After the trigger and of course your own skill, your barrel is going to be probably the biggest deciding factor for your AR-15’s performance.
Few other things even come close.
Now, unlike triggers, which are easy to spot differences in and easy to swap, barrels are…a bit more complicated.
We’ll cover carbon fiber beats plain ole steel…and a couple of our favorite manufacturers and models.
Table of Contents
In general, your barrel is probably good for 10,000ish rounds UNLESS you’re shooting corrosive ammo (why?) in a stainless-lined barrel. You can also stretch the life of a barrel considerably by not letting it get hot.
That means letting the barrel cool, or picking up a bull barrel which is significantly heavier, but has more mass and thus is far less temperature-sensitive.
This extra mass makes it more consistent across environment temperatures and also means you can rip through a mag and still be able to hold onto the barrel without scorching your fingerprints off like Will Smith in the first Men in Black film.
You can get even better results from a carbon fiber barrel. Check out this video from BSF where they run through a second round mag while gripping the exposed barrel like it’s nothing.
The other advantage of a bull barrel is that a thicker barrel is also stiffer and thus less likely to suffer from little harmonic quirks that can cause the rifle to perform inconsistently depending on what ammo you’re using, how the barrel is mounted in relation to the stock, and a million other little things that make hardcore handloaders and long-range precision nuts pleasantly aroused to think about.
Of course, with carbon fiber, you get a stiffer barrel without the mass. All the benefits, none of the drawbacks.
If you want to really dig into the physics of what’s happening to your barrel, RSI has a great article on it if you’re into that sort of thing.
Personally, my head starts to hurt after a while, and I’m reminded why I changed my degree from mechanical engineering, but it’s still interesting to see some of the science behind the guns we use.
Now, it’s worth noting that most of these considerations likely won’t bother the average shooter. If the gun goes bang, and is accurate enough at 100 yards, that’s probably enough. For the average shooter.
Who Wants to be Average?
For me, I worked at a gun shop with an attached range and I got all my ammo at a discount, and could handload for just the cost of bullets, so over a year or thereabouts, I put just a silly amount of rounds downrange, well over 20,000 rounds in a year, so I got to be really picky about my barrels.
Like, really picky.
I’m also kind of a metallurgical/machining nerd, and I’ve worked in shops that make barrels and other cold-hammer forged parts and high-end stuff like that, so when I hear about a barrel that gives you the profile of a government barrel, the heat-dispersion and stiffness of a bull barrel, and half the weight of a similarly-profiled barrel?
I call bullshit immediately.
Enter the carbon fiber barrel to totally and completely prove me wrong.
What’s so special about carbon fiber barrels? Are they really worth the hype? What about the $800+ price tag?
In short, abso-freaking-lutely. Long version, well you’ll just have to keep reading.
What The Hell is a Carbon Fiber Barrel?
Well, let’s start with what carbon fiber is.
Carbon fiber is fiber, made of carbon.
Alright, more specifically, carbon fiber is a polymer-impregnated composite that’s primarily composed of tiny carbon-based filaments 5-10 micrometers in diameter.
These filaments, also called CF in the industry, or more rarely graphite fiber, are what give carbon fiber composites their name, but also their cool properties.
On their own, carbon fibers have a very high strength-to-weight ratio, are incredibly stiff, resistant to most chemicals, and are very resistant to temperature changes and thermal expansion and contraction.
When they are layered with certain polymers, other carbon composites, or ceramics, and then baked to a high hardness, they become a super-material that has extensive applications in aerospace, military, engineering, public works, the wing on your annoying neighbor’s Subaru, and of course real motorsports like F1 and NASCAR.
It also makes for a great rifle barrel, or more specifically barrel wrap.
How Do Carbon Fiber Barrels Work?
Well, all the things that make carbon fiber great in say, the F-35 fighter jet, also make it great for a barrel. A stiffer, less temperature-sensitive, stronger, more corrosion resistant barrel?
