Perspective on the 16″ vs 20″ Barrel Debate

I’m a regular reader of various gun related message boards. I did most of my learning about the AR-15 platform using these message boards, and used them (to great effect) to improve my part selection when first constructing and upgrading Ascalon. I have noticed a trend in the last few months where more and more people have been building or buying 20″ rifle uppers and rifles. Nearly every one of these new musket owners (including myself, to be honest) have espoused the smooth shooting nature as well as a general grin-inducing level of fun.

It’s usually not long before the “internet experts” chime in that a 20″ is too long and serves no purpose. Many of these guys have the time, money, and freedom to play the NFA game and own several AR-15s in the 10″ to 14″ range, suppressors, maybe even some full auto components. The more balanced minds, which are typically the professional users, simply state that it is best to go with what suits your needs.

Having now spent a lot of time bouncing between a 16″ upper and a 20″ upper, I’m failing to really grasp what the big deal is. I think most people own 16″ AR-15s simply because they are the most common, and it’s the shortest legal barrel length without getting into the NFA game. But when it comes to maneuverability…well, look at this….

That is Ascalon’s upper and the DMTR set next to each other. There is just a hair over 4″ difference between them. I sometimes think that people get wrapped around the axel on just how insignificant 4″ really is when it comes to a weapon that is going to spend it’s life punching holes in paper, or maybe taking a training class or two (for the more serious shooters). Those extra four inches to come with some benefits. There is better ballistic energy, longer gas system, and overall smoother function. That is, in my view, a potentially worthy trade depending on the purpose.

Interestingly, I’ve seen several guys slap suppressors on the end of their 16″ guns, making them longer and heavier than a 20″ (without a can, obviously), and still espouse them as being “handier.”

Now, I can detect a difference between these two uppers as far as the “feel” of the gun when I’m getting into a position and aligning the sights. The extra mass at the end of the barrel does have an effect on the handling. But what I can’t say for certain is if one is clearly better than the other. I think there are too many other variables to account for between the two. The two different handguards feel very different from one another. The optic on one and iron sights on the other also has a similar effect on how the gun is handled and how cheek weld is achieved. I would like to experiment more with nearly identical set ups that differ only in barrel length.

In any case, I can see where the actual experts are coming from. I definitely think there would be a distinct maneuverability advantage to a barrel that was 10, 11, or 12 inches in length over a full size 20″ gun. I can see such a gun being much more useful for clearing buildings on a daily basis or riding around in a vehicle for a significant portion of its life. But, then again, the Marines have done well using M16A4 rifles for clearing structures in the middle east for a while. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but it’s far from impossible.

Don’t take this as me saying that there is no point to the ubiquitous 16″ gun. It’s just that I’m coming to find that too many people are arbitrarily writing off other configurations based upon imaginary criteria. I have seen at least one well-respected shooter and firearms business owner espouse the benefits of having three ARs: one each in 12″, 16″, and 20″ flavor. If I had to carry the gun for long periods of time, or keep a balance between what could be a CQB situation or perimeter defense, and I was given the choice between a full 20″ government upper with optic and a light, or one of my lightweight profile 16″ guns with same optic and light, I would take the 16.” But that’s not being realistic.

I get the appeal of living out personal “bad ass” fantasies. It’s the same kind of thing that milsim airsoft dudes do. Buy all kinds of gucci gear that “the pros” use (or a fascimile of it), take training classes that teach them to use it, feel like a bad ass for a weekend, then go back to their regular lives. If that is where they’re coming from, then of course there is an appeal to wanting shorter and shorter guns. But, let’s look at reality. The vast majority of gun owners will never fire a rifle in anger. Their ARs will leave the safe (if the owner even has one) a few times per year to be fired at a square range from a bench, or maybe running some drills while standing at relatively close range. Some pictures might get taken, and then it goes back in the safe. The gun will be carried pretty much the distance that it takes to go from safe to the car, and from the car to the bench. For this type of user, I can think of no significant difference between owning a 16″ or a 20″ gun. But the latter comes with some benefits as far as capability and shootability go, which would ultimately provide a more positive shooting experience and encourage that individual to do it more.

Buy what suits your needs. If you don’t know your needs, then you need to go practice more.


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