How Hot is Too Hot for a Rifle Barrel?

Every time you pull the trigger, you send a 5,000-degree flame streaking up your barrel. So then, how hot is too hot for a barrel? If you can’t hold it, then the rifle needs a rest.photo from Windigo Images

Every time you pull the trigger, you send a 5,000-degree flame streaking up your barrel. It lasts only a millisecond or so, but it melts your barrel a little bit each time you shoot. And it can seriously affect your rifle’s accuracy and its point of impact.

Barrels that are button-rifled or hammer-forged (just about all barrels nowadays are one or the other) have stresses introduced by these processes. After all, if you had a carbide die pulled through your throat under tons of pressure, or were beaten into an entirely different shape by hydraulic hammers, you’d be fairly stressed, too. In theory, barrels are stress-relieved after they’re rifled to eliminate these evil forces, but in reality, a lot of barrels still quiver with latent tension.

And when they’re heated by repeated firing, the stresses are liberated, and the barrels shoot all over the place. Not only that, but the shooter finds himself looking through a shimmering wall of heat waves, which makes the mark he’s shooting at appear higher than it actually is.

Some rifles can shoot hot with no changes, but many can’t, so you can’t let them overheat. The question is, how hot is too hot? I’ve come to believe that if you have a barrel that is subject to the heat demons, anything hotter than lukewarm is too much. If you can’t hold onto the barrel for the time it takes to say “Stay the course” 100 times, things have already gone too far.

Here are three things that may help your barrel cool faster:

  1. Get the rifle out of the sun. You wouldn't think this helps, but it does.

  2. Stand it on its butt with the muzzle pointed up. This creates a smokestack effect and helps heat escape the barrel.

  3. If you can, turn a fan on it, or better yet, an air conditioner.

It’s also helpful if you bring two or three rifles to the range. That way, you can shoot one and have one cooling in rotation.