What’s not to love about that?
These barrels are made with (usually) a stainless core that’s noticeably thinner than other barrels. This core includes the rifling that imparts spin to your bullet and makes your gun, ya know, a rifle instead of a smooth-bore musket.
It also includes the threads that mate your barrel to the receiver, and the threads for attaching a muzzle device. There are still some things steel is better for.
This metal core is then wrapped in a carbon fiber composite that lends the barrel all it’s cool properties, resulting in a barrel that’s better in nearly every conceivable way when compared to a traditional one.
According to Proof Research, who is one of the premier makers of carbon fiber products and who we’ll talk more about in a minute, this gives us barrels with the following benefits:
- Up to 64% lighter than traditional steel barrels of similar contour
- Match-grade accuracy
- Improved heat dissipation for cooler and longer lasting barrels
- No point-of-impact shift during high-volume fire
- Reduced harmonic barrel vibration
- Unprecedented durability
What’s the downside of a carbon fiber barrel, besides looking just a bit like the hood of your annoying neighbor’s Subaru? (Seriously, what is that dude’s problem?)
Price. Like I said before, these barrels cost just about as much as a quality rifle on their own. These are barrels that cost way more than the average AR, and they go above and beyond what the average shooter is really going to need.
But again, who ever set out to just be average?
Of course, with these barrels representing such a significant investment of your hard earned dollars, it makes sense to get the best of the best.
So let’s look at the best ones.
1. PROOF Research
PROOF Research is a Montana-based company that is committed to using cutting-edge materials science to advance the firearms industry.
They also make precision composites for the aerospace industry in their Dayton, OH facility, including parts for the F-35 and B2 Stealth Bomber, and I believe they have components in space somewhere.
This just goes to show not only how amazing of a material carbon fiber composites are, but it also shows off some of PR’s manufacturing chops.
And make no mistake, they are one of the finest precision manufacturers in the world.
Let’s ignore their awesome, literally space-age rifle barrels. They still make some of the most accurate steel barrels in the industry. I’m working on upgrading one of my competition rifles to a PROOF Research barrel in time for my glorious return to 3-Gun this year.
Now, their carbon fiber barrels are a whole different story. I’d absolutely have one and test it for you guys (maybe do some temp tests with the Seek Thermal Camera) if I had an extra grand lying around…but I don’t. I wish I did.
That being said, I have had the notable privilege of wielding rifles sporting PR barrels and I was thoroughly enamored with them.
Specifically, their .223 Wylde barrels, and their shiny new Ruger Precision Rifle barrel.
The Wylde barrel is obviously a massive improvement, but I have to say, if you really want to get the most out of these barrels, put one in a big, heavy precision rifle.
I have to say, I adore the Ruger Precision Rifle, I really do, but it handles like a depleted uranium surfboard.
A lot of that weight is the barrel and the Proof Research carbon fiber barrel eliminates a lot of that, gives you superior head dispersal, and is in general a lot more accurate.
Prices accurate at time of writing
Prices accurate at time of writing
What’s your take on Proof barrels if price were no object?
2. Carbon Six
Carbon Six is a smaller and, to my knowledge, a relatively newer outfit (at the very least, I haven’t heard anything about them until recently, and what I’ve heard has been pretty impressive.
With a Carbon Six barrel, customization is the name of the game. Your barrel is custom made just for you, which means you get to pick:
- Twist Rate
- Carbon Wrapping
Now, the last part needs some explanation. Carbon Six is actually the only carbon fiber barrel maker that lets you pick the pattern of your carbon wrap. You can check out the two options below.
You can also get each part of your barrel Cerakoted in a variety colors so you can really go all in on the custom look, which I think is a great option if you’re building a rifle that’s not just a plain scary black rifle”.
Because of all these amazing options, Carbon Six makes the list on customization options alone. If you’re gonna spend the cost of a new gun on just a barrel, you might as well get something you really like.
