The Best AR-15 Barrels and Makers

best ar-15 barrel ar rifle accuracy

courtesy Lilja

What is the best AR-15 Barrel? That is a very broad question, primarily because “best” is subjective. What’s best for the money? Best for accuracy? Exhibits the best barrel life? Has the best gas system? Best profile? I could go on. So to make things simpler, this article will cover some of the best match barrel options for accuracy.

Competitive shooting means consistently making the tightest group possible. ARs have successfully crossed into the ½ MOA world and are starting to touch ¼ MOA. That’s impressive, and that’s what this list will focus on.

I won’t be touching on specifics like ideal twist and barrel length either, just high-end manufacturers that really know what they are doing. The kind of companies that can steer you in the right direction if you don’t know enough to know exactly what you want.

Knowing a few good manufacturers gives you a great starting point for getting exactly what you’re looking for. All prices and info listed below are related to 5.56 NATO/.223 Remington/.223 Wylde match grade barrels with mil-spec M4 feed ramps. Other options are definitely available, but 5.56 is more or less what I looked for in terms of pricing here.

Krieger Barrels

Krieger is a well-known and popular barrel manufacturer for custom guns when someone is looking for that competitive edge to help them win. Krieger barrels are single point, cut rifled and double lapped with twist rate options in 1:6.5, 1:7, 1:7.7, 1:9. The barrels come in either stainless steel or chrome moly vanadium.

They offer some great services too, like setting headspace to a JP bolt and fully assembling the upper if you send it to them. Not for free, of course.

The barrels themselves start around $350. Since most of you reading this won’t be reaming and crowning your own barrels, add $100 for that. That brings the cost to $450 for a chambered and crowned barrel with a barrel extension that is headspaced to a (not included without more money) JP Bolt. Also not including a gas block or gas tube.  Those too can be purchased through Krieger.

JP Enterprises

It’s hard to talk about AR accuracy without mentioning JP.  This company has been a leader in AR development for years and is, in many ways, the gold standard. Case in point: many companies, like Krieger, us JP bolts as their standard for setting headspace because of their high quality and consistency.

If you dig through their forums a little, you’ll find anecdotes of people reporting ¼ MOA accuracy, sometimes even better. Although this is with their rifles, not just their stainless steel barrels, JP’s barrels are still very high quality. They are button rifled and primarily come in 1:8 twist rates, with a couple 1:7 sprinkled in.

Barrels are sold complete with the gas system installed for roughly $479 and are made from 416R stainless steel.

Bartlein Barrels

Bartlein is another titan of the custom quality barrel industry. You’re likely to find a Bartlein on many winning rifles. Like Krieger, they offer single point cut rifling that is double lapped. Unfortunately, they don’t offer drop-in AR barrels.They do, however, endorse Compass Lake Engineering and Cradock Precision as they both have barrel options that start with Bartlein blanks (as well as Krieger and a few others).

Compass offers 20-inch barrels for $495. That doesn’t include a gas system.

They also offer their CLE chambering, as opposed to the common .223 Wylde chambering. They claim that the CLE chamber will decrease group sizes by 23 percent. Cradock offers complete barrels for roughly $597. Both companies only seem to offer 1:7 or 1:7.7 twist rates. Bartlein makes exceptional barrels, you just have to find the right company or gunsmith to turn them into exceptional AR barrels.

White Oak Armament

White Oak manufactures precision barrels focused primarily around the NRA’s High-Power competitions. They don’t rifle in house, their button rifled blanks are supplied by Wilson Arms. They also offer barrels that are rifled by companies like Krieger and Shilen.

The White Oak brand (Wilson Arms) barrels start around $300 without a gas system. They definitely seem to have more twist rate options like 1:7, 1:7.5, 1:7.7 and 1:8.  Some anecdotes claim group sizes as small as .2 at 100. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

Lilja

Lilja barrels are pull button rifled and hand lapped. Dan Lilja started the company in 1985 due to his passion for bench rest shooting.  Since then the company has racked up several Olympic gold medals and national match victories (well, their barrels were on rifles that were used to win).

