Choosing a Barrel Length

Bob Campbell shooting an AK-47-type rifle over the hood of a truck

I believe that among the most misunderstood aspects of choosing a firearm is choosing the barrel length best suited for your use. A novice wonders why there are so many configurations. The only real consideration is which is the best for your intended chore, and this is determined by the chore you will perform.

Bob Campbell shooting an AR-15 from a kneeling postition
When performing tactical drills, the 16-inch AR-15 shows real speed.

The barrel determines the length of the firearm more so than any other trait. The action is a certain length, and so is the grip or stock. A double-barrel shotgun has a compact action and may have a shorter overall length than the pump action with the same length barrel.

A .308 Winchester rifle with a short action will be shorter than a .30-06 rifle if both have 24-inch barrels. Some folks just like longer barrels. Others like a short, fast-handling rifle.

The longer tube will result in a more complete powder burn. This means greater velocity. Sometimes, even most of the time, a longer barrel exhibits less muzzle flash due to this full powder burn. As a result, the projectile has more velocity and should shoot flatter and deliver more energy with the same loading.

Another consideration is sight radius. The longer the distance between the sights, the more likely we are to get a good hit without as much chance of misalignment. This is the reason military rifles usually had long barrels until recently.

.308 short action rifle with polymer stock right profile
The 20- to 22-inch .308 with short action is an excellent all-around choice.

With optics taking the place of iron sights, a shorter barrel is acceptable. As armies and individuals made more use of mechanized vehicles, the move toward shorter firearms was inevitable. Even shotguns do not have to be long-barrel jobs to get the job done. We cannot accelerate a load from a short barrel, but we can control shot spread with modern choke tubes. A 21-inch-barrel shotgun is pretty handy for most chores.

While the Mosin Nagant and the Krag still had musket barrels, the new Winchester 94 featured a 20-inch barrel and retained plenty of velocity for most chores. At 100 to 125 yards in dense wood, the 20-inch barrel was plenty.

The .308 Winchester is popular today largely based on its efficiency even in modestly short rifle barrels. The .223/5.56mm rifle is at its best a long barrel that retains much of its 3,000 feet per second plus velocity. The cartridge is a great house-clearing round and effective in short-range combat.

Bob Campbell shootin a .224 Valkyrie AR-15 rifle
A high-velocity number like the .224 Valkyrie needs a longer barrel.

The problem is that over 100 yards and certain 125 yards, the cartridge loses much of its effectiveness. This is especially true when the barrel is short, as in the present M4. Be certain to know the limitations of your cartridge. Modern munitions such as the Hornady Black and 77-grain loads that open up at more modest velocity offer real efficiency even at low velocity.

When it comes to handguns, the short barrel is generally considered a personal defense firearm and the long barrel a hunting firearm with lengths from 2 to 8 inches and more commonly 2 to 6 inches. The pocket guns are the worst performers, as the short barrel doesn’t allow for a complete powder burn, making the velocity less. The short radius is more difficult to use as far as accuracy goes. However, these guns fit in a pocket.

An interesting compromise is to go just a little longer. I recently tested the Winchester 125-grain Silvertip in a Chief’s Special with a 2-inch barrel. Velocity was 840 fps. Moving to a Detective Special with 3-inch barrel, velocity was 890 fps, a considerable advantage. The point is, if the piece is a holster gun, the extra inch of barrel doesn’t matter and the handgun will exhibit greater velocity.

When it comes to concealed carry I think that most folks believe the 4-inch barrel is the outer limits. There is some validity to this opinion. I believe there isn’t a better-balanced revolver anywhere than the 3-inch-barrel Smith & Wesson Custom Shop .357 Magnum—unless you handle a 5-inch-barrel Military & Police .38 Special. This is among the finest revolvers I have ever owned as far as heft and balance are concerned, and it is fast on the draw from a shoulder holster.

CZ 452 rifle with wood stock right profile
This CZ 452 makes the most of a generous barrel length in accuracy and velocity.

Still, a 4-inch-barrel revolver is the upper limit, and shorter revolvers are often faster handling. This all came about when we moved to vehicles from horses. We needed a shorter, faster-handling handgun, and this is still true today. A soldier deploying from his troop carrier needs a short rifle, and a concealed carry permit holster fighting off a carjacker needs something that handles quickly. Ballistics do not matter as much.

In self-loading handguns, the equation changes. The barrel may extend from the slide. The Springfield XDM 4.5 with a 5.3-inch suppressor-ready barrel exhibits excellent velocity. I have carried a 5-inch-barrel Government Model 1911 for many years. It isn’t much of an adjustment to carry a Glock 34. As my friend John Nuckolls pointed out, one is about as long as the other, and the Glock is much lighter.

