AR15 Barrel Buyer's Guide
AR-15 barrels have the ability to easily positively or negatively affect your rifle’s accuracy and performance.
It’s amazing the noticeable difference there is between a good AR barrel and a really spectacular barrel's accuracy. Tighter tolerances, better materials, and carefully controlled production can lead to barrels that will impress everyone at the range.
--However, they can also put a slightly larger dent in your wallet.
Not everyone needs an AR barrel that’s capable of putting three rounds through one hole at long distances, for hunters, there is a little more room for error. It all comes down to what your use is for the barrel you’re buying.
But before you can make that decision, you need to know exactly what you’re working with. Chance's are, we've got the barrels for sale that you want. So let’s break down what makes the best AR-15 barrel for you.
AR 15 Barrel MATERIAL AND LINING
AR barrels are usually made from 4100-grade Chrome Moly steel alloy, most commonly 4140 -- which can be cheaper -- or 4150 which includes Vanadium in the alloy to increase strength.
The hardness ratings of each type are the same, and while each alloy does include chrome, it is not a large enough amount eliminate rust forever.
416R Stainless Steel is also commonly used in AR barrels and it has more chrome, making it more corrosion resistant.
It can be polished for a distinct look, shot peened for a matte, less vibrant appearance, as well as colored with chemical treatments to feature a dark finish.
Chrome lining in the bore of a barrel was seen as a huge breakthrough for reliability when it was first introduced.
The lining provides a protective coating against corrosion and fouling, which increases the life of the barrel. However, over time, chrome lining can reduce accuracy since the coating unevely wears down the length of the bore.
Many manufacturers have refined their processes and produce barrels that are highly capable with chrome lining.
More recently, proprietary methods of nitrocarburizing the lining of a barrel have been patented, and these forms of barrel linings will use trademarked names like Melonite, Tenifer, Salt Bath Nitride, and others.
The nitrocarburizing has the outomce of a chemically altered surface inside the bore of the barrel. This lining is becoming more popular, due to its lack of negative effect on accuracy.
For the most supreme accuracy, an unlined stainless-steel barrel will give the best performance. The tradeoff is a lack of protection against corrosion, and shorter barrel life.
Those who are looking for a barrel that will perform at a high level across the widest number of applications, a 4150 Chrome Moly Vanadium barrel with a chrome or nitrocarburized bore lining will fit the bill.
If you’re building a precision rifle that needs ½ MOA accuracy and will never be subjected to sustained high rates of fire, a stainless steel, unlined barrel may be what you’re looking for.
Some of you might be thinking to yourselves “just tell me which one’s MIL SPEC!”, and that’s fair. The AR-15 in a MIL SPEC configuration is a fine firearm. If you were looking for a barrel to attach to a MIL SPEC rifle, you’d be after a 4150 Chrome Moly Vanadium barrel that is phosphate coated and chrome lined; like this upper from BCM.
AR-15 BARREL COATINGS
AR-15 Barrels come in a variety of finishes and coatings and each type presents different performance characteristics to choose from.
Phosphate coating, or “Parkerizing”, is a commonly found process for coating steel barrels. It involves submerging the barrel in a phosphoric acid solution that is heated to around 200 degrees.
Doing so, imparts a phosphate coating to the entire metallic structure. This improves lubricity, corrosion resistance and will have a matte black or grey finish that will not reflect light.
A phosphate finish can provide increased protection for the metal but needs to be kept well-oiled or it will be prone to rust or tarnish.
The process of nitrocarburizing is considered a step above phosphate coating. Thats because it's easier to protect against rust and corrosion than phodphate coating. Nitrocarburized barrels can have an even darker appearance than phosphate coated barrels, have a smoother finish, and a more polished look.
AR 15 BARREL CONTOUR, FLUTING, AND DIMPLING
There are many styles of AR 15 Barrel contours, or profiles, and a lot of them can appear similar. It’s also not always clear why certain profiles or contours are designed the way they are.
Sometimes the answer to the latter question is as simple as “the barrels were bending when soldiers were using them to pry open crates, so we made them thicker on the end.” Seriously.
