By Kevin Michalowski
Rust has a pretty bad reputation, especially when it comes to firearms. But there’s good rust and bad rust. In years past, a good layer of rust could provide a nice finish for a hunting gun. Those days are all but forgotten.
Bluing is so common now that most people think it’s the only way to finish gunmetal. Sure, some shotguns are nickel-plated and some rifles are made of stainless steel, but in years gone by, it was nothing more than rust that added color to a gun.
Establishing a layer of controlled rust, typically called “browning,” will create a lovely finish and even offer a level of protection similar to bluing. Best of all, it’s easy. It doesn’t involve any volatile chemicals and costs next to nothing.
I watched my dad finish a shotgun barrel in such a way nearly 30 years ago, and that old single barrel looks and shoots fine to this day.
“It was really pretty simple,” he recalls. “I corked both ends of the barrel and scrubbed the outside completely clean with steel wool and degreaser. Then I set it in a damp place, the basement, overnight. By morning, there was a very thin layer of rust. I wiped that down with an oily rag, degreased the metal again and let it sit. I checked it every day. In less than a week, I liked how it looked and called it done.”
With browning, the steps are simple, but each is very important. Corking both ends of the barrel seals out moisture and keeps the bore from rusting. Use a potent degreaser and wear gloves or the rust will not appear evenly over the metal. There’s nothing worse than trying to buff out rusty fingerprints from a poorly prepared barrel. Once the layer of rust appears, wipe it with a soft, lightly oiled cloth. That removes the top layer and allows the rust to build up evenly when you clean it with the degreaser and start the process again.
When you’ve achieved the color you like, wipe down the metal with an oiled cloth and treat the gun as you would any blued firearm.
Browning the steel parts is a great way to create a rich finish while adding a hint of old-fashioned charm to any firearm, but it seems especially fitting on older guns.
Reprinted from the August 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine