Revised and updated in March 2010
Of all the elements that make up the rifle it is the barrel that seems to hold the greatest mystique and mystery. Anybody with rudimentary knowledge of engineering practice could see vaguely how to make the action. Anybody with a lathe, a milling machine and the usual tooling of a small workshop - and the knowledge to use them - could make a bolt action.
But the barrel, that is a different matter. How do you drill such a long straight hole to form the bore? How is the rifling put in? How is the shiny finish in the barrel achieved? And above all, what is that special something that differentiates a so-so barrel from a hummer?
Each operation in the making of a rifle barrel requires a special machine tool rarely found outside a barrel shop. That said, there is no real mystery in making good rifle barrels. But it does take care and attention to detail. In this article I will outline the main processes involved in turning a bar of steel into a rifled barrel, indicating where barrel makers differ in their approach.
The United States is the home of the custom barrel maker and there are literally hundreds of small barrels shops up and down the country - some still using unbelievably primitive equipment - who make barrels to the customers specifications. There are also some very large barrel makers who make barrels primarily for the trade. The common denominator is that making barrels is all they do. Very little of the turnover of these barrel makers comes from making actions or rifles or doing other gunsmithing. This picture contrasts very markedly with the rest of the world.
Europe, with a population approaching three quarters of a billion has less than ten barrel makers, of whom only perhaps three are "small" custom shops. Unlike the United States, the European tradition is that a rifle manufacturer will make everything in house and not subcontract to specialist manufacturers. There are exceptions such as Lothar Walther in Germany, who occupy the position of Douglas or Wilson Arms in the U.S. supplying barrels in quantity to the trade and also to the retail public. Great Britain, once the home of a vast gun trade centred in London and Birmingham, now only has two barrel makers; Border Barrels, who have a production shop mainly serving the industry and a custom shop for specialist barrels - and Arms Restoration Services who specialise in the larger calibres, particularly 19th century black powder types. There is now no national ordnance factory barrel making facility. The UK can no longer make new assault rifles for its army.
The barrel of any firearm is a pressure vessel with the action serving to stop up the rear end. The peak pressures involved during discharge are enormous, 50,000 pounds per square inch or more, and special steels are required to safely withstand these stresses.
Two classes of steel are currently used in rifle barrels. Most barrels for use on hunting rifles and in military firearms are made from a high alloy Chrome Molybdenum steel of the sort used in high stress components such as truck axles, conrods and such. In the United States these steels are designated as ASA 4140, 4150 and 4340 types. In Britain these steels are better known as EN 19 or EN 24.
In target shooting stainless barrels have for the most part supplanted the use of Chrome Moly barrels. The steel is not a true, fully austenitic stainless such as is found in cutlery or surgical instruments. The 416 type stainless steel used in barrels is one of a group of martensitic steels which can be hardened by heat treating like regular Carbon steels. 416 stainless is more accurately described as a "free machining, rust resistant" steel having a high Chrome content, around 13%, but with sulphur added to give it good machining qualities. It is widely considered that stainless barrels will have a longer life and are more accurate than Chrome Moly barrels. If stainless barrels are "shot in" using the prescribed procedure, the barrel aquires a burnishing which almost eliminates metal fouling, making stainless barrels very easy to clean.
Because stainless steel is more expensive than Chrome Moly steel and it is more difficult to black due to the Chrome content, high production makers of hunting and military rifles prefer to use Chrome Moly steels. But target shooters who want the best possible accuracy from their barrels are almost without exception choosing "stainless" barrels these days.
The tensile strength of the steel is measured as the force required to break a rod of steel having a one inch cross sectional area, by pulling it from its ends. The tensile strengths of steels used for making barrels should exceed 100,000 lb per square inch giving at least a factor of two safety margin over the chamber pressures experienced during firing. But the impact strength of the steel is probably even more important, this being the ability of the steel to withstand a sharp knock without breaking. Generally speaking, the tensile strength of a steel can be increased by hardening it. But as the hardness is increased, so the steel becomes more brittle and it becomes more susceptible to fracturing from a hard knock or sharp impact - or setting off a small explosion inside a tube of the stuff! A trade off must therefore be made of tensile strength against impact strength and for barrel steel the resultant hardness settled on is usually between 25 and 32 on the Rockwell C scale.
