You can kill elk with a dirty rifle. And fry bacon in a dirty skillet. But clean has benefits.
My cleaning routine is rooted in habit—and advice from intelligent riflemen who think cleaning important.
First, you need a place to shove the dirt…
A big wicker basket on the brick apron of my wood stove holds kindling and old newsprint. It’s a natural patch-catcher, broad enough to snare the spray of soiled solvent from brushes popping free of rifle muzzles. You’ve no kindling bin? Muzzle-mounted receptacles like Splatter Box, Patch Hog and Muzzle Mate protect carpets and marriages. Bright ceiling light, by the way, is a big help. Ditto cozy environs, with a radio. I avoid the garage. If you clean in cold, silent, lonely places, you won’t clean as often.
A polymer gun cradle secures the rifle on a table without marring the rifle or the surface. Receptacles in their bases hold cleaning supplies.
The black flecks you see in the bore of a rifle you’ve fired are easy to remove. As with many of life’s low hurdles, this debris is not important. Worst case: powder residue attracts moisture that, over time, causes rust. More nettlesome is copper stripped from bullet jackets. It not only traps moisture but tears at the jackets of succeeding bullets, impairing accuracy. A shiny bore is evidence you ran a patch through it. If it glistens, you soaked the patch with oil or powder solvent. But copper (metal) fouling is probably still there.
You’ll need a bore guide…
Not really. But this inexpensive polymer tube is a great investment. Slide it onto the cleaning rod before installing the patch or brush. As you insert the rod into the chamber, ease the bore guide into the bolt race and up against the barrel. The guide keeps the rod from flexing. That’s good for the rod but also the rifle’s throat, which can suffer from frequent rod contact. An 18mm guide fits most bolt actions; however, you’ll find Sinclair guides for just about any rifle, even single-shots, rimfires and ARs.
For lever-action, pump and autoloading rifles, which you’ll clean (reluctantly) from the front, get a Dewey brass bore guide to insert in the muzzle. Any damage to the muzzle is ruinous to accuracy. If you lack a guide, be careful aligning and inserting that rod, so there’s minimal contact at the bore’s mouth. Even a microscopic nick or scratch can cause uneven gas release at exit, tipping the bullet.
Use a one-piece rod, coated or uncoated steel…
In hunting camp, you can make do with the ubiquitous jointed aluminum rod and gun-cleaning kit. But a single steel shaft flexes less and has no mismatched junctures. In rimfire competition, I cleaned my McMillan-barreled Remington 37 with a Teflon-coated rod. My Tipton and Dewey .30-caliber rods are coated. But I as often use an uncoated steel rod. Its one advantage: it doesn’t pick up grit. Wiped clean, a coated rod is no hazard either, and, arguably, easier on the bore. To minimize flexing, a cleaning rod should be as large as the barrel comfortably accommodates. It should have a free-spinning handle, so the patch or brush can “take” the rifling freely during its travel.
A more portable option is the cable. You drop the coated cable through the bore, then pull the patch or brush one way. The Otis Ripcord cable has an integral 10-inch cleaning section with rigid Nomex synthetic fibers that “trap fouling better than nylon.” A molded, rubberized core centers that section and keeps the Nomex engaged. Sizes: .22 to .45. Like other Otis cables, Ripcord features brass ends with standard 8-32 threads. The zippered, biscuit-shaped Otis kits are ideal for backpack hunting. Shortcomings: they can’t clear a bore plugged by mud or snow after you face-plant on a deadfall, and they’re slower than a rod, because you can’t brush both ways. The Otis Elite, a base camp kit, includes 40 components, with obstruction-clearing tools.
First, soak a patch in bore solvent…
I’ve used Hoppe’s No. 9 for decades, mainly because I like the way it smells. It’s been challenged by many others (I count 26 gun-cleaning solvents in a recent Sinclair’s catalog). Still, it’s hard to beat for general cleaning. Ammonia-based solutions are particularly effective on stubborn copper deposits but must be kept off stock finish. Sweet’s 7.62 is stout enough that it shouldn’t be left in the bore “for over 20-25 minutes at a time.” You’ll also want to wash bore brushes of ammonia.
