Looking for an AR-15 barrel? Trying to choose one can be confusing, with online listings and reviews that describe specifications that you may not know how to interpret and boasting about features that you’re not sure are actually good or not.
But it doesn’t have to be like that.
This guide will give you reviews of our top 5 AR-15 barrels, sure. But first, we’ll go into some background about AR-15 barrels so once we get to the reviews, you’ll actually know what we’re talking about.
We’ll start with the absolute basics of what, exactly, an AR-15 barrel is anyway. Then we’ll move on to the different types of AR-15 barrels and how AR-15 barrels work to give you context when we talk about how to choose an AR-15 barrel next.
Then, once you know everything you need to know about AR-15 barrels, we’ll talk about our AR-15 barrel recommendations.
Now let’s get started.
What Are AR-15 Barrels?
A gun’s barrel is the single most important factor for determining accuracy and the AR-15 is no exception.
For that reason, those looking to build an AR-15 or upgrade their existing AR-15 will often prioritize selecting a high-quality barrel to get the most out of their AR-15. Longer barrels are generally more accurate, but as we’ll discuss in a moment, there’s a lot more to choosing a quality AR-15 barrel than just the length.
AR-15s are used for a variety of different purposes, so obviously their barrels are as well. These include personal and property defense, recreational shooting, competition shooting, and hunting.
Similarly, though .223 Remington is the traditional AR-15 ammo caliber, these days AR-15s are available in a bunch of different calibers and therefore so are AR-15 barrels.
AR-15 barrels are most commonly labeled for .223, 5.56, or .223 Wylde.
Barrels labeled .223 are generally only safe for .223 Remington. Barrels labeled 5.56 are able to stand up to the higher pressure of 5.56×45 NATO rounds and are able to shoot both it and .223 Remington. However, .223 Remington takes an accuracy hit when fired from a 5.56 barrel.
.223 Wylde chambers are a hybrid style that can shoot both 5.56 and .223 safely without reducing the accuracy of .223 Remington.
However, you can also find AR-15 barrels made for other rounds. For these rounds, you should generally assume that the round listed is the only round that’s safe for use with the barrel. Aside from .223 Remington and 5.56 NATO, other popular calibers include .300 Blackout, 6.5 Grendel, and .458 SOCOM.
Now let’s talk about the types of AR-15 barrels that are currently available on the market.
What Are The Different Types Of AR-15 Barrels?
AR-15 rifle barrels are available in a huge range of lengths, with the different lengths being used for different purposes.
AR-15 pistols typically have a barrel between 3 and 12 inches. They’re great for maneuverability in close spaces, but the limited barrel length means they’re not as good for precision, so AR-15 pistols are best for home defense and close quarter combat.
However, in order to comply with federal law, AR-15 pistols can’t have a shoulder stock. They also must have a pistol length gas system and a pistol buffer tube. They can only have a vertical foregrip if the length is more than 26 inches.
If it has a barrel less than 16 inches and shoulder stock, rifle-length gas system, rifle buffer system, or a vertical foregrip shorter than 26 inches, it qualifies as a short barrel rifle and requires a Class III tax stamp for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATFE, formerly known as the ATF).
Like AR-15 pistols, SBRs are good for home defense and close quarter combat, but with better accuracy than the pistols. That tax stamp is a hassle though. You can somewhat get around it by opting for a shorter barrel with a permanently attached muzzle device so that the total length with the muzzle brake is at least 16 inches.
Still, most people opt to just go with a 16-inch barrel, which is the standard civilian carbine length. 16 inches is still a solid length for home defense or general-purpose use. It also gives you the greatest velocity for the length. In other words, with each inch of added length after 16 inches, the amount of velocity added decreases.
Sure, if you’re trying to get the highest possible performance, the extra velocity is still helpful. But if you’re looking for a hunting, recreation, or home defense barrel, the improvement is negligible and you’ll get the most from your money with a 16-inch barrel.
Longer barrels generally allow the bullet to reach greater muzzle velocity, which leads to greater accuracy. That caps out at around 20 inches, though, so that’s the longest barrel most barrel manufacturers produce. Some do make ones that are up to a few inches longer though.
Because of the increased precision, 20 inch and longer barrels are typically used on precision rifles for competitive shooting and shooting long distances. The M16, which is the military version of the AR-15, also has a 20” barrel.
(Note: I’m not a lawyer and nothing I say should be considered legal advice. Always check and comply with applicable laws. Talk to a lawyer if you’re in doubt.)
How Do AR-15 Barrels Work?
To clarify how AR-15 barrels work, let’s talk about the path that a bullet follows to exit an AR-15.
As I’m sure you know, gun barrels are tubes. At one end is the chamber. That’s where the bullet starts its journey. When a gun is fired, it starts a chemical reaction that forces the bullet forward, down the barrel. Thanks to the high-pressure environment created by that chemical reaction, the bullet builds up momentum as it travels through the barrel.
The hole in the center of the barrel through which the bullet travels is called the bore. Bores have spiraling grooves along with them, called rifling. Rifling causes the bullet to spin so it’s more stable, and therefore more accurate, once it leaves the barrel. The front of the barrel, where the bullet exits, is called the muzzle.
What Do You Look For In The Best AR-15 Barrel?
