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Go Full Custom or Rework a Factory Barrel?

By: Mike Bellm

There is much to be said for both routes, but you must decide which one will best suit your needs and circumstances.

     Let's organize the discussion around 4 benchmarks, $100, $200, $300, and $400 price points to work from. Comparisons will be based on what you get for the money spent, cartridge choice limitations, accuracy to be expected, and we will also factor in time to deliver. Total cost comparisons will be based on a $65 benchmark for re-chambering with the qualification that a number of simple re-chambers like .22 LR to .22 Mag, .357 Mag to .357 Max, etc. are in the $35-$45 range.

     Most of the work I have done for the past 15 years has focused on reworking factory barrels. While factory barrels leave a whole lot to be desired as they come, with my techniques developed from over 20 years of barrel work, outstanding results can be had by simply re-chambering and otherwise reworking a factory barrel.

     For improvements in accuracy, I feel it is imperative that a barrel be re-chambered to a cartridge longer than factory original in order to cut out the factory throat which is nearly always larger in diameter than optimum and all too often significantly misaligned with the bore, which results in the bullet entering the rifle "canted," or cockeyed if you understand that better. It has to get a straight shot into the rifling in order to stay in balance. Only a minimum DIAMETER throat aligned with the bore can best assure this. Nearly all barrels so chambered will shoot extremely well, on average better than the best factory barrels and usually with far less effort in finding loads they like. We have taken factory barrels that would shoot NOTHING under 1" at 100 yards with most in the 1.5 to nearly 6" range, re-chambered it, and in one instance 30% of the first at random combinations of powder, bullet, primer grouped 5 shots under 1" at 100 yards, and 70% were still under 1.5."

     Starting with the $100 bench mark, you will fairly often find 10" factory barrels and 14" barrels that have had a hard life sell for less than $100 to something less than $150. This range can turn up a surprising number of options. In the 10" barrels, you are often left with no good options for re-chambering. .30 Herretts and .30/30s are best left alone... you do not want to create any more powder capacity for the hand grenade effect under your nose when you pull the trigger. .22 LR and .357 Mag. barrels are good to re-chamber to .22 Mag. and .357 Max. You do not want to re-chamber a .44 Mag 10" to .445 Super Mag or .444 Marlin ... .445 Super Mag. maybe, but ONLY if you add a brake onto the barrel. Few can shoot this in a 10" un-braked. .357 Lazy Mans Herrett adds some capacity but not severely so. 10" barrels with permanently mounted front sights require a different set up for chambering that results in 3 set screw marks in the barrels finish, so I discourage 10" barrels with fixed front sights.

     In the 14" barrels, I have bought a number of barrels for $100 or less, often from dealers, that were rough on the outside but having excellent bores. With re-chambering, crowning, and refinishing, these can be a good buy. There is a good re-chambering option for most all of the 14" barrels except for .45/70. You can end up with a good chamber and new finish for about what you normally pay for a new factory barrel that may or may not shoot well. Re-crowning may put it over $200, but you will have an excellent barrel when you are done.

     By the way, stay away from the early Super 16 tapered .45/70 barrels with no brake at any price... One shot, two if you are hard headed, will show you why. The barrel is too light, needs a brake, but is just simply not a good place to start. Look for a good used barrel with the factory Muzzle Tamer brake instead.

     Delivery times for reworking these barrels can be anything from a few days to 6 months when I get behind the 8-ball. Normally 4 to 6 weeks should be expected. This is what I shoot for.

     Moving up to the $200 benchmark, barrels bought in the $125 to $200 range represent the largest segment of re-chambering candidates. Again, there are re-chambering options for most all of the barrels extant that will result in top accuracy, but again, of necessity, these re-chambering options must be longer than the original chamber. Thus you are limited if you want something more conservative like .221 Fireball for example, and must turn to full custom to do the shorter chambers.

     Unless a barrel is really desirable for some reason, or exceptionally hard to get, I would not pay more than $175 for a used barrel... This is about average wholesale for a new barrel. Rip-off dealers try to sell used barrels over wholesale new barrel prices. Sorry, but I have no respect for these guys preying on your ignorance of the TC barrel market. These are the guys that steal barrels when they buy or trade for them, then try to get new price out of them. Tell these pukes to go take a hike.

     New barrels typically sell for around $200 retail, on average about $25 to $35 over wholesale, and if a retail dealer is asking a little more mark up on a new item, I have no heartburn with that. His new barrel costs are fixed, and he needs to make a profit to keep supplying you. But you know the type of dealers I am talking about that want to get barrels for nothing and sell them at retail new barrel prices. I have never met one yet that I could muster any regard for.

     Responsible dealers price barrels accordingly. This, by the way, is one reason Ed Kirkpatrick in Oklahoma City, OK is highly recommended. As a dealer, he rates AAA in my book. He is fair and highly reliable, if not always immediately available.

