View Full Version : How long should your gun's barrel length be?

08-05-2012, 6:47 PM
I thought the below article was a good read. It covers shotguns to handguns. Like the author advised, I assessed my needs, layed down my money, and made my choice. I went with a stainless steel 16" barrel.:)


Complete article can be found here:

How long should your
gun's barrel length be?
By Massad Ayoob

Issue #136 July/August, 2012

The person new to guns is like the person new to timepieces. "How many of these things are there?" "In how many configurations?" "And they've been around for how long, and no one can decide on a single configuration that's the best?"

All of which leads to the question, "Which is the right one...and the right size...for me?"

Timepieces or firearms, the answer has always been the same: "It depends what do you need to do with it?"

The timepiece and the firearm have something else in common: evolution makes each smaller and more efficient compared to its forbears in the long history of such devices.
Barrel length in general

The barrel of the gun is generally the part which, more than any other, defines its length. The receiver of a rifle the part that houses the mechanism, or "action" will be built around the length of the cartridge the rifle is intended to fire. In my young days, one advantage of a rifle chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge over one that fired the older .30-06 Springfield cartridge, was that if you bought it in the classic Winchester Model 70 rifle, the .308 would come with a "short action" and the .30-06 with a "long action." The difference was insignificant. This shortening paled to what a rifleman achieved if he simply ordered his Model 70 with a 22-inch barrel instead of a 24-inch barrel, in either caliber.

There are basically three issues when dealing with barrel length, and we'll discuss them here in no particular order because the priority of need differs from shooter to shooter, from mission to mission. Please bear in mind that we're dealing with generalities here, rules of thumb, in which there will be the occasional exception to the rule.

First, as a rule, the longer barrel allows the gunpowder to burn longer as the shot is fired, building up more pressure and therefore sending the projectile (or, with shotguns, projectiles) out of the muzzle at a higher rate of speed. A faster projectile of the same size and weight (a) hits harder, and (b) takes longer for its trajectory to drop, making it "flatter shooting" an important consideration at longer ranges.

Some students of the gun would see the trajectory factor and the power factor as two separate elements, but since they come from the same source, they are treated as one here.

Second, the optical sight came fairly late to the evolution of the firearm. Original "iron sights" atop the gun were the only index the shooter had to align the barrel with what he wanted to hit. The distance between the rear sight and the front sight, known as "sight radius," created a classic example of "simple geometry in action."

Since the variable element of each individual's vision was involved and also, of course, the ever-present shooter's curse of "human error" it made sense that the longer the barrel, the better. The rear sight was at the rear of the gun, and the front sight usually just above and behind the muzzle. In other words, the longer the barrel, the longer the sight radius (the distance between the rear and the front of the "iron sights") and therefore, the less margin for unnoticed human, visual error. Hence the old rule of thumb that the longer the barrel, the more accurately the user could probably shoot.

This is why, from before the first half of the 18th century, through the American Revolution and into the 1830s, your typical soldier's musket had a barrel measuring about 42 inches in length. The musket itself was, accordingly, so long that if the soldier stood at attention holding his weapon's butt on the ground next to him, the muzzle of the gun was often taller than he was. Muskets were smoothbores, but American flintlock rifles tended toward long barrels as well, as in the classic nomenclature, "Kentucky Long Rifle."

Third, and in the 21st century perhaps the most important, there is the matter of convenience of use and deployment. Longer things (which, all other things equal, also tend to be heavier things) are bulkier and altogether more cumbersome to wield when deploying in fast breaking emergencies, or when they must be carried constantly for long periods of time.

Let's look at how these elements relate to the three types of firearms likely to be found in the backwoods home: the shotgun, the rifle, and the handgun. Each type has different and disproportionate issues related to their typical use which may or may not translate to the other types.
Shotgun barrel length

12-gauge pump shotguns. 20-inch barrel on Remington, left, is much handier than 30-inch barrel on old Winchester '97 duck gun at right, but latter will develop higher velocity.

When I was a little kid learning guns in the 1950s, my dad explained why the family gun rack contained shotguns (all 12-gauge) with different barrel lengths. The 26-inch Winchester pump gun came standard from the factory with an improved cylinder choke built in, designed to spread the many little birdshot pellets wide on a fast moving partridge or similar bird. The 28-inch barrel had a modified choke which constricted the shot pattern somewhat tighter; one might prefer improved cylinder early in pheasant season, when the birds tended to rise closer to the hunters and their dogs, but by the end of the season the surviving pheasants were the ones smart enough to keep more distance, and you'd need the tighter shot pattern of the modified choke to hit them that far out. The 30-inch barrel Winchester pump gun was in the gun rack for duck season, when the birds you were shooting at tended to be farther out, because the 30-inch barrel and the full choke were then synonymous in the shotgun manufacturing industry, and there were companies making "extra full choke" barrels of 32 inches and even 36 inches length for those who wanted to shoot ducks and geese at farther than typical distances.

