Your great-grandfather certainly knew how to clean a gun. There was no choice in the time of blackpowder but to scrub a gun with hot soapy water after firing it (and that’s another gun-cleaning story), or be ready to deal with severe corrosion.
Then came smokeless, non-corrosive powders, and just as important, non-corrosive primers (early centerfire primers left corrosive salts in the barrel); and too many shooters figured they no longer needed to clean their firearms.
One of my most embarrassing moments came when I had a custom 30-06 that just wasn’t grouping. I would run a brush and some patches, with nitro solvent, through it after shooting, but finally shipped it back to the manufacturer to find out what was wrong. A week or so later, the builder called me in response to my complaint and told me he’d looked at the barrel and then sat down in his chair with the TV on and spent several hours brushing all the built-up copper out of the bore. I got the rifle back and started shooting sub-½-minute groups–and cleaning the bore with good copper solvent after every shooting session.
It’s clear that there is no substitute for regular cleaning to maintain a firearm, but let’s start with a disclaimer: always follow the directions given by your gun’s manufacturer or those with the cleaning products you use. That being said, here’s what I do.
First, foremost, and absolutely, make sure the firearm is completely unloaded before doing anything. On a bolt action, remove the bolt; and if you can easily remove the barreled action, this will help prevent solvent and fouling from running down onto the wood of the stock (and with the barrel and action out the stock, the wood can be cleaned with a damp cloth; and this is a good time to inspect the stock for any splits or cracks).
If I’ve had a shooting session, I like to clean the bore of a rifle while it is still warm. I think the process works better with a warm barrel and will produce cleaner results. If I think I have considerable copper build up, I might run a patch dipped in quality copper solvent, then stand the rifle muzzle-down, resting on folded rags to absorb any solvent running out and to protect the crown, in the corner of the cleaning room for five or 10 minutes to loosen the residue.
For the actual cleaning, I will start with a brass bush. Some may think that an oversized brush will clean “deeper,” but the brush has to be the right diameter for best results: The bristles of a too-large brush will fold back in the bore, so that instead of cleaning with the tips of bristles, it will be their sides that will be sliding through, removing less fouling.
Set the barreled action or the stocked rifle in a gun vise or a cleaning-tray rack. Start at the breech, using a bore guide, which will help keep the cleaning rod traveling down the center of the bore, and will prevent solvent from getting into the magazine and trigger mechanism (slipping a rag or sheet of plastic kitchen wrap between the guide and the magazine will also shield against solvent; if you can’t remove the barreled action practicably, be sure to wipe off quickly any solvent that may get onto the stock).
Resist the temptation to dip the brush into the solvent bottle, and so foul the solvent. Use a separate small cup or tray for the solvent and wet the brush there. Push the brush from the breech to the muzzle with short, forward strokes. For best cleaning, remove the brush from the rod beyond the muzzle, draw the rod back out of the breech, then reattach the brush, apply more solvent, and repeat, which will push all the fouling in one direction out of the barrel. Next, continue the process with tight, solvent-moistened patches.
The wet patches will likely show black fouling at first, then should come down to plain blue as the solvent reacts with the remaining copper. Continue to check the patches to see that they are showing fewer particles of fouling until there are none. Use dry patches in the barrel. They won’t come out pure white, but you should be able to tell when you’ve reached a reasonable limit of cleaning. (For lever and semi-auto actions, the pull-through BoreSnake is a good choice for keeping it clean.)
Wipe off the bolt with a cloth with some solvent on it, use a dry nylon bristle brush on the trigger mechanism, and clean the rest of the exterior metal surfaces, then wipe dry. If the gun’s going into the gun vault, a light coating of penetrating gun oil, inside and out, will keep it in good shape. At some stage you might have to get serious and strip the bolt and trigger and thoroughly clean everything, but you should have a manual specific to your gun for that. In the meantime, regular cleaning, like that above, will do the job of maintaining your guns.
Now I look at the guns in my gun rack; and I hear wee small voices calling, “Clean me, clean me.” So I guess I better get at it.
TOM MCINTYRE is a contributing editor to Sports Afield and Field & Stream magazine.