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How to Pair Barrel Twist Rates with Bullets

by Keith Wood   |  December 23rd, 2013 24

When the U.S. military first adopted the M16 rifle in the 1960s, the M193 cartridge and its 55-grain bullet was standard. The earliest issued variations of Eugene Stoner’s “Black Rifle” came with relatively slow rifling twist rates of 1-in-14 inches. Shortly thereafter, nearly all M16s and M16A1s were being issued with faster 1-in-12-inch twist barrels.

In more modern times, bullets for military and civilian use have migrated to longer, heavier designs and twist rates have been altered to stay in-sync with this progression. With so many bullets and twist rates available these days, keeping track of which ammunition is compatible with your barrel can be overwhelming.

Before we get into the weeds on individual twist rates, let’s take a minute to discuss rifling in general. “Rifling” are the lands and grooves impregnated into the barrel’s interior that impart spin on a projectile as it travels down the bore. This spin stabilizes the bullet in flight, much the way a football is “spiraled” by a quarterback.

Determining proper twist is a factor of bore diameter, velocity, bullet weight and even bullet construction. There is no “golden” twist rate for all firearms. Civil war muskets such as the 1861 Springfield used extremely slow twist rates (1-in-78”) to fire heavy lead bullets with relatively good accuracy, while modern AR-15-style rifles use barrels as fast as 1-in-7 to stabilize long-for-caliber projectiles.

Conventional wisdom taught us that slower twist rates wouldn’t properly-stabilize a bullet, causing it to yaw. On the other hand, faster rates could over-stabilize lighter bullets, causing similar problems. This is correct in theory—however, modern ballisticians have pretty much de-bunked the over-stabilization theory as a practical matter. All things being equal, it is better to have too much twist than not enough.

Don’t misunderstand me; serious disparities in bullet weight to twist rate can cause poor accuracy, decrease velocity and potentially compromise a weak bullet’s structural integrity. I’d just prefer to air on the side of faster-twist barrels—especially with carbine-length barrels.

Over the past decade or so, military rifles chambered in 5.56mm have migrated in two directions:

  1. Shorter guns such as 10.5-inch carbines emerged as the fight put troops in and out of vehicles and into close-quarter fighting.
  2. Accurized, Special Purpose Rifles (SPRs) were issued to fill the long-range overwatch niche between standard carbines and specialized sniper rifles.

In both cases, heavy bullets evolved as solutions for terminal and external ballistic issues. Shorter guns needed the added bullet mass to compensate for lost velocity, while the SPRs used heavier, high ballistic-coefficient bullets to gain long-range performance.

The two bullets that rose to the top of the heap were the Sierra 77-grain BTHP/OTM and the Barnes 70-grain TSX “Brown Tip.” Both bullets are excellent at their intended tasks and neither will perform appropriately in the slower-twist barrels that were standard for decades.

Let’s take a look at the commonly-available twist rates used in-conjunction with the 5.56mm NATO/.223 Remington chambering.

1-in-14 Inches
You’re unlikely to find a 1-in-14 barrel on any AR-15 produced in recent years, but they do exist and you may encounter them on a bolt action rifle on occasion. This is the least-versatile twist rate you’ll see in the 5.56x45mm/.223 Remington chambering. Although 1-in-14 barrels can stabilize 55-grain bullets used by the original M16, it’s really better suited for bullets up to 50- and 52-grains—most of which fall into the varmint and target category. If achieving maximum velocity with light bullets is your goal, this may fit for your needs—Winchester’s 45-grain JHP load is a screamer at 3,600 feet per second.

1-in-12 Inches
This is the slowest twist still seen in large numbers on AR-15s and other .223s. Though far better than the 1-in-14 twist, it is still unsuited for some of the premium loads developed over the past decade. Conventional wisdom suggests this twist rate is perfect for bullets in the 55-to 60-grain range, though most will stabilize the common 62-grain FMJ rounds. If you hunt prairie dogs or coyotes with lightweight .223 bullets, this twist rate will do fine for your needs. Doubletap’s 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip load generates 3,300 feet per second of velocity out of a 22-inch barrel, and will easily stabilize in this twist rate.

