Does Barrel Length Affect Bullet Performance?

If you’ve been around guns for any appreciable amount of time, you likely know that barrel length, short or long, conveys certain advantages and disadvantages, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. Shorter barrels provide greater concealability and general handiness, but at the cost of range, accuracy, velocity, and terminal performance. Longer barrels can help with accuracy and increase the performance of the round fired but are often clumsier and more difficult to carry around on your belt. So, the smart gun guy or gal knows what they are trying to get done with any particular firearm they may choose.

The Experiment

In the video linked below, Dustin from Guns of the West shows us an interesting experiment on some of the effects of barrel length on bullet performance. For this exercise he uses three Heritage revolvers: the Barkeep Boot with a 1.68-inch barrel, the Rough Rider with a 6.5-inch barrel, and another Rough Rider with an all the way downtown 16-inch barrel. Dustin notes that he uses guns from the same company so the barrel quality and manufacturing process would be as similar as possible, hopefully providing more accurate results.

The Longer the Barrel, the Faster the Bullet Guns of the West
Dustin from Guns of the West tests bullet performance in the Heritage Barkeep Boot, the 6.5-inch Heritage Rough Rider, and the 16-inch Heritage Rough Rider.

The same ammo is used in all three guns for the test. In this case, it’s CCI Maxi Mag .22 Magnum with a 40-grain bullet. Dustin uses the magnum loads to get the most pressure possible. He does have magnum cylinders in all the guns. He also points out that there will always be some loss of pressure between a revolver’s cylinder and the barrel. Unless, of course, you’re shooting a Nagant M1895, but that’s an article for another day.

So, we go to the range, where Dustin shoots five rounds from each gun through a chronograph. The data he looks at is the velocity in feet per second and ft/lbs. of energy, getting an average figure from each. He helpfully shows us charts of each one, so the raw data is available if you care to go through it yourself.

First up is the 1.68-inch Barkeep Boot.

Now, I have to admit that I had very low expectations for the Barkeep Boot. It’s the shorter version of the already short Heritage Barkeep. The gun itself just looks anemic to me when I’ve seen it in my friendly neighborhood gun store. But if folks like it, more power to ‘em. I was a bit surprised by the results. The Barkeep Boot turns in a “fairly respectable” average velocity of 1081.8 feet per second with 104.15 ft/lbs. of energy. I honestly never thought it would top 1000 fps. Shows how much I know.

Barkeep Boot performance test
The 1.68-inch Barkeep Boot had a “fairly respectable” performance.

Second in line is the 6.5-inch Rough Rider.

This one performs more in line with what I was thinking. The Rough Rider shows out with an average velocity of 1161.8 feet per second and 120.72 ft/lbs. of energy. As Dustin says, there is “a clear difference” between it and the Barkeep Boot.

6.5 inch barrel Rough Rider performance test
The 6.5-inch Rough Rider showed “a clear difference” in performance from the Barkeep Boot.

Finally, Dustin whips out Big Daddy, the 16-inch Rough Rider.

As you might expect, there is a big jump here. The longer barreled Rough Rider kicks out an average velocity of 1458.2 feet per second with 188.98 ft/lbs. of energy.

16 inch Rough Rider performance test
The 16-inch Rough Rider showed “a substantial difference in both velocity and energy.”

Now, in case you didn’t know, the reason a longer barrel provides greater performance is that the longer the bullet stays in the barrel, the more pressure builds up behind it. So, while the Barkeep Boot only has 1.68 inches to build up that pressure, the 16-inch Rough Rider has almost ten times that much. Of course, it doesn’t translate to ten times the performance but, as Dustin notes, it’s still “a substantial difference in both velocity and energy.”

The Longer the Barrel, the Faster the bullet. The Joker
The Joker approves of the 16-inch Heritage Rough Rider (Photo credit: forums.sherdog.com)

Of course, as with anything, there are limits.

There will eventually be diminished returns. Dustin points out that, sooner or later, the pressure will dissipate, and the bullet will be fighting the friction in the barrel, leading to significant decreases in performance. Where that limit is depends on factors like caliber, bullet weight, load, and all kinds of stuff that I can’t claim any expertise about. But the point is that barrel length makes a difference one way or the other and it’s up to the individual shooter to determine what they want to get out of their setup. Maybe you’re James Bond carrying a Walther PPK. Or maybe you’re Wynona Earp hauling around the heavy artillery to kill demons. Either way, pick the right gun for the job at hand.

Wynona Earp hunting Revenants with long-barreled handgun
Wynona Earp knows the value of a longer barrel when hunting Revenants (Photo credit: thatshelf.com)
William "Bucky" Lawson is a self-described "typical Appalachian-American gun enthusiast". He is a military historian specializing in World War II and has written a few things, as he says, "here and there". A featured contributor for Strategy & Tactics, he likes dogs, range time, and a good cigar - preferably with an Old Fashioned that has an extra orange slice.

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