Cleaning the Military Surplus Rifle
by Mark E. Freburg
I thought I'd talk about what I do when I acquire a "new" milsurp rifle to ready it for the range. As I've said before, if it isn't shootable, I don't want it. I'm not a collector, I'm a shooter who collects. I'm hoping that this may give you some ideas if you are new to the game. If you're not I'm hoping that I may also learn some new tips and tricks from your replies--contact me on the forum's message board.
The First Step
When I acquire a new rifle I take it apart. I don't care if I get it from a private party that has been shooting it, I still take it apart. If I don't know how to take it apart I find the disassembly procedure or at least an exploded diagram. The NRA is tops for assembly info, & DBI Books publishes a couple of good books on assembly & exploded diagrams. A cheap source of exploded diagrams is the GPC catalog--I tore out the ones I wanted from an older catalog when I got the new one. (Note: GPC refers to the Numrich Gun Parts Corporation catalog.)
Okay--the gun is apart. I remove all the metal parts from the wood, and set it aside. If the gun is covered in cosmoline or heavy grease, I first wipe off the heavy accumulation with paper towels, then I use mineral spirits and a brush to remove the rest. Soaking for a while makes it easier. Some have mentioned using Kerosene, but I think mineral spirits (aka paint thinner or paint solvent) works better. NEVER use gasoline! Products like Gun Scrubber, brake cleaner, or electric parts cleaners, (which all contain trichlorethylene 1,1,1) are too expensive to use for this first cleaning, and don't work as well. I use an old baking pan to soak or scrub small parts in; it keeps the solvent from getting everywhere, too. Small parts can be boiled in a little detergent, but I've not usually found it necessary. If I don't have a gun with heavy grease or cosmo, I skip the paint thinner and go to step two. Now I use a trichlor product, or better yet, Acetone, (as long as one allows for proper ventilation!) to remove the mineral spirits & any remaining grease, oil, or crud. If the parts are clean and ready to be put back together, I oil them with a good product like Shooter's Choice FP-10, Wonderlube, or Break-free CLP, if they're high stress parts needing the lubricity of CLP, like autoloaders. For bolt guns, I use Shooter's Choice Rust Prevent, or BC Sheath. Leaving degreased parts sitting out unprotected invites rust. If there is any rust I have not removed, I scrub the part with CLP and a bronze toothbrush. This will remove rust without removing bluing, in my experience. I degrease afterwards.
If some of the parts could use some bluing touch-up, I do it next. For small parts, nothing beats a cold blue CREAM. I use BC's Perma-blue Paste. Cream (paste) stays where it's put, while most liquid cold blues seem afraid of steel & run off as soon as they're wiped on, like water off a duck. Incidentally, I've found that BC's paste colors almost all the various surplus steels I've tried it on, which most liquids won't. I've tried Brownell's Oxpho-blue liquid, & was not very impressed. (Note 11/97: "Pro Gun Blue" is my current favorite cold blue.) One other thing I like to do is polish certain parts that are often buggered up, like buttplate screws, action bolts heads, & buttplates. I just remove raised irregularities. With buttplates you have a lot of room for metal removal, but it's often impossible to get out all the signs of hard use. I use fine sandpaper, grinding wheels, or a rotary-tool, depending on what sort of polishing is necessary. Cold blue afterwards. Once all the parts are clean, blued if needed, and oiled, I set them aside.
The barreled receiver, after its initial cleaning, needs more attention. Before I get to the barreled action, I should mention that I examine all the miscellaneous parts for wear & damage, and that I do this BEFORE I oil them, as oil will cover a multitude of sins! I'm no gunsmith, so if I don't know about something I check it. I often replace small parts like screws that have been all buggered up by a previous owner by ordering replacements from GPC. Sometimes the replacements are in worse shape, so I go back & attempt to polish up the best ones. I also pay close attention to springs - firing pin, magazine follower, etc. Once I have examined all the parts and oiled them, I return to the barreled action. I have yet to see a milsurp rifle without old, gunked up grease in the locking lug recesses. This must be removed. While they make tools for this purpose, it's easy enough to do with a short rod and large patches. The flexible nylon rod Hoppe's makes for this purpose is great.
Next I turn to the bore. Even after all the grease is removed, the bore will normally still be fouled, some worse than others. I use and recommend Shooter's Choice Bore Cleaner. I clean with this first, using a bronze bore brush that fits--different brands of brushes are sized differently even within the same caliber, many surplus .30 calibers often have .310", .312", or larger bores, and wear is always a factor with milsurps, so experiment to find brushes that fit. The patch, conversely, should fit but not be overly tight. Cleaning patches really don't clean, they just carry solvent in and crud out of the bore. If the patch is a crush fit to the bore the solvent will be wrung out before it gets inside the bore. I also use Sweet's 7.62 or Shooter's Choice Copper Remover and I alternate this with the bore cleaner, as there are alternating layers of carbon (powder) fouling & copper jacket fouling. The repeated amounts of blue (from dissolved copper) on the patches will confirm this. For a bore that is badly carbon fouled, JB's Bore Cleaner, a soft paste, works great. It is used in conjunction with a light oil or solvent. I recommend CLP for this. A military surplus barrel is not going to clean up like a new sporter barrel fired a few dozen times, so I expect to spend some time at this. It's okay to leave this job in the middle & get back to it. Leaving Shooter's Choice Bore Cleaner in the bore will help loosen fouling and the bore will be protected from rust, too. Once the bore is clean enough for my needs, I oil it, then I reassemble all the metal parts, and set them aside. Now it's time for some work: cleaning up the wood.