The heat treatment and other production processes involved in making the steel bar leave residual stresses, which can result in the bar bending as steel is removed in making the barrel. The stress can be relieved by putting the steel in an oven and taking it up to 600 C, then allowing it to cool very slowly over the next twelve hours or so. Barrel steel is usually double stress relieved to make absolutely sure it stays straight through the various machining processes.
DRILLING THE HOLE
"What ever you make in life, you have to start with a hole." Ernie Stallman, Badger Barrels, Wisconsin.
Anybody who has tried to drill a straight hole more than an inch or so deep with an ordinary twist drill will know the problem. No matter how careful you are in lining the drill up to start with the hole will wander and bend and the drill will not come out quite where you expected. So how is it possible to drill a hole several feet down a rifle barrel and for the drill to come out to within a few thousandths of an inch of the centre?
The answer of course, is not to use a twist drill. Special drilling machines known as Gun Drills or Deep Hole Drills are used to drill deep accurate holes. On most older Gun Drills it is the barrel itself which is rotated at speeds of between two and five thousand r.p.m. and the stationary drill is fed through a tight fitting guide bush into the end of the barrel. The drill bit itself is asymmetric, cutting on one side only, and is make of Tungsten Carbide.
The bit has a hole through it and is mounted on a long steel tube with a V groove down its outside. Coolant oil is forced down the tube at 1000 p.s.i or more to cool the drill and clear the swarf the drill produces. The oil and the swarf come down the V groove on the outside of the tube, the oil is then strained to remove the swarf before returning to the main tank. The drill progresses down the barrel at about one inch a minute, so it takes about half an hour to drill a barrel. This process and the drills themselves have remained unchanged for the last hundred years - except that the drill tips were not made of Carbide back then!
REAMING THE HOLE
"When two or three barrel makers gather together, the conversation turns to the difficulties and problems of reaming a good hole." Observations of a barrel maker.
The reamer is mounted on the end of a long tube through which the coolant oil is pumped, but at far lower pressures than are used in the Gun Drill. Now it is the reamer that is rotated, at about 200 rpm and the barrel is pulled over the reamer at about one inch a minute.
Harold Hoffman's books on barrel making give descriptions and drawings of bore reamers which will be very familiar to readers of "Gunsmithing" by Roy Dunlap published in 1950, and even more familiar to readers of "Advanced Gunsmithing" by W.F.Vickery published in 1939! Would-be barrel makers who read these hallowed texts can be forgiven for thinking that reaming technology has not advanced much in sixty years and has reached level of perfection where improvement is difficult. Nothing can be further from the truth. Over the past twenty years there has been a quiet revolution in reamer technology and these days most bore reamers are made of Tungsten Carbide instead of High Speed Steel.
Reamers made from Carbide last at least ten times longer than HSS ones and generally leave a superior surface finish. They can also be run at much higher feeds and speeds - 500 R.P.M and 10 inches a minute is not uncommon! Reamer shape has also changed. Reamers have become shorter and shorter over the past ten years and do not have pilots on them as reamers of old.
Reaming a good hole is still something of an art though. Several barrel makers I know refuse to buy bore reamers claiming that you cannot buy a good bore reamer and I have to say there is something to that. Barrel makers who do buy their bore reamers get them from the reamer makers who advertise in this magazine, (Precision Shooting), but generally the reamer needs some hand honing to get it to "run right" and leave a good finish. In my experience, the only reamer maker whose reamers do not require attention before using them is Dan Green of Forgreens. Dan is a really great reamer maker and his chamber reamers are also quite outstanding - I only wish he would make reamers in Carbide!
After reaming, the resultant hole has a good finish and has good dimensional uniformity along its length. The barrel is now ready for rifling.
"Cut rifling is a real hard way to go. I can't think why anyone should go that route." Bruce Bertram, the Australian reloading tool maker made this observation to me at the Nuremberg trade show some 20 years ago. There have been times when I have heartily agreed with him!
In its traditional form, cut rifling may be described as a single point broaching system using a "hook" cutter. The cutter rests in the cutter box, a hardened steel cylinder made so it will just fit the reamed barrel blank and which also contains the cutter raising mechanism.
