Product Tests & Reviews
Product Test: Bellm/VVCG 14" 223 Rem SS Contender Barrel

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Product Test: Bellm/VVCG 14" 223 Rem SS Contender Barrel
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Mike Bellm chambered Virgin Valley Custom Guns Super 14" 223Rem Stainless Steel Contender barrel


The idea for this test barrel all started over a year ago. Several years previous to this test, I had a T/C 14" factory Contender barrel chambered in .223 Rem. That barrel shot and grouped very well with light 40grn bullets, even grouping 1/8" at 100 yards with properly loaded ammunition topped with the Hornady V-Max, but would shoot abysmally with any bullet significantly heavier in weight than 50 grns, and so several of us this past year were chatting around on the various internet forums about how very badly many T/C 223 factory barrels shoot. This is a common consensus here, which states for the most part (with some notable exceptions) that T/C factory 223 barrels simply will not shoot well.

At the time, I simply chalked this up to what I perceived to be too slow a twist rate for the stabilization of bullets heavier in weight than the 40grn projectiles that I was then using, as accuracy in my barrel diminished proportionally in increments of bullet weight up to 55grn, and then fell of sharply in bullets of weight beyond that.

This "slow twist rate in the .223 = poor accuracy with heavier bullets" theory of mine is based upon the fact that I sell a good number of AR 15 clones, and that Bushmaster, Armalite, and other AR manufacturers have gone to using a standard 1-9 to 1-10  twist rate for the 223 in their barrels, specifically sighting the bullet weight to twist rate ratio in their discussion of the subject, thus demonstrating (in theory at least) that the twist rate in T/C barrels should also be at least 1-9" to 1-10" if T/C shooters are to enjoy the greatest variety of bullet weight selection in their handloads.

Well, after a while, and after having also discussed the issue with gunsmith and barrel craftsman Mike Bellm, Mike offered to me his opinion that the standard T/C factory 1-12 twist rate should really work well with bullets at least up to 55grn, and that he further thought (especially in this case of Contenders and their reputation for oversized chambers and throats too long and off-axis to the bore) that the poor accuracy which was being widely experienced with this particular factory chambering could be blamed instead upon the poorly throated & chambered barrels that T/C puts out, and so Mike signed onto the project, and offered to make up a 14" 223 1-12" twist barrel by means of his specialized chambering techniques and by further utilizing a Shilen stress relieved Virgin Valley Custom Guns blank, in order to prove or disprove this theory.

One minor additional note is that in this discussion, we were  abd are attempting to qualify/quantify that 1-12 twist rates are in fact the barrels at issue, as this is what the factory produces now: important to note is also the salient issue of the fact that early TC barrels had even slower 1-14" twists, as indicated in much of the loading data still in print in loading manuals. THIS issue may also explain why some barrels, such as one of my early Contender .223 super 14" would ONLY shoot well with projectiles in the 40-45grn class and nothing over *that* weight, while others testify that their barrels at least shoot the 55grn projectiles well!

At any rate, this was what got the idea going for a 14" 223 Bellm-VVCG test barrel - to experiment with loads in a properly chambered and throated 14" 223 Contender barrel and see if there was something inherent about a 223 1-12" twist 14" barrel that would make it ineffective for stabilizing anything significantly heavier than the 40grn projectiles, or whether it was rather something more peculiar to T/C's own practice of throat and chamber design (or lack thereof) that was instead perhaps the culprit which was bringing about the mediocre accuracy, which a number of us have seen in many of the T/C Factory 223 Contender barrels.

Bell-VVCG Barrel w/ Burris 10X IER, VVCG forend, Western Gunstock anatomical thumbhole grip, and Harris 6br Bipod.


VVCG BarrelLug

As I hold this barrel in my hand, I note the fine matte SS finish and etched VVCG logo. It is 14" long with six scope mount holes drilled and tapped into the top. The lug is also marked by VVCG as a "1-12 twist" and stamped "Bellm", and the barrel is stamped .223 Rem next to the etched-in VVCG logo. The crown, though not quite as nice to my eye as Bellms recessed target crown, is nonetheless very much an improvement over the typical T/C factory crown!

VVCG Crown 3

Closeup of the VVCG 11-Degree Target Crown

This barrel was originally to be a joint project between Virgin Valley Custom Guns and Mike Bellm Custom T/Cs, and supposed to be a Shilen Match Stainless Steel barrel. I will not here review all the history of this particular barrel, but state that it ended up in my hands after Mike Bellm purchased it from VVCG as there was some dispute with the original product tester, and so VVCG ended up providing the other individual with a similar barrel, though chambered by them, for similar review.

