Firearms

Choosing the Right Barrel Length

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

I believe 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.

Bob Campbell shooting a rifle from a kneeling stance behind a wooden post
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 traditional reason that military rifles mostly had long barrels, at least until recently. With optics taking the place of iron sights, a shorter barrel is acceptable.

CZ 452 rifle with wood stock and 22-inch barrel length right profile
This CZ 452 makes the most of a generous barrel length in accuracy and velocity.

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. The problem is that at over 100 yards, and certainly by 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 opens at more modest velocity, offers real efficiency—even at low velocity.

Browning A5 shotgun with a wood stock and foregrip right profile
This custom 21-inch Browning A5 is a formidable shotgun.

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 two to eight inches (more commonly two to six 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. As an example, I recently tested the Winchester 125-grain Silvertip in a Chief’s Special with 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, then the extra inch of barrel doesn’t matter and the handgun will exhibit greater velocity.

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

Bob Campbell shooting an AR-15 rifle chambered in .224 Valkyrie
A high velocity number like the .224 Valkyrie needs a longer barrel.

Still, a four-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. As an example, the Springfield XDM 4.5 with a 5.3-inch suppressor-ready barrel exhibits excellent velocity. I have carried a five-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.

What is your preferred barrel length for home defense? What barrel length do you most often carry? Share your answers in the comment section.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (11)

  1. My 2 cents. I built a “retro-style” AR. 5.56×45. 24 inch barrel, 1 in 7 twist, Ultradyne iron sights and muzzle brake(Apollo model). I built it to my taste for 100 ft , to 100yd target shooting. With Frontier 75 gr rounds. Groupings are great ! Very consistent

    With the Apollo brake, and a JP Rifles Silent Buffer(white stripe spring) no kick, can shoot all day with no sore shoulder, (200 plus rounds, I’ve done it)

  2. POCKET CARY-Ruger lc9s pro. TARGET OR FISHING CZ 75 9MM 4.5 ” BL . PERSONAL PROTECTION carry sig226 40 cal.Home defence is any of the above plus 18.5 in bl. 20ga. shotgun BECAUSE IT SHOULDN’T kill the neighbor.

  3. AR’s:
    Home Defense – 16″ in .22 LR & .223
    Vehicle/Travel Defense – 16″ or 18″ (no FH or MB )in .223
    Rabid Rodents – 24″ in .223
    High-Power Rifle Competition (out to 600 yards) – 26″ Match Rifle in .223

    HG’s:
    Personal Defense (Carry) – 3.9″ SIG Sauer P228, 9mm
    Home Defense – SIG P228; 4.4″ P226 in .40 S&W or .357 SIG; 6″ S&W 686 in .38/.357

    Bolt Actions:
    18″ – 26″ – Various makes/models/calibers

    Shotgun:
    6″ – 12 gauge pump; 30″ (sits in safe, last installed in the 90’s)

  4. I rarely carry, but when I do, it is a 5 in 1911 in the winter, and p239 or a different 4 in barrel in the simmer. Pocket carry is a Taurus 380. Fire home defense, a Ruger p90 in 45.

  5. And yet a 16 inch barrel 223/556 ar15 is the norm. It took quite awhile to find my 20, 22, and 24 inch barrels.

  6. In this 2nd Amendment protected country (our Founding Fathers were so wise!) we’re very fortunate to have so many choices. In cooler/colder weather, for CC, I like my Springfield Armory XD, subcompact, 40 S&W, with a 3″ barrel. In warm/hot weather my EDC is the Ruger LC9s, 9mm with just over 3″ of barrel. When considering very light Summer cover, I’ve used my Ruger LCP II, .380, with a barrel length of 2.75″. There seems to be a trend toward short barrel 357 magnum revolvers, and my personal opinion is you lose too much velocity/power, and sharply increase the muzzle blast/flash with much under a 4″ barrel.

  7. Mossberg 590A1 w/20 inch bbl and 8 round mag tube. EDC- 1911 with 5 inch bbl, 8+1. Rifle- M4 style AR w/16″ bbl, 20 round mag with 77gr OTM.

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