Barrels are deceptively simple, yet crucial to the precision required for long-range shooting. I once visited the shop of Benchrest Hall of Famer Cecil Tucker and I recognized a unique opportunity to learn from a legend. So I asked him the million dollar question: “What is the most important thing when it comes to precision rifles?” Cecil didn’t hesitate. He seemed to have been preparing his whole life to answer that elusive question, and it was on the tip of his tongue: “The barrel and the bullet.” Deceptively simple.
Retired Army Ranger Sniper, Ryan Cleckner, explains “just as the receiver is the main part of the rifle for legal purposes, the barrel is the main part of the rifle for accuracy purposes. A good rifle with a bad barrel will not shoot accurately. Conversely, a poor-quality rifle with a good barrel can shoot accurately.”
Yet for a data-driven guy who wants to make objective, informed decisions … choosing a barrel can be tough! Unlike other parts like scopes, actions, and chassis where we can compare features or see/feel the difference, most of the differences between a great barrel and a poor one can’t be easily compared. For example, if I laid 10 different barrel blanks in front of a veteran shooter and asked him to tell me which were the best ones, he’d be stumped. So many things play into whether a barrel has the potential to shoot tiny groups, including the quality of the steel, bore/groove consistency, machining/lapping process, and other things that can’t be directly observed. It doesn’t help that a number of other things NOT related to the quality of the barrel blank could keep the barrel from reaching the potential it had when it originally left the barrel manufacturer (e.g., chamber wasn’t cut concentric to the bore, a poor crown job, neglect in cleaning, overheating, etc.), which just adds more complexity to the problem!
So what’s a guy to do? Well, this is hard for me to say, but the best thing may be to look at what the top shooters are using to achieve the highest level of performance and copy them. Wow, that is hard for me to say! I’m definitely not a bandwagon kind of guy – the opposite in fact. Because I hate that approach soooo much, I gathered a pile of barrels and did a massive research project that was published in Bryan Litz’s most recent book. I literally fired thousands of rounds hoping to gain some insight into the “mystical” area of rifle barrels, because I hate the idea of not having more data to guide the decision! I invested hundreds of hours of work into to getting some objective, data-driven answers. While that study had several interesting findings, when choosing a barrel it largely comes down to an educated bet on the reputation of the company making it.
That’s why I think this post about what barrels the top ranked shooters are running in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) and the National Rifle League (NRL) is so valuable. (Learn about the PRS & NRL.) This group of over 150 competitors represent the best precision rifle shooters in the country, and this post will present all the details about what barrel they are using in long range rifle matches. When it comes down to making an informed decision about what rifle barrel to go with, this data from a wide sample size of the very best shooters is extremely helpful. (View other What The Pros Use articles)
Most Popular Rifle Barrels
Let’s get to the data! The chart below shows the number of shooters that were using each brand of barrels represented. You can see Bartlein Barrels continued their dominant lead in terms of popularity among this group of élite marksmen.
The various colors on the chart represent the league and rank of the shooters. For example, black indicates shooters who finished in the top 10 in the PRS, dark blue is those who finished 11-25 in the PRS, and the lighter the blue, the further out they finished in PRS overall standings. The green colors represents the top shooters in the NRL, where the darkest green is the top 10, medium green is 11-25, and light green are 26th to 50th. The legend on the chart itemizes the league and ranks each color represents, but basically the darker the color, the higher up the shooters placed.
Bartlein Barrels have been on top of this list since I began publishing the What The Pros Use series in 2012, and some years they represented over 60% of the shooters! This year they represented 31.4% of the shooters, which is still twice as many as any other brand. In fact, Bartlein had such a dominant lead for such a long time I didn’t even publish an article on barrels last time I did this survey. This list just doesn’t seem to change as much as other gear, but there were a few shifts in 2018 I’ll point out below. Yet I’m sure it doesn’t surprise anyone to see Bartlein is still on top. They’ve simply done a great job establishing and maintaining their position by continuing to turn out barrels that consistently perform at the highest level, both in these tactical/practical field-style rifle competitions, as well as F-Class and Benchrest, some of the world’s elite military units, and other shooting disciplines. I’ve heard it said, “You’re always either building your reputation or living off it.” Bartlein seems to never stop building their reputation.
