By Paul Evancoe
One of the great mistakes made by many shooters is to judge a firearm’s performance based upon the manufacturer’s claims, rather than by its operational results. In the world of precision shooting, accuracy isn’t a matter of belief; it’s a matter of evidence. While one’s shooting ability is important, equally important is the precision quality rifle or handgun one shoots, the ammunition one uses and how one maintains it all as a precision package.
The interoperability combination of gun, ammunition and maintenance is essential to reliably score precision hits. In short, you must always practice exactly like you intend to shoot when it counts most. Many shooters don’t realize there are some simple steps they can take with regard to gun bore and operating system cleaning, ammunition handling and gun storage that will significantly increase hit probability and tighten groups.
The growing variety of precision firearms, marketed as such, available on today’s market is overwhelming, especially to the eyes of new shooters. Attributes like a floating barrel, precision action, precision bore, precision adjustable stock, etc., are alluring. Manufacturers abound with claims of precision accuracy at extreme ranges. The word “precision” is one of the more overused labels and claims made by the gun and ammunition industry as a whole. But what is precision? What does it really mean when it comes to firearms and ammunition? Moreover, how do you maintain a precision firearm, or any other (not-so-precision) firearm for that matter, in a precision condition?
A precision firearm, by definition, is one that has been meticulously manufactured with “special attention to material and manufacturing detail;” nothing more, nothing less. It’s all about the quest for attaining maximum performance of any particular firearm. Many precision firearms are manufactured with, or “fitted” to, demanding tolerances in the gun manufacturer’s custom shop. Others are built one at a time as custom hand-fitted guns made for a specific purpose or operational role. Most all of these guns are similarly built using competition screws, springs and sights. Most have fully adjustable stocks or grips and, of course, Picatinny Rails abound. Often these guns are further “tricked out” with hand engraving that further drives up the cost without functionally adding anything except superficial beauty—but a gun doesn’t have to look “cool” to be a precision firearm.
It is important to note at this point that “precision” doesn’t mean “reliable.” Many assume that precision and reliability are the same thing; they are not. If anything, precision frequently drives down reliability in field conditions because of the close tolerances used in manufacturing. This may sound counterintuitive, but it is not. A certain amount of tolerance “slop” must be designed and manufactured into the weapon so it will not need to be maintained under hermetically clean conditions to be reliable. Precision guns are often “temperamental,” especially when exposed to environmental extremes. Feed malfunctions, stovepipes and the requirement for constant pampering are not uncommon.
Lesson 1: Extremely tight precision tolerances often result in weapon operating system and feed and extraction malfunctions. The best way to determine whether or not the precision weapon you’re looking to buy is reliable is to read customer reviews. Customer reviews provide unfiltered “ground truth” where manufacturers’ claims, store clerks, good ol’ boys and gun writers’ evaluations usually don’t. Think about it … when was the last time you read a negative review in a gun magazine?
Another important point to remember is that in all cases no two identical firearms will perform identically using the same ammunition under the same operational conditions. How can that be you might ask? It’s again all about differences in part manufacturing and fitting tolerances, no matter how slight they might be. All manufacturers’ drawings provide an acceptable window of plus/minus tolerances for the machining and fitting of parts. It is literally impossible to create two identical firearms for that reason. You can make them close but not perfectly the same, and ammunition, round-to-round, shares the same issue. Therefore, when nearly identical guns are fired using nearly identical ammunition there are still differences that affect performance and accuracy.
Most firearms evaluated in gun magazine articles are done by a single shooter (the article’s author) using a single, sample weapon. The guy on the range next door might be shooting an identical gun and using the same ammunition and get very different positive or negative results. So you’ll want to make your firearm selection based on as many shooter reviews as you can read based on the same firearm. While these reviews are mostly subjective observations, they are pretty much ground truth as the average shooter reports his experience. From this dialog you’ll get an informal ground-truth feel for the firearm’s performance under a wide range of conditions, shooting a variety of ammunition.
Lesson 2: Equally important to precision shooting is the ammunition that is being fired. Using cheap ammunition in a precision firearm is self-defeating. Shooting regular, non-match grade ammunition in a precision firearm instead of match grade ammunition is akin to putting cheap gas in a racecar. Shooting non-match grade, cheap ammunition in a precision firearm won’t damage it, but why would anyone want to shoot junk in their precision firearm?
Ammunition selection is critical to accuracy especially at long ranges. Match ammunition is manufactured by lot and usually sold that way. Most match ammunition manufacturers, for example, weigh every bullet and segregate the bullets to be loaded into weight categories. They weigh and trim every cartridge case to length and shave the case neck for concentricity and thickness uniformity. When they assemble the rounds, powder is carefully measured for each cartridge load. When the bullet is installed into the cartridge, every round is measured for the bullet’s installed height and overall cartridge length. This attention to loading detail provides superb uniformity that translates to accuracy. Regular production ammunition has no such quality control, and that’s why it should not be used for precision shooting.
Lesson 3: Ammunition handling and storage are also important to accuracy. Generally speaking, precision ammunition doesn’t use as tight a cartridge neck crimp to hold the bullet as is used in regular production ammunition. A slight lessening of the cartridge neck crimp is an accuracy enhancer. Regular production ammunition is crimped hard so it will endure rough handling and the forces of auto-feed from a magazine or linked belt, but that hard neck crimp can result in accuracy fluctuations.
