Carbon Fiber Barrel vs. Steel — Which Is Better?
November 16th, 2023
5 minute read
In today’s article, Robert A. Sadowski tackles the question “Are carbon fiber barrels better than steel barrels?” While it is a straightforward question, the answer can be complicated depending on your needs. A long range competition shooter may have different requirements than the shooter looking for a quality hunting rifle. Also, advances in steel and the use of fluted barrels can narrow the margin between the two when looking at characteristics like weight savings.
There are two things you notice immediately with carbon fiber barrel rifles. The first thing is weight. Rifles fitted with carbon fiber barrels are on average a pound or more less heavy than the same rifle with a steel barrel. The second thing is cost. Carbon fiber barrels easily cost twice that of a steel barrel.
So, is a carbon fiber barrel worth the cost? If you hunted the backcountry you know that any added weight grinds you down. In my opinion, I want a carbon fiber barrel — especially in the instances when my outfitter says we need to climb that hill while toting a rifle. That “hill” looks more like a mountain to me. Ask any backpacker and they will say the less weight the better.
What Carbon Fiber Barrels Offer
Weight reduction is the main feature of a carbon fiber (CF) barrel. Next would be the stiffness. A CF barrel is stiffer than a steel barrel, so there can be reduced vibration and barrel whip when firing your rifle.
Another feature carbon fiber barrel manufacturers tout is better and faster cooling, which can translate into longer barrel life. If you are solely a hunter, three shots is perhaps the maximum you shoot at a time. More efficient cooling may not be high on your list of priorities when comparing carbon fiber and steel barrels.
What Is a Carbon Fiber Barrel?
A carbon fiber barrel is a type of firearm barrel made with a laminated carbon fiber mesh — typically using a steel liner and attachment points. They are most frequently used on rifles instead of handguns.
Carbon fiber is essentially thousands of strands of carbon atoms weaved together to form a type of material that looks like cloth. The use of this material revolutionized the aerospace industry since carbon fiber is lighter and stronger than steel and has a higher tensile strength. In the firearms industry, carbon fiber is most often used in barrels and stocks.
As mentioned above, carbon-fiber barrels typically use some steel components. A thin steel tube or liner is at the center of the barrel. This is the section that is in direct contact with the bullet as it travels the length of the barrel.
Think of the liner as the bone, and the carbon fiber as the muscle and skin applied to it. Some people refer to CF barrels as carbon-wrapped barrels because of the techniques used.
The attachment points — where the barrel is fitted to the receiver and at the muzzle where a brake or some other type of muzzle device is attached — are made of steel. If you are mounting a suppressor, for example, you will screw into steel threads.
How carbon fiber is applied or wrapped to the steel liner differs between carbon fiber barrel makers and is held as a trade secret. Some companies maintain that the way the carbon fiber is laid plays a direct role in the barrel’s performance when it comes to heat dispersion.
After the fibers are wrapped around the liner and have direct contact with it, the fibers are typically sealed with an epoxy resin to bond the carbon fiber to the liner. Again, this is where the magic at each company varies. The expansion and contraction properties of the carbon fiber, as well as epoxy, should mimic that of the steel liner. Also, part of the secret sauce is ensuring the vibration in the two materials resonates the same.
The Springfield Armory Model 2020 rifles are available in either a traditional fluted steel barrel or a BSF carbon fiber-wrapped barrel. On my Waypoint with a carbon fiber barrel, the difference in weight compared to a steel barrel is about a pound.
The BSF process differs from other makers in that there are flutes on the steel liner. This reduces weight even more. Plus, it helps the barrel to dissipate heat at a faster rate than a non-fluted barrel.
They then slide a carbon fiber tube or jacket around the fluted steel liner. This creates air gaps to allow the barrel to cool faster.
Different, or the Same?
We all know that a heavy steel bull barrel will provide better accuracy over a skinny steel barrel because the thicker the barrel, the stiffer and more rigid it is with less “barrel whip.” Carbon fiber provides the same if not better stiffness as a bull barrel, but weighs the same as a skinny rifle barrel.
A characteristic where both steel and carbon barrels merge is firearm maintenance. A carbon fiber barrel needs no more maintenance than a steel barrel, and there is no special procedure to clean a carbon fiber barrel. The carbon fiber barrels are also very durable and weatherproof. Carbon fiber does not rust, but the steel components of a carbon fiber barrel can succumb to corrosion. Carbon fiber is also practically immune to nicks, scratches and dings.
Cost and Benefit for Your Rifle
For a hunter in high country, a carbon fiber barrel offers weight savings that often justify the added cost. In addition to the benefit of a lower overall weight, you have excellent durability, weather resistance and a very stiff barrel for improved accuracy and precision.
While a contour steel barrel aims to achieve the same results, the CF barrel typically achieves greater performance and weight reduction. All in all, the added costs of carbon fiber are usually offset with added benefits.
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