Skip to main content

Hunting Rifle Maintenance and Prep

People who are kind to their dogs seldom get bitten, and the same applies to hunting rifles. Now is the time to make sure your rifle is ready for its next hunt.

Hunting Rifle Maintenance and Prep

The best time to make sure a rifle is ready for the next hunting season is immediately after the last hunt of the present season. Nonetheless, it's a very important task, regardless of when it is done.

A good place to start is a thorough scrubbing of the bore with solvents that dissolve buildup of powder residue. If Old Betsy seems to have lost a bit of her accuracy, it could be due to bullet-jacket deposits in the barrel; a solvent formulated to dissolve copper takes care of that. Allowing some copper solvents to remain in the bore for a very long time may damage a barrel, so remove all traces with a powder solvent. If the barrel is carbon steel rather than stainless, its bore should receive a light coat of rust inhibitor before the rifle is put away. And don't forget to check the rifle's zero before your next hunt as it can be affected by the complete removal of fouling from its bore.

Finish up the bore-cleaning job by rotating an oversized cotton swab in the chamber. If the chamber is especially dirty, use a swab wet with powder solvent first and then finish with a dry swab. In a pinch, cotton patches wrapped around a brass bore brush will also work. A short rod made for cleaning the barrels of handguns is a handy thing to have on hand for cleaning the chamber of a bolt-action and some lever-actions. Properly cleaning the chamber of some guns, such as the Remington 760, Savage 99, and Winchester 94, requires a special brush with an offset shank.

Most of my serious hunting rifles wear several turns of plastic electrical tape wrapped around their barrels a few inches back of the muzzle. Placing a small strip over the muzzle--not in it--prevents the entry of rain, snow, dust, and field debris. Shooting a bullet through the tape has no effect on its accuracy since propellant gas escaping around the bullet before it travels far enough from the cartridge case to seal off the bore has blown the tape away before the bullet arrives at the muzzle. After firing a shot in the field, I simply remove a fresh strip of tape from the supply wrapped around the barrel and use it to cover the muzzle.

The Receiver

All sorts of things, including grime and bristle fragments from bore cleaning brushes, tend to accumulate in the locking-lug recesses of a front-locking bolt-action rifle. Allow enough odds and ends to collect there, and they can prevent the bolt from rotating to full lockup, regardless of how much muscle you put behind its handle as that trophy buck bounds away.

The easiest way to remove the gunk is with a special rod with a receptacle on its business end that holds one of the cotton swabs your dentist fills your mouth with just prior to asking you questions about your favorite rifle and the biggest buck you ever shot. Simply insert the rod into the receiver so the swab is aligned with its locking-lug recesses and rotate the handle. Especially dirty recesses may require first cleaning with a swab dipped in powder solvent and then finishing up with a couple of dry swabs.

Metal galling can occur unless the surfaces of the locking lugs of the bolt and their recesses in the receiver are kept lubricated. This is quite commonly seen in used rifles simply because their previous owners were unaware of the potential problem. Galling can be even more severe if the locking lugs have been hand-lapped to full contact, as is often done by gunsmiths who blueprint actions. Applying a light film of oil to the engaging surfaces of the lugs each time a rifle is cleaned helps, but grease designed specifically for the purpose will last much longer.

The Bolt

If a rifle gets wet enough, whether it is from rain, snow, or an accidental dunk in the creek, moisture can collect inside the body of its bolt. This can cause rust to form, and if the temperature drops low enough, the moisture can freeze. It is possible for either of these situations to retard forward travel of the firing pin enough to cause a hangfire or misfire. I've seen it happen.

After cleaning the inside of the bolt, it is better not to apply any oil to the spring and firing pin. This is especially important to keep in mind if the rifle will be used during extremely cold conditions. Should the mercury drop low enough, the viscosity of some oils and lubes can become heavy enough to cushion the blow of the firing pin on the primer.

An old toothbrush dipped in powder solvent and a dental pick do a good job of cleaning the face of a bolt. When properly maintained, the spring-loaded, plunger-style ejector seen on many of today's rifles is usually quite trouble-free, but a small chunk of brass shaved from the head of a cartridge case by the extractor can cause it to bind in its tunnel in the bolt. The ejector can also become frozen up by rust and by the entry of dirt. Place the bolt face up in a padded vise, apply a drop or two of powder solvent to the ejector, and use the blade of a small screwdriver to push it in and out a number of times. When necessary, this type of ejector is easily removed for cleaning, but doing so requires a special tool to prevent it from flying across the room when you remove its retention pin. The tool also makes the ejector easy to reinstall.