It may be surprising to hear, but some barrel manufacturers are still using World War era equipment to produce barrels. While technology has completely revolutionized other areas of manufacturing, many barrels are made the same way they were 50+ years ago. Part of the reason for their success is that Bartlein uses some of the most advanced computer-aided manufacturing processes available. Here is what they have to say about it:
“The uniformity in our barrels and finish of the bores is second to none. Our rifling machines are so accurate, we can carry the twist rate to the 4th decimal point (example: 11.3642). The process of Single Point Cut Rifling is the most stress free way to rifle a barrel. The twist is exact, where as other forms of rifling can have variances due to the process they use. Also, the bore and groove dimensions are more uniform.” – Bartlein Barrels
PROOF Research was the second most popular barrel brand among these top shooters, at 15.7%. That is more than double the amount of shooters they had represented the last time I published the barrel stats, hinting at a growing consumer confidence in their product. In fact, more top 10 shooters were using PROOF barrels than any other brand! They represented 50% of the top 10 shooters in the NRL, and 30% in the PRS.
When most people think of PROOF Research, they probably think of their carbon fiber barrels, but PROOF also produces traditional steel barrels – which is what 100% of these guys were running. I specifically asked all the guys running PROOF barrels if they were running a steel or carbon fiber barrel, and all of them were using steel barrels on their competition rifles, although a few of them said they run carbon fiber barrels on their hunting rifles. Daniel Bertocchini, who finished 23rd overall in the PRS, explained it pretty well: “The main reason guys are running steel over carbon is the added weight for most PRS competitions, but there are benefits to running carbon over steel especially when shedding weight is a concern.” In precision rifle competitions, weight is often seen as a good thing, and I’ll touch more on why later in this article.
PROOF Research actually purchased Lawrence Rifle Barrels in 2012, to bring cut-rifle barrel making in-house for better control of consistency and lead times. Even their carbon fiber barrels have a steel barrel as the liner, and while the steel liner is fairly thin they’d still be safe to fire without the carbon fiber wrap. The carbon fiber is simply there to add more rigidity without adding much weight. Below is an example showing the comparison of a traditional steel barrel and an example of a carbon fiber wrapped barrel.
There are different approaches to carbon fiber barrel wraps used by different companies. I go into the science behind that in a chapter I contributed to Bryan Litz’s most recent book, Modern Advancements In Long Range Shooting Volume 2. I also put some carbon fiber barrels from PROOF Research and Christiansen Arms to the test to see how they compare to several traditional steel barrels of various contours, including a steel barrel from PROOF Research. I quantify group sizes, point of impact shift as the barrels heat up, overall barrel stiffness, and even measure how quickly the barrels heat up and cool off. It was the first large-scale study done on these kinds of barrels that I’m aware of, so if you’re interested in this stuff you might check that out.
Hawk Hill Custom remained one of the top barrel brands, representing 14.5% of the barrels used by the top shooters. Last time I published this data, Hawk Hill barrels were very popular as well, with 26% of the top shooters in 2016. One veteran gunsmith I know who has built hundreds of high-end bolt-action rifles told me he had a lot of confidence in Hawk Hill barrels because they are still a relatively small shop. Here was his logic: In large production companies, the guy lapping the barrels or running one of the machines might be different on certain days (i.e. when a guy is on vacation, they hire a new person, or want to cross-train), and that could affect the quality of the barrel you receive. Larger businesses also tend to focus on throughput on the production floor, and there may be pressure for guys to meet certain quotas. But he theorized that Hawk Hill was still that boutique, small business size where it’s typically the same guy doing certain operations, and they still had the flexibility to slow down and double-check tooling or be OCD in their inspection process. It was an interesting perspective that influenced my view of Hawk Hill, so I thought I’d share it. Regardless of whether that is true or not, a lot of guys are using their barrels – so they must be doing something right!
Krieger Barrels had another strong showing, with 10% of these shooters using one of their barrels. That included two of the top 10 finishers in the PRS and 1 of the top 10 shooters in the NRL. In fact, Matthew Brousseau won the PRS for the second year in a row, and he was using a Krieger barrel. Krieger’s single-point cut-rifled barrels are legendary in the precision rifle world, and have been one of the barrels of choice for some of the top gunsmiths for more than a decade.
Benchmark Barrels also had 10% of these shooters using one of their barrels. Benchmark built their reputation on world record-setting rimfire and centerfire barrels. They say that their barrels currently hold over 50 world records in various shooting disciplines.
Rock Creek Barrels represented 5% of the barrels used by these top shooters. Their flagship, match-grade, custom barrels are also single-point cut-rifled, using modified twin spindle hydraulic Pratt & Whitney rifling machines.
