Guns Shotguns

Safe Keeping How to make sure your guns stay sparkling clean in storage

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Few of life’s tragedies exceed the unbearable anguish of uncasing a favorite gun and discovering once-gleaming metal encrusted with rust.

The gun-storage tragedies I’ve endured range from falling gun racks to corroded bores, but for sheer disaster none come anywhere near that which befell one of my boyhood chums by the name of Rypton (we called him Rip). He’s the same kid, by the way, that I wrote about a while back who had me “custom fit” the stock of his Browning Superposed to cradle his chubby cheek [December/January 2001]. Unfortunately, it turned out the shotgun wasn’t his, but his Dad’s favorite quail gun. And I wound up getting most of the blame for the misguided affair.

Anyway, now that you know whom I’m talking about, I’ll add that the only reason I and a few other guys in our school tolerated him was because his dad owned some land around town that had good hunting for dove, quail and rabbits. As long as we were friendly toward Rip, we got to hunt there. I guess this was a bribe of sorts, because being friendly to Rip didn’t always fit into the nature of things, especially on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday when his dad presented him with–you guessed it–a Browning Sweet Sixteen shotgun and a leather case hand-tooled with Rip’s name and a maudlin birthday verse. How well I recall the haughty smirk on that kid’s face every time he pulled his gun out of its fancy case at our dove hunts that season.

Anyway, there came a rain shower during one of our Saturday hunts that pretty well soaked Rip’s leather case, which had been left on the hood of his Dad’s expensive car. My pals and I took this as a good omen, but none of us could have imagined–Rip least of all–what chemistry was to take place in that leather case. At our next hunt Rip uncased the Browning in his typical lordly fashion and, as usual, we were forced to bear witness. What we beheld, however, was not the bright blue of Browning steel but a ghastly thing layered with crusty rust! Rip took one long, unbelieving look and then sank to the ground in a blubbering fit.

Apparently, the soaking of the pretty case activated tanning chemicals in the leather and unleashed something powerfully corrosive. The reason I’m telling Rip’s sad tale (aside from the fun of it) is to illustrate how fast your fine gun can be ruined by casual neglect. After a hard day in the field, it’s tempting to set your gun aside and promise yourself to wipe it down later. Don’t! “Later” has a way of becoming days and then weeks, and all the while moisture and fouling relentlessly work their mischief. But cleaning your gun for the next hunt and putting it away for months are two quite different matters.

Storing your guns from one hunting season to the next–or even longer–is actually a two-part project: The first step is properly preparing your firearms for storage. The second is storing them so they will be bright and shiny and ready for action months later. Let’s discuss preparation first.


Good gun cleaning starts on the inside, mainly in the bore–whether the gun is a shotgun, a pistol or a rifle. Whenever you shoot jacketed bullets in a rifle or handgun, a couple of dismal things begin to happen. First of all, as powder and copper fouling accumulate in the rifling, a decrease in accuracy begins to occur. After prolonged firing without cleaning, this loss of accuracy becomes quite measurable. Happily, a good cleaning almost always restores a barrel to its former accuracy. If the bore isn’t cleaned promptly, however, something else ugly begins to happen.

Copper is a born troublemaker with the bad habit of teaming up with other undesirables it finds loafing around in the atmosphere. You can see this when you peek into the muzzle of a neglected gun and see streaks or patches of a greenish-blue crud. Underneath that crud the copper and its unsavory companions are doing some nasty things to the surface of the bore and will continue to do their evil work for as long as they remain. The same goes for leading in pistol barrels and shot or plastic streaking in shotgun barrels.


The trick to quick and efficient gun cleaning, especially getting inside the barrels, is to have a way to hold the gun securely so both hands are free to work. There are a few cleaning “cradles” on the market that work well (Midway USA is a good source) and serve other purposes, too, such as scope mounting. A simple and inexpensive gun cradle is made by MTM (makers of the Case-Guard ammo boxes). Called the Rifle Maintenance Center, it sells for about $30 and folds down for compact storage.

Another trick that speeds bore cleaning is to use two cleaning rods: one with a jag for patches and the other with a bronze brush. This way you aren’t swapping the jag and brush back and forth on the rod, wasting time and making a mess. I use only stiff, one-piece rods for most of my cleaning, but I also carry a stout pull-through cable in my backpack for emergency cleaning in the field. The new BoreSnake pull-through system works well, too, and is especially convenient for cleaning the often-neglected chambers of revolvers.

Aerosol-type cleaners are great for cleaning trigger mechanisms, especially those of autoloading shotguns that tend to become gunky. Some cleaning aerosols are pretty powerful stuff, however, so be sure to use them in a well-ventilated area. Outside is safest. Also, don’t forget that these chemical cleaners can leave metal surfaces unprotected, so be sure to follow with a rust preventative. And by the way, if you use a bore solvent that contains ammonia (as many copper-removing solvents do), be sure to follow it with a non-ammonia solvent. Residual ammonia is said to attack steel, including stainless steel.


When putting a gun away for long-term storage I do not lubricate it entirely, but apply only a light coat of lubricant to the exterior. The reason for not lubricating the working parts is that grease and lubricating oils have a way of creeping around where they’re not supposed to be, especially if temperatures fluctuate in your storage area. For example, a lube applied to the bolt of an autoloading shotgun may find its way into the fire-control system or even seep into the stock. So save your lubricating chore until you’re ready to use the gun again and put the lube where it’s supposed to be.

There are many good metal preservatives on the market, so take your pick. Some of the new high-tech preservatives that leave a micro-film on the metal are nice if you don’t like a greasy look. Apparently they work as well as they claim. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to see the preservative on the metal, which is why I usually use such old-time favorites as Birchwood-Casey’s Sheath or RIG grease.

I cut pieces of sheepskin into hand-sized wiping patches and load the fleece with the preservatives. A quick wipe-down with the sheepskin leaves a satisfyingly visible coating on the metal. I do this not just for storage but every time a rustable gun has been handled. Salty fingerprints are a gun’s number-one enemy.

Do not store guns in fabric or leather cases or in their original cardboard boxes, as they attract moisture. This is why, whenever possible, you should store guns so that dry air circulates around them.

One of the best investments a gun owner can make is a gun safe. Not only does it provide reasonably good protection from theft, but it keeps guns out of the reach of curious young hands and provides a ventilated environment for uncased firearms.

If you already own a safe, or plan to buy one, a smart accessory is an electric heating element. Actually, even a light bulb will do. The trick is to put the heat source at the bottom of the safe so that the warm, dry air rises and flows continuously around your guns.

In my own gun room, I follow the 65/65 rule for temperature and humidity, which is just about ideal for gun keeping. A heating element is also an excellent idea for traditional closed-door gun cabinets.

The best rule for safe gun keeping is to use simple common sense. Just because the way you store your guns is the way you’ve always stored them doesn’t mean it’s the best way. So when putting guns away until next season, remember poor Rip’s tragedy and don’t let it happen to you.

Quick Tip

BOTTOMS UP Storing your guns with their muzzles down ensures that any muzzle lube will make its way out of the muzzle rather than into the fire control system or the stock.

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