So you want to build a lightweight hunting rifle, and you’re down to choosing the barrel. Likely a lot of money is going into this decision, and you want to make sure you get it just right. Do you go with the sleek and subtly snobby Carbon wrap? Or do you go with the simultaneously mean and sexy fluted steel barrel? Is there a right answer?
Spoiler alert: probably not. That’s not a bad thing. There is no right answer because they are both going to shoot lights out. The decision simply comes down to weighing the subtle nuances to best fit your preferences. I’ve personally owned a few of both types of barrels and have had success with both. So let’s get right into the features you’re looking for.
Carbon Wrapped vs Fluted Steel Barrels
First, let’s start with why people want carbon wrapped or fluted steel barrels. In an over simplified but sufficient answer, it is because we understand that a larger diameter barrel inherently increases the rigidity of said barrel.
Increased rigidity typically leads to a higher capability for precision. This is why most people immediately picture a bull barreled rifle in their mind when talking about tack drivers and bench rest guns.
Yes, bigger barrels have advantages in competition shooting such as increased weight for balance and recoil reduction, as well as increased heat dissipation. For hunting purposes, we prefer the rigidity, typically without the weight, and realistically without the inherent need for heat dissipation due to shorter strings of shooting.
Thus, two options present themselves: a carbon wrapped barrel to reach similar diameter and rigidity as a heavier steel barrel without the weight, or taking said larger diameter steel barrel and fluting it down in various patterns, thus retaining your rigidity by not losing outside diameter while cutting weight by removing significant amounts of mass.
Now for the differences in the two options.
The first two questions people will ask when comparing carbon or steel tend to concern precision and weight. Partially to create suspense, but truthfully to dispel what most people think is a bigger difference than it is, we will start with weight.
Yes, carbon wrapped barrels trend lighter than steel. Especially in barrels that are of similar contours (i.e. diameter and shape of barrel). Carbon itself is obviously lighter than steel. What people underestimate is how much steel is still contained in a carbon wrapped barrel. The shank of the barrel, which is the highest diameter portion of the barrel, is always completely made up of steel. The last few inches of the muzzle end will be steel for the full diameter. Underneath the wrapping will realistically be a steel portion of barrel similar to what you think of when you think of a ‘factory pencil barrel from an off-the-shelf rifle.’ Thus, comparing a carbon wrapped barrel to fluted steel barrel is not the same as comparing, say, a full steel frame pistol to a polymer frame pistol. The realized gap is much narrower.
As far as fluting a barrel goes, it does save you a good bit of weight, but you must realize it has its own limitations and isn’t a magic wand of weight savings. What I mean by that is you must remember that regardless of the diameter of the barrel, there is a minimum necessary thickness that must be maintained between the bore of the barrel and the valley of the flutes.
For example, let’s say that an m24 barrel can safely be fluted to depths of .150”, a #4 contour barrel would only be safely fluted to a much shallower depth and thus less material (and weight) is removed. The fluted #4 will be lighter in the end, but just keep in mind that the thinner barrel you start out with, the less it can be fluted. At some point, the labor cost becomes not even worth the minimal weight savings on a lighter barrel.
So where do the two options compare to each other as far as weight goes?
One thing you’ll notice is that carbon barrels tend to trend towards shorter length in offerings. You see a lot of 20”, 22” and 24” offerings in carbon wrapped, where 24” and 26” is pretty standard length in steel barrels. This could be attributed to guys wanting super light rifles not taking super long shots, and are typically found hunting long miles off the road. So they’ll gladly sacrifice a little speed on their bullets to save significant weight by having a shorter barrel.
When comparing apples to apples, I’ll give you my anecdotal evidence.
I had a 26” carbon barrel in sendero contour, and a fluted steel barrel 26” long in a #5 contour, spun up for the same action. The steel barrel was about 6 oz. heavier than the carbon wrapped one. When comparing 10 lbs to 10lbs 6 oz. for overall gun weight, that’s really not a tremendous difference.
If you’re one of those guys looking for a sub 8 lbs scoped gun, 6 oz. is a lot. However, in that scenario, you’re likely also running a shorter barrel length, and the relative difference would be even narrower. Long story short: apples to apples, a carbon wrapped barrel is lighter, but not by much.
Precision in Shooting
Now moving on to the second question, which one is more precise shooting? This is a question I struggle with and really wish I had the money to have owned 6 more barrels of each than I have. I’ll state my following heart felt belief: Carbon wrapped barrels and similarly contoured steel fluted barrels are equally capable of providing ample precision for a precision hunting rifle.
Does that sound like a politician’s answer? Maybe a little. What I’m really getting at is the polarizing beliefs seen on various forums frustrate me, and I believe should be provided with context.
Allow me to provide you my own personal context.
The two carbon barrels that I have owned both shot my hunting loads at regularity with sub .75 moa 5 shot groups. Of the 5 or so fluted steel barrels I have owned, they all shot much closer to the .5 moa 5 shot group standard.