1-in-10 Inches
My first centerfire rifle was a Ruger Mini-14 with a 1-in-10 twist. This is a good twist rate for lighter bullets and will also generally stabilize projectiles up to 69 grains, such as Federal Premium’s Sierra MatchKing BTHP load. If you’re happy with 55- and 62-grain FMJ bullets, you don’t need any more twist than this.  In my mind, however, the 1-in-10 twist is just a bit too restrictive.

1-in-9 Inches
This is the beginning of the road for the shooter wanting to take advantage of the heavy bullet trend. The 1-in-9 is a great compromise twist rate—not too fast to cause problems with the 55-grain Bullets, but fast enough to stabilize all but the heaviest bullets under most circumstances. This twist will stabilize most traditional bullets up to 75-grains, and monolithics up to 70-grains—but they do so right at the edge of the envelope so not all rifles will do it. My personal 16-inch Rock River Arms carbine with a 1-in-9 twist does fine with ASYM’s Tactical Match Grade 77-grain OTM load, but has shown signs of instability with handloads using the 70-grain Barnes TSX—unless the bullet is pushed to maximum velocity. With longer barrels and the commensurate faster velocities, this twist can be more forgiving.

1-in-8 Inches
For a 16-inch general-use carbine, the 1-in-8 twist is about as versatile as it gets. This twist rate will comfortably stabilize bullets up to 80-grains, and the excellent 75- and 77-grain bullets also work great at a wider spectrum of velocities—which means barrel length isn’t critical. My 3-gun rifle, built by my friend Iain Harrison, wears an 18-inch, 1-in-8 twist White Oak Armament barrel and shoots just about anything well.

1-in-7 Inches
This is the twist chosen by the military since the switch was made to the M16A2—and the 62gr. M855 cartridge—in the 1980s. This twist is found on the M4 carbine, the M16A4, the Mk12 Special Purpose Rifle and even the HK416. Its ability to stabilize tracer rounds in-flight is one of the reasons that the military chose this twist rate.

This barrel will stabilize bullets of up to 90 grains, and can handle the 70- to 77-grain bullets at just about any velocity, which makes it well suited for carbines with very short barrels. If you want a Mil-Spec clone, the 1-in-7 twist is the way to go.

I currently own two AR-15s with 1-in-7 twist rates—a 10.3-inch Mk18 Mod. 1 and an 18-inch Mk12 Mod. 1—both made by Monty LeClair at Centurion Arms. To illustrate how velocity and twist rates can be the ying and the yang of bullet stability and accuracy, I fired a variety of loads side-by-side from the two rifles. The 10.3-inch SBR shoots anything from 55-grain FMJ to 77-grain OTM with excellent accuracy, while the 18-inch Mk12 is scary accurate with the 70-, 75- and 77-grain bullets—but won’t shoot 55-grain or 62-grain FMJs worth a damn.

Matching the rifling twist in your rifle or carbine to the appropriate ammunition won’t guarantee great accuracy, but it will ensure the bullet is properly stabilized in flight. On the other hand, using a bullet that’s too heavy for your barrel’s twist is a virtual promise of poor accuracy and ineffective terminal performance. If you’re struggling with the accuracy of your modern sporting rifle, be sure you’ve properly matched your ammunition to the barrel’s twist.

  • BlackDog

    A great, informative article, Keith. Thanks! How about a comparable article on twist rate and barrel harmonics for .30-cal. bolt-action rifles?

    • Will Satmary

      I’d also be interested in some data for 30 cals, especially with the recent interest using heavy bullets for subsonic loads.
      Keep up the great work,

    • Schcotty

      Why not do a broader article with common hunting bullets from 6mm through .35 caliber? I’ve read a similar article in another publication but repeating and refining this info for us can only help.

      How ’bout it, Keith?

  • sla1500

    I assume that you meant to use the word “error” vs “air” in the sentence, or is a pun intended? ;)

    I’d just prefer to air on the side of faster-twist barrels—especially with carbine-length barrels.

    • Dan Darcy

      It’s actually “err”, and pronounced “air”…Since we’re being grammar Nazi’s, that is.

      • Will Satmary

        Plural of “Nazi” is “Nazis (without the apostrophe). Hey, you started it.