The cutter box is mounted on a long steel tube, through which coolant oil is pumped, and which pulls the cutter box through the barrel to cut the groove. As it is pulled through it is also rotated at a predetermined rate to give the necessary rifling twist. A passing cut is made down each groove sequentially and each cut removes only about one ten thousandth of an inch from the groove depth.
The rifling machines found in custom barrel shops are invariably Pratt & Whitney machines. For the first world war some thousands of "Sine Bar" riflers, so called because a sine bar is used to determine the rate of twist, were built to satisfy the demand for barrels at that time. These belt driven single spindle machines weighed about a ton and were suitable for the wooden floored workshops of that era. After WW1 many of these machines became available quite cheaply on the surplus market and so in the inter-war years these were the standard rifling machine in barrel shops across the World.At the start of World War Two, Pratt & Whitney developed a new, "B" series of hydraulically powered rifling machines, which were in fact two machines on the same bed. They weighed in at three tons and required the concrete floors now generally seen in workshops by this time. About two thousand were built to satisfy the new demand for rifle barrels, but many were broken up after the war or sold to emerging third world countries building up their own arms industry.
Very few of these hydraulic machines subsequently became available on the surplus market and now it is these machines which are sought after and used by barrel makers like John Krieger and "Boots" Obermeyer. In fact, there are probably less of be "B" series hydraulic riflers around today than of the older "Sine Bar" universal riflers.
Due to the very limited availability of these machines there are several barrel makers who have made their own machines. But, as will be appreciated from the description of the process above, these machines are complex and expensive to build.
In Europe, Schultz & Larsen in Denmark were the outstanding protagonists of the cut rifling method and were making 8000 barrels a year. But adherence to workshop methods more suited to the beginning of this century, rather than its end, allowed competitors with newer technology to take their markets. They closed their doors just a few years ago.
Grunig & Elminger in Switzerland cut rifle their barrels, and Furlac in Austria still make their larger calibre hunting barrels by cut rifling. Tikka, the Finnish hunting rifle makers used to cut rifle some of their barrels, but now that Sako have taken them over, their barrels are made by Sako whose barrels are hammered.
"Any fool can pull a button through a barrel!" Boots Obermeyer.
The machinery is quite simple. The button is mounted on a long rod of high tensile steel which is passed through the barrel blank and attached to a large hydraulic ram. The button is mounted in a "rifling head" that rotates the button at the desired pitch or twist as the button is pulled through the barrel. The process takes about a minute to complete.
There is much opinion that "pull" button rifling is best because the button is kept straight and true as it is pulled through, whereas when pushing the button though the barrel there is an inevitable tendency for the button to tip and yaw so leading to variable bore dimensions. Push-buttoning protagonists deny that this is a problem however - as of course, they would!
Whilst the process is simple, the technology required to get good results is quite advanced which is why it was not until the middle of this century that it became a generally used technique. It was perfected in the late 1940's at the Remington factory at Ilion largely due to the efforts of Mike Walker, who used the workshop of Clyde Hart in nearby Lafayette for some of the experimental work. The button must be very hard and also tough enough not the break up under the stresses involved as it is pulled through the barrel. The lubricants used to keep the button from getting stuck in the barrel must not break down under the very high pressures involved - it takes around 10,000 pounds of force to pull a button down a barrel. The sort of lubricants used in the press moulding business are what button barrel makers pick through to see what suits, though most makers of button rifled barrels are very secretive about lubricant they use!
Button rifling in its common form is an American development and the overwhelming majority of barrels made in the US are rifled this way. Custom shops such as Hart, Lilja, Shilen and the large high production barrel makers like Douglas and Wilson Arms use the buttoning method to rifle their barrels. The technology has spread and there are a few other small custom barrel makers around the world who do button rifling. Neville Madden (Maddco) and Dennis Tobler in Australia. Anshutz in Germany, better known for their .22 target rifles but also a large producer of hunting rifles also button their barrels.
In Europe, where larger more centralised armament factories predominate, the cold forging method of making "hammered" barrels is generally preferred.
The technique of hammer forging rifle barrels was developed by Germany before WW2 because the MG42 machine gun, with 1200 rounds per minute rate of fire, positively ate barrels. The first hammer rifling machine was built in Erfurt in 1939. At the end of the war it was shipped down to Austria ahead of the advancing Russian army, where American technicians were able to get a good look at it.
