Which type of steel do you pick for a rifle barrel? Is it the allure of a well-toned, blued barrel or the equally attractive allure of a bright, stainless steel barrel?
Appearance is the first difference you’ll note in comparing blued steel and stainless steel rifle barrels.
It comes down to eye appeal for many, with a few subtle details that can aid in the decision of which type of steel to choose for a rifle.
Why Blued Steel?
Blued steel is a traditional rifle material. It is durable, holds a finish that can gradually change to a fine patina over the years, and was originally introduced as a rust inhibitor.
The Benefits of Stainless Steel
Stainless steel has its own unique functionality. The metal of choice for saltwater fishing applications, its corrosion resistance is legendary. You won’t worry about rust with a stainless steel rifle barrel.
Which is Best?
The debate comes down to aesthetics for most hunters. A blued barrel accented by a dark walnut stock is a thing of beauty. Old guns, dating back to the early 20th century have a look that just can’t be replicated.
In the modern era, synthetic stocks offer ease of use, long-lasting durability, and remove any chance of warping. Add a stainless steel barrel to a high-tech avant-garde stock and you have a futuristic firearm that has a following of its own.
What Are the Advantages of Each?
Stepping away from the look of a rifle, and moving to the all-important realm of function, which one is the best choice?
There are adherents in both camps. Fans of blued barrels make the argument that tradition, durability, and longevity prove blued steel is the better material.
Fans of blued barrels claim they handle the heat generated on the shooting range from repeated firings better than a stainless steel barrel.
The one overriding advantage that blued steel has is heat dissipation. Blued barrels have a much higher threshold in maintaining accuracy in extremes of hot and cold.
Fans of stainless steel rightfully claim that the harder stainless steel material can be machined with deeper, more accurate rifling, in theory increasing accuracy.
That is in theory, extensive tests on shooting ranges don’t always support that statement.
Physically, stainless steel does not heat up as quickly as a blued barrel does, making it more accurate over time while sighting in a rifle, a process that sometimes takes a couple of boxes of shells over a few hours, and several dozen shots.
What Does the Military Prefer?
Heat may build up slower with stainless steel than with a blued barrel on the civilian shooting range, but the military has different standards they follow with barrel specifics.
In full automatic fire, a blued barrel handles the extreme temperature much better. It seems difficult to believe, but a machine gun, in fully automatic mode, can create heat of 700 degrees Fahrenheit in the barrel.
The term “fire until the barrel melted down” isn’t far from the truth.
During World War II when air-cooled machine guns became a standard military feature, they eventually came with heavy asbestos-laden gloves so the gunner and assistant gunner could exchange a hot barrel for a cool one.
The US Army experimented with both stainless steel and blued steel barrels and decided on blued steel because of its greater capacity to retain specifications during periods of heavy, full-automatic fire.
Which is Better in Extreme Weather?
Another heat-related issue this is often related to by hunters in Alaska, and late-season elk, moose, and deer hunters in Wyoming and Montana is the ability of blued steel to handle cold better than stainless steel.
There is only anecdotal evidence, nothing available has been reproduced in a laboratory setting, but cold temperatures, down to 40 below zero Fahrenheit doesn’t affect blued steel but can cause a stainless steel barrel to split when a round is fired.
Hunters and shooters who have worked in these extremes claim the sudden surge in heat from firing a round with a gun chilled to -40 creates such a great temperature change that stainless steel can’t handle it.
Take this one with a grain of salt since as of this date no lab or engineering firm has tested this scientifically.
Which Reflects the Most Light?
Visibility is an issue in hunting, and especially in military usage. Being seen by your four-legged prey, or your two-legged adversary isn’t a good thing.
A blued barrel doesn’t reflect light at a high level. The same can’t be said of a bright, well-polished stainless steel barrel.
The glint of light reflecting off a gun barrel is often a highlight of old western movies. It can be the difference between a trophy hunt, and yet another story of “the one that got away.”
In a combat situation, the reflection off a rifle barrel can be deadly, giving away your position with no strategic advantage developed.
Which Prevents Rust?
A final topic between blued steel and stainless steel barrels comes in using it in a wet setting. Most hunters don’t spend weeks or months stalking game in rain and snow. Soldiers and Marines can’t always say that.
A retired Navy Seal lived next door to me for several years. Pete and I became friends and often spoke of his days in Vietnam. He spent much of his time on “river duty” as he called it, checking boats for smuggled weapons and explosives.
I asked him one day his weapon of choice while serving in Vietnam. Without hesitation, Dave said, “A 12 gauge Remington 870 stainless steel pump, without the plug.”
He went on to describe how it functioned in the wet conditions of the rainy season in Vietnam and handled the humidity of tropical rivers without an issue.
In a similar story, Dave, an M60 gunner in the Central Highlands of Vietnam in 1969 related how in one firefight only one M60 was able to fire, the other two with his unit had rusted mechanisms.
They forced open the mechanism, oiled the parts, and practiced weapon hygiene after that, but the elements won that initial battle.
The message is that if you hunt in areas near the coast, a stainless steel rifle barrel might be in order.
Blued steel was invented to reduce rust, but the constant influx of salt and sand found in areas near the ocean is often too much for even the most well-maintained blued steel barrel to handle.
If you nick a blued steel barrel, it can act as an entry point for rust.
For most hunting applications, there is not an appreciable difference in performance between blued steel and stainless steel.
Personal choice, the ability to withstand heat extremes, and corrosion resistance are the arguments you should consider in determining which one you prefer.