Free Floating Barrels: Panacea or Pain-In-The Neck?
By Don Bitz - Owner - Stocky's Stocks
We get a lot of calls before and after the point of sale debating the relative merits and pitfalls of a stock that does not touch the barrel. The term "free floating barrel" seems to have become synonymous with accuracy in some circles. Many of the top gunsmiths build their rifles free floated so are vocal proponents of it. Gun manufacturers rarely do, including Remington, Winchester and Weatherby. In fact, if you free-float your Weatherby, they may not honor your Sub-MOA (or 1.5 MOA) Guarantee free-floated, so regardless of what anyone states to the contrary there is some basis for trying tip pressure in your quest for that one-holer.
Our observations and recommendations apply to literally every stock on the market, aluminum, composite or wood, factory or aftermarket, no matter what the ads or 'conventional wisdom' says. Here are the two questions we always get ...
Q. Will my particular barrel free float in the aftermarket stock out of the box?
A1. First off -is the stock you want designed to free float the barrel out of the box? Bell & Carlson Weatherby's are not, they all have the forend pads as per Ed Weatherby. Same with the 700 Alaskans. Ditto the Remington / S&K overstocks (we omit them on the stocks we have made for us.) If you are concerned about this ask your salesperson to go back into our warehouse, open the box and look before they ship it to you. Bear in mind that even if the forend pressure pads are present, they are easily removed. Also bear in mind that they are present for a reason, usually factory specification.
A2. If the factory claims it will; and most do, the answer is maybe, but don't bet on it. For a variety of reasons we see this, 99% of them relating to your individual rifle, so don't blame the stock. I prove this to customers constantly by putting one of my blueprinted, concentrically rebarreled rifles in to the stock that's being accused. I'll show you photos.
The Straight Answer: So the correct answer is "it will if the stock is designed that way, your barreled action is concentric and your barrel is dead-straight." (Note, simply because everything may not be on perfect centers in your barreled action, it still may shoot great.) If it does not sit in the center of the barrel channel, today's stocks are made to such good tolerances as a rule, it might be time to get an accuracy job. Do it with a experienced riflesmith, not the fellow that does pistols, AR's and AK's for a living. We have a list we can suggest, if you don't have someone you know, call.
The issue seems to be barrels that are mass produced and hastily threaded cockeyed or off center. Believe it or not almost every factory barrel has a curve or bend to it, in fact mass produced barrels are more often than not less-than perfectly straight. That's why customs cost mid-five figures and some factory rifles are $399, they are not the same. I have purchased and worked with brand-new 'Custom / Super Grades' that shot worse than some of the one's I picked up for 1/4 of the price however, and it is not at all related to how straight the barrel was bored. Some shooters swear the $150 barrels will shoot as well as the $750 barrels, but they are not held to the same manufacturing practices even if they are more precise. Fact is, if the barrel has a good crown and is bored reasonably straight one has every right to expect very nice groups. No, the issue we are discussing here is mostly related to looks.
Bobby Hart explains that when the barrel is screwed into the receiver with the bend pointing upward, it is not usually a problem aesthetically (up is preferred to make longer distances available in the scope adjustments), but curving to the left or right things will be visibly non-concentric in the channel. When he does an accuracy job on a factory rifle he makes sure 'up' is the case. Wade Dunn at Bell & Carlson similarly confirms that not all rifles are assembled equal, we had a discussion about this just last fall summer when I paid them a visit. I remember one particularly insistent customer a few years ago that send Wade the new stock and their rifle that they swore up and down and at great volume was 'perfect.' One guess at the outcome.
With all the vertical scope adjustment used up, it still indicated shots would be extremely low. We're talking feet, not inches. I figured there must be something with the boresighter because it was brand new, so I took it to the range anyway. Was not even on the 36" cardboard backer at 25 yards, which meant at least a foot low. Wow.
Remington Service indicated it must be my scope mounts so they sent me a new set of rings and bases. No difference. I do not recall what else they suggested I try, but I'm sure they thought I was nuts. So I tried a different tactic - I called their nearest official warranty center, Paducah Shooter's Supply, told them the tale and made arrangements to send them the rifle.
Turns out the receiver was threaded very much off center, (see illustration, bottom example) so the barrel was pointing downward, enough to put me well off the paper at 25 yards (accounting for the internal scope adjustment) in this case. Needless to say, following their evaluation, they got me a brand new, test fired rifle albeit a year later. That was a first for me, and an extreme example I'm certain. Moral of the story is " don't blame the stock" until all the facts are in. This observation has been noted by several accuracy professionals I have spoken with, but usually not nearly to this extreme. It should also be noted that, had it been possible to get them on the paper, the groups may have been perfectly acceptable albeit low. Looking back, several of the more perplexing issues I have faced over the years may have well been traced back to this.
Q. Can you free float your barrel in the aftermarket stock?
A1. Yes, but as mentioned above to get the barrel in the exact center of the barrel channel you will most likely have to bed the receiver and first few inches of the barrel at a minimum. This is usually best accomplished before one does the barrel channel, because the pressure pads will keep everything in the middle while the epoxy cures. Wait a day after bedding, and open the channel up for the barrel to float the desired amount. To attempt to float a barrel that has not been bedded in the center of the stock will often be OK, just bear in mind to may want to bed it at some point so it is permantly centered.
If you have purchased a free-floating type stock, or have already floated your barrel, wrap enough blue tape around the barrel (at several points preferably) to keep it centered while doing the epoxy receiver job. Once the epoxy cures, take off the tape and the barrel should float evenly, but feel free to make any adjustments to the channel you feel necessary now, knowing the receiver is firmly planted in the right place.