In this process the barrel blank is usually somewhat shorter than the finished barrel. It is drilled and honed to a diameter large enough to allow a Tungsten Carbide mandrel, which has the rifling in high relief on it, to pass down the blank. The blank is then progressively hammered around the mandrel by opposing hammers using a process called rotary forging. The hammered blank is squeezed off the mandrel like tooth paste and finishes up 30% or so longer than it started.
Today, barrel hammering machines are built by Gesellschaft Fur Fertigungstechnik und Maschinenbau (GFM) in Steyr, Austria. They cost about a half a million dollars and can spit out a barrel every three minutes. These machines have reached a very high degree of development and are so sophisticated that they will not only hammer the rifling into the barrel, but it is also possible to chamber it and profile the outside of the barrel all in the one operation. Only large scale arms manufacturers and ordinance factories have pockets deep enough and barrel requirements insatiable enough that they can afford to buy and run such a machine.
Hammered barrels have never achieved much favour in target shooting. Whilst their proponents laud the virtues of the mirror finish of the bore and its work hardened surface, which gives long life, the barrels tend to be very variable in the uniformity of their dimensions down their length. Also, because the metal is worked completely throughout the barrel there are considerable radial stresses induced which are difficult to remove completely by the usual stress relieving methods. Stainless steels tend to work harden to a much higher degree than Chrome Molybdenum steels and so do not remain malleable enough to hammer forge. Because of this, it is difficult to make stainless barrels this way. Stainless barrels are being hammer forged, but using type 410 steel which has a lower chrome content than the regular 416 steel usually used for making barrels by other methods.
Most of the big hunting rifle makers in Europe hammer forge their barrels. Sako and Tikka in Finland, Heckler & Koch, Steyr and Sauer in Austria. Now, Ruger in the US has started making barrels using this method.
The hydraulic copy unit has a sensitive stylus which follows the shape of the pattern, which is usually mounted on a rail behind the lathe bed. As the automatic feed moves the saddle down the bed of the lathe, so the stylus follows the contours of the pattern. The cutting tool is mounted on a hydraulically actuated tool post and mimics the movements of the stylus, so reproducing the shape of the pattern.
To hold the barrel steady and stop it from vibrating, a hydraulic or pneumatically operated steady follows a few inches behind the cutter. This consists of three rollers which clamp on the barrel and which are linked so that if one moves radially in or out then the others follow it. This allows the steady to adjust for the changing diameter of the barrel as the tool and steady move from the thin muzzle the thick reinforce.
When contouring a barrel, a lot of metal is removed and if there is any stress in the metal then this is relieved by the removal of material. This may result in a barrel that started out as straight ending up as bent. This is not usually a problem when cut rifling a barrel as this does not induce any stress, but button rifling induces a fair amount of radial stress which is relieved by turning the barrel down. What happens then is that as you remove metal from the outside so the dimensions on the inside grow larger. If you turn a sporter barrel with a skinny muzzle from a buttoned blank then you find the barrel is bell mouthed and the bore diameter is a thou' or more bigger at the muzzle than the chamber - definitely, not good! Buttoned barrel blanks have to be stress relieved before profiling to prevent this expansion at the muzzle.
"No need for it, just wears the barrel out!" P.O. Ackley.
Lead lapping the barrel is done to polish the bore and remove machining marks and also to remove any tight spots in the barrel and make it dimensionally uniform end to end. If you were to sit down and write a top ten list of barrel makers, past or present, I predict all would lap their barrels.
This process is usually done by hand, though the process is mechanised in larger shops. It also acts an inspection process for the barrel maker who can feel what is going on up the barrel.
Lapping the barrel adds between one and three tenths of a thou' to the bore and groove diameters of the barrel and is used by most small custom barrel makers as the finishing process on the inside of the barrel. Lapping a barrel will improve the performance of almost any barrel - in some cases, startlingly so!
Generally, lapped barrels will shoot well from the word go where as the same barrel not lapped may take a thousand rounds or so until it starts performing at its best. Contrary to Ackley's dictum, lapping will add to the accurate life of a barrel, not detract from it.
