Choosing the Best AR-15 Barrel for Your Next Build
If you’re a gun enthusiast, you’ve probably heard of the AR15. It’s a semi-auto rifle and it’s incredibly popular among US gun enthusiasts due to the fact it’s highly customizable and adaptable.
However, most people ignore the fact that the barrel is one of the most important parts of the AR-15.
For example, barrels made for 5.56 NATO rounds are different from those made for .223 Remington rounds.
Anyway, in this guide, we will examine how to pick the right barrel, and the differences between barrels, gas systems, and others, so by the end of this guide you should have a better understanding of what makes a great AR15 barrel.
Table of Contents:
- Overview of AR-15 Barrels
- Barrel Materials
- Barrel Lengths and Gas Systems
- Barrel Profiles
- Barrel Twist Rates
- Barrel Chamberings
- Barrel Finishes and Treatments
- Barrel Muzzle Devices
- Legal Considerations
1. Overview of AR-15 Barrels
As mentioned above, the AR15 barrel is one of the most important parts of the rifle as it greatly affects its accuracy and overall weight.
And if your barrel doesn’t provide accuracy, you’ll just have bullets sprayed all over the place instead of hitting your target.
That’s right, having the right barrel can make all the difference when it comes to performance. And the good news is, you can customize your AR-15 barrel for a variety of uses, such as home defense, competition, hunting, or long-range shooting.
When it comes to choosing the perfect barrel, you’ll want to consider the length, materials, and gas systems first. A few short examples of how each of these affects the barrel performance:
- The length of the barrel can affect things like velocity, accuracy, and even recoil.
- Depending on the material you choose, you’ll impact both the weight and durability of your barrel.
- A gas system influences the amount of gas used to operate the gun and can affect the recoil, how quickly can you fire your next shot and the overall reliability of the firearm.
2. Barrel Materials
As with almost any part of the rifle, materials used to build a barrel will definitely have an impact on the overall barrel quality.
Using this into account, we can say there are various barrels you can purchase, depending features you prefer the most.
Do you prefer lightweight or heavier barrels? In which conditions do you plan to use the rifle? These are some of the examples to consider when purchasing a new AR15 barrel.
Each of these features may be found in different barrels. In that way, you have to choose what you really want and where you intend to use the rifle.
Keep in mind that, building your weapon for close-range targets, will perform worse in long-range situations and vice versa.
So, the more you adapt your rifle for one kind of use, it will perform worse in others.
Anyway, let’s get back to the materials.
The most common materials used in AR-15 barrels are 4140 Chromoly Steel, 4150 Chromoly Vanadium Steel, and 416R Stainless Steel.
4140 Chromoly Steel
This material is a popular choice because it’s affordable and durable. It can withstand high temperatures and is often used in applications that require high-stress resistance.
There’s one downside: it’s not corrosion-resistant as some of the other materials out there.
However, there’s the possibility of improving corrosion resistance with different coatings and finishes.
4150 Chromoly Vanadium Steel
This material represents the upgraded version of 4140 Chromoly Steel with a bit more chromium and vanadium added to the mix. This makes it more durable and resistant to wear and tear.
It’s also more corrosion-resistant than the 4140, making it a great choice if you plan to use your AR-15 in humid or wet environments.
416R Stainless Steel
The last one on the list is 416R Stainless Steel. This is the premium material when it comes to choosing AR-15 barrels.
The 416R Stainless Steel is highly corrosion-resistant and has excellent accuracy and heat resistance.
However, barrels made of stainless steel are expensive so we won’t recommend you this one if you’re not willing to break the bank.
3. Barrel Lengths and Gas Systems
The AR-15's barrel length and gas system have a direct impact on its reliability, recoil, and ballistics.
Standard barrel lengths include:
- 10.5-inch: Short, compact, and ideal for close-quarters engagements.
- 14.5-inch: The military standard, providing a good balance of accuracy and maneuverability.
- 16-inch: The most common civilian length, offering solid accuracy and legal compliance.
- 18-inch: Popular for longer-range shooting and competition.
- 20-inch: Best suited for long-range and precision shooting.
You can conclude that longer barrels are better suited for long-range shooting because it provides better accuracy or velocity.
When it comes to gas systems, there are two types of gas systems: direct impingement and piston gas systems.
Direct impingement uses gas generated from firing the bullet to operate your rifle which is a simpler and widely used system. However, it requires regular maintenance as shooting can lead to carbon buildup in the barrel.
On the other hand, we have a piston-operated gas system. Compared to direct impingement, piston gas systems are more reliable, however, they are more expensive and may add more weight to the rifle.
The gas systems, listed from shortest to longest, are:
Shorter gas systems may result in harsher recoil, while longer ones provide a smoother shooting experience but may be less reliable with certain ammunition types.
4. Barrel Profiles
What is a barrel profile? The barrel profile refers to the thickness of the barrel. Choosing the barrel will impact things like accuracy, weight, heat dissipation, and even the appearance of the rifle.
Typical profiles include Lightweight, Government/M4, Pencil, HBAR, SOCOM, and Heavy/Bull.
Thin and lightweight barrels are ideal for mobility but can heat up quickly under rapid fire. However, lightweight barrels can lead to more barrel droop (bending) and decreased accuracy with sustained fire.
