Rifle cleaning’s a bore



Hoppe’s No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner is what my father always used, and its “banana oil” odor is, to my mind, the proper ambience for a gun cleaning session.


Screw the bristle brush into the tip of the cleaning rod, soak it in powder solvent, and go to work like a dissident communist Chinese official ordered by the Red Guard to scrub the entryway to the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing.

Rifle cleaning’s a bore

Heather –

Regarding your recent e-mail message requesting information about cleaning your deer rifle: I tried to write a brief, simple explanation of the procedure, but unfortunately, as you are aware, when it comes to hunting rifle lore I have a congenital obsessive-compulsive disorder that makes it impossible for me to limit myself to “brief and simple.”

Consequently, the first draft of my e-mail response quickly exceeded 2,000 words, and although my knowledge of social media communications tools is limited I realized that e-mail is perhaps not the appropriate place for publication of a monograph of this length. Therefore I have rewritten the original draft as an essay to be posted on my blog, a forum which suits my rambling and indirect writing style without, I hope, drawing any undue attention from the National Security Agency, the FBI, the BATF, or the kind but sometimes overly inquisitive folk who handle my case at the local behavioral health clinic.

So, to address the task at hand:

At present neither you nor I need clean our deer rifles except for a light wipe-down of all exterior metal parts with an OOR (Old Oily Rag), and a similar wipe of the wooden stocks with a soft cloth lightly sprayed with furniture polish. No cleaning of our rifles’ bores or actions is required because neither of us fired a single shot during the past deer season, an unfortunate circumstance caused in part by the unexpected blizzard that swept across north-central Nebraska in mid-November and in part by a delayed start to the hunt, which you and I have discussed in detail and assigned well-deserved blame to one member of our hunting party whose name will not be mentioned here. I am struggling with forgiveness.

After future hunts or target shooting sessions, however, we will be giving our rifles a thorough cleaning, and what follows is a general description of the procedure. Before I begin I should note that there are hunters and shooters who never clean their rifles. At all. Ever.

Incomprehensible as that seems to an accuracy fanatic like me, there is some basis for the “never clean it” philosophy. All modern ammunition for centerfire rifles is manufactured with “non-corrosive” primers and powder; unlike the ammunition of 50 years ago, it will not cause rusting or pitting in the rifle’s bore. Therefore the “never clean it” acolytes believe that a rifle can be fired hundreds of times without cleaning, and there is no danger the bore will deteriorate. These are the same people who neglect to change the oil in the engines of their pickup trucks regularly and seldom clean their refrigerators. Again, we will not name names.

The problem with never cleaning a rifle is that primer and powder residues are not the only gunk that collects in the bore and in the throat of the chamber. Every bullet that travels though the barrel leaves traces of its copper jacket (and in some instances the bullet’s lead core or tip), plus that residue of burnt propellant (powder), along the lands and grooves of the rifling. The generic term for this is barrel fouling.

Fouling can be a minor problem, or it can be a major problem, depending on the characteristics of the barrel and the amount of fouling that has accumulated. The “never clean it” crowd would argue that with a .30 caliber barrel it is unlikely that fouling would ever cause significant accuracy loss in a hunting rifle. I argue that, regardless of caliber, a rifle bore that is routinely cleaned will most assuredly never experience accuracy loss due to fouling, because there is no fouling. Nor will the barrel be damaged by microscopic bits of grit, crud, and moisture trapped between the layer of fouling and the surface of the bore.

As is said: “Yer pays your money and yer takes yer choice.”

Cleaning your rifle is a simple but time consuming task; not a problem for me because, like most with obsessive-compulsive behaviors, I get some strange gratification from the repetitive, detailed ritual. And it gives me an excuse to drink a beer in the late afternoon.

The first step is to set up your cleaning bench or table; good lighting and minimal distractions recommended. A rifle rest to hold the rifle while you clean it is handy but not necessary; a cleaning pad or an old towel is adequate. No live ammunition on the table – never, not ever, not under any circumstances. Make sure the rifle is unloaded, and lock all live rounds of ammo in a cabinet.

Roll up your sleeves and get out your cleaning tools and supplies: a cleaning rod with threaded tip for two attachments – a jag, and a bristle brush. You will also need a bottle of powder solvent, a can of gun oil, several cleaning patches, and an OOR. Every hardware store sells a basic rifle cleaning kit with all these components (except the OOR). The small box of patches that comes with the kit will be quickly used up. You can buy more, but patches cut from an old t-shirt work just as well.

There are a number of powder solvents on the market. I use Hoppe’s No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner because that is what my father always used and its “banana oil” odor is, to my mind, the proper ambience for a gun cleaning session. If the bore is heavily fouled a more powerful, copper-dissolving solvent may be necessary, but since you are never going to allowing fouling to get that bad the “regular strength” stuff is all you will ever need.