Now as a very experienced long range shooter and hunter, even I start to become real cautious and picky on hunting shots past 600 yards, regardless of the gun I’m holding. A man must know their own limitations.
At 600 yards, the difference between three quarter and half moa is only about 1.5”.
Furthermore, a comfortable or reliable kill zone on a grown mule deer at 600 yards is realistically closer to 2 moa, with an elk being even bigger than that. I am not downplaying the difficulty of such a shot, but going back to my heartfelt belief, both barrel options would provide ample capability for precision.
However, still leaning on my own personal experiences, the carbon wrapped barrels required much more work to find the right load for. In non-fluted steel barrels, I am very used to being able to find a load I am more than happy with in 50 rounds of load development or less, sometimes even just one 25 round test.
My steel fluted barrels followed very closely to this trend. 50 rounds or less, and I would be where I wanted. For the two carbon wrapped barrels I’ve had, I seemed to really have to dig and work and get creative to finally land around that .75 moa point.
Now, 2 data points isn’t a lot, but that was also across multiple powder, projectile, and even primer combinations. Once again, amply capable of precision hunting, but there is something to be said for a barrel that is forgiving load wise.
Close shooting friends have shared with me similar experiences. It is an observation I feel I would be remiss without addressing. The silver lining here is that a hunting rifle is typically a lower round count per year type set up than match rifles. Thus load work is for the most part a one and done type deal.
Is there a Difference in Cost
Now, let’s talk about something that frankly drives the heart of most decisions: cost.
This one is fairly straightforward.
Carbon barrels will typically cost a little more. To put perspective on this, a Proof Research carbon wrapped barrel blank will cost you around $840. Any standard steel barrel blank will cost you close to $300 – $360, with the labor to flute being $150+ at any reputable gunsmith.
The actual chambering job for either will cost no difference.
You’re looking at a $350-$400 premium for a Proof carbon barrel. Yes, I understand that other carbon wrapped barrel companies exist with some major players coming on line within the last year, but they would all still come out more expensive than fluted, and frankly, Proof Research is the tried and true brand that sets the current standard in carbon wrapping.
The ‘proof’ is in the pudding (terrible pun, but you liked it.).
Is the $350 premium worth a 6-8oz. savings over fluted steel? If you’re building a $2500 rifle for 5-15 hunting days a year where you don’t get a lot of miles off the trail and you’re comfortable with a 10-12 lbs rifle, then the answer is likely no. However if you’re going for the extra light, titanium actioned, $4500 mountain rifle for backpack hunting or climbing steep hills, then the answer is much more likely to be abso-freakin-lutely.
Now this discussion would not be complete without addressing the elephant in the room concerning carbon wrapped barrels. That is the phenomenon of “heat creep” or a “walking zero.” It is a broken record to read on any given forum that when carbon barrels get hot, let’s say a 10 shot string in a match or shooting prairie dogs, that a barrels point of impact will move until it once again cools down.
First and foremost, for a lightweight hunting rifle, if you shoot more than 5 rounds in the heat of the moment, you may have bigger issues. Nonetheless, I truly believe, deep down, that for every firsthand account you read of a ‘walking zero,’ you read 4 accounts where ‘my buddy’s rifle’ did it.
Furthermore, I believe the technology of such barrels has come a long way as far as providing consistency and heat resilience, and you tend to hear the old trends consistently and unfairly repeated because frankly there is no negative consequence to spreading misinformation on the good old internet, and people like to hear themselves talk.
Finally, my own experience with this is that people (myself included) willing to pay the premium on carbon barrels can afford and regularly shoot heavier match rifles at at 10:1 round count more than their carbon guns. Thus recoil management gets lazy. Then you take 10 shots in a row with your carbon gun and don’t realize how lazy you get with your form until shots 8 and 9 do something wonky. Maybe it’s walking zero. But I found more often than not, for me, I could refocus on form, and make the rifle do what I wanted.
If you’ve made it this far, I hope I’ve been helpful in shedding some light on considerations for making as important and pricey of a decision as choosing a barrel for a precision hunter. One last note I will make especially on the carbon barrel side is trust your gunsmith. Smithing is an art and comes with its own styles. If your gunsmith tells you (s)he doesn’t like spinning up a carbon wrapped barrel, trust them on that. Not everyone has luck with it. Either stick with the smith and choose a fluted steel barrel, or find a smith that likes working with carbon barrels. But if you ask the first smith to spin you up a carbon anyways, and it shoots barely 1 moa to your dissatisfaction, well the only person to blame is your own stubbornness. Both fluted and carbon wrapped barrels come at a premium so it’s not something to be taken lightly or on a whim. They both come with their nuances, they both come with oodles of cool factor and sex appeal, and most importantly, they are both capable of the precision to reliably and repeatably take down game.