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 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.
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 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 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 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.