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Match Grade Barrel Life

One aspect that should be a concern for all serious shooters and competitors should be barrel life. Coming from a hunting background and delving into competitive rifle shooting enough to wear out a barrel had never occurred to me. I had shot the same Remington 700 30-06 that my Grandpa had shot for years and it was never an issue getting an accurate enough shot to put down a mule deer or elk come hunting season. For many shooters who get out to the range maybe once a month or hunters who may only shoot their rifles a few times per lucky hunting season it most likely will not be a problem and barrels can sometimes outlast the shooter. However, for the competitive shooter how many rounds you have down your barrel practicing and in matches must be monitored and taken into consideration and planned for come match season. Most match barrels are highly precise machined pieces of steel and are not bulletproof (see what I did there?). The immense heat, pressure of burning powder and the abrasive nature involved in sending thousands of rounds down range in practice and in matches will take their toll on the guns accuracy and eventually the barrel will need to be replaced.

An important piece to keep in mind is that barrels in the competitive rifle shooting world are consumable items. You simply cannot get the practice in without wearing out a barrel, a tough pill to swallow but a necessary one in order to get where we want to go. A rifle barrel is constantly changing throughout its life from the first firing until the day its accuracy is deemed no longer competitive. The immense heat and pressure from shooting causes changes your barrel in a three layered cross section. The initial surface layer that is in contact with the heat, pressure, and erosive gas from the burning gunpowder and this surface area actually undergoes chemical changes to the molecular make-up of the steel. This layer is extremely hard yet due to how thin it is, is very delicate. This first layer is what protects the underlying steel of our barrel. It should always be our goal to keep our influence on this layer minimal and as intact as possible since it has the most influence on our bullet and can be susceptible to damage with harsh abrasive cleaning agents. The second area that is effected lies underneath this first layer and in a perfect world does not come in contact with the bullet, yet is still close enough to the bore to be affected by the heat generated while shooting. The third area is the outermost area of a barrel that is shielded from chemical and heat changes and usually has little change through the life of a barrel. Both the chemical changes and changes due to heat weaken the barrel steel in the bore to a point it is more susceptible to the erosive effects of burning gas which accelerates wear. What we put our match rifles through is a literal hell on steel and the entire life of a barrel for all cartridges only amounts to few seconds when you add up the time a barrel is actually exposed to these harsh conditions. Luckily for us the amount of time the barrel is exposed to these violent effects are mere milliseconds and it takes thousands of rounds for this time to add up.

The most affected area of a barrel is the throat of the chamber. This is the area right in front of the bullet when a round is chambered to where the rifling in the bore starts where the heat, pressure, and erosion are greatest. Unfortunately, this area is also crucial for accuracy. A consistent geometry of your rifles throat and its relation with your bullet is what allows your bullet to get a straight start into the bore of your barrel and effectively keep a straight trajectory once in flight. With every shot the throat of the barrel erodes further and further away from the chambered bullet and without a consistent relationship with the bullet and the rifle bore and accuracy begins to degrade. Another aspect of barrel wear comes in your rifle bores ability to seal gas pressure behind the bullet causing a drop in muzzle velocity. With barrels that are in their golden years the changes in throat geometry and velocity only add up to that one bad word in shooting….inconsistency. Shooters with barrels near the end will often start to see an increase in “fliers” and a decrease in velocity which can alter your ballistic data and can potentially ruin a match if not properly monitored and accounted for. The easiest way to monitor this data is to keep records of what your rifle is capable of accuracy wise and what you’re seeing in average velocities. It is best practice to gather this data after the barrel has “settled” in after getting at least 100 rounds down the barrel.

However, don’t let all this doom and gloom get you down on shooting your rifle as much as you need to in order to practice. There are things that we as shooters can do in order to make sure we keep our barrels shooting as accurately and as long as possible. The biggest thing that we can do as shooters is to take barrel life into consideration when in the cartridge selection process of selecting our next match gun. For beginning match shooters do your research beforehand and pick a cartridge with long barrel lives rather than the fastest and flattest shooting cartridge since most likely you will be spending a lot of time actually out shooting practicing wind calls, confirming bullet drop data, and getting comfortable with your rifle. Shooters can also counter barrel wear by running heavier contoured barrels, the increased mass helps improve barrel life by absorbing more heat from shooting allowing for longer shot strings. Another huge boost for improving barrel life is to allow your barrel to cool between strings. My personal approach is that I usually don’t go for more than 10-20 shot strings at a time before allowing my match barrels to cool, if it’s too hot to touch it definitely needs to cool down before more shooting commences. I also believe that if I haven’t been able to hit my target in that amount of rounds I should probably re-evaluate my approach and at least save my barrel rather than lobbing more lead. Also dry-firing, firing your rifle without loaded ammunition is also a very effective practice technique and can save barrel life. Dry fire is also cheap on ammunition and in my opinion about 90 percent as good as actual shooting. It is also important to stay away from too harsh of chemicals which can etch the bore of our rifles and super abrasive cleaning solvents which can kill a barrel immediately if used incorrectly. You still can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, it takes practice so get out and get some wear in!