By Chris Parkin
Like any other mechanical tool, guns require maintenance, what and when they need it can vary depending on how you need it to perform and how regularly it is used. It’s critical above all else to make sure a gun is dry and cleaned after a day in the field and don’t just assume a gun dried out and locked in its cabinet is ok, it’s important to remember a cold gun brought into a warm house will immediately form copious amounts of condensation that can and will linger in all tiny spaces and crevices to cause corrosion long term. With rifles, I always remove the moderator as these are particularly prone to form condensation internally that will seep down a rifle barrel and cause characteristic internal bore pitting in the rifling a few inches back from the muzzle. Rifle cleaning, especially that of the bore itself has a far more noticeable effect on accuracy and consistency than on a shotgun.
The amount of residual copper in the barrel’s `pores` can significantly affect the way your ammunition performs and getting to know a barrel directs you towards identifying performance trends and getting a feel for when it needs a thorough clean. The better the barrel, with fewer internal imperfections, the more likely it is to be 100% uniform and unlikely benefitting from residual copper to smooth out the road, so-to speak, yet most barrels show some internal imperfections and it’s rarely something getting too worried about until you really know what why and how you would benefit from a better, and more expensive barrel.
Starting with 22 rimfire rifles, I rarely every clean the bore free of lead residue or powder fouling as it rarely seems to cause a problem on a sporting rifle for pest control. If the barrel gets wet or dropped into mud, if any fouling is artificially introduced, I will clean the gun, like any other, immediately. Rimfires tend to require more action cleaning, especially with semi auto blowback actions where lead and waxy or oily lubricants can build up and begin to affect action performance. This is less noticeable on a bolt gun, but the lubricant residue will attract and retain the powder residues from each shot and some rimfire ammunition although clean burning through the barrel, tends to leave a lot of microscopically `gritty` burned powder residue. This can be wiped out, brushed out or even blasted out with compressed air but as always, be cautious of adding excessive lubricants anywhere as these will always attract residues and general detritus from the shooting world, be it mud, grit, simple dust or fine sand.
Centrefire actions remain a little cleaner than those of rimfires, we don’t have semi-autos to worry about in the UK in terms of gas returning into the action. Copper jacketed or monolithic bullets require solvent to clean the barrel fully although it’s not always advisable to fully `deep clean` a gun. Many barrels often stabilise in performance once `fouled` and it’s not until this, becomes excessive that it’s worth giving them a deep clean and that is particularly important to sporting rifles where consistent zero is far more important than on a target rifle where `sighters` are not uncommon before scoring starts. Sighters before a hunt with a sporting rifle is unlikely without disturbing your land so if it doesn’t need a deep clean, leave that until before your next known range session. That’s not to say you can casually ignore any fouling though in terms of moisture retention and powder/carbon residue is far easier to clean out than copper itself. A moistened patch on a cleaning rod passed through the bore will initiate solution of the carbon and after several passes, soaks, pauses and clean patches, you will begin to notice it clears out. There are generally various types of barrel cleaners, general purpose ones will remove firing and some carbon, more specific carbon and copper solvents will do just that to a more intimate level of cleanliness. You will get to know your barrel’s preferences according to their use and yours, but make sure when you do clean, use bore guides, appropriate patch sizes and jags to make sure no mechanical damage is done to the rifling lands and grove. A bore guide helps centralise the cleaning rod to avoid damaging the bolt lug abutments and more critically, the throat and leade into the bore from the chamber where your bullet will first encounter the rifling that will engrave and spin it. Similarly, push patches out of the muzzle, don’t draw them back and forth as the muzzle’s crown is one, if not THE most critical area of the barrel. Physical wear and tear her is detrimental to accuracy and precision and it’s well worth saying when you take a moderator on and off, wipe this area clean as powder residues will cake on and bake hard with possibility of future moisture retention. Clean the threads, if left uncared for you may well get your moderator stuck tight which is undesirable. Similarly, when fitting your moderator, the threads should feel free running and smooth, right up to the point where the barrel’s shoulders meet the moderator and you feel a defined `stop` that can then be tightened, a rough thread should ring alarm bells and will likely lead to inconsistent moderator tensioned position with associated problems.
The decision to use patches and brushes depends on severity of cleaning, I only use brushes for the occasional deep clean and prefer to use nylon, rather than phosphor bronze brushes. This is two-fold, nylon brushes wear and fit the bore more easily and although not passed through the crown, can be cautiously reciprocated which is especially helpful to aerate and foam solvents to a microscopic level when dissolving residue. Secondly, many copper solvents will react with a colourful bright blue tinge when they are dissolving copper and with phosphor bronze brushes containing copper within their alloy, guess what, that false blue might be your brush, not the barrel’s residue. It also feels kinder to the steel of the barrel to scrub it with softer nylon that metallic brushes. Both are physically softer yet wear is wear between any moving surfaces and nylon brushes have served me well over the years, just accept they are somewhat consumable. This issue can occur with brass jags but is far less problematic due to their heavier, solid construction compared to filament like bristles. I personally prefer spear point jags that pierce the centre of the cleaning patches as these attach the patch securely and most easily centralised, whether circular or square.
