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How Do You Break In Your Barrels, and Should You Bother?

How do you break in your barrels? Is it even worth it? The BullShooters investigate.

Recently, I had my .280 Ackley rebarreled with a 26” stainless blank from Lilja. It was a great all-around rifle with the 24” Douglas barrel that it wore for 10+ years, but now I have a larger selection of big game rifles to choose from and I wanted something that filled a more specific niche. This rifle is to be used to send 140 gr. bullets as fast as I can push them while maintaining accuracy, for hunting deer in wide-open spaces. Essentially, I’ve always wondered what the rifle would do with a 26” barrel and it was time to find out. Practical? No. It’s my money (no, I don’t get free barrels).

The Background
The process of breaking-in a new barrel is designed to remove any burrs, imperfections, or other abnormalities caused by the chambering process. Premium barrels such as this Lilja are hand-lapped and inspected by the manufacturer so they are free from imperfections when they leave their shop. The problem is that your gunmaker is going to take a chambering reamer covered in lube and force it into that pristine barrel in the lathe. When steel is spinning, the reamer is cutting, and metal chips are flowing, things can get scratched or gouged. Breaking-in the barrel is designed to remove those imperfections via high velocity bullets. The bullet burnishes the hard edges as it impacts them, and constantly cleaning the bore means the bullet it hitting raw steel, not copper fouling

The Process
Every barrel maker has their own recommendation for break-in but they’re all similar: the barrel is shot and then cleaned at various increasing intervals. This is my method:

• Clean the bore when it arrives, the rifle has likely been test-fired, so it has some fouling already. Always use a bore guide and a high-quality one-piece rod such as a coated Dewey. You’ll also need a good copper solvent (Lilja recommends Butch’s Bore Shine), a bronze or nylon brush (never steel) and a pile of patches.

• Fire one shot and follow the solvent’s instructions until the barrel is totally free of copper, this will take forever and will likely cause you to use foul language (especially if your bronze brush falls into the sand and you have to revert to using only patches—ask me how I know).

You can literally see the copper fouling in this barrel.

• Fire another round and clean, repeat for 10-12 rounds.

This barrel is still showing indications of copper, better keep scrubbing.

• Fire three rounds and clean, the barrel should be getting easier to clean.
• Repeat for 5 or so groups and then clean every 10 to 12 rounds until you get about 50 to 60 rounds.

Breaking-in a new barrel is a time-consuming process.

By now, the barrel should clean pretty easily and you’ll have bunch of fired brass to handload with. I use mild loads (book minimums) for break-in for a variety of reasons: light recoil, less heat, and less barrel erosion. I also use whatever the cheapest jacketed bullets are that I have for that caliber, but I don’t recommend monolithic bullets for break-in.

Is it worth it? Every premium barrel maker that I have ever purchased a barrel from (Kreiger, Lilja, etc.) has recommended breaking-in their barrels. That said, a few days after I finished this process, I ran into custom rifle builder Charlie Sisk at J. Guthrie’s memorial service. I asked him what he thought of the process and his reply was essentially that it’s a waste of time and ammo.

“I shoot a custom barrel until the fouling causes the accuracy to deteriorate and then I clean it," he said. "A properly-chambered barrel won’t have any problems and the barrel itself has already been lapped.”

Charlie builds some very accurate rifles and knows far more than I do on the subject so I wasn’t about to argue with him. Candidly, it’s hard to prove an outcome in a quantifiable way without testing a whole pile of identical barrels. This isn’t going to happen so I follow the instructions of the guys who have produced tens of thousands of barrels with their names stamped on them. For me, it’s worth it since it allows me to get to know the rifle, get the scope more-or-less zeroed, and produce a bunch of brass that I can neck-size. Besides, how often do you get a new custom barrel?

My Conclusion
As long as you do it correctly, it can’t hurt and could give you an accuracy edge. You can’t go wrong taking the advice of barrel makers and benchrest shooters. Then again, does it make any difference you’d notice on a big game rifle? I seriously doubt it. It’s still a free country, you decide.

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12 Responses to How Do You Break In Your Barrels, and Should You Bother?

Jim wrote:
April 17, 2014

All my guns, rifles, shotguns, muzzleloaders. I do it a little different and have for the past 50 years or so. A new barrel/gun (new to me could be a used barrel/gun), I take a wirebrush (for each caliber) and wrap 0000 steel wool around it and soak it with oil (3in1 works) and from the breech run it down the barrel (unscrew the wirebrush at the muzzel) for a bout a dozen strokes. I clean the barrel and fire 5-10 rounds and repeat the 0000 steel wool process and cleaning... Good to go after that, only regular cleaning from then on... I clean with Hopes #9...

Robert Moseley wrote:
June 06, 2013

I use Tony Boyer's method(Maybe the best benchrest shooter ever). It is found in his book THE BOOK OF RIFLE ACCURACY. Clean barrel and the push wet patch with LockEase which is a graphited lock fluid through barrel . He shoots 20 shots without cleaning, I only shoot 10. Works like a champ. And not all that work. I used 3in1 oil for a long time. Wet barrel and fire a shot and clean. Usually 4 shots would do it. Now I use the Boyer method. I shot NBRSA for 20 years and have tried them all.

RickP wrote:
June 06, 2013

I have not tried it yet. Savage has instructions on their page how to do it, yet Rock river arms doesn't recommend it.

KW wrote:
May 31, 2013

Gary- I guess the point is that we could quantify the benefit of breaking-in a barrel so the choice is left to the reader. Barrel break-in has nothing to do with 'taking care of one's equipment'. You may want to re-read the 'background' section.

Eddie Rabbitt wrote:
May 30, 2013

If I spend $500 on a new rifle, shouldnt the manufacturer break it in for me???

emkay wrote:
May 30, 2013

I want my 3 minutes back...

Jimmy wrote:
May 30, 2013

I dip my bullet (just the tip) into Brownell's lapping compound and fire a few rounds, 5 to 10, this way. Then clean the bore. Then a few more and repeat the clean. My guns all shoot very well after this and are easy to clean as the bore looks polished. into Brownell's lapping compound

Gary Mayo wrote:
May 29, 2013

I read the article, and I am left not knowing what the writer wants his readers to do? Addressing it both ways and then leaving the question open, is like watching a movie with an unfinished ending. For me, if you take care of your equipment, it will work the next time you need it. Save corrosive ammo for a rainy day which we all hope never comes, clean your firearms till the patches come out clean, and oil stuff up good, real good it you are putting the gun up for an extended time. Store in low humidity. Walk through an old Ma & Pa gun store, and you will see examples of old guns not cared for over the years, sad old Winchesters neglected without proper care. You will also see examples of well cared for guns. Now is the time you decide how your collection will look like in 20 years. NRA has a line of cleaning products made by Mil Comm that is very good. Check them out at http://www.nraguncare.com/ Gary Mayo NRA Certified Instructor 8330274, NRA Endowment member.

PJ PEREZ wrote:
May 29, 2013

This is the best way

KW wrote:
May 29, 2013

I've never heard of it for muzzleloaders or slug guns, especially with sabots. 'Seasoning' a muzzleloader barrel for use with lead balls/ bullets may be a different story.

Mike Douglas wrote:
May 28, 2013

Is this true for slug guns and muzzle loaders? I'm using sabots in both.

model seventy wrote:
May 28, 2013

I performed this on my Winchester model 70 in 30-06 I can't tell you if he made it more accurate but I think it made it much easier to clean. Thanks for the article.