Opening of the spring hunting season. A man cleans rifle barrel

Rifle Cleaning: Time Tested Techniques to Preserve Your Guns

There are so many different ways to clean firearms. Everyone also seems to have their own personal preference about how to go about it. This can be really confusing for someone new or even someone seasoned that never really bothered to learn properly or develop a system. The problem is improper cleaning can really damage a gun. In this post, I’ll show you my rifle cleaning methods and why they work.

We’ll also address how to deal with wet rifles, how often to clean and how to properly store guns – from a rust and cleanliness perspective.

This is one of those posts where everything is heavily connected and I suggest reading in its entirety. I’ve also covered different levels of rifle cleaning and it all builds on the previous. So grab a coffee and let’s get started.

Discloure: Posts may contain affiliate links. Purchases made through our links result in a small commission to us at no charge to you. We only recommend products that meet our brand standards based on testing and first hand use by our authors.

How Often Should You Clean Your Rifle?

After every time you use it! The single biggest thing you can do as a firearm owner is clean your guns. All my guns new and old and by old I mean 175 years old, work exactly as they should. They are accurate, never jam, cycle smoothly and are free of dirt accumulation, oil varnish and rust.

You’ll find that some ammunition is dirtier than others. I bought some quiet (low velocity) .22 rounds. It’s a neat product that basically turns a .22 into a pellet gun which is great when you don’t want to annoy the neighbours or are too lazy to visit the range. A single shot though with these and the barrel is filthy. I mean it’s black and has chunks of powder residue. I don’t know about you but leaving it in there seriously bothers me.

Does Cleaning Your Rifle Affect Accuracy?

This is an interesting subject. It is said that every cleaning modifies accuracy or how the gun shoots so to speak. I’m just not seeing that. In my Henry US Survival Rifle Review, I touched on the topic of how I shoot. Shooting bench is boring for me as it takes so much of the challenge right out. Put it this way, there’s more satisfaction shooting freehand and hitting a small target like a clay or metal that’s responsive versus shooting at a big piece of paper only to count how many millimetres each bullet is off…

When shooting a sporting clay or similar sized metal, I find no difference in hitting something this size anywhere from 40 to 100 yards with or without the cleanings. Unless you are in target shooting competitions, I would prioritize cleanliness, rust prevention and longevity over milimeters.

Before You Clean Your Rifle

1. Make Sure it’s Not Loaded

Not to bore you with safety stuff you’ve already heard a million times but just check it anyways. I know myself 100% I don’t store or transport guns loaded – and I’ll check again before I handle it let alone clean it.

2. Make Sure it’s Not Wet!!

You just came in from a hunt or awesome target practice but it was raining. No problem, don’t sweat it. Wipe your gun down with a clean dry rag, pull the bolt and magazine (or open the action on a pump) and leave it be. Set it down for a few hours, even overnight if you like so it dries out fully. Then you clean it later.

You’ll need to comply with storage laws. In Canada that means keep the bolt separate or toss a trigger lock on. It doesn’t need to go in the safe yet nor would I introduce any moisture there. Put it somewhere secure and out of sight but dry and airy and just let it dry out nicely.

Tip: Don’t forget the case, you had a wet gun in there! Some of us have to work hard to resist the temptation of tidying up right away. Unless you like mold and mildew, leave your case open and let it fully dry out first.

I often go one step farther and run just one patch soaked in Ballistol down the barrel. It pushes out any moisture and leaves the bore with a light coat of oil. What I’m really doing is allowing the Ballistol to soak and work away at any fouling. This way when I come back later to do my cleaning, the fouling comes out much easier. By fouling we are talking about lead and copper.

Setup a Rifle Cleaning Work Area

This is an important step not to be overlooked. Have a spot in your basement, garage or anywhere you have a well lit and quiet place to work. Here you’ll setup a spot with your cleaning materials, oils, gun maintenance tools and some basic general tools.