The Trigger

Clean the fire-control system by blowing out all dust and moisture. The aerosol cans of air sold for cleaning computer keyboards and other office equipment are perfect for the job. How often this should be done depends on the conditions a rifle is subjected to. If a rifle gets wet or if it is subjected to extremely dusty conditions, its trigger should be cleaned as soon as possible after the hunt. Never apply oil or grease to any part of the trigger assembly for two reasons: triggers are designed to operate without lubrication, and its application will accomplish nothing more than attract dust and dirt.

The Metal

A number of products on the market do a good job of preventing blued steel from rusting, but those I have tried during wet-weather hunting had to be reapplied daily in order to remain effective. This is not a problem when hunting out of a camp, but it can be on a backpack hunt where every ounce possible has to be eliminated. The answer is any good paste or liquid wax developed to protect the finish of an automobile. Simply apply a coat, let it dry, and then buff with a soft cloth--same as you do on your Rolls Royce every month. Two or three coats applied in that manner will survive a week or more of rain, snow, and rough handling.


Stainless steel is not as susceptible to rusting, but since most steels of this type do contain some carbon, rust will form under the right conditions.

The Scope and Mounts

The attachment screws of most scope-mounting bases cannot be checked for tightness with the scope attached. Removing the scope to check all screws will require rezeroing the rifle, but doing so is not as big a hassle as missing the buck of a lifetime due to a loose scope. Removing each screw, cleaning its threads, and applying a dab of thread-locking liquid is not a bad idea either as long as it is the grade that allows the screw to be loosened if desired.

After dust is whisked away from the lens surfaces of a scope with a special brush made just for that purpose, special lens-cleaning paper and solution are used to remove grime and fingerprints. Good lens covers are a wise investment because they prevent dust, dirt, rain, snow, and field debris from reaching the lenses. Covers that come with scopes are good for shedding dust in storage, but most won't keep the lenses free of water and snow during a hunt. The ability of some scopes to resist internal fogging is dependent on keeping those caps tight, so as a final check give them a light twist.

Open Sights

Yes, Virginia, some of us still use them. In the old days, most sights were dovetailed to the barrel, so make sure the fit is tight before you head to the woods. If the sight is attached with screws, they too should be checked for tightness. When the black finish begins to wear from open sights, the glare caused by light reflections from the bare spots can interfere with precise aiming. If the sights are made of steel, a tube of touch-up bluing will make the hot spots go away. If they are made of aluminum, a small bottle of flat-black paint and a touch-up brush--both available at hobby shops--will solve the problem. If the gold bead at the front of your old .30-30 has a tendency to disappear on the shoulder of a deer in dim light, brighten its surface with a dab of brass polish or buff it with a piece of crocus cloth.

The Stock

Remove the stock from the barreled action and check closely for any crack, split, or other damage to not only its exterior but throughout its inletting as well. If all surfaces of the inletting are not adequately sealed, finish the job with several coats of stock finish. If the exterior has a hard, synthetic finish, any good household wax developed for protecting wood works equally well on a stock. Years ago, I used Johnson's Wax in paste form, whereas most products I see today are liquids in aerosol cans. Try to find the unscented kind unless whatever you are hunting is attracted to lemons or vanilla beans. Special waxes formulated specifically for use in gunstocks are also available.

A tip I recently picked up is to use Bore Butter from Thompson/Center for weather-proofing a wood stock with an oil finish. With ambient temperature at 70 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, rub a light coat on the stock with your fingers, and after it has dried for a couple of hours, wipe with a soft cloth. It will also keep metal from rusting but only for a couple days. Its odor will eventually fade if applied several weeks before opening day of deer season.

The great thing about a good synthetic stock is it requires very little tender loving care. If its paint job gets chipped or worn through in spots, simply spray on another coat of ugly--I am only kidding--and it's like new. Seriously, about the only thing required of a synthetic stock is to occasionally remove it from the barreled action and take a look inside to see if anything unpleasant is going on there. Some are stronger than others, but none is indestructible. For example, not long back, I examined an inexpensive stock removed from a rifle in .338 Winchester Magnum, and it was beginning to split just behind the recoil lug.

Like I said at the beginning of this report, now is the time to make sure your rifle is ready for its next hunt.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Shooting Times Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Shooting Times App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Shooting Times stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Shooting Times subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now