        • Dan Darcy

          Yeah…Should have remembered that but “Nazis” looks like it should be a small village in Armenia. It just didn’t look right…

    • Stephen Malm

      That was just a decoy, so you wouldn’t notice the use of “ying and yang” (Should be “yin and yang”). :-)

  • Chuck

    Best description (with data & actual testing to back it up) that I’ve read. I do some work with twist rate vs accuracy and velocity and have come to the same conclusions as you did.

  • Gary Schwab

    Really good article.

  • Dr. Dude

    Wasn’t one of the reasons for the original 1-14 rate due the fact that this rate did impart yaw on the bullet, causing it to tumble and therefore do more damage to its intended target (i.e., the bad guys)? Sure accuracy is affected, but the realistic effective range of a 223 isn’t that great.

    • Richard C. Johnson

      It was. But the the military frame of mind became penetration. If a bullet can pass through its intended target and possibly inflict secondary damage on another then bonus. As far as range is concerned, we had AG’s giving support fire to the gunners out to 800 meters with weapons that have only 18″ barrels. In combat, an injured enemy is many times better than a dead one. It takes more people to tend to and protect a damaged comrade than a dead one.

  • ViperGeek

    Thanks for posting this article. Twist rates are one of the great firearm mysteries of mine.

    I’d be curious about which way twist rates go for larger calibers, like the .308 Winchester. For example, the FN SCAR 17S has a 1:12 twist rate. Does that limit usable/accurate bullet weights?

  • huntingdave

    Would have liked to see a link to: caliber=twist rate=bullet weight. In other words a “chart” I could print and keep on the wall. We all know bigger needs to twist faster but it would be nice to have a reference to bullet weights for a specific twist since most of the experimenting has been done already, notwithstanding bullet design, velocity/barrel etc…

  • Jonathon Tuttle

    OK, I’ve been doing some load development on a Remington R-15 in .223, 1:9″ twist. I like light, fast bullets. My velocities have been disappointing using 40 grn bullets. Coul the fast twist rate be my problem?

    • Larry Snyder

      40 grain bullets stabilize better with a 1 in 7 twist.what this means is one complete revolution of the bullet in the barrel at 7 bushmaster shoots I 69 grain bullet with a 1 and 9 twist at the same hole for 3 shots at 200 yards.shorter barrels do need a faster rate of twist even with a heavier bullet because of the length remember the heavier the bullet the slower the twist but barrel length affect this also.I hope this helps you brother

  • Boostmeister

    The article is great if all you have is an AR-15 chambered in 5.56 or .223. If you shoot an AR chambered in 6.5 Grendel or 300 AAC, then a different set of criteria is required. The article could have broadened it’s scope by mentioning the Greenhill formula. Not everyone shoots a 5.56/223.

  • snaketail

    What abou the rest of us – those who don’t care for “Black Guns”…what the best bullet weight or a 1:30 lever action rifle?

  • BlackHog

    If you project the reflection with some infection, the best can rest with the East and the West.

  • TAZ

    this is a great article and thanks to the author for his time and information….

  • Donnie Lowe

    I am wanting to load 75 Gr. HPBT .223 for a Remington700 ADL with 24″ barrel at 1/12 twist. Any one have any suggestions ?

  • mikemikemikemikemike

    Excellent article. One thing I’m curious about is whether a 16 inch barrel is short enough to handle 55 grain rounds with a 1:7 twist rate. He mentions that an 18 inch barrel doesn’t do well with that grain at that twist rate. I’m thinking about purchasing a Stag Arms 8T. It defaults to 1:9 but they offer a 1:7 upgrade (obviously to meet mil spec) for $75.

  • Doonie

    what twist do I need on my barrelfor more distance

  • Chris Amaro

    Don’t forget the Barnhills formula, where the LENGTH of the bullet has more of an effect than the WEIGHT of the bullet. For bullets of similar construction, spitzer, lead core-FMJ, increasing weight correlates well with increasing projectile length.
    But when the construction is different- steel core, all-copper, tungsten core, etc, comparing projectile lengths base on weight falls apart.
    It’s not easy to find online information of various bullet lengths, but re-loaders probably have this information handy in or to get the seating depth and OAL correct.

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