Barrel Break in, what I have learned about it

Everyday the question comes in about barrel break in, here is what I have learned from shooting a huge variety of rifles. The answer might surprise you, as I have traveled and talked to some of the top people in the precision rifle industry on the subject.

Since I began Sniper’s Hide, I have shot a lot of rifles. Everything from factory guns to some of the best custom stuff out there. Over the last 10 years, I have broken in exactly 1 barrel, and it was my fault.

Several years ago I attended the Robert Gradous Gunsmithing Class. During that week, you build your own rifle alongside Robert as he walks, and talks you through the process. Understand I have no machining background, I barely know how to turn a machine on, let alone what it should look and feel like. The barrel portion is probably the most important part of the process. So much so, that Robert has a second barrel on hand in case, (as it’s very likely) you (meaning me) screws it up. I was prepared for this, but being a fast study, I wasn’t too worried.

When the time came to chamber the barrel we took our time. Robert had me practice my run more times than I can count. I performed at least 25 dry runs with nothing in the machine, just getting the feel for the movement. Still, I have no idea what this would feel like, I just had to imagine it. After it was finished, seemed like all was good, but was it really?

Outside his shop, Robert has a reloading room with a concrete bench so we could do load development right there. However load development turned into barrel break in. It was clear to see, like a neon light flickering in my face. I would shoot a single group, things would look fine, and the next group things would go to hell. Accuracy opened right up. So we’d clean it. This process went on for about 125 rounds until she settled in and would go more than 5 rounds in a row without fouling up. Today this rifle shoots great, but it required all that extra effort.

The patches were bright blue, the copper fouling was evident. And here is the kicker, it was a Bartlein Barrel. So I know it was hand lapped twice by the guys at Bartlein. Watching and listening to Bartlein in the video, you immediately understand where the fault lies.

What made this barrel different from all the other ones I did not break in ?  

Me ! I chambered this rifle and I have no clue what I am doing !

Last week I started my Tikka T3x Project. Factory rifle, which was shooting 1 hole groups out of the box. No break in, no opening up. Just one after the other going right where they needed to go with no drama involved. No shoot 5, clean one, shoot 10, clean two, just shooting. This is my normal routine, shoot 100+ rounds, clean it for the first time when I get home. And by clean it, I mean, barely. 4 passes with a brush, and about 4 patches and I am done. 

Here are the patches from the initial cleaning I did:

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A factory rifle, no break in necessary, no excessive fouling from not doing it.

I don’t subscribe to barrel break in, unless I see a reason to do it. By seeing a reason to do it, I mean the groups opening up after a relatively short number of rounds. The barrels will speak to us, it will tell us what it wants, and most don’t want as much abuse as we give them. Knock the heavy stuff down, and give it a break. That is my philosophy on the subject.

Don’t call me Sheets...

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I see a lot of guys reference the barrel break in procedures and cleaning instructions that come with their new rifles. Especially the ones from the custom shops. Here is a news flash for you: 

They are “don’t call me sheets” the gunsmiths’ subtle way of telling you to, “Leave them alone”.

If they didn’t include something, you’d bother them. You paid $4000 for your new rifle and if that paper was not there, you’d be on the phone asking them what to do. And frankly speaking, while they appreciate your business, they don’t want to talk to you about your new rifle. They are not your therapist, it’s your gun, do what you want with it. Break it in, don’t break it in, keep shooting for 1000 rounds without cleaning it. Doesn’t matter, just let them know when you smoke the barrel so they can replace it for you.

Replacing the barrel is key part, it’s why people reference the old Gale McMillan Article that talked about the myth of barrel break in and over cleaning. It was de- signed to help you move the barrel towards burning it out quicker.