That’s the reason behind the extra material at the muzzle end of a M16A2 rifle barrel according to Eric Kincel of Bravo Company USA.
And for the little section cut out on M4 carbine barrels between the muzzle and the rest of the tapered section, that is for a M203 grenade launcher.
- So some reasons are a little more legitimate than others! -
When it comes to selecting which AR15 barrel profile is right for you, consider the performance demands you’ll be putting on your rifle.
A “heavy” barrel, sometimes denoted as an HBAR barrel, will lack the various changes in thickness along the length. Most will have two different thickness radii, with one transition point somewhere in between them.
These will be the heaviest to carry, but also will heat the slowest, keeping your accuracy truer for longer.
The vast majority of AR owners will never shoot enough ammunition fast enough to need a heavy barrel in the entire time they own the firearm. Lighter weight barrels with contour types such as government, gunner, tapered, M4, SOCOM, and Pencil, will be perfect. You can find some of our best here.
Some manufacturers will even have proprietary profiles that are engineered to combine some great characteristics of many different contour types. The biggest advantage to these lighter barrels is the decreased weight, which can be crucial if this is a rifle you’ll be carrying for long periods of time.
Common features found on many AR15 barrels today are processes used to reduce weight through fluting or dimpling.
These AR15 barrels will have long, shallow sections of removed material, or small circular pieces of material removed from the surface of the barrel. As cool as this looks, these are not merely stylistic features.
These processes allow for weight to be reduced on heavier AR 15 barrels, and increase overall surface area allowing for better cooling.
AR 15 BARREL LENGTH
AR-15 barrels can be as short as 4 inches for blowback operated builds up to as long as 24-inch rifle length barrels. AR pistol barrels are generally best suited for 300 blackout and 9mm calibers but an 11.5 inch barrel is great for 5.56.
A 16-inch AR15 barrel is the required minimum length for rifles to not be designated as “Short Barreled Rifles” by the NFA, which require a $200 tax stamp to possess.
An important consideration when it comes to AR barrel length is dwell time.
Dwell time is the time it takes for a bullet to exit the muzzle of a barrel after the primer has been hit.
As you pull the trigger, gasses start to propel the bullet down the barrel, where it acts sort of like a cork in a very long-necked bottle.
The gasses continue to expand, building the pressure behind the bullet as the space between the fired cartridge and bullet begins to grow within the bore.
The amount of pressure present behind that bullet is what determines the projectile’s velocity as it exits the muzzle of the rifle, being spun by the barrel’s rifling as it goes.
Because of this, bullet loadings perform better or worse depending on the length of the barrel. Too short, and the powder in the cartridge cannot be fully ignited to maximize the load’s velocity before the bullet has exited the barrel. Too long of a barrel, and the cartridge will completely burn its propellant before the bullet has exited the barrel. Take a look at our 5.56 and .223 Ammo here.
So, when considering barrel length, it is very important to make sure you match your barrel with the type of ammunition you intend to shoot, while keeping in mind the performance you are looking to achieve.
The versatility of the AR platform has led to high demand for barrels in many calibers. The caliber being shot from an AR will dictate not only the diameter of the bore, but also the chamber size in the barrel extension.
Certain types of ammunition are very similar to each other, such as the standard 5.56 NATO cartridge and .223 Remington.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN 223 REMINGTON AND 5.56 NATO?
It comes down to pressure. The 5.56 NATO round creates more pressure because it is a military cartridge.
which means AR 15 Barrels chambered for .223 are not able to safely chamber a 5.56 NATO round. There is a small difference in the amount of headspacing of the chamber, and the barrel will not have been safety tested for the higher pressure 5.56 round.
The good news is, a chamber designed to accept 5.56 NATO is capable of safely chambering a .223 cartridge. Take a look at our 5.56 barrels here.
This can obviously cause some confusion. To alleviate these concerns, a new chambering called .223 Wylde was created that can safely chamber both. These differences are important to be informed about, so you don’t end up with a part you can’t safely use.
AR-15 barrels are available in many calibers, including pistol calibers. Here’s a list of the caliber barrels that we carry here at Primary Arms. Click the kind of barrel you want to view.