But they also cite ½ MOA performance on top of the benefits of carbon fiber barrels we’ve already talked about. What’s not to love about that?
Of all the carbon fiber barrel makers on this list, if I had to pay for one with my own money…Carbon Six would definitely be in the running. A precision rifle, for my purposes, is going to be more about chasing better accuracy at the range and maybe the occasional competition.
For me, that makes it a fun gun. Carbon fiber makes a great barrel material for a hunting rifle, especially if you’re trekking over rough terrain, don’t get me wrong. Every ounce of weight savings is a godsend in that situation.
That said, I don’t hunt enough to build a rifle around a barrel that expensive. But will I spend that much money to have the best looking and best performing gun at the range? Absolutely.
3. Christensen Arms
Christensen Arms makes a variety of products, including complete rifles, accessories, uppers, lowers, handguns (I think just 1911’s right now) and of course, some really nice carbon fiber barrels.
I personally can attest to the awesome machining the folks at Christensen Arms put into their products.
I have used their stuff for a couple years now, and I have nothing but nice things to say. I’m also thinking about maybe getting one of their 1911’s, but I never like buying guns I can’t handle in a store first, but for such a quality manufacturer, I may make an exception.
Christensen Arms makes the list because they’ve managed to get quality carbon fiber AR barrels out at a price point that almost makes my wallet not cry. Almost.
Christensen Arms has great bolt-action barrels and other products, but their carbon-wrapped AR barrels are a good $300 or so less than their competitors, and they don’t compromise on quality.
The last Christensen Arms barrel I put a round through was an AR built with their upper, lower, and barrel, and I was getting some respectable ¾ MOA groups on a…less than stellar trigger.
I have no doubt that with a smoother trigger that would let me do my part a little bit better, that rifle would have been a half-MOA AR easily.
And no, I don’t know why somebody but a parts kit trigger in a rifle with a $550 barrel. Troy, if you’re reading this, what the hell man?
4. BSF Barrels
BSF makes the list because they are doing some truly interesting things with the manufacturing of these types of barrels. Whereas most companies wrap the barrels in carbon fiber composite, BSF uses a proprietary jacketing method that only lets 5% of the carbon fiber actually contact the barrel.
I’ll let BSF explain.
“After turning down the barrel, we jacket a 416R Stainless steel match barrel in a roll-wrapped carbon fiber sleeve and load it under tension. 95% of the carbon fiber does not touch the stainless steel creating air gaps and allowing air to foil around the steel and cool the barrel faster. We use this jacketing method rather than wrapping the barrel in carbon fiber because this method of wrapping has been proven to trap heat and cause delamination. The carbon fiber we use is specially designed to move at the same expansion rate as 416R stainless steel.”
So, to recap, you have a barrel that sheds heat fast even when compared to other carbon fiber barrels. This means you have a barrel that can stand up to some truly impressive round counts without a break, and it still won’t heat up.
If you’re one of the chosen few that get to run full-auto guns, I’d highly recommend BSF barrels as the best way to let loose those mag dumps without stressing your rifling or heating your barrel.
This heat dispersion should give you a barrel that lasts for a very long time, which is a good thing because like all the other barrels on this list, BSF barrels aren’t exactly cheap.
But as with all the manufacturers here, the quality, the materials, and the sheer engineering that go into these things makes it worth the cost of admission if you’re looking for the highest performance barrels around.
Full review of our BSF Barrel.
There we have it folks.
These are, in my humble opinion, the best makers of Carbon Fiber barrels on the planet, and just possibly, the very best barrels period. If you’re looking for a barrel that’s light, sheds heat quickly, and is crazy consistent, these are where you should be looking.
What do you think of carbon fiber barrels? Know any other manufacturers out there in this space? Are you a representative for one of these companies that wants to make my year and send me a barrel to test (lol)?
Looking at “regular” AR barrels? Check out our Best AR-15 Barrels.