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Bolt-Action Rifle Cleaning: How-To Guide

Keeping your rifle in tip-top shape is not as hard as some may think, and the benefits to accuracy and longevity are substantial. Follow this guide to start cleaning your bolt-action rifles.

Bolt-Action Rifle Cleaning: How-To Guide

(Photo by Alfredo Rico)

I don’t know why gun cleaning is a controversial subject. Even among my firearm colleagues I often hear, “My rifle shoots better dirty.” The fact is that carbon build up can cause chambering problems, exacerbate wear and tear, and affect accuracy. You can’t wish carbon away and ignoring it is inviting problems down the road. Besides, keeping your rifle in good shooting fitness requires very little work.


Before delving into rifle cleaning, a common question people ask is how often a rifle should be cleaned. There are too many variables to this, so I offer as an example another tool that I use frequently, my everyday carry knife. I want it in its optimal operational and cutting shape so that when I use it the mechanical components will run smoothly and the cutting edge will slice cleanly through material without binding. In the case of a rifle, I want the bolt to ride smoothly, the action to lock up without binding and spent cases to extract easily. I also want my shots to group within my acceptable range of precision. With a rifle, carbon is the dulling factor. Some carbon buildup benefits the rifle but there’s a point where it begins to degrade its performance. That point is different based individual rifle, how much you shoot and what kind of ammo you are using.


Cleaning a rifle requires very few tools, you’ll need a bore guide, cleaning rod, patch jag, nylon bore brush and chamber brush. Patches are a must and are the only thing you’ll need in bulk. For cleaning, a carbon cleaner is a necessity along with a degreaser, gun oil and a little lubricant.

Bore Guide Before lancing the cleaning rod down the barrel’s breech, you’ll want to use a bore guide to center the cleaning rod in the bore and prevent solvent from spilling back into the chamber and into your action. The bore guide also keeps the rod straight and protects the chamber and bore from getting marred by the cleaning rod.

Over the years, I have used a Tipton Universal Bore Guide and Pro-Shot Adjustable Bore Guide, but lately I switched to Real Avid’s Smart-Fit Bore Guide. The Smart-Fit Bore Guide’s main tube is spring-loaded and locks itself into place without the use of a collar and screw that is common with the other bore guides. I find that the collar and screw often work themselves loose during cleaning. Most bore guides come with a set of multiple tips, use one that fits the bore diameter best. The bore guides above have a cleaner port for applying cleaner to the patch.

Bore Guides
Bore guides protect the chamber and keep the cleaning rod oriented straight down the barrel. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

Cleaning Rods There are several types of cleaning rods, avoid those that have a metal exposed surface, especially aluminum, and are segmented. Instead, choose a one-piece nylon-coated, Teflon-coated or carbon fiber cleaning rod. The coated and carbon fiber rods will be the least likely to mar your bore or muzzle crown. Cleaning rods are available in multiple diameters and are clearly marked for a bore diameter range. Another important feature is choosing a cleaning rod that spins independently of the handle so the brush and patch can track in the rifling. Cleaning rods come in different lengths too, find one that is a little longer than your barrel so that the patches clear the muzzle.

My favorite cleaning rod is Tipton’s Max Force Cleaning Rod because it has an innovative handle that allows you to position it anywhere on the length of the rod, effectively shortening the rod. The rod is Teflon coated. J Dewey Rods and Hoppe’s have quality cleaning rods as well.

Patch Jags & Patches Patch jags are used to hold patches and are available in many caliber diameters. Choose the same size as your rifle’s bore diameter. There are a few types of patch jags, Parker Hale-style jag in which the patch is wrapped around the shank, a pierce-point jag where the patch sits on the tip of the jag, and a slotted-tip jag in which the patch is inserted into a loop. The advantage of a patch wrapped around the shank is that more of the patch is exposed in the bore for more uniform cleaning than a pierced patch. These are effective but it takes some work to find a patch that wraps nicely around the jag without binding in the bore. Pierce-point patches typically get dirty in the front of the patch. Their advantage is that the patches go on quickly and fall off easily when exiting the muzzle. Slotted tips use a very large patch that is wrapped through the slot. These are best used with cable systems and not cleaning rods.