Either way, Lilja is another top-notch manufacturer of precision AR barrels. Not unlike the other options here, their barrels start around $500 without a gas system. Lilja also seems to have the widest range of rifling options, by far; 1:7, 1:8, 1:9, 1:10, 1:12, 1:13, 1:14, 1:15 and 1:16, plus different groove options like 3-groove, 4-groove and 6-groove. All groove options aren’t available for all twist rates, but there are still a lot of options there.

Note that none of the above barrels have chrome lining, a nitride finish or other treatments. Those treatments are not conducive to accuracy.

Also, note that none are cold hammer forged. Hammer forged barrels are beaten up in the manufacturing process and come out angry. They are full of stress that prevents them from having the high level of consistent accuracy we are talking about here.

There is so much that goes into a rifle’s accuracy and the barrel is just one part of the equation. If you’re debating whether or not you need a barrel from one of these makers, then you probably don’t.

A good rule of thumb is to buy a barrel in the price range similar to the ammo you shoot. If you’re constantly hunting for the cheapest deals, trying to get 5.56 for 9mm prices, then ignore this list and buy the cheapest thing that will work in your rifle.

If you care enough about accuracy to spend $20 or so on a box of 5.56 ammo, then splurge for a barrel from a good maker like Faxon Firearms, Ballistic Advantage, X-Caliber or something similar. Unless the rest of your gun is junk, those barrels should get you into the 1 MOA realm with decent factory ammo.

If you hand load your own ammo and obsess over fine-tuning your loads to your rifle in pursuit of single-hole 10-shot groups at 100 yards, then spare no expense on the barrel you buy. Go with a barrel from one of these makers and know you’ve bought one of the best.

 

Matt Sandy is an Arizona-based gunsmith who competes in both USPSA and PRC matches. 

 

 

comments

  1. avatar dwb says:

    I have two Faxon barrels (308 and 223 Wylde) and they are both tack drivers. Maybe not 1/4 MOA. But even for a far above average shooter, skill will be the limiting factor.

    The overwhelming majority of the readers of this blog do not need any of these barrels, because skill will be the limiting factor.

    1. avatar Smoke'n Mirrors says:

      Got a Faxon too. Cannot imagine needing anything better out of a .223 Wylde. But money and skill are often mutually exclusive.

    2. avatar Xanderbach says:

      Seconding (thirding?) Faxon. Great barrels, and their pencil barrels are second to none.

    3. avatar Grant. says:

      Those Faxons really are fantastic. I love my Match Gunner .223 Wylde 16″

  2. avatar rdsii64 says:

    The comment you made about chrome is true until you mention Criterion. Their barrels are hand lapped before they are chrome lined and come with a sub MOA accuracy guarantee. A half MOA hand load is very doable.

    1. avatar Matt Sandy says:

      Good to know, I’ll have to take another look at them.

  3. avatar Henry Braud says:

    When did cold, hammer forged, barrels become a bad thing? I have several Howa 1500s that are hammer forged and have always gotten sub-moa from them!

    1. avatar Kenneth says:

      But have you shot long strings and watched the groups open up as the barrel heats up? That’s the trait of cold forged barrels. They are full of internal stresses that show up more and more as the steel heats up.

      1. avatar Henry Braud says:

        That happens with just about any barrel in long strings. Normally I fire five shots, letting the barrel cool down in between strings. I don’t know of any situation where I would be firing 10-shot strings ( or more) in a short period of time except when shooting prairie dogs in Wyoming.

        1. avatar Kenneth says:

          Try shooting those five shot strings, and then another, and so forth. If you do that with cold forged barrels vs cut rifling a few times you’ll note that the cold forged barrels groups’ will open up a lot more than will the steel without the internal stresses.
          If you don’t care about that then don’t worry about it. But for those who do, they need cut or button rifling. Its just physics. Its a fact. Beating on cold steel creates stresses. Even beating on steel hot creates internal stresses, just less of them. This is why there are normalizing and annealing processes in steel working.

