In this article I cover some maintenance tips that should keep your firearm in top condition and also a few common problems that are worth avoiding. We have all seen it before on hunting trips or when practicing at the range, a really nice firearm that the owner has failed to maintain correctly and it either malfunctions or has had its appearance disfigured because of a lack of routine maintenance.
A good knowledge of firearm maintenance is essential to not only allow you to safely enjoy shooting sports, but it encourages us to become more familiar with our own firearms. Ask any soldier or police officer how much emphasis is placed on becoming familiar with and maintaining the firearms they are to be trained and issued, their life depends on having a firearm that is reliably operational at all times. Every firearm needs to be seen as an object of precision mechanical manufacture, just like the engine in car; a firearm needs routine maintenance to keep it running.
Always check your firearm is unloaded before attempting any cleaning and or maintenance, even go to the extent of removing any ammunition from the immediate area. Please think about what you are doing and be careful.
The subject of maintaining firearms is a vast one and entire books have been written on the matter, so for the purposes of this article I will mainly be referring to centrefire rifles like the ones used for hunting. Maintenance techniques will vary with different action types and require grease and lubricants in specific areas according to how they function. Rifles with pump, lever and falling block actions require different methods to clean the bore, compared to bolt action rifles where the bolt is easily removed. Some firearms will have a manufacturer’s recommended cleaning technique, follow this carefully as failing to do so may void any warranty.
Firearm maintenance should be divided into two distinct categories: Firearm Owner conducted maintenance and Gunsmith conducted maintenance.
Owner Conducted Maintenance:
- Periodic Cleaning of the bore to remove copper, lead and powder fouling.
- Checking the tightness of action screws and scope mounts – firm but not over tight.
- Examining your firearm for anything unusual, like cracking, bulges, missing parts.
- Checking the correct function of a safety catch with the action cleared or using snap caps.
- Using a quality protectant oil or silicon cloth to wipe down all metal surfaces to prevent rust when not in use.
- Removing any grease contaminated with water or dirt and reapplying it where required.
- Maintaining the finish of a timber stock with a quality wax or stock polish.
- Keeping your scope in good working order, using the manufacturers recommended cleaning instructions. Maintain a scope as you would a high quality camera.
Cleaning magazines inside and out to ensure they work correctly, applying a dry lubricant inside like graphite powder.
Gunsmith Conducted Maintenance:
- Cleaning a rifle that has been submerged in water or snow, this requires a firearm to be stripped down completely, cleaned, reassembled and tested.
- Cleaning a badly fouled barrel that requires specialised solvents, equipment and techniques.
- Disassembling and cleaning trigger components.
- Anything that is beyond the abilities of the firearm owner.
Always remember when in doubt, don’t do it. Help can always be provided at your local armourer/gunsmith.
Anyone walking into a gun shop can be easily overwhelmed by the vast array of cleaning tools and maintenance products, so choosing what to buy can be a real problem. As is always the case, buy the very best products you can afford and always use firearm specific products, after all it’s what they’re designed for.
If I have one maintenance tip I can’t stress enough, it’s always use a quality one-piece cleaning rod and a bore guide wherever possible. A take down cleaning rod does have its uses when cleaning your firearm in the field, they neatly fit into your backpack and in kit form have all the required attachments to give your firearm a quick clean. Unfortunately, the segments on a takedown cleaning rod almost never line up, so the assembled rod is not straight and causes damage with prolonged use. A bore guide will not only keep cleaning solvents from getting into the action, but importantly help guide the cleaning rod into the barrel and prevent damage to the chamber. Remember it is very easy to do more damage through improper cleaning technique than not cleaning at all, so take your time and be meticulous. Always push your cleaning rod in the direction the bullets go, avoid scrubbing backwards and forwards as this will only drag grime back into the action. Never allow the cleaning rod to damage the crown or accuracy will be effected.Always use the correct cleaning accessories on a quality cleaning rod. If you don’t it may damage the bore and spoil your firearms accuracy.
Any cleaning attachments used to clean the barrel should be a firm fit up the bore, never tight as they could start doing some damage or break off meaning a visit to the gunsmith. If you have a lever action or pump action rifle where using a cleaning rod is difficult, a bore snake or pull through is acceptable, though be careful as they can break if too much force is used. When using a bore snake or pull through, apply a constant and even pressure while keeping the cord as short as possible. Some new products are available where the pull though is actually plastic coated cable, these are quite good and the risk of breakage is reduced.
Always wipe on protectant oil with a cloth, avoid spraying oil directly onto the firearm, this will cause over-oiling and damage to timber stocks plus attract dirt. Using too much oil seems to be a very common occurrence, resulting in safety issues when triggers become filled with dirt and grime, often causing unintentional discharge of a firearm. When oiling a firearm, you only need a thin film of oil on internal and external surfaces. The bore of your barrel can be stored with a thin film of oil in it, though it needs to be removed before firing as this can seriously damage the barrel. A common misconception is that stainless steel firearms don’t need cleaning, this is untrue - they require the same routine maintenance as any other firearm and they will still rust.
Must-have Cleaning Tools:
- A good quality one-piece cleaning rod with a ball bearing handle, these come in a range of calibre specific sizes, always use the correct size to avoid damage to the inside of your barrel.
- A selection of good quality bore brushes in nylon and phosphor bronze.
- A chamber brush for cleaning the often neglected chamber, the cause of many a stuck round.
- Some flannelette cloth to cut into cleaning patches.
- Good quality protectant oil like Birchwood Casey Barricade, Remington Rem oil and G96 Gun Treatment, use these for storage.
- A small torch to help with inspections.
- A maintenance log with details when each of your firearms was cleaned, particularly handy for those of us with a big collection of firearms.
- Snap caps or drill rounds to check magazine feeding (NEVER USE LIVE ROUNDS).
- Quality action grease - a little bit goes a long way.
- A good Bore solvent to remove lead, copper and powder fouling.
- Dry lubricant like Bore Tec -Teflon dry lube or graphite powder.
- Quality penetrating oil like Break Free CLP or M Pro 7.
- A bore guide that fits your action.
- A collection of old tooth brushes to clean inside the action.
- If you have accesses to compressed air feel free to use it, though sparingly. Remember you are trying to remove dirt and grime not force it into areas it shouldn’t go.
Be careful of products that degrease and remove lubricants from your firearm, the oils need to be replaced or rusting will occur. Read the product descriptions thoroughly as some product calling themselves cleaners are actually degreasers and some solvents are known to attack plastics.
Lately firearm owners have been purchasing bore scopes to add to their inventory of maintenance tools. A bore scope is a very handy tool that allows you to closely inspect the inside and full length of a barrel and chamber on your rifle. Bore scopes are becoming more affordable though still a bit pricey, so people often share the ownership between groups of shooters. If used correctly a bore scope will help you inspect barrels for copper fouling, rust, wear and general cleanliness of the barrel. It is important to note, that to inspect a bore correctly will take years of training and experience. Only after being instructed by an expert will you know exactly what you’re looking at with a bore scope, so please don’t make a scene at a gun shop if you see something inside a barrel without fully understanding how barrels are manufactured. As a general rule, if the rifle is shooting a respectable group everything is normal inside a barrel and you have no need to worry. A firearm that has been well maintained should last for generations, so look after yours and pass it on.