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« Flinch or the phobic reaction to recoil | Main | The Economics of Handloading »

September 26, 2003

Now that you’ve bought your first firearm, what do you do with it?

The very first thing you should do when you get your new (or at least new to you) purchase home is to read.

If the firearm doesn’t come with an owners’ manual you can either write the company that made it & request one (most companies send out copies of owners’ manuals for free) or look in other sources for information on how the firearm operates & how to care for & maintain it. Barnes & Noble actually carries a few decent books on disassembly & assembly of firearms as well as on maintenance & do it yourself gunsmithing. But failing all else, looking on the internet will sometimes get results.

After you have read up a bit & understand how & why your firearm operates you must clean it. Before you think about firing any ammo it must be cleaned & lubricated. Most new firearms are coated with protective grease that is great for preventing rust & corrosion but terrible at lubricating the moving parts of a firearm. There are several cleaners on the market that will remove grease & other oil based lubricants, but in a pinch automotive brake cleaner or kerosene will work very well. Used firearms should be given the same treatment simply because you don’t know what kind of lubricants are or are not on the firearm. In fact the original preservative grease used by the factory may still be on the firearm.

It goes without saying that you should be familiar with how to field strip & possibly detail strip your firearm before you start the initial cleaning. Also make sure to remove any wood or plastic parts, such as stocks or grips. The degreaser probably won’t hurt the wood or plastic, but it might damage the finish.

After you firearm is degreased it needs to be lubricated properly. This serves two functions: to prevent rust/corrosion & to reduce friction & wear between moving parts. Even stainless steel will rust so protection is needed.

For corrosion resistance there are a number of oils that will do fine. Break Free, RemOil, even 3-in-1 oil will suffice. WD-40 will not. For a number of reasons it is not a good choice for any firearm. It’s not an efficient lubricant & it penetrates too much. So not only will it not work to reduce the friction between moving parts, if it gets on your ammunition it will penetrate the case & render the cartridge inneffective.

For protection of moving parts from friction I recommend a good quality grease. Grease will perform a bit better than oil & will generally stay put. Again there are many good brands such as Tertrilube, but I’ve found that any quality high temperature grease will work. Personally I use White Lithium.

So grease all moving parts, friction points, etc. such as slide rails & hinge pins. Use the oil on the outside of the barrel & frame of the firearm as a rust preventative.

Do not under any circumstances lubricate the chamber or the breech face. Any lubricant will alter how the cartridge case responds to the pressures generated by firing & could create potentially dangerous situations. Also make sure the barrel is free of any oil, grease or residue before firing as a little oil could bulge or even blow up your barrel. Lubricant should not be placed on any surface of the firearm that comes into direct contact with cartridges, such as a magazine follower. (The only exception to this is if you intend to store your firearm for a long period of time, in which case a light coat of oil should be applied to the chamber, barrel & any other non lubricated metal parts to prevent rust. It should be completely removed before firing.)

There are a few other places that should not be lubricated but these are specific to certain brands of firearms. You should be able to learn which areas are to remain lubricant free from either the owners manual or other sources on your specific firearm.

If your firearm was purchased used there are some other considerations. Unless it was purchased at a reputable firearms store (pawnshops are not reputable firearms stores for our purposes here) then after you have your firearm cleaned up you should take it to a reputable gunsmith. Asking him/her to check the headspace of the firearm & perform whatever safety checks are necessary to ensure that that type of firearm is indeed safe to operate. Most of the time this will cost you $20-$40 dollars to hear your gunsmith say that the firearm is fine. But the reason that doing this is important is that you simply do not know what modifications the previous owner(s) may have made, or how worn out the firearm may be. If the firearm had been shot a lot (& I mean a lot) then the headspace may be too great to safely fire a cartridge. (headspace is the distance between the point of the firearm which prevents the cartridge from moving back & the point on the barrel that stops the cartridge from moving forward. Too much or too little headspace can be dangerous.) Or perhaps the previous owner decided to re-chamber the firearm for a different cartridge but failed to mark the barrel properly. Unless you have the tools & knowledge to make these checks yourself, then spend the money on having a gunsmith check them for you.

So your firearm is now properly cleaned & lubricated. You’ve done some research & know how your firearm operates & why. & you’ve gotten a gunsmith to make sure the firearm is safe. Now it’s time to choose the ammunition.

