December 20, 2022
By Tom Beckstrand
AR-15s are the Wild West of the firearms industry. There are companies that make complete rifles, and companies that only manufacture one or two parts. With all the different brands on the market, it’s hard to know what separates good parts from the bad ones. Just about anyone can order parts and put a rifle together. Whether it works or not depends on the knowledge of the builder, quality of parts and the attention to details during assembly.
One critical aspect of any AR-15 build is the barrel. All barrels are not created equal. Shopping based on price alone will likely end up with disappointment. I would never buy a barrel from an unknown or unproven manufacturer. It is better to identify quality barrel manufacturers and then shop the offerings than to simply buy a barrel, willy-nilly.
One of the most prolific barrel manufacturers is Ballistic Advantage. It makes and sells barrels under its own name, but it also makes original equipment manufacturer (OEM) barrels for some of the biggest and best-known AR-15 makers in the firearms industry. Ballistic Advantage is an “everyman” brand that makes barrels offering performance and value. It has a premium line of barrels, but they also have a “Modern” line that carries the lowest price tag while maintaining relevant features.
All Ballistic Advantage barrels (except the 9mm models) carry a sub-minute of angle (MOA) guarantee — even its least-expensive model! I know of no other AR-15-barrel manufacturer that makes this guarantee across the entire product line. While each line has features that may be desirable (depending on the type of shooting a person wants to do), it’s nice to know that the barrel has a guaranteed performance standard that has been met.
When shopping for a barrel, the first decision to consider is its material alloy: Stainless steel or chromoly steel? Precision rifle barrels are frequently made from 416R stainless steel because it machines well and makes a consistent barrel. It is also the more expensive material of the two.
Chrome Moly Vandium (CrMoV) steel is a little harder to work with, but it’s less expensive and handles abusive firing schedules better than the softer stainless steel. Chromoly steel also takes finishes such as nitride or Quench-Polish-Quench (QPQ) well, which provides a high degree of durability. Ballistic Advantage uses both materials to make barrels, offering QPQ on its Performance lines of barrels.
After making the decision on which material to use, you’ll need to choose the barrel’s length and contour. This is where a lot of folks make an unwitting mistake and wind up choosing the M4 contour used by the military. Military contours are almost always a bad idea because accuracy and performance were never priorities when specifying a barrel contour. The military put mass between the gas block and muzzle because they thought that would help prevent soldiers from bending barrels. (Not using a barrel as a pry bar is a better way to avoid bending the barrel.) The military also put some cuts on the M4 barrel for mounting the M203 grenade launcher. I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want a grenade launcher hanging off my barrel; it’s bad for accuracy. Plus, I don’t need to lob grenades anymore.
The best barrel contour I’ve seen for a general-use AR-15 is Ballistic Advantage’s “Hanson” contour. I spoke to Clint Hanson, the contour’s designer, and he said, “The contour was designed for maximum rigidity in the lightest package.” That is an accurate description of these barrels. There is enough mass in the contour between the chamber and gas block to maintain rigidity, even when hot, and then the contour tapers and gets lighter between the gas block and the muzzle.
The advantages of the Hanson contour aren’t just in putting adequate mass in the right areas, but also in the details and finishing touches Ballistic Advantage applies. One detail I appreciate is the use of a radius instead of corners at the gas block. Most gas blocks have a 90-degree corner where the gas block protrudes above the barrel’s contour. Sharp corners serve as stress amplifiers and, especially when hot, these are areas where barrels will flex. It’s important to minimize barrel movement for the best accuracy, so using an arc or radius to move from barrel contour to the raised gas block reduces the stress riser and minimizes barrel movement.
It’s important to point out that the Hanson contour wasn’t born from theory or computer modeling. Hanson made a barrel and then shot a lot of rounds through it in testing. He’d make an adjustment and then repeat the process. After several iterations, he arrived at the final design.
The Hanson contour also accounts for the various muzzle devices and suppressors that customers may install on their barrels. The first way to accomplish this was to tailor the gas port to the ideal size, depending on the length of the gas system. Hanson-contour barrels have gas ports that are slightly smaller than standard industry sizes because they’ve figured out how to efficiently manage gas. There are subtle geometry and tolerance adjustments from standard AR barrels that allow the Hanson contour to achieve unrivaled efficiency in negating gas loss. Efficient application of gas pressure in the right places means the slightly smaller ports generate the right amount of pressure to reliably cycle the bolt carrier group. Since the port is slightly smaller than normal, the use of a suppressor doesn’t have as pronounced a change in bolt velocity.
Ballistic Advantage also coats barrel extensions in nickel boron (NiB) on their Performance and Premium barrel lines. NiB is a hard and slick plating that works to decrease the stress placed on the bolt lugs when the bolt unlocks. Any AR-pattern rifle has residual pressure in the chamber that forces the bolt lugs back against the lug abutments in the barrel extension as it unlocks to cycle the action. That binding force is what causes bolt lugs to shear, especially the two that straddle the extractor because they are only supported on one side. Putting NiB in the barrel extension reduces the friction between bolt lugs and lug abutments, decreasing the shearing force applied to the lugs. It’s one of the best uses of NiB you’ll ever see.
Ballistic Advantage makes button-rifled barrels in eight different chamberings, and in lengths as short as 6 inches and up to 24 inches. They offer the M4 contour, too, if that’s what you really want, as well as the Hanson and heavier contours. Fluting is also an option. Barrels can be had with just the extension or with a gas block. If you want it a certain way, Ballistic Advantage probably has it.
Ballistic Advantage is a company with which most AR-15 enthusiasts are unknowingly familiar, but that has been changing. Ballistic Advantage is starting to make barrels for bolt-action rifles, too, and will likely have pre-fit models available soon. All of the benefits of materials selection, sophisticated design, and accuracy guarantees currently enjoyed by AR-15 enthusiasts will also be available to the increasing numbers of bolt-action shooters.
Enjoy articles like this?
Subscribe to the magazine.
Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine