Tim Pilbeam delves into the practicalities of getting experimental with shortened-barrel rifles, taking his .308 rifle barrel down to 16in and gauging the results
The concept of using a shortened barrel on a sporting rifle has been around for years. I have reviewed rifles such as the RPA Woodland Stalker, the Ruger Scout, and recently, the new tactical military Rangemaster Precision Arms G2 ‘Stby’ (Stubby) that shot ½-1MOA out to 500 yards, using a 16in military-grade barrel. With these in mind, I wondered if I could modify one of my rifles purely for the shooting of deer.
In my gun cabinet I had a spare .308 gathering dust – a perfect candidate for this project. I have owned it for over 10 years, and I know it shoots well under an inch at 100 yards, using a variety of ammunition from 150 to 185 grains. It is an old Sako Forrester with an aftermarket Timney trigger, as well as a full synthetic bedding job. The barrel had been shortened by at least an inch owing to the crown being ‘pickled’, caused by leaving my T8 moderator permanently screwed on the barrel during storage. Now I remove all moderators after use, but despite doing this, the crown was looking a little shabby – so perhaps it was a good time to do something drastic to my faithful Forrester.
Now for the technical bit, which needs careful consideration before taking the plunge. There are good reasons why most barrels are over 20in in length. Firstly, the balance will be affected, making it heavier towards the rear, which can be detrimental to the feel of the rifle. A short barrel also creates more muzzle blast, a louder report, and a more punchy recoil, along with increased muzzle lift. With regards to accuracy, some sceptics would say that a bullet may not be stabilised enough, causing accuracy issues at longer ranges. I would be happier if the twist rate was a tighter 1 in 10in, not the 1 in 12in as standard for this rifle. This could be a gamble, as I had completely forgotten about what could be a critical fact, so fingers crossed – I could be lucky.
After removing the scope and mounts, I dropped the rifle into Julian Savory of JMS Arms in Sussex to take over the job of shortening the barrel and rethreading it to a 14x1mm. Julian imports MAE moderators from New Zealand, and after trying a few on many rifles over the past six months, I chose the lighter over-barrelled T12 Scout model. This extends beyond the barrel by 124mm (5in) and is only 38mm wide (1.5in in old money), making it more or less the same length as before I started this modification. I also had the option of the quieter T12 Standard model, but this is heavier, and owing to the shortness of the barrel would require the forend of the stock to be shortened by 2in owing to the longer over-barrel length.
After admiring the quality of the crown and threading job, I could not wait to see if my gamble had paid off. Had I destroyed my capable .308? Julian then informed me the interior barrel condition was rather worn, and had seen better days. I was starting to worry I’d ruined a perfectly serviceable rifle on a doomed project.
Despite this worrying new piece of information, ‘Shortie’ was zeroed at 150 yards using 150-grain soft nose Speer home-loaded bullets that travelled out at 2,650fps from the old 21in barrel. Unsurprisingly, I achieved 1.25in groups when resting the forend on a sand bag. After using a chronograph, the muzzle velocity with a moderator had dropped by 85fps to 2,565fps, but how much effect would the shorter 16in barrel have at longer ranges?
One interesting observation is that after removing the moderator, the muzzle velocity drops by another 20fps, so the bullet is still being pushed through the moderator. Most .308s need about 20in of barrel to burn all the powder – and the faster the ammo, the more barrel you need. Ammunition with slower muzzle velocities will not be affected as much by a shorter barrel compared to higher velocity bullets – I am not a ballistics boffin so that’s all I can confidently tell you.
At 200 yards, the drop was 0.5in more, but with a group of less than 2in. At 250 yards, it was 1in more drop with a 3in group – not bad at all. I tried some 168-grain bullets at these ranges with no difference in accuracy. Am I bothered about a fraction more bullet drop when shooting deer out to 250 yards? As for those issues generally associated with shorter barrels, especially in a feisty .308, I am very surprised, considering this is a light hunting rifle, that there was little noticeable increase in recoil, muzzle lift or report. Remove the moderator, however, and the difference is noticeable – it develops a punchy recoil, quite a bit of muzzle lift, and a very unsociable ‘boom’. The balance was perhaps corrected by the addition of a moderator, but it felt like a rifle with a 22in barrel.
My experienced shooting friends all had a play, and gave very encouraging feedback, which gives me the confidence to say that ‘Operation Shortie’ is a success. Have a look at the pictures – you can see it is compact, light and pointable, despite having a moderator fitted as a luxury. From previous experience with short-barrelled rifles, it will be better for working in and around vehicles, and especially within those clumsy high seats.
As soon as I could, I took Shortie out on some fallow and managed to cull a young buck off sticks at about 85 yards. Next challenge is to find a faster powder that will stop burning before the bullet leaves the barrel, making it even more comfortable and quieter to shoot. If you want to do the same, please make sure the calibre is suitable – the .308 is one of the most versatile calibres to play with. As for the costs, the shortening and rethreading of the barrel cost me about £110, and the T12 Scout retails for another £310.