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Barrel Cleaning

By: Mike Bellm
     Cleaning is not in itself a bad thing, but there is no bore guide I have seen on the market yet that actually keeps the rod off of the throat, and this is where the main damage occurs from cleaning. Most folks cannot, or do not, conceptualize what happens when the rod strokes the barrel and are lured into a false sense of security when they buy some gizmo rod guide that does absolutely nothing to keep the rod off of the lands at the throat. I would like to see the first such rod guide that does and would welcome discovering one that did.

     While a heavy build up of copper does cause problems with accuracy, my concern is that it has become vogue to scrub the heck out of barrels and do more long term damage with the cleaning rod than is helped by the cleaning.

     There are many schools of thought on maintaining barrels. One person I know who shoots almost every day of his life NEVER does any kind of copper removal. He just runs a bore snake through his many barrels to keep them from rusting. This fellow is routinely zapping groundhogs and coyotes at 400 yards and beyond with his Contenders. Go figure.

     If he gets a barrel that fouls badly, he will sit and run several hundred rounds through it WITH NO CLEANING AT ALL!

     While I choke at the thought of it, I also cringe at the damage I see done by cleaning rods. Which is worse?

     No matter what the finish is inside the barrel as it arrives, with shooting its interior finish will stabilize at whatever finish shooting produces. I.e., rough barrels smooth up. Super slick barrels get rougher.

     The objective to breaking in a barrel, ultimately, is to get it roughed up or smoothed down inside without "coining" the inside of the barrel from bullets overriding clumps of copper attached inside. But no matter the barrel, and no matter what you do, there will be copper attached inside with the very first shot, and even after doing a shoot and clean regimen for a hundred rounds, there will still be some copper inside the barrel. So it is a question of degrees of coining that occurs.

     While perfection may be the goal, and one may get sterling results with generous cleaning, has he really gained anything measurable? And what did it cost him in terms of time and money that could be better spent on other shooting pursuits?

     Take another individual as an example, Don Bower. When Don and I put on a long range shooting clinic at Claremore, OK in '99, I packed up all my cleaning gear and figured with all the shooting for extreme accuracy at long range that I would be cleaning the heck out of my barrels. Wrong. In three days of shooting I don't recall any cleaning, at least nothing that would indicate any kind of regimen. Don simply SHOOTS. And, he and his students shoot some mighty impressive groups at extremely long ranges. For him, shooting does not even begin until the distance is at least 500 yards!

     Another case in point, and while it is a small case, when I shoot my .22 K-Hornet on prairie dogs, a typical day was (it's been several years now) AT LEAST 250 rounds. This barrel was a "junker" that was too rough inside to sell, a more extreme case than most people will ever encounter. It fouled like the devil to start with, but with use, it rather quickly got to the point where you could look into the barrel at the end of the day's shooting, and the entire circumference at the muzzle was black with virtually no trace of visible copper at all. AND... it has zapped a lot of prairie dogs at distances way beyond what a K-Hornet is supposed to.

     Am I recommending that you go out with a $4-500 barrel and never clean it? No way! I DO recommend judicious cleaning, BUT at the same time I am trying to temper the reasoning of perhaps thousands of people I have talked to at gun shows, the phone, and on the internet over the years who scrub the daylights out of barrels and ruin them quicker than if they did more shooting and about a fourth the cleaning.

     As for a cleaning regimen, pick one from one of the barrel manufacturers if you want, which is more like shoot one and clean for 5 or 10 rounds, then shoot about three for the next 50 rounds, then shoot no more than 5 or 10 rounds for the next 100. After that, for shooting the tightest groups possible, perhaps clean every 20 rounds, but I would test it to see IF the cleaning is actually benefiting group size and by how much. If this is your goal, then I would also present to you that you need to apply many, many other benchrest techniques lest your work be an effort in futility. I.e., standard loading dies, presses, and chambers will only permit a certain level of accuracy. So, for example, you need to dive into the realm of tight chamber necks, turned case necks, inline size and seat dies, etc... we just eliminated at least 95% of the shooters who would not be bothered with this. But excessive cleaning is not the substitute for precision chambers and ammo.

     Bore scoping barrels routinely here at the shop where I shoot and clean and lap, shoot, and clean, I see the copper that remains in even the finest Hart and Shilen lapped barrels and can see what it actually takes to get it out. It takes an excessive amount of cleaning to actually get it out, even with copper removers and soaking. So what is your goal? To spend your life cleaning barrels or shooting? If you get that much of a kick out of stroking barrels, come on up here and you can clean all my barrels for me for free! I won't charge you a thing for it, and you won't even have any ammo or barrel expenses!

     What I am suggesting is to keep things in perspective and don't get ridiculous.

     - Mike Bellm

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This article reprinted with permission of Mike Bellm and

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