I recommend Rem Oil as the gun oil/lubricant for your rifle; I have used more than a dozen brands and regard this as the best. There is a product called Break-Free CLP which is also good stuff; I use it on all my shotguns but not my rifles because it is viscous, tends to attract and hold dust and grit, and can make the action stiff to operate in cold weather.

Let’s get to work. Remove the bolt from the rifle’s action and set it aside on the cleaning pad. Assemble the cleaning rod and screw the jag into the tip. I use the “slotted” jags, but the “spike” style jag is also good. Attach a patch to the jag, soak it with bore cleaning solvent, and starting from the back of the receiver swab the patch through the bore. Soak a second patch and repeat.

Swab the bore from the receiver/chamber end, not the muzzle, because (although the likelihood is remote) the cleaning rod could scrape or scour the crown of the muzzle and affect the rifle’s accuracy. To keep gunk from the bore and chamber from getting into the action, there is a device called a bore guide, a hollow plastic tube that inserts in the action in place of the bolt to contain the cleaning rod as you swab the bore. I have some of these, of course; I’m not sure they are any more effective than a piece of rag stuffed into the action aft of the chamber.

Let the bore soak in its coating of powder solvent for about 10 minutes, then swab it again with a solvent-soaked patch. This is your test patch. If it comes out looking like an oily-dirty, coal-black engine rag in the grease pit of a service station, with a tint of copper-green, you will be doing a lot of scrubbing with the bristle brush. If it is soup-stained-dinner-napkin gray, you will have little work to do. It’s probably going to be somewhere between those two extremes.

Screw the bristle brush into the tip of the cleaning rod, soak it in powder solvent, and go to work like a dissident communist Chinese official ordered by the Red Guard to scrub the entryway to the Zhongnanhai compound in Beijing. Brass bristle brushes are most common, but nylon brushes are becoming more popular due to the pitch that nylon bristles are less likely to damage the bore than brass. I doubt that; both stainless steel and carbon steel rifle barrels are impervious to the soft bristles of either type of brush.

How much do you scrub? I have this “rule” that I make five passes of the bristle brush through the bore for every one shot that has been fired since the last cleaning, but that’s just a useless mantra. You have to scrub until it’s clean. Every so often switch from the bristle brush to the jag and run a lightly oiled patch through the bore. When it comes out light gray to white, the bore is clean.

Run two or three dry patches through the bore until one emerges with no trace of solvent. Attach a final patch, spray it with Rem Oil, and run it through the bore two or three times.

Cut a handkerchief-sized patch of cloth, spray it with Rem Oil, and use it to wipe every interior surface of the action that you can reach. Carefully wipe the bolt, with special attention to its face where powder residue may have collected, which can eventually interfere with the strike of the firing pin. Some people spray oil into every nook and cranny; I do not recommend this: excess oil collects and holds grit. Unless you have a good reason (like you hunted three days in a driving rain and water was running off your rifle), do not remove the rifle’s stock to wipe down the barrel and action parts it conceals. If you remove the stock, you will have to re-sight in the rifle because the inevitable change in pressure points when you tighten the stock bolts will affect bullet point-of-impact.

But sometimes you gotta. And re-sighting a rifle is fun, so…

You’re done until the next shooting session. Every couple weeks get the rifle out of the gun safe, inspect it, and wipe down the exterior surfaces with a lightly oiled cloth. Humidity and heat can do nasty things to a rifle in the dark of a gun safe over the course of several months if this inspection is neglected.

Before the start of our next hunt, you will want to fire a few shots through the clean bore to remove any trace of oil. Even a microscopic layer of oil coating the bore can affect the ballistics and flight of the first bullet fired. And that first shot is always the most important one on a hunt.

You got the cleaning kit I sent you, right? Enjoy.


More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer; indifferent wing shot. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Novelist and short story writer. Freeholder: 50-acre farm with 130-year-old log house. Husband, father, grandfather. Retired teacher, coach, mentor. Vicious editor. Blogger.
This entry was posted in Hunting, Hunting Humor, Hunting Rifles, Rifles and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rifle cleaning’s a bore

  1. nplumcreek says:

    Dear Heather, jeez I’m sorry you got caught up in this. If your gun won’t function dirty, it’s not a very reliable gun. It is a machine so some maintenance is necessary but who the hell wants to do what Jerry has recommended, takes the fun out of a shooting session and most of us never fire enough rounds to really get them dirty. Unless we throw them into a peat bog. But I’ll let Jerry share that story. Mn Fats

  2. It was not a peat bog, it was a flowage. And I repeat my statement from the essay: “… the ‘never clean it’ acolytes believe that a rifle can be fired hundreds of times without cleaning, and there is no danger the bore will deteriorate. These are the same people who neglect to change the oil in the engines of their pickup trucks regularly and seldom clean their refrigerators. Again, we will not name names.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s