Rifle Barrel life – What you should know from 3 Top rifle smiths
Rifle barrel life – How fast will your barrel reach retirement age?
In this age of increasing retirement age, it seems we’re expecting our rifle barrels to follow suit! In the world of high-performance rifle cartridges, barrel life maybe a short season. This month we look into rifle barrel life with 3 top gunsmiths on both sides of the Atlantic to get a shot at this highly energized topic amongst competitors, hunters and ELR shooters alike.
We spoke to three top gunsmiths in the game to find out how it effects competition shooters, ELR shooters and hunters, all after the ultimate performance for their intended game.
Left to right: Mik Maksimovic presenting a new rifle to a customer, Ryan Pierce out hunting and Harry Drescher from Solid Solution Designs
Rigby: Barrel life with traditional rifles like this Rigby in 375H&H is almost infinite. You will probably never wear out this traditional hunting rifle’s barrel.
Rifle barrel life is a topic I come across often when discussing some of the long-range cartridges both online and in gun shops. A few have also asked me about the barrel wear on the 300 Norma Mag cartridge so I thought I will put out a few thoughts about it as well as reeling in the thoughts of some top gun smiths in the process. What do they have to say?
For this we have reached out to Mik Maksimovic at Dolphin Gun company in the UK that has built more F-Class rifles than he cares to forget about.
We also spoke to Harry Drescher in the Netherlands from Solid Solution Designs that builds many large bore rifles for long range and ELR (exlrs.com) as well US based gunsmith Ryan Pierce, who has probably built more 300 Norma hunting rifles than anyone else and is a well-respected knowledge source on the respective 300Norma Facebook group. Among other things, Ryan builds 300 Normas that are meant to hunt with. This means that weight is usually on a premium and the overall balance of the gun important.
In this way we shall get 3 expert views on the important topic.
Why do barrels burn out?
Barrel wear or rather barrel burning comes from the immense heat that is generated whenever a cartridge is fired and you’re effectively channeling all that energy through a small hole hence coining the term for some cartridges as ‘over-bore’ cartridges. This creates immense heat and friction inside a small bore, pushing a bullet along the lands of the rifle barrel. The more powder you burn through a small hole, the more your barrels burns out. Shoot a few rounds fast, any you will feel that barrel steaming!
Rifle barrel life in perspective
A 308win cartridge will burn circa 42grains of powder for a 30 caliber bullet. A 300 Norma is burning 90 grains of powder for the same 30 cal. bullet.
A 338 Lapua burns circa 90grains of powder under a larger .338 bullet. David Tubb’s 33XC is burning close to 125grain of powder, that’s 38% more than the 338Lapua for the same bullet diameter. Those big numbers you see on your chrono have an effect on your shoulder as well as your barrel life :_)
Does short barrel life hold you back from that shiny new cartridge you’ve been craving for?
If you’re reading this, it probably concerns you. Rifle barrel life puts many prospective shooters off a high-performance cartridge. But should you really be concerned with barrel life? Here’s one way of seeing it. If burning barrels concerns you more than the performance you can achieve, than that level of performance is probably not for you or you don’t need it. High performance cartridges are created for specific tasks. If I’m using a 37XC cartridge to take out a high value target, the cost of my round is virtually negligible. If I take a 300Norma on my next Ibex hunt, the cost of the barrel wear and the lifetime of that barrel is virtually negligible too compared to the cost of my hunt. In the same way, if I’m a prospective F-class competitor and absolutely want the top cartridge I can manage to shoot that could help me achieve a marginal advantage to WIN, then 500 rounds of barrel life maybe just the ticket to achieve that. Are you still with me? If yes, keep reading.
300 Norma cartridge
Let’s take a hunting rifle chambered in 300Norma such as those built by Ryan Pierce. Let’s say we get 1000 rounds of tip top accuracy, 1/3 MOA accuracy shooting a 215gr at 3100ft/s without pushing it. We’re going to get impressive performance that will put meat in the freezer for years to come. It requires less than half the windage of my 308win seen below making my shots more forgiving in the same wind condition. If you take it out for practice once a month and fire 30 controlled rounds each time, that’s 360 rounds of practice in a year. That’s 3 years of practice with enough life in the barrel to bag tons of meat. Being a more wind forgiving round, it allows you make the same shot with half with difficulty. If you’re doing an Ibex hunt and absolutely must connect at any feasible distance you may be shooting, you can’t go wrong with a 300 Norma. You’re spending a few thousands on that trophy Ibex, barrel life in comparison is nothing, you guessed it! If you want to read more about the 300Norma, we prepared this in detail write up.
