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Keeping those barrels clean: a look at the cleaning airguns really need.

A few evenings ago, I was routinely cleaning some of my rifles and happened to pull a fine old single-shot.22 from the closet. I had shot this rifle only a little since acquiring it a year ago, but 1 really hadn't put it through its paces. It's a Stevens Armory 414, which was a fine target rifle back in its day (the 1920s and early '30s) and should shoot like a house afire, but I haven't seen that from it yet.

Then, I happened to glance obliquely at the bore a few inches in front of the chamber. I could barely see any rifling! Was it shot out? The Stevens existed during a time when corrosive Lesmoke cartridges were in vogue, and many contemporary rifles have lost their bores, either from over-zealous cleaning or from no cleaning at all. Was this one of them?

A brass brush told the story. After a couple passes through the bore in each direction, the patches that followed were black with grime and lead flakes. Then, they lightened up and started coming out the color a lazy man would call clean. But another pass with the brush started the whole thing all over.

The bore on this rifle is impacted with decades of owner abuse from not cleaning. It will turn into one of those nagging projects involving JB Non-Embedding Bore Cleaning Compound slathered on many brass brushes until patches finally come out drill-sergeant clean.

Gun-cleaning hierarchy

When it comes to cleaning guns, there's a hierarchy. First are the blackpowder arms that must be cleaned immediately or you pay the consequences. Rust forms within hours in some climates, so the gun must be scrupulously cleaned and preserved with some kind of petroleum-based product.

I like Ballistol the best. It smells like fish, but armies around the world trust it for metal preservation as well as lubrication. I used to use WD-40, which has a manly gun show aroma, but after once taking a month to clean off the yellow varnish it left on a '98 Mauser action when it dried, I don't let it get near my guns--airguns and firearms.

Next, come those military weapons we all love to shoot because the surplus ammo is so cheap. The SKS might be the poster child, but almost any military long gun will suffice. Heck--I have recently found.30 cal Ml Carbine ammo with Berdan primers, and who is to say they're all non-corrosive? These guns have to be cleaned or the bore will rust. I have seen many Ruger Mini-Thirtys with their bores rusted from shooting corrosive Eastern European military ammo, so this category of weapon needs frequent cleaning as well.


After that come all the centerfires. You can often get away with not cleaning them a while longer and they won't rust, but most of the rifles will build up a healthy coat of jacket material. I have a 6.5 Swede that's famous for this. You clean these guns for a different reason, but they should be cleaned.

Then there are the rimfires. Modern rimfire ammo is so forgiving that a gun can go for hundreds of rounds and several years without cleaning. Only when accuracy or reliability falls off do we need to become diligent. I know many marksmanship teams whose target rifles get cleaned once a year, whether they need it or not. The new crop of high-performance.17 rimfires is less forgiving, but even they will not rust from being left dirty.

What about airgun barrels?

And, finally, we have the airguns. Many of them will never require, cleaning of any kind! There are a few, however, that will need to be cleaned occasionally, and a lot of that depends on the ammunition you shoot.

I'm asked this question all the time by shooters who are new to airguns and assume they must be cleaned like their firearms. Stop right there; because you may be damaging your airgun in the name of unneeded maintenance!

No matter what you do

Most pellets are made of lead and must be protected from oxidation. Manufacturers use graphite to coat their pellets to slow the oxidation rate, and it sloughs off every time another pellet goes down the bore. So, no matter how scrupulously you clean the barrel, it will be black after a couple of shots.

This is not dirt and it does no harm to the bore. But over-zealous cleaning will subject the rifling to potential damage. Cleaning an airgun barrel becomes a tradeoff of risk vs. reward.

Two kinds of barrels

First, let's group airguns into two categories--those with brass or bronze barrels and those with steel barrels. The guns with brass or bronze barrels never need cleaning, and the fact is that cleaning their bores puts them at risk of damage to the rifling. !

Many American multi-pump pneumatics come with brass barrels, and the Sheridan Model A came with a costly bronze barrel. These barrels are smoother than a steel barrel, as a rule, plus brass and bronze have a lower friction coefficient when used with lead pellets.

Also, the velocities of these guns are in the range at which lead does not melt off and solder to the side of the bore. So, never clean the barrel of a gun with a brass or bronze barrel. Use a magnet on the barrel if you aren't sure of the metal.

