By David Rainer
Russ Sockwell, gunsmith at Mark’s Outdoors in Birmingham, resets the action of a Browning A-Bolt in a new walnut stock after the original stock was cracked. Photo by David Rainer.
With the bulk of the hunting seasons almost over, it’s time to think about storing your equipment. When it comes to putting away your firearms for an extended period, specific care is needed. Just ask Russ Sockwell, head gunsmith at Mark’s Outdoors in Birmingham, about some of the firearms that have come to his workbench over the years.
While there are occasional parts failures, the majority of the problems Sockwell sees are because of one thing, a lack of maintenance.
“I had a Browning A5 (shotgun) come in that the guy was proud of the fact it had never been cleaned,” Sockwell said. “When I took the gun apart, there was stuff growing out of the dirt and unburned powder in the receiver. There were actually green shoots coming up out of the stuff. I’m guessing it was wheat.
“I’ve had all sorts of craziness. I had a guy come in the other day with an 870 (Remington pump), and it looked like he had just pulled it out of a farm pond. It was probably one of the worst guns I’ve ever seen. There was no finish left on the metal work. The stock was split. You could barely move the action to the rear because it was so gunked up. When I finally got the bolt open, you could look down in there and there’s mud, grime and grease, all kinds of stuff shoved back. And he was wondering why it didn’t work right, couldn’t understand it.”
Of course, before working on any type of firearm, ensure that the gun is unloaded, both the chamber and magazine.
“You hope everybody knows to unload their gun first, but you never assume that,” Sockwell said. “I’ve got one sitting on my bench right now with shells in the magazine with the bolt locked open. If people will let me know ahead of time, it’s not a problem. I’d rather take care of it than have them try it. I had one guy bring one in that was jammed up with some shells caught on top of the carrier. He actually took a screwdriver and pried on the shell to push it back into the magazine. He ended up poking a hole in the shell. By the gouge marks I saw across the bottom of the shell and across the primer, it’s a wonder it didn’t go off.
“Customers are famous for not keeping the magazine tubes clean, paddling boats with them, using them for walking sticks in the marsh when they’re going duck hunting. Then they wonder why they don’t work when it comes time to shoot something.”
Sockwell said most customers know all about keeping the barrel clean but often ignore the area that is crucial to a properly functioning firearm.
“Everybody cleans the barrel or keeps the barrel fairly clean even if you just take a mop on a cleaning rod, which works most of the time,” he said. “The No. 1 thing I tell people is to keep the chamber clean. When you’re just running a brush or mop through the barrel, you’re not getting the chamber.
“Most of the time, if it’s a semi-automatic and it doesn’t want to eject or load properly, the chamber is the problem. That’s where I look first. I’d say that about 80 percent of the guns we see that are not cycling properly are due to rust and grime in the chamber itself. You get a specific chamber brush. A lot of times you can use your regular cleaning rod if the threads are right. They also make a shorter rod just for chamber cleaning. I recommend you get a stiff-bristled chamber brush and turn it around in the chamber four or five times. That will pull out 95 percent of the junk that’s in there. If it gets beyond that, it’s going to have to go to a gunsmith to have the chamber polished.”
Sockwell said on semi-automatic firearms there are basically three types of cycling operation systems – gas, recoil and inertia.
“On a gas-operated gun, make sure the tube itself is clean of any unburned powder and do not oil it,” he said. “As far as cleaning it, just take a slightly oily rag and wipe it off one time and leave it alone. If there is a build-up on the tube, I’ll take a 3-0 or 4-0 steel wool and buff the steel tube to get rid of the build-up so the gas system will move freely back and forth.
The most prevalent problem Sockwell contends with is a lack of maintenance, as can be seen by the rusted gas rings on this Remington 11-87 semi-automatic shotgun.
Photo by David Rainer.
“The recoil guns usually require a little more lubrication. What I usually do, like on the Browning A5, is I take the spring off and wipe off all the old oil and check for any rust or gouges in the tube itself. I buff off any rust with the steel wool. I put the friction rings back on and use light lubrication. If you use too much oil, it’ll end up gumming up.
“On the inertia guns, like the Benellis, there’s not much to do on them. I usually remove the bolt handle, slide the bolt out and clean up any gunk. Then I put a little oil on each of the rails and slide it right back in. To get any more in depth on those guns, you have to start pulling stocks off and springs out. For that, I’d recommend taking it to your gunsmith.”
For pump guns, Sockwell said keeping the chamber clean is the best maintenance, as well as putting a little oil on each rail while the bolt is closed. Then work the action four or five times to get the oil properly distributed in the receiver.
Sockwell said that most of the time it’s best to let a gunsmith do any work on the trigger assemblies on shotguns and rifles.
“Most of the time, folks don’t feel comfortable pulling it out,” he said of the trigger assembly. “The biggest problem I run into is they’re not 100 percent sure on how to put it back in. They get it out, but then they can’t get it back in because you’ve got to have certain buttons pushed on certain guns. They go in in different directions. Most of the time I’ll end up with the guns or I’ll be on the phone trying to talk them through it.
“If they do feel comfortable removing the trigger mechanism, I recommend light oil on all the moving parts – a little bit down the sides of the hammer to get to the pivot, a little bit on the hammer spring plunger and any exposed springs they see. If they still have a cycling problem, they need to go see a gunsmith.”
On side-by-side and over-and-under shotguns, Sockwell said to pull the barrels off and clean the action and locking lugs.
“Then just put a little grease on the pivoting part of the barrel so that it doesn’t gall when you close the action,” he said. “Then just lightly oil the rest of the metal.”
Sockwell said the firearm that he sees the least trouble from is the bolt-action rifle. He makes sure the chamber is clean and applies a light coat of lubrication on the bolt body. After cleaning the rifle barrel with a brush and solvent, don’t forget to shoot a fouling shot before next deer season.
“If you don’t shoot a fouling shot before you go back out, a clean barrel will have a different point of impact,” Sockwell said. “But that’s easy to fix.
“The problem I see more than anything else is neglect.”
-- David Rainer / Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources