What Is The Best Barrel Length For Accuracy

What Is the Best Barrel Length for Accuracy?

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John Wise
February 5, 2022
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Without accuracy, there’s no point in shooting a gun. And accuracy has many factors–among others, bullet-style, your skills as a shoot, and the weather all play a part. However, barrel length is one of the most vital factors in determining how accurate a gun is: So what is the best barrel length for accuracy?

The best barrel length for accuracy will depend on the gun’s purpose and type. Tactical rifles are best with 16 to 18-inch barrels while hunting rifles need 20 to 26-inch barrels. Handguns need concealability, so they work best with 3 to 5-inch barrels. Shotguns require 22 to 30-inch barrels.

Now that we know the basics of barrel length and accuracy for each type of gun, we can look at this question more thoroughly. In this article, we’ll explain the best barrel length for each type of gun, how barrel length affects accuracy, and how to improve your accuracy in general.

Does A Longer Barrel Improve Accuracy?

How much a barrel length affects accuracy depends on the type of gun. Unless you have extremely short or long barrels, the effect is often negligible. Instead, barrel length impacts accuracy by determining how maneuverable your gun is or how easy it aims.

Longer barrels are more accurate if you’re using iron sights. The further apart the front and back sights are, the more precisely they can be aligned. In turn, that makes a more accurate shot.

Likewise, longer barrels are more accurate at long ranges. They let a bullet’s powder thoroughly burn up, allowing it to accelerate the shot for longer. That means that the bullet will travel more smoothly and stay supersonic for extended periods.

Shooting a gun with a long barrel will also reduce recoil. That’s because a long barrel has more mass, so more of the shot’s energy is absorbed by the gun.

However, longer barrels aren’t as valuable up close. A long barrel might increase muzzle velocity, but that doesn’t always translate to an accurate shot, only a faster one.

In contrast, shorter barrels are more consistent. First, they are more maneuverable. While this won’t matter if you’re standing still and shooting at a stationary target, it does make them easier to control overall.

Shorter barrels also vibrate convulsively, absorbing the last shot’s energy faster than a long barrel. This vibration is called barrel whip, and even those slight movements can make a bullet miss at a distance. Therefore, reducing it makes a gun more accurate.

Last, remember that manually shortening a gun is possible. However, doing so can void its warranty and lower its resale value. Likewise, depending on the amount you shorten it, you might have to file additional paperwork.

Never shorten a gun’s stock, though. That can make it uncomfortable to shoot. Buy a new stock instead.

The Best Barrel Length For Rifles

Rifle Barrel

The best barrel length for a rifle depends on its purpose. Hunting rifles will require longer barrels to ensure precision at long distances, but military rifles need shorter barrels for maneuverability.

Barrel Length For Military Rifles

The goal of a military rifle is not perfect accuracy. Any weapon you shoot on burst fire or full-auto won’t be completely accurate – there will be too much recoil. Instead, the military needs powerful weapons to kill an opponent before they get too close.

For those reasons, military rifles typically have barrels between 16 and 18 inches long.

Of course, it is difficult for American citizens to own many military weapons. While we might get specific versions of these guns, they have their full-auto capabilities disabled.

So, if you want a military rifle, keep in mind that a short barrel won’t benefit you as much. The shoulder strain that soldiers experience from shooting full-auto for extended periods won’t happen to you, nor will those same high levels of recoil.

In that case, you should get a weapon with a longer barrel. That way, the gun will be more beneficial for hunting.

Similarly, if you want a rifle for personal defense, a shorter barrel is best. You’ll have more maneuverability and greater accuracy at short ranges. Many AR-15s have 16-inch barrels for this reason.

Barrel Length For Hunting Rifles

Hunting rifles need to be accurate at long ranges, so a longer barrel is best. That’s why hunting rifles typically have barrels between 20 to 26-inches long.

Furthermore, unlike military rifles, hunting rifles need to kill their targets without causing large amounts of tissue damage or using too much powder. Therefore, a longer barrel is required.

Most people who typically shoot at long ranges use a 26-inch barrel, and for a good reason. Not only does that allow for an increased sight radius, but it maximizes the time that the powder can burn, raising muzzle velocity. Bullet speed is essential when you need to shoot a target far away.

A longer barrel also reduces the muzzle report. While a gun will never be silent, reducing the sound it makes is helpful when hunting, especially when using a heavier caliber.

The Best Barrel Length For Shotguns

Shotgun Barrel

Overall, shotguns need the most extended barrels to be accurate, although there are some exceptions. Regardless of what you’ll use the gun for, it’ll be most accurate with a barrel length somewhere between 22 and 30-inches.

