December 06, 2023
Your rifle’s barrel length affects the muzzle velocity of the ammunition you shoot, your ability to interface with the rifle and the rifle’s capabilities in various hunting and shooting situations. Today, many manufacturers are offering rifles with shorter barrels, and lots of hunters are choosing them. The reasons are twofold. A shorter barrel often pairs better with a suppressor, and shorter rifles typically tend to make for easier-handling rifles.
Suppressors have become very popular with hunters, but a suppressor can add 6 to 10 inches to a rifle’s length. A common 22-inch-barreled bolt-action rifle is about 42 inches long. Add a suppressor, and it can be 50 inches long—almost as long as Daniel Boone’s Kentucky long rifle. Hunting from portable blinds has also become more common, and there are more permanent-type hunting blinds available, too. Most of these tent or outhouse-like structures situate the hunter in a relatively confined space, where dealing with a long rifle—with or without a suppressor—can be problematic. And, finally, as hunters attempt to press deeper and deeper into the backcountry, they’re realizing that a more compact rifle makes it easier to get there.
Those are all good reasons for shorter barrels, but what’s the trade-off? What’s the hunter giving up to hunt with a more compact rifle? To get an idea, let’s examine the ways in which barrel length affects rifle performance and handling.
When it comes to velocity loss due to a shorter barrel, it all depends on how comparisons are made. If you compare different rifles with different barrel lengths, your results are only vaguely indicative. For example, I compared five .308 Winchester rifles with barrel lengths of 16 to 18 inches using two different loads. The average velocity increase per inch of barrel with one load was 5.5 fps, and the average with the other load was 41 fps. In a separate test with a different load comparing nine .308 Winchester rifles with different barrel lengths, the average velocity increase by inch of barrel was 27 fps.
The amount of velocity you’ll lose with a shorter barrel ultimately depends on the load you’re shooting and the barrel from which it’s fired. Generally, shorter barrels will generate slower velocities, but the real question is whether it’s enough difference to matter? If you use an 18-inch instead of a 22-inch barrel, that’s an 18 percent reduction in barrel length. At an estimated 25 fps per inch (100 fps), velocity loss would be less than 4 percent in a .308 Winchester rifle. The point here is that velocity reduction is not directly proportional to a reduction in barrel length, which is another way of saying, it’s not as bad as you think it might be.
A rifle’s sight radius is the distance between the rear and the front sights. Barrel length determines this and greatly affects how easy or hard it is to shoot a rifle accurately. Any misalignment of the sights affects the bullet’s point of impact more with a shorter sight radius. While a reduction in barrel length might not be proportional to velocity loss, it is very comparable to the decrease you’ll experience in shootability.
Of course, this only applies to an open-sighted rifle. If your rifle is outfitted with an optical sight, like most modern hunting rifles are, sight radius has no impact on how hard or easy a rifle is to shoot accurately. In fact, shorter barrels are stiffer, and sometimes this increase in stiffness will enhance a rifle’s precision.
BALANCE AND WEIGHT
A rifle’s barrel influences how a rifle balances, and balance is important when you’re handling a rifle or shooting off-hand. A muzzle-heavy rifle will seem to hang on target better, but one that’s butt heavy will get on target quicker. If you expect to shoot most often from unsupported positions, a slightly muzzle-heavy rifle will help. If your animal engagements tend to be quick snap-shooting situations at close range, a butt-heavy rifle is better. If you anticipate an even mixture, strive for a rifle that balances right between your hands. For those planning to shoot from a solid rest, like a bipod, tripod or the window of a shoot house, balance is not as crucial.
Once only used by outfitters, portable blinds and tiny house-like blinds have become more available to the average hunter and almost demand a more compact rifle. The shortest rifle you can find will be about 36 inches long and will have a 16-inch barrel. A rifle this size is easy to work with in a confined space. Conversely, a bolt-action rifle with a 24- or 26-inch barrel—and particularly a rifle with a 22-inch barrel and a suppressor—can be more than 4 feet long, and in a blind it can feel like you’re trying to twirl a broom in a phone booth.
You might think that a shorter barrel will substantially cut rifle weight, but it won’t. An 18-inch barrel will weigh about 10 percent less than a 22-inch barrel. But, it’ll only affect overall rifle weight by about 2 to 4 percent. Reducing barrel length is not a viable approach to reducing rifle weight, but, just as importantly, it will alter a rifle’s balance point.
THE LAST MEASURE
The most important consideration with any hunting rifle is that you interact with it well enough in order to make hits while you’re in the field. You must find a rifle with a weight, balance and length that best suits you and the specific way you hunt. Once that’s accomplished, then you can start worrying about muzzle velocities and cartridge choice.
But here’s something else to keep in mind. With modern bullets having high ballistic coefficients, we can now carry velocity farther downrange. With a muzzle velocity of around 2,800 fps, at 350 yards the tried-and-true 150-grain Remington Core-Lokt .308 Winchester load will impact somewhere in the ballpark of 1,850 fps. Even though it starts out about 200 fps slower, Remington’s new 172-grain Premier Long Range load will still be traveling at 2,000 fps at the same distance. Would a barrel 4 inches longer allow both loads to shoot about 100 fps faster? Probably, but the general rule of thumb is that you only increase your practical range by about 50 yards for every additional 100 fps of muzzle velocity.
If you feel an extra 50 yards of reach is critical to your effectiveness as a hunter, go with a longer barrel. But if you attach a suppressor, your rifle will be almost as long as you are. Many hunters are realizing that the overall advantage of a shorter barrel offsets the minimal velocity loss that comes with it. Making a good shot matters more than a hundred feet per second, and sometimes an easy-handling rifle will help you make that shot.