     If you add re-chambering you will have a good shooting barrel for about $225 to less than $300, which is where the better custom barrels start out. Cost can be less than this of course with options like .357 Maximum and .445 Super Mag for example, since the chamber work for these is quicker and cheaper to do at $45 instead of the $65 we are basing our comparisons on. Ie., you could very well pick up a good 14" Hunter barrel in .44 Mag for about $150-165, add $45 for chamber work, and you could come into a tack driving power house for under $200 that will out shoot most .223 Rem. barrels for accuracy. For the .22 LR to .22 Mag re-chambers it is $10 less yet.

     And again, under normal circumstances, the delivery time should be under two months, on occasion down to a few days, depending on what I am doing at the time.

     If you start with a new out of the box barrel that costs you over $200, then add my work, you approach the start point for new custom barrels, about $295, and you also limit your self to longer cartridges.

     Let's make a break right here...line of demarcation if you will. The factory barrels with the 8 equal land and groove rifling configurations tend to limit velocities to less than what you can get from custom barrels with normal rifling configurations where the rifling are narrower than the grooves. Custom  barrels displace less bullet metal, accept slightly greater powder charges than factory barrels do, and appear to shoot enough faster than the factory barrels to warrant further study.

     No other manufacturer uses the archaic, ill-advised equal land and groove rifling in centerfire calibers like TC does. It is perhaps fine for muzzle loaders, but has no place in pressure sensitive guns like Contenders shooting jacketed bullets. I allege that TC is good at making parts, but does not know what they are doing making barrels.

     In spite of this design flaw, the factory barrels produce outstanding results when properly re-chambered. And of course, you will find a percentage of factory barrels that do shoot quite well. If you luck into one, congratulations. If not, don't waste money trying to make it shoot when good accuracy is so easy to obtain otherwise.

     News Flash...  I just recently ran across a factory Contender barrel with the same narrow, conventional rifling as used in current Encore barrels. Hopefully the equal land and groove barrels are being discontinued.  Barrels with conventional, narrow rifling are excellent candidates for re-chambering and warrant paying a few dollars more for.

     Three adverse comments/warnings about specific factory barrels.

     1) The 6.5 mm and 7mm 8 equal land and groove barrels have shown the most tendency to produce pressures high enough raise the red flag... watch them closely... they can be risky if you are not careful. But use care and get better performance when re-chambered.

     2) The .35 cal. 8 equal land and groove barrels are under .358" diameter, some as small as .356" groove diameter. From this standpoint, custom is preferred if you cannot find one of the older vintage 6 groove barrels.

     3) TC factory barrels are not stress relieved after button rifling. In this condition, barrels are highly prone to warpage when the blanks are turned down. The longer the barrel and the thinner the barrel, the more severe this warpage is likely to be. Thus the un-tapered short barrels are less subject to warpage than the longer tapered barrels. The un-tapered TC custom shop barrels are some of the worst I have seen for warpage, even compared to the 21" tapered production barrels. Virtually every one of the many TC custom shop 21-24" barrels I have re-chambered has been severely warped. I can and do manage to line chambers up pretty well in these warped barrels, and they shoot great, but it makes no sense to me whatever to pay about $250 for a barrel, then run its cost up to over $300 re-chambering it when you could have gotten a top quality stress relieved barrel that is not warped for less money. The total time frames to get either are about the same, so I strongly advise custom, and not just any custom... ONLY CUSTOM FROM A SHOP USING STRESS RELIEVED BARRELS. Non-stress relieved barrels in un-tapered form can be just as accurate, but the problem is that under time and production cost restraints, most facilities do not take the time and precautions necessary to turn down a non-stress relieved blank without warping it. Added to that, most of them can't discern a straight bore from a crooked one. See the problem?

     I will add that when chambering 4 custom barrels from Virgin Valley recently, the bores were "right on" and took virtually no dialing in prior to re-chambering.

     On the Plus side...

     Moving on to the 6 groove factory barrels with rifling narrower than the grooves, these barrels predate TC making their own barrel blanks, as I understand it. They are outstanding barrels of superior quality overall compared to what TC has been making in house. They were made by a barrel manufacturer... read, someone who knew what they were doing rather than someone who did not that was looking for a cheaper way to acquire barrel blanks.

     So while you are used barrel shopping, start counting grooves in barrels, and don't pass up the 6 groove barrels... they are gems. And if they are a bit rough on the outside, so what. If priced right, refinishing them along with re-chambering will result in an outstanding barrel priced on par with an unproven new factory barrel. However, since these barrels are quite old, you will find pitting in quite a few of them that have not been properly cared for. So do check them for pitting.

     As a side note, by and large I take no exception to the quality of TC's .22 caliber barrels. I have seen in the past year only two instances where the groove diameter was enough larger than .224" to cause a problem with accuracy. Generally their .22s shoot very well when re-chambered.