WHAT MAKES A BARREL ACCURATE
Some people want their barrel dimensions accurate to the nearest tenth of a thou'. But in truth, the golden rule seems to be that the groove diameter must be same or less than the bullet diameter to get good accuracy. It does not seem to matter how much less you make it, one tenth of a thou' or one thou' - so long as it is less.
As a general rule, barrels with shallow grooves are better than those with deep grooves because the bullet will be distorted less. Barrels with shallow grooves reach their best quicker than deep grooved barrels - but they certainly do not last as long.
Some people say that the finish in the barrel is important and the better the finish, the better the barrel. What seems to be true is that if the finish is too good, less than 10 microinch roughness, then metal fouling tends to become a problem. It seems that in a "rough" barrel, the bullet rides on the high spots and so there is relatively little friction. But the smoother the barrel gets then the greater the surface contact with the bullet. The friction goes up and more bullet jacket gets left behind. Of course, if the barrel is too rough, then this just picks up metal and acts like sandpaper on the bullet. But there is a band of surface roughness where metal fouling is minimised which is between 10 and 20 microinches.
There have been many claims over the years that different forms of rifling profile will give better results. But so far, there is no conclusive proof that the so called concentric form almost universally used these days is any worse than any other - or any better!
What is important is that the bore and groove dimensions are uniform down the length of the barrel, that the twist rate is uniform and that the groove circle is concentric with the bore. Many think a slight choke at the muzzle end of a ten thousandth or so will improve accuracy. But bench rest shooters have shown that parallel barrels seem to win more matches than choked ones. The exception is barrels which shoot lead bullets, like .22 Rimfire barrels and air rifle barrels. These barrels definitely shoot better if there is a slight choking in the barrel. The barrel should also be completely free of stress so that as it warms up during a course of fire the barrel does not bend so leading to group shifting.
WHICH METHOD MAKES THE BEST RIFLE BARRELS?
Here that at Border Barrels we used to exclusively cut rifled until the demand for our barrels outstripped capacity. The principle problem was (and is) the availability of cut rifling machines - you don't exactly trip over them at machinery auctions. Also, a high level of skill is required to maintain the tooling. Like all old technologies, cut rifling is slow and requires a high level of skill to make and maintain the tooling. This makes it expensive. The other side of the coin is that the tooling is readily made with simple machine tools and is very flexible - by which I mean that a large range of twists and bore dimensions and numbers of grooves are readily achieved using the same cutter and rifling head. This makes cut rifling an efficient way to go if you are making custom barrels in one's and two's to a customers specific requirements and you can charge a hefty sum for your efforts. But cut rifling machines are expensive to buy and expensive to operate. Some people have made their own rifling machines using CNC technology to overcome the difficulties in rifling machine design. Bartlein barrels in the United States use a home-built CNC machine. And in the UK, Holland & Holland have a CNC rifling machine.
Having started out as a custom barrel maker making custom barrels in one's and two's, we found that more and more of our work was in longer and longer runs of barrels of the same type and when it takes an hour or more to rifle a barrel, it sure leads to long days.
So we invested in plant for button rifling. The button rifling machine is relatively simple and cheap to build, (compared to a cut rifling machine), and the buttons are also available and very cheap - in terms of tooling cost per barrel. Also, no real skill is required to pull a button down a barrel. Boots was right! What all this is leading up to is that we have experience in making barrels using the two methods most commonly used in making top quality target rifle barrels and we can be pretty objective about the pro's and con's of cut rifling and button rifling. Hammer forged barrels do not have a very visible presence in the accurate gun world, so I will confine this discussion as to the relative merits of cut versus button rifled barrels.
If it is so easy to rifle barrels using a button, why do some barrel makers persist in the difficult, time consuming art of cut rifling? As outlined above it is critical in an accurate barrel that bore and groove dimensions be uniform end to end. When buttoning a barrel then it is critical that the steel be very homogeneous and of uniform hardness along the bar. If not then the button will engrave deeper into the soft parts than the hard parts so giving varying dimensions down the barrel. The button rifled barrel maker is very much in the hands of his steel mill to supply him with uniform, homogeneous steel.
The depth of engraving of the button depends also on the thickness of the bar at the point where the button is. If the bar is thin then the metal can then just expand elastically allowing the button the pass without doing much engraving. If the bar is thick there is more resistance to the button and so it will engrave deeper. To hope to get uniform bore dimensions it is critical to pull the button through a blank which has the form of a parallel cylinder. A button rifled barrel must be rifled and then stress relieved before it is profiled. There is always the problem that any residual stresses are going to make the barrel move when profiling, so leaving you with a barrel that is bent or bell-mouthed.