I personally use the Tipton Gun Butler. The tray holds the jags, picks, oils, bore snakes and all the other goodies. More importantly, it provides a very solid rig to securely hold the rifle in position for cleaning, maintenance or even adding accessories such as a scope.

A good friend of mine is a long time hunter in his seventies. Needless to say he has been through a lot of rifle cleanings over the years. I was quite surprised to learn he didn’t have anything like the gun butler. Let’s just say the BushLife Santa had a special delivery that year. My friend never looks back, in fact he swears by it!

You will also need something for those times you need to lay your rifle down on the bench. Any visit to a gun store and you’ll notice these really nice fabric, purpose built gun matts on the counters. What you’ll also notice is they are not on the shelves for sale, at least not the nice thick plushy ones they use. I’ve offered some nice coin to acquire such a pad but no shop has taken me up on it. For this you can sacrifice an old towel and keep it at the ready. All we need is something soft so we can work without the fear of scratching our rifles.

How Do I Do A Basic Rifle Cleaning?

This is for a quick cleaning after using the rifle. Up to maybe 50 rounds. Any more and you will want a deeper cleaning which we cover farther below.

Pull the Bolt, Break Things Down

So you read my post and didn’t skip the parts where the gun is unloaded and dry… Very good. Now we pull the bolt of a bolt gun or dis-assemble if easy enough on a semi or pump. Follow the manufacturers instructions on how to.

I like paper towel as they are clean but feel free to substitute a clean rag. Lightly oil the rag and wipe down the bolt. This will remove any residue, it’s usually black and this process will leave a very light coating of oil to hold back rust. In terms of oil, I absolutely LOVE Ballistol in spray form, we’ll cover that below.

Start Running Patches

Now that the bolt is removed and clean, let’s run some patches down the bore. Always run from the breech to the muzzle. This way we are pushing dirt out of the rifle and not into the action! And by running patches, run them on a jag for a nice tight fit.

  • First run a Ballistol soaked patch on a jag
  • Push it all the way through
  • Remove the patch when it comes out of the muzzle. Don’t let dirt back in!
  • Gently pull the rod back. Particularly be careful around the muzzle.
  • Examine the patch. If it’s not overly dirty and has absolutely no loose crud, flip it and run it again. The dirty side will hug the jag, not the bore.
  • The bulk of the loose crud is now gone. Since I’m anal, I usually run a second oil patch.
  • Go for a smoke, make a coffee, tell your friends about my awesome blog, whatever… Let that oil soak for 10 minutes or so. Ballistol is a little slower as a solvent.
  • Start running dry patches until they come out clean!

In general, you can flip patches and run them again if they are clean enough. It doubles their mileage and it’s a lot cheaper this way. If your patches are falling off somewhere in the action you can try this: Run your rod as far as the bore and stop shy of it. Then hold the patch with your other hand right up against the entry to the bore and then push the rod through. It will grab the patch nicely.

Buy Your Patches In Bulk

Go straight for the 500 packs, you’ll use them sooner or later. Not only is it infinitely cheaper, you won’t be running to the store every 5 minutes to pick some up.

Tip: Get a clean rag, ideally paper towel and wipe your rod EACH time you pull it out of the barrel. You’ll be shocked at how dirty it is and while you are diligently swapping dirty patches for clean ones, your rod is re-inserting dirt. You’ll use fewer patches this way and they will come out cleaner a lot faster.

Which Cleaning Rod Should I Use?

Very Important: It absolutely boggles my mind that we spend thousands of dollars on rifles only to run cheap $10 cleaning rods repeatedly down its most important part, the bore. Yes, the cheaper rods are soft metals like aluminum but have you looked at yours closely? It’s probably very pitted. These budget rods also bend very easily. My cheap .22 rods all bent and then it gets scraped by the bore making even bigger pits in the rod. Not to mention dropping aluminum dirt in the action.

You may argue that it’s on purpose the cleaning rod takes damage versus the gun and you are correct. The problem is these pits hold dirt, which scratches the crap out of your bore. The Hoppe’s One Piece Carbon Fiber Rod makes all these issues go away but it’s not cheap. It’s also a boring purchase to be honest but it’s a genuine investment in protecting your precious rifles.

