Essential guide to rifle care

Mike Morton runs through some rifle care tips to help protect your air rifle so it will continue to serve for years to come.

For any air rifle to keep giving of its best, it’s important to properly look after it. While some guns will continue to shoot well with only a moderate amount of maintenance, a rifle’s accuracy and reliability will eventually start to suffer if it remains neglected for too long, so rifle care is important.

Luckily for us, airgun care is relatively simple and straightforward, and doesn’t require a shed-load of tools. A relatively small amount of time and effort spent keeping your airgun running smoothly will be rewarded when it really counts – when you squeeze the trigger.

While giving our rifles a thorough once-over is something we should all be doing at least once a year, there’s no better time than right now, when many of us have either been forced to restrict our shooting to the garden or even to put it on hold completely. We can all use this time wisely to both keep it neat and keep it sweet!

Rifle care: safety and support

Safety always comes first, so before any type of inspection or maintenance work is carried out, it’s vital to confirm the gun is neither cocked, nor loaded.

It should also go without saying that the magazine, if the rifle uses one, should already have been removed from the gun and checked to ensure no pellets are present in any of the chambers. If you have a single-shot tray fitted, then that should be removed too, as gunk can sometimes accumulate underneath the tray.

Ensure you have a clear, well-lit area in which to work and a means of supporting the gun while it’s being worked on. There are numerous gun rests on the market, including models from the likes of AirForceOne, Hawke and Tipton, but one I’ve used for many years is the Gunsmith’s Maintenance Centre from American firm MTM.

This features two removable plastic forks with moulded-on rubber pads to protect the rifle. One fork is specifically designed to support the rear of the stock, while the other cradles the forend. The base unit features four slots at different heights, and the forks can be positioned to present the rifle muzzle-down for barrel cleaning, so any oils or solvents will drain away from the action.

Alternatively, the forks can be slotted in place so they hold the rifle perfectly level, which is what you’ll probably want for the rest of your maintenance regime and any scope-related work.

They will also hold the rifle upside-down for stock removal or trigger adjustment, and are close enough together to support the barrel and action once the stock’s been removed.

There’s another MTM product called the Shooting Range Box which looks like a regular DIY toolbox and can hold a reasonable amount of tools. But it also doubles up as a rifle rest as it uses the same twin fork support system as the Gunsmith’s Maintenance Centre.

This is great for putting in the car in case you need to do any work on your gun while you’re out shooting rather than just working on it at home, and because it holds more tools it’s now become my ’go to’ rest for home use too.

Most basic air rifle maintenance can be carried out with very few tools – a selection of hex keys and slotted hollow-ground screwdriver bits is usually all that’s required, but it’s really important to use the right tool for the job. If you need a particular implement that you don’t already own, it’s much better to delay the job in hand until you’ve got hold of the correct item.

Postponing a task is always preferable to bodging it, where you could potentially create more problems by damaging your gun or scope. So don’t, for example, use a metric hex key in an Imperial socket or vice versa.

Some of these keys are roughly the same size, but the slight mismatch means you run the very real risk of rounding the corners of the socket on the screw or bolt you’re working on.

Rifle care: the stock

In order to thoroughly check both the action of the rifle and the stock itself, the two components must be separated. I know shooters who’ve never taken their rifle out of its stock, but it’s simple to do and means you can uncover any otherwise hidden problems and tackle them straight away.

Rifles are usually mated to the stock with either a slotted or hex bolt or screw, or sometimes a combination of the two. Any sling swivel studs or Picatinny accessory rail sections should also be unscrewed so you can check the condition of the wood or synthetic material underneath.

You can also remove the butt pad if it will come off easily. Some are glued in place, and it’s not worth breaking the seal and having to re-glue the pad afterwards if the seal looks intact and the pad is still in good condition.

With the stock removed and as bare as possible, it’s easier to check for the presence of any trapped water or moisture. This can be left to slowly evaporate, but you can speed up the process by using canned air or an electric blower like the ones vehicle detailers use to dry off cars and motorcycles after they’ve been washed. This process will also dislodge any dust or dirt that may have accumulated in the bottom of the inletting.

Check for any cracks in the stock, and if you’re not confident about fixing them yourself, go ahead and get your stock repaired professionally. Any burrs can either be sanded down on a wooden stock or carefully sanded or sliced off with a sharp knife if the stock is synthetic. Any dents in a wooden stock can usually be steamed out, with the level of success usually depending on the depth of the ding.

Unlike a dent, where the wood fibres have been compressed but are still present, a scratch means some material has been removed. Minor scratches can be left unattended if they’re only cosmetic and don’t really bother you, but deeper scratches should be filled to prevent the wood from swelling and cracking and causing more serious problems further down the line.

The chequering or stippling on the grip and forend can be cleaned with a toothbrush, used either dry or with a little soap and water. A cheap semi-stiff bristled paintbrush bought from a hobby shop can also be used to good effect to agitate any dried-on muck inside the stock, and if the stock is particularly dirty the whole thing can be given a gentle wash with more of that soapy water and a microfibre cloth, making sure to keep it well away from any heat source while it dries to prevent it warping.

