzzle down. Stretch the other end over a funnel. Pour water in the funnel and through the barrel. Run two or three dry patches through before firing. A side benefit is you’ll push out a lot of powder fouling. Don’t worry, the bore won’t have time to rust. But do run an oiled patch through it when done for the day. There’s is debate whether ice water in a hot bore can change metallurgy, so you might want to proceed with caution.
- Open or remove the bolt and stand the rifle on its butt. Hot air rises, sucking a cooling draft up the barrel.
- Rig up fans or portable air compressors to blow down bores and cool them. How about a common hair dryer on “cool?”
- Of course, you can also simply pace yourself, make each shot count, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the outdoors between well-spaced shots. That, however, will probably not reduce rodent infestations much.
- Buy stainless-steel, chrome-lined, or ferritic nitrocarburized (nitrided) barrels. They are less susceptible to burnout. Standard chromoly barrels should be more than adequate in a big game rifle you don’t shoot fast and hot.
- Resist testing every powder, primer, and bullet combination in the known universe. Once you find a combination that produces adequate accuracy for your needs, stop. Unless you’re a benchrest competitor, is shaving 0.1″ off group size really going to matter?
- Minimize load development by using the ladder test to quickly find your rifle’s sweet spot or accuracy node. We don’t have space to dive into that process here.
- Shoot coated bullets. Or maybe not. Coated bullet benefits are hotly debated. Some tests have indicated barrels can retain accuracy nearly twice as long when bullets are coated with molybdenum disulfide, tungsten disulfide, or hexagonal boron nitride. But there are issues with each. Research thoroughly and proceed with caution.
You Heat Up, Can’t Cool Down
It’s commonly repeated that thick, heavy barrels cool faster than lighter ones, but I don’t buy it. Given their mass, they are slower to overheat, but once that mass of steel is scorching, it takes longer to cool. Just a matter of physics. Fluting is also supposed to increase cooling, and it might since it increases surface area. But I doubt any of this amounts to diddly squat, so I’d choose barrel style and contour based on things like accuracy potential. Heavy barrels are generally more accurate than light ones because they are stiffer, thus less susceptible to violent harmonics and whipping during firing.
Final Answer to Extend Barrel Life:
Try any and all of these tricks, but don’t settle for a low velocity rifle if you need a fast one. The truck tire analogy is apt. All tools wear out. Buy the tools you need to do the job, then use them!
Hunter and self-described country boy Ron Spomer springs from a long line of frugal farmers who prefer to make things last — but when it comes to rifles, he’s willing to give up longevity for performance.