I’ve also noticed that the users after specific cartridges often are trying to achieve very specific goals and understand this principle better than others who just go to the range to plink and have fun burning a few rounds of ammo. Typically these rifle cartridge users build rifles around the bullet and cartridge they want to use or otherwise rechamber an existing rifle for a specific rifle which entails a new barrel and set of dies in most scenarios (as is the case with 338LM users shooting a 33XC) Typically these shooters are more involved with their goals and objectives and want to achieve specific goals.
How much barrel life are you happy with?
Above: A 308Win round is often thought of having some of the best barrel life available. 10k rounds is not unheard of in service rifles. Burning barrels is not an issue with such volume to bore ratio as found in the 308win.
View your barrel with a borescope as we did here https://www.instagram.com/p/CEGVveyJi9U/
If like us you enjoy Ultra long range, the 300 Norma Mag is a fantastic contender for 1-mile shooting as you can see here and even a few hundred yards further in the right conditions. Mine is doing 3250ft/s with a 215berger, it’s no slouch. My shooting buddy Robert is running 230s at 3050ft/s from a 29inch barrel.
Above: Pushing the limits during ladder testing of the 300Norma Mag before taking it for the King of 1 mile competition in France.
If you shoot 3 rounds and let it cool, you’re looking at 900-1200 rounds of barrel life maybe more.
“The other question I ask shooters that write to us at rifletalks.com is, do you want a 1-mile rifle or a rifle that can potentially shoot 1 mile?”
What’s the difference some ask me?
A 300win mag can shoot 1 mile as will your 30-06 and your 284Win as I saw at the king of 1 mile with the excellent shooting of Cap Beng from France. The guy is a phenomenal army shot but under gunned with a 284win at 1 mile. Had he been running a 300Norma, the outcome could have been very different.
A one mile rifle cartridge like the 300 Norma and similar cartridges have what it takes to connect at 1 mile. They are still supersonic at the distance, their windage correction will be relatively low say 6-8MOA of wind in 10mph full value which makes it easier to connect in changing winds.
If you want to shoot 1 mile in Europe, join this facebook group, Trapani one mile shoot with more info about the next one mile shooting weekend in Sicily, Italy coming March 2021.
Considerations around rifle barrel life
Below are some questions you may want to ask yourself when deciding about a new high performance cartridge.
- String of shots – how many rounds are you expecting to shoot in a string?
- What are your objectives with this cartridge?
- Are you in for competition or a high-performance hunting cartridge?
- What is the cost of your barrel wear?
- What is the cost of ammo before you wear out the barrel?
- How can you extend the lifetime of your barrel?
- Are the achievements worthwhile for you?
How can I see what’s going on in the barrel?
I suggest you get yourself this borescope, for $129 it will give you a good idea what’s happening inside your barrel as you shoot your way through its lifetime as well as seeing what’s going on after you actually clean your barrel. Take the guess work out of the equation.
Above: a bartlein 308 barrel just before engaging the rifling forward of the lead, it’s brand new, only fired a proofing round through it.
Above, a 308barrel with about 200 rounds of 300 Norma Mag through it at 3250ft/s. Surprised?
💰How much does your rifle barrel wear cost? 💰
Often, shooters take this to be the rifle barrel cost. If you’re in Europe you’re looking at £900-£1300 per barrel depending on configuration, length, fluting, finish, muzzle break etc.
When you consider a high-performance cartridge doing 1000 rounds of peak performance before it drops off, you’re looking at about £1 per shot in barrel wear plus whatever it costs you to assemble your ammo. I can see some of you raising their eyebrows. If you consider the cost of 1000 high performance rounds, you’re looking somewhere at £2-3 a pop if you handload and £6-8 if you shoot factory for the big magnums and ELR rounds. That’s £2-3000 in ammo consumed before replacing the barrel…. Still interested? Ok once we’re over the financials, let’s speak to the experts.
Chat with Mik Maksimovic
What does Mik Maksimovic have to say about rifle barrel life and burning barrels? (Dolphin Gun Company UK)
Producing some of the largest volume of F-Class rifles in Europe, Mik knows barrel life as the palm of his rifled hands 🙂
Rod: What kills rifle barrels fast when shooting strings?
Mik: Hey Rod, firstly, rifle barrels don’t wear out they BURN out. Heat from repeated firing burns barrels out slightly quicker
Rod: How many rounds do you expect your F-open gun to go?
