Custom Barrel Care at 17X

By Jim See

“Not another article on barrel care! ****-it! I keep reading this stuff, and it seems like every guru has a different opinion on what to do.”

Okay, let’s not get too worked up about this subject. I want to discuss what I have found to be the most effective way to care for that expensive piece of pipe that just showed up on your doorstep. I, like most everyone else, want to see results from my custom rifle. So I’ll cover how we should care for the most important part right from the start.

The first thing to do is clean that barrel before you ever shoot it. Now I’m not talking about scrubbing the lands out, just a couple of patches to remove any dust or debris from shipping. I will assume we all know enough to use a bore guide and a quality cleaning rod and jag, with properly fit patches, so enough on that.

Barrel Break-In
This could be the most debated subject of barrel care. The two schools of thought are, just shoot it, or shoot and clean for x number of rounds. I have tried both and from my experience the proper way to go is the shoot and clean. This is why:
It is a well known fact that a barrel, even a custom lapped barrel, will attract more copper fouling to the bore on the first few bullets down the tube. The single most important reason to shoot one round and clean out that copper fouling is to prevent a build-up which will be MORE difficult to remove if multiple bullets are fired down the virgin bore. Yes, we may clean it five times with 5 bullets fired, but you will notice that the fifth cleaning was much easier than the first. On the other hand, if we fire 5 bullets in succession we will have multiple layers of copper laid down, which will require more cleaning to remove. My opinion is that the 5 cleanings will leave your bore in better condition than the single cleaning after 5 shots. I have shot, bore scoped, and cleaned a couple of barrels during the break in, and the visual bore inspection was quite enlightening.

So what is happening as these first few bullets pass down the clean barrel? Good question. Answers range from burnishing the surface of the barrel, smoothing out the throat, to depositing carbon in the grooves of the micro finish. I cannot say for certain, but the results of a broken-in barrel do have a noticeable effect. Now all this is not to say a barrel that had 20 rounds fired down it right from the start will not break in. I feel the barrel will get there quicker with fewer rounds and less scrubbing, cared for the way I have outlined.

Now, not all barrels will act the same. The surface finish, steel type, hardness, cartridge, and lubricity, can all affect the barrels ability to “break in” so none of this is set in stone. You may find that your barrel cleans up easily after 3 shoot and cleans. Another barrel may take 12 shoot and cleans.

One other overlooked aspect is the period of time in which the barrel stabilizes. Now don’t read more into this than what I’m saying. But let’s say you load 75 cartridges exactly the same and fire them through a new bore. At the same time you did a few shoot and clean, and the barrel is cleaning up easily. You will notice that the velocity readings of these 75 bullets may be a little erratic, and will most likely increase through this period of use. After the 60th or so bullet the velocity readings should equalize and may be up to 50 fps faster than the first 20-40 bullets. This was not my finding, but pointed out to me by a friend who has broken in many more barrels than I have. Since that time I have seen it enough to believe it.

My procedure is exactly this: Shoot one round, remove all copper, one dry patch, one wet patch of Kroil, one dry patch, repeat about 5 times total. Shoot 5 rounds, remove all copper, one dry patch, one wet patch of Kroil, one dry patch. At this point 95% of the barrels I use will be cleaning up extremely quickly and easily, and I will begin some form of load development. I will usually try and get another 2 cleanings in the next 50 rounds or so, and monitor the progress with the bore scope. After this I consider cleaning to be routine and will follow the advice in the second paragraph below.

So this gets us to what should we be cleaning with? I use and highly recommend Bore Tech Eliminator. It’s a safe cleaner with no ammonia, and can be left in the bore indefinitely. Eliminator emulsifies the copper and suspends it into the liquid. It is aggressive enough that your brass jag alone will stain a patch blue. Now, I personally cringe at the thought of running a bronze brush down the bore of a brand new barrel, and I do avoid this. Repeated wet patches every 10 minutes or so will clean the barrel. Some stubborn barrels may get a couple of passes with a wet brush, but I prefer to let the Eliminator do its job.

A word on ammonia based cleaners, I cannot say with any certainty that ammonia if used properly will hurt your bore. But I have read that ammonia left in a barrel to dry can attract moisture, which may in turn damage the bore. So if you insist on using up your last bottle of CR-10, neutralize the bore with a few patches of darn near anything that will wipe out the remnants. Abrasive paste of any kind for the most part should be AVOIDED; I’ll talk more about this later.

Routine Cleanings After Break-In
At this point we are using our finely tuned machine to its full potential. With solid load data and drops worked out, we are enjoying the performance of our rifles. So how often should we clean that rifle? Easy. Before long term storage, or when accuracy starts to fall off. That’s the simple answer. If you clean after 25 rounds because that’s what “One Hole Joe” told you to do, you’re most likely cleaning way too often. I have the pleasure of owning a couple of rifles that refused to foul their undies, so to speak. They shoot more rounds than I care to reload in a day without any excuses. Not all barrels will treat their owners this good, but if you have the pleasure, never do anything to that barrel that will jeopardize the internal surface finish. (I think Jim is talking about abrasive paste again.) Good thinking!

Carbon Fouling
Honestly, I have never had a rifle that wore a carbon ring in the neck. Maybe I’m just lucky, or too damned stupid to realize a little black sphincter is choking the life out of my brass necks. Or it could be that the Eliminator removes enough carbon to eliminate this problem. On that note I will not discredit the fellows who have had this issue. I will admit I do on occasion in the shop use Iosso bore paste on some barrels, and the stuff works wonders on carbon. Give an AR-15 to a coyote hunter and a case of Russian ammo and I guarantee carbon pain. Iosso has a mild abrasive and should be used to an absolute minimum and ONLY if carbon fouling is you problem. That black stuff that came out on the FIRST Iosso covered patch may be carbon fouling. The black stuff on the SECOND Iosso covered patch is BARREL STEEL!

Don’t believe me? Take a patch and put any of the abrasive paste on them and rub the outside of your shiny stainless steel barrel. The patch will turn black! And the barrel will get shinier. The point is don’t overdo it. The best option would be an effective nonabrasive carbon cleaner.

So now is where I could go on about all the barrels with a mirror finish that copper foul like a five year old’s underwear during a bout of stomach flu, all because some fellow read that JB paste cleans copper, and if a little is good a lot is better. Trust me, a polished bore will collect more copper than one with the custom lapped finish as supplied by the barrel maker. Many abrasive pastes are like a self fulfilling prophecy: “I clean with XYZ Abrasive Paste because it is so effective at removing copper, and because I clean with XYZ Abrasive Paste I continue to have a copper fouling problem.”

I am currently running an experiment with a “bad fouling” barrel that was returned to my barrel maker. When discussing the bore scoped appearance of “JB tracks” with the maker, I suggested that I take the return to my shop, relap the barrel to create the structure necessary for a good finish, rechamber, cut and crown, and see how it runs. This, along with other test done, may finally put to rest the debate over abrasive bore cleaners.

Like the title says: Custom Barrel Care at 17X. Without a bore scope it is difficult for the average guy to determine the cleanliness and condition of his bore. I would not have learned or realized much of the advice in this article without one. One trick for determining the bores cleanliness is the q-tip down the muzzle. This will allow you to see if you have the copper out of the bore. You should also become proficient at “reading” your patches to determine when the bore is clean.

With this article I hope I cleared up some of the concerns of custom barrel care. If all else fails, go back to my old stand-by, a quote I repeat to myself weekly: “Do no harm.”