By: W.S. Curtis
Introduction | Rifle | Equipment | Ammunition | Shooting | Sighting | Cleaning | Bedding
We will now look at the cleaning methods which should be adopted for all full stocked military and military match rifles. These comments apply equally to smoothbore muskets and to originals as well as to reproduction arms. In the case of originals the bedding is almost always satisfactory as our forefathers knew what they were doing but attention should be paid to the comments which appear later in this article on the subject of bedding, and in particular the use of Water Pump Grease to seal the barrel channel, as the less these pieces are taken apart the better. The protection of original wood with linseed oil and wax polish is even more important for originals, as old dry wood can soak up rain water in the most amazing way and with unpredictable and sometimes very damaging results.
When we come to cleaning rifles after a shoot a rethink of cleaning methods needs to be made. The first thing to remember is that all those so-called "Complete Guides" and articles in the popular shooting Press about black powder nearly all make a fundamental error. They state "Black Powder fouling residues are HIGHLY CORROSIVE and must be quickly and thoroughly cleaned out as soon as possible after use." This is just not true and repeatedly stating the fact will not make it so.
What we have here is the lingering ghost of a folk memory about the effect of corrosive PRIMERS, and in particular, those that contained Chlorates. Sufficient of their residues remained in the powder fouling to make it dangerous. Today we have NON CORROSIVE PRIMERS (unless, of course, you are still using some you got hold of donkey’s years ago).
Black powder fouling, in itself, is harmless. The danger comes when its hygroscopic (takes up moisture) nature causes it to become moist when it will change into a different and rust provoking series of chemical compounds. Our forefathers, when they adopted the early percussion mixtures, found out to their cost that they had better do a quick and thorough cleaning job or their new detonating fouling pieces would rust away before their very eyes. This was such a change from the comparative lack of problems experienced with the flintlocks that they spoke about it in print at some length. But today, as we have already said, the non-corrosive primer returns us to the simpler days of the flintlock.
Because of this the old timers were under the strict necessity to thoroughly wash out their barrels and the sporting guns that were in the commonest use were cleaned by taking the barrel or barrels out of the stock and immersing the breech ends in a bucket of hot water so that the pumping action of the cleaning rod could force large quantities of water through the breechings. The hook breech and transverse barrel key were designed to allow simple dismounting of the barrel and the use of this system does not detract from the accuracy of these pieces. However, taking out barrels has been adopted by far too many people as the way to clean fully stocked rifles. As this involves taking the barrel out of the bedding it is bad and should be discouraged. At the same time a positive obsession to remove every last trace of fouling from every part of the rifle leads to over cleaning and probably far more wear to the rifling than will ever be obtained by merely firing it.
Being an idle fellow, the writer, often does not clean his rifles on the same day he uses them. Indeed, a week has been known to slip by (what terrible bad habits) but without any ill effects. The secret is WD40, the well known proprietary de-watering oil in the spray can. A few squirts of this up the barrel and round the outside will completely prevent that atmospheric moisture from seeking out the benign fouling and transforming it into the evil rust inducing bore ruiner we all fear.
Now, having secured our rifle from the immediate effects of neglect, or if preferred, soon after shooting, we can look to cleaning it effectively, but not excessively, and without disturbing that excellent bedding job that has just won you the best score of the day. The time has come and we cannot put off the evil day any longer and must get on with cleaning properly. If you remember we have already ensured that there is no dirt or fouling between the barrel and the wood which is now hermetically sealed in a layer of water-pump grease. There is no fouling on top of the barrel or around the nipple lump (or bolster) because we have used that useful little brass cup called a flash guard (or as it was known in the 1860s, a flash-pan). The only external muck is around the nipple, the inside of the flash guard and the head of the hammer.
Have ready a good quality cleaning rod by A. J. Parker or Parker-Hale, a small piece of leather, a .577 wire brush, and old .30 or .45 wire brush, a woolly mop for the rod, absorbent kitchen roll, a funnel, a kettle of boiling water, some Black Powder or Young’s Oil, Hoppe’s Black Powder Cleaner (optional), nipple key and a double prong worm (comes on the Parker-Hale Combination Tool) in case you get some paper stuck in the breech.
