• Jason Stanley

Cleaning: Part 1 = Know when to clean

Updated: 5 days ago

As a Benchrest competitor, cleaning the rifle is a mandatory chore. I do not know anyone who actually really enjoys cleaning their rifle, but I also do not know anybody who despises it either. Cleaning your rifle is simply a job that has to be done if you want to protect and preserve the looks and, more importantly, the accuracy of the rifle.

Before we go any farther, we have to get a few vocab words straight. Accuracy can be defined as how close the bullet impacts to where we were aiming. The closer to the bullseye, the higher the accuracy level. Precision is how close the impact of our shots are to each other, regardless of where they hit on the target. In other words, the smaller the group the higher the precision. These two words are not the same and are often misused. However, for the purpose of this writing I will use them interchangeably because both definitions will apply.

When the discussion comes up involving cleaning, a very popular question that people ask is; “When should I clean?” That is a great question, but unfortunately there is not a simple answer. When you should clean depends on a couple main factors; where are you at in your precision window, and when will you be shooting again?

Precision Window

The irony of precision and accuracy, when it relates to cleanliness of the barrel, is that most competition shooters want to shoot a barrel that has some fouling in it. Many competitors will fire a round into the berm or sighter target for the sole purpose of fouling the barrel. Some competitors will say they are settling the barrel. Regardless of terminology, they know exactly where their precision window begins.

It is a very easy process for determining the beginning of the window for a particular barrel. Go to the range with a tuned, clean barrel and some loaded rounds. With a solid rest (I am also a believer in using wind flags, but that is for another blog) fire a round at a small aiming point. Without changing your sights (meaning - we do not care where you hit as long as it is on paper) fire another round at the same aiming point. See where your 2nd shot lands in relation to your first shot. If that two shot group is acceptable to you, then you do not have to worry about where your precision window starts. Just go shoot and have fun!!! However, if you want to squeeze the highest amount of precision out of the rifle, you may need to keep shooting. Repeat the process until your group tightens up. When your group starts to tighten up, that is the beginning of your precision window. For my competition barrels, two shots and I am in the window. This is a safe standard for most custom barrels. However, I do have to take three fouling shots on one of my “out of the box” hunting rifles before I trust the precision of that rifle.

Here is a good example of how to determine the precision window. The first bullet impacted roughly .75" high and slightly to the right of where the 2nd and 3rd shot group forms in a fouled barrel. That's all I needed to know. For this particular barrel, I can trust shots two through around thirty. That is the window for this barrel.

Target was shot at 100 yds with a Krieger barrel chambered in 26 Macho.

The best precision, and therefore accuracy, will be in the precision window. This is when you want to be on the record target or hunting for that trophy animal. During a tournament or during a hunting season, keep your barrel in the accuracy window.

Each barrel has a different “breaking point”, the point in which precision suffers due to a barrel being too dirty. This loss in accuracy is the end of the precision window. Once you get close to the end of your window you will notice your groups start to open up. In a competition, this could move you to the middle of the pack. In hunting situations, you might not even notice it. However, the farther past the window you go, the worse the accuracy gets. A certain double lung hit now may turn into a gut shot. Many shooters have blamed their scope or load being bad, when all they had to do was clean their barrel to bring it back to life.

I believe there may be a correlation between bore diameter and the precision window. My theory is the bigger the bore diameter the bigger the window. Stated another way, you may be able to shoot your 30 cal. rifle longer between cleanings than your .22 cal. rifle. The target will tell you when you need to clean.

Many of my 30 cal., custom, competition barrels can go well over fifty rounds before precision deteriorates. Those custom barrels have a large window. Compare that to the twelve rounds in one of my factory barrels, and you can see not all rifle barrels need to be cleaned at the same point. Find the precision window of your rifle barrel, and clean before the breaking point.


Don't forget to protect your scope when cleaning. Click here for the best scope covers on the market.


When will you shoot again?

When deciding when to clean your rifle, another main factor you need to consider is; when are you going to shoot that rifle again? Smokeless powder is corrosive, especially when it absorbs water, such as humidity from the air. Black powder is even more destructive. The longer you leave powder residue in your barrel, the greater the chances of corrosion to that barrel. This is an accuracy killer, and may ruin the barrel.

If you have shot your rifle and are not going to shoot the rifle again for an extended period of time; clean it, regardless of where you are at in your accuracy window. Most hunters (minus a few varmint hunters) will not reach the end of their accuracy window during a hunting season. Therefore, not shooting for awhile will be the determining factor on whether you should clean or not. My rule for hunting rifles is four weeks; competition barrels are two weeks.

Remember, if you clean a rifle, it may take a shot or two to get back into the precision window. In other words, you may not be able to trust a clean barrel shot.

Connecting the Dots is here to help you develop your own routines for everything shooting related. Based on your own experience and barrels, you can now determine where the precision window starts and ends, as well as determine how long between shots you are willing to go without cleaning. In part II of this blog, I will help you establish a cleaning process. Until next time, enjoy the experience.

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