Microcrystalline wax treatment is a technique used by museum conservators
to provide an insulating barrier between the surrounding environment and
the object. If the object is housed in an environment where industrial
byproducts such as sulpher dioxide (as in most major cities thanks to car
exhausts) are readily detectible, ferrous alloys (iron and steel) may be
actively attacked by these chemicals. To make iron or steel rust, the
presence of moisture and an oxidizing agent is all that is needed. How
this reaction works depends of the temperature and the surface being
atacked. If a barrier is present, much like a coat of paint on an iron
bucket left in the rain, the rusting reaction is slowed because the
oxygen can't get to the reactive points on the metal.
Choosing a neutral microcrystalline wax such as RENAISSANCE WAX
eliminates problems that may be encountered with the use of acidic
beeswax or harder waxes that may be impossible to safely apply at room
temperature without harming the object. Any mild solvent like acetone or
Stoddard's solvent can be used to remove the wax coating at any time.
Avoid microcrystalline waxes that have extraneous components like silicon
that may prove difficult to remove from the wood components.
Use of waxing for protection may be a drawback under certain conditions.
Heavy applications over rough surfaces may give a mottled white
appearance to the object. Over-application of wax could also form a
foundation for mold or fungus growth. Any suitable wax can be evenly
applied over the surface and lightly buffed with a smooth lint-free cloth
to give a pleasing sheen. The basic concept behind wax application is to
provide a thin, protective barrier of wax over all surfaces to insulate
metal beneath from moisture or acidic fingerprints. Waxed firarms should
be handled with gloves to protect against scratching that thin protective
Microcrystalline wax under the trade name RENAISSANCE WAX can be obtained
from most museum supply houses including the following sources:
LIGHT IMPRESSIONS Box 940 Rochester, NY 14603 (800)828-6216
GAYLORD BROS. P.O. Box 4901 Syracuse, NY 13221 (800) 634-6307
CONSERVATION MATERIALS LTD. Box 2884 Sparks, NV 89431 (702)331-0582
CONSERVATION RESOURCES 88-H Forbes Place Springfield, VA 22151 (703)321-7730
Antique firearms: These wonderful items of antiquity and historical association often come into your hands very dirty and covered with varying amounts of grime. They frequently have been modified or altered in some way. The great temptation is to clean them to the point where they look pristine (when you sell, condition is everything you know) - or at least make them "NRA excellent" (even "very good") by replacing mismatched parts, sanding and refinishing stocks, polishing and rebluing metal parts etc. There is really only one word of advice to give on this point: DON'T! - you may destroy a historically correct firearm - you certainly will diminish its status as a gun that has aged naturally.
But you do want to make your acquisition look as nice as possible, and you also want to reveal all its features. The answer is to approach the cleaning task with the care and devotion of a museum restorer. Harsh chemicals, solvents, abrasive cloth and all except the finest steel wool should be avoided like the plague. Tender loving care should be the order of the day - patience and deliberate speed the guiding principles. The goal is TO PRESERVE ORIGINAL FINISH AND MARKINGS AT ALL COSTS. An area of particular concern are the markings on the stock - especially the inspectors cartouche (if you take up antique arms collecting as a serious hobby it will not take you long to appreciate the importance of all this). The lovely patina that exposure and handling impart to both wood and metal should be likewise preserved.
Don Klinko-- Over the past decade or so, interest in collecting and shooting black powder cartridge weapons has grown at a pace few of us previously interested in them could have imagined. That growth of interest has also been accompanied by a proliferation of well-meaning misinformation, particularly on the topic of cleaning such weapons after shooting them. Many owners of such arms, and those contemplating their purchase, are reluctant to become involved in shooting them because they've heard or read horror stories about the terribly destructive corrosiveness of black powder fouling. Some who decide to shoot their antique weapons with black powder loads adopt well-intentioned cleaning techniques so aggressive that they're doing the old weapons more harm than good. I understand those concerns very well, as they deterred me from shooting black powder cartridges for years. I hope, however, that my experiences gained from extensive shooting of black powder cartridge rifles over the past few years will be of some use to others wishing to become involved in the sport.