Another story,

Working down Rifles Only, we shot a lot. I mean when I left, Jacob had 98,0000 rounds through his Accuracy International AW action. Sure plenty of barrel changes, but we were lucky to clean them every 1000 rounds. (these were 308s) The house gun down there was a GA Precision SH Rifle #50. It was used by everyone. At 12,0000+ rounds and maybe only 10 cleanings total, we sent it in to GAP because it stopped cocking. George Gardner found that 4” of rifling was missing even through we saw the gun as still sub MOA. It continued to shoot about 3/4” with factory ammo. Here our 308 which was usually only cleaned by a student who felt they had too because they used it, shot like a tack driver for so long, with so little care.

Another instructor there, with a custom 308, who subscribed to cleaning it every day, found his barrel was shot out with 4000 rounds through it. Just like Gale McMillan stated, ”More barrels are ruined by over cleaning vs shooting them.” They are designed to be shot, not cleaned. Yes, a certain amount of maintenance is needed, but when you are shooting as much as I am, that work takes on a different meaning. I am not clean- ing them to put them away for a month, I am cleaning them only to go back to shoot- ing the next day. I am removing more dirt and debris vs cleaning out copper and car- bon. I put more effort in getting the dirt out of the chamber than cleaning the barrel.

Is barrel break in necessary ?   

For me, no, it’s not. I have learned to read my groups and yes I still shoot several groups in the beginning. I go through the same process each time. I shoot a groups from a bore sight. I make an initial adjustment with the scope. I shoot a group again, I fine tune my adjustment. I shoot a group again, and confirm my zero. I reset my turrets and confirm zero with another group. If I was gonna notice an issue, it would be during these initial groups. I follow this process every time regardless. I want to see what the rifle shows me. Reading the target, and noting every group. If one started to open up unexpectedly I feel I need to clean it as I did with the rifle I chambered. After all these initial groups, I will reset the targets and shoot about 4 more groups to see what the rifle does. These are my picture groups most of the time because I don’t want to show the adjustments made for my zero. Now some times I will show the initial groups, but understand, I am shooting two sets so I can read the results.  

Most will tell you, it’s not breaking in the barrel, but the throat area. So with break in, you are looking to take out tooling marks and issues right up front. With modern machines, and guys doing this work on computer controlled CNCs today, we see a lot smoother chamber areas. If you watch my WIN Tactical video, you’ll see just how polished they can get them. They are using best practices when it comes to machining vs the art of the gunsmith we saw with older lathes doing the work.

It’s not 1978 anymore, we have progressed a long way since that time so you have to consider, things will change. What grandpa did back then, may no longer apply now. Welcome to 2016.

It’s a mental thing,    

I get it, your head won’t let you shoot it and clean it when you get home, you have to break it in. That is ok too, it’s your time, your effort, and your rifle. It has nothing to do with anyone else but you. If you feel this is “dangerous” to not break it in, if you feel, “It will clean up better down road if you break it in” go for it. My barrels clean up, and shoot lights out, even with factory ammo. I don’t sit there was a pile of patches wondering what went wrong or why the carbon isn’t coming out. (By the way, that black on your 25th patch is barrel, not carbon) I clean the same way, I shoot the same way, I am consistent my treatment which has always rewarded me with accuracy. For me, less cleaning and more shooting is better.

Here is a thought, persuade your friend not to break in his rifle. See what happens. Try it with the new Ruger or something similar. I will tell you, I never broke in my Ruger Precision Rifle, nobody else did either and the results were documented in front of a crowd as nobody broke them in. See if the rifle shoots better or worse, see if it cleans up, better or worse? I have a feeling once you get past the mental aspect it, and try this, nothing will change with your life.

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Finally, if the rifle does need to be broken in, as it physically shows you that it needs it. Blame the guy who chambered it.  For a factory gun, you might have gotten a Monday or Friday model. 

I have a lot of reference material when it comes to this. You can see my processes and what I do as I video almost everything. So follow the videos on Sniper’s Hide. Read what is posted in the forums. But understand, I am not subscribing to a lot this stuff. I am shooting them, and maybe cleaning every 500 to 1000 rounds depending on the rifle and caliber.