Now that you understand the basics, let’s talk about how to choose not just a good AR-15 barrel, but the right one for you.
After all, everyone’s needs are a little bit different because everyone’s preferences are a little bit different, not to mention that different people will be using their AR-15 for different things.
Barrel length is obviously an important consideration, but since we talked about it above, I won’t repeat all that again here. Instead, I want to talk about a few other things you need to think about when selecting a high-quality barrel for your AR-15 rifle.
The distance required for a bullet to make a complete rotation usually expressed as a ratio, such as 1:7. Matching your ammo and twist rate ensures that bullets stay as stable as possible in flight.
The longer, and therefore heavier, a bullet is, the tighter The lighter the bullet, the higher (or slower) the twist rate should be. For example, a 40-grain bullet performs best with a 1:12 twist rate, while an 80-grain bullet performs best with a 1:7 twist.
Most AR-15 barrels have a 1:8 twist rate, which matches well with most bullets from around 60 to 80 grains. A 1:78 twist rate is also quite common and is good for bullets around 62 to 90 grains.
AR-15 barrels are made of steel, but not all types of steel are the same.
4140 and 4150 carbon steels are the most common and are both great options. The names, respectively, refer to the fact that the steel contains .40% or .50% carbon. Higher carbon content is generally considered better.
4150 CMV or 41V45 steel barrels are similar, but also contain vanadium to help with durability. Mil-B-11595E is used to refer to barrels that use mil-spec 4150 steel.
416R stainless steel is the best material for long-range shooting. Stainless steel barrels are much more accurate and are also more durable, in part because stainless steel is corrosion resistant. On the other hand, stainless steel is also heavier and more expensive than carbon steel.
For that accuracy in a lighter and even more durable form, you can go with a stainless steel and carbon fiber hybrid barrel. They feature a stainless steel lining wrapped in layers of carbon fiber. These barrels also have the advantage of superior heat dissipation, but of course, they’re also the most expensive.
Barrel profile, also sometimes called the barrel contour, is basically just a term to describe the shape and weight of a barrel. There are three basic barrel profile types: lightweight, government, and heavy.
Lightweight barrels are also called pencil barrels. They’re thinner, so they have the advantage of being, well, lightweight.
On the other hand, that also means they heat up faster, which can hurt your accuracy. However, unless you’re shooting full auto, it probably won’t make much of a difference. They also have a shorter barrel life, but that also probably won’t be very noticeable for the typical recreational shooter.
Heavy barrels are thick and, as you can probably guess, heavy. But they’re also slow to heat and last for a long time. Government barrels are moderately thick to balance the advantages and disadvantages of the other two types.
You may also see the government profile called the M4 profile. Technically they’re different profiles, but the only difference is that the M4 profile has the M4 cut, a small notch in front of the gas chamber. On a real M4, that notch would aid in mounting a grenade launcher. On civilian rifles, it’s basically just aesthetic.
Less commonly, you’ll also see fluted barrels. Fluting removes metal to decrease the weight of the barrel. It also increases the surface area of the barrel to help with heat dissipation. However, the extra machining required drives the price of these barrels up.
Best AR-15 Barrels Reviewed
Now let’s get to the barrels.
Criterion Barrels AR-15 Chrome Lined Barrels (Our Top Pick)
Our top overall pick is the Criterion Barrels AR-15 Chrome Lined Barrels.
These .223 Wylde barrels are available in heavy, government, and hybrid contours and with a rifle, mid-length, or carbine length gas systems. They come in 10.5, 14.5, 16, 18, and 20-inch lengths.
The chrome lining features button rifling with a 1:8 twist ratio. The barrels have a parkerized finish that’s rust-resistant but is prone to wear and isn’t as durable as other finishes.
M4 feed ramps on the barrel extension
Dimple opposing the gas port to prevent screw-on gas blocks from shifting
Parkerized finish isn’t as durable as other finishes
Faxon’s unique Gunner profile resembles a government profile from the barrel extension up to the gas block, then resembles a pencil profile from there to the muzzle. This reduces the barrel’s overall weight while still maintaining the rear’s heat resistance.
The standard version has a threaded muzzle and is available in lengths ranging from 11.5 to 20 inches. The standard version is chambered for 5.56 NATO, but it’s also available in a ton of other calibers. It’s even 14.5-inch versions with integral muzzle devices (either a 3 port muzzle brake or a flash hider) for a 16-inch legal length.
Made from 4150 chrome moly vanadium (CMV) steel
Black nitride finish for corrosion resistance
1:8 twist rate
Barrels may take a bit more work for proper fitting
And that’s about it on the best barrels for the AR-15. Now that we’re finished, you should know everything you need to know to choose the right AR-15 barrel for your needs.
While the AR-15’s barrel does play the most significant role in determining the rifle’s accuracy out of any of the rifle’s parts, it’s still limited by the quality of the other parts of the gun, the quality of the ammo, and the skill of the shooter.
Even an AR-15 with the highest quality, most accurate barrel can still be improved by ensuring that the other parts are also high quality and by pairing it with high-quality ammo. But none of these things are substitutes for training, so be sure to get out there and train.
But I probably don’t have to encourage you to do that now that you’ve got a great new barrel!