Precision Gun Cleaning and Why You’re Doing It Wrong

Precision shooters have three major enemies. It doesn’t matter if you are a precision rifle or precision pistol shooter–there’s always three. These enemies are not the members of a competing team. Not the competitor next to you. Not that garbage ammo you bought on sale, last week. Not even your own mental status affecting the way that you shoot. The three major enemies of precision shooting are the three “F’s”; Friction, Fouling and Fiddling. It’s because of these enemies and the effect it has on the how’s and why’s of precision gun cleaning and why you’re doing it wrong.

Dirty Ass Guns

I have seen some dirty ass guns in my time. Anyone who coaches a junior team has seen ’em. Firearms manufactured or “gunsmithed” to tolerances of a billionth of an inch, left to get gunked up to the point of black, molten lava squirting from all the contact points. In some instances, I am truly impressed at just how much some of these guns can tolerate. One of the juniors has a 1911 Springfield Range Officer worked over by Dave Salyer, that kept on firing despite having eaten about seven thousand rounds without a single cleaning. It wasn’t until the 2018 outdoor NJ championships that she admitted to me that it was the case, and only after the gun decided that it was no longer semi-automatic, firing only single-shots at that point. Equally impressive is the Walter GSP Expert, which apparently never has to be cleaned so long as the lips of the magazine can still reach the chamber. Despite the marvels of operating with filth, let’s instead assume that not all guns will work this way.

Friction

So the first of our enemy “F” is friction. That metal on metal and/or metal on plastic gradual warming as multiple surfaces rub against one another again and again and again through the normal functioning of your firearm. The weapon we use against the enemy that is friction–lubricant–and oh, there are SO many to choose from. Now, I am not a chemist. I can’t quote formulas and all the science that has gone into the formulas that make up the most popular lubricants. What I CAN tell you is that it comes to thermal viscosity (how hot can it get before it starts to break down and no longer provides lubrication) I have done a little surprising research. We all grew up with the names we’ve heard a thousand times: Hoppes Gun Oil, RemOil, Ballistoil, and on and on… 

But have you heard of these: Canola oil, grape seed oil, safflower oil, peanut oil? Because if you have, then here is a list of lubricants including these and the high point in temperature where they will start to smoke on you:

  • Most “grease” (thicker and better “holding” power than thin oil) – 350 degrees
  • White lithium grease – 380 degrees
  • Most “extreme” gun oils (usually marketed to military, so of course you’ll buy it) – 400 degrees
  • Canola, Grapeseed, Safflower, Sunflower, Peanut oils – 450 degrees

And the absolute winner when it comes to thermal viscosity and drop-off/breakdown?

  • Common synthetic motor oil – 500 degrees

So whether you’re impressed, amazed or simply contemplative about these numbers, here’s why it’s all completely moot: The average firearm will only reach about 200 – 250 degrees during a normal precision match. Yes, even when your rifle is baking out in the hot sun. In truth ANY of these lubricants mentioned above will keep your action slick and free of friction, but will they also keep your metal parts rust free? That’s where you lose most to all of the cooking oils mentioned above. They don’t do as well with rust prevention. Why mention all this then? Because when faced with running a dry gun or using a cooking oil, it’s better than nothing to use cooking oil lube your gun. When would you HAVE cooking oil at a match or the range? Not my problem… but maybe you learned something about how gun oil is marketed to you.

Don’t Dunk

I have watched in horror as competitors on the firing line take shot after shot, wincing in pain from the spray of hot oil droplets lashing their hands, arms, faces and shooting glasses. I swear that some of these guns look as if they’ve been dunked in a vat of oil before the match, now causing second degree burns and acne across half the shooters face. When it comes to precision firearms… you don’t need to dunk. Less is more. SO much more. We sit there cleaning these expensive, tricked-out firearms and gnash our teeth as a tiny drop of oil just doesn’t look like enough to lube the slide. In the immortal words said to me by the late Larry Carter at Camp Perry; “Tell your kids to put the oil dropper away and instead oil with a cotton swab–no more.” You gonna argue? He was completely right. While some out-of-the-box gun store guns like to be “wetter” than others, precision guns want to gather as little fouling as possible, because that’s what excess oil does–it’s a magnet for gunk, which brings us to our next enemy “F”.