There were several other very capable barrel brands represented: Broughton Barrels, Masterpiece Arms Barrels, and MullerWorks Barrels all had 4-5 of these shooters using one of their barrels. X-Caliber and Schneider Barrels had 2-3 shooters represented. McGowen Barrels, Criterion Barrels, H-S Precision Barrels, and K&P Barrels each had 1 shooter represented.
Popular Barrel Contours
Now let’s look at the barrel contours these top shooters were running. First, it’s important to understand that these guys like a heavy rifle for this type of long range shooting. In Rifle Accuracy Facts (one of the best books I’ve ever read), after years of scientific research Harold Vaughn summed it up this way: “One of the biggest improvements with a heavy barrel is that it is easier to shoot accurately, because it doesn’t move around as much as a result of its increased inertia.” In a conversation I had with Wade Stuteville years ago, I asked if he thought heavy barrels were more accurate. Wade told me “I don’t think it’s that heavy barrels necessarily shoot better, as much as I shoot better with a heavy barrel.” He felt the increased weight and balance of a rifle with a heavy barrel helped him be steady and stay on target. That seems to corroborate Vaughn’s point.
First, there are four basic types of rifle barrel contours: sporter contour, straight taper or match contour, Palma contour, and a newer profile that I’m calling the Ruger Precision Rifle or Desert Tech contour. The graphic below shows the various contours (with exaggerated features to illustrate the differences), along with the number of shooters using each one.
You can see that a Straight Taper (a.k.a. match contour) was the most popular profile, followed by a Palma contour. Since most of these guys see a heavy barrel as a good thing, that shouldn’t be too surprising. I’m not sure it’s ever been broken down this way, so it is interesting to see the trend.
Now let’s look at the specific contours this group of élite marksmen were running:
You can see the M24 contour was the most popular, followed closely by the MTU contour. Both of those are very heavy barrels, at just over 0.9” diameter at the muzzle on a 26” barrel, which is the length most of these guys were running (more on barrel length later). According to Bartlein Barrels, a 26” M24 contour barrel weighs in at 6.2 pounds and a 26” MTU weighs in at 7.0 pounds!
Heavy Palma and Heavy Varmint were the next most popular contours, and both of those would also be slightly over a 0.9” diameter at the muzzle on a 26” barrel. So they’d be close to the weight of the M24 and MTU contours.
Following those, was the Marksman contour and the Medium Palma. The Marksman contour was released by Hawk Hill a couple of years ago with this PRS-style of shooting in mind. It is basically two parts Heavy Palma, one part Medium Palma, which means it’s slightly lighter than a Heavy Palma. The Medium Palma was the lightest contour used, which is kind of funny, because I know hunters who would laugh at me calling a Medium Palma “light!” But, in the precision rifle game that is about as light as you’ll see most shooters using. A lighter barrel can be more maneuverable and make offhand shots easier, but most guys feel like a heavy barrel gives an advantage when prone or off barricades.
And then you have 7 guys running a straight contour, also known as the truck axle! 😉 That’s no contour at all … just a straight cylinder – the same diameter at the muzzle as the breech. According to Krieger, the estimated weight on a 26” straight contour barrel is around 9 pounds! One of the guys running this was Dan Jarecke, who ranked 6th overall in the PRS, so it’s obviously not a bad choice.
There were also 7 shooters running a GAP #6 contour. I asked George Gardner about this contour. George is the President of GA Precision (aka GAP), and was personally one of these top shooters running the GAP #6 contour. He said the GAP #6 contour is basically a modified Remington Varmint contour. It has a 1.25” diameter at the shank for 3.5”, and then has a sporter contour that tapers to 0.9” at 26”. That makes about 1/2 lb. heavier than the Remington Varmint contour. George said it looks like a Heavy Palma barrel. All of the guys who reported this contour were running Bartlein barrels, but this is different than Bartlein’s #6 contour.
Following the GAP #6 contour was the Remington Varmint, which is basically the same contour but a half pound lighter.
Then there is the brand new PROOF Competition contour, which was released this year. One of these top shooters, Chris Gittings (PROOF Research’s Competitive Pro Staff Manager), summed it up well:
“Everyone is building heavier and heavier guns nowadays. Until very recently, the M24 was the heaviest steel barrel that PROOF made. Myself and the other PROOF-sponsored shooters got so many requests for a heavier steel barrel that we asked PROOF for a larger profile. They responded by allowing us to develop the Competition contour. We started by asking the question, “What’s the biggest profile we could fit into an MPA or KRG chassis without modifying it?” That’s how we ended up with the Competition contour, which is hefty – even bigger than the MTU. I’m estimating the weight would be about 7.7 pounds for a 6mm 26” barrel. It’s so new it’s not even on their website yet, but there’s so much interest, shooters are already calling Proof Sales and ordering it.” – Chris Gittings, 83rd Overall in PRS
The one shooter on this list that was already using that contour was actually using a custom contoured barrel from Patriot Valley Arms, which was designed to heavier than the M24 contour. The PROOF Competition contour released later in the year turned out to have identical dimensions, so Josh Kunz at PVA has simply started referring to his contour as the PROOF Competition too for simplicity. Josh said it has a 1.25” diameter shank for 5” and then tapers down to just 1” at the muzzle at 26”.