I inherited my father's old shotguns, and they hold a cherished place in my home. But their paradigm is no longer locked in stone. Long before my old body saw daylight, folks in the gun world had figured out that muzzle attachments could allow a single shotgun to adjust the choke pattern. Before my father died, an even more efficient system, screw-in interchangeable choke tubes, was developed. These allowed a shotgunner with a single gun and barrel to adjust the shot pellet pattern much more effectively to his needs on a particular day, stalking a particular quarry. A shooter with a modern 21-inch barrel Remington semiautomatic shotgun can adjust it to perfection for everything from dove to waterfowl, and from near to far.

However, adjusting the pattern of the birdshot's spread does not accelerate it. Thus, we still see long barrels as the choice on dedicated duck guns and turkey guns. The longer barrel will still let more powder burn, and send the projectiles out faster, and therefore hitting harder.

Target rifles, over the centuries, have often been made with barrels of 30 inches or more. When Winchester introduced their most popular lever action rifle in the year 1894, a great many hunters bought it with a 26-inch barrel. However, the single most popular barrel length of the Winchester '94 over the three centuries it spanned was ... 20 inches. The reason for the differing barrel lengths was, quite simply, the differing needs of the people using them.

The longer barrel gave more velocity, flatter trajectory, and a bit more hitting power. However, the shorter barrel was easier to maneuver through the thickets and heavy brush when you were hunting deer in the Eastern forests, and faster to pull from a saddle scabbard if you needed to deploy your rifle out West.

Going back to the Civil War, the optical gunsight was the choice of the rifleman long, long before the shotgunner or the handgunner ever thought of applying it to their firearm of choice. With the telescopic sight doing the aiming, sight radius between front and rear iron sights became irrelevant. In the latter 20th century, "red dot" optics that allowed the shooter to simply place the dot on the target and activate the trigger became popular, and by the first decade of the 21st century, the red dot optic had thoroughly proven itself on the battlefield as well.

Two Springfield Armory M1A rifles, both chambered for .308 Winchester. Short SOCOM-16 version at left is much handier, but shorter barrel reduces .308 velocity to about .300 Savage ballistics.

Once again, the "accuracy" element of the longer barrel had been rendered moot ... but there was still the matter of the greater power that a longer barrel could engender in the projectile the rifle put forth.

An interesting example of that factor appeared in the year 1959, when Winchester introduced their .264 Magnum cartridge. It was, in essence, a hot-rodded version of the .270 Winchester cartridge of 1923. With a 140-grain bullet, the .264 Magnum delivered 3510 feet per second velocity and 3183 foot-pounds of energy...but it needed a 26-inch barrel to do it. Shooters noticed that this more powerful rifle was also longer and more awkward to handle when hunting. If its barrel was shortened to the 24 inches of the original Model 54 Winchester .270 of 1923, which had 2916 foot-seconds of velocity and 2,644 foot-pounds of energy with a 140 grain bullet, the difference wasn't nearly as much.

Bottom line: Today, in the year 2012, the .264 Winchester is pretty much obsolete and hard to find ... and the old .270 is still going strong, one of the most popular hunting rifle cartridges even now.

Let's step away from hunting rifles and go to battle rifles, though there is certainly some crossover there. The .223 Remington/.5.56 mm NATO cartridge the two are very subtly different technically, but so close together practically that they are largely interchangeable hit the scene in the late 1950s/early 1960s, depending on whether you count the time from development or from public awareness and popularity.

When the .223/5.56 got its first real "baptism of fire" in Vietnam, it was in the form of a 55-grain full metal jacket bullet designed to leave the muzzle of the original M16's 20-inch barrel at 3200 feet per second. The Vietnam conflict was a jungle environment, with conflicts at closer ranges than the average encounters across trench warfare scenarios in WWI or European hedgerows in WWII. Sometimes, the high velocity 5.56mm bullets tumbled and did tremendous damage on enemy soldiers ... and sometimes, Americans in the battles found, they just punched .22 caliber holes through their opponents.

08-05-2012, 8:24 PM
I have 7", 16" 18" and 24"

I think I am gtg with AR's in 5.56 :p

08-06-2012, 1:56 PM
Thanks for posting this article. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way and this was an excellent primer.

08-06-2012, 9:19 PM
The author doesn't sound like he's very knowledgable to me. This isn't rocket science.


Base your decision on how you plan on using your firearm.