Cleaning A Long Range Precision Rifle
When the topic of cleaning a long range precision rifle comes up, heated debate often follows.
One school of thought is to clean the rifle’s barrel after a predetermined number of shots, the other is to shoot the rifle until it no longer produces the accuracy you’re looking for, then scrub the barrel. Which one is right? I would submit that there is no right or wrong, just different ways of thinking about it. In the course of 20 years, I have gone from cleaning my rifles after every range session, to hardly wetting a patch for months at a time. In this article I’ll share my cleaning process with you, but also explain why I don’t clean very often.
The muzzle end of a barrel is always an exit, never an entrance.
Always clean from the breech end. Using a bore guide, I start by pushing a few loose-fitting patches soaked with Shooter’s Choice through the bore. The patches are stuck to a jag on my cleaning rod. After letting the solvent sit in there for a few minutes, I soak a tighter fitting patch with solvent and scrub back and forth inside the bore for a couple of minutes. At the end of these steps, I let the patch exit the muzzle and remove it from the jag. If I feel the need to, I might scrub with a brush at this point. I usually soak the brush with solvent and pass it through the bore 8-10 times before pushing a couple of clean, tight-fitting patches through, removing them when they exit the bore. They will usually have dark brown streaks on them, indicating carbon in the grooves of the rifling. Now I repeat the wet patch sequence one time, letting the barrel soak for several minutes before pushing a clean, dry patch through. If that patch comes out clean, I’m done. If not, I repeat the process until it does.
Breaking in a barrel is not the same as cleaning a barrel.
I won’t get into the merits of barrel break-in here, other than to point out the differences between that and normal maintenance cleaning. For focused copper removal, I do the above procedure first. Then I repeat the patch sequence with Sweet’s instead of Shooter’s Choice. It’s important to note that the carbon fouling must be removed before you can get to the copper. I end the break-in the same way I end the normal cleaning; when the patches come out clean. Copper streaks will be bright blue.
There are a lot of tools and chemicals for this job, and I’ve tried most of them!
I like Dewey coated rods. I use the 22C-44 and a 30C-44. With those two rods, I can clean everything from a 22-250 up to a 338 Edge. The 44” rods allow the brush or jag to exit the muzzle of a 30” barrel with a brake. I also have several Dewey brass loop rods with slotted patch holders. These are used for cleaning the chambers of rifles as well as pistol bore cleaning. I like pierce-style jags and round cotton patches that give a tight fit in the bore. Sinclair/Brownells has a good assortment of sizes that will work for every caliber. Large square patches work well for cleaning chambers. I use bronze brushes for general-purpose bore cleaning, or nylon brushes for copper removal. The two chemicals I use now are Shooter’s Choice for general-purpose bore cleaning and Sweet’s for copper removal. I follow the directions on the bottles and have had great results. The only time the Sweet’s comes out is during barrel break-in. There are many good bore guides available. I use MTM (Pro Shot) guides.
Cleaning a precision rifle’s barrel doesn’t necessarily make it shoot better.
In fact, cleaning the barrel can make the first several shots land in a different spot than a fouled barrel’s point of impact, especially at distance. In my experience, even if they hit the center of the bull at 100 yards, the first few rounds fired from a clean barrel will be 20 to 40 feet per second slower than the rest. That will surely induce some vertical spread at long range. It can be accounted for, but why have to account for another variable? A fouled barrel has given me consistent performance from shot to shot.
A good barrel should shoot accurately for a long time without cleaning.
I am a results-oriented guy who doesn’t like to waste time. I keep careful notes about my rifles and shooting. If something doesn’t produce measurable results, I’ll probably quit doing it. According to my barrel log, on two separate occasions I fired over 600 shots from my Hart-barreled 260 Remington without cleaning it. I don’t remember why I cleaned it, but I know it wasn’t because it stopped shooting well. That barrel has over 3000 rounds through it now, and it still produces ½ MOA groups. I also remember firing over 600 rounds through a 338 Edge +P without cleaning it. At the end of that string, that Hart barrel was shooting sub-tenth groups. I didn’t bother running a patch down the bore.
It’s important to note that while I don’t scrub the barrel regularly, I do clean the chamber and action as often as I can.
A dirty chamber can cause a lot of problems in the field, as can dirty triggers, bolt lugs, etc. That, as well as wiping down the exterior surfaces and careful cleaning of the scope is done every time I return from the field.
Is cleaning a long range precision rifle different from cleaning a factory rifle?
You bet. The rifles I’m using as examples for this article are precision field guns, not safe queens. They wear corrosion-resistant stainless steel barrels. The barrels and actions are finished with Cerakote. They are designed to be used in all conditions and perform in all conditions.
The most important thing that differentiates a mass-produced factory rifle from a purpose-built precision rifle is the quality of the barrel’s finish. Custom barrel makers like Hart, Krieger, and Broughton spend a considerable amount of time and effort finish-lapping their barrels. That produces a shiny, slick surface inside the barrel that carbon and copper have a hard time sticking to. Contrast that to a typical factory rifle that uses assembly line barrels with tooling marks across the lands and grooves. I remember a friend of mine commenting on what he thought was rust inside the muzzle of my favorite 338 Win Mag, a Ruger M77 with a stainless barrel. What he was seeing was copper residue stuck in the tooling marks of the rifling. I could run patches through that Ruger for two days without getting a perfectly clean one. I finally stopped trying. That rifle shoots sub-MOA consistently and has never let me down. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?