It seems like so many guys were running heavy M24 and MTU, but if you want anything heavier you’d have to jump all the way to a straight cylinder, which may require a custom modification to your stock or chassis. We saw that some guys were already moving to a straight cylinder, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this contour doesn’t get more popular and even become a standard contour option for other barrel brands, as an option slightly heavier than a M24/MTU but lighter than a straight cylinder.
I’ve found it’s hard to do side-by-side comparison of all these contours, so here is a table I made for quick reference. Honestly, I wish the numbers were all for the same barrel lengths, but manufacturers don’t seem to publish them that way. (If someone has the muzzle diameter and weights for 26” barrels in all these, please share them in the comments.) The table is roughly sorted from the lightest contour to the heaviest that were used by these shooters:
|Straight (No Contour)||Straight||7||1.25″||NA||1.25″||29″||10.0||0.34|
Popular Barrel Lengths
Now let’s look at the barrel lengths these guys were running:
Well, almost everyone was running a 26” barrel – 64% to be exact! The rest of the guys were running barrels from 24” to 28”, plus 2 guys running at 23” and 1 guy running at 22”.
When people think about barrel length, most of us probably think the length decisions came down to wanting to maximize muzzle velocity. While I’m sure that plays into this, it may not be the only factor. In fact, it might not even be the biggest reason for all these guys. Sometimes the rifle balances better with a longer barrel. Adding a little weight way out at the muzzle, can have a bigger impact than you might expect on how the rifle handles.
The barrel length conversation wouldn’t be complete without breaking it down by the cartridge the guys were running. Sometimes a longer barrel can really boost the velocity for a particular cartridge, but the same increase in length might have a negligible change in muzzle velocity for another cartridge. That’s why I really like the articles on Barrel Length vs. Muzzle Velocity from RifleShooter.com. He starts with a long barrel and then chops it off an inch at a time and records what the impact is on muzzle velocity at each increment. It’s very enlightening and helpful when deciding appropriate barrel length for a particular cartridge.
Here’s a look at what percent of the shooters were using what barrel length for all the cartridges used by more than 3 shooters:
You can see again that 26” barrels were very popular across the board. The 6mm Dasher and 6mm Creedmoor were the most popular cartridges (see the data), and 77% of shooters running those had 26” barrels. That seems eerily uniform, but I guess it must just be the magic combination for those cartridges. What’s interesting is the 6mm BR and 6mm BRA both have the majority of the shooters using a 28” barrel. Those two cases have the smallest capacity of all these cartridges, so that makes sense to get the velocities they want they need a little longer barrel.
Overall Rifle Weights
Finally, let’s look at the overall rifle weight, because it is so closely related to barrel contour and length. Here is what I asked these guys on the survey: “How much does your rifle weigh in ‘ready to fire’ configuration, including optics? (Note: If you don’t know, just leave this question blank).” Around 80% of the guys taking the survey filled in their rifle weight, and some of the guys knew their weight to the tenth of a pound! I have to admit, the results surprised me:
I was fully expecting the rifles in the 14-20 pound range, with most around 18-20 … but I didn’t expect 38% of the shooters running a rifle weighing 21 pounds or more! In fact, 4 of the top 10 shooters in the PRS and 4 of the top shooters in the NRL said their rifle weighed in at 21 pounds. There were 12 guys running a rifle that weighed in at 25 pounds, which included 3 guys who finished 11-25 in the PRS, and 1 shooter who finished in the top 10 in the NRL (Matt Medearis).
The trend seems to be moving to heavier rifles, which is why you see things like the new PROOF Competition contour popping up. It will be interested to see if this trend continues.
A: “Shoot what you have until your barrel is shot out or you can prove 100% that your equipment is holding you back. Then upgrade to the absolute best you can afford. Try before you buy, and buy the best you can once you know what your needs are.” – Shawn Andrews, 56th Overall in the PRS
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