The firearms world is kind of a funny thing sometimes. Trends come and go and you watch the enthusiasts rush on to the next “thing” that gets
When the M-16 first arrived on the scene, it came with a lightweight barrel. We call this the “pencil” profile today, but back then it was just the standard. Nobody thought anything of it until some armorers kept getting reports of bent barrels. When the product improvement program got started, one of the tasks to “fix” the bent barrel problem. Well, we know how that turned out.
The program added mass to the end of the barrel to increase the strength at the bayonet lug. In the article I wrote on the government profile barrel, I briefly mentioned how that affected rifle balance. I’ll get back to that.
Before getting to the nitty gritty, let’s take a brief look at the history.
The Rifle Weight Pendulum
Even though the original M-16A1 had a lightweight barrel, it wasn’t the only variant. In 1964, Colt started producing heavy-barreled models for use as light machine guns.
During the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, heavy-barreled models continued to grow in popularity. There’s a lot of speculation about why that was the case. The more cynical among us think it was a marketing push to save money. HBAR models are cheaper to produce without the extra time machining the profile.
Another reason might be that some states consider the HBAR models to be “sporting” rifles, and allow them to be sold in the state where AR-15s are otherwise banned.
In either case, rifles grew heavier.
As the GWOT picked up, I noticed a distinct turn back towards lightweight. Around 2010 to 2012, pencil-barreled models began dominating the enthusiast community. That makes sense, really. As people gained experience in conflict and returned home to share what they learned, the AR-15 world became more about defensive use rather than high-power matches.
Of note, this is the transition to what sociology professor Dave Yamane calls Gun Culture 2.0. He maintains an excellent blog of the same name that deserves a read.
Back on topic. As anyone who has had to carry stuff for long periods will tell you, weight matters. Ounces become pounds, and pounds become
The Effects of Weight
There’s really only two things that come to mind when we talk about the effects of total weight.
I want to be clear here, I’m talking about the total weight of the rifle and everything bolted on to it. Heavier barrels, in isolation, are a slightly different subject that I covered in my article about barrel selection. Those elements have an effect here, but right now I’m just talking about total weight.
First, the heavier a rifle becomes, the more of a pain in the rear it is to carry. I can hear the internet commandos out there right now howling
I can’t remember which trainer it was that said it, but I thought they put it well. “Get stronger” is fine to a point, but we need to think of it differently. If the capability we gain for having a heavier weapon is worth the weight, then let’s do it. Many a grunt will complain about having to lug the 240 around, but nobody will complain about what it brings to the fight.
Carrying a 12lb AR-15 that doesn’t do anything better than a 9lb AR-15, except have more junk bolted to it, is a different story. Pounds add up to pain and are a bigger drain on your physical resources. Don’t make your life more difficult.
For marksmanship, total weight also negatively affects performance, especially from the standing position. One bit of interesting research done in 1997 actually tested this and found that heavier rifles led to greater fluctuations in muscle movement, which negatively affected aiming.
But that’s not the whole story. If that were true all of the time, then why do high power shooters insert weights into their rifles to make them even heavier?
On the other hand, weight does have a benefit to recoil characteristics.
Consider the ballistics of a rifle. I touched on this a bit in the article on velocity and trajectory, but I’ll recap. The recoil you feel as you fire a rifle is the combined energy of the bullet mass and expanding gasses exiting the muzzle away from you, like a small rocket engine. If you increase the mass of the rifle, then it takes more energy to exert force against you. Since the energy of a 5.56 cartridge is relatively stable regardless of the size of the rifle, a heavier rifle absorbs more of that force before you feel anything.
In other words: Heavier rifles mean less felt recoil.
On Rifle Balance
A lot of people talk about how a rifle balances, without ever really discussing what that means. The simple truth is that everyone has a different preference.
Most people find a rifle to be well-balanced when the center of gravity falls in the middle of the weapon. I think that’s a fair description, but I also talk about it in terms of falling between the firing and support hands.
You can shift the balance point of your rifle by adding weight to either the front or the rear. While doing this in either direction adds to the overall weight of the weapon, you might find that doing so also dramatically changes how the rifle feels.
I’ve seen several cases where adding weight to the rifle in the right place actually made it seem lighter and easier to handle.
In general, the rifle feels “livelier” and easier to point as you shift the balance point rearward towards the stock. In weapons with a heavy rearward balance, like bullpups, it’s easy to shoulder and fire the weapon with a single hand.
However, I’ve found that strong rearward balance also makes the muzzle less steady. I recall one particularly frustrating range session with my Recce Rifle equipped with a 2.5-10×32 scope. The reticle of the optic seemed to jump wildly with every little movement. I just couldn’t get it under control.
Conversely, a forward balance helps steady the muzzle and absorb some of these movements. If you’ve read the post on the government profile barrel, I described this as “hang.” Of course, a front-heavy weapon also feels heavier than it actually is. It’s slower to bring to the ready, and slower to move from target to target.
Finding the Middle Ground
You’re going to have to experiment and find what you like. I prefer my AR pattern rifles balance around the front half of the magazine well. I avoid excess weight where I can, but I’m also not silly about skeletonized lightweight parts or anything like that.
Depending on your needs, consider going heavier than a lightweight barrel for some applications. In my post about Recce Rifles, for example, I suggested a medium weight barrel as opposed to a lightweight. I did that precisely because of my experience with “jumpiness” and higher magnification optics. In those circumstances, I’d rather have a little extra weight on the barrel and save weight elsewhere. That also gives just a bit more hang.
Hunting rifles followed this same evolution. For a while, it seemed like everyone was trying to make super light rifles with skinny barrels and flimsy stocks. You can get away with that for a .223, but I would be concerned firing a 7mm mag like that. Recently, I’ve noticed a pivot back to medium-weight barrels and lightweight stocks.
Over to You
Tell me, how often have you considered both weight and balance in your projects? What’s your preferred way of handling it?
Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He’s former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He’s a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.