The tendency of the bore dimensions of non-stress relieved buttoned barrels to expand on profiling the outside had been used by some manufactures to advantage. Barrels having bore dimensions that vary over the length can be made to shoot well if the muzzle end is the tightest part of the barrel. The bullet will then make a clean exit without gas leaking around the sides to destabilise it. When mass producing barrels it is then possible to allow a fair degree of variation in the bore and groove dimensions down the barrel, provided some choking at the muzzle is included in the manufacturing process. If the buttoned barrel blank is profiled so that the last inch or so at the muzzle end is left at a larger diameter than the rest of the barrel, the expansion of the bore dimensions will be least at the muzzle so leaving a slight choke. That is why the barrels on almost all .22 target rifles look the way they do.
Cut rifling a barrel puts no stress in the steel and so it is possible to profile the barrel after the drilling stage. Any moving around the barrel is going to do will be done and the barrel can be reamed and rifled after profiling. The problem of stress induced changes in bore dimensions during manufacture can be eliminated.
When making fluted barrels, the fear is always there that putting, say, six flutes on the outside of the barrel will leave the bore shaped like a hexagon instead of round. (Like it should be!) With cut rifling, the barrel can be completely profiled and fluted after the drilling stage and then reamed and rifled. All the niggling doubts as to whether fluting the barrel will ruin it can be dispelled if it is done this way - but this manufacturing route in not available to you when you button rifle a barrel.
The exact twist of a buttoned barrel is also unpredictable. The button tends to slip in the barrel so what set out to be a 12 inch twist may end up as a 12.5 inch twist. This is not a problem if the twist is uniform, but if it varies down the barrel - particularly if it slows - then like as not, it will not shoot.
Another problem, is that the button may not engrave as deep on one side as on the other so leaving a groove circle that is not concentric with the bore. The result is bullets leaving the barrel which are not balanced and so unstable. This becomes less of a problem if you have lots of shallow grooves instead of a few deep ones.
Selection is the key to success with buttoned barrels and barrel makers like Hart, Douglas and Shillen grade their barrels by using an air gauge to judge the uniformity of bore and groove dimensions in each barrel. Ultra Premium Select barrels carry a premium price tag and are used by the bench rest fraternity. The lower grades get turned into regular target barrels and sporter barrels.
None of these problems arise in traditional single point cut rifling a barrel. Groove circle and bore are always very concentric. Because very little work is being done on each passing cut the twist rate is very consistent and very uniform. As a general rule, I find that button rifled barrels are not as uniform in bore dimensions straight off the machine as a cut rifled barrel. Button rifled barrels usually need a deal more lapping than a cut rifled barrel due to this problem.
Exact dimensions are easier to achieve by cut rifling and are not dependent on the hardness or thickness or type of steel as they are in buttoning. No stress is put into the barrel by cut rifling so no stress relieving is needed.
Many people think that the superior finish in a button rifled barrel must mean it will shoot better. In the first place, the surface finish that counts is the longitudinal surface finish, down the length of the grooves. The tool marks in cut rifled barrels go in just this direction, so causing mini-lands which are quite uniform down the length of the barrel. The transverse "roughness" caused by the lands are never viewed as an impediment to accuracy, so the mini-lands left by the tool marks in cut rifled barrels will also not affect accuracy. In the second place, the final finish in the barrel is determined by the lapping. If the cut rifling barrel maker has paid attention and kept his cutter sharp to minimise tool marks, then after lapping only a very experienced eye will be able to tell the difference between the cut rifled and the button rifled barrel.
I believe that you are more likely to get a top of the line tack driver by cut rifling a barrel than by any other method. Bench rest shooters in the States have rediscovered the cut rifled barrel and cut rifled barrel makers, who have been quietly persisting over the years with this demanding technique, find shooters at the very highest levels of accuracy banging on the doors of their barrel shops.
For further reading on the method and practice of rifling barrels, I recommend "Rifling Machines and Methods" by Clifford LaBounty. The book is available through Border Barrels. Click on the image for further information.