The annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas is one of the hottest places to catch up on the latest firearm trends, and the big news in 2020 was carbon fiber barrels. It seemed that every rifle manufacturer was in a race to add new carbon fiber models to their existing lineups, and that’s because a growing number of shooters are seeking carbon barrels for their guns. But what exactly is carbon fiber and why is it better than the steel barrels we’ve used on match and military rifles for years?
A Closer Look at Carbon Fiber
Carbon fibers have been in use since the 1960s in the aerospace and military market, but only recently have carbon fiber products been used extensively in more affordable consumer products like car parts and sporting equipment. Production of carbon fiber begins with a precursor, usually polyacrylonitrile, that is heated to very high temperatures in the absence of oxygen.
Doing so expels non-carbon materials from the product and what remains are extremely strong carbon chains that form the basis of carbon fiber. The material is then stabilized at high heat and then undergoes a carbonizing process where it is heated to more than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit while the final non-carbon elements escape in the form of gasses. Oxidation surface treatments help harden and roughen the surface and the fibers are then coated (a process known as sizing) and the coated fibers are ready to be applied.
That, as you might imagine, is not a simple or inexpensive process, but the resulting carbon fiber materials are exceptionally versatile. Carbon fiber is much lighter than steel but stronger and has a higher tensile strength, which is one reason it is so popular in the aerospace and automotive industry.
What Carbon Fiber Barrels Offer Shooters
For starters, we must be clear that carbon fiber barrels should appropriately be called carbon fiber wrapped barrels since they utilize steel inserts. The greatest single benefit they offer to shooters is simple: weight reduction.
“Essentially, you’re going to get the accuracy and repeatability you would from a bull barrel but the weight of a light sporter barrel,” says Kort Nielson of Christensen Arms. Christensen offers premium bolt-action hunting and long-range rifles with the company’s own carbon fiber barrels. At Christensen Arms, steel barrel blanks are drilled, reamed, and button rifled as with the production of a normal steel barrel. The steel barrels are then reduced down to make room for the carbon fiber to be applied.
Nielson says that the direction that the carbon fiber is laid can play a role in the barrel’s performance, too. Specifically, the direction at which the carbon fiber is laid on the barrel can impact such factors as heat dissipation. Christensen Arms barrels have carbon fiber that is laid so that it transfers heat away from the throat of the rifle. According to Christensen Arms research their personal “recipe” for laying carbon fiber results in longer barrel life and better accuracy.
Once the carbon fiber is laid it is usually sealed with resin, but again there’s a great deal of variation among manufacturers as to how the process is done.
The Practicality of Carbon Fiber
I’ve tested or carried a handful of carbon fiber barrel rifles including ones from Christensen Arms, as well as Savage Arms and custom gunmakers. Carbon fiber barrels aren’t inherently accurate all on their own, but all the guns I’ve tested with carbon fiber barrels were accurate. And all of those rifles were significantly lighter—say a pound or more—than their steel-barreled counterparts. The same is true of Springfield Armory's Waypoint rifle or a rifle with a Proof Research barrel.
A pound doesn’t seem like that much weight—until you’ve had to walk all day at high elevations and on steep ground. Lugging a heavy steel rifle around is usually doable at the range, but if you’re in a match that added weight will fatigue a shooter more quickly, and as any serious shooter knows fatigue can cause declines in your overall accuracy.
One of the most common questions shooters have about buying carbon fiber barrels is whether or not they require more attention or maintenance than standard steel barrels. The answer is no. Carbon fiber barrels are durable and stand up well to the elements, and there are no special care instructions. Nielson says that carbon steel barrels are every bit as durable as steel barrels.
Are carbon fiber barrels going to replace steel? Not until the price of carbon fiber is low enough to close the gap in cost between the two. However, carbon fiber does have its advantages, and there are legitimate reasons why it makes sense to own a precision rifle with a carbon fiber barrel.