Firearms|How To

Maintaining Military Bolt-Action Rifles

Brushes and picks for cleaning a rifle

Many of us own military bolt-action rifles that have been in service for more than 100 years. Even World War II rifles are nearing 75 years of service. Many enjoy firing Yugo and Ishapore rifles with more than 50 years of service. It is in our interest that these rifles are maintained and kept shooting properly. There are things we should and should not do.

ee-Enfield rifle bolt head
The Lee-Enfield bolt head simply screws off. Be certain it is tight before firing.

I have noted shooters will modify the trigger action attempting to get a better trigger press and other modifications, yet they clean the rifle improperly. This may lead to degrading the rifle’s accuracy at a later date.

We all want the rifle to keep shooting and last even longer than it already has. This means parts replacement occasionally and particularly cleaning the fouling left by firing. Accuracy and smooth operation are the goal of recreational shooting. And these rifles were built to last.

I am aware of more than a few shooters who hunt with their Lee-Enfield, Mauser, and Springfield rifles. At least one Lee-Enfield No. 5 carbine is in use with a shooter as his emergency and truck rifle. These rifles will not let you down if you do your part.

Extractor groove on the Lee-Enfield rifle
When you clean, do so closely. Note the powder in this rifle’s extractor groove.

The first thing we do is learn the manual of arms. Learn to properly load, fire, and cycle the rifle. Next is to learn to disassemble the rifle.

There are small parts that demand care. The screw holding the front sight shroud on the Lee-Enfield seldom works loose and may have taken a set and demand soaking before you are able to disassemble the rifle.

Another concern is removing bolts from the action. The Mauser/Springfield type is easily removed, and the fieldstrip sequence to replace an extractor or firing-pin spring is easy enough. The Lee-Enfield fits the raceway a little differently.

Headspace is a concern, and all rifles should be checked for proper headspace. Headspace is simply the difference between the front of the bolt and the back of the barrel. This is the space where the cartridge case rim fits when the rifle is loaded.

Pay close attention to the magazine latch and small springs when cleaning.

One reason military cartridge primers are crimped in place versus the usual civilian pressure fit is to prevent tying up a gun with excess headspace, as it would allow the primer to back out. Brass stretches quite a bit with the Lee-Enfield rifle, as one example. It wasn’t intended to be used with reloaded cartridges.

As the piece fires, the forward neck expands and fits into the chamber tightly. The solid case head moves to the rear slightly, sealing the primer and backing against the bolt head.

With Mauser rifles, you want to be certain the rifle you are using is the caliber you think it is. Quite a few military bolt-action rifles have been converted to .308 Winchester. Some are not properly re-marked. The result is often a rifle of questionable safety and almost universally poor accuracy. In my opinion, the French MAS rifle is ruined by this conversion.

Rifle bolt for a Lee-Enfield Rifle
A bolt isn’t that complicated, but each differs. Most function problems spring from the bolt.

Learning to remove the bolt properly and disassemble and clean the bolt assembly is important. Debris, powder ash, and old lubricant must be removed from time to time. Disassembly is important and must be undertaken with care and respect for the mechanism.

We know a tight rifle with all the furniture secure is more accurate. Yet I have seen shooters and retailers fieldstrip a rifle and then pry handguards and stocks away from the action. Over time, wood swells and changes form, but never pry the stock loose. To remove the wood, tap the side of the stock—perhaps with a wooden mallet—and the handguard, forend, and stock will move.

To avoid trouble and keep things clean and operating, learn the location of the sear and how the trigger action works. I would avoid any type of modification to the trigger action. The dual bumps on the trigger that give the rifle its two-stage operation might be polished, but only lightly. The engagement of the Lee-Enfield sear to the bolt may be polished.

Chamber throat of the Lee Enfield rifle
Damage to the chamber throat would be just as detrimental to accuracy as a damaged barrel crown.

Today, we have the excellent Huber trigger for military rifles. There is no need to modify an original action; it isn’t very wise, particularly if the rifle is used for hunting or any type of use other than target practice.

When disassembling the rifle, there are tips that work well. Gun Digest disassembly books are a good resource. Some rifles require tools for detail strip. Be careful, as screws that have been in place for many years simply do not like to come loose, and overnight soaking in penetrating oil may be needed.

In my lifetime, I have seen a big change in cleaning. While the procedure is similar, modern cleaning is tuned toward the use of chemicals, while it was once pure elbow grease.

The problem is that copper-jacket material is left in the barrel on firing. Subsequently, hot powder gases burn the copper into the bore. Powder fouling also builds up. If you use corrosive primed ammunition—and the supply seems endless—you need to add cleaning, using window cleaner or even pure ammonia.

Damaged screw head on a sling swivel
This screw head is damaged, so be extra careful working with something like this.

The rifle’s bore and the bolt as well should be cleaned thoroughly after use with corrosive primed ammunition. Corrosive priming compounds are a strong attractor for moisture. Normal buildup in the bore may destroy accuracy potential over time and also instigate corrosion.

I use a superior bore cleaner originally developed for benchrest competition. This is Shooter’s Choice #7. This compound creates a chemical reaction that attacks buildup and changes it to a sludge that is more easily removed from the barrel.

A quick check of bore solvent effectiveness is to place a small amount on a common penny. Give it a few moments to begin to attack the copper, and the best solvents become obvious. Always clean from the chamber end, never from the muzzle end.

Cleaning Kit for bolt-action rifles
A minimal kit is all that is needed for most maintenance needs.

I use a solid, one-piece rod for most work, although I also have a sectioned-rod cleaning kit, primarily for different barrel lengths. A rigid strong rod is good. I use a jag-type cleaning tip and a square inch of cotton patch for 7mm-8mm rifles. This covers the common calibers.

The bore brush should be bronze. It is obvious that if you use a copper brush, the chemicals intended to remove copper from the bore will eventually eat into a copper bore brush. While we protect the barrel crown when cleaning, we also must protect the chamber throat. Be careful when cleaning from the chamber. A damaged throat may have a detrimental effect on accuracy just as a damaged barrel crown may.

Remember, while cleaning is a chore few of us enjoy, it must be performed and done correctly. It is a good idea to clean the rifle as soon as you return from the range. Carbon deposits are relatively soft when fresh. After they have taken a set, you will find they are more difficult to remove.

Military bolt-action rifles are a joy to fire, use, and collect. With minimal maintenance done correctly, they will give you many years of shooting pleasure.

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