Keeping Your Rifle Barrel Cool

Ed Zern advised us to keep our powder, our flies, and our martinis dry. To that I’d add that we should keep our barrels cool. Now that warm weather is here it’s easy to get a barrel hot enough to brand cattle, and a hot barrel is a hissing and a byword.

I’ve never been able to find an authoritative number for how hot a powder flame gets, and since it varies, there probably is no single figure, but the best estimates range from 3,500 degrees to 5,000. The only figure I can find for how hot the steel in a bore can get is 1,500 degrees, which may sound high, but I know for a fact that if you run ice water into the chamber of a hot rifle, by the end of its 24-inch journey it will be able to scald the skin on the back of your hand when it comes out the muzzle.

Hot barrels have a number of evil side effects. First, they distort your sight picture. If there are enough heat waves rising you won’t be able to get a sight picture at all, and if you can they’ll cause an optical illusion, showing the target to be higher than it actually is.

Sustained shooting with a hot barrel also affects barrel life. An example is the 6.5/284, a cartridge that holds a relatively modest powder charge, and is beloved of High Power match competitors who shoot three 20-round strings for record. This will heat up a barrel, and under these conditions, where you would normally expect 2,000 to 2,500 rounds with no loss of accuracy, you’ll probably get only 1,500.

There are a number of ways you can speed up cooling. The first is to simply get the rifle out of the sun. This makes a big difference. The second is to rest the rifle on its butt to create a smokestack effect in the barrel. (Some shooters don’t believe this works, but they are deluded. If you’d like to prove it to yourself, fire a few rounds and watch the smoke in the barrel. It will just sit there, like Congress in session. Stand the gun on its butt and it comes rolling up out the muzzle. Same with heat.)

Buffalo hunters, who would fire hundreds of rounds in the course of a day’s work, were known to urinate on their barrels. It worked, but it smelled terrible, although not nearly as bad as the hunters themselves, who were famous for their stench. You can pee on your barrel, but it will get you expelled from the range, or arrested, or both.

If micturition is not an option, and you’re really desperate, and your rifle has a synthetic stock, you can pour water on the barrel. Pouring water on a wood stock is not good.

If the place where you shoot has an electric outlet, a fan will help a lot even on a hot day. Set the rifle as close to the blades as possible to get the full blast of air.

For a number of years now I’ve been using a barrel cooler made by Stan Skinner, my gun writing friend from Arizona. It’s a small water pump that creates a mist, and if you fill it with ice water it will work miracles. Place the rifle in a rest so that the muzzle is slightly downward, stick the nozzle into the chamber and turn it on. It will do in 3 minutes or so what would take 15 minutes via air cooling.

You must, however, run three dry patches through the bore before you can shoot again. The three patches not only remove the water, but also clear out a great deal of the powder fouling, which is water-soluble. Stan does not make the cooler for sale, but if he does someday, I’ll let you know.

Some rifles don’t walk much when they heat up. Heavey-barrled guns are immune, and even some sporters. Years ago, a club to which I belong dedicated its rifle range to Bill Ruger, who had been a member. We got a Ruger 77, a .30/06, I believe, and 100 of us fired the rifle at a single target. As soon as one shooter had touched off his shot, the next one took his place. We were firing at an 8-inch bull at 100 yards, and nearly every shot was in the black, even with the rifle red-hot and badly fouled. Bill would have been proud.