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The debate of having a fluted barrel or not attracts so much controversy there is no telling, which is the better option. Like most, you must be wondering, ‘what effect does a fluted barrel have on a rifle?’ Depending on the person you ask, a fluted barrel can either be the solution to all your rifle woes or be the opposite and turn out to be a total waste of your money.
However, only a handful of people will deny the aesthetic appeal of a fluted barrel. On the other hand, a purely aesthetic improvement is hardly a substantial reason, and most would find it hard to justify. The reason many people buy aftermarket barrels is that sometimes a fluted barrel may possess some risks.
Improper fluting may lead to uneven heating. And if one flute is more profound than the others, it can reduce its accuracy and cause the barrel to crack or warp. In some cases, when too much material is taken off, the barrel fails. On the positive side, three main benefits pop up anywhere barrel fluting is discussed. They include improved barrel rigidity, weight savings, and better heat dissipation.
At first glance, these three claims make a certain amount of sense. However, a much closer examination will reveal a more realistic picture.
Barrel Fluting and Tapering
What is Barrel Fluting
Barrel fluting is a popular process, and it refers to the removal of material from a cylindrical surface. The result is that it usually creates grooves.
The primary purpose of barrel fluting is to remove weight, and to some extent, increase its rigidity. The rigidity for a given total weight or the increased surface area will make the barrels less susceptible to overheating. But when you factor the diameter, a non-fluted barrel will be stiffer and therefore be able to absorb a more considerable amount of heat at the expense of the additional total weight.
There is a lot of misinformation on barrel fluting, and some are based on assumptions. One example of common misinformation is that a fluted barrel will be stiffer than a non-fluted barrel. It is in error, and it defies physics. A fluted barrel of, perhaps, four numbers of contours on it will be stiffer than a barrel of the same weight but has only three numbers of contours.
If the one with four contours is not fluted, then it will be stiffer than one with four contours that have been fluted. It is a case of mass effect, and the more mass you have around the bore of the barrel, the stiffer it will be.
When ordering your barrel with fluting, consider the distance from the muzzle that you would like the fluting to end. The standard measurement should be 1-inch from the muzzle as it will allow enough length forward. It will be vital for threading the muzzle of your barrel should you desire at a later time.
What is Barrel Tapering?
Metal can be removed in various ways from the perfect cylinder of your rifle, and this will also lighten the barrel. It can be tapered, but the diameter at the breech end should be greater than that at the muzzle end. Barrel tapering can occur in various forms, with everything ranging from a linear taper to various other profiles. The limit to tapering is the manufacturer’s imagination.
However, it is not logical for barrels to be tapered in the other direction as pressures are always higher in the chamber, and it will decrease as the bullet travels down the barrel bore. It will also make the rifle imbalanced, and this leads to inaccuracy of shots.
Tapering is among the time-worn methods of improving a rifle’s balance, handling, and reducing the weight. Whereas carrying less weight is a bonus for any rifle, the tradeoff means you sacrifice barrel rigidity and heat dissipation. It is a delicate balance to strike, and you will need to understand how to match barrel contours with a delicate balance to maintain.
What is Barrel Stiffness, and Why Does it Matter?
There are only two kinds of barrel stiffness. They include static stiffness and dynamic stiffness. Static stiffness is the deformation that a barrel will undergo if you hang a weight on the muzzle after locking the action in a vise. The barrel will seem to bend downwards slightly. If you have a stiffer barrel, it will bend less when subjected to the same weight. The static stiffness is determined by the geometry and material of the barrel.
Dynamic stiffness is a lot more complicated. Similar to static stiffness, it measures how far a barrel will bend when you push it. However, it measures this by determining how a barrel responds under dynamic loads, such as firing rounds.
What Factors Impact Dynamic Stiffness?
- Static stiffness of the barrel (more generally, the barrel’s geometry)
- The mass of the barrel
- Type of round fired, and many other factors
- The way the barrel is attached to the rifle
The question many people ask is, what effect does stiffness have on accuracy? There is yet to be a rational explanation; however, in my experience, I do understand how static stiffness impacts on dynamic stiffness.
Dynamic stiffness, on the other hand, does matter. When you fire your rifle, you will notice the barrel vibration always takes a whipping motion. Always up to down motion. It happens as the bullet travels down the bore of your rifle. At that point, the bullet exiting the muzzle will determine how accurate your shot will be. It explains the reason why hand-loaders must tune their loads to match their rifles.
As an experienced hunter, I am always looking for the load that will consistently leave the barrel at the same point in its vibration cycle. Dynamic stiffness also explains why a load that works well in one rifle may be inaccurate in another.
Barrel stiffness is only part of why a rifle will vibrate when you fire it. The other reasons are how you hold the rifle and the mass distribution of the barrel.
What Does Fluting A Barrel Do to Stiffness?
When you cut flutes into the barrel of your rifle, you will make it less statically stiff than if it was without the flutes.
Equally, a barrel with flutes will be statically stiffer than a non-fluted barrel of equal length and weight. It is because the material on the outer diameter does contribute more to stiffness than the material near the center. Therefore a non-fluted barrel will have a lesser outer diameter than a fluted barrel of the same weight
When dynamic stiffness is reduced, the barrel tends to vibrate more slowly and may have a more significant deflection. Another vital information you must know is that by reducing the mass of your rifle, it leads to an increase in dynamic stiffness.
So what wins when you flute a barrel? Is it the decreased mass or the lower static stiffness?
There is no definitive answer as it depends on where and how you do the fluting. It also depends on the sort of vibrations you are looking to have.
Is Barrel Fluting Worth it?
Why You Need to Flute the Barrel of Your Rifle
It is indisputable that the primary benefit of barrel fluting is to reduce the weight of your rifle. The barrel with more material will weigh more than the one with less. The overall weight saving will depend on how much material you remove from your rifle, and this is usually a shooter’s preference.
Bolt fluting is becoming common, and usually, it is in the form of a spiraling pattern. However, the weight saving from this kind of fluting is negligible. It is because the type of fluting and the short length of the bolt make it more of an aesthetic alteration. When done well, barrel fluting makes a rifle to be quite beautiful.
Despite how stiff a barrel may feel, it will still whip up, down, and around a small amount when the gun is fired. One assumption associated with a rigid barrel is that it is more accurate. While this is true, it is only in the sense that it regards consistency.
If the barrel of your rifle does not flex as much after you fire it, it means the second shot will leave the muzzle closer to the first shot. And the reverse is also true. If the barrel is whipping up and down, the muzzle may be lower or higher than that of the first shot hence a more significant disparity. The rigidity of your barrels rifle is most noticeable when you fire at further distances. It is because even the smallest deviation will lead to a wide grouping.
Does Fluting Harden the Barrel?
If you want to minimize the flex of a barrel, fluting is often the perfect solution. It is a widespread belief that follows the principle of how metal behaves when you bend it. It is in part because of the geometry, the angular shape, and work hardening.
Work hardening refers to the action of strengthening the piece. However, it also makes it brittle. As a result, gun barrels are generally not work hardened. Instead, they are heat-treated at a temperature that will make them soft enough to prevent cracks. It also leaves them stiff enough to keep the rifle from wearing down too quickly.
All fluting does to a barrel is to remove material, and there is hardly any strength that can be achieved from this action.
Another claim is that a fluted barrel will cause the barrel to return to the center more quickly. The reasoning is that the rigidity of a steel tube is heavily dependent on the outside diameter and its wall thickness.
Naturally, fluting reduces wall thickness, which reduces the mass of your barrel and its rigidity as well. Fluting also ends just before the end of the barrel, and this makes the end to have more mass than in the middle. That, on its own, will make your muzzle to wobble more than it normally would without fluting
Heat management is a factor that must be considered in all firearm designs. It can result in the inaccuracy of shots, which is a shooter’s nightmare. However, the prolonged firing of your rifle without an adequate means of cooling it will lead to more sinister complications.
The reason why barrels get beat faster is because there is so much heat from the action that comes with firing your gun. For starters, smokeless powder burns at around 5000F while black powder burns at around 2500F. The heat also that comes from the friction of the bullet as it goes down the barrel is significant.
As a result, several different cooling methods have arisen over the years. Some are more successful than others. Fluting is among the cooling methods, but it has its limitations; that is why it does not apply to every barrel.
To understand where fluting hurts and when it helps with regards to heat, you must look at how a barrel heats up and how fast it can shed that heat. Most gun barrels are made of steel, and it is because it has a lower thermal conductivity than other familiar metals like copper and aluminum.
It means that steel will take longer to heat up than other metals, and also will not shed its heat as quickly. It is why fluting is done to create a heat balance. In comparison, a barrel without fluting has more and will take longer to heat up than a fluted barrel. It also means the reduced material of a fluted barrel should cause the barrel to cool down much faster than a non-fluted barrel.
Problems Associated with Barrel Fluting
For fluting to be appropriately done, the cuts must be exact. There is a need to ensure that each flute is identical, as this will prevent damage to the barrel of your rifle. You should also avoid doing the milling with a dull edge. It often creates stress triggers and lines of weakness along the barrel. The heating and cooling that comes from shooting your rifle can cause the barrel to crack.
Poor milling can also cause the barrel to stretch in some areas, and this will make it susceptible, especially if it goes through work hardening. The barrel is intended to be a balance of ductility and rigidity; therefore, work hardening is a detriment to the barrel of your rifle.