Mik: I expect 2000 rounds from my 300 WSM and 1200 to 1500 from my 7-270 WSM
Rod: Do you see any big changes in F–open calibers?
Mik: F-Open is always evolving calibre wise, we have gone from 6.5-284 to 7mm to 30 Cal, but it’s restricted to 8mm and no one has gone down that route yet, no really good bullets in 8mm avail yet. (editor: similar challenges lie with the .408 round, not enough high performance bullets to choose from restricting the popularity of the cartridges)
Rod: What can help shooters in getting the most out of their barrels?
Mik: Using single based powders and cleaning correctly and regularly will give you the best barrel life, double based or high energy powders will burn a barrel out quicker
Rod: How far off is an FTR 308win barrel in terms of barrel wear from an open gun by today’s performance standards?
Mik: FTR 308Win barrel burns out the same as an F-open barrel, they use 20% or so less powder so they get longer barrel life, the barrel life is dependent on the calibre, and amount/type of powder burnt down the barrel.
You can email Mik firstname.lastname@example.org if you need more info referring to this article
Ryan Pierce on High Performance hunting rifles
Next: Ryan Pierce from Piercision rifles, USA
Above: Ryan doing what he enjoys best with his own high performance hunting rifles
Rod: What kills a barrel fast when shooting strings?
Ryan: There’s quite a few variables that come into play for killing a barrel. How hot you get the barrel. Are you shooting at a pace similar to F-class? (editor: 1 round every 80 seconds or so) That will cut barrel life in half easily if you get the barrel really hot all the time. I keep my barrels cool whenever possible. During load development I’ll wait a couple minutes between shots and use a chamber cooler during that time. The type of powder used will have an effect on barrel life also. I generally don’t let the barrels on my big magnums get really dirty. Extreme spread and accuracy opens up when that happens, due to carbon build up etc.
Rod: How many rounds do you expect your high performing 300norma/ 28Nosler hunting rifles to go?
Above: High performance rounds can help you half your windage hold offs.
Ryan: Round count is pretty subjective. Accuracy requirements play a big role in that as well, along with the above-mentioned variables.
For instance, if a guy shoots a bunch of rounds through his 28 Nosler all the time and gets the barrel smoking hot while doing so he could shoot a barrel out in 3-400 rounds pretty easily. However, if you keep it cool and clean you can get 600 or more rounds down it. That’s pushing a 195gr at 3100+ fps. The Norma and Norma improved I am telling guys to expect 1000 rounds or more of good accuracy if the barrel is taken care of. I have a barrel with 800 rounds through it that still hammers. A customer sent me some groups from his awhile back that were still 1/8 moa at that round count. It all comes down to how the barrel is treated.
Rod: Do you see any big changes in high performing hunting calibers or barrels used for them?
Ryan: I did hear about Bartlein’s new steel they’re offering. Sounds like a good deal. Time will tell on the new steel.
As far as new cartridges go there’s always going to be the “latest and greatest”. “I’ve obviously built quite a few 300 Norma and Norma improved. The fact that Lapua makes the brass is a huge bonus for it. I have 28 WARM firings on a single piece of brass and the primer pocket is still tight. Feels almost brand new. Its a great round. Extremely accurate and wide nodes. Capable of sending a 230 berger over 3000 fps in a 26″ barrel and still fit in magazines while throated for heavy bullets.”
I’m currently messing with reloader 50 in my heavy 30″ barrel setup and have a node at 3150 fps with a 230 berger and no pressure signs. Its offering much better case fill than N570 also. Another one of the popular cartridges I’ve chambering for guys is the 30-28 Nosler which is simply a 28 Nosler necked up to 30 cal. It has more case capacity than the 30 Nosler. My personal rifle in it has a 26″ proof carbon and is pushing a 230 Berger at a little over 2950 fps with h1000. It’s mind blowing accurate as well. The last two groups I shot at 580 yds had .6″ vertical. I also shot a cold bore 3 shot group over 3 days at 580 yds. One shot per day. Each day had 10 mph winds from different directions. The 3 shot group was 1.7″ tall x 6″ wide. I misjudged a fishtail wind and opened the group up to 6″. The first two days the group was under 2″ and perfectly centered. It also shoots the 215 Bergers lights out at a little under 3100 fps with h1000. I’m guessing optimal barrel life for it will be 1200-1500 rounds.
Above: Nowhere is the game more life and death than when hunting in the mountains. High performance cartridges may just be your ticket to success!
Rod: How far off are these cartridges in terms of barrel wear from traditional cartridges like 300win mag by today’s performance standards and materials?