A shotgun’s choke also plays a vital role in its accuracy – it narrows the cone shape of the pellets, reducing their spread.

A shotgun can be accurate with a surprisingly short barrel with the correct choke. Keep in mind that shotguns have long barrels by default (22 to 30-inches), so a short barrel on a shotgun won’t be comparable to a short-barreled rifle.

Nevertheless, shotguns suffer heavily with shortened barrels. Muzzle velocity plummets, and pellet spread increases, making them inaccurate at longer ranges. For this reason, even though sawed-off shotguns exist, we won’t discuss them in this article.

Keep in mind that a shotgun’s action affects its length too, so a semi-auto with a 24-inch barrel with be longer than a 26-inch barrel break-action.

Last, sighting also works differently for shotguns. In most cases, you won’t need a scope or iron sights. Instead, the bead at the end of the barrel lets you track the muzzle’s angle relative to your targets.

Barrel Length For Hunting Shotguns

If you’re using your shotgun for hunting, a barrel on the shorter side is best. While hunting, you’ll often need to move through rugged terrain – woodland, brush, swamp. A long-barreled weapon will get caught on branches or vines and slow you down.

Not only that, but shorter barrels are easier to maneuver. While this doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a stationary target (like a turkey), it’s relevant against a moving animal (like a deer).

Getting the swing of a longer barrel isn’t essential either since a startled animal won’t move as predictably as a clay pigeon. Likewise, a longer barrel could get in the way if you’re shooting from cover.

For these reasons, hunting shotguns with barrel lengths of 22 to 26 inches are the most accurate.

Barrel Length For Personal Defense Shotguns

Likewise, if you want a shotgun to protect your family and property, a short barrel is best. A long barrel won’t be easy to maneuver inside your home, making any benefits it could give irrelevant.

For this reason, we recommend a barrel length of 22-inches for a personal defense shotgun. Adding any additional size makes your gun more unwieldy.

Barrel Length For Sporting Shotguns

On the other hand, sporting shotguns need the most extended barrels out of all firearms – a long barrel results in a smoother swing, improving accuracy in clay games. For skeet, trap, and sporting clays, you need to swing the shotgun and track the clay projectile as it travels across the sky.

We won’t get into the details of clay games here, but having a good swing is essential. The momentum of your gun’s barrel is vital in determining if you’ll hit the clay pigeon.

So, a longer barrel gives a smoother swing. Long barrels are heavier but better balanced in proportion to most people’s bodies. Therefore, using one lets you naturally glide the bead in line with the target before shooting.

A longer barrel for a shotgun can range from 26 to 30-inches, but we prefer the maximum practical length for sports shooting. Although you can find longer barrels than 30-inches, they end up being too unwieldy for the average shooter. So, a 30-inch barrel is best.

The Best Barrel Length For Handguns

Handgun Barrel Length

The ideal barrel length for an accurate handgun is between 3 and 5-inches. Although such a short barrel comes at an accuracy penalty, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to ensure the small size of your standard handgun.

Handguns are the go-to weapons for personal defense, so they must be compact and maneuverable.

They can sacrifice accuracy because they don’t need to be used at long ranges. Most personal defense situations occur within under 25 yards – most are at only 10.

Therefore, an overly long barrel on a handgun is detrimental. It would make the gun too easy to see, even in concealed carry. Similarly, it could be unwieldy to draw from a holster or even uncomfortable wearing on your person.

Of course, making a handgun’s barrel too short also has significant downsides. Pocket guns are notoriously inaccurate – they have barrels about 2 inches long. That length is too short to allow for a complete powder burn, so their bullets have lower velocity.

On the one hand, that doesn’t matter if you’re shooting the hijacker outside your car window. However, it’s useless to hit a robber from across a corridor.

Therefore, most revolvers and pistols have barrels between 3 and 4.25-inches long. Those lengths allow for a complete powder burn but don’t keep the bullet in the barrel any longer than necessary.

Because revolvers are more compact, they will also be shorter than semi-auto pistols. While a standard revolver might have a barrel length of 3 inches, a generic pistol has a barrel closer to 4 inches long.

Barrel Length For Carbines

Carbines, while they shoot pistol bullets, work differently than handguns. Let’s take the 9mm as an example since it’s one of the most popular pistol rounds.

For the 9mm, things can be slightly different. Often, a longer barrel is superior, especially if you’re using the 9mm pistol for target shooting or hunting. In those situations, drawing or holster it quickly is less vital.