Fouling

Carbon, lead, little bits of unburnt powder, water (humidity) and salts from your skin all come together to form an unholy demonic mixture that builds up in the tender areas of your precision gun. A kinder word is “Fouling” and there are several ways to deal with it depending on both your patience and how long you wish to pretend that you got it all cleaned out. So what’s the best way to clean your precision firearm? I like to follow the following steps:

    1. With a nylon brush (looks like a toothbrush) wet with your favorite solvent or oil–for Euro-Guns I keep away from solvent and stick with gun oil as the cleaning medium– and scrub down all the “dirty parts”. Not sure where the dirty parts are? Run a clean cotton swap over all the nooks and crannies of the gun. Any part of the swab come out dirty? You need to scrub that. 
    2. Get a nice, cheap nylon bore brush and wet this also with your solvent or oil. Run the brush all the way through the bore until it completely emerges from the other end. You want to avoid stopping and reversing the direction of the brush until all the bristles have completely emerged from the other side. Why? Because as these bristles move through the bore and engage the rifling, they are bending one way or the other. Reversing the direction while they’re bent can cause them to snap off and get lodged in the rifling. That would be detrimental to the accuracy of your barrel. Never push a DRY brush of any kind through a barrel.
    3. Now that everything is scrubbed, grab your plastic picks and, my favorite tool, a wooden skewer with a point at one end and begin digging. The process of digging is the physical removal of chunks and gobs of black muck that has built up into the various hiding places within the chamber of your gun. If it’s been awhile since you’ve done a cleaning, some of this can be quite substantial. Keep digging and scraping and poking with these tools until no more fouling can be found. Unfortunately there are no shortcuts for this step. I really don’t care what the advertising says–I have yet to find any product on the market today that “dissolves” the gunk buildup in any gun. Get digging and be VERY careful if you are using metal tools–they can cause some truly awful scratches.
    4. I like disposable shop rags. I get them at Costco and they come in a box of like ten million sheets or something. They are blue and are heavy-duty paper towels that wont leave lint all over everything you wipe with them. Take one of these and put a little solvent or oil on it and rub down all the internals until clean. Do the same for the outside of the gun. You’d be surprised how much dirt from your hands and the salts that tag along with it can start to work on the outer metal of your gun.
    5. Push a small, wet patch down the barrel of your gun (oil or solvent-I prefer oil) and repeat until the patches come out clean. Push a dry patch to absorb the excess oil or solvent. If using solvent for this, push an oiled patch down the barrel as your last step after the dry patch.

Fiddling

Are you a fiddler? No, not the type found on a roof (Oye!), but an amateur or pseudo-amateur gunsmith who cannot leave well enough alone? Are you the person who bought professional smoothing stones and has now rounded off every angle on every part of your guns internals? Do you believe that the new precision gun you got from Germany can still use some “slicking up” inside? Yeah, you’re a fiddler. The first time I f#%&$@ up a gun by thinking I knew what I was doing before I really did was also the last time until I knew for sure. There are tons of great YouTube Videos out there teaching step-by-step techniques of gunsmithing, but then again, there are also plenty of really bad ones too–videos that can steer you so off base that you can permanently damage your gun. Consider this philosophy on it–if you’ve never done it before, do not assume you know how. Ask lots of questions of people who have owned and possibly worked on these guns before. Ask “why” more than “how much”. And most importantly… before you begin “working” on a precision firearm, have the contact information of a true professional within arms reach so that if you jack it all up, you’re little more than a phone call away to prevent the complete destruction of your pistol or rifle. YES, it’s your gun and you are allowed to work on it. SURE, you can save tons of money by DIY. UH-HUH, you can learn by trying. Just accept the reality that your precision firearm is not the used Glock 17 you picked up second-hand along with an Apex drop-in trigger. There’s a reason that qualified gunsmiths are CALLED “Qualified Gunsmiths”, but not all gunsmiths are qualified to work on precision firearms.

Of course everyone is going to have their own preferences, but I have found that the steps above always result in a firearm that is clean, fresh and ready for a few fouling shots before a match. What’s a fouling shot? It’s a round or two fired through a squeaky clean gun–both of which will probably be unimpressive in their accuracy. Why is this so? Not a clue, to be honest. But I know that it is a fact that you don’t want your gun to be April fresh when you load that first round at a match. The gun needs a little “dirt” to shoot accurately.

Go have a match.

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