     Moving on to the next benchmark, $300 total cost, there are some precautions to take, the first and foremost is whether the maker either, one, uses quality stress relieved blanks, or two, is willing and able to turn down non-stress relieved blanks without warping the pee-waddin out of them. Without naming names, one custom maker puts out a pretty good percentage of his carbine barrels with bores that look like a kid's jump rope looking through them while turning in the lathe. How do you center a chamber in a bore meandering around off center from everything else... I can get pretty close, but it is physically impossible to do a perfect job of it. Even if the bore is dialed in to "0" run out at a specific point, the bore itself is at an angle to the axis from which you are measuring, so it will never be perfect... close, good, but still limited due to the warped bore.

     So, for the money, stay away from barrels that are not stress relieved. Doing so will give a much better assurance of a chamber and throat well aligned with the bore.

     Third, the manner in which a top quality barrel is chambered and the dimensions used for the chamber can make or break a barrel. You can go spend over $250 for a rough turned Hart benchrest barrel, chamber it with a reamer with an overly long neck and/or oversize throat diameter, and it will shoot no better than an E.R. Shaw blank. Conversely, and I have proved this many times over, chamber a cheap blank that is not warped and does not have an oversize groove diameter with a chamber with good dimensions and aligned with the bore, and it will be a tack driver.

     This is where I come into play. For full custom, I recommend the top quality Shilen blanks made up into un-chambered barrels by Virgin Valley and given my chamber work. This, in my opinion is the best of both worlds. The price is the same whether I chamber the barrel or Virgin Valley does. This is not to discredit their chamber work. They put out good work, but I take the time to specialize in my own obsession... the chamber.

     These top quality Virgin Valley barrels start out at $295, either with my chamber, or theirs. If Virgin Valley does the chamber work, delivery from them will be about two months. If I do the chamber, it will extend the time by about one to two months, but from either the time can run longer due to work load and logistics... plus toss in routine distractions along the way.

     Another advantage of straight custom is the option of starting fresh with no factory chamber to have to cut out. This lets you cut chambers as short as you want. E.g.., I recently shipped a .38 Short Colt Encore barrel. Starting from a factory barrel, there are no options that allow cutting this chamber properly.

     The short centerfire .22s like .221 Fireball, .22 K-Hornet etc. are best served with full custom also.

     In the larger bores, there is much to be said for both Contender and Encore barrels using .307 Win. brass, but since in the Contender most of the factory barrels are chambered for cases longer than .2.025" trim length, cases based on .307 Win are not advised. Go full custom and you can use this excellent brass for just about anything you want from, in my opinion, .25 caliber on up through .44. Of course you can substitute .444 brass cut to 2.025" if you want.

     Bottom line for the $300 bench mark, +/-, is that full custom is the way to go, especially in the carbine length barrels. Stay away from the TC factory barrels costing over $200, especially the factory carbine barrels. Once you start approaching the $300 mark, it makes no sense to put your bets on a factory barrel when top quality custom presents itself for the same money. The only excuse for reworking a factory barrel costing over $200 would be the time factor. And in this case, I question the merits of getting in a hurry.

     Moving to the $400 benchmark, we have the stainless barrels and lapped, benchrest quality barrels in both blued and stainless. Shilen Select Match, lapped, stainless will top the $400 mark, but this is the epitome of quality for the man who wants the best. It offers all the advantages of custom named above, plus the extreme quality from lapping the barrel to benchrest standards. Since these blanks are usually ordered from Shilen on an as ordered basis, expect a longer delivery time.

     I would also suggest that if you want the very best quality barrel blank, have Virgin Valley order a Hart blank in the caliber & twist rate you want. They may cost more, but comparing Hart and Shilen select match stainless barrels here today, 1/21/02, there was simply no comparison. The Hart barrel simply had a much better finish inside... no trace of reamer marks, no pock marks in the grooves left from the rifling button, grooves, sides and tops of the lands uniformly smooth. If your needs require the best and you are in this price range, I feel Hart is the better way to go, even if it costs a few bucks more.

     I hope this makes the process of deciding whether to go custom or not a little easier for you. For one person, $10 difference will be the deciding factor. For the next fellow, only the best will do. Then there is the majority in between that given factors to evaluate and weigh against each other will use this information to make an informed choice.

     And as always, there are some with preconceived ideas and closed minds that take what I say as a bunch of baloney. However, I am fully open to backing up the statements I make if you care to offer the challenge. Only catch is that you have to come to Grants Pass, OR for a first hand demonstration. That, or you buy the plane ticket, pay travel expenses, and provide the machine shop for me to make my demonstration. You can, by the way, hand pick all the barrels you want for the demonstration. Had to toss this in for the skeptics.

- Mike Bellm

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This article reprinted with permission of Mike Bellm and
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