Aftermarket barrels, good triggers, premium ammo and top-shelf optics will all help your rifle shoot well, but without regular cleaning you won't ever realize your gun's true potential. There are hundreds of products on the market that claim to keep your rifle in top working order and it seems that most everyone has their own routine and regiment when it comes to putting the spit and polish on their guns. Author Brad Fitzpatrick shares his own rifle cleaning routine here. We'd like to hear how you go about keeping your rifles clean as well! Share your process in the comments section below!
Before you even begin cleaning your gun make sure that you have all of the necessary equipment and a proper workspace. It baffles me when experienced shooters buy expensive rifles, top them with premium optics, and then neglect to perform the routine maintenance that will keep that sub-MOA rifle shooting sweet little clover leafs. A good cleaning kit isn't necessarily an expensive kit, but it should include a sturdy cleaning rod with a stout handle, jags, brushes, patches, solvent and oil/lubricant. In addition, maintain a small kit with cleaning essentials for trips to the field or range.
Be sure to have your workspace clear and purchase an oil-absorbing mat that you can spread out over the surface of the area. This prevents oil and solvents from getting on to your table but, more importantly, it provides a soft surface for your rifle. Many shooters neglect finding a clean, ventilated area with good light and end up marring, scratching or dropping their rifle.
In addition to the basic equipment there are a few other essentials that make the cleaning process easier and more effective. First, I like to have a good bore light so that I can inspect the full length of the rifling after each cleaning session to be sure I've removed as much fouling as possible. In addition to a bore light, I want to be sure that I have a variety of brushes for the chamber, magazine and bore with bristles made of different materials. Gun cleaning brushes are typically available with nylon (soft), copper (medium), and stainless steel (hard) bristles. Keep away from the stainless brushes except for removing the most stubborn fouling.
The last essential piece of equipment is one that I rarely use when cleaning bolt-action rifles but an absolute necessity when cleaning lever-actions, slide-action or another other rifle where the cleaning rod cannot be inserted through the breech, and that is a muzzle guard. Muzzle guards are small, cone-shaped brass pieces with a hole drilled longitudinally through the center so that they slide onto cleaning rods. The cone shape prevents accidentally ramming the rod handle into the muzzle, which could potentially damaging the rifling.
I like to clean my rifles soon after shooting them in an effort to remove fowling before it has a chance to damage the barrel.
Step 2--The Barrel
With the action open and the rifle unloaded I begin a visual inspection of the gun. Using my bore light I check the inside of the barrel, tighten the screws, look for any signs of rust, inspect the magazine and, on my big guns, I tighten the cross bolts. These visual inspections sometimes catch problems early, and not inspecting my rifles cost me a stock when a loose cross-bolt resulted in a very ugly crack in the otherwise beautiful stock on my .416.
Next, I remove the bolt and run a nylon-bristled brush coated in solvent down the length of the bore, pushing the cleaning rod from breech to muzzle. I'm a bit of a fanatic about keeping my rifling in good condition and will only pass a brush in this direction. Once the brush exits the muzzle I unscrew it and pull the cleaning rod back through the breech. This is when coated cleaning rods become an asset because they will not damage the rifling even if there is hard contact.
My next step is to place a jag on my cleaning rod and, from breech to muzzle, run the patch through the length of the barrel. The first patch is my meter, and as soon as it passes from the muzzle I'm inspecting it and reading the signs left behind in the barrel. If there is any brown or red on the patch that means rust and will probably require a copper or, in really bad cases, a stainless steel brush. Green patches are the result of copper fouling, and if your first patch is a lovely lettuce/avocado color you'd better invest in some potent copper solvent quickly. Most patches should appear black, which indicates lead and carbon fowling. In that case I'll run a patch with standard bore cleaner down the barrel, unscrewing the jag after it exits the muzzle and replacing the patch each time until the bore is clean.
I'm also picky about my patches. I was taught (and still believe) that good patches are designed for gun cleaning and that a dissected shirtsleeve or handkerchief is not an acceptable substitute. After all, if I'm going to invest several hundred or perhaps even several thousand dollars on a rifle doesn't it make sense to purchase high- quality products to help me maintain my gun?
As previously stated, I'm a bit phobic about overusing copper and stainless brushes but in some cases you can only clean your rifle from muzzle to breech. Do so carefully, pushing the cleaning rod steadily down the bore with your muzzle guard in place to prevent any damage to the rifling. When the bore looks mirror-smooth and has a very thin layer of lubricant in place I'm ready to move on.
Step 3--The Action
Perhaps I'm the guy who has been swindled by the snake oil salesmen of the gun world too many times, but I own just about every brush conceivable for cleaning my rifles. I have action brushes, chamber brushes, angled brushes and a handful of toothbrushes in my bag. Some have soft nylon bristles, others are copper and a few even have stainless bristles to remove the worst corrosion, though I can't recall ever using any of my stainless brushes on the chamber of my rifles. The entire action is cleaned, polished and lubed using action cleaner. You must use caution when cleaning a lubricating the chamber, though, since using too much lubricant can cause the action to become "gummy." I open the magazine on my rifles, applying a very thin layer of lubricant to the walls, follower and spring.
Step 4--Final Reassembly and Storage
Did you ever stop to ponder where and how most rifles are damaged? Is it when they are dropped from a saddle scabbard during a river crossing? Are they marred when their owner twists and ankle during a mountain hunt and has to use the gun as a makeshift crutch to return to base camp? Not hardly. The answer is far less romantic. You see, most rifles are damaged by being carried or shot and put away in closets or safes for long periods of time without being properly maintained. Rust begins to set in. Changes in humidity swell the stock. Dust mars the bluing. In fact, the worst thing you can do to a rifle is not shoot it.
If a gun is properly cleaned and stored it shouldn't matter how long it is entombed before the next range session, though. The last step after cleaning the bore and the action is to wipe down all of the exposed metal, paying special attention to areas where the gun is frequently held like the floor plate, safety, trigger and bolt handle. Using a water-based cleaner, I finish my gun cleaning session with a thorough external cleaning before the rifle is placed back in the safe.
That's my method. What's yours? Does it vary from the above? Any special products that you've found invaluable for gun maintenance? Weigh in about your own methods in the comments area below.