March 23, 2023
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Firearms News has a very active Facebook page with over 900,000 followers and everything from informative articles to spicy memes posted daily. We always have some spirited discussions going on in the comments section. Recently a question was asked regarding .308 Winchester barrel length, "Do 16-inch barrels give up too much velocity in .308 Winchester?"
While I answered it in a reply, I thought the question might be of interest to our readers. Without delving too deeply into it, here are my thoughts for you to consider. Yes, the .308 Winchester cartridge was designed with a 22- to 24-inch barrel in mind. You can gain a small amount of velocity by using a longer 26- or even 28-inch barrel, but the gains tend to be small. Velocity loss if you cut the barrel back to 20 inches is not significant, especially if you consider real world use. The difference in velocity going from a 24- to a 20-inch barrel is surprisingly small in .308 Winchester. However, the shorter barrel is easier to maneuver. So, everything is a trade-off.
But, what if you cut the barrel back all the way to 16 inches? Surely, muzzle velocity drops off significantly thus reducing terminal performance and wrecking its exterior ballistics, right? It basically makes it a loud 7.62x39mm right? Actually, no. While various bullet weights will indeed perform better than others, muzzle velocity from a 16-inch barrel is probably not as low as you would expect.
In a recent test of a Ruger SFAR .308 Win semi-auto rifle, I recorded muzzle velocities which demonstrated the performance of a short 16-inch barrel. I tested some of my favorite .308 Winchester loads which range in weight from 120 to 185 grains. When it comes to short-barreled semi-auto carbines and personal protection, one of my favorite .308 Win loads is Winchester's 120-grain PDX-1 Defender. Why? The lighter 120-grain bullet reduces recoil and muzzle movement, and the load hits very hard with excellent terminal performance. It’s a very controllable load which is fun to shoot. Muzzle velocity from the Ruger SFAR averaged an impressive 2,876 fps. That’s over 530 fps faster than a 123-grain slug from a 7.62x39mm AKM.
Click Here for the complete review of the new Ruger SFAR .308 Rifle
Many people prefer 150-grain bullets in .308 Win, so I tested SIG Sauer’s 150-grain Elite HT load. This is a solid copper hunting bullet designed for excellent weight retention, reliable expansion and impressive penetration. Solid copper projectiles have a number of positive traits and are a good choice for both big game hunting and if intermediate barriers need to be shot through. It averaged a respectable 2,667 fps from the SFAR’s 16-inch barrel.
Moving to heavier bullets I tried Black Hills Ammunition’s 178-grain ELD-X load. Loaded with Hornady’s Extremely Low Drag-eXpanding hunting projectile, it has a G1 BC of 0.547. This hunting load averaged 2,471 fps from the 16-inch Ruger. To put this in perspective, this is 30 fps faster than a .303 British 174-grain Mk VII ball load fired from a 25.5 inch barreled Lee Enfield. In my opinion, that’s not bad. Moving up to a heavier bullet, I tried Federal’s 185-grain Juggernaut Open Tip Match load. Loaded with a Berger match bullet, this load is known for its accuracy. Despite its weight, it still averaged 2,399 fps from the 16-inch barrel.
Digging through my notes I found some data for a 22-inch barreled M1A rifle I tested years ago. I felt this would give a rough, but valid comparison. Loads were not identical but bullet weights were close. An American Tactical 150-grain FMJ load averaged 2,740 fps from the M1A’s 22-inch barrel. That’s only a 73 fps increase. Black Hills Ammunition’s 175-grain OTM Match load averaged 2,578 fps from the M1A. That’s only 107 fps faster than their 178-grain ELD-X load from a 16-inch shorter barrel. Just some food for thought.
In conclusion, yes you do indeed give up some velocity dropping from a 22- or 24-inch barrel to a 16-incher. However, it’s probably not as much as you would think. Is the trade-off worth it? Now, that is the important question. In the case of a lightweight carbine, which will be used inside 600 yards and primarily inside 300 yards, a 16-inch barrel makes a lot of sense. It is significantly shorter, handier, easier to maneuver and easier to get in and out of vehicles with. The shorter barrel is a real plus if you plan on mounting a sound suppressor. In the case of Ruger’s SFAR, it makes for a very quick handling package that is easy to carry over hill and dale.
Negatives? Expect increased muzzle flash and blast, especially with certain types of muzzle devices. It’s just the nature of the beast. I shot the Ruger SFAR out to 580 yards, and it performed well at this distance for a 6.8-pound rack-grade auto-loading rifle. If 16 inches is just “too short” for you, consider an 18-inch length which is a nice compromise. Remember though, no matter which barrel length you choose, everything in life is a compromise.
About the Author
David M. Fortier has been covering firearms, ammunition and optics since 1998. He is a recipient of the Carl Zeiss Outdoor Writer of the Year award and his writing has been recognized by the Civil Rights organization JPFO. In 2007, he covered the war in Iraq as an embedded journalist. He has written extensively on opposing forces small arms, ammunition and optics and has traveled through Russia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His writing has been translated into both Russian and Mandarin. He was a regular on the Outdoor Sportsman Group’s network television from 2003 to 2020. He is currently the Editor of the Outdoor Sportsman Group prepping title Be Ready! magazine, as well as the Executive Editor of Firearms News. Prior to 1998, he was in the Aerospace and Defense industry.
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