The way most multi-pump pneumatics are constructed, you have to clean from the muzzle, which exposes the most critical area of the barrel--the rifling at the muzzle--to the mechanical damage of a cleaning rod. Pull-through cleaning sets that use monofilament line are even worse, because they pick up abrasive particles and can actually cut through steel, let alone brass.

I know of brass-barreled airguns with over 50,000 J rounds through them that have never been cleaned. I don't know any more dramatic way to say it--don't clean your brass- or bronze-barreled airguns!


Steel barrels

The other kind of airgun barrel is made of mild steel. Any hardening comes from work-hardening during the rifling process. In that respect, an airgun barrel is not dissimilar from a.22 rimfire barrel. However, the way the airgun functions is totally different and the reason you seldom need to clean your barrel.

Airguns do not generate explosive gasses (intentionally) to propel. their-pellets. They use the force of compressed air or sometimes C[O.sub.2] in place of rapidly burning gunpowder to create the pressure that pushes the pellet out the spout.

Sometimes, there are explosions inside spring-piston guns when the i heat of compression ignites a mixture of lubricants and air during the ' compression cycle. This is called dieseling, and it occurs every time an, airgun with more than about 450 fps muzzle velocity fires. It becomes noticeable in more powerful spring-piston guns when smoke is seen after the shot.

Sometimes, there's so much fuel/air mixture that an actual explosion takes place. This sounds like a rimfire shot and sometimes flame can be seen exiting the muzzle. This violent phenomenon is called a detonation and should be avoided, if possible, because of the extra strain it puts on the gun. Spring guns have been known to recock from this explosion and even to blow apart violently!

But the caked residue from burnt gunpowder and primers never collects in an airgun bore. So, from that standpoint, cleaning is not necessary.

Velocity matters

However, lead from pellets traveling at higher velocity can fuse to the steel barrel. As long as the rifle is below about 800 fps, it will never collect lead. Above that number, and hardened lead pellets only will gradually lead the bore. Some pellets--most noticeably those made by the Crosman Corporation--are made from a lead alloy hardened with antimony. Like hard lead bullets in a firearm, these hard pellets are the ones that shed their lead when the velocity climbs.

When the velocity goes above 1000 fps, all kinds of lead pellets will eventually lead the bore and cleaning will be required. This will happen fastest in the modern high-powered precharged pneumatics.

Special cleaning needs

Powerful precharged pneumatics need to be cleaned because they lead up due to no lubrication on the pellets. Guns with velocities below 800 fps aren't as much a problem as guns that shoot faster. However, if the shooter takes the time to lubricate his pellets with a good bullet lubricant like Whiscombe honey, which is two parts Hoppes Gun Oil and one part STP Engine Treatment (by volume), he can avoid this problem.


What about cleaning pellets

There are bore-sized felt cylinders being sold as "cleaning pellets."Cleaning pellets don't work! There, I've said it. They were invented as a marketing idea and actually serve no useful purpose, other than to fool the shooter into thinking he has cleaned his airgun. No reputable shooter or repair station uses cleaning pellets to clean an airgun.

When it's time to really clean the bore

There's only one good way to clean a steel airgun barrel, and that's with a brass brush coated with JB Non-Embedding Bore Cleaning Compound. Coat the brush and run it through the bore in both directions 20 times. Next, clean it thoroughly to remove the mildly abrasive compound. In general, you don't need gun solvents and cleaners. Sometimes, you may have to use them on a problem barrel. Just be careful to keep these solutions away from any seals, or they could be damaged.


I prefer a one-piece cleaning rod of the correct size, over anything else. The jointed rods can get caught on the sharp edges of the transfer port. The pull-through kits that use plastic-coated wire or monofilament line can attract abrasive particles that will embed in the soft plastic and cut the barrel. I also prefer to use a cleaning jag to push the cleaning patch through the bore in a single direction, rather than a loop that pulls it back and forth.

Judgement is required

Every time you clean an airgun barrel, you have to weigh the benefits of better accuracy against wear and possible damage to the bore. The veteran airgunner has learned to err on the side of less cleaning, and many of us never clean our guns at all.
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Author:Gaylord, Tom
Publication:Shotgun News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 20, 2011
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