It isn’t necessary to give up that much in barrel length with the self-loader if you have proper leather gear. Choosing the proper barrel length is a consideration of weight, energy, sight radius, and the ability to comfortably pack the firearm.

How much consideration do you give to barrel length when purchasing a new firearm?

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (12)

  1. This is WAY off-topic! But, so are many of the comments above. Ordinarily, this would be offensive except for the fact that I’ve really enjoyed the off-topic comments. I have a 1979 Smith Mod. 10 4″ with custom grips, Ruger MKIII target, 1911’s from Officer to GI… countless semi-auto pistols, shotguns, etc. Barrel length is relevant! I’m starting to wish I’d ordered an 18″ or 20″ barrel for my 300BLK deer rifle!

    I have two daughters. I taught them to shoot when they were 10 & 12 years old. Grilled them ad nauseum on the safety rules…. Neither has ever fired a gun indoors! Shooting indoors is like having sex in the janitor’s closet…. you get the “bang” but, not the love! Strictly farm girls (where I learned to shoot…) or nice outdoor ranges!

    Just got a note from the ISRA (Illinois)… A NASTY bill has passed a vote in the senate. “FIX THE FOID” as if we need another set of asinine infringements! I told my FFL I didn’t really feel the need to own an AR…. bolt .308 for deer, shotguns for upland game, handguns… I bought a G2C for my girlfriend in January (we’re in our 60’s). My FFL (a GREAT guy!.. ex-cop forced to retire with trashed rotator) told me “If you think you’ll ever want one, you better buy it while you still can…”

    Bought a Smith AR, built the 300BLK, LOTS of 30 round mags! Can’t imagine carrying more than 5 but, I can always buy 5 rounders. Can’t always buy 30 rounders.

    Just ordered a stripped lower, parts kit, trigger group, 5.56 upper, sights. I was thinking of laying it out on the kitchen table for my girlfriend… she can have anything I own. Then…. the “off-topic” comments got to me… I’ll throw it on the kitchen table for my daughter (now 21). She can use it and pass it off to her sons/daughters as a reminder that liberty is preserved at the wrong end of a gun!


  2. Lots to cover in a short web article, author hit a few highlights but didn’t provide much in the way of useful information. Key point for newbs: barrel length on a revolver does NOT include the cylinder (which chambers the cartridges) while barrel length on a semi-auto pistol INCLUDES the chamber which is an integral part of the barrel. A 2″ snub nose .38Spl is roughly equivalent to a 3.6″ barrel in a semi-auto pistol. A semi-auto pistol in .38Spl with a 3.6″ barrel would typically chrono faster than a snubby revolver due to the slight pressure losses a revolver cartridge suffers due to cylinder gap.

  3. For 8 years now have been interested in conversations about barrel length, and twist rate being faster with short barrels.
    During these 8 years I have purchased 11 rifles, 9 of them are 16″, one 18″, and my first short barrel is 20″. During this time have had comments made to me about loss of velocities.
    Velocity, I wasn’t concerned about, and still not as of today
    My reasons for shorter are.
    1) I’m not a 300 yard+ shooter, I’m 250 and in, (if possible 50 yards would be a perfect shot for me)
    2) I like less for thick woods and hunting from tree stands.
    3) All of my shorties have threaded barrels, I like shooting with a suppressor.

    I still shoot the longer guns during the year…
    .225, .243, 7mm, .270, 375HH.

  4. “, and a concealed carry permit holster fighting off a carjacker needs something that handles quickly. Ballistics do not matter as much.”

    Of the twenty-seven words contained in our Second Amendment nowhere do I see any caveats allowing for the feral government, any government state or local the ability or responsibility to restrict my God given and constitutionally protected right of self preservation. There are no clauses allowing for background checks, waiting periods, psychological profiling, permitting, or the registration of any firearm to anyone!

    Most of our elected politicians in Government don’t recognize the Clause “the right of the “people” to keep and bear (carry) arms ‘SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED’ However, I do see plenty of elected officials who would just as soon try and TAKE our God given right by usurpative fiat while at the same time refusing to abide by their oaths of office. Guns have but two enemies, RUST and Politicians!!!

    As for the NICS Universal background checks, They are the opposite of being effective and a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s already a crime to sell a firearm to somebody who is not legally allowed to own a firearm, whether one goes through a background check or not, that is already a crime.

    The NICS background check database is “faulty” and “racially biased,” in that minorities are more likely to share a surname with someone else who may have a criminal record.
    Consider for decades now our Bill of rights has been under attack. Again I want to reference the Amendment that the framers intended to guarantee compliance of the other nine amendments, our second amendment.

