September 23, 2010
The concept of interchangeable barrels isn't limited to Blaser and Thompson/Center.
During the past few years, rifles with two or more interchangeable barrels have become mildly popular among American hunters and varmint shooters, but they enjoy more use in other countries. In Germany, hunters are required to buy a separate license for each rifle they purchase, but since there is no such requirement on barrels alone, a switch-barrel rifle with several barrels is a logical answer there.
Regardless of the country, I would imagine those who live in small apartments can appreciate a single rifle with, say, three barrels simply because it requires less storage than for three complete rifles. There is also the matter of economics: One rifle with barrels in several calibers is considerably less expensive than individual rifles in the same calibers.
If all its barrels are the same weight and length, a rifle handles and feels very close to the same regardless of which caliber barrel it might be wearing, something that cannot always be said of several rifles — even though they all might be of the same model from the same manufacturer.
Switch-barrel rifles have been around for quite a long time, with Winchester perhaps the first American firearms manufacturer to offer them. Takedown versions of various lever-action rifles once offered by that company could be special-ordered with more than one barrel. One of the nicest I have seen through the years was a heavily engraved Model 94 with fancy wood and barrels in .25-35 Winchester and .30-30 Winchester.
I have never seen a Marlin rifle with more than one barrel, but I have examined several Savage 99s with one barrel in either .22 High Power or .300 Savage and the other chambered for the 21„2-inch .410 shotshell. When wearing the rifle barrel, the Savage Combination Rifle/Shotgun, as it was called, worked like any other Model 99, but since its rotary magazine was incapable of handling the .410 shotshell, installation of the smoothbore barrel made it a single-shot.
Switching the barrels of those early Winchester and Savage rifles took very little time, and no special tools were required, so they belong to the quick-switch group. Today's quick-switch factory rifles are represented by bolt-actions such as the Blaser R93, the Merkel KR1, the Sako Quad and the Challenger from Chapuis Armes.
The single-shot Contender and Encore rifles from Thompson/Center probably also belong here. The AR-15/M16 could be described as a quick-switch design, although in its case complete upper assemblies are usually switched rather than barrels.
Then we have the slow-switch group of rifles. They differ mainly by usually requiring removal of their stocks in order to change barrels. An exception is a varmint or target rifle wearing a heavy barrel with little or no taper. If the channel in the stock is a bit larger than the diameter of the barrel, it can be removed without removing the stock.
The unique barrel-attachment design shared by the Ruger 10/22 and 77/22 makes barrel removal easy, and as thousands of shooters know first-hand, it also makes them excellent candidates for switch-barrel rifles.
I have a 10/22 built by Tom Volquartsen with barrels in .22 Short, .22 Long Rifle and .17 HM2, and it is more fun than you can imagine. That particular conversion requires three bolts weighted specifically for each cartridge, and the .22 Short also requires modification of the 10/22 magazine. The Fusion, which is built by Volquartsen from scratch around his own action, is of quick-switch design with barrels in .17 HMR and .22 WMR.
Nothing typifies the modern quick-switch barrel system in America better than the T/C Encore and Contender rifles.
I have no idea who came up with the idea of converting a standard bolt-action rifle to switch-barrel configuration, but I do know that benchrest shooters are the ones who popularized it. Rifles capable of winning matches in that game have always been expensive, so to save serious dollars some competitors use the same rifle in more than one class.
An example would be using one rifle to compete in both Light Varmint and Heavy Varmint classes where the only difference is in maximum rifle weights allowed. By switching to a lighter barrel, the weight of a Heavy Varmint rifle is reduced enough to allow it to be shot in Light Varmint class where maximum weight is 101„2 pounds.
When barrels are installed at various factories, they are usually tightened with so much torque it takes a heavy-duty action wrench and barrel vise to remove them. Some are so tight they require the use of a 800-pound gorilla with cheater bar on the wrench to break them loose.
An action wrench used for removing factory barrels is more like a heavy-duty vise that clamps around the outside of the receiver ring. Also required is a special barrel vise that can cost several hundred dollars. Those are not needed for a switch-barrel rifle.
The barrel of a switch-barrel rifle is tightened just enough to prevent it from becoming loose during normal use and nowhere near as tightly as the typical factory-installed barrel. For this reason, tools used to switch barrels are of lighter duty and far less expensive.
Benchrest shooters prefer custom actions such as the Hall and the Stolle, but the Remington family which includes the Models 700, 600, Seven, XP-100 and 40X are the most popular among big game hunters and varmint shooters who use switch-barrel rifles.
