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Sports

Looking down the barrel of a rifle

| Friday, Oct. 28, 2005

It's easy to assume a rifle barrel is just a round piece of steel with a hole through it. That's a simple definition, but a rifle barrel is really a complex component of the firearm.

In the beginning, it was just a barrel, and was little more than a round piece of brass or iron with a hole through it. After it was learned that spiral grooves in a bore (called rifling) made a significant impact on accuracy that the word "rifle" came into existence.

The early black powder muskets had smooth bores and could be used with a single projectile or a small charge of some type of pellets. Since flying birds could be hit with a charge of pellets, the name "bird shot" likely became a part of the shooting vocabulary.

With all the early muskets, accuracy was more luck than good shooting. Lead balls were actually pounded down on the powder charge. This deformed them so badly that accuracy was impossible. Even the advent of rifling didn't bring immediate accuracy relief. This came about when It was discovered that a smaller-than-bore diameter ball wrapped in a cloth or leather patch could be loaded easier and would impart a spin to the ball which stabilized it in flight.

The main job of a patch is not to just seal the bore to keep hot gases from escaping around the ball, but the patch grips the ball and, as mentioned, it imparts a spin. Although the patched ball made the black powder rifle accurate to a high degree, it was the advent of the elongated bullet that started the rifle on the road to critical accuracy. How about five shots at 100 yards in less than 100 thousandths of an inch• That's what benchrest shooters are doing today.

It's safe to say that few hunters know what takes place in a rifle barrel when the firing pin strikes the primer and the shot is fired. Maybe there's not much point in thinking about it since all that can be seen is a small flash of fire at the muzzle and a wisp of smoke if the air is clear and cold. Yet in that splintered part of a second from the time the primer ignites the powder and expanding gases push the bullet out of the shell case and through the bore, a lot of important things happen.

The powder charge burns progressively from the rear to the front, creating hot gases that expand in all directions. The cartridge case takes the brunt of the initial force and expands against the chamber walls and the bolt face.

If everything stopped at that moment, the bullet still would be partially in the case or lodged in the barrel. This is not the end. The gases continue to build enormous pressure, and since the bullet has the only escape route, it moves out of the case and out through the bore. The greater the buildup of gases, the higher the velocity.

Probably no one knows exactly how the rifle barrel was born. It probably was an accident.

The Chinese used gunpowder in hand-held rockets, Why not throw a rock instead of a projectile, instead of an exploding flare•

We know gunpowder was used in cannons with wooden barrels wrapped tightly with bands of iron. Even though the powder of that era was relatively weak, the guy setting off the charge feared for his life-and rightfully so. One historian claims many of these "gunners" were intensely religious, and I can understand why.

(Don Lewis is a longtime outdoor writer for the Leader Times and other publications as well as the author of several books. His column appears each Friday in the Leader Times.)

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