        2. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          Kenneth nails the issue: Hammer-forging pounds stress into the barrels. Some of this stress can be taken out of the steel with thermal stress treatments (cryogenics or heating, or both), but not all of it. Only single-point rifling minimizes the stress imparted to the barrel. Button or broach rifling can put significant stress into a barrel too – you should hear the noise the barrel makes when the broach exits the barrel. It’s a loud “bang” and then some.

        3. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

          Oh – and as for when you’d be shooting 10 (or more) shot strings:

          In some benchrest disciplines, you have 10 shots you need to get off in the allotted time – which might be 10 minutes or more. Now, that sounds like “Hey, 10 shots, 10 minutes, what’s the problem? Where’s this heating going to happen?” In other disciplines, you need to get off 15 or 20 shots in your allotted time.

          Well, if you’ve ever shot competitively at long range (especially here in the west), you know that there are times you play a wait-n-see game with the wind. Maybe the wind is blowing/gusting very hard right now, but you’re hoping that there will be a lull in the wind in a couple of minutes. So when (if) that lull comes, now you start sending rounds downrange quickly, while you have a more consistent and easily doped wind situation. Sometimes you get all your rounds off, sometimes not.

          The bottom line is: sometimes in competitive shooting, there are some occasional situations where you’re cramming rounds downrange rather quickly – for a score. It isn’t ideal, but then few shooting situations are…

  4. avatar Kenneth says:

    Glad to see Lilja on the list. Truth to tell, it’s the only reason I clicked here. IMO, Lilja makes the most accurate barrels period, not just AR barrels. They do cost a little more, but I think they’re well worth it.

  5. avatar Robert Chalue says:

    As a leader in the heat treatment of firearm components Hardline Heat Treating Inc. comes in contact with numerous manufacturers that have made landmark improvements in their respective areas.
    There is a company in northern, Massachusetts thats quietly becoming noticed for its barrels, they have been tested by the marines national match team. Look them up on facebook, ZTOL Precision Barrels
    I agree with Matt, you get what you pay for
    Bob Chalue
    President
    Hardline Heat Treating Inc.

    1. avatar Henry Braud says:

      Bob, I just took a look at ZTOLS web page. Was interesting but all their barrels are 16 inches long. I prefer 20-24-inches for bench rest shooting or prairie dogs.

  6. avatar jesse navarro says:

    What about Walther-Lothar?

    1. avatar Henry Braud says:

      What about Olympic Arms (still in business)? They used to make quality barrels and I had one of theirs, a 24-inch, heavy, match barrel that shot exceedingly well.

  7. avatar Jimmy james says:

    Didnt even know Lilja made an AR bbl. He makes a fine 30BR bbl. Bug holes baby. Bug holes.

  8. avatar Alan says:

    For the most part, the names of barrel makers mentioned are not familiar to me. Going back to when I was shooting High Power Rifle Competition, 30-06 and .308/7.62MM NATO, Douglas Barrels, located in Cross Lanes, West VA., near Charleston did really excellent barrels. My preference was Chrome-Molly, they did Stainless Steel barrels too. I would order their Premium Air Gage barrels, providing a dummy round for them to chamber ream to. Never had a problem with their barrels, except for one instance, which was corrected immediately. My best to Tim Gardener, if he is still with them.

  9. avatar Phil LA says:

    My 18” Wylde AR Stoner barrel will shoot 1/2 or better with my handloads (75 and 55 grain). My best to date is 0.350” 5-shot group at 100 yards. Average is 0.75” with moderate concentration. Not too shabby for a $120 Midway special!

  10. avatar PNW 360 says:

    Nitride is not conducive to accuracy? Steyr might be surprised to hear that. And they invented CHF techniques. Did you try dropping them a line?

  11. avatar possum says:

    Matt Sandy, hah, hah, hah, … Yeah I use an M224xD5 on top of a ZX Zytel poly printer lower. I got all that from WWW/.HTML.uh huh.s ukar… Any other questions?

