Rifle Barrel Length: Why Shorter is Better

The most practical length for a big-game rifle barrel is 22 inches. If you have a magnum, 24 is the most you want, and you can get away with 23 inches unless you’re shooting something like a 7mm STW.photo from Windigo Images

Back when men smelled bad and carried Kentucky rifles, long barrels were just the ticket—44 inches was about standard. They decreased aiming error, and having all that weight out there in front made offhand shooting that much easier.

This lasted until the Mountain Men (who smelled even worse) took over, and the Hawken rifle evolved. The Hawken brothers used the Kentucky as a model for their guns, but the barrels were much shorter (26 to 38 inches), because their users had discovered that a long-barreled rifle, regardless of its advantages, was a damned unhandy thing to hunt with from horseback.

It is a damned unhandy thing to hunt with in a lot of other situations, too. That’s why I think the most practical length for a big-game rifle barrel is 22 inches. If you have a magnum, 24 is the most you want, and you can get away with 23 inches unless you’re shooting something like a 7mm STW.

I’ve found that whatever small ballistic advantage you gain with a long (anything over 24 inches) barrel is more than offset by the added weight and length, and that 22 inches is just about ideal. About a year ago, I grew fed up with the 26-inch barrel on a .338 RUM Remington Model 700, and had it cut back to 23 1/2 inches. Despite the huge charge of slow powder that this cartridge uses, I lost only 38 fps, and the accuracy improved dramatically (which often happens, but not always, when you chop a barrel).

I have only two rifles with 26-inch barrels. One is a .220 Swift, where I want all the velocity I can get and other considerations come second. The other is a .300 Weatherby, which I reserve for situations in which I know I’m going to take long shots or none at all, and I won’t have to carry the thing around very much.