The barrel of your firearm will be marked with the proper cartridge. Use only cartridges marked identically to what appears on your barrel. There are a few exceptions. For example a .38 Special cartridge can be fired in a revolver chambered for the .357 Magnum cartridge, A shotgun will have its barrel marked for gauge & length, so any shell that is equal to or shorter than the length specified on the barrel may be fired in that gauge. If your barrel says 12 gauge 3” then you can use any 12 gauge shotgun shell that is 3” or shorter. You cannot use any shell that is longer than 3”. There are a few other exceptions but unless you know for sure that it is safe to do so then do not chamber & attempt to fire any ammunition that is marked differently from your firearm.

Now that you’ve figured out which cartridge your firearm uses the difficult part comes in: choosing between the various bullet weights, bullet styles & power levels for that cartridge.

Just about every cartridge I can think of comes in at least two bullet weights & most come in dozens of bullet weights & bullet styles, each with a different level of power. For example the .40 S&W cartridge can be had with 135, 150, 155, 165, 170 & 180 grain bullets. & the choices don’t stop there: the bullets can be either hollow point or full metal jacket. & to further complicate things some ammunition is loaded to a different power level than others, even when the same style & weight of bullet is used.

What you must do is first determine which bullet weight & style will be most appropriate for the intended use, then make sure the power level is acceptable for the intended use & finally make sure that specific make of cartridge functions safely, reliably & accurately in your firearm.

To complicate things even further, all firearms are different with regards to which ammunition shoots best. Two firearms that come off the assembly line back to back may have markedly different preferences in which bullet weight/style/power level they shoot best.

So what do you do? Try out as many different bullet styles/weights & power levels as you can to determine which works best. Start off with 5 20 round boxes of cartridges & put each one through your firearm, cleaning the barrel between each different box. Then after you have a general idea of what works better, narrow it down to a specific bullet style/weight & power level & repeat with as many different brands of ammunition in that bullet style/weight & power level as you can find. When you’ve narrowed it down to one specific load by a certain manufacturer go out & purchase at least 100 rounds of that ammunition & put it through your firearm. This is to ensure that the specific ammunition is indeed reliable in your firearm.

With new firearms, especially rifles, some people recommend a ‘break in’ procedure for the barrel. The purpose of this is to supposedly smooth the barrel from any tooling marks or roughness left over from the manufacture of the barrel.

Others say that breaking in a barrel is a waste of time, as any benefits would have to be judged with a micrometer & it simply wears out the barrel faster especially through improper cleaning. I happen to agree that breaking in a barrel is not necessary & only in certain cases can it be beneficial. I also am aware of rumors that seem credible that the process of breaking in a barrel was first promoted by a custom barrel maker who merely wanted to increase his business, as it puts the barrel 100 to 200 rounds closer to needing replacement than it otherwise would be. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this for a custom barrel that has been hand lapped. But I’ll include a brief explanation of the procedure & let you make up your own mind.

There are several different approaches to breaking in a barrel, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just outline a basic method:
Start off with a clean barrel & some mid powered to mild ammunition. Select the heaviest bullet weight you can safely fire & use a flat based bullet with as flat a point as you can find. This is to provide the most bullet surface contact with the barrel.
Fire one shot. Clean the barrel. You want to remove all of the powder residue & any copper fouling that has accumulated in the barrel. Allow the barrel to cool. Fire a second shot. Clean the barrel. Allow the barrel to cool. Do this for about 20 rounds (although some will recommend doing this for up to 100 rounds). Then fire 4 to 5 shots through the barrel. Clean the barrel. Allow the barrel to cool. Repeat this for 20 rounds.
Other variants of barrel break in are simply changing the number of rounds fired before cleanings. For example fire one shot, clean & allow the barrel to cool for 10 rounds, then fire three shots, clean & allow the barrel to cool for 30 rounds, then fire five shots, clean & allow the barrel to cool for 50 rounds.

As I’ve said though, I personally do not see the advantages to this unless you have a factory barrel (as opposed to custom) & are involved in Bench Rest Shooting competitions. So I do not recommend that you break in you barrel as described above. Just make sure you clean your barrel thoroughly before firing the first shot, & let the barrel cool in between shots or strings of 5 shots.

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