The controversy of fluted barrels
Fluting a rifle barrel is somewhat controversial. Shooters, barrel makers and gunsmiths all seem to have different views on what fluting accomplishes, how well it works, whether or not it is detrimental to accuracy and if it is even necessary. Chances are, the answer to your fluting questions will change depending on who you ask.
Does fluting a barrel save weight?
Yes, cutting flutes in a barrel saves weight. Fluting a rifle barrel provides the shooter a more rigid barrel at a given weight. For instance, a heavier 5.5 pound fluted barrel will be more rigid when compared to a non fluted barrel of 5.5 pounds with a lighter contour. This is beneficial to shooters looking to shave weight for field use, or trying to cut weight for a competitive class. On a heavy barrel, fluting can remove 8-12 ounces; with sporter contours, fluting can remove 4-6 ounces. As the barrel contour decreases, the weight savings does as well.
Does fluting a barrel increase rigidity?
Fluting does not increase the rigidity of a barrel. In the case of two barrels of the same contour, the fluted barrel will not be more rigid then the non fluted barrel.
Does fluting a barrel decrease accuracy?
Barrel makers are divided on whether or not fluting is good or bad for accuracy. Some barrel makers flute barrels, some do not. The concern is whether or not the fluting process adds stress to the barrel. For instance, this link to Lilja Barrels shows they do not think it does, while this link to Shilen Barrels shows they think it is a bad idea.
Karl Feldkamp of Kampfeld Customs, well known for his bolt and barrel fluting, claims that he has only had one barrel become less accurate from the fluting process over the years. You can read about his experiences here. (Side note, if you don’t plan on fluting your own barrel and would like the work performed, I would recommend Karl).
Obviously, if you flute your own barrel, like I do for this article, your warranty will be void with the barrel maker.
Do fluted barrels cool quicker?
Yes, they do. What is interesting is the mechanism that facilitates this cooling is part of the debate. Some engineers, smiths and barrel makers feel that the increased surface area provided by the flutes increases the rate at which the barrel cools. Others feel that the decreased mass has a great effect on the rate of cooling then the increased surface area. The theory being the decreased mass of the fluted barrel retains less heat and therefore cools at a more rapid rate.
Do fluted barrels look cool?
Yes, they do. If nothing else the fluted barrel adds a unique custom touch to your project.
Getting started with fluting
Fluting is a machinery dependent operation. To flute a barrel, you will need a milling machine with a capacity that’s large enough to handle your barrel. For a rifle barrel, this most likely means you’ll need access to a full size knee-mill like the Bridgeport that I’ll be using for this article. Horizontal mills can also be used with great success.
You’ll also need a way to index (rotate and align) the barrel. For most shops, this would normally mean some sort of super-spacer, rotary table, or indexing head and tail-stock assembly. For this article I’ll be using a rotary table with chuck and a tail stock.
You can cut flutes with a convex rotary cutter, like the PTG I’ll use here, or with a ball-nosed endmill. The advantage of the convex cutter is it will cut faster, deeper and have a nice transition into and out of the barrel. Ball-nosed endmills are typically more common in most smaller shops and cost less. Using a ball-nosed endmill comes at the price of decreased speed and depth of cut. On a vertical milling machine, the ball-nosed endmill will mean that the cut has to be made from the top down. This will require the barrel to have additional support underneath.
Parts for the barrel fluting project
I ordered the following items from Brownells for this project:
- Bartlein stainless steel 22 caliber heavy-varmint profile barrel 1-8 (749-008-379)
- Starrett dial indicator(749-007-761)
- Barrel spinner (184-020-000)
- Baldor 1/4 HP buffer (089-114-332)
- Sanding drum 8×3 (538-000-016)
- Abrasive belt (925-325-060)
- Cerakote ovencure Graphite Black ceramic coating (100-003-743)
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Time to get fluting
I am working on a barrel that has been chambered in the 223 Ackley Improved. The barrel is a Bartlein with a Heavy Varmint contour. This contour is quite heavy with a straight, 5.000″ long shank at the chamber end.
I decided to cut ten .090″ deep flutes. Different barrel makers have different guidance for how deep to flute (if to cut them at all). As a general guideline, they normally suggest staying a minimum of .150″ to .200″ away from the bore. Since this barrel has a .224″ bore diameter, and is 1.000″ at the muzzle, I could have cut my flutes a little bit deeper. If you haven’t fluted a barrel before, make sure you verify your depth of cut with the manufacturer before cutting a flute that ends up being too deep, potentially compromising the structural integrity of the barrel.
Prior to making the cuts on my barrel, I made a series of test runs on a scrap barrel given to me by a benchrest shooter. He had an old fire cracked stainless barrel that allowed me to experiment with the RPM of the cutter and the feed rate of the X-axis power feed on my milling machine. Benchrest shooters change barrels the way most of us change stocks. Many of them hold onto their shot out barrels and are willing to part with them for a good cause.
Since my Bartlein barrel has already been chambered and installed on a rifle, I needed to make sure it will be properly indexed when the fluting is completed. I scribed a witness mark at top dead center on the barrel while it was still in the action prior to removing it. You will see how I use this to align the barrel in the fixture below.
I cut my flutes .090″ deep in one pass. I had made some practice cuts on a scrap barrel at a variety of RPMs, feed rates and depth of cuts and was happiest with the results from this.
The barreled action is reassembled, degreased, blasted with aluminum oxide and then coated with graphite black Cerakote.
I headed off to the range to see how it shot. I don’t think fluting hurt the accuracy of this barrel?
8 Flute barrel
While I had the rotary table and tail stock on the mill I decided to flute a short 308 barrel I had. This barrel has 8- 3/16″ flutes.
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