Step 1. Place a small piece of thickish leather on top of the nipple and lower the hammer onto it to make it water tight. Don’t snap the hammer onto it or you will find that you have made a tiny little leather wad and also blocked up your nipple.
Step 2. Wrap some cloth or kitchen roll around the muzzle which will get hot. This will also help to keep water away from the woodwork. Pour a moderate amount of black powder cleaner or Young’s Oil down the muzzle and then with a funnel pour boiling water in until the bore is about two thirds full. Mind the air locks do not throw the water back at you. Keep a space between the funnel and the bore by not fixing the funnel in tightly and the air will escape through this. Then with a .577 bronze brush on your cleaning rod give the bore a good scrubbing. The kitchen rod will catch the drips. Pour away the dirty water from the muzzle. Then again fill the bore with boiling water to rinse it out and to heat it up. Pour away and repeat the process if you think the barrel could be hotter. This helps the barrel to dry out properly after the next step.
An Alternative to Steps 1 and 2. The Washing Tube. Acquire a special nipple resembling that for the Snider but, if possible, with longer cone and threaded sections. The internal hole is much larger and not coned. A small neoprene washer should go on the threaded end and 18 inches of plastic tube should be secured firmly to the cone. This is substituted for the nipple and with a bucket of very hot soapy water and the cleaning rod, the bore can be thoroughly pumped through in the manner of the sporting gun barrel in its bucket of water. Wrap material round the muzzle to prevent dirty water running back on to the outside of the rifle. After this, remove the washing tube and resume with Step 3.
Step 3. With your cleaning rod and a suitable jag (the ideal jag for cloth or paper is an old worn wire brush in .30 or .45) wrap a piece of kitchen roll folded double around the brush and put down the bore and straight out again. Do not be tempted to push the same piece of paper down more than once as the soggy paper will break off and stay firmly in the breech. Repeat the process with a new piece of paper. When the paper has ceased to pick up moisture, rotate the rod with a good head of paper on the face of the breech until it comes out without the ring of fouling which fills the corner of the breech. This will never come out completely as a trace will remain in the corner but provided it is well oiled it will not cause any future trouble. The remaining heat from the boiling water will help the barrel to dry.
Step 4. (If you have not used the washing tube) Now remove the leather from the nipple and with the plastic spout pipe of your WD40 can blow through the nipple. This will force the wet muck out of the inside of the bolster and it can be picked up with the cleaning rod and the paper down the bore.
Step 5. Remove the nipple and flash guard. If you put the nipple in with a winding of PTFE plumbers’ tape on the threads you will find that it will always come out easily and always be completely gas tight. This tip is particularly useful for the beryllium copper nipples which have a regrettable tendency to lock themselves in and break up if too much force is used in trying to shift them.
Step 6. Wash the nipple and flash guard in water and scrape off any solid fouling. Using rag or kitchen roll damped with water or Hoppe’s Black Powder Cleaner wash any fouling off the head of the hammer and anywhere else that it might be visible. Check the head of the ramrod which often picks up muzzle blast. We assume that you (a) do not use the issue rod for loading, and (b) keep it in position to stiffen the stock and add weight to the rifle to help stabilise it in firing.
Step 7. A final check round and a careful clean into the nipple seating before re-assembling the nipple and flash shield and winding a piece of PTFE tape a couple of time around its threads before putting it back, will bring you almost to the end. Then out with oily mop on your rod and give it a good oiling into the bore so that it squirts out of the nipple. Oil the exterior and put the rifle away until next time. Stored muzzle down, surplus oil will run out and not build up in the breech and clog the nipple. Remember to put it on some kitchen roll or other absorbent material to prevent oily stains on the floor. If you have to store it muzzle up then put a wad of kitchen roll between the hammer and the nipple to catch the oil.
Follow these simple rules and do not worry too much. You CAN ruin a rifle by over-cleaning but, of course, you WILL ruin it if you allow rusting to take place, but we have established that this is easy to prevent.
Introduction | Rifle | Equipment | Ammunition | Shooting | Sighting | Cleaning | Bedding