Though this is a very nice looking barrel, there is some serious question and doubt about whether the barrel blank used was actually a Shilen blank or not.  The bore of this barrel has 6 and not 8 grooves, and is supposed to be 1-12" twist [upon my cleaning rod test, it IS 1-12] but shortly after observing some internal discrepancies, Mike Bellm communicated with Shilen regading what he saw. Doug tells Mike that Shilen only uses the 6 grooves bore in 1-8" and 1-14" twist .224 barrels, and uses 8 grooves in the 1-12" twist barrels.  This barrel is a 6 groove, yet is marked 1-12" twist.  Also, during chambering Mikes .224" throat reamer left a fair amount of rifling standing in the throat area, indicating the groove diameter is actually significantly larger than .224."  As Shilen sticks really close to bullet diameter, this oversize condition is what first threw a red flag to Mike since it is not at all characteristic of Shilen's work..... and Doug Shilen agreed with him in this observation. 

In addition, the bore also has visible reamer marks in the grooves and nicks down the length of one of the riflings, that the cursory lapping that it was given did not take out.  And again, according to Doug Shilen, this is not at all consistent with what they produce in their Match Stainless barrels. 

Looks like perhaps a mistake was made along the way somewhere and the barrel is not made from a Shilen blank after all. As VVCG used to use Wilson blanks, could it be a Wilson blank which was mistakedly used? Again, the barrel was a joint project between Virgin Valley and Mike Bellm Custom T/Cs, with chamber being done by Bellm.  I want to state up front that I do not believe the mistake in using a none Shilen blank was intentional on the part of VVCG, but rather I believe that this was an honest yet also careless in nature mistake, similar to a recently publicized [August 2002] VVCG error in which a customer who had ordered a 6mmTCU Virgin Valley Contender barrel instead received a barrel that had been chambered with the 6mmTCU reamer, but was actually a .25 caliber barrel blank! Again, in a fast paced and busy shop, I can see where such mistakes *might* happen, and recommend to VVCG that simply marking their barrel blanks with caliber, twist, and maker, would help tremendously to resolve and prevent such problems as this from occurring in the future! At premium prices such as VVCG charges, one should reasonably expect to receive premium product devoid of such *easily preventable* errors. A little bit of care does go a long way!

For this test, though Mike Bellm ended up purchasing and providing the barrel, VVCG also generously provided one of their "aluminum pillar bedded" free float forends for my review: During this test, I compared the three differemt types of VVCG free-float forend on the barrel - I will explain and report more on the various forends I used, down towards the end of this review. . .


The test focused upon the following selection of bullets, and each is listed in order of Grain weight. Group size is listed along with bullet/powder selection.


This was the winning target for the Sept Accurate Reloading Single Shot Pistol Forums "Postal Match", 200 Yard group measuring .454" using the 40grn Hornady V-Max.


I do not want to recommend any specific loads, as I believe that the reader will achieve significantly better reloads by simply beginning with the minimum recommended charge in the reloading manuals, and based upon the componants in play, working up to an accurate load in the specific individual firearm being used. I do have some favorite powders that have worked very well for me in the .223Rem in the past (and during this test) that I will pass along, and these were Hodgdon H-4895, Hodgdon H322, and Winchester W748 [the DIRTY powder of the bunch!]. Accurate 2015, though reportedly good and also quite similar to H322, did not [for some unexplained rationale] do particularly well in this barrel.




In my experiences, using the .223 Rem with 55grn and over bullet weights the 1-12" twist is simply not OPTIMAL, though it may be *PASSABLE*. It will work for 55grn, certainly, but again, in my experiences using such loads in the AR 15, a 1-10" or 1-9" twist rate is far more FAVORABLE for these heavier weight bullets. During my testing, 55grn stuff was grouping right at .75" to 1.50" or more at 100yards for me, never .75" in a consistant basis, while 40-45grn selections did .25"-.125" on a regular basis at the same distance under the same conditions.

Using a much wider variety of bullet selections than my previous factory 223 barrel of same length seemed to enjoy, this VVCG barrel shot them all well, yet it acted almost identically to the factory barrel so far as an exponential decrease in accuracy to increase in bullet weight was concerned [especially bullets over 55grn] with 62grn military ammo going over 2-3" at 100yards, and 69grn Black Hills match ammo actually key-holing on paper 25yrds from the muzzle.

The 1-12" twist rate of this barrel and (if it was not an early 1-14") my factory Contender 14" 223 barrel, seems OPTIMUM for bullets of 50grn and under, with 40-45grn bullet weights exhibiting the best groups.

For what it is worth, I believe there to be a difference between what is passable , tolerable, or sufficient, and what is optimal or exceptional [which is why we purchase these custom barrels!] and in my experiences with the .223, 1-10" to 1-9" twist rates are optimum for 55-69grn bullet weights, and 1-8" to 1-7" for bullets in the 69-80grn range.

So how to explain some barrels that group tighter, such as those that are reported to shoot best with a 55gr Sierra BT, with a reduced load at that?

A few possibilities come to mind [just some theories, mind you: we may actually find a MUCH DIFFERENT ANSWER, OR EVEN NONE AT ALL!]. One that I will share here is that the bore dimensions in such barrels may be tighter than the typical example, plus the rifling may also be cut a bit deeper, and so, with such a tight groove-bore diameter, may produce a superior purchase upon the bullet and thus impart the spin much more efficiently than a bore cut to standard size or even slightly over, thus causing the bullet to stabilize better in such examples than in the average barrel.

Mike Bellm

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