For patches, use a cotton patch sized for your barrel bore. Too small of a patch won’t clean effectively, and too large of a patch will get stuck in the bore. The right size patch will push through with some effort but won’t cause the cleaning rod to bend.

Recently, Real Avid came out with their Bore-Max Speed Jag and Patches. The kit includes a pierce-point jag that is twice as long as a regular jag and patches that cover the length of the jag. The pierce point makes the patch easy to attach and the patch completely wraps around the jag for the best of both worlds.

There are several types of patches and jags, be sure to settle on a combination that is not only the right size for your barrel, but that also exposes as much of the patch as possible to promote uniform cleaning. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

Brushes To help the bore cleaner free the carbon you will need a bore brush. There are two types of bore brushes: bronze and nylon. Bronze brushes have been traditionally used and since bronze is a softer metal than barrel steel, it will not damage the chamber or bore unless you clean aggressively. Nylon bore brushes have become a popular choice of many shooters because they reduce the chance of chipping away the fire cracking that is normal in high-round-count barrels. Plus, today’s cleaners are very effective at lifting carbon when you give them time to work.

To clean the barrel’s chamber, use a nylon chamber brush. These brushes have two sizes of bristles on a single stem to sweep out the gunk and remove carbon rings.


There are many nylon bore brush and chamber manufacturers, I use a mix from several manufacturers including J Dewey Rods and Pro-Shot.

Bore and Chamber Brushes
Both bore brushes (below) and chamber brushes (above) are critical for rifle cleaning. Both are sized for the specific caliber or chambering, but chamber brushes are easy to pick out for their "skirt" of longer bristles. Nylon brushes work well and won't mar the gun's metal parts. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

Cable Systems My first cleaning kit was an Otis cable system. It is a great portable cleaning system that can work with many rifles, even closed systems like lever actions and semi-automatic rimfires where a cleaning rod won’t work well. The downside to a flexible cord is that it only works when pulling and it must be snaked through the bore. A cleaning rod works in both directions making quick work of cleaning especially when scrubbing the bore. This is why I recommend a cleaning rod for your main cleaning tool, but encourage cable systems from Otis, Real Avid and others as portable supplements.

Cleaners I have a box full of various bore cleaning products, and have found many that work well, even the non-petroleum-based products like Slip 2000’s Carbon Cleaner. Hoppe’s No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner is a favorite among many, and for those who want a strong cleaner, Sharp Shoot R Wipe-Out Patch-Out is a great choice. The trick to any good cleaning is giving the cleaner enough time to penetrate the carbon.

There are some parts that you’ll want to clean up using a degreaser, and a few points that will need lubricating and greasing. I use Slip 2000’s Degreaser, Gun Lube, and EWG Grease, but I find other brands work well too.

Most shooters have a cabinet full of cleaning solutions and lubricants. Most maintenance brands offer a full suite of products, but its important to know which parts of your gun may need to be degreased or re-lubed, and be sure to give the cleaners time to work. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)


Now that you have your tools, place the rifle in a cleaning stand ensuring that the muzzle is lower than the breach so that no cleaning fluid will seep back into the action. Drape a clean rag over your scope to prevent cleaning fluid from getting on the lens or exterior body. Also, place a rag on your stock if the cleaner may damage the finish. To catch the patches and prevent the nylon brush from splattering cleaner about, tape an empty water bottle on the muzzle. Remove the magazine and bolt and insert a bore guide.