My purpose here is to describe routine after-firing cleaning of an otherwise properly cared-for black powder rifle. Disassembly and cleaning of newly-acquired antique or modern rifles is a very different matter which I don't intend to treat at present. Neither will I address the very important topic of cleaning fired cartridge cases. (Whatever nightmarish tales you've heard of black powder fouling attacking cartridge brass with a vengeance should be accepted as religious truth.)
First of all, make no mistake about it--black powder fouling is hygroscopic, and if you don't clean it out of your rifle's barrel and off its exterior, it will eventually rust the steel. However, I do think black powder fouling has a far worse reputation in some circles than it actually deserves. Much of its early reputation for corrosiveness was probably due to corrosive priming compounds used in black powder cartridge loads and bullet lubricants containing animal fats, which contain fatty acids that are quite prone to cause corrosion. Our present noncorrosive primers and excellent selection of bullet lubricants have helped alleviate problems with the latter sources of corrosion. It's my opinion that you should make every effort to clean any weapon fired with black powder the same day you've fired it, although a delay of a day or two is unlikely to do any harm. Some experienced shooter friends living in drier climates have left black powder cartridge rifles uncleaned for weeks with no apparent ill effect to the rifles' bores, although I certainly wouldn't advocate doing that.
Throughout the following, I will refer to product brand names. None of these mentioned necessarily constitutes a whole-hearted endorsement of the particular product over all those similar, but simply means that happens to be the product I use. Just because I'm "Happy with Hoppe's" doesn't mean I'm "outraged at Outers" or "disgusted with Dixie." In many cases, my brand references simply mean that I haven't tried the competitive products. I know what products have done well for me, although there certainly may be better ones in each category out there.
Cleaning Rod--Your cleaning rod should be of the one-piece type, either plastic-coated or hardened steel. Dewey makes excellent plastic-coated rods, and equally good attachments. Another excellent cleaning rod, if you can find one in good condition, is the government-issue rod for the .50-caliber machine gun. There are others. Avoid aluminum, brass, or fiberglass rods as these can pick up abrasive grit that can damage rifling. While the one-piece wooden "barracks rod" is a very interesting accessory for the Springfield "Trapdoor" rifle, it too should be avoided for regular use for the same reasons. Cleaning rods installed under barrels of many black powder cartridge arms were never intended for anything but emergency field cleaning or removal of stuck cartridge cases, and not for routine cleaning. Jointed steel rods such as those issued with more modern military weapons are excellent for emergency use in the hunting fields or at the target range, but their use for routine cleaning should be avoided.
Cleaning Rod Guide--A cleaning rod guide should always be used to center the rod in the bore and protect the rifle's muzzle crown and rifling from contact with the rod. A conical muzzle protector is needed for those rifles (like the "Trapdoor," British "Martini," and the various lever-action repeaters) that must be cleaned from the muzzle. I use the readily available conical brass guides intended primarily for muzzle loading weapons, drilled out to accept larger-diameter cleaning rods as necessary. Those rifles which can be cleaned from the breech, such as the Remington "Rolling Blocks" and the various "falling block" actions, should be. A rod guide that fits in the rifle's chamber with a center hole just large enough to permit easy passage of the rod should be used when cleaning these arms. Such rod guides usually take the form of a shortened cartridge case with an enlarged primer pocket hole, and this is just what you can use if you wish. I use similar guides machined out of Delrin.
Cleaning Rod Attachments--The type of tip screwed onto the cleaning rod deserves some mention. Brass is by far the best material for a cleaning rod tip. No matter how careful you are, the cleaning rod tip will accidentally come into direct contact with the rifle's bore at some time, so those made of steel should be avoided. Plastic jags may seem like a good alternative, but they aren't. As I discovered the hard way, plastic jags tend to break at the forward junction of their male connecting threads, leaving the threaded portion stuck in the female-threaded hole in the rod's end, and these are very difficult to remove. Slotted tips of any material aren't much good except for emergency field use. The tip should be of the jag type, and should be of the correct size so that the cleaning patch is well pressed into the grooves of the rifling, but not such a tight fit that the patch binds so much that the cleaning rod flexes. Obviously, the tip's dimensions are pretty critical and many, if not most, jag tips are either undersized or oversized for the bore sizes for which they are marked. I have found that Dewey's .45-caliber handgun jag is just about perfect for .45-caliber rifle bores, and that is what I use. Another brand of brass jag marked as .45-caliber was much too small in diameter for that caliber, but worked perfectly in my .43-caliber Remington "Rolling Block" rifle's bore. It's always a good idea to have phosphor-bronze-bristle bore brushes of the proper size on hand to remove particularly stubborn fouling, such as that often found in newly purchased antique arms. Be certain that you purchase the slightly more expensive ones with brass core wires, rather than steel, in the interest of keeping your bore safe from scratches. Brushes should not be necessary for routine cleaning of black powder arms, however.
Bore Cleaning Solvent--The solvent you should use is largely a matter of personal choice. I use Hoppe's Number 9 Plus Black Powder Solvent, and I've been well satisfied with it. Some of the more familiar bore cleaners like plain Hoppe's Number 9 and Birchwood Casey Heavy Duty Bore Cleaner are intended for use in cleaning smokeless powder arms, and while they will do the job in black powder arms, a solvent intended specifically for black powder fouling is far better. One should never use one of the harsh bore solvents containing significant amounts of ammonia on a black powder weapon, especially an antique arm. They are specifically formulated to rapidly remove copper-based metal bullet jacket fouling, and there's much controversy whether some of the more potent ones are safe or necessary even for that demanding chore.
It may be of interest that I consider water by itself to be one of the worst cleaning solvents. Without further boring you with the details, I conducted some experiments on unprotected tool steel in contact with black powder fouling. Dry fouling removed from a rifle bore and smeared on the piece of steel didn't cause any rust after two weeks. Neither did fouling diluted with Hoppe's Number 9 Plus Black Powder Solvent. However, black powder fouling on a patch soaked with plain water caused massive rust within a week. Plain water or the often recommended "hot soapy water" can indeed be used for cleaning if nothing else is available, but particular attention must be paid to applying some sort of rust preventive to the weapon's metal surfaces both quickly and thoroughly.
Bore Protectant--I use Birchwood-Casey "Sheath" to protect the bores of all my firearms after cleaning. Its carrier compound evaporates after a few hours, leaving a protective film on the steel. While many good lubricating oils will do as well to protect the bore, they really should be wiped out of the bore before the weapon is fired again. Residue from burned oil may possibly build up in the bore if this is not done. Much more certain is that the first shot from an oil-coated bore will not land near where subsequent shots will. I have never found it necessary to wipe out the bore of a firearm protected with Sheath before shooting it.
Cleaning Patches--Your cleaning patches should be of good quality woven flannel of the correct size. A .45-caliber bore requires a patch of about 2.5 inches in width. The synthetic fabric patches sometimes sold in small packages in sporting goods stores are both more expensive and inferior to good flannel patches. Old rags cut to size lack the absorbency of flannel patches and may contain impurities or dirt that can scratch your rifle's bore. Brownell's and several other sources sell good quality flannel patches in thousand unit bags at reasonable cost.
Bore Cleaning Procedure--In the case of a "Trapdoor" or any other rifle that must be cleaned from the muzzle, first saturate a patch with bore cleaning solvent and use it to clean fouling off the muzzle crown and what little you can reach of the rifling near the muzzle. The idea in doing so is to remove fouling that the rod guide might come into contact with. Then saturate another patch with bore cleaning solvent, place it over the end of the cleaning rod jag, insert it into the muzzle, and carefully push it into the bore just far enough so you can seat your bore guide on the muzzle. Having done that, push it through the bore and into the chamber. Don't push it beyond the end of the chamber, or your patch will fall off in the rifle's action. Now withdraw the patch back through the chamber and bore. The first (and possibly the second) solvent-saturated patch will be so filthy with fouling that it should be discarded after the first back-and-forth pass. The second saturated patch should be similarly inserted, but pumped back and forth about ten passes. The third or fourth saturated patch should come out almost clean--looking about like the dingy white undershirt you washed, but forgot to bleach. The bore should then be swabbed out with dry patches to remove remaining solvent and some minor fouling. About ten back-and-forth passes with each of two or three dry patches ought to complete that effort. Once you've dried the bore, you have a clean bore which is also unfortunately unprotected from rust. Now saturate a patch with whatever concoction you intend to use to protect the bore (I use Birchwood-Casey "Sheath") and pump it back and forth about ten passes. For rifles that can be cleaned from the breech, the procedure is very similar, except that you should push each patch through the bore so it just barely extends from the muzzle, though not enough so you can't withdraw it back through the bore. Allowing the patch to fall away and banging the muzzle crown with the cleaning jag's bare metal will eventually damage the crown. A damaged crown will at best result in a change in the rifle's sight zero, and at worse cause deterioration in accuracy. Again, when cleaning from the breech, the rod should be fitted with a chamber guide. A drop of lubricating oil (I use Break Free CLP) on each working surface is in order periodically, although such lubrication is easily overdone. Complicated as I may have made it sound, the entire procedure should only take about ten minutes per rifle.
