Sporter barrels are very common. Manufacturers know they are a good compromise for what people want to do with many of the rifles they sell. In the last 10 years, barrels have trended toward being thicker, but the sporter barrel shouldn’t be overlooked.
A sporter barrel is a rifle barrel that is designed with a taper from a medium thickness in the barrel near the chamber, transitioning to a lighter thickness near the crown. Most bolt-action hunting rifles come equipped with a sporter barrel. Sporter barrels are intended to be used for big game hunting and casual target practice. They are popular for their balance between weight and accuracy.
Is the sporter barrel right for you? It’s essentially a question of your needs. And if you plan to buy a bolt-action rifle from a major retailer, they will be your most available option.
Sporter Barrels are a Type of Barrel Profile
Every barrel has a type of profile, which is more and less a measure of its thickness as it transitions from the back to the front. For uniformity and manufacturing ease, companies will have their rifle barrels be a standard diameter at the rear. This way, all rifle barrels meant for a particular model can be threaded into a standardized receiver (action).
After a few inches, most rifle barrels begin to taper to a smaller profile and continue to do so as they near the muzzle. A barrel that doesn’t taper is known as a full or “bull” profile barrel. This results in a very heavy gun because of the sheer mass of metal the barrel becomes.
A full profile barrel does have some advantages, but because of the weight, they are unwieldy to carry after a short distance. They are also hard to shoot accurately if the front of the rifle isn’t supported against something. To avoid these problems, metal is removed from other barrel profiles.
On the lighter end of the spectrum is the sporter barrel. There are a few standardized profiles of sporter barrels, numbered #1 to #4, but most will taper down to about two-thirds of an inch at the muzzle. This allows for a rifle to have a 22″ barrel and weigh around six to eight pounds.
The thinnest sporter profile is a #1 profile, and sometimes gets referred to as a lightweight sporter barrel. The #4 profile is the heaviest and will often be called a heavy-sporter. Most sporter barrels will taper rapidly in the back third of the barrel, and less toward the muzzle.
This is both stylistic and practical. Weight located near the muzzle will feel heavier than weight close to the action. Any weight that is forward of the support hand in a common shooting stance will be harder for the shooter to control.
There are Other Options
If a person wants a truly light rifle, less than six pounds, there are thinner profiles than a #1 sporter. These barrels though have serious trade-offs as they heat up quickly after a couple of shots. This is fine for most big game hunting but makes the guns almost unusable to target practice. Featherweight rifles need to be dedicated hunting guns.
There are also a number of profile types that are heavier than sporter barrels. The most popular will be the varmint and light-varmint profile. The typical varmint profile will involve a constant taper for the majority of the length of the barrel, but this taper will be minimal.
A true varmint profile barrel is still very heavy.
The light varmint profile has become very popular in the last decade on factory rifles. While there is no exact standard between a varmint and the light varmint variety, the goal of manufacturers is to offer a rifle that is better at target shooting, but still under nine pounds.
The Savage Switchback, reviewed by Backfire here, comes in at 8.25 pounds without an optic. The model tested by us performed poorly, but Savage makes great rifles and certainly better copies exist.
Rifles like the Switchback show there is a market for primarily target shooting, but still aren’t too heavy for stationary hunting. I’d be willing to hike a mile to a blind with a heavier rifle once a year, but I wouldn’t go backpacking with one.
Is the Sporter Right for You?
If you are very new to shooting and looking for your first hunting rifle, the sporter profile barrel is almost certainly the right choice. While there are lighter-weight specialty models available, rifles with sporter barrels can weigh as little as six pounds. They can also weigh as much as eight pounds too.
The sporter profile is a happy medium because it allows for a reasonable amount of target shooting without needing to wait minutes between shots for the rifle to cool down. They are good for range trips where the primary goal is to confirm the gun’s zero and shoot targets at a casual pace.
Shooting through ten rounds or more in a minute will result in a smoking hot gun though. This won’t damage a modern rifle, but it will make it uncomfortable to handle and accuracy will suffer.
Are Sporter Barrels Accurate?
Yes, sporter barrels can be very accurate. The most important part of barrel accuracy is the quality given during the manufacturing process. A well-made sporter barrel will absolutely outshoot a budget varmint barrel.
The benefits of heavier profile barrels can be seen when shooting more ammo in a shorter amount of time. These barrels with more mass will be less prone to throwing fliers as they heat up slower. The extra mass also plays a role in reducing recoil.
What if Hunting isn’t Part of the Plan?
If hunting isn’t something you are interested in, or you are like me and have very few opportunities to hunt, the sporter profile is not the best fit for you. It still isn’t a bad choice, but certainly not the best.
My recommendation would be to start looking at the varmint and target shooting profile barrels. These rifles will weigh more, but that isn’t a serious issue if you drive to where you shoot.
What Barrel Length is Right for me?
The most common barrel length for bolt-action rifles is 22″, and that’s a good do-all length for most people. Rifles chambered in magnum cartridges typically have 24″ barrels, to help them make the most out of higher velocity cartridges.
16″ barrels are the bare minimum allowed by federal law before a rifle needs special licensing. These rifles can be a good choice for cartridges that don’t have lots of velocity potential as they are very maneuverable in the woods.