How to clean your airgun

Mike Morton examines the controversial use of cleaning rods, brushes and bore paste to bring a wayward rifle back into the fold.

Many shooters will tell you that they never clean the barrels of their airguns – and that goes for a lot of rimfire shooters too. As a lead projectile is fired down the bore, be it a pellet, slug or bullet, it will deposit a thin layer of lead over the lands and grooves of the rifling.

This will help level out and smooth the contact surfaces, filling any microscopic fissures and minimising friction. But while all this is a good thing, that layer of lead will continue to build with each shot that’s taken, and when it gets too thick, accuracy will eventually suffer.

When you notice your rifle isn’t shooting quite as well as expected, cleaning the bore and re-leading the barrel is all that’s usually needed to restore the gun’s inherent accuracy. This is a fairly gentle, non-invasive process, but what happens if it fails to work?

Maybe a gentle clean isn’t delivering the desired results. Perhaps the leading on a sub-12 foot pound rifle has simply been allowed to build up too much over too long a period.

Cleaning pellets, like these ones from VFG, are a good way to carry out a quick maintenance clean

Maybe you have an FAC rifle, which will deposit more lead much more quickly due to the increased velocity of the pellet. And if you’re shooting slugs, they’ll lead up the bore faster still.

When standard barrel cleaning methods fail to deliver, some shooters I know have reported excellent results by taking more extreme measures. But ‘extreme’ carries with it an element of risk, so before we explore the type of cleaning methods that might normally be found on a centrefire, let’s run through the more standard airgun procedures first.

Cleaning pellets

Felt cleaning pellets are the simplest of all the bore cleaning methods, with a cleaning pellet being inserted into the breech and being fired as normal. Take six or so pellets and soak three with some sort of solution, such as Napier Power Pellet Lube, but leave the remaining three dry and shoot these last.

As the pellets are fired down the bore, they will gently scrub away at the exposed lead in the rifling, with the non-lubed pellets drying out the bore ready for the next proper shot.

But these cleaning pellets do need to be used with caution. They are fast and loud, particularly the .177 variety, and are especially loud when shot at an indoor range.

Soak a few cleaning pellets with a drop of Napier Power Pellet Lube, but finish off with some dry ones to help the bore lead-up more easily

They are dangerous, as although they are very light and come to a complete stop  within 15 yards or so, they are still capable of causing damage, so always ensure they are shot in a safe direction.

Also remember to insert a regular pellet behind the felt pellet if you are using them in a springer, as the piston needs the protective cushion of air that a felt pellet alone can’t provide.

These pellets are meant to be used regularly, and some people use them every time they shoot their guns. But while they are very good at slowing down the rate at which lead builds up in the bore, they are not a substitute for a full clean.

The pull-through

If you need a catch-all cleaning solution for your air rifles then this is it. The pull-through will work with PCPs, springers and gas-rams, and the pull-through won’t care if your gun has a fixed barrel or is a break-barrel.

The loop and shaft of the pull-through must be inserted from the muzzle end. Cleaning patches are secured in the loop when it pops out at the breech, and are then pulled smoothly and firmly down the bore from breech to muzzle.

One huge advantage of the pull-through is the fact that, just like with felt cleaning pellets, you are cleaning in the same direction that the pellet travels, depositing any muck and detritus out at the muzzle end rather than the breech.

This Napier pull-through is easy to coil up for storage and transportation – the loop may look fragile, but is actually pretty tough

You can buy calibre-specific pre-cut patches, but I prefer just to use the Napier variety. You need to stack two of these patches together for .177 and three for .22. Keep using the pull-through until the patches come out perfectly clean.

Try to pull the cord concentric to the bore, otherwise you may start to wear the crown, which is the last area of the barrel that the pellet comes into contact with, and a damaged crown will hurt accuracy.

If your rifle has a shrouded barrel, you may not be able to feed the pull-through down the bore very easily, as most barrels are shorter than the shroud that surrounds them. A good trick here is to use a drinking straw to guide the pull-through to the muzzle, after which it should slide down the barrel more easily.

The BoreSnake

The BoreSnake, developed by US firm Hoppe’s, is similar to the traditional pull-through, but instead of using disposable patches, it’s the body of the snake itself that carries out the cleaning.

Hoppe’s points out that the process is vastly sped up compared with cleaning patches, as the entire length of the snake is in constant contact with the rifling, instead of just the area of the patch.

A drinking straw can be useful when trying to guide a pull-through down a shrouded barrel where the muzzle isn’t always easy to find

Like a pull-through, the BoreSnake is intended to be pulled from the muzzle end in the same direction of travel as the pellet, but unlike a pull-through it’s meant to be inserted from the breech. Unless you’re confident enough to remove your barrel for cleaning, this restricts the use of the BoreSnake to just break-barrel airguns.