Ryan: Both those 30 cal magnums mentioned are quite a bit faster than the 300 win mag. 300 win mag is gonna get 1500+ rounds of good barrel life if its taken care of.
Another somewhat new and great option is the 131 gr Blackjack bullet with its sky-high BC. Its been out over a year now. I’ve done a few for guys and they’ve hammered. I’m finishing up a 25 SST for myself in the next week or two and will be using that bullet with it on deer/antelope size game. Not sure how long the barrel will last but seeing as its predominantly a hunting rifle it will last a long time.
That’s the same with my bigger magnums. Remember 600-1000 rounds of barrel life in a hunting rifle is a really long time. That’s a lot of meat in the freezer, haha. If the new steel ends up offering 50% or more-barrel life in big magnums, then the 33XC might start picking up popularity in hunting rifles. My current setup has quite a bit of throat erosion at 190 rounds. My buddy said it looked like his 6XC at 2000 rounds LOL.
The funny thing is the 33XC barrel is consistently holding 2-3″ vertical at 1000 right now. How much longer it will do that I have no idea but I’m guessing the barrel will give up peak accuracy around 400 rounds or maybe a hair less. I’m going to try a different powder in my next barrel and see if that helps with throat erosion etc. Currently using N570 and pushing a 300 gr berger at 3225 fps in a 30″ proof carbon barrel. That combo definitely isn’t going to be easy on barrels!
Rod: What can help shooters in getting the most out of their barrels?
Ryan: My advice to new shooters on allowing the barrels to last as long as possible is to keep them cool. Don’t shoot 5-10 round strings. Let it cool between each shot to maximize barrel life.
Ryan is extremely knowledgeable and helpful, you may contact him here email@example.com
Remember, keep load development short when testing hi performance rifle cartridges. Learn how to load develop in < 50 rounds here.
Dutch Rifle smith on ELR rounds
Next from the Netherlands, is Harry Drescher (Solid Solution Designs)
Rod: What kills a barrel fast during shooting strings?
Harry: In order to answer this question, we should think about how the barrel is built and how it is constructed, that is a free-floating match barrel in a MTU style profile. Let’s take stainless steel barrels, Single point cut rifling. The critical part of the barrel is the first 10 inches from the chamber into the barrel. This is exposed to a lot of pressure, heat, carbon and coppering. It is the area where the bullet spins for the first time in the lands and grooves of the barrel. If you shoot a fast string,and repeat this, the internal surface wears fast and the heat stress will cause deformities also known as heat cracks or snake skin. In time when these deformities grow, the accuracy can drop off.
Rod: How many rounds do you expect your high performing ELR rifles like 33xc and 375chey to go?
Harry: If the customer chooses the type of barrel and the type of rifling as mentioned in option 1 we can expect loss off accuracy after as much as 1200 rounds in high performance mode. This means monolthic bullets, with speeds over 960m/s
Rod: Do you see any big changes in high performing calibers or barrels used for them?
Harry: Recently we have seen a massive increase of sales of replacement barrels in 33xc, and 37xc as well as 416 Barret. The main brand chosen is in our view Bartlein, Krieger, and Proof research. Runner up is Benchmark and Rangemaster Precision Arms barrels being both top notch supplier of button rifled barrels.
Rod: What can help shooters in getting the most out of their barrels?
Harry: Choose a matching finished length and twist rate that really helps you achieve your ULR goals. Lower twist rates can really make the difference in the subsonic phase.
First accuracy, then speed we always say. Off course it’s a relative thing.
When your barrel is freshly cut, and you start using it, it will wear out. The first few hundred rounds will be the best that you get. A good tip might be to focus your cleaning more on carbon removal and less on copper removal. In this way you maintain the performance level even better.
And for projectiles, please choose a good High BC bullet like WTC, Berger solid, Cutting Edge, SSD Holland.
Rod: How far off are these ELR cartridges from introductory cartridges like 338Lapua when it comes to burning barrels?
Harry: The true ELR cartridges are reducing rifle barrel life fast. That is absolutely true. We have seen that already with the good old 300rum back in the days.
Where a 338lapua magnum can do easily 3000 rounds without loss off accuracy, Formula 1 cartridges like 375CT, 33xc, and the others mentioned will engage your barrel rapidly. I have even had a customer who did 600 rounds laser-style in his 416Barret, ending the rifling for a good 45 percent…….. I must admit that he used a brass solid over a copper solid, but still. Yeah!
You may reach Harry Drescher here: Info@solidsolutiondesigns.com
Over and Out,
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