There are only two types of shooters: those who have had stuck bullets and those who will. If you shoot enough, and especially if you shoot handloads, odds are pretty darn good that you or someone you are shooting with will experience a stuck bullet. Fortunately, there’s a simple and easy way to remove a stuck bullet when it happens.
A stuck bullet is generally caused by defective ammo. In most cases with handloads, there was insufficient powder to push the bullet all the way out the bore. More often than not, this shouldn’t cause any major problems if it is dealt with properly. The problems arise when improper technique is used to remove the bullet.
The classic case for me occurred years ago when a fellow brought a .22 rifle into my shop. He had been shooting and noticed that he didn’t observe a bullet impact after firing. He thought he might have stuck a bullet in the barrel, so he went back home and tried unsuccessfully to remove the bullet. I knew there was trouble when he brought the rifle into my shop because there was a piece of arc welding rod sticking out the barrel! I eventually cleared the bore of several pieces of assorted welding rods and wire along with a single .22 lead bullet. Incredibly, after all of that there was little or no damage to the bore. I have seen more damage done to barrels from attempts to clear the obstruction than caused by the stuck bullet itself.
This spring I was out on a prairie dog expedition with a group of friends. The night before we headed back home one of my buddies brought me his custom .17-caliber Ruger No. 1 with a bullet stuck in the bore. He had tried to remove the bullet with a cleaning rod but had been unsuccessful so he asked me to take at look at it.
I took the rifle back to my shop so I would have access to my tools. I had no idea where the bullet was located or if, for that matter, there was just one bullet.
Step 1: Locate The Bullet
The first task was to determine the location of the stuck bullet as that could affect how I would approach removing it. To do this I carefully ran a carbon fiber rod down the barrel from the muzzle until it contacted the bullet. I then made a mark on the rod at the point where it entered the muzzle. The rod was removed and laid along the barrel with this mark even with the muzzle. A mark was then made on the outside of the barrel at the end of the rod. This indicated the front, or muzzle, end of the obstruction. The same procedure was followed from the breech end to locate the rear end of the obstruction and to make a second locating mark on the barrel. Now I knew where the obstruction was and its length. In this case it was obviously a single bullet and was located about one inch ahead of the end of the chamber.
Step 2: Drive The Bullet Out
My friend had tried unsuccessfully to drive the bullet out with a cleaning rod from the muzzle. I generally find that it’s best not to apply force to the front end of a stuck bullet in a rifle especially if it’s a bullet that is designed to easily expand or mushroom because what happens is that the rod expands the bullet and wedges it tighter in the bore.
If the knock-out rod is too small, the point of the bullet can force it off to the side into the wall of the bore. This could result in a scratch or other damage to the bore from the rod. Make sure your rod is as large in diameter as possible that will still move freely in the bore.
For that reason, I will tend to drive a bullet out the muzzle from the breech end.
A word of caution is definitely in order here. Many years ago I heard of an accident that took place in a gunsmith shop.
A gunsmith was tasked with removing a stuck bullet from a rifle. Using a steel rod that closely fit the bore, he inserted it from the breech until it contacted the base of the bullet. He then took a large hammer and struck the end of the rod to begin driving the bullet out the muzzle.
Evidently there was some powder residue at the base of the bullet as there was an explosion, the rod was driven back toward the gunsmith, and the bullet came out the muzzle with enough energy to penetrate a toolbox on an adjoining bench. From what I was told, there were no injuries, but there were several very surprised and shaken folks in that shop.
Because of that, I always wash out the barrel behind a stuck bullet to remove any traces of powder. This is easily done with a solvent. The barrel is positioned vertically with the muzzle down and a generous amount of solvent is used to fill the bore. After it sets a bit, the barrel is inverted and the solvent dumped into a suitable container.
I also seldom use a steel rod to drive out a bullet to avoid any possibility of a spark or damage to the bore. If I must use a steel rod, I make sure the contact end of it is perfectly flat and smooth and the edges are slightly rounded
The old jointed aluminum cleaning rods you used to see so often are to be avoided. They will easily bend. The end of each section is drilled out and threaded. If this hollow end is used to strike an obstruction it will sometimes collapse and mushroom. In the worst case this will result in having an aluminum cleaning rod stuck in the barrel! No matter what type of rod you use, make sure it is solid.
With handguns used with moderate to light powder charges, stuck bullets are not uncommon. When I was involved in cowboy action shooting I would generally see at least one stuck bullet at any match I attended. For that reason, I always kept an 8-inch length of brass rod in my shooting kit. For handguns that is generally all that is necessary t
o remove a stuck bullet.
When working on my friend’s Ruger No. 1 rifle I used a carbon fiber rod that just fit the diameter of the bore. It is wonderfully strong, yet there is virtually no possibility of damage to the bore.
In this case there appeared to be only one .17-caliber bullet, and it was located very near the end of the chamber. Because of this I secured the rifle in a padded vise and inserted my carbon rod in from the muzzle until it was firmly held against the front end of the bullet. I then took a brass-faced hammer and with a few blows to the end of the rod, carefully drove the bullet out the chamber end of the barrel.
Examination of the projectile revealed that my friend’s cleaning rod had been driven down into the jacket of the bullet. This had expanded the bullet and had caused it to stick in the bore. My carbon rod, on the other hand, was large enough in diameter to avoid entering the bullet and instead pressed against the sides of the jacket. This made removal much easier.
Step 3: Clean The Bore
With the bullet removed, I cleaned the bore and checked for damage where the bullet had been stuck. Fortunately, the bore appeared to be unharmed. More often than not, a single stuck bullet will seldom harm a bore. Unfortunately, a lot of the damage is caused by well-meaning folks who simply utilize the wrong tools in trying to correct the problem.
Stuck bullets in most cases are just an inconvenience. With care, a few simple tools, and good procedures, you should be able to handle this problem easily. Just keep in mind that if you shoot enough, sooner or later you will encounter a stuck bullet!
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!