Some snakes have phosphor bronze bristles embedded in the body for extra cleaning power, and as long as you pull the snake concentrically they won’t do your bore or O-rings any harm.

You can load the snake with solvents and repeat the process as many times as you like. Afterwards, the dirty snake can be washed by hand or put in a mesh delicates bag and run through a washing machine ready to be used again.

Rods, jags and brushes

We’ve now entered ‘extreme’ territory, with the cleaning rod and its associated attachments being intended for use in powder-burning rifles and shotguns. But some people like to use them on their airguns too, although there is a risk of damaging both the bore and the crown with improper use.

A cleaning rod is meant to be inserted into a barrel from the breech end, using a combination of jags and brushes to clean the fouling from the bore. Jags are made of brass, over which a cleaning patch is placed. Some types of jag require you to wrap the patch around them in a spiral.

Use just the right amount of compound or solvent – you don’t want it seeping into internal areas such as the transfer port

The one shown here is known as a spearpoint jag, which impales the patch. The idea is to push the rod down the barrel until the jag pops out the muzzle end, after which the dirty patch is removed and the rod drawn back ready for a fresh patch.

A brush can be attached to the rod to agitate deposits in the bore. Traditional bristles are made of phosphor bronze, an alloy of copper, but many shooters prefer to use brushes with nylon bristles, which are less likely to cause any damage.

One of the big no-nos of using a brush is to reverse direction when it’s still in the bore, because although the phosphor bronze bristles are softer than steel, they can still scratch it. The solution is to ensure the brush is pushed all the way through the bore before pulling it back – or use a nylon brush which doesn’t cause a problem when the bristles are folded back on themselves.

While plenty of people will clean their airguns with a rod, two things really do go against this method. Rods are supposed to be used with something called a bore guide which keeps the rod central to the bore as it travels down the barrel. Bore guides are intended to be used with powder-burners where the bolt can be removed and the bore guide inserted in its place.

The second problem with using a rod on an airgun is the fact that many airguns, notably PCPs, sidelevers and underlevers, provide no direct access to the bore from the breech end unless the barrel is removed.

Some shooters get around this by inserting a rod from the muzzle instead. This method will push solvents, and the crud released by them, back into the action.

But more worryingly it means pushing a solid brass object past the crown the wrong way down the barrel – all without the help of a bore guide. I’m sure many shooters will say it’s completely safe and they’ve never had a problem, but I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it to any of my air rifles, as I’ve seen how much damage can be done to centrefires through incorrect rod-cleaning techniques.

Bore paste

Many people will get through their entire shooting career without using bore paste, while for others it’s become an indispensable tool. Bore paste contains abrasive particles, and its main role is to condition the bore of
of a brand new barrel by taking out any burrs or nicks left over from the machining process, making the barrel shoot more accurately more quickly. 

This process will naturally be carried out just by shooting, but with centrefire ammo costing around £1 a round – sometimes more – bore paste can save some money and time.

When using any type of bore-cleaning or conditioning product, less is more – and that’s especially so with abrasives like bore paste

A secondary benefit of bore paste is its deep cleaning ability, and some shooters like to use it as an occasional cleaning product in addition to its intended use of prepping a new bore. Bore paste is meant to be applied to either a patch or brush, and rodded down a barrel.

But what about airguns? 

As mentioned above, I’m not a fan of using cleaning rods with airguns, but bore paste can be applied using a pull-through. It won’t be as thorough, but you can repeat the process as many times as you like until you’re happy with the result.

US firm KG Industries makes some fairly high-tech gun care products, one of which is KG2 Bore Polish. Of all the bore pastes I’ve ever used, this is probably the most gentle, lending itself to repeat applications.

I decided to put my money where my mouth is and try it in a number of my own air rifles, but using a pull-through rather than a rod. When using any type of liquid near the breech of an airgun, less is definitely more, and I was careful to use a minimal amount with each pass of the patch. 

Bore pastes are grey to begin with, so that will account for some of the discolouration on the used patches, but the results were nevertheless incredible.

Patches put through bores that I thought were perfectly clean came out coated in a filthy mixture of black and brown. After a few passes, I finished off the process with several dry patches to clean the bore of any residual polish.

Did these guns shoot any better afterwards? To be perfectly honest, no, not really, but then they were shooting well to start with. In one case I actually thought I had done more harm than good as it took an incredible 62 shots to re-lead the barrel and get it shooting well again.

But the point of this process isn’t to enhance a barrel that’s already shooting well, it’s to try to rescue one that’s not shooting properly when all other methods have failed, and in cases like this it might just be worth giving bore paste a go.

Clean to the extreme? Yes, but only if you really need to.

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