Exterior Cleaning and Rust Prevention--Depending upon such factors as local ambient humidity, the frequency with which you shoot and handle the weapon, and the conditions under which it was last fired, several methods can be used to protect the rifle's exterior. Any black powder residue that landed on the rifle's exterior through handling or firing should be removed with bore solvent. Pay special attention to the muzzle face and crown and the first inch or so of the barrel. The heads of military weapon's cleaning rods mounted under the barrel also tend to pick up some fouling. Beyond that, a thorough wiping with a silicone-impregnated cloth may be all that's necessary. Some living in relatively humid climates advocate the use of a wax on exterior surfaces, particularly for antique arms that are fired or handled infrequently. If the climate is very humid or the rifle has been handled a great deal in very hot weather, a light coat of "Sheath" or similar rust preventive may be necessary. Occasionally, the stock wood deserves some attention. One can hardly go wrong with a light coat of boiled linseed oil rubbed into the wood with a cleaning patch or a bare hand, followed a couple of days later by a light coat of wax. I've used Johnson's yellow paste wax as a rust preventive and wood preservative for years, although there may very well be better waxes available for the purpose. I was long ago told never to use detergent-proof automotive waxes on firearms, and therefore never have, although I can't specifically recall what the problem in doing so was.
While I lived in the relatively dry climate of the Northern Rockies, wiping off my black powder arms with a silicone cloth prevented all exterior rust problems. Since moving to the relatively humid climate of Oklahoma, that hasn't always proven sufficient and I've had some minor rust problems on the exterior surfaces of my black powder arms after shooting and handling them with sweaty hands in extremely hot weather.
There is usually no reason to take the rifle completely apart. Newly-acquired antique weapons should be disassembled, cleaned, oiled, and waxed as appropriate. After that initial detailed cleaning has been done, it need not be repeated for months or even years unless the weapon has been subjected to a thorough soaking in driving rain or some other unpreventable abuse. Just by way of example, I have shot 60 to 100 black powder cartridges through a Sharps rifle almost weekly over the past five years. I have always religiously cleaned the rifle's bore and wiped off its exterior the same day I shot it. For the first few months I owned it, I removed the breech block, extractor, and lever after almost every firing. Doing so revealed no rust and no discernable fouling or unburned powder. I have since gone for as long as a year without disassembling the action. After such a time, I have never found any rust on the rifle's interior workings, and what tiny amounts of fouling may have been present were neutralized by the lubricating oil on the metal parts. Particularly in the case of antique arms, "less is better than more" when it comes to disassembly of the weapon. Well-meaning owners who do so are probably doing far more harm than good.
Why, then, did some military manuals insist upon such regular, complete disassembly? I can state from experience that military firearms maintenance instructions were then and are now intended to keep weapons functioning in the hands of people completely untrained in firearms use or maintenance under the worst conditions imaginable. The writers of such instructions assume that military weapons are expendable, and will be worn out--partially by excessive cleaning--at which time they'll just be scrapped and replaced. That's not the philosophy you want apply to your "Trapdoor" or any other personally-owned firearm.
That's the end of my epistle on the cleaning of black cartridge powder rifles. Should the reader have any specific questions on the matter, I can be reached at E-mail "firstname.lastname@example.org". Description presented by Don Klinko.