Therefore, we could use a 5 to 8-inch barrel on a 9mm handgun. Of course, a pistol with a long barrel is bordering on being a carbine. If that’s the case, make sure you know what you’re buying beforehand – in some states, carbines have different regulations.

This logic applies to other calibers, but it is most prominent with the 9mm handgun. Short barrels are best for concealed carry and personal defense (like we said earlier).

But if accuracy is your primary focus, then an extended barrel is best. Shooting pistol rounds from a carbine will also make them more accurate since you hold a more stable platform.

Similarly, the recoil will significantly decrease, and your shots will fly faster. Remember, though, that a carbine doesn’t fulfill the same role as a handgun. They are less maneuverable.

How To Improve Your Accuracy

Practice, Practice, Practice!

The ideal way to improve your accuracy is to practice. Few things can beat going down to the range and shooting a thousand rounds into a target.

Not only is practicing with your gun a fun time, but it is also the best way to improve your firearm skills in general. Regular practice helps you improve any skill, especially true for guns. Learning how your weapon works and being comfortable with it is fundamental to being accurate.

We know that many people complain that they can’t practice regularly. However, we don’t think it is too much to ask for you to set aside a couple of hours per week to work on a skill that can save your life.

In the same line of thinking is taking a firearms class. Even if you’ve been shooting since you were a kid (and we have), learning from the pros never hurts. Often, unlearning bad habits is as essential as learning good ones.

Use The Correct Ammunition

The kind of ammunition you use will also impact your accuracy. We recommend using only clean, high-quality rounds, either bought new or reloaded from a reliable source.

Cleaning out a jam from your weapon isn’t fun. Similarly, misfires can be dangerous. Using low-quality ammunition also lowers your gun’s durability and makes those things more likely.

Apart from ensuring your ammunition is good, there’s still more you can do. First, high-powered rounds are often more accurate. They fly faster and so will drop less as they travel. This perk means that you’ll have to compensate less by aiming high.

Likewise, streamlined bullets are also more accurate. Although hollow points have their uses (personal defense, for example), they’re not intended for hunting. If you’re shooting at long distances, use boattail FMJs where possible.

Use A Scope or Red Dot Sight

Of course, you can also use accessories to improve your accuracy – a scope is among the best. By aiming through a scope instead of iron sights, you’ll see a more significant target more clearly. And that will be easier to shoot.

We recommend a scope with an illuminated reticule – so you can shoot accurately in low-light conditions. Remember, though, that there are thousands of scopes out there.

It’s best to do your research surrounding them, so you pick one that’s best for your gun and your budget.

A red dot sight is another good accessory, shining a red dot on your target. Wherever the red dot is, that’s where your bullet will go. A red dot sight is beneficial as long as you can keep your gun steady.

Red dot sights also save you time. Instead of lining up the iron sights, you’ll only need to look at your target and move the red dot onto it. In personal defense situations, this perk can be a lifesaver.

Use A Rifle Rest

Using a rifle rest is an excellent method of improving your accuracy, although it won’t apply in all circumstances. A rifle rest is a device you place the barrel of your gun on, so you aren’t physically supporting it yourself.

A rifle rest gives your gun increased stability. Let’s face it: our arms get tired, and, by the end of a long day, it can be a challenge to zero in a rifle properly.

A rifle rest doesn’t have this problem as it’s placed on a stand. Use one appropriate to your gun’s caliber, and you’ll see your accuracy significantly improve.

Conclusion

To wrap things up, the best barrel length for accuracy depends on what type of gun you have and for what you’ll use it. A 26-inch rifle barrel is excellent for hunting, whereas military rifles use shorter barrels between 16 and 18 inches.

Shotguns follow similar reasoning. A shotgun needs to be maneuverable if you’re hunting with it or using it for personal defense. In that case, a barrel length of 22 inches is best. However, sport shotguns need a good swing and are more accurate with barrels 30 inches long.

However, for handguns, accuracy isn’t so important. You’ll be shooting the gun at close range in most situations. Therefore, concealability is more critical. Pistols are best with barrels from 3 to 5 inches long.

References:

John Wise

John Wise has a rich background in the use of firearms and has also worked in building construction, particularly designing and installing soundproofing systems for homes and offices. Over the years, he has acquired a ton of experience in sound dampening techniques, technologies, and equipment. Leveraging that rich experience, John Wise now dedicates a chunk of time to show just about anyone how to drastically minimize noise pollution in their spaces, whether at home or workplace.