I remove the first sopping, blackened patch after one pass, so as not to pull its gunk back through the bore. Then I soak a brush in solvent. Mostly, I use brass brushes, though for the compliant fouling in my smallbore match rifle I stay with nylon. Brass is not too harsh, given the tremendous friction produced by jacketed bullets jammed through the bore at 3,000 fps. I brush both ways, generally 10 passes. Make sure the brush is properly sized for the bore! And before inserting it, check to see that with the bore guide in place the rod is long enough to push the brush clear of the muzzle! Brushes aren’t made to reverse in the bore. I’ve had to hammer them free—not good for brush or bore. Discard brushes with damaged bristles. Cleanse brushes in fresh solvent after use.
A clean, dry patch is next…
As with the first wet patch, you can use a jag or a slotted tip. A jag’s ribs hold a wrapped patch against the rifling. The spear-like tip of a pointed jag centers the patch, which folds down against the ribs like an umbrella. A pointed jag jettisons the patch if you try to pull it back through. I prefer a slotted end (plastic or brass), which holds the patch securely in butterfly form for two-way swabbing.
The patch that follows the brush usually emerges as black as the initial, solvent-soaked patch, so I don’t bring it back through.
The next dry patch should appear much cleaner. I draw it back, replace it with a third patch that gets two round trips. I finish with a lightly oiled patch, twice forward and back.
Many shooters neglect the chamber. Pulled from the bore, a brush sprays the chamber with grime and solvent. After dry patches come clean, I remove the bore guide and angle the rod to gently spin those patches against the chamber to remove residue. I follow with a spin from a lightly oiled patch. Remember that when you fire, the case must grip the chamber! Excess oil prevents this, increasing bolt thrust. Before firing a new rifle, or one stored with a greased bore, remove grease from the chamber.
Cleaning can affect point of impact…
A clean bore, dry or lightly oiled, can send a bullet to a lonely place, apart from where subsequent bullets strike. In elk rifles, such a departure seldom matters. Elk are big. You aren’t steady enough to send all shots into one hole, even if rifle, ammo and conditions permit. Still, you must be confident your bullets will hit point of aim. So after zeroing and cleaning the bore, I hang a “first-shot target” at 200 yards, then fire one round from prone with a tight sling, my steadiest field position. If that bullet hits center, I won’t use the target until again I can shoot with a clean, cold barrel. Ideally, several cold-bore shots will print an acceptable group on point of aim. Groups fired as the barrel heats and accumulates residue matter less. If following shots punch a tight knot around the first, buy yourself a lemonade.
Protect the comb of your stock with a rag when running the rod in and out. High combs are easily nicked by rod handles. Checkering on walnut stocks deserves a wrap too, so you won’t inadvertently stain it with hands dripping dirty solvent. Keep cleaning chemicals off recoil pads and scope lenses!
Solvents and petroleum-based oils can attack rifle-stock finishes. Epoxy wood finish and molded polymer stocks endure splashes during cleaning. Wipe afterward with a dry rag or a silicon-impregnated reel cloth—which, in place of a lightly oiled rag, also prevents finger-print rust on metal.
To freshen the color and help waterproof checkering cut after the stock finish is applied, I dip a hard-bristle toothbrush in boiled linseed oil and scrub. With a rag and a clean toothbrush, I then remove any dirt and excess linseed oil from the cuts.
If you must take a screwdriver to a rifle, use the hard hollow-ground bits you’ll get with magnetic handles. Fit the bit to the screw slot, and you won’t tear it or the metal around it. Your rifle will retain its youthful good looks longer.
Best way to store rifles? In my view, it’s vertically, muzzle down on cardboard. Residual oil then drains from the muzzle. Butt-down, oil runs into the stock’s wrist, softening and blackening the walnut. A recoil pad also fatigues and can lose its crisp shape when bearing the weight of the rifle in storage.
Storing rifles in soft cases is a bad idea, because case linings draw moisture. Scabbards are worse, as leather contains salts. A hard case with foam lining is OK. Include a packet of hygroscopic crystals to wick moisture. Cased or not, you’ll want to keep your rifle in a dry place where temperatures stay moderate.
I like to store rifles with firing springs relaxed. You won’t damage centerfire bolt- or lever-action rifles dropping striker or hammer on an empty chamber. Before you do, make doubly sure there’s nothing in it! Keep cartridges far from where you’re cleaning.
Like people, rifles well treated usually treat you well