Add cleaner to a patch and run it down the bore, then repeat. Switch over to a nylon brush, add cleaner and then make 15 passes through the bore. One pass is considered both a push and pull stroke, combined. Be careful to not let the nylon brush fully exit the muzzle, you don’t want the metal base of the brush slamming into the crown. Add cleaner to the brush every 5 passes. Once you’ve completed 15 passes, run a wet patch (a patch with cleaner) down the bore.

Bore Guide
One trick of the trade is to give your barrel cleaner time to work. Insert the bore guide and start the barrel cleaning process. Then, swap over to chamber maintenance while the cleaning solution goes to work on barrel fouling. By the time the chamber is complete, the bore should be ready for its final "rinse." (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

Next, let the applied cleaner do its work and, in the meantime, focus on cleaning the chamber. This can be done with a nylon bore brush that is a size larger than your bore diameter, or a chamber brush. I prefer a chamber brush because it gets into the recesses of the chamber much better. Remove the bore guide and attach the chamber brush to the cleaning rod. Wrap a patch or two around the bore brush and wet it with cleaner. Insert this into the chamber, grab the rod (not the handle) and rotate it to scrub the chamber. If you turn the handle, the handle will simply spin. Once you’ve rotated four times, remove the wet patch, or patches, and replace it with a dry patch and scrub again. If the patch is dirty, repeat until it comes out clean. Your last patch should be a dry patch, you do not want to leave a film of cleaner in the chamber, it may cause chambering or extraction issues.

With the chamber complete, we can tackle the bore again. Insert the bore guide and run a dry patch through the bore, it should be filthy. Follow this with a wet patch, then run several dry patches until they come out clean. The fourth or fifth patch should be mostly white.

Jags and Patches
Patches, both wet with cleaning solution or dry for removing moisture and residue, are staples of any gun cleaning kit. They scrub the inside of the barrel and, as shown here on a pierce-point jag, provide a visual indication as to whether the barrel is clean, or still needs more work. (Photo by Alfredo Rico)

If you’re not going to shoot the rifle right away, lightly coat a patch with gun lube and run it through the bore. If you are looking for a sparkling clean bore, increase the amount of scrubbing passes with the nylon brush and cleaner.

The last step is to inspect, clean, and grease the exterior of your bolt. Using a gun degreaser on a rag, wipe down the bolt, bolt lugs and bolt face. Assure your extractor is working by pressing on it and feeling it spring back. If it binds, there’s grit in there that needs cleaning. A squirt of degreaser and gun lube may do the trick. Now, add a light film of grease to the back of the lugs (the sides that face the buttpad). Holding the rifle still, push the bolt in so that the lugs clear their mating surface. Turn the bolt, release, and cycle the action a few times to let the grease distribute itself.

That’s it! You are done.

Over time, firearm maintenance and cleaning can evolve into a personal ritual-like process, tailored to your specific firearms, shooting pursuits and preferences. But I hope this article helps demystify the cleaning process and encourages you to give your guns a little TLC before storing them away. I promise it’s worth it.


Bore Guides

Tipton: Universal Bore Guide - $17.99.

Pro-shot Products: Bore Guide - $33.95to $44.95.

Real Avid: Smart-Fit Bore Guide - $24.99.

Cleaning Rods

Tipton: MAX Force Cleaning Rod - $59.99.

J Dewey Rods: Prices vary $31.00 to $45.00.

Hoppe's: Elite Carbon Fiber Rods Prices vary $34.99 to $45.45.


J Dewey Rods: Prices vary from $3.70 to $7.25 depending on jag type and caliber.

Real Avid: Bore-Max Speed Jag and Patches. $5.99 per caliber.

Nylon Bore and Chamber Brushes

J Dewey Rods: Prices vary from $2.50 to $14.40 depending on type and caliber.

Pro-Shot Products: Prices vary from $3.89 to $5.89 depending on type and caliber.


Hoppe’s: Hoppe’s No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner, prices vary $3.45 and up according to quantity.

Slip 2000: Carbon Killer, Degreaser, Gun Lube, and EWG Grease. Prices vary depending on size.

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