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How to clean your rifle

George Wallace offers some top tips and a step-by-step guide to keeping your rifle in good working order, from the best cleaning technique to how much cleaning is too much?

A rifle is a precision instrument and such things really do need to be kept clean if you expect them to work properly. But before you starting reading more on how to clean your rifle, take note.  I have seen as many rifles damaged by over- cleaning as ruined by lack of it.

(There’s also an argument against cleaning .22 rimfire rifles – read more on this here.) 

Unless you really know what you are doing and are extremely careful, it is easy to overdo it and damage the muzzle crown, chamber or lead – or all three. Too much oil can ruin a wooden stock or damage the action’s bedding material, so a little care and caution is required if you want your rifle to last. However you do need to carry out zeroing checks – read how to zero your rifle here.)

When we talk about rifle cleaning, everyone’s first thought is the rifle bore, so let us begin with that and ask whether we really need to clean it at all? If that question seems ridiculous, let me say that I know a chap in America whose .22 Hornet had, the last I heard, fired 500 rounds since the bore was last cleaned. Accuracy was still superb and he has found by experiment that he does not need to clean any of his centrefire rifles until a falling off in accuracy indicates a build-up of copper fouling.  (Read this step by step guide to cleaning a fouled rifle bore.)

Damp damage

Some rifles pick up fouling much more quickly if their bores are rough or corroded, but the removal of copper after every firing is probably unnecessary.

However our British climate means that we do need to make sure there is no rust-promoting damp left in the bore after an outing, so a dry cloth pushed through, followed by a spell in the airing cupboard should solve that problem. If the cloth comes out really mucky, a bit of powder solvent on a piece of four-by-two will sort it. (Read how to clean a fouled rifle bore.)

If and when you do need to shift copper fouling, there are all sorts of chemicals available.

Over my 60 years of cleaning rifles I have used all sorts of things, from Young’s .303 cleaner – which doesn’t remove copper fouling, but I like the smell  –- to Hoppe’s 009, Forrest Bore Cleaning Foam, Butch’s Bore Shine, Napier’s Gun Clean … (you can buy them all below).

They all work very well, but nowadays, being a simple soul, I primarily use Ballistol. I also use it for cleaning the outer surfaces of the metalwork, wiping the woodwork, keeping leather slings in good nick and lubricating bolts and actions.

The only caveat is not to flood the place with your cleaner so it soaks into the stock. Just a wipe or a little squirt and then leave bolts and the rest to drain on a piece of kitchen roll before reassembly.

Shopping list

Rifle cleaning technique

A word on the technique of using a cleaning rod or pull-through. Keep everything in line with the bore and make sure that neither rod nor pull-through rubs the muzzle crown or goes off-centre in the chamber. It may not seem much but over the years it will ruin accuracy.

Sometimes it it hard to clean the crud and debris from the rifle’s bolt lug recesses. The locking lug area in a rifle’s action accumulates primer residue, cleaning solvents, debris and brass chips. These can all affect a rifle’s performance.

You may find a Sinclair lug recess tool handy in this case. It is a stainless steel rod with a green handle that has a clamp at its top to accept swabs or felts. Attach the rectangular felt to the rod by loosening and tightening the lock screw, then insert into the action from the back end and rotate 180° to clear the crud from the lug recesses. There are also small cotton swabs that attach in the same manner and are used to clear the bolt raceways to ensure a smooth bolt action.

gun cleaning kit

Sinclair lug recess tool

Useful riflesmithing book

This is just my own simplistic approach, but if you want the real low-down I recommend getting hold of Lewis Potter’s book, Riflesmithing, a Comprehensive Guide. It is is not nearly as technical and frightening as the title might suggest. I don’t care how much or how little you think you know, there is stuff in Lewis’s book that will brighten your day and make you a better and more knowledgeable rifle owner.


Watch a step-by-step video guide to how to clean your rifle here.

This article was first published in 2016 and has been updated.