The best wrench to use on the various Remington actions is the Davidson rear-entry type; it fits snugly inside the receiver over the full lengths of the bolt raceways. Sinclair International sells the action wrench and a Davidson barrel vise for less than $100. Other nice-to-have but not absolutely necessary items are a vinyl bag with a padded lining made specifically for storing a barrel and a Delrin cap for protecting its threads, both available from Sinclair for $15.
Side-entry wrenches designed to reach through the ejection port to engage a short section of the bolt raceways are available for some actions, and while they seem to work as well as a rear-entry wrench, using one makes me nervous because it seems to place more stress on the receiver. Even so, I know people who use them with complete satisfaction.
When fitting a barrel to a switch-barrel gun, a gunsmith who spec
ializes in them knows how much torque to apply for trouble-free use of the rifle. Benchrest shooters tighten barrels by feel, but they are accustomed to working with switch-barrel rifles — plus their rifles are not subjected to the hard knocks of hunting.
I highly recommend having witness marks applied on the barrel and receiver by the gunsmith who fits the barrel; when installing the barrel, simply tighten it until the two marks are in alignment and you are set to go.
The unique barrel attachment design of the Ruger 10/22 makes it a great candidate for a switch-barrel rimfire system.
The Savage 110/111/112 series is also popular among barrel-switchers. When the Savage action is assembled at the factory, its barrel is first screwed into the receiver to the desired headspace and then secured in position by a large lock nut. Ease of barrel removal makes it a natural for a switch-barrel rifle. Wrenches that fit both the old grooved style of nut as well as the new smooth style are available from Brownells.
A standard scope mount works fine on a rifle with barrels used for the same purpose such as big game hunting in open country. One of my custom Mauser rifles has barrels in .270 Winchester and .338-06, and the 2-7X scope it wears works fine with both calibers.
I use the same 1.5-6X scope on my Remington Model Seven when using it with most of its barrels, but I switch to a 6-24X scope when shooting varmints with its .22-250 Improved barrel, so that rifle wears a quick-detachable mount.
Since the action is usually the most expensive part of a rifle, switching both barrels and stocks is an option worthy of consideration. A friend of mine built a switch-barrel rifle around a short Remington 700 action, and he uses it for all of his deer hunting and groundhog shooting.
During summer, his rifle wears a 6-18X scope, a heavy barrel in .22-250 and a stock with a wide, flat-bottom fore-end that's perfect for shooting over sandbags. During winter, the same rifle is equipped with a 2.5-8X scope, a light barrel in 7mm-08 Remington and a lightweight stock.
The barrel nut on the Savage action lends itself to having interchangeable barrels and is popular for those who want to have a switch-barrel rifle built.
There is also no law against having a switch-barrel rifle with more than one bolt. The Remington 700 with the red stock you see in the photos has two bolts and barrels in .223 Remington, .22-250, .260 Remington and 6.5 Creedmoor. An extra bolt is not always easy to come by, but a bit of serious searching will eventually turn one up.
Prior to writing this article I had not thought about the number of switch-barrel rifles I have accumulated over the years. Before he moved to California to become famous for building fine double rifles, Butch Searcy built for me a rifle on the 98 Mauser action with barrels in .270 Winchester and .338-06.
When Kenny Jarrett put together the very first rifle ever built in 7mm STW back in 1987, I had him also fit a second barrel in .416 Remington Magnum to its Model 700 action.
Through the years I became the owner of three other switch-barrel guns built by Jarrett. One, on the Remington Model Seven action, has a McMillan stock and barrels in .22-250 Improved, .243 Improved, 6.5x52 American, 7mm-08 Improved, .308 Winchester and .338 Federal. I have taken deer with five of those barrels and also a nice black bear with the .308. Another rifle on the Model 700 action has barrels in 7mm STW and .358 STA (I used it to take by first brown bear in Alaska).
Switch-barrel rifles don't come that way from the factory; they're fitted by a gunsmith. Once done, though, the user can swap barrels with the use of a vise and a few other tools.
My Weatherby Varmint Master left the factory in .22-250, but back in the 1970s Wally Siebert modified it to handle a wildcat on the .308 Winchester case I called the 7mm SGLC. Shortly thereafter, I took it to Rhodesia and bumped off various and sundry antelope up to the size of sable and greater kudu. I later added a barrel in .250 Savage Improved, so I have three barrels for that rifle.
And of course, there's my Encore with a number of barrels from T/C and SSK industries in calibers ranging from .220 Swift and 6mm-06 to 9.3x74R and .416 Rigby. And I must not overlook my rail gun; it has two bolts and several barrels in calibers ranging from .223 Remington to .308 Winchester.
The switch-barrel rifle is like the peanut and the potato chip; once you try one you will likely want another. And another.
The availability of an action wrench that enters the Remington Model 700 receiver from the rear makes it ideal for a switch-barrel conversion.