    I am curious to find out just how many politicians would be willing to place the same caveats as they have on our Second Amendment or any other amendment e.g. file a form and wait several days so one can exercise their first Amendment right to exercise free speech – file a form and wait several days to exercise their third amendment rights protecting us from unreasonable search and seizure. Or the ninth amendment that states that there are other rights that may exist aside from the ones explicitly mentioned, in the Bill of Rights even though they are not listed. Meaning they can be violated. The proverbial political foot is in the door, and APATHY from the American people is allowing the door to usurpation to be thrown WIDE open as if it wasn’t there.

    Regarding Red flag gun confiscation laws; they violate the Fourth Amendment.
    If the government takes somebody’s God-given rights because they think that a person might someday commit a crime, then we enter into the realm of dystopian science fiction movies. Whether one is an ardent defender of the Second Amendment or not, all of us should be concerned about the implications of the Fourth Amendment and due process. The fourth amendment is a foundation of our country.”

    Democrats don’t care about keeping people safe. For Democrats, this issue is about emotion. They’re appealing to emotion and not reason. If they were appealing to reason, they would know ways to keep people safe and that, to quote a book, ‘more guns equal less crime.’ But also for the Democrats, it’s about paying back their donors. Soros and Bloomberg are going to want to get what they paid for, and what they paid for is disarming our society.”

    No one but God can dictate policy to me and my family and I will do whatever it takes to secure my liberty and the liberty of my fellow patriots. Stand in my way try and usurp my rights or otherwise enslave me, you should be prepared to back your actions up with your life as I am prepared to do likewise!!
    There comes a time when you have to stand for the Constitution or die by legislation one usurpative bill at a time.

    I will offer this little but important lesson in history – The reason Americans should be aggressively fighting against gun control is because armed people will not willingly load themselves in boxcars or FEMA camps!

    “Those who fear your gun do so because they know they are guilty of things for which they should be shot”- Kevin B Shearer

    “Laws forbidding the carrying of arms disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes.” Thomas Jefferson quoting Cesare Beccaria

    Libertas est, non liber – mercedem mihi portionem substantiae sumptus
    Libertas inaestimabilis res est
    Celer Silens Mortalis

  5. When i work up loads for the 9mm, I use both a 4 and a 5.5 inch barrel in testing. I see some very interesting and not always expected results. Playing with primer selection, powder and bullets (when done safely) can produce interesting loads. Add in some different barrel lengths and you’ll definitely see some different potential.

  6. I carry a Walthers ppq m2 9mm which I think is one of the best conceal carry. But as far as short or Kong barrel I feel longer is better . More accuracy and less felt recoil I think . I feel though it up to the person and what’s comfortable to them.

  7. I’ve had several pocket guns but I always end up getting rid of them and going back to a 4″ sub compact. I guess that would be what I call my Walther PPQ M2. Even when I was skinny, I was still thick enough to hide the handle and I really love the ergonomics and trigger, (so nice), because I really don’t like giving up rounds. It’s a military thing. My hands are to big also and I’m afraid when I draw a pocket pistol under possible stress, I will sling it across the room. Have a 5″ 1911 and it’s easy to hide. If I must carry where I can’t, it’s my PPS. Nice and slim. Whatever you carry, spend the money and get high quality ammo.

  8. In a 308, at least 20 inch barrel – due to muzzle blast vibrations in the air and noise. Will often reload at only 90% factory velocity to make it more pleasurable to shoot. This is a long range cartridge which is a pleasure to shoot – don’t ruin it with a shorter barrel. 308 has superb barrel life.

    In a 5.56, any length is OK, but longer is better. 5.56 pistol – 10.5 inch barrel for short distance. Rifle should be 20 inch for 100 to 300 yards. 16 inch is for people who don’t want the hastle of a SBR, and don’t want a pistol – it’s a compromise. FMJ is a poor choice, Hornady GMX guilding bullet 55gr is best as it passes all the FBI tests (but with some extra penetration).

    In 45ACP, 10mm, 9mm – any pistol, 4 to 5 inches is best. I’ve always liked full size pistols.
    In 9mm, at least 4 inch for the velocity, unless one really needs shorter for concealed carry.

    Revolvers – yes I own some purchased decades ago, but would never buy one now. Rarely use them. For the balistics produced – they kick more and hurt the hand more – compared to a pistol. It hurts a little to shoot a 357 revolver, but a 45super or 10mm in a full size glock doesn’t bother me at all. I haven’t seen a policeman carrying a revolver since the 1970s. Just plain inferior. There is some nestalgia for some.

  9. Barrel length isn’t merely a game of comparing ballistics, but also longer guns can be better handling and more controllable. Not only does a longer barrel increase velocity/energy, it also means less muzzle flash and muzzle blast. Longer guns have a different axis, often making them fare easier to handle in many rapid fire situations. A 4 inch service revolver is easier to aim and far easier to control in rapid fire than the snubnose, a 5.5 inch old fashioned standard barrel even better. There was a reason 5.5 inch was standard for so long before 4 inch barrels came in during the automobile era, they are about perfect. Yes, at some point this goes backwards, an 8 inch barrel revolver isn’t just hard to carry, but also presents a gun out of balance and harder to control because of weight and balance issues, but the sweet spot is certainly further out than snub nose. If you don’t mind carrying a 4 inch Model 10, or even an older or custom 5.5 inch, you will have a better shooter for your extra size and bulk in a 38 Special.

    In rifles we see the same thing, its not merely a loss of velocity and energy, we have guns far more difficult to control and muzzle blast that makes the gun difficult to aim during rapid fire, and muzzle blast that can be blinding. In medium power calibers like the 5.56 NATO/223, a 20 inch barrel is barely up in the “very effective” category with the right bullets, at closer ranges, without cover in front of an attacker. Start hacksawing the barrel off and your borderline good performance begins to implode, permanent stretch cavities begin to shrink, then disappear in tissue and gel blocks, penetration and affect will all diminish. The 223 can become pretty tame in a 10 inch barrel compared to a 20 inch barrel in terms of killing; all the time you have a short barrel flash master that is difficult to control. For all that ease of movement and compact size, you are taking hits to performance elsewhere. You have a shorter gun better for transport and carry, a gun that is an inferior shooter in every single way imaginable.

    7.62 NATO/308 doesn’t suffer as much from the loss of terminal performance of shorter barrels, and can be very effective even in short carbine or even pistol barrels. The problem is, the blast and flash issues are far worse than medium power choice like the 5.56. My battle rifles are all full length GI, and even my 18 inch barrel PTR91 seems a bit short at times, especially in low light or dark. My considerations are different than most, being out in the country and not in urban areas, preferring a regular rifle for my purposes. A shorter PTR or other battle rifle might be right up your alley, they can work well, but keep in mind every inch you lose and compactness you gain is a loss somewhere else.

    The shotgun is another interesting point, most fast burning powders are burnt up and maximum velocity can be achieved sometimes in as little as 18 inches! The problem being that birdshot, and buckshot as well, can suffer pattern problems up until 24 inches. If your bird gun is going to be your home defense gun, or clay gun, 24 is about as short as a universal barrel can be. 18 inch barrels are made for slugs, no choke or very little choke in those same barrels is for slugs. Don’t buy a police gun engineered for slugs then complain when birdshot and buckshot sprays all over God’s green earth and doesn’t pattern well to boot if you buy a riot/police/short open choke barrel gun.

    As for hunting rifles, you see the short barrel mentality creep in, but never take strong hold. Johnny Deerhunter gains zero from a short barrel, he only takes his rifle in and out of a truck or car to get in and out, often in a case to protect it and its optics anyway. For his purposes, a longer gun in a rifle caliber might be purely advantageous. Better performance, less punishing to the shooter. There is a time and place for short barreled guns, and that place is not in long range precision rifles or hunting rifles. I’ve seen someone do a real flub astroturf piece trying to convince everyone that their bolt action rifles should all be hacksawed down to 16 inches “to make them more maneuverable” complete with fabricated barrel velocity tests that contradict every other work on the subject. This was the “jumping the shark” moment for barrel shortness is 100% superior movement.

    Yes, the modern battlefield often relies on use of transport and cramped IFV’s where making everything small has its advantages, I understand the move towards the carbine and shorter barrels. Yet it has become such a movement, with its own propaganda, with its own culture, that longer barrels are almost under attack. Let this go unchecked long enough and the kids will start to think that hacking down barrels makes them universally better, and one day the heads of things will actually start to believe their own cart of horse dung. Just as close quarters and vehicles often enjoy the advantages of smaller guns, so does the fixed stock longer barreled full rifle have its place and its own superiority.

  10. The website “ballisticsbytheinch” shows the energy from a .357 magnum with a 2” barrel is around 200 lbs, close to a .380. Out of a 3” barrel it doubles to 400 lbs and out of a 4” it triples to around 600 ftlbs. So much of the powder of the round is burned outside the barrel, resulting in a substantial loss of power.

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