Why Should I Use Jags?

I started guns with blackpowder and cleaned them before I got into smokeless. Jags are popular on blackpowder but not as much on smokeless and I don’t know why. Sometimes old school is just better.

Jags give a really tight fit between the patch and the bore. The cheap and abundant cleaning kits out there come with slotted attachments. I’m sorry but it’s hard to trust that will clean and/or coat all surfaces of the bore. It’s just too way loose.

The Tipton Ultra Jag Set comes with 13 jags. It’s cheaper buying a set vs individually and more importantly it gives you a nice holder that marks each jag’s caliber. These jags have a solvent proof nickel coating and prevents false blue copper fouling. It’s what I use here, in fact every product linked on this post are the exact products I use myself.

Tip: The odd time a jag may be too tight and give you a hard time. Even then I don’t use slotted tips. If this happens simply wrap the patch onto a bronze brush for a tight fit. You’ll be picking fabric out of your brush after but at least you can at finish the job properly.

Cleaning the Bore of Non-Bolt Guns

Here’s where things get tricky, sort of. Semi-autos and pumps will not have that straight cleaning path from breech to muzzle. The problem is working a rod from muzzle to breech can damage the muzzle. Over time, you end up working away at the muzzle and it affects accuracy. Do this long enough and the barrel is toast.

With these types of rifles, this is an opportune time to run a bore snake and we’ll cover bore snakes farther below. The other option, if applicable is disassembly. I wouldn’t be dissembling things for a basic cleaning unless it’s really easy – use a snake. But if you ever find your rifle disassembled, now would be a good time to do a deeper cleaning with a rod!

Shotguns we’ll cover in a separate post.

Cleaning the Action

Here I advise to simply wipe things down and get out any fouling. If things are pretty dirty in there, refer to deeper cleaning below.

Once the action and bolt guide is clean, it’s time to lubricate any moving parts. Don’t overdo any oiling, it can cause jamming during cold weather. Not to mention a mess in general. Your looking at lubricating areas like the bolt guide where you have metal to metal contact on moving parts.

Final Touches

This is the point where it’s good to wipe down all exterior metal surfaces of the rifle with a lightly oiled rag. It will not only clean things, it will help ward off rust. A rag can be better than paper towel here, some rifles have a rough finish the paper towel shreds on.

Let’s Look At A Deeper Rifle Cleaning

A basic rifle cleaning is what I generally do on my firearms or at least at minimum after each use. Every so often or after a heavy range day, it’s time to look at doing a deeper rifle cleaning. For this, everything above still holds true, we are simply going to add or modify some steps.

2 Step Patch Process

Up until now, every reference made to oil or even cleaning solvent has been Ballistol. Since we are doing a deeper clean, we will use a dedicated cleaning solvent followed by oil.

We can simply modify the patch process from a basic rifle cleaning to run Hoppe’s Gun Bore Cleaner. Run one patch soaked in it through the bore, flip the patch and run it again. Then wait around 5 minutes so it can work it’s magic.

At this point, it’s time to run a bronze brush and really scrub the bore of any lead and copper fouling. Then run a patch to pull out any left over junk.

If the bore is still dirty or the patches won’t get clean, run a little more solvent and keep scrubbing with a bronze brush until you get a clean patch.

Finally, I like to run a lightly oiled patch as a final wash followed by a dry patch. This last step is like insurance to hose out solvent and double check your work. If the patch is clean, you know you did good!

Cleaning the Action Thoroughly

Oil will varnish over time. It also attracts dust like a magnet. This is all in addition to all the smokeless powder residue and environmental dirt that all eventually builds up in the action.

Remington sells a product call “Remington Action Cleaner”. Hold the rifle up over a garbage can or take it outside and tip it so the liquid flows out. Spray it out really good with this stuff and it does wonders. If you have compressed air, now is a good time to chase it.

