In our battle to constantly strive for consistency and accuracy from our rifles, there is one easy trick that has worked for me time and time again, that helps tighten those groups at any distance. That trick is free floating the barrel. It can be easily accomplished on almost any rifle.
Most serious rifles today come with free floated barrels but some do not. Ensuring you barrel is free floated is always one of the first steps taken during the rifle accurizing process. It's easy to do and one of the fastest ways to tighten those groups from a new factory rifle.
A free floated rifle barrel means that the barrel does not touch the stock at any point along it's length. It is free to move during the shot in a normal manner without interference from the stock, therefore allowing it's performance to be more consistent and accurate.
What is a free floated barrel?
A free floated barrel is one in which the stock does not touch the barrel from about 1 inch in front of the action, all the way out to the muzzle end of the barrel.
This allows the barrel to go through it's normal cycle of whipping and harmonics on every shot without interference from an outside influence like the stock. This results in better accuracy and consistent performance.
If the barrel touches the stock, or actually rests on the stock, it can cause the harmonics to be different on every shot. We are talking about very minor movement in the position of the muzzle here. This cause the bullet to exit the muzzle when it's in a different position. You can imagine what this does to accuracy.
Is your barrel free floated?
You can verify whether your rifle barrel is free floated very quickly. With the rifle unloaded and sitting in a rest, slide a dollar bill between the stock and barrel. It should move freely down to at least an inch or so before you get to the action.
If you find points where the dollar bill sticks or can't move freely, your barrel is not free floated properly. Mark those points as best you can with a temporary marker and remove the barreled action from the stock.
Determine what action needs to be taken to lower that area of the stock. In most cases, a little sand paper will do the trick on both wood or polymer stocks. The larger the clearance, the less chance you have of the barrel touching during firing.
Does free floating a barrel work?
I have never free floated a rifle when I didn't see at least some improvement in performance afterwards. How much range from a small reduction in group size of an eighth of an inch to more than an inch at 100 yards on rifles that were interfering substantially with the stock.
I have seen this activity improve both center fires and rimfire rifles. Don't make the mistake of thinking that just because recoil on a rimfire is low, It can't benefit from a floated barrel. It can make a big difference
How does free floating a barrel improve performance
All rifle barrels vibrate when they are shot. Controlling the vibration so that it is consistent on every shot and releases the bullet at the correct point in the vibration cycle on every shot, is one major key to accuracy.
The illustration below shows how a barrel acts during the shot. Of course this movement is exaggerated in the illustration but it does occur in every rifle on every shot, whether the rifle is a 300 mag or a 22. Of course the more violent the explosion in the chamber, the more movement will occur.
Imagine the bullet exiting the barrel in the top position on one shot, and then on the bottom position for the next shot. This is what happens when contact with the barrel changes from day to day, or in some cases shot to shot. There is no way to achieve consitency with this happening.
The goal is to have the bullet exit the barrel when it is in the same position on every shot. A free floated barrel can accomplish this with no interference.
How to verify improvement due to free floating
Before free floating your barrel shoot some 5 shot groups on paper to establish your base line starting point. You should make every effort to shoot the best groups you can. Use a sled or some kind of good rest. Make sure you use the same ammo and equipment you will use after the work is done.
Even shooting from the same bench is recommended. Anything you can do to remove variability between the two shooting sessions.
You must realize that free floating the barrel on your rifle is not the end all do all for great accuracy, but it is a very good first step an one of those things that if not addressed will prevent accuracy improvement from other efforts.
There are many other things that can cause inconsistency in accuracy that should be checked and addressed if ultimate accuracy is your goal. I have written articles covering these topics. Glass bedding, controlling where the bullet is released in the vibration cycle with a barrel tuner, action screw torque and optimizing ammo.
Can I free float the barrel on my rifle myself or should I use a gunsmith?
Yes you can easily do it yourself, it is very easy to do. Go to Home Depot and get a wooden dowel about the same diameter as your barrel, 1 inch or less. Get a pack of extra coarse sandpaper. Find the areas on your stock inside the barrel cut out that need to be taken down because they are touching the barrel or are very close to touching by sliding a dollar bill or piece of paper between the barrel and the stock as shown in the picture below.
The object is to be able to slide this bill completely up and down the length of the barrel freely. It probably won't go all of the way to the action. There should be contact within about 1 inch or so after the action but other than that there should be no contact whatsoever.
Note where any rough spots may be when you are sliding the bill back and forth. Remove the barreled action and use the dowel and sandpaper to take material off of that spot. Do this until the dollar bill easily and freely slides up and down the barrel all of the way to the action.
It won't hurt a thing to take the material down in the entire barrel channel. Just be careful not to remove so much that the stock becomes flimsy. This can actually have the reverse effect on accuracy.
I personally like to make sure that I have plenty of room for the barrel to do it's thing. Creating a gap between the barrel and stock that you can easily see is normal for me.
Here is a video created by the Arkansas Prepper that will give you a visual representation of what needs to be done.
If your stock is not of the polymer variety with a good solid mounting system for the action, or an older wooden stock, I highly recommend glass bedding the action in your stock as well as completing the free floating process discussed above. These two modifications together should get some really good performance improvement for you, or at least eliminate variables you no longer have to consider in future efforts to accurize your rifle.