If you plan on assembling your own AR-15 from parts, pretty much everything on the cheap end will be “milspec” with the exception of the barrel and stock (lots of cheap plastic stocks that are the correct dimensions without meeting actual milspec). There are a lot of options, and a huge price range to go with it. I honestly do not recommend a milspec barrel for a Service Rifle build, mainly because they aren’t rigid enough.
Now if you are trying to build a “1/2 MOA rifle” then you should stop reading right now, go buy a White Oak or Compass Lake Engineering upper, and be done with it. If you are like me, and can’t hold 1/2 MOA even when fully slung up in the prone, well feel free to read on…
For the purposes of this post, I’m only talking about 5.56×45 ammo builds for Service rifle. That means an 18″ or 20″ barrel. You can get 18″ barrels with midlength gas system dimensions, but I don’t recommend it. I recommend you stick with a rifle length gas system on a 20″ barrel for Service Rifle competition. If you want to build a “match rifle” on an AR platform, that opens up your caliber options quite a bit and is a bit beyond my personal experience.
Full disclosure, I’ve shot 20″ HBARs from Colt (1:7), Krieger (1:7.7), Criterion (1:8), Bushmaster (1:9), and military 20″ M16A2 barrels made by FN (1:7). I don’t see much difference in accuracy at the 1:7 twist rate no matter if the barrel is naked, stainless, or chrome lined for a barrel that hasn’t been “shot out.” I’ve got barrels from Bear Creek (nitride, standard rifling 1:7, 5.56 chamber), AR Stoner (stainless, 1:8 5r, Wylde chamber), and Anderson (nitride, standard rifling, 1:7, can’t remember chamber) all waiting in the parts pile for when they are needed. The Bear Creek barrel was just put into an upper to give me a dedicated 600 yard prone midrange upper as a match rifle so I don’t have to put more rounds through my service rifle to compete in midrange prone, just swap to a match upper and drive on.
If you have a choice between a Wylde chamber and a 5.56 chamber, the Wylde is the slightly better option. That shouldn’t stop you from building on a 5.56 chambered rifle if it is in your price point and skill level. The 10 ring on a High Power target is 2 minutes, and all of the barrels that I’ve discussed so far are quite capable of slinging a match bullet downrange with groups tighter than 1.5 minutes for ten shots with my budget handloads (the Colt had a 5.56 chamber and let me shoot Expert level scores for at least one match with it).
So…here are some barrels that I recommend for people who want to get into High Power without breaking the bank.
Budget Build Friendly:
Bear Creek Arsenal 20″ 1:7 5.56 nitride (113, on sale for 102)
Bear Creek Arsenal 20″ 1:8 Wylde nitride (112, currently not in stock)
MidwayUSA’s ARStoner brand 1:8 Wylde Stainless 5r (129.99, can be had on sale every once in a while, bought one for my spare pile for 85 dollars on sale).
Yankee Hill Machine 1:7 5.56 melonite 20″ (216.50)
Rock River 1:8 Stainless (235.00)
Criterion 1:8 Wylde chrome lined (269.99)
There are a lot of more expensive options; Wilson, White Oak, Shilen, Krieger, and Faxon, but having a Kreiger on your rifle isn’t going to help you become a better shooter any faster than having a Criterion (for half the price) or an ARStoner stainless barrel is. You get to be a better High Power service rifle shooter by spending your time on the line competing, practicing holds, dry firing, and by the time you are a good enough shooter that you need a Wilson or Krieger, you’ll know it. And if you have juniors starting out, don’t waste the money on a top end barrel, get them a rifle that can stay within 2 minutes with a decent “cross the course” load, and load them up about 5,000 rounds of that load, and have them compete (with a coach if at all possible).
Now, it is possible that you’ll get a bad barrel, or get a barrel that doesn’t like to shoot a load that is good in a different rifle. Sad to say, but it happens now and again. If a normal load workup doesn’t fix the problem, then swap it out with a different barrel, after all you can get an AR Stoner and a Bear Creek together for less than the cost of a Criterion.