The wash above removes a good part of the gunk and loosens the rest. Have a go at it with fine plastic gun picks and gun brushes to really clean things out. A secondary rinse with action cleaner is advised here.

It is said to never oil the action in light of jamming and I follow that. However, I have come across some guns, usually older ones, with finicky or sticky trigger mechanisms. I have to admit a tiny spray of oil made things as good as new. It’s something we all advise against, but at times and based on need it has its place. Do however lightly oil the bolt guide and any moving parts.

Tip: If you are in the boonies, in the cold and find your action jamming but you don’t have a proper cleaner: You can sub lighter fluid as a wash.

Cleaning Neglected Guns

A Brief Story on Reviving A Lee Enfield

My mom bought me an old Lee Enfield for Christmas, Ie. over 100 years old. But I had to pick it up as only I have a license. So I landed at a gun shop in the middle of nowhere run by an older gentleman who’s semi-retired. An interesting gentleman who is a proper gunsmith.

Upon inspecting things, it looked pretty good but the bolt was awfully tight! The bolt guide had a very thick buildup of dry brown gunk. It was also very dusty. The shop owner has a unique policy of leaving guns as traded so you get a clear idea of how it was cared for.

It turns out this rifle was owned by an old gentleman who passed away. God only knows it may have been on his mantle for half a century but I can tell you no one shot or cleaned it in ages… I agreed to buy it if the gunsmith showed me the bore. He sprayed the bolt with light oil and it immediately loosened a lot – indicating it just needs a cleaning. He then repeatedly ran a bronze brush down the bore bone dry! Mushroom clouds of dust were coming out and the bore yielded a tiny bit of shine – Ie. Acceptable but somewhat worn. I knew I could deal with that and maybe clean her up better. Keep reading, the story continues..

How to Clean the Bore of Neglected Guns

Just like from a basic cleaning to thorough one, we are just adding steps.

I learned something that day from that gunsmith. The biggest first step is you can really get a ton of junk out of a bore just by running a dry bronze brush over and over again. Without solvent, it’s so easy to blow out the dust. Nor does all that filth stick to the brush itself making a mess.

On my Lee Enfield restoration, after getting home and running solvent with a lot of bronze brush strokes, I would see a ton of sticky black gunk in the bore. And on the brush. Once you add solvent, things can get sticky on a neglected gun. This is when you run a patch to pull the junk from the bore AND spray your bonze brush with some action cleaner. Then you can go back to solvent and bronze brush strokes. You repeat this process over and over again until its clean.

This particular gun took about an hour of scrubbing just for the bore. I couldn’t figure out where all the dirt was coming from. Oil turns to varnish over time and fouling can be really tough. As the rifle cleaning continued, not only did the bore get shinier on each turn, the rifling was coming back! All that dirt I was pulling out came from the rifling and it turned out the bore isn’t worn out at all!!

A neglected bore requires a lot of work, patience and materials. Be prepared to wear through your bronze brushes and be ready to replace them before you tackle one of these jobs.

Effect on Cycling

It should be noted here that after scrubbing and rinsing the bolt and guide repeatedly, the gun would cycle like butter. In fact if you rotate the bolt up and aren’t holding it, it pop’s all the way back to the stopper. Not bad for a bolt that barely wanted to move.

Don’t Forget The Furniture

The wood furniture of a firearm will dry out over time. This is especially true on older guns where the finish may haven worn off a bit exposing unfinished wood. Shy of a re-finish, it’s a must to moisturize any wood to prevent cracking. Ballistol is very safe for this and will clean and protect wood.

When Should You Use A Bore Snake?

Bore snakes really have their time and place. More and more people are moving to them as a primary cleaning method. Personally, I think that’s fine for a basic cleaning but you’ll never do a really thorough one this way. Some guns are so dirty I can see the snake itself getting fouled before the gun is clean.

Bore snakes are great for .22s as quite often it can be really challenging to get a rod through. Equally, semi’s and pumps really benefit from the flexibility of snake. As to rifle cleaning in the field, it doesn’t get any better than carrying a bore snake! Its ease of use and portability are second to none.

