Keep it clean!

To prevent rimfire malfunctions, John Hill advocates regular firearms maintenance

I’ve seen rifles – and a few shotguns – malfunction simply because they needed a thorough clean. This applies particularly to rimfires of the .22 Long Rifle variety which fire bullets with a grease or wax coating and if this lubricant is allowed to accumulate in large quantities it can cause trouble. The .22LR bullets are treated with a heavy grease or wax to prevent the barrel from leading up, which usually occurs immediately in front of the chamber and once a build-up starts to form, every passing bullet adds to the deposit until the rifle’s accuracy suffers.

Greasing lead bullets reduces a barrel’s tendency to leading but doesn’t completely eliminate the problem. This grease coating on Long Rifle ammunition also forms a protective layer on the inside of the bore and is the reason many shooters claim .22 rimfires should never be cleaned as it removes this protective veneer. Recently I had a well-worn old Lithgow Model 12 in for a head-spacing washer to be fitted to its bolt. The rifle was given a comprehensive check which included the trigger mechanism and cleaning the barrel – the bore was fouled with a heavy deposit of lead and no-one had bothered to clean the old girl for years.

As stated, leading usually forms immediately in front of the chamber and in this rifle there was plenty of it. The lead was easily removed with a bronze bristle brush and bore solvent and the barrel actually came up well and was in remarkably good condition for a 60-year-old rifle with several owners. Whether lead, copper or powder fouling, rifle barrels need to be cleaned – grease or no grease.

There are several areas where accumulation of bullet lubricant can be a worry ‑ around the extractor slots (those recesses at the breech end of the barrel), around and under the extractors and in the magazine. While bullet lubricants are relatively soft, deposits left in a rifle for years can become compacted to such an extent the dried grease clogs up operation of the action and magazine. The usual consequence is for extraction to eventually fail, which results in the spent cartridge case remaining in the chamber instead of being withdrawn and ejected as would normally occur.

If the magazine becomes clogged and locks up this will lead to misfeeding. Tube magazines in particular are prone to this when blocked with an accumulation of old bullet lubricant and powder residue but simple routine cleaning will prevent this. So let’s clean a hypothetical bolt-action rimfire rifle step-by-step so it operates smoothly instead of malfunctioning due to grease and powder fouling.

The main items to concentrate on are the extractors and recesses or slots in the barrel they fit into as when the extractor slots become fouled, unwanted deposits have a tendency to spread the extractors, thus lessening their grip on the case rim. Carefully removing these with a pointed tool of some sort (an engineer’s scriber works well) allows the extractors to function and have a better grip on the case rim. A pointed tool along with an old toothbrush will soon clear the extractor slots of accumulated gunk.

Next on the list is the extractor(s) and generally speaking there are two main types, first the single claw as found in old BSA Sportsman rifles and other single claw rimfires, the second the twin or double extractors common on most modern bolt-action rimfires. Close inspection of these ‘twin extractors’ reveals only one of them is an extractor (usually the right-hand one unless the rifle’s a left-handed model). The left one only supports the case as it’s withdrawn from the chamber and is designed to function, in conjunction with the ejector, as the case is expelled to one side of the opening breech but for the sake of convenience both will be referred to as ‘extractors.’

If the extractors are in need of cleaning, perhaps the whole bolt requires cleaning and lubricating and when this is the case, it must be completely dismantled though some rifle bolts necessitate the use of special tools (better designed ones can be dismantled without tools). Those bolts where the extractors are held in place with a spring clip are easiest to remove and clean – just don’t lose the clip! If the extractors are held in place with pins and have internal springs to tension them, then cleaning in situ is the way to go. Using a bowl of two-stroke mower fuel and a toothbrush will clean and lubricate these pinned extractors if they’re not dismantled and a blast of compressed air helps. This method can also apply to the spring clip type if the clip presents hitches with removal.

Moving on to magazines and the box or clip type are less trouble than tube magazines though both can malfunction when clogged. It’s easy to dismantle some box magazines even if it entails springing the bottom cover a little to gain access. If a magazine looks as though it’ll come apart then that’s the best way to clean it and even if it resists it can still be serviced reasonably well while fully assembled. Simply poking a piece of rag in the open end with a screwdriver will also do the job of cleaning any rubbish from the magazine, all that’s involved is the magazine follower is free to travel without fouling on bullet lubricant and powder residue.

Manufacturers now make some magazines (both rimfire and centrefire) out of plastic rather than traditional steel for purely economic reasons and plastic ones should be handled with care as they can break if subjected to rough treatment. The metal in a steel magazine can be sprung or will bend whereas plastic may crack or even shatter if forced apart. Many rifle actions in use today are 100 years or more old yet their well-made steel magazines still feed ammunition smoothly – will plastic prove as durable?

Tube magazines can be an obstacle when bunged up with dried grease and the possibility of a live cartridge being stuck in the tube when the rifle’s thought to be unloaded is a good reason to keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. I know of one bullet hole in a ceiling due to a stuck round which suddenly found its way from the tube magazine into the chamber while cycling the action. I also know of a girl who was shot through a closed door by a rifle in another room which had a supposedly ‘empty’ tube magazine so, for those two reasons alone, I’ve always had a high level of respect for any rifle with that type of magazine. They can be dangerous in a totally unexpected way.

The best way to clean tube magazines is to completely dismantle the whole assembly which is often held together by a single pin (they can also be threaded and pinned). The knurled grip on the end of the tube is where it all comes apart but if that presents a drawback, the tube can still be cleaned reasonably well without having to strip the magazine to its individual parts.

When cleaning an assembled tube magazine it’s necessary to have a .22 calibre slotted tip or cleaning loop with a piece of rag threaded through the loop, which must also be fitted to a cleaning rod. Forcing the loop into the end of the tube the follower protrudes from will give the rag access to where the grease is and this method is fairly effective at cleaning the inside of the magazine tube. If the tube is badly fouled with old grease the rag may need dipped in a solvent of some type to dissolve any accumulated dry bullet lubricant.

I remember when self-loading shotguns were commonplace but since 1996 these are no longer available to most Aussie shooters. Auto shotguns also have tube magazines and a Franchi I once worked on had a misfeeding hindrance but instead of grease being the cause it was powder fouling, resulting in the magazine follower binding up inside the tube. Once the fouling was cleaned from the magazine tube and the follower fee to move again, the Franchi no longer had a feeding problem.

If buying a new rifle it’s unlikely you’ll be troubled by any of these issues, at least not for a while, as it’s the older type of rifle, the family heirloom handed down from father to son that’s a likely candidate for gooey extractors and a bunged-up tube magazine.

In conclusion, remember rifles are mechanical devices and call for lubrication and some form of simple maintenance to keep them in good working order. This amounts to little more than a few drops of oil or a dab of grease to keep the working parts free from dirt, dust, grass and other foreign bodies and in the case of .22LR rimfires that also includes grease around the chamber, extractors and in the magazine.

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