Few things in the world still are built to last a lifetime. Guns are. With even a small amount of common-sense attention, any firearm you own will still be giving full service to your grandchildren – and may even be one that your grandfather had years before handed down to you.
Unfortunately, very few hunters take care of their guns the way they should. There are two primary reasons, both tied to basic human nature. The first reason is the simple reality that cleaning and maintenance – of anything – is a pain. No matter how much we love our prized hunting guns, caring for them is ultimately no more fun than doing the dishes or washing the attic windows.
The second reason is that most of us have been conditioned to feel that if we do any gun cleaning at all, we need to get out all the rods and brushes and chemicals and rags we have accumulated over the years and spend at least an hour or two really cleaning – and at the same time, we probably ought to get out every gun we own and make a whole day’s project of it. The result is that we put it off, and we put it off, and we wind up letting dirty guns sit for weeks or months, or we never even get around to doing any maintenance at all because we think we’re not really doing any good unless we go whole hog.
So here is Metcalf’s Care & Cleaning Lesson No. 1: Any maintenance is better than no maintenance. Yes, I know that all the instruction sheets with your cleaning kits say you need to keep running solvent-and-lube-soaked brushes and mops back and forth through the bore at least 10,000 times until the last fresh white patch comes out pristine, but what the guide sheets don’t tell you is that your first simple swipe down the bore with that very first solvent/lube-soaked patch takes care of about 90 percent of the whole process.
My grandpa’s .22 rifle leaned behind his kitchen door. Beside it was a cheap bore rod with a lube-soaked patch in a slotted tip. Whenever he fired that gun – if only to throw a single shot off the back porch – he’d run that rod one swipe through the barrel and set it back in the corner. He changed the patch maybe once a year (after squirrel season). Usually he wiped the barrel and action with an oily rag when he changed the patch. And that’s all the maintenance he ever gave that gun. It’s mine now. It looks its age, but it still shoots just fine.
The point is simple. You can be as compulsive and thorough about gun cleaning and appearance maintenance as you want. A full-treatment disassembly and the cleaning of individual parts every time you take the gun to the field certainly does no damage. And, I admit, every once in a while that’s exactly the kind of treatment I do give to my best-loved and most-used hunting tools. But I don’t do that kind of cleaning very often. Generally speaking, I do it Grandpa’s way. A 90 percent one-swipe is a lot better than a 100 percent no-swipe.
Of course, common sense should be your basic guide. A routine swipe for a behind-the-door gun will keep the weapon in pretty good shape. A hard day’s work in sweaty hands or a couple of days of hunting in a dusty wind or muddy marsh calls for a different approach.
Also, a lot depends on what’s most important to you. If you’re mostly interested in the gun’s function, you might be interested in knowing that most professional hunting guides’ rifles that I’ve encountered look about as beaten up as their pickup trucks – which is pretty beaten up. But you don’t see professional guides carrying guns that don’t work. On the other hand, I once encountered a guy in a rainy deer camp with one of the most beautifully stocked and engraved custom rifles I’ve ever seen. He sat around in the cook tent every evening wiping and polishing it – and left it cased in his tent every day and shot with his guide’s pickup truck gun.
Personally, I’m mainly concerned with function, but I do pay more attention to finish and matters of appearance than my grandpa did. And there’s no law against having a gun that looks good and works well.
So, if you want to be practical and keep your gun working for three lifetimes and looking as much like new as possible (not counting the unavoidable nicks and scars of honorable use) but not invest a career in the process, this is what works:
The time to do your most “overall” cleanup is when the gun is going on the rack until next season (whenever that may be). My routine is to first make very sure I’ve cleared all shells from the chamber and all magazines – especially any spare box magazines. Aside from the primary safety issue, shells get cruddy and soak up moisture and lubes if left in magazines or tubes. Do a quick field-strip and then brush, wipe, lube any apparent grit, grime, or gunky firing residue; reassemble; and work the action, making sure it still feels right. Clean the chamber and the bore with the level of effort (the number of swipes/wipes) you feel is necessary.
For the guns I most prize for accuracy – varmint rifles and long-range handguns – this is the time when I do my own most thorough fouling-removal cleanup of the bore, using a high-grade copper solvent, bore guide, graphite rods, and bench vise – the whole nine yards. But that’s just me. Basic reality is that the chamber and the bore are the elements most critical to your gun’s continued performance. You can let the finish and appearance go completely if you want. As long as you maintain the chamber and the bore, the gun will shoot where you point it.
For any gun, I’ll also yank the stock(s) off and make sure there’s no grit or moisture worked into the cracks and spaces between the metals and the wood/plastic. With a fully-bedded rifle, that probably means I’ll need to do a careful zero-check when I take it out next to use, but you ought to do that every year with every gun anyway. Finally, wipe it overall with an anti-rust lube and then store it. Do not store the gun for the season inside a soft case or foam-lined travel case. They draw moisture. Keep the weapon in a real gun safe (best) or a locked open-air rack or cabinet.
One special note: for autoloading shotguns, be alert to the single-most-often-overlooked auto-shotgun maintenance item – the recoil spring in the buttstock, which is a natural grit/gunk trap and is the most common source of all “unexplained” autoloader failures. Whatever other auto-shotgun cleaning and maintenance you may do, get a stock-screw bit for your screwdriver, yank off the stock (at least once a year), and clean the spring. An amateur gunsmith buddy of mine was hired a few years ago to look at about a half-dozen “problem” Remington 1100s that a local gun shop had acquired. The shop
offered him $30 apiece to look at them. He pulled the stocks off all six and cleaned the springs, and they worked fine.
There are dozens and dozens of different brands and formulas of cleaning/lubing/rust-protecting materials on the market, all of them making all sorts of special performance claims. So what’s the best?
Metcalf’s Care & Cleaning Lesson No. 2 is this: All cleaning materials work, and the worst is a lot better than nothing.
Generally speaking, for modern firearms you’ll be just fine with just one bottle of any general-purpose combination solvent/lubricant. If you have a special need, there is definitely a special-purpose product you can find. To remove stubborn copper fouling from a rifle bore, get a strong specific copper solvent. For a gun that heats up a lot in normal use (like a high-velocity prairie-dog rifle), get a non-dissipating high-temperature lubricant. Invest in a good bore rod.
Graphite or polymer is better than any metal. Any of the compact stick-in-your-pack field cleaning kits on the market will be worth its weight in gold the first time you’re in a swamped johnboat or you fall down in a mud hole or it rains or snows in deer camp, or any number of things happen that aren’t supposed to happen but eventually do. Buy only what you’ll use. The simpler you keep the whole issue of maintenance and cleaning in your mind, the more likely you’ll be to actually do it.
Finally, I strongly recommend you buy the new “snake-type” bore-cleaning “ropes” that have overwhelmed the market in a variety of brands and different configurations in the past few seasons. Get one for every caliber and gauge gun you own. Carry one with you on every hunt.
Combining a bore brush, patch and swab all in one simple compact drop-through device, these are the greatest boon to firearms maintenance ever invented. I keep mine in a little plastic pocket bag, with the brush areas soaked with a solvent and the trailing swab-end moist with a lube. When I clear the gun, in the field or out, after firing or not, I run the snake through the bore and chamber. This keeps everything polished clean, and the bore and chamber will never corrode.
Grandpa would have loved these things.