  12. avatar AlanInFL says:

    I got an 18″ Spike’s Tac middy Lothar Walter barrel that I love so much.

  13. avatar David Walters says:

    Wow, my head is spinning.

    But don’t stop. Keep it up.

    I like learning.

  14. avatar Charles Perry says:

    My 6.5 Grendel barrel is a Faxon. Great barrel.

    1. avatar If you build it, you'll have fun says:

      Have to 2nd this. Faxon Heavy Match 20″ 6.5 Grendel barrel is a 1/4 MOA. Very happy with this barrel’s performance.

  15. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    If you want to see how hammer forged barrels are made, here’s a video from Europe (Italy) on how they make hammer-forged barrels:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oALJDh43K3I

    There are a couple of advantages of CHF barrels – the barrels are stronger and more wear-resistant than other barrel making methods, and that’s in keeping with their original design goals of the Nazi weapon makers in WWII – they needed to make lots of Mg42 barrels fast, and they needed them to last a bit longer. So CHF barrels came into being. Another advantage of CHF barrels is that the bore finish is excellent – they don’t need to be lapped by hand.

    The downside is the movement of the barrel under temperature changes. You can remove a fair bit of the stress hammered into the steel, but you can’t remove all of it without normalizing the steel.

    Of the barrels on this list, I’ve used Bartlein, Lilja, Krieger. Of barrels not on this list, I’ve also used Shilen, Douglas and Pac-Nor. This has mostly been on non-AR rifles.

  16. avatar Sora says:

    Bear Creek Arsenal makes the best barrels for budget, by Illegal INVADERS.
    Send some of your hard earned cash to Mexico and the cartel handlers!

  17. avatar TX223 says:

    The rate of POI shift with temperature change associated with hammer forging may not be what it used to be. Advanced processing, thermal, and cryogenic treatments go a long way to removing residual stresses.
    Maybe just as important is concentricity of the bore to the OD. Just a little eccentricity causes a lot of POI shift with changing barrel temps.

  18. avatar LKB says:

    What’s the scoop on carbon-fiber wrapped barrels by Proof Research? (Thin stainless rifled barrel wrapped in massive amounts of carbon fiber.)

    In theory, they ought to be great (incredible stiffness and excellent heat dissipation, while being a fraction of the weight of an all-steel barrel), but of course they are priced up there with the very best custom barrels.

    What say DG and the other expert? Worth it, or not yet ready for prime time?

    1. avatar Fcmatt says:

      Don’t forget the Dracos barrels too. Love my AR 223 wylde build.

    2. avatar Stephen says:

      yeah they are on top for sure too, no gimmick, i have one and would happily get another! there level of precision is pretty amazing!

  19. avatar gipb says:

    I have two AR-15 builds with Ballistic Advantage BA Hanson Premium barrels and they both are absolute tac drivers!!! Sub MOA guarantee with premium ammo – one is a 14.3″ 5.56 the other a 10.3″ 300 black out. I have found a few mid level priced brands of ammo for both guns that will get under 1moa in both guns at 100 yards. They both shoot way better than I can! That 10.3″ 300 black out ar pistol is unbelievable! does everything my 14.3″ ar will do out to 2-300 yards with super sonic ammo!

  20. avatar Mike Smith says:

    At some point it’s not about the barrel but the system–I’d like to see these tested against the Teludyne Tech/Dracos barrels with something like 30 round groups.

  21. avatar Old Air Force says:

    I really like my White Oak 24″ Varmint. 1/4 MOA all day.Takes tack driving to a new level, when I do my part. When of if it comes time to re barrel I will probably send it back to John and get the true custom match barrel from the White Oak Precision side. For non match barrels I have had great results from BCM.

  22. avatar Jros says:

    Don’t care, I can’t out shoot a mid range barrel.

  23. avatar Stephen says:

    Hodge defense barrels from FN arent to dismissed, yeah they’re cold hammer forged and chrome lined and but produce sub moa groups! Something in that special sauce! But they super limited and about 425 bucks!

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