The wood on a milsurp may or may not be much work, actually. Mine often are a lot of work because, not being a gunsmith or metal specialist, I look harder at the metal of the gun and buy what is in good shape. The wood I can work with; if it's crummy looking I may still buy the gun. Of course, you have to know what you are looking at, that is, what is fixable and what is not. Some woods are more reparable than others, etc. If the stock looks pretty good, and has a good finish on it I normally just take some Birchwood-Casey Stock Sheen & Conditioner & follow the directions. There are also wood furniture cleaners on the market, but beware--I once had an old military rifle that smelled like coconuts for a month! If the wood is a little dirtier, I use oil soap for wood, like Murphy's. Following this up with wax, either BC's or a paste wax, is a good idea.
If the stock is still too dirty for oil soap, I fill a bucket with warm water and add a half cup of Mr. Clean and a half cup of bleach, this last if the stock is really blackened with oil. Then I hold the stock OVER the bucket, not IN the water, and scrub it with a stiff brush for 5-10 minutes. Then I rinse it with a spray nozzle. (The shower works well if mama don't mind). Try not to soak the wood or you will learn a new meaning of the term "raising the grain!" I dry with a towel, carefully, then finish the drying with a hair dryer--don't burn the wood. Then, I do it all over again. I've repeated this scrub, rinse, and repeat process sometimes dozens of times over a period of time, but eventually MOST of the old oil & dirt will be removed. If the stock is REALLY oily, you can take the original (only) Easy Off Oven Cleaner in a well-ventilated area, and spray it on the stock. After 10-15 minutes, rinse/scrub it with HOT water and a natural bristle brush (synthetic bristles will be eaten by the lye). After scrubbing, rinse well, towel off and blow dry. A heat lamp can be used to dry the wood too, but don't burn the wood! After a couple oven cleaner treatments, (oh--use gloves with this stuff!), the oil REALLY should be gone. BUT, if it isn't--sometimes you'll have a clean gun stock except for example, at the wrist, then get ready for tedium!Put the still-oily part of the stock under an ordinary heat lamp and boil it out. After the oil gets hot it rises to the surface, where you can whisk it away with a paper towel. Repeat this as necessary, but don't let one session run too long or the wood can get too hot. When I have this chore to do I try and do it in conjunction with something else, and I check the stock every five minutes or less. Eventually, you will get all the oil out, or as much as will ever come out. Wiping this area with acetone after a heating session will remove the surface accumulation of oil, too.
(Note 11/97. A new product I've been working with is Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda. Dissolve this in a bucket of hot water and scrub the wood. Works GREAT. Easier on the wood than Easy Off!))
The next step is to iron out any dents. Take a small folded rag & wet it. Apply the wet end to a dent in the wood, and apply the tip of a clothes iron, or, if you're careful, a soldering iron, preferably low-temp. After repeated tries (this has to be a labor of love, or it's just LABOR), the water, turning to steam, will be forced into the wood fibers, & the wood will swell, removing the dent. Some dents come right out, some never come out fully. Remember, a gouge or cut can not be ironed out and must be filled. Use a matching shellac stick or dyed epoxy for that. Next it's time to sand the stock.
I'll spend less time and detail on this because more people are familiar with this part of the chore. When my wooden stock is clean and oil-free, dents ironed out and cuts or gouges filled in, I sand it, but I sand it lightly. I do not remove wood at wood-to-metal junctions, because that destroys the fit. I often put the butt plate on and sand the buttstock to fit it better, because milsurp buttplates often seem to be smaller than the area of wood they cover. You can always polish out any sanding marks on the buttplate later, if necessary. I also regularly place the barreled action in the stock to see how the fit is being maintained. I'd rather keep the fit than get the wood perfectly smooth. In my experience there are almost always some imperfections in the wood that remain. Sand to the level you wish. Once sanding is done I remove the sanding dust, and depending on the wood and the finish I want to use, I fill the wood pores.
Birchwood-Casey makes a filler, and also a combination filler and stain that works well. If you choose to refinish with Tru-oil you can take this step or pass on it, as you wish. Honestly, my best stock jobs skipped the filler. BC's has a high gloss to it that I don't like, especially when I plan to knock the final gloss of the Tru-oil finish.
My favorite stain is Minwax. I've used different shades, but Special Walnut is my first choice. Boiled linseed oil makes for a very military-looking finish that is easy to apply, & this is my first choice for authenticity. I rub it onto the wood with my fingertips or a rag, rubbing it in well until it doesn't look wet, and stop after 2-3 coats. Do allow 12-16 hours between coats of linseed oil. I finish by rubbing it lightly with a synthetic stock finishing pad (these are a replacement for steel wool, which sheds too much for my tastes).
Linseed oil doesn't protect wonderfully well, but it can be renewed at any time without any effort, and hey, it looks right. I for one don't plan to hump my milsurp rifle over hill and dale in all kinds of weather after all this work. I'll case it carefully, take it to the range and shoot it, recase it, and carry it home. If you are making a hunting rifle, another finish may be preferred to linseed oil, and there are a million out there. Once the stock is dry and perhaps waxed, reassemble everything (use the instructions if you aren't, by now, on a first name basis with every doohictor & whachamaspring).
Odds and Ends
If the source of your rifle isn't known, or you have two left thumbs, no fingers, and have had a lobotomy, let a gunsmith look over the rifle, perhaps checking headspace. Then take it out and shoot it. Know your ammunition! Do you have an 8mm? Is it a J-bore or a JS-bore? Do you have a 7.62 Russian rifle? Hey, that's a 7.62x54R, not a 7.62x39mm, right? And 7.65x54, an incorrect name for the 7.65x53, is not the same as the 7.62x54R, either! All of the foregoing may seem a lot of work for the casual milsurp buyer, but for the enthusiast it is a labor of love, and nothing beats shooting and showing off a rifle that you've been through pin by pin.
copyright 2006 by Mark E. Freburg/FirearmsForum.com