Today’s Ask Josh comes from Dale R. Dale asks a reasonable question after seeing some of my guns . . .
“What makes carbon fiber parts so expensive. I see you like them, but are they worth it for me?”
Dale’s question is more complex than you may think. The carbon fiber parts in question today come in the form of stocks, barrels, handguards, and accessories. This list grows all the time.
The most common carbon fiber gun parts in general use are stocks and barrels. I have a couple of both and when combined they can make for a very light package. Weight reduction is an important feature of the material, however that’s not all it does.
In stocks carbon fiber makes for a far more rigid part, and thus more accurate, at least in theory. In barrels it increases rigidity while offering rapid heat dissipation, again theoretically improving accuracy.
There are a couple ways to look at what you get with these parts. In Dale’s case he was more interested in them for target shooting. Are carbon fiber barrels better than solid steel barrels? Maybe, but this degree of function is relative because many shooters who enjoy stationary target shooting actually prefer more weight. A carbon fiber barrel will shave more than half the weight off an identical-profile steel barrel.
A heavy benchrest rifle can be be fitted with a carbon fiber barrel, however it will probably be weighted down elsewhere to compensate. The carbon fiber’s function then becomes a matter of the rigidity and heat dissipation. I haven’t seen much benefit in terms of accuracy, but there are some people out there who say they do.
Carbon fiber parts don’t make much of an appearance in regulated rifle competition outside PRS-type events. Carbon fiber-wrapped AR barrels have been around for a long time now, but I don’t really see them being used much except in high-volume matches where weight reduction and heat dissipation are much bigger considerations than any accuracy improvement.
I’ve shot a number of carbon fiber barrels in both bolt guns and semi-autos and I have not noticed that the AR platform is distinctly more accurate with carbon fiber as opposed to a traditional target profile steel barrel.
I think that this has more to do with the design of the AR platform than anything else. I’ve shot and build more AR rifles than I can count and I have yet to find one that delivers the same overall consistency as a bolt action.
The gas tube and block assembly is always present on the AR and, despite extremely well-developed attempts, the system is never truly free floated like bolt actions. I haven’t seen carbon fiber AR barrels deliver better accuracy in real-world or match settings. Again, the greatest advantages with the use of carbon fiber in an AR come from rapid cooling and added stiffness while hot, thus reducing stringing after a few magazines.
It’s my opinion that bolt action rifles benefit the most from carbon fiber parts today. The AR is already a minimalist design and going with a carbon fiber setup only reduces weight by a relatively smaller amount. The AR is limited to its basic dimensions and can only have barrels that are an appropriate thickness to function with a gas block and barrel extension. A bolt action rifle can have just about as thick a barrel as you want as there is no gas function to worry about.
Traditional stocks and barrels on bolt guns are heavy and replacing existing units with carbon fiber versions saves a tremendous amount of weight. The weight reduction is less important for match shooters as it is hunters who strive for light weight and accuracy.
Carrying a rifle quickly becomes the opposite of fun if you have to do it for long enough over rough terrain and the weight reduction from carbon fiber results in a noticeable and welcome weight reduction.
The only downside is that the weight reduction comes with the inevitable increase in felt recoil. You can’t cheat Mr. Newton. This may not matter much on guns chambered in .308 or 6.5CM, but you’ll start to notice it more with .30-06, 7mm Mag, and .300 WinMag.
My 450 Bushmaster has an AG Composites stock and a steel barrel and action. That saves about 7 oz over a conventional stock, which isn’t much, but I like it for the fact that it’s weatherproof and isn’t sensitive to changes in temperature.
The weight reduction isn’t a big factor for me. The gun still weighs 9 lbs empty. I wanted a compact, highly rugged gun that offered the best in terms of real-world hunting, so this was a logical choice. Plus, with a little weight reduction I was able to add some more accessories and come out about even to what I used to have.
I use two carbon fiber barrels on my 6.5 Creedmoors, one on a 16” with a carbon fiber stock and the other on a chassis rifle. The former I built for fun, the latter I prefer over my all-steel actions for medium range positional shooting out to 800 yards as well as some coyote hunting when I have spare time (which is almost never these days).
If you decide to go for carbon fiber parts, realize that you’re not necessarily going to end up with a decidedly superior end result, but it will have different properties than an all-steel gun. I think stocks make the most difference for most people, with barrels less so.
In Dale’s case, he ended up deciding to not go with carbon fiber as he didn’t think his 200-yard game would be improved much by a $1,000 barrel over a steel one. I tend to agree with him and I think he made the right choice by sticking with steel for his applications.