All stocks, regardless of material, can be enhanced by a protective coating, but the type of coating will vary depending on the type of stock material used.

Walnut stocks, or any other type of solid wood that hasn’t been varnished or lacquered, can benefit from a few thin coats of gun stock oil. It’s crucial to use only small amounts of oil, otherwise each coat will not dry properly and will just leave a greasy, sticky mess.

Apply a few drops with your bare hands, rubbing vigorously so the stock warms up and absorbs the oil more readily. This process can be repeated several times until you’ve built up the degree of finish you’re looking for. Some shooters love to see a deep and lustrous shine, some like a protective but non-reflective matt finish, while others prefer something in between.

While gun stock oil is a traditional product, other coatings such as Napier Stock Shield take a modern approach, with their blend of ingredients decreasing the drying time and minimising the number of coats needed to reach and maintain the desired level of finish. Stock Shield can also be applied to laminate stocks, as well as wood stocks which have been either varnished or lacquered.

Synthetic stocks can also benefit from wearing a protective coating. I have a book that was written by BASC director of firearms Bill Harriman, in which he recommends using a car dashboard and plastic trim restorer, as this can add some lustre to a tired synthetic stock while also offering your gun some protection against ultraviolet light, cracking and premature ageing.

I admit that I was sceptical at first, but then I delved into my garage and came out with a bottle of Armour All protectant so I could try out this method on one of my own rifle stocks.

I was worried that this product would make the stock slippery, and was expecting to have to wipe it all off immediately, but in fact I was pleasantly surprised to see that it worked really well.

Products like Power Airgun Oil can be sprayed down the bore to help loosen lead deposits before cleaning begins in earnest. The same oil can be sprayed on the patches you use with the pull-through.

Rifle care: metalwork and magazines

Rain, humidity, blood, sweat and occasionally even tears are all enemies of metal, and having the stock off the rifle provides an excellent opportunity to check for any rust, oxidation or other type of corrosion as you wipe everything down with a clean microfibre cloth.

Any minor scratches to black anodised aluminium components can be fixed, or at least made to look a lot better, by treating them with an appropriate product such as Aluminum Black, while scratched or worn blued steel can be given an application of something like Perma Blue, both these products being made by Birchwood Casey. As well as being more aesthetically pleasing, a restored finish will offer better protection against the elements.

Now is a good time to apply a dab of moly grease to any metal-to-metal moving parts such as the linkage on a sidelever or the shaft of a bolt, but do keep it away from the pellet probe. I like to use moly grease on screw and bolt threads as well, to avoid the chance of them binding.

The pellet probe on some PCPs may contain an exposed O-ring, and it’s a
good idea to replace this on a regular basis, even if there are no signs of damage.

O-rings also appreciate a very thin smear of food-grade silicone grease, which helps to prevent oxidation and also maintains their elasticity. The breech seals on springers should also be inspected for wear and should always be replaced sooner, rather than later.

Magazines need a little attention too if they are to keep working properly. Simple rotary magazines, like those from Weihrauch and Zbroia can just be wiped clean, which will ensure the removal of any accumulated lead particles.

The pellet-retaining O-ring should be replaced if there are any nicks or other signs of damage, otherwise this also just needs an occasional smear of silicone grease.

The exterior of drum magazines, like those used by Air Arms, Brocock, BSA, Daystate and FX, will again need to be wiped clean. The inner rotor should be turned so that each pellet chamber can be swabbed out with a cotton bud. Lead swarf can sometimes accumulate between the drum and the faceplate, and this can be cleaned off with a toothbrush while you are turning the rotor.

It may be tempting to oil a magazine, especially the drum type which has inner moving parts, but oil can gunk up over time and you will probably end up doing more harm than good.

What you can do, however, is give the magazine a quick spritz with a water-repellant product such as Visor Proof from Nikwax. This is designed for motorcycle visors, but also acts as a mild lubricant.

Before putting the action back in the stock, wipe the metalwork with a cloth impregnated with a little gun oil. But there is an alternative. Purists will hate me for even suggesting it, but for the past few years I’ve been using liquid car wax instead of gun oil, as this dries to a nice water-resistant finish that won’t attract as much dirt or grit.

When refitting the stock, make sure the stock screws are tightened correctly. A loose screw can really throw the relationship between point of aim and point of impact for some rifles, while for others it can make surprisingly little difference. Nevertheless, it’s better to ensure the stock screws are nice and snug.

Springers typically have two screws or bolts in the forend as well as two more in the belly of the stock and/or the trigger guard, while PCPs may have only one or two screws.

If the action is loose in the stock your head/eye alignment with the sight won’t be consistent from one shot to the next, and an inconsistent rifle will be an inaccurate rifle.

But while loose screws may be bad, so is over-tightening them. The key is to strike the right balance and get consistent tension. A torque driver isn’t an essential piece of kit, but it does remove the need for any guesswork.

I use a driver made by Felo which can tighten screws from 1.5 to 3.0 Newton metres, a near-perfect range for airgun use.

Rifle care: barrel and crown

Barrel cleaning can be a bit of a divisive subject, with some people cleaning theirs every time they use their gun, and others swearing there’s no need to touch it.

I’ve known plenty of rimfire shooters as well as air rifle shooters who have never cleaned their barrel. It wasn’t because they were lazy, but because they genuinely believed their rifle was shooting well and the barrel simply didn’t need cleaning.

Any barrel firing a lead projectile needs to have a thin film of lead deposited over the lands and in the grooves of the rifling. This process, known as leading, fills minor imperfections in the bore and reduces friction as the pellet flies down the barrel.

But while leading is beneficial, the lead will continue to build up as more shots are fired, and eventually this layer will become too thick and will start to impair accuracy. This is one of the main reasons why a rifle that had been shooting well may now be shooting wildly – its barrel needs cleaning and re-leading.

How often you clean will depend on the type of barrel, the type of pellet, the muzzle velocity and the existing level of leading. You should certainly clean your barrel whenever you suspect accuracy is degrading. Once it’s been cleaned, the barrel must be leaded up again, and this can usually take anywhere from five shots to 50, and sometimes even more.

Depending on your type of rifle, you’ll need to use either a pull-through or a BoreSnake to carry out a deep clean, after which felt cleaning pellets can be used to maintain the bore.

In general, the method you choose will depend on the level of access you have to the breech. A pull-through is the best option for most PCPs and underlever or sidelever springers, while a BoreSnake can be used to great effect with a break-barrel. Cleaning pellets can be used with most air rifles, simply being shot through the bore towards a safe backstop.

Dedicated airgun-friendly products such as Napier Power Pellet Lube or Power Airgun Oil are perfect for cleaning and conditioning the bore, but I’ve also had success with products designed for powder-burners such as Military-Grade Solvent from a US firm called Breakthrough.

Be careful though, because while this particular product is non-corrosive, some cleaners designed for rimfire and centrefire rifles will destroy breech seals and O-rings.

If you’re not planning on shooting the rifle for a while, finish off the barrel-cleaning process by giving the bore a light coating of gun oil – but remember to clean this out before you take your next shot otherwise it will prolong the re-leading process.

Have a close look at the crown – this is the very last part of the barrel that comes into contact with the pellet, and any scratches, dents or other irregularities may adversely affect accuracy. If yours has suffered any damage, you may need to get the muzzle re-crowned.

If the muzzle has been threaded, clean the threads with a toothbrush or cloth, check for any damage and apply some grease before refitting your moderator or thread protector.

A full strip-down goes beyond routine maintenance, but if you have confidence, experience or a willingness to learn then go for it!

Rifle care: scopes and mounts

The lenses of a telescopic sight should be as clean as possible so they can allow the maximum amount of light to pass through them, providing a brighter, clearer sight picture. But it’s all too easy to scratch a lens, or at least damage the chemical coating, through overzealous cleaning.

Canned air would seem the best bet for blowing dust and dirt off the surface of a lens, but many of these aerosol products use a type of propellant that can settle and then congeal on the lens. My preference is to use either an electric air blower or a puffer tool like the Giottos Rocket Air Blower that’s designed for cleaning camera lenses.

Don’t forget to clean the body of the scope as well – a damp microfibre cloth works well – and the scope caps can receive some attention too. Some caps such as those made by Vortex are attached to the objective and ocular bells with a rubber gaiter, and this can be treated to more of the car trim restorer that we used earlier to treat the synthetic rifle stock.

An illuminated reticle is a great feature to have, but is not something many shooters use on a regular basis. For that reason the battery is often under-used, and may already have gone flat, so you may as well change it in any case as fresh batteries don’t cost a fortune.

Check the torque on the screws securing the scope rings and mounts – they can come loose over time, even with air rifles that have minimal recoil. If you’re using a hex key rather than a torque driver, try not to over-tighten them, so just use the short end of the key.

But before you go ahead and tighten the screws, have a look at your scope setup. Maybe the eye relief isn’t as perfect as you thought, or the crosshairs aren’t as level. Make adjustments, because a well-mounted scope helps unlock the full potential of both the gun and the shooter.

Rifle care: get it together

Your rifle should now be checked to ensure that it’s maintained its functionality. Does the safety catch still work correctly? And even though we haven’t discussed the idea of making any adjustments to the trigger, does that also still function properly? With the rifle pointed at a safe backstop, you can dry-fire the rifle if it’s a PCP, or fire a pellet if it’s a springer or gas-ram.

If you are able to set up a target, make sure that you check the zero. Even if you haven’t moved the scope at all, you may end up finding that the gun’s point of impact has shifted somewhat.

The gun almost certainly won’t shoot to point of aim with a perfectly clean barrel, but you may need to re-zero the gun once the bore’s been properly leaded if it’s still shooting off.

With your air rifle now totally checked, perfectly cleaned, well-protected, re-lubricated, re-leaded and re-zeroed, it’s ready for action once again, all set for you to hurl thousands more pellets downrange – until it’s ready for the next round of maintenance of course! 

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