No Time Like the Present for Rifle and Muzzleloader Maintenance

No Time Like the Present for Rifle and Muzzleloader Maintenance
The winter season provides a great opportunity to clean and maintain deer rifles and muzzleloaders for storage until next deer season. Taking preventative measures now prevent damage and performance problems next fall.

From Kentucky Dept. of Fish and Wildlife Resources


FRANKFORT, Ky. – The modern gun deer season in Kentucky ended weeks ago and the late muzzleloader season closes this weekend.

The holidays are a good time to check one item off your to-do list: ensuring your rifle is clean and in tip-top shape for the next hunting season.

“If you want your rifle to last longer, the best way to do that is to keep it from getting rusty,” said Bill Balda, an expert marksman and the Hunter Education Supervisor for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The best way to keep it from getting rusty is to clean and lubricate it. As a result, you get to know your rifle better and you know it’s in safe working condition.”


A well-maintained rifle can last generations and will perform better over time. Neglecting routine maintenance can lead to a buildup of gunpowder residue and metal fouling.

“The simplest way to unload a muzzleloader is to fire it into a safe backstop. But the residue from burnt black powder and even its substitutes is extremely corrosive,” said Mark Marraccini, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife spokesman and a muzzleloader craftsman. “If you leave that inside the barrel for very long it would be just like dipping any piece of steel into corrosive acid or salt. It’s going to start etching its way into the steel immediately.”

Marraccini warns against creating pits in the barrel. “They will affect accuracy later and could make your muzzleloader unsafe,” he said.


Before undertaking any cleaning routine, first make sure the rifle is not loaded.

For centerfire rifles, Balda suggests cleaning the barrel with patches wet with gun cleaner first, then, a wet brush for five to 10 passes. After the initial cleaning, continue to use dry patches until they come out clean. A light coat of oil then can be applied in the bore.

“If you want to remove copper buildup after shooting 500 to 1,000 rounds, there are chemical cleaners that can be used. I use a bore paste, which is like a jeweler’s paste. It has grit in it that is harder than copper but not hard enough to score the steel of the barrel,” Balda said. “Most liquid cleaners have ammonia in them. When you run that patch through and take it out and it has blue on it that means you have copper in the barrel. I would first brush it out and then go ahead and patch it dry. Then, put bore paste on another patch and scrub it in there. You can go back and forth, particularly at the throat, seven or eight times.”

Balda recommends placing a piece of wood on the end of the barrel to prevent the cleaning rod from coming out.

“When you pull that out, that paste is going to look black no matter what,” he said. “Then check it with a wet patch. If the wet patch is blue, there still is copper present. Then, you have to keep doing it. Even if you only get half the copper out of it, it will still shoot better.”

While you’re at it, check the bedding screws. Wood stocks tend to shrink and swell with changing environmental conditions and that can loosen those screws. For pesky screws that refuse to stay tight, Balda suggests securing them with blue Loctite.

If your rifle is a bolt action, Balda suggests removing the bolt and cleaning the bolt face and the receiver inside the action with a toothbrush-style cleaning brush. Then, wipe with a light coat of oil. Wipe down the outside of the rifle and clean the lenses on the scope.

For muzzleloaders, hot soapy water effectively cuts through black powder residue and the heat from the water helps dry remaining moisture inside of the barrel after running a dry patch through it, Marraccini explained.

If you can remove the barrel, set the base of it in the water and work the cleaning rod similar to a plunger.

“When you can run a dry patch down it and it comes out entirely clean, then I like to put some natural greases on; Bore Butter is one brand of it. There are other brands out there, too,” Marraccini said. “You put it on a patch and run it down there until you’re satisfied that you’ve got a coating on the inside of the barrel.”

Treat the exterior of a muzzleloader the same as you would any rifle: wipe it dry and remove any fingerprints.

“Hunters know what kind of weather they were out in,” Marraccini said. “That water finds ways to get in all the cracks that you can’t see. As much as you’re comfortable disassembling it and cleaning it, it’s good for the gun. It makes good sense to clean it and take care of it.”

With flintlock muzzleloaders, he advises cleaning the area around the lock. On a percussion cap muzzleloader, a nipple pick and a nipple wrench help clean hard-to-reach areas.

“Even if you cleaned the barrel really good, on some of those, if you don’t clean the residue out of the nipple channel, that will corrode and when you go to load it next year it won’t fire,” Marraccini said.

Once clean, it’s ready to be stored in a gun safe.

“Put a big bag of desiccant or a dehumidifier in there,” Balda said. “If you put a wet gun in a gun safe without any desiccant or a dehumidifying rod, the other guns are going to get rusted. You don’t want that.”

Kevin Kelly joined Kentucky Fish and Wildlife in December 2013. His journalism career has included stops at daily newspapers in Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Petersburg, Fla. and Charleston, S.C. He is an avid angler with a passion for muskellunge and stream fishing.

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