6 things you need to know about shotgun barrel length


Shotguns are made in all kinds of barrel lengths. Mossberg currently offers its new 940 turkey gun in an 18-1/2-inch barreled version, which is as barreled as a full shotgun can legally be. Meanwhile, a friend of mine recently purchased an old Marlin pump action gun designed for goose hunters that has a 40 inch barrel. If nothing else, a barrel this long means you’re a foot closer to whatever you’re shooting—and you don’t want to be carrying it during an electrical storm.

Most guns have barrels in between these two extremes, of course, and you usually have a choice of length when you buy a new gun. It’s a consideration you shouldn’t take lightly. Barrel length affects the performance of a shotgun in several ways, some major, some minor. Here are six things to consider when deciding on the right barrel length for your next rifle.

1. Longer barrels increase velocity

Velocity varies with barrel length, but not as much in shotgun barrels as it does in rifle and pistol barrels. Every inch of a rifle or pistol barrel equals – roughly and not every time – about 30 fps, give or take. Losses or gains in velocity with shotguns are about half that, so about 10 to 15 fps per inch. Throttle also affects velocity, incidentally, with full throttle producing velocities about 15 fps faster than wider throttles. Overclocked barrels can also increase velocity slightly. All things being equal, a longer barrel will shoot slightly faster than a shorter barrel. If you believe that every last foot per second counts, go long.

Incidentally, the velocities listed by the ammunition manufacturers were fired from 30-inch test barrels timed 3 feet from the muzzle. So unless you’re shooting a 30 inch barrel, you’re not going to get the same velocity as what you see printed on the box.

2. Shorter barrels make more noise

Shorter barrels are noisier than longer ones. A longer barrel contains the powder explosion at a greater distance and emits a smaller muzzle blast. Mossberg doesn’t call its 14-inch barrel gauge “Shockwave” for nothing.

Also, a longer barrel is a few inches further from your ear, so it doesn’t sound as loud to you. And yes, even a few inches of barrel length makes a difference. It also matters to the people to your right and to your left. A 24 inch barrel may not get you popular in the duck blind.

Barrel length isn’t the only factor that affects noise levels. Different powders can also make louder or quieter reports, and this may matter more than a few inches of barrel length, but, again, all things being equal, longer is quieter.

3. Longer barrel design the better

photo of dog and pheasant
The extra barrel length helps stabilize shot loads, and most hunters find it easier to move guns with longer barrels into long range shots. Getty Images

Barrel length can affect the pattern. I have been told by choke and barrel experts that I believe a 24 inch barrel with turkey patterns loads better than a shorter barrel. The extra length stabilizes the shock load, they say. Anecdotally, it took me a while to get the Mossberg 835 with a 20-inch barrel to shoot nearly as well as the 870 with a 23-inch barrel, which still beats it. It is also true that card shooters, who play a money game that involves shooting very tight patterns with small shots usually at modest distances, often prefer very long barrels over 30 inches. If they won the short barrels, they would shoot them.

4. Longer barrels do not improve sight plane (as I see it)

Many people, including some very good shooters, insist that longer barrels give them a longer and better sight plane. I never got that, and still don’t. After mounting the gun, I see no rib at all on some guns, or just a rib on others. A few inches of barrel, longer or shorter, makes no difference to the sight of the sight I see. Sight radius matters for rifles and pistols, but not at all for a non-target weapon. I’m calling sight plane jokes an advantage of long barrels, fully realizing that many disagree.

5. Shorter barrels are more maneuverable

Short barrels are easier to carry through brush. This is true. It’s also true that short barrels are better for, say, home defense or law enforcement use, where you’re likely to be inside a house and/or in danger of someone grabbing the barrel. For hunting purposes, I’m not convinced it makes a big difference. I’ve shot grouse and turkeys in many thickets and stuck the gun in branches more than a few times. It’s hardly ever that last two inches of barrel that gets me into trouble.

Where I really notice the barrel length is turkey hunting. I spent about half of my season shooting an 870 with a 28 inch barrel and when I was walking with the gun slung over my shoulder I ran into a lot more branches than I’m used to since I usually shoot with much more compacts. guns. And, I definitely notice that once I’m sitting in front of a tree, a few extra inches of barrel length puts the gun at the disposal of more saplings and brush that could get in the way at a crucial moment.

I should point out here that if you are concerned about the overall length of your rifle, you should know that pumps and semi-autos are on average about 3 inches longer than O/Us and side-by-sides due to the longer receivers of repeaters.

6. Barrel length affects balance

I saved the most important consideration for last. The length of the barrel affects the balance of the gun the most. A longer barrel adds weight to the front of the gun. Shorter bushings lighten the muzzle of the gun, making them feel faster when you mount them.

Short and fast barrels have their place, primarily for shooting upland birds at close range. A fast-moving gun can be the same when you’re shooting woodpeckers or partridge, and most shots are close and miss without much angle. I’ve been shooting a Benelli UltraLight for most of a season. A 6 pound 12 gauge with a 24 inch barrel and a carbon fiber rib to make it even lighter. It was easily held and popped onto my shoulder without the birds bothering to flush. However, the UltraLight ran out of magic and steam when I tried to shoot longer, passing the pheasant with it.

Longer barreled guns, I think, are easier to shoot well, as I generally believe that slow and steady wins the shooting contest. A gun with some weight in the fore-end swings better and more consistently than a gun with a short barrel.

Of course, barrels have grown longer over time. Nobody shoots skeet with a 26-inch barreled gun anymore, and while sporting clays guns had 27- and 28-inch barrels when the game first came to the US, people think a 30-inch barreled gun is short, while a 32 inches are trending. Twenty-eight inch barrels are standard for hunting guns now, when they were split evenly between 26 and 28 inches.

Small bore guns benefit from longer barrels. I first learned this from the late Michael McIntosh, who had custom ordered one of the new AH Foxes from Connecticut Shotgun Manufacturing. A 20 gauge with a 30 inch barrel seemed very strange to me until he gave me the gun and then it made perfect sense: A small barrel with a long, light barrel achieves the ideal in an elevation gun because it carries like a gun light and shoots like a heavier one. Longer barrels can give a light gun the right balance so it moves and swings with some discipline and none of the flightiness of a light muzzleloader.

4 Barrel length recommendations

My first recommendation is to consider all of the above factors, try out a few different guns, and make your own choice. But if you want me to make it easy for you, I can do that too. Here’s what I would get:

  • Arms of Turkey: Get a 20-24 inch barrel. Go shorter if you value compactness over design, longer if you want a gun that will actually shoot.
  • Upland Arms: Go with 28 inches. You might consider 26 inches in a pump or semiauto, which have longer actions, but I like 28 inches for everything in this category.
  • Waterfowl Gun: Get a 28 or 30 inch barrel. 30 inch barrels are hard to find in waterfowl guns, but they often handle nicely. However, if you shoot a 10 gauge, a 26 inch barrel is much easier to handle than a longer one, as I have learned having owned several 10s.
  • Target Weapon: Go with 32 inches for a sporting gun, 34 for a single barrel trap gun.





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