So, one has to ask, "What's up with that?" Who is right, the factory with the pressure pads or not? The answer to that question is a very confusing, "They both are, depends on the rifle." After mounting countless stocks and speaking to countless others that have mounted our stocks over the years I am happy to offer some important observations.
Historical Experience Over Tens of Thousands of Stocks
I started my accuracy quest from a time (early 1970's) where there were no stocks supplied on factory rifles that were not hardwood, either walnut or birch. Most of the writers in that day were singing the praises of handloading and "fiberglass" bedding. Back in those days it was not only the receiver that got the goop, but the barrel too. Wood warps it was explained, if you didn't do the channel it wouldn't shoot to the same place week after next. So I did, religiously. I quickly earned the reputation as the go-to guy in my town for accuracy and was recruited into bedding everyone's stock for my proven "100% even tang-to-tip" method. No upward barrel pressure, just a perfect mold of the barreled action in the stock. That and a trigger job was just what the doctor ordered for factory rifle accuracy.
To a rifle they shot like a house afire this way. I cannot remember one single rifle that shot worse, sporter or varmint. I did a M77 Varmint Swift that was a 3/8" shooter when I was done. Most sporters were in the 1/2" to 3/4" range with my recommended loads. I had a .300 Win Mag that would drop a 'chuck farther than I care to say in writing, and my 1972 Win 70 .25-06 24" barreled sporter (remember that hooded front sight?) shot even better. For the years that followed, same deal. I still do all of my personal rifles, and those of my pals, the same way regardless of the barrel weight. So was a lesson learned almost 40 years ago.
Laws Of Physics & Other Theories
Just pause to consider the physics of all this for a moment. If you take a long, skinny tuning fork (or your barrel held by the receiver for that matter) and whack it while holding it floating freely in the air, observe the tip(s) oscillation for a relatively considerable length of time. If this was your shot the bullet could randomly exit anywhere in that muzzle's vibration pattern for several reasons, all translating to a slightly different point of impact several hundred yards out. What are the chances that the next bullet exits at precisely the same position? Remote. This is a big part of the reason that, even if you held your rifle in a vise, it still would not shoot through the same hole time after time.
Now take a short fat fork or barrel and do the same. Almost imperceptible vibration, certainly less than the long one. Plus you have to whack it a heck of a lot harder to get anything at all. Free floating would be fine for this example because it vibrates much less that the skinny fork. Less vibration = smaller groups. Shorter, thicker barrels are stiffer than long, shinny sporters and therefore have better accuracy potential all else equal. Ditto smaller, less violent cartridges, that's why the world records are held by 30 lb.+ rifles shooting tiny bullets well under maximum pressures. Barrel vibration from those rifles is a non-factor.
Now take the long skinny tuning fork and cradle the fork(s) in your palm and whack it. Hardly vibrated at all, no? This simulates 100% even contact. Now take it, whack it on a table and press the tip on the table while it's humming. It will recoil quite violently away from the table, but if held there with some force (pressure) it settles down rather quickly but not quite as fast as the cradled example. This simulates forend pressure, and will reveal why rifles so designed typically string certain groups, and also is a good indication for one reason you're getting 'fliers', shots falling away from otherwise decent groups. But guess what, if we put opposing forend bumps in certain stocks they will keep the barrel centered aesthetically and that is the primary reason factories do so, not accuracy. Fact is, some rifles like them, some tolerate them and others do not. Experimentation is the only way to tell, no matter what anyone tells you.
Practically speaking, epoxy bedding the whole shebang is a lot of work, at least more than most folks are willing to do or pay for nowadays. That, plus the fact that epoxy bedding is a somewhat messy business, means the easiest thing to do these days is a "skim bedded' receiver and floated barrel, and acceptable if not ideal results are had by most. To be sure, one would have to bed the same gun several times (floated, forend pressure of various amounts and 100% even) and test fire hundreds of rounds on varying days with each bed to reach any meaningful conclusions, and conclusions may be drawn only on a load-by-load basis. Twenty-plus years ago knowledgeable shooters would spend hours upon hours tediously working up and testing load after load after load. Their rifles usually wore epoxy bedded walnut. Today, not so much. Many shooters generally 'don't want to touch a thing', expecting half-minute groups with their favorite advertised factory ammo and factory fresh .338. I expect most see it "not so much" at least without help. Frankly, not wanting to 'touch a thing' deprives these forks a great deal of enjoyment the shooting sports have to offer. Show me a guy with an epoxy-bedded rifle shooting his own select hand-loaded ammo and I'll show you a guy to be feared by man and beast from a very long way away.
It is no accident I say "skim bed and float," and not just "float". You will see with experience that almost every rifle must be individually bedded to get a reliable center-of-barrel-channel free float, but regardless of where the barrel is or is not asthetically you will almost always find significant improvement in accuracy and reliability with a precision aftermarket stock. I heartily recommend, before you consider any alternatives, just take it to the range and shoote it! You may find that you don't want to touch a thing ...
About Stocky's Stocks
Did you know that not so long ago it was almost impossible to find the right aftermarket riflestock? Stocky'swas originally founded as an online community of like-minded "gunstock folks" determined to promote, enhance, and expand the enjoyment of the art and science of accessorizing modern rifles and shotguns. Stocky's is staffed with professionals whose focus is not only on the experienced shooter, but also on keeping it simple enough for the average shooter with a normal amount of experience in the field. When you shop atStocky's you can be sure that your confidence in us will be invested right back into research and development (as you may have noticed) to bring you the best stocks in the world for less - we view it simply as our way of repaying you for your support.