Rifling refers to the helix-shaped pattern in the barrel of a firearm, which imparts a spin to a projectile around its long axis. This spin serves to gyroscopically stabilize the projectile, improving its aerodynamic stability and accuracy.
Rifling is described by its twist rate, which indicates the distance the bullet must travel to complete one full revolution, such as "1 turn in 10 inches" (1:10 inches), or "1 turn in 30 cm" (1:30 cm). A shorter distance indicates a "faster" twist, meaning that for a given velocity the projectile will be rotating at a higher spin rate.
A combination of the weight, length and shape of a projectile determines the twist rate needed to stabilize it - barrels intended for short, large-diameter projectiles like spherical lead balls require a very low twist rate, such as 1 turn in 48 inches (122 cm). Barrels intended for long, small-diameter bullets, such as the ultra-low-drag, 80-grain 0.224 inch bullets (5.2 g, 5.56 mm), use twist rates of 1 turn in 8 inches (20 cm) or faster.
In some cases, rifling will have twist rates that increases down the length of the barrel, called a gain twist; a twist rate that decreases from breech to muzzle is undesirable, as it cannot reliably stabilize the bullet as it travels down the bore. Extremely long projectiles such as flechettes may require impractically high twist rates; these projectiles must be inherently stable, and are often fired from a smoothbore barrel.
Most rifling is created by either:
The grooves are the spaces that are cut out, and the resulting ridges are called "lands". These lands and grooves can vary in number, depth, shape, direction of twist ("right" or "left"), and "twist rate" (turns per unit of barrel length). The spin imparted by rifling significantly improves the stability of the projectile, improving both range and accuracy. Typically rifling is a constant rate down the barrel, usually measured by the length of travel required to produce a single turn. Occasionally firearms are encountered with a gain twist, where the rate of spin increases from chamber to muzzle. While intentional gain twists are rare, due to manufacturing variance, a slight gain twist is in fact fairly common. Since a reduction in twist rate is very detrimental to accuracy, gunsmiths who are machining a new barrel from a rifled blank will often measure the twist carefully so they may put the faster rate, no matter how minute the difference is, at the muzzle end (see internal ballistics for more information on accuracy and bore characteristics).
A barrel of circular cross-section is not capable of imparting a spin to a projectile, so a rifled barrel has a non-circular cross-section. Typically the rifled barrel contains one or more grooves that run down its length, giving it a cross-section resembling a gear, though it can also take the shape of a polygon, usually with rounded corners. Since the barrel is not circular in cross-section, it cannot be accurately described with a single diameter. Rifled bores may be described by the bore diameter (the diameter across the lands or high points in the rifling), or by groove diameter (the diameter across the grooves or low points in the rifling.) Differences in naming conventions for cartridges can cause confusion; for example, the .303 British is actually slightly larger in diameter than the .308 Winchester, because the ".303" refers to the bore diameter in inches, while the ".308" refers to the groove diameter in inches (7.70 mm and 7.82 mm, respectively.)
Despite differences in form, the common goal of rifling is to deliver the projectile accurately to the target. In addition to imparting the spin to the bullet, the barrel must hold the projectile securely and concentrically as it travels down the barrel. This requires that the rifling meet a number of tasks:
When the projectile is swaged into the rifling, it takes on a mirror image of the rifing, as the lands push into the projectile in a process called engraving. Engraving takes on not only the major features of the bore, such as the lands and grooves, but also minor features, like scratches and tool marks. The relationship between the bore characteristics and the engraving on the projectile are often used in forensic ballistics.
In breech-loading firearms, the task of seating the projectile into the rifling is handled by the throat of the chamber. Next is the freebore, which is the portion of the throat down which the projectile travels before the rifling starts. The last section of the throat is the throat angle, where the throat transitions into the rifled barrel.
The throat is usually sized slightly larger than the projectile, so the loaded cartridge can be inserted and removed easily, but the throat should be as close as practical to the groove diameter of the barrel. Upon firing, the projectile expands under the pressure from the chamber, and obturates to fit the throat. The bullet then travels down the throat and engages the rifling, where it is engraved, and begins to spin. Engraving the projectile requires a significant amount of force, and in some firearms there is a significant amount of freebore, which helps keep chamber pressures low by allowing the propellant gases to expand before being required to engrave the projectile. Best accuracy, however, is typically provided with a minimum of freebore, maximizing the changes that the projectile will enter the rifling without distortion.
George Greenhill, a mathematician at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, UK, developed a rule of thumb for use in calculating twist rates for a given lead-core bullet. The formula, named the Greenhill Formula in his honour, is:
The original value of C was 150, which yields a twist rate in inches per turn, when given the diameter D and the length L of the bullet in inches. This works to velocities of about 840 m/s (2800 ft/s); above those velocities, a C of 180 should be used. For instance, with a velocity of 600 m/s (2000 ft/s), a diameter of and a length of , the Greenhill formula would give a value of 30, which means 1 turn in .
If an insufficient twist rate is used, the bullet will begin to yaw and then tumble; this is usually seen as "keyholing", where bullets leave elongated holes in the target as they strike at an angle. Once the bullet starts to yaw, any hope of accuracy is lost, as the bullet will begin to veer off in random directions as it precesses.
Conversely, too-high a rate of twist can also cause problems. The excessive twist can cause accelerated barrel wear, and also induce a very high spin rate which can cause high-velocity projectiles to disintegrate in flight. A higher twist than needed can also cause more subtle problems with accuracy: Any inconsistency within the bullet, such as a void that causes an unequal distribution of mass, may be magnified by the spin. Undersized bullets also have problems, as they may not enter the rifling exactly concentric and coaxial to the bore, and excess twist will exacerbate the accuracy problems this causes. Lastly, excessive spinning causes a reduction in the lateral kinetic energy of a projectile, thereby reducing its destructive power (the energy instead becomes rotational kinetic energy).
For tanks and artillery pieces, the extended range, full bore concept developed by Gerald Bull for the GC-45 howitzer reverses the normal rifling idea by using a shell with small fins that ride in the grooves, as opposed to using a slightly oversized projectile which is forced into the grooves. Such guns have achieved significant increases in muzzle velocity and range. Examples include the South African G5 and the German PzH 2000.