We are all pressed for time, I get it. The bore snake is more convenient and fast. Maybe I’m old school but I just don’t recommend it as your only cleaning method.

Bore Snake Rifle Cleaning

The small end of the Hoppe’s BoreSnake has a weight on it. Once you open the action and tip the rifle, drop it in through the breech and gravity takes over. The end drops right out of the muzzle. At the beginning of where the thick floss starts is where you dab the solvent. Oil goes towards the end of the snake. Alternatively, Hoppe’s sells a one step cleaner / oil. The floss generally has bristles to act as brushes and the floss doubles as a patch. It’s pretty slick and all you do is grab the weighted end and pull the whole snake through the bore.

I usually run the snake through 2 to 3 times myself and then wash the snake with warm water and dish soap. Just make sure to hang the snake and air dry overnight.

Let’s Talk About Ballistol for Rifle Cleaning

Ballistol is short for ballistic oil. It’s almost a miracle kind of oil that doesn’t resinify or varnish so to speak. It’s marketed as “cleans, lubes, protects” and it really does. Ballistol is non-toxic and for that reason, it’s what I clean and oil my knives with.

Ballistol works on wood, leather, plastic and so on. We have no affiliation to Ballistol so I’m passing it on for your reference but this product has BushLife written all over it as it caters to everything we talk about.

Every single reference to oil in this post is Ballistol. Check your local stores for it, I have seen it at firearms stores, Sail and Canadian Tire. It’s worth the effort.

If you can’t find Ballistol, I suggest Remington’s Rem Oil as a light oil for bolt guides or where a spray is needed. For bores, it’s Hoppe’s No. 9 Oil.

Can You Use WD-40 to Clean A Rifle?

No. While we all have and generally love WD-40, don’t use it on guns! It is primarily a solvent not suited for gun type fouling. WD-40 is very flammable which has no place in firearms. Most of all, it leaves a waxy residue.

Rifle Storage After Cleaning

After every cleaning, I run one final VERY lightly oiled patch down the bore. It just helps ward off rust as the rifle sits in storage. If any fouling was somehow missed, it will work away at it for the next cleaning. If you do oil for storage, make sure to run a dry patch through before you head out and/or fire the gun. Oil in the bore can increase pressures and it’s not safe.

Firearms are best kept in a locker or safe. It’s your personal choice. Just be mindful of humidity. In the summer or part way through spring and fall, humidity can get out of hand and cause rust. This is offset by keeping a moisture absorbing humidity pack in the locker.

Alternatively in the winter, things can get very dry. In fact across Canada and in the northern US, when you heat up already dry winter air, the relative humidity level nose dives. To the point that it can be drier than the Sahara dessert. During these times, it is best to occasionally treat any wood furniture on your firearms with some lube.

One Final Accessory

Before I let you go, I have to show you one of my favourite accessories. Walking into the gun store one day, I stumbled on below by accident. They only had a couple and I’ve yet to see them in store anywhere else. I really love this case.

The MTM CRC Gun Cleaning Rod Case, it’s almost 4 feet long! In other words it holds cleaning rods assembled which is a lot nicer than having to screw them together each time you need them. For 1 piece rods, it holds them safely from getting damaged. The MTM CRC Gun Cleaning Rod Case has slots for patches in all their various sizes and the thing I like most is it holds all of this stuff in a sealed box – Ie. not getting dusty or dirty. It’s not for everyone in light of its size but it’s one of my favourite gun gadgets so to speak.

Do Your Rifle Cleaning

I hope this post helps answer some questions for you. But now you have no excuse not to clean your precious rifles.

Purchase the Items in This Post

Share This Post
Stelios Lazos
Stelios Lazos

Stelios comes from the corporate world where he was a highly successful executive. Inspired by his love for the outdoors he has re-located with his family to live to the BushLife where he blogs about his adventures. Finding inspiration in the never-ending questions from aspiring outdoors people, Stelios aims to share his knowledge, one post at a time.

Articles: 52
%d bloggers like this: