Cleaning your Rifle, it’s Essential…Why and How

When all things go right, it starts with a clean barrel.

  • Preventive maintenance allows repeatability in performance
  • How to remove copper bullet build-up from the rifled barrel
  • How to maintain the bolt…it’s important!

By Wade Robertson

Hunting season is over and now is the time to make sure your firearms are properly taken care of. Here, I’m getting ready to give my .223 a thorough cleaning. Wire brush the bore, oil it, wipe down all metal parts and check your screws are still tight. A little time spent now can save serious problems down the road. 

Well, another deer season has come and gone. You will in all likelihood be putting the rifle in the cabinet for another year where it will sit primarily forgotten. During this time, it’s essential to make sure rust or corrosion isn’t eating away at your rifle, it’s time to clean your rifle properly.

The bore determines the accuracy of your rifle and should have particular attention paid to it to prevent any issues. Even though today’s gunpowders and primers are non-corrosive, it’s wise to treat the barrel with loving care. Let’s call this our preventative maintenance schedule.

You may be wondering why you should pay special attention to the bore of your rifle. Let’s take a second to think about what takes place every time you pull the trigger.

You squeeze and the firing pin falls, striking the primer. The primer is powerful for its size and explodes into the relatively small space of the powder-filled case. The powder is instantly heated to a high temperature and begins to burn very, very rapidly, creating high-temperature gas.  The gas pressure builds to around 50,000 pounds per square inch. The only thing movable is the bullet, so the high-pressure gas propels the projectile down the rifled barrel at approximately 3,000 feet per second. The velocity varies depending on the caliber and bullet weight.

The amount of heat and friction generated during those brief milliseconds between pulling the trigger, the powder burning and the bullet exiting the barrel is absolutely tremendous. Everything is perfectly safe of course since the metal composition and chamber/barrel thickness has been explicitly designed to withstand precisely that amount of thermal stress and more. However, as you may have surmised, some things definitely get dirty during this brief spurt of extreme forces.

The high-temperature powder gas leaves a dark residue inside the chamber where small amounts of gas have made their way around the neck of the bullet case. In the bore itself, the bullet has been driven to slide along into the rifling and accelerated down the barrel under the tremendous pressure as mentioned. Some of the copper jacket of the bullet is stripped off onto the lands and grooves of the barrel along with the red hot powder gas residue. Each and every shot adds to these deposits.

Additionally, any tiny irregularities or rough spots in the barrel will strip off more of the copper jacket, the build-up faster can affect the uniformity of your barrel. After several shots, depending on the caliber and the particular firearm, accuracy will begin to drop off. Luckily a wire brush and a suitable powder/copper solvent will help remove this fouling.

However, shooting is only one of the ways we can dirty our rifles.  Since we are continually handling or carrying them, sometimes in miserable weather, we can’t ignore what exposing them to heavy rain or wet snow can do.  Simply bringing your firearm inside from the cold into your home or camp will cause water vapor to condense on both the inside and outside of the metal. This isn’t any different than being outside in the rain, the end result is that your firearm’s wet. It’s essential to be aware of this and take care of the rifle once it has warmed up, don’t sit the firearm in a corner and forget about it.

Merely handling the metal parts of the forearm leaves fingerprints and the tiny deposits of salt, or whatever else is on our fingers, and unless the metal is well-oiled rust can form. Always wipe your metal parts down with an oily cloth after handling.

In short, always pay attention to your firearms and take the steps necessary to prevent moisture or corrosion from harming them. I have even seen rifles rust in a gun safe that happened to be against a cool outside wall allowing the safe to collect moisture inside it. That is a serious situation that should always be addressed immediately.

Having your rifle bore clean and your bolt free from gummy residue, allowed me to bag this heavy-tine 8-point buck in single-digit temperatures. Proper maintenance is essential when Mother Nature throws nasty weather your way. Never heavily oil the interior of your bolt, keep it clean and free of residue. 

At the very least you should always thoroughly clean your firearms before putting them away for the winter.   First, remove the bolt from your rifle and inspect it. Clean the bolt face with a toothbrush and wipe the entire bolt body clean with an oily cloth. Do not squirt oil down the firing pin hole or apply it heavily where the oil can make its way inside the bolt. Oil build-up inside the bolt and around the firing pin spring could cause your rifle to misfire during cold temperatures. The excess oil thickens to become like sludge. This is a more common occurrence than you might think and has cost more than 1 person a nice buck!

If your bolt becomes wet or damp inside you need to disassemble, dry, and very lightly oil it. Use a Teflon type, very light lubricant on the firing pin spring to ensure that extreme cold will not cause a misfire. If you have an older firearm from your youth, or dad’s old rifle, and suddenly decide to use it for old times’ sake, you’d be wise to pull the bolt apart and clean it. I can almost guarantee there will be substantial thickened oil and sludge inside the bolt just waiting to cool, harden and prevent the firing pin from falling hard enough to fire the bullet.

Now that you have cleaned up the bolt, it’s time to clear your rifle barrel. I begin by dipping the proper caliber brush in copper and powder solvent and wire brushing the barrel thoroughly. Next, run cloth patches saturated with solvent through the bore to remove the loosened fouling. When the patches come out clean, you’re finished. You may have to wire brush a second time.

Finish by running a patch covered with gun oil down the bore two times, this will protect your bore from rust and oxidation until next year.

A badly fouled barrel may need to be wire-brushed multiple times and require multiple patches to return it to a clean state. Occasionally you may have to purchase a stronger solvent especially designed for stubborn fouling and copper build-up. Keep at it until your patch comes out without turning gray or black.

I seldom remove the barreled action from the stock. However, if your rifle has been soaked in the rain or immersed in water, it may be necessary to do so. Water may collect around the recoil lug, under or around the action, in the trigger assembly and other areas. Water dries very slowly in such tight spaces and severe rusting, even pitting, can occur in these situations.

Composite stocks can simply be dried off and set aside in a warm area to dry before oiling your barreled action and reassembling. Wooden stocks may need to sit for several days if soaked.  Examine your wood stocks very carefully once the barreled action has been removed. Many times you’ll find the wood hasn’t been sealed with stock finish around the barrel, action and magazine well. This is very common with older guns.  I highly recommend sealing any untreated wood with two coats of varnish or stock finish. It’s also important to remove the recoil pad and seal the end grain with two coats of finish if needed. The end grain of the stock is very absorbent and might even require a third coat if the wood is light and porous. When fully dry, replace the pad. Once the stock is sealed, the wood will become much more stable and is far more likely to hold its zero from one year to another.

Don’t forget to oil your rifle sling swivels as well, they can get squeaky if you don’t keep them lubricated.

Once you have finished cleaning and oiling your firearm you can safely place it in the gun cabinet until next year. When fall rolls around in 2020, you’ll be able to remove it without any nasty surprises. It’ll be in great working condition and that, I may add, is a good thing.