Rifle Barrel Burn Out

If you shoot, it’ll happen, but you can minimize its effects and prolong your tube’s life.

About 15 years ago, Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms went prairie dog shooting for the first time with a few of his western friends. On a warm July afternoon the barrel of his .223 almost started to glow from dozens of 50-grain bullets zipping out the muzzle. One of the other guys said, “Hey, Melvin, you’re gonna fry that barrel!”

Melvin looked at him and asked, “What day of the week is it?”

The guy looked puzzled. “Saturday.”

Melvin smiled. “I do believe Douglas will be making barrels again on Monday!”

While that glass-is-half-full statement is obviously true, many of us like to extend the life of exceptionally accurate barrels. To do that we need to understand how barrels burn out. Luckily, the subject has been studied considerably; mostly because of the money it costs to re-barrel military small arms and artillery.

The erosion of a rifle bore can be broken down into three distinct but interrelated processes: thermal, chemical and mechanical. Thermal erosion is primarily caused by the heat of burning powder gases, the reason the bore right in front of the chamber suffers the most: As the gases produced expand while the bullet travels down the bore, their temperature drops. Chemical erosion occurs when some of the gases produced by burning smokeless powder essentially alter the alloy of the bore’s surface. Hydrogen and oxygen lower its melting point, but nitrogen actually tends to strengthen steel. Mechanical erosion is due to each bullet wiping away a slight amount of steel, or breaking off tiny pieces of an eroded bore.

Heat checking, the “alligator skin” appearance of a fried throat, is primarily caused by steel turning brittle as the surface cools after each shot. The difference in flexibility between the hardened surface and the softer steel underneath results in tiny cracks. At the same time, tiny amounts of softer alloying elements are melted away, like water evaporating from a mud puddle. The result is gator skin.

Heat-checked steel is even more susceptible to chemical and thermal erosion, since the cracks cause more turbulence in the expanding gases. Instead of streaming down the bore, hot gas circulates longer in the eroded area. Cracks at right angles to the bore are most affected, since they “catch” far more hot gas. Roughly machined bores, with obvious reamer marks, also probably erode faster than very smooth barrels, due to the same effect.

A cracked bore is also more vulnerable to the primary mechanical cause of erosion, the “melt-wipe” process. The roughness of a heat-checked bore creates more friction, accelerating erosion both due to melt-wipe and pieces of cracked steel breaking off. Mechanical erosion, however, is definitely in third place as a cause of barrel burnout, far behind thermal and chemical erosion in all but very low-pressure cartridges.

Obviously, the easiest way to avoid burning out a barrel is not to shoot quickly and repeatedly, thus avoiding heat build-up. This is exactly why many prairie dog shooters take more than one rifle afield. When the barrel on one rifle starts to heat up, they put it in the shade to cool off, with the barrel pointing up and the action open. On a really hot day some shooters drape a damp towel around the barrel, allowing the rifle to get back into action sooner.
By John Barsness

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GUNS Magazine December 2012

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5 thoughts on “Rifle Barrel Burn Out

  1. Hodgkinson

    Well higher end guns geanlerly shoot faster, some are lighter, and all higher end guns tend to break less and are capable of more performance upgrades.For example Stock PMR vs Stock ionThe pmr is better stock, although both can be upgraded to shoot about the same accuracy and consistancy, the ion will break much more often than the pmr and will cost much more to upgrade to shoot like a PMR, you will also be able to upgrade the PMR more than the ion.There are also differences like some guns are Stacked Tube Blowbacks, such as spyders and spyder clones, some are single tube blowback, some are pnuematic, some are pump like a stock class phantom.Other things that split them apart are cosmetics, obviously every brand has its own look, and feel.

  2. NOYFB

    I have some issues with this article. How many shooters will ever even come close to shooting out their rifle’s barrel? Even with varmint shooters shooting hundreds of rounds each outing, do they ever come close to the tens of thousands of rounds it takes to wear out a barrel? Look at the rifles used in basic training-the M16. It shoots a varmint cartridge more or less and each cycle of recruits shoots hundreds and hundreds of rounds through it year after year and are still able to qualify year after year. Look at how many rounds get shot through rifles in combat. You have full auto fire in desert enviroment no less and wearing barrels out is not a major concern (I’m not referring to anything belt fed-different story there).

    With that said, anyone know who makes the rifle pictured in the article?

    1. Jason Dunbar

      Tens of thousands of rounds?! Try thousands. I just shot out my .243 in around 2000 rounds running PRS competitions. There are plenty of people who shoot out their barrels everyday its not that hard.

  3. Nick Smathers

    Has anyone tried any of the various turbine engine alloys? Inconel, Waspalloy, Rene 88, etc. are expensive exotic alloys, but should be able to withstand the heat and pressure of any caliber. Surely someone has tried at least one of these alloys. It would be interesting to see some facts on these super alloys.

  4. Ja

    Barrels do wear out! When I was 8 years old, my dad bought me my first rifle (Rem Model 600 in .243). I don’t know how many times I’ve shot it but a lot (maybe 5k rounds with factory ammo but mainly reloads) and killed 100 or more deer with it. I noticed 2-3 years ago, I couldn’t get it to group better than 5moa and I had to seat the bullets very long to get close to the rifling. I just sent it off and my smith gave me the bad news (throat melted and lots of fire cracking in first 3-4″ of bore. He will rebarrel and maybe my grandkids will get to enjoy it as much as me because I don’t have another 50 years left to wear it out again.


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