Understanding Gun Ratings: What You Need to Know to Select Your MIG Gun

Image of a welder with arm welding above their head
Selecting “too much” gun can increase fatigue and decrease your productivity. The ideal MIG gun strikes a balance between the application’s demands, and the MIG gun’s size and weight.

When it comes to welding, too much of a good thing can often add up to unnecessary costs, potential downtime and lost productivity — especially if you have too large of a MIG gun for your application. Unfortunately, many people believe a common misconception: that you need a MIG gun rated to the highest amperage you expect to weld (e.g., a 400-amp gun for a 400-amp application). That is simply not true. In fact, a MIG gun that provides a higher amperage capacity than you need typically weighs more and may be less flexible, making it less comfortable to maneuver around weld joints. Higher amperage MIG guns also cost more.

The truth is, because you spend time moving parts, tacking them and performing other pre- and post-weld activities, you rarely weld continuously enough to reach the maximum duty cycle for that MIG gun. Instead, it’s often better to choose the lightest, most flexible gun that meets your needs. For example, a MIG gun rated at 300 amps can typically weld at 400 amps and higher — for a limited amount of time — and do just as good of a job. 

Gun ratings explained

In the United States, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, or NEMA, establishes the MIG gun rating criteria. In Europe, similar standards are the responsibility of Conformité Européenne or European Conformity, also called CE. 

Under both agencies, MIG guns receive a rating that reflects the temperatures above which the handle or cable becomes uncomfortably warm. These ratings, however, do not identify the point at which the MIG gun risks damage or failure. 

Much of the difference lies in the duty cycle of the gun. Manufacturers have  the option of rating their guns at 100-, 60- or 35-percent duty cycles. For that reason, there can be significant differences when comparing different MIG gun manufacturer’s products. 

Duty cycle is the amount of arc-on time within a 10-minute period. One MIG gun manufacturer may produce a 400-amp MIG gun that is capable of welding at 100 percent duty cycle, while another manufactures the same amperage MIG gun that can weld at only 60 percent duty cycle. In this example, the first MIG gun would be able to weld consistently at full amperage for a 10-minute time frame, whereas the latter would only be able to weld for 6 minutes. 

Before deciding which MIG gun to purchase, it is important to review the duty cycle ratios for the product. You can typically find this information in the product literature or on the manufacturer’s website. 

How do you operate?

Based on the gun rating explanation above, it is also essential for you to consider the length of time you spend welding before you make your MIG gun selection. Look at how much time you actually spend welding over the course of 10 minutes. You may be surprised to discover that the average arc-on time is usually less than 5 minutes.

Keep in mind that welding with a MIG gun rated to 300 amps would exceed its rated capacity if you were to use it at 400 amps and 100-percent duty cycle. However, if you used that same gun to weld at 400 amps and 50-percent duty cycle, it should work just fine. Similarly, if you had an application that required welding very thick metal at high current loads (even 500 amps or more) for a very short period of time, you might be able to use a gun rated at only 300 amps. 

As a general rule, a MIG gun becomes uncomfortably hot when it exceeds its full duty cycle temperature rating. If you find yourself welding for longer on a regular basis, you should consider either welding at a lower duty cycle or switching to a higher rated gun. Exceeding a MIG gun’s rated temperature capacity can lead to weakened connections and power cables, and shorten its working life.

Understanding the impact of heat

There are two types of heat that affect the handle and cable temperature on a MIG gun and also the amount of time you can weld with it: radiant heat from the arc and resistive heat from the cable. Both of these types of heat also factor into what rating of MIG gun you should select. 

Radiant Heat

Radiant heat is heat that reflects back to the handle from the welding arc and the base metal. It is responsible for most of the heat encountered by the MIG gun handle. Several factors affect it, including the material being welded. If you weld aluminum or stainless steel, for example, you will find that it reflects more heat than mild steel. 

The shielding gas mixture you use, as well as the welding transfer process, can also affect radiant heat. For example, argon creates a hotter arc than pure CO2, causing a MIG gun using an argon shielding gas mixture to reach its rated temperature at a lower amperage than when welding with pure CO2. If you use a spray transfer process, you may also find that your welding application generates more heat. This process requires an 85 percent or richer argon shielding gas mixture, along with a longer wire stick out and arc length, both of which increase the voltage in the application and the overall temperature. The result is, again, more radiant heat. 

Using a longer MIG gun neck can help minimize the impact of radiant heat on the handle by placing it further from the arc and keeping it cooler. The consumables you use can in turn affect the amount of heat that the neck absorbs. Take care to find consumables that connect tightly and have good mass, as these absorb heat better and can help prevent the neck from carrying as much heat to the handle. 

Resistive Heat

In addition to radiant heat, you may encounter resistive heat in your welding application. Resistive heat occurs by way of electrical resistance within the welding cable and is responsible for most of the heat in the cable. It occurs when the electricity generated by the power source cannot flow through the cable and cable connections. The energy of the “backed up” electricity is lost as heat. Having an adequately sized cable can minimize resistive heat; however, it cannot eliminate it entirely. A cable large enough to completely eliminate resistance would be too heavy and unwieldy to maneuver. 

As an air-cooled MIG gun increases in amperage, the size of the cable, connections and handles also increases. Therefore, a MIG gun with a higher rated capacity almost always has greater mass. If you are an occasional welder, that weight and size increase may not bother you; however, if you weld all day, every day, it is better to find a lighter and smaller MIG gun suited to your application. In some cases, that may mean switching to a water-cooled MIG gun, which is smaller and lighter, but can also provide the same welding capacity. 

Deciding between air- and water-cooled 

Using a lighter MIG gun can often improve productivity since it is easier to maneuver for longer periods of time. Smaller MIG guns can also reduce your susceptibility to repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Final thoughts to keep you comfortable

When choosing your MIG gun, remember that not all products are created equal. Two MIG guns rated to 300 amps could vary widely in terms of their overall size and weight. Take the time to research your options. Also, look for features like a ventilated handle that permits air to flow through it and keeps it running cooler. Such features can often allow a gun to be rated to a higher capacity without adding any size or weight. Finally, assess the time you spend welding, the process and shielding gas you use, and the materials you are welding. Doing so can help you select a gun that strikes the ideal balance between comfort and capacity.