Fluting a barrel may, in the end, affect its harmonics. Though this may not be noticeable to the rookie shooter, an experienced one like I am will tell the inaccuracy when firing at long distances. The barrel will vibrate at a particular frequency when a round is fired. What I do to determine the effect is trying out different cartridges. I specifically experiment with their different dwell times, as this minimizes the effect the vibration will have on my accuracy.
One thing to note is that once a barrel is fluted, the cartridge that worked well before may become accurate. You should not panic, all it means is that you need to experiment with other cartridges.
These problems are why some barrel makers will adamantly refuse to flute their barrels. And if you go ahead and flute your barrel on your own, you risk them revoking any warranty coverage of the rifle.
Practical Applications of Barrel Fluting
There are so many considerations that must be taken before you decide to flute the barrel of your rifle. It is not limited to the physics and thermodynamics involved. The best way to know if your rifle needs barrel fluting is by considering the different firearms available. In this article, I will break it down between automatic and semi-automatic rifles.
A submachine gun would have little benefit from fluting. It is because most have barrels that range between 5-6-inches and this is not any longer than most pistols. It means that minimal weight saving will not affect the need for a thicker barrel. A fluted submachine gun will not be able to handle the temperatures of an automatic rifle. The older versions of the submachine guns have lateral fins at the end of the barrel to aid in the cooling.
In mind, there are guns like the M4, which fire a caliber like the 5.56, and this makes it unique and has their own specific needs. The M4 typically has a barrel around 14-inches in length and this is long enough for fluting to be a noticeable benefit.
However, the nature of their use is as automatic weapons, and therefore, they will benefit more from a thicker barrel. For example, with the release of the M4A1, a thicker barrel was one of the first changes. It coincided with the change to an automatic fire option instead of a 3-round burst. A thicker, heavier barrel will also help with recoil control when you fire your automatic rifle.
Semi-Automatic and Bolt Action
Bolt Action Hunting Rifle
It is the most common gun to see fluted, and there are plenty of reasons why you should. The barrel is long enough for weight savings to be a noticeable benefit, and the rate of fire is usually slow enough that the barrel would have enough time to dissipate the heat. Hunters who have to do a bit of hiking to get to their preferred location will find fluting beneficial.
If you consider the issue of rigidity, the spacing between shots will allow the barrel to return to its original position. The caliber of hunting rifles can vary quite significantly depending on the size of the game. Therefore it means some rifles will have more material that can be safely shaved off than other rifles.
Bolt Action Target Rifle
The line between a target rifle and a hunting rifle is often blurred—more so in the last few years. Most shooters who use their rifle for target shooting will do it from a bench rest or prone position. It means that the weight savings of a fluted barrel will not matter as much. However, the accuracy benefits of a thicker barrel will be more noticeable. It is why having a bull barrel is the most common for this type of rifle.
Semi-Automatic Large Caliber Rifle
In this category, I must mention guns like the Ruger SR-762, or Springfield M1A. They require higher pressures of cartridges like the .308, which also require a beefier barrel. Having an increased firing speed over a bolt action .308 would result in more generation of heat in the barrel.
Most aftermarket barrels available for these kinds of rifles have a tapered barrel that is thinner at the muzzle than at the breech. It helps to save on weight more than when compared to a fluted barrel with a much larger overall diameter.
Semi-Automatic Intermediate Caliber Rifle
It is a category that includes typical AR-style rifles in 5.56 or 7.62 and the newer options like 6.5 Creedmoor and .300 Blackout. All these rifles have their average barrel length being 16-inches and longer so that they meet legal requirements.
A fluted barrel will save a noticeable amount of weight. The downside, however, is how quickly the barrel will heat up and affect the accuracy of your shots. But if the intended purpose of the rifle is to be carried and used for long range shooting, there will be time for the barrel to cool. Fluting will, therefore, be necessary.
But for shooters who are more interested in general plinking at the range, there is no single performance benefit of barrel fluting.
Most Popular Rifle Accessories
I guess the conclusion that could be drawn from all this is that fluting does lighten a barrel, and it does allow it to cool faster. The cooling aspect of fluting is less significant to the modern hunter, but the weight-saving aspect is undoubtedly worthwhile to those to whom weight is an important consideration.
As for the aesthetics, it is purely a subjective thing that is based on the shooter’s preferences. I always fancy a fluted barrel as it looks cool more so when the flutes are blackened, and the metal is raw stainless steel.
The good thing about a fluted barrel is that it is much less rigid, much lighter, and has much more surface area than a solid barrel of the same diameter. Also, the fluted barrel is significantly more rigid and has much more surface area than a solid barrel of the same weight.
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36 years old, been hunting and fishing my entire life – love the outdoors, family, and all kinds of hunting and fishing! I have spent thousands of hours hunting hogs and training hunting dogs, but I’m always learning new stuff and really happy to be sharing them with you! hit me up with an email in the contact form if you have any questions.