Shoot That Old-Timer! How to Clean and Shoot Old Rifles
July 18, 2012
Nope, I'm not talkin' about puttin' Grandpa or Uncle Fred down. What I am talking about is pulling that old military bolt-action rifle you picked up years ago out from the back of your gun vault and using it.
In most cases, you don't want to just grab the gun and some ammo and head for the range. An old military rifle needs to be carefully inspected and prepared before loading up.
Take It Apart
Once you've made sure the rifle is unloaded, you'll need to take it apart. It's not enough to just pull the bolt out of the receiver. The degree and type of care some of these old rifles received varied from fantastic to none. Also, many of these rifles were literally dipped in various types of preservative when they were initially stored. While the outside might have been wiped down when they were sold, the insides may still be filled with hardened oil or grease.
If you're not sure how to disassemble your rifle, there are a number of very good takedown guides available.
Two are The Official NRA Guide to Firearms Assembly Rifles and Shotguns and A Collector's Guide to Military Rifle Disassembly and Reassembly by Mowbray and Puleo.
Clean and Inspect It
It's important to disassemble your rifle for thorough cleaning, and it also gives you an opportunity to check for damage that might otherwise go undetected. For example, you need to check the stock carefully for cracks or damage within the receiver inletting. The area behind the recoil lug is especially prone to damage. If you do find damage, you'll want to have it repaired before shooting.
Clean the barrel carefully to remove storage grease as well as any fouling. The soldiers using these rifles didn't have access to modern solvents and cleaners, so don't be surprised if once the fouling is removed the bore appears a bit rougher than anticipated. I've seen more than one barrel where rust pits were actually filled with fouling and gave the appearance of a relatively smooth bore.
Another important area to check is the inside of the bolt. Many times you'll find the bolt packed with thick grease, which can slow or even prevent movement of the striker or firing pin. All of that grease and gunk must be removed. I've found Birchwood Casey's aerosol Gun Scrubber to be ideal for cleaning out hard-to-reach areas like this.
While it's rare, you'll sometimes discover the striker or firing pin spring has collapsed or compressed with age and use. If this is the case, replacement springs for many older rifles are available from outfits such as Wolff Spring Co., Numrich Gun Parts, and Brownells.
Check the condition of the tip of the firing pin. If it's pitted, rough, or damaged, then you might need to replace it or carefully polish it. The tip of the firing pin should have a smooth, rounded surface. For most older military rifles, the firing pin tip should not project from the face of the bolt more than about 0.065 inch. Excessive protrusion along with a rough firing pin tip can lead to pierced primers and a dangerous release of gas into the action.
Check the Headspace
Many military rifles were built with generous headspace to allow for the use of dirty or corroded ammo; consequently, older rifles have often been improperly labeled as unsafe due to excessive headspace. Part of the problem relates to the fact that military headspace standards and gauges are often not the same as those normally used with civilian firearms. Many gunsmiths have only standard civilian Go and No-Go headspace gauges. I have a set of British military .303 gauges made in 1953, and with this set the No-Go is 0.010 inch larger than the Go gauge. At the same time, the current SAAMI standard for the civilian .303 chamber has the maximum, or No-Go gauge, length only 0.007 inch beyond the Go (minimum). This is just one example of the difference you may encounter between civilian and military gauges.
In the absence of military gauges, you can at least get a general idea of the relative headspace of a rifle. First, completely disassemble and clean the bolt. It's important for both safety and accuracy that the bolt be completely stripped with the firing pin removed. Next clean the chamber. Then select four or five samples of the ammunition you plan on using and, in turn, place each round in the chamber and then place a small piece of brass or steel shim stock between the case head and the face of the bolt. With the shim stock in place, carefully close the stripped bolt. By varying the thickness of the shim and using several different rounds, you can get a feel for the amount of space between the case head and the boltface. For our purposes, this is the relative headspace for that rifle with that ammunition. Generally, if it's not more than 0.010 inch, the headspace will be adequate for the rifle with that specific ammunition.
Use Good Ammunition
Speaking of ammunition, one of the reasons these older rifles often fail to shoot well is the ammo. If you want to get good accuracy, you have to use good ammunition. Using old military-surplus ammo of unknown origin and age picked up at the local gun show will seldom result in optimal accuracy. The best commercial ammo I've found is the new Hornady Vintage Match ammo that's designed and loaded specifically for these older rifles. And with the Hornady ammo, you'll never have to worry about whether or not the ammo is corrosive and could damage the bore.
While this is not all that could be done to check out and prepare these old rifles, this should get you headed in the right direction. As always, if you run into a problem or have questions about the safety of your rifle, take it to a knowledgeable, competent gunsmith. These old rifles are just too much fun to not shoot and enjoy.
Until next time, good luck and good gunsmithing!