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G&A's Most Nostalgic Shooting Smells

G&A's Most Nostalgic Shooting Smells

Humans have very associative memories. By that, I mean something we see, hear or smell immediately makes us think of something else. It takes us back like a time machine to memories from long ago.

Music is a well-known way of forging links to memories of the distant past. As a child of the '80s, I can't hear a certain song by Madonna without flashing back to a club outside my alma mater, Michigan State University. It isn't necessarily the greatest memory, but it's mine.

When it comes to guns, ammo and shooting, smells trigger the ol' memory parade for most people. Every time I smell bleach, I think about my first job as a dishwasher at a seafood restaurant — even though that was almost 30 years ago. The smell of guns and bore cleaners ping my memory banks just as hard, and I know I'm not the only one. Throw out the term "nostalgic smell" to most gun owners, and I'd bet nine out of 10 folks would respond with "Hoppe's No. 9." Hoppe's is just one of many odors which trip the mental triggers of gun owners. Here are our top eight most nostalgic smells in shooting:


Gone are the golden years of cheap and plentiful military surplus, but I am only one of millions of gun owners who have spent hours cleaning Cosmoline out of surplus rifles. The sight of Cosmoline affects me more than the smell, but it does have a distinct odor. Combine that with the crinkling of waxed paper — which most surplus rifles are wrapped in — and kerosene — and you'll have a smorgasbord of sensory input tingling your synapses.


A man only needs a couple things in his tool box. If it moves and it shouldn't, you need duct tape. If it doesn't move and it should, you need WD-40. Tried-and-true WD-40 remains the ultimate multi-tasker for all things mechanical. From door hinges to gun parts, you should always have a spare bottle lying around your workbench. It works especially well to keep those pesky fingerprints off stainless steel frames. Just soak a cotton patch or rag in WD-40, and wipe down the steel with a light coating before stowing it away in the gun cabinet.

Break-Free CLP

The gun cleaner smell discussion doesn't begin or end with Hoppe's. I started using Break-Free CLP in the 1980s, and I still use it today. While the smell isn't as strong as many cleaners, it does have a distinctive odor, which brings me back to my gunsmith's workshop. I'm guessing most veterans would be able to pick out Break-Free in a blindfolded smell test, as it has been the go-to rifle cleaner in the military for decades. CLP's big selling point is that it's a lube as well as a cleaner — one-stop shopping, if you will. It was originally designed to meet a military specification most companies thought was impossible at the time. Maybe that's why it still sells so well, even with all the new wonder cleaners and uber-lubes on the market.

Case Lube

Not everyone who shoots loads their own ammo, but for those people who have rolled their own rifle ammo, the smell of case lube can hit home hard. Every brand of case lube doesn't smell exactly the same, but they're similar. There's just no way to guarantee the neck of a rifle case is properly lubed, unless you run your lubed fingers around it. The smell of the case lube just soaks into your pores.

Sweet's 7.62

You would be hard pressed to count how many gun lubes and cleaners are on the market. I bet there are over 100, and many of them are very specialized, so if you've never heard of Sweet's 7.62, I wouldn't be surprised. I first became aware of Sweet's about 20 years ago, when I got interested in precision rifle shooting, and many of the top guys recommended Sweet's. Specifically designed to remove stubborn copper fouling from rifle bores, this cleaner is only 5-percent ammonia — but that 5-percent really makes itself known. After the tears clear, one accidental whiff makes me think back to the Steyr SSG rifle I bought just out of college. It was my first precision rifle, and came with a Swarovski 6x42 scope — a contract overrun from the military government.

Hoppe's No. 9

OK, everybody knew this was going to make the list but that doesn't mean it doesn't belong here. The smell of Hoppe's gun cleaner is so iconic, I unscrew the lid just to get a memory rush. I have a bottle of it on my workbench, as I'm sure most gun owners do but I rarely use it. Not that it doesn't work well, but I wonder how many people buy Hoppe's No. 9 just because of the memories associated with it. Hoppe's No. 9 is so common that I don't get the same memories each time. Some days I'll flashback to the first gun store I can remember walking into, other times I'll see myself sitting around with my high school friends as we clean our guns in somebody's basement.

Shotgun Smoke

All guns produce an odor when they're fired, but between surplus or retail ammunition — handgun or rifle — there is not one specific smell, except of course when you're talking about shotgun rounds — specifically shells containing birdshot. When I haven't fired a shotgun in a while, the smell of the first fired round immediately transports me back to high school. The first firearm I ever owned was a Mossberg 500, and the smell of an ejecting shotgun hull whisks me back to the DNR range I used to shoot at so long ago.

Black Powder Smoke

I haven't caught the black powder bug yet, but its distinctive smell still gives me flashbacks to my friend Dan's black powder hunting rifle. If you're a dedicated black powder hunter, I wonder if the smell of the smoke prompts a flashback to the first buck you took with a muzzleloader, or even further back when you were at the range first learning how to work the rifle.

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