As the name suggests, this barrel profile is very thin and lightweight making the rifle more easily to handle.
However, this profile leads to increased barrel heat and decreased accuracy during sustained shooting.
A good balance between weight and heat dissipation.
These barrels have a thick barrel in the chamber area that tapers down to a thinner profile towards the muzzle. This design is often used by the military and is great for sustained fire as it helps dissipate heat and reduce barrel droop.
Provides the best heat dissipation and accuracy, but can be heavy.
This profile has a thick and heavy barrel throughout the entire length. It’s great for long-rage shooting as it helps reduce recoil and increase accuracy.
Stands for Heavy Barrel and it’s characterized by a thick barrel throughout its entire length compared to other barrels.
HBAR barrels are more resistant to barrel droop and have increased rifle accuracy. However, these barrels affect the rifle's maneuverability as they add too much weight to it.
These barrels are similar to the government profile, however, they are shorter. They got their name from Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for whom they were made.
The shorter barrel makes the gun more maneuverable as it doesn’t add too much weight to the rifle.
5. Barrel Twist Rates
The twist rate refers to the rifling's distance to complete one full rotation.
Why is this important?
When you fire a bullet, rifling (spiral grooves inside a rifle barrel) rotates the bullet stabilizing it leading to increased accuracy.
Standard twist rates are:
- 1:7 (1 twist in 7 inches)
Also, not all calibers have the same needs. The amount of spin required to stabilize the bullet depends on its weight, velocity, and length.
For example, a faster twist rate (1:7) is better suited for stabilizing heavier bullets, while a slower twist rate (1:9) is ideal for lighter bullets.
6. Barrel Chamberings
As already well-known, the most popular chamberings among the AR15 rifles are 5.56 NATO and .223 Remington.
Other calibers include .300 Blackout, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8 SPC, and .224 Valkyrie.
However, if you’re going for standards 5.56 or .223 calibers, there’s something to pay attention to.
Shooting .223 with a 5.56 NATO chambered barrel is okay. However, shooting 5.56 NATO rounds with a .223 chambered barrel is not recommended unless it’s a .223 Wylde chambered barrel.
The reason behind this is a difference in pressure generated from these rounds: the 5.56 NATO round produces more pressure than the .223 Remington bullet.
7. Barrel Finishes and Treatments
There are various barrel finishes and treatments. The most common include:
- Chrome lining
- Stainless steel
This finish is one of the popular standards as it has great durability and corrosion resistance. The process of making this barrel includes applying a layer of chrome inside the barrel, which can help protect against heat and wear from long use.
However, the downside of chrome lining is reduced accuracy due to the changes in dimensions it causes to the steel part.
Nitriding, or meloniting, is a process that creates a hard and corrosion-resistant finish on the surface of a barrel. It is more durable than chrome and can improve accuracy while reducing fouling.
However, it can be more expensive and difficult for gunsmithing.
Phosphate finishes are a popular choice for affordable barrels because they are inexpensive and provide good protection against rust. This process involves treating the steel with a chemical solution that forms a protective layer.
While these finishes offer decent rust protection, they may not be as tough as other finishes and may require more frequent cleaning.
Stainless steel barrels have a sleek and attractive appearance and are often used for high-end rifles. They are generally easy to clean and don't need much maintenance, making them a popular choice for long-term use.
However, stainless steel can be less durable than other finishes like nitriding or chrome lining, which may make it more susceptible to wear and tear over time.
Additionally, stainless steel barrels tend to be more expensive than other finishes, so they may not be the best choice if you’re budget-conscious.
Nonetheless, for those willing to spend little extra, stainless steel barrels can provide a reliable and stylish option for their firearms.
8. Barrel Muzzle Devices
Muzzle devices can help reduce recoil, control muzzle rise, and mitigate flash signature.
Common types include:
- Flash Hiders
- Muzzle Brakes
Flash hiders are designed to minimize the visible flash signature when firing, making it easier for you to stay on target and reducing the likelihood of night blindness.
Muzzle brakes are designed to reduce felt recoil and muzzle rise, improving shot-to-shot recovery and follow-up shots.
By directing gases rearward, they counteract the force of recoil and reduce muzzle flip, allowing for more rapid target acquisition and faster shooting.
Compensators are primarily designed to reduce muzzle rise, allowing for faster target reacquisition.
Directing gases upward, help counteract the tendency of the rifle to rise during firing, making it easier to maintain accuracy and fire multiple shots quickly.
Suppressors, also known as silencers, are designed to reduce the noise and muzzle blast produced by the rifle, making it quieter and more comfortable to shoot.
They are particularly useful if you’re practicing at indoor ranges, where noise levels can be very high and uncomfortable.
9. Legal Considerations
Before purchasing or modifying an AR-15 barrel, be sure to check your state and local laws. Some states have restrictions on barrel length, overall rifle length, and specific features such as flash hiders and suppressors.
Choosing the best AR-15 barrel for your needs depends on several factors, including your intended use, performance requirements, and personal preferences.
By understanding the various materials, lengths, gas systems, profiles, twist rates, chamberings, finishes, and muzzle devices, you can make an informed decision to optimize your AR-15 for your specific application.
It's important to remember to comply with all applicable local and federal laws and regulations when purchasing or modifying firearm components.