Protect match ammunition in a shell box designed for that purpose when you’re transporting it to and from the range. Store your match ammunition in a cool, low-humidity environment as you would a fine bottle of wine. Don’t shove it in your shooting bag and subsequently throw the bag in the bed of your truck to bounce around under the hot sun for days at a time. If your match ammunition shows any signs of corrosion, dirt contamination or damage of any kind, don’t use it in a precision firearm. Another taboo is applying lubricant or preservative coating of any kind on your ammunition. Lubricants will penetrate the primer pocket and absorb into the primer itself. This causes misfires. Lubricants on the cartridge case will attract dirt that will be carried into the magazine and chamber with every bolt stroke. Lubricants coating the cartridge case will burn and cause carbon build-up in the gun chamber leading to sludge and lending to feed and extraction malfunction. Keep your match ammunition clean and pristine.
Lesson 4: Before shooting, give both your firearm and the ammunition you intend to shoot several hours to equalize with the ambient temperature of the environment you will be shooting in. This is not to advocate that if it’s raining or snowing that you should expose your gun and ammunition to the elements. In fact, quite to the contrary, keep your gun and ammo as dry and protected as possible. What you can do, for example, is put your gun and ammunition in the trunk of your car or a weatherproof container for a few hours at ambient temperature prior to shooting. Temperature and humidity affect a multitude of variables ranging from barrel harmonics, to propellant combustion spontaneity, to bore fouling, to bullet ballistic performance–all are critical accuracy contributors.
Lesson 5: How you clean and subsequently foul your bore is fundamental to precision shooting. Remarkably, the precision shooting community has largely moved away from using traditional bore solvent and brushing the bore to loosen carbon and metal deposits. Today’s chemistry has provided us with some excellent solvents that are applied using wet patches, allowed to soak for 10-20 minutes; then a second solution is wet patched through the bore and allowed to interact with the first for another 5 to 10 minutes. These solutions not only loosen and dissolve carbon, they remove copper and lead. The bore is finally dry-patched until the patches are clean, and the bore is squeaky clean. If necessary, the entire process can be repeated.
The finish patch many precision shooters use is dampened in denatured alcohol for a final run through the bore. No lubricant is patched through the bore or sprayed into it. The bolt is closed, and the gun is stored with a dry bore. Some shooters will additionally cut a small stamp-size piece of painter’s adhesive tape (the blue colored stuff) and put it over the muzzle end of the barrel to keep dust and dirt from inadvertently fouling the bore. The gun is stored with the bolt closed, sealing the barrel’s breech end.
Lesson 6: Some shooters, especially police snipers, will make their first shot on a clean bore. They practice for this scenario and have reasonable confidence in their first shot, cold bore accuracy. However, most competition shooters will foul their bore before shooting a competition round. Fouling usually consists of 3 or 4 shots prior to shooting the competition string. The purpose of fouling is to add carbon and metallic material back into the bore’s lands and groves as well as heat the barrel slightly, thereby providing a more consistent friction coefficient for more predictable projectile ballistic performance. Those first 3 to 4 fouling rounds fired seem to adequately serve this purpose.
Lesson 7: Lubrication of the gun’s friction surfaces is very important. There are a number of lubricants available that have wild performance claims. However, there are a few that do actually make a difference and are formulated to permeate the granular structure of the metal and “plate” the friction surfaces, radically reducing, if not eliminating, wear. The key is to find one that doesn’t wash out, melt away or mutate into emulsified gunk when exposed to the wide range of shooting environments military, law enforcement, competition shooters and hunters regularly encounter.
Cleaning Solvent Attributes–What to Look For
- Chemically loosens and removes burnt powder, lead and copper fouling
- Contains no ammonia or other chemicals potentially damaging to weapon surfaces to include polymers, bluing, plating, etc.
- Non-corrosive to firearms parts, non-toxic to humans, environmentally safe
- Non-flammable, minimum flash point of 150°F
- Lubrication attributes:
- Reduces wear on all friction and pressure surfaces (moving metal parts)
- Prevents corrosion, rust and oxidation
- Resists water washout, adheres to metal surfaces keeping lubrication functional under all environmental conditions
- Insoluble in water, won’t collect and hold dirt
- Non-hazardous, non-toxic, environmentally safe
A limited number of manufacturers market quality cleaning and lubrication formulas in a package consisting of handy applicators that can be easily carried in a web gear pouch or cargo pocket. These, with the addition of a vinyl-coated rod with jag and patches or a snake and patches, will suffice for almost all field-cleaning requirements. In a shop cleaning environment, a vinyl-coated rod and jag should be used for bore cleaning. In all cases, always push or pull the patch through the bore from the breech end to the muzzle end (following the bullet path). Don’t brush the bore; use the jag and wet patch method previously described.
Remember to leave the solvent soak for a number of hours (time permitting). Then, wet patch the bore again and again (the patches will initially be copper green and black colored) until the patch comes clean. Now, dry patch the bore until clean. Follow up with a damp patch of denatured alcohol. Close the action (bolt) and put a stamp-size masking tape tab over the muzzle end to close the barrel. If you intend to store your weapon, or you’re operating in a high humidity environment, you may want to run a damp patch of a high-grade plating lubricant through the bore before sealing the bore.
The described cleaning process works great on all firearms so give it a try and be fastidious.
|This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V21N8 (October 2017)|