Cleaning patches are available in all shapes and sizes, sometimes even as foam plugs appropriate to bore sizes. For the same bore size, you can use a smaller jag with a larger patch or vice versa, there isn’t specifically a correct answer but if you go with manufacturers guidelines, it’s a starting point, especially looking at the jag as the primary component before `filling the gap` with your chosen patch. Fabric patches come from different makers in different cloth types and weaves, some more absorbent than others, you will find your preference as your shooting career evolves. The patch and jag needs to be a firm fit requiring some force to pass it through the bore but not excessively as the cleaning rod will bend too much, effectively itself squeezing unevenly down one wall of the bore unevenly like a banana. Excessive force from your known tight patch may also mask mechanical damage you are doing with all that physical effort so start easy until you learn your preferences. A patch catcher at the muzzle is a benefit to keep things clean, brushes especially aerate and spray solvent as they leave the crown. It’s worth wearing gloves too, if nothing else it avoids you absorbing the dirt and solvent smells but is generally advisable with any unusual chemicals in contact with your skin.
Clan up solvent overspills, it squeezes out of the patch as it enters the bore, pay attention to the bolt lug abutment areas and magazine well. Clean all action raceways, bolt lugs, face, and extractor/ejector mechanisms as small fragments of copper/brass shavings from ammunition can quickly clog these. Looser tolerance sporting actions are more forgiving of dirt and debris but precision-made rifles with very close operating tolerances are far less forgiving of matter like this and will jam shut if you are not careful. This might sound bad but is a design compromise of precision manufacture, bolt fluting didn’t originate for pretty looks!
Returning to mechanical needs, clean the exterior of your gun, an oily cloth is a lifesaver and generally stops over lubrication of surfaces. Use special dry lubricants for triggers and bolts, wet lubes always attract dirt and grime. A compressed air can, or compressor hose/gun is a great cleaning tool for freeing mechanisms without disassembly which might be better left to the professional if any damage is done or found to be causing operational problems, especially in the case of triggers. Check scope mounts are tight, scope rails attached to the rifle and the barrel is free in its channel if it is supposed to be free floating. Even with a flexible forend, ensure there is no moisture of other physical debris lurking between barrel and forend and lastly, it never hurts to know how you gun can be removed from its stock and correctly reassembled when you are relaxed at home, so if you have to do it in an emergency (for example if dropped in mud, water or snow on a hunt), you know how to put it back together and where needs specific inspection for damage or blockages. Lastly, how it reacts to being re-assembled and will it hold zero…this is crucial to knowing your gun in my opinion. Rifles that are correctly inlet and bedded stress free with correctly torqued bolts will seat firmly and nip into position with tactile definition. Poorly stocked rifles will often suffer significant zero change as their action screws are mushily tightened to unknown torque levels with spongey feeling in the action inlet as the bolts tension. Most guns fit somewhere between these two book ends, the former is clearly most desirable as it rarely affects zero by more than one or two clicks of the scope’s adjusters. The latter is entirely undesirable to my mind.
So, to sum up, follow manufacturers instructions and proceed with caution, mechanical damage through cleaning is the greatest risk so don’t rush and don’t force tools. Think about the relative hardness of items and misalignment that may cause wear and tear more than nothing at all. Remove all solvents from the bore before storage and be cautious of it pooling, especially in places like magazine wells and stock inlet out of sight. I always leave the bolt out or action open, allowing airflow to circulate in a stored gun and if stored for a long time, I will coat the bore internally with heavier lubricants to fend off corrosion. Barrels themselves are consumables, it’s a fact of life but a rifle action and stock if cared for, should long outlast most shooters and if wet lubricants are needed, a tiny dot, carefully applied is usually enough. Beware spray lubricants blasted everywhere and fingerprints as these are themselves corrosive.
- A selection of patches
- A small dot of oil correctly positioned is far superior to casual spray dowsing
- A small dripper bottle helps to keep solvent spillage to a minimum
- A well soaked patch emerging from the crown towards the end of the bore cleaning regime
- Always check the barrel channel is clear without obstruction (if free floating)
- Bore guides minimise physical damage from rod-jag to action internals, chamber and lead
- Clean the bolt face and lugs, make sure no fragments of copper remain to jam anywhere
- Clean the crown and threads, residue builds up here quite easily
- I have learned the characteristics of this solvent through years of use, each brand has it's own characteristics and usage needs
- Laid out in sequence, the patches tell the barrel cleaning story
- Patches are available in a multitude of shapes and sizes for appropriate bore fit
- Some designs require more attention to mechanical lubrication detail
- Spear point jags from .17 up to .338 calibres
- Specific carbon and Copper solvents for deep cleaning needs
- The handles of a cleaning rod rotate on bearings to allow the patch to revolve with the rifling