Caring For Your Historic Firearm

Two old antique shotguns rifle on wooden table background, close-up. Top view of a hunting equipment

Many of our customers have very old firearms they inherit from loved ones. A common question we get is, “How do I care for my antique firearm?” Our interview with John Gangel last week was quite enlightening, and he shared with us some fantastic tips on storing and caring for antique firearms.

We also found a fantastic guide to firearm preservation from the Springfield National Historic Site and National Park Service (courtesy of Say Uncle) that has a very good overview on caring for your antique firearm.

Preserving Your Antique Arms Collection

The following are very conservative guidelines to help you care for a collection that you wish to preserve for as long as possible and will never be fired. Methods recommended here may not be the most efficient. What may work beautifully in one situation can be a disaster in another.

The following advice is limited in scope and cannot cover every possible situation.

A. Preventive Care

1. Environment

  • Avoid dramatic swings in relative humidity (RH). Try to keep stable between 40 and 50%.
  • Consistency is more important than precise maintenance of a specific RH reading.
  • RH control is most critical because of an unusual physical property of wood called anisotropy. Wood cells expand or contract very differently in response to changes in relative humidity — depending on their specific grain orientation (axial, transverse, or radial) in the log from which they came. Large swings in RH can result in cracks caused by compression-set shrinkage.
  • If humidity remains fairly constant, changes in temperature make little difference to either metal or wood – better to concentrate on controlling relative humidity. A rapid rise in indoor temperature can pull the moisture out of the environment (including your artifact), causing a drop in RH. Cell shrinkage and cracking or splitting can occur.

2. Handling

  • Wear gloves when handling your collection.No protective coating – appropriate for conserving an artifact — (see below) can stand up for long against repeated bare-handed handling. Best thing is to always wear gloves.
  • Nitrile examination gloves are recommended when cleaning and coating your collection.
  • Once an item has been coated, wear plain cotton gloves.

3. Housekeeping

  • Keep dust-free. Dust can trap moisture increasing the likelihood of corrosion occurring.
  • Do not use commercial dust cloths. They often leave an oil film behind. Oil films trap dust. Dust traps and collects water vapor in the air.
  • When dusting, use a soft cotton cloth very lightly dampened with water.
  • Without moisture, dust merely gets shoved around and will not be picked up.
  • Do not use alcohol of any kind when dusting or cleaning a stock. It can skin or strip an historic finish.
  • Dry immediately with a clean cloth.
  • Never use liquid or spray dusting products. Most leave mineral oil behind, which traps dust. Dust traps and collects moisture. Starting to see a pattern?

4. Storage / Display

  • Narrow hooks or loops of wire should not be used to support collection pieces either in storage or on display. The weight of most long arms on such devices is sufficient to result in indentations in their stock at the points of contact.
  • Use broad, padded supports. We use thin sheets of a closed-cell Polyethylene foam material to pad our display fixtures.
  • To avoid mold and mildew during long-term storage — avoid at least two of the three conditions known to promote bloom outbreaks:
    • elevated temperature
    • still air, and
    • elevated humidity.

B. Cleaning and Coating Historic Firearms

1. Cleaning Wood Stocks

  • Separate wooden and metal parts. They are cleaned and coated differently.
  • Unless absolutely necessary, leave unfinished interior wooden surfaces alone.
  • Clean exterior of stock as follows:
    • Use a few drops of a mild detergent in a gallon of warm, distilled water, applied with a slightly damp soft cloth, and rinsed with clean cloths dampened with distilled water.
    • Dry with soft cloths immediately after rinsing.
    • Clean again with mineral spirits, using a soft cloth to apply. Work in fresh air or a well-ventilated area.
    • Avoid using “oil soaps” as they can becaustic and may damage an historic oiled surface.

2. Cleaning Barrels and Other Metal Parts.
Please note: It is essential to practice any new technique on a sacrificial piece first, before applying it to something irreplaceable.

  • Use nylon or animal-bristle bore brushes. Wherever possible, avoid using brass or steel brushes. Such hard materials can scratch, but also might (under certain conditions) cause galvanic (bi-metallic) corrosion (specifically when using a copper-alloy brush on ferrous metals) by leaving a slight metallic smear behind.
  • Use mineral spirits to soften accretions. Work in fresh air or well-ventilated area. Are there other solvents that are “stronger”? Yes, but they are difficult to work with safely.
  • Swab clean with a cloth patch.
  • Use only extremely fine abrasives such as oil-free 0000 steel wool . Use only if absolutely necessary to remove stubborn rust deposits or other accretions. Work slowly and watch constantly for any changes to the surface. There is always an element of risk in such work. If you are at all uncertain, hire a conservator before causing irreversible damage.
  • When cleaning brass parts, never use products that contain ammonia. Ammonia can damage old copper alloy materials by corroding them from the inside out. In addition, such products may include abrasives which may prove too harsh. Elbow grease and mineral spirits should be tried first. If something slightly stronger is needed, try applying small amounts of wet tooth powder with a cotton swab and rinse with water.
  • A general comment about commercial rust removers. The problem is that most rust removers can’t tell the difference between iron oxide and iron metal, and will leave an etched surface even where there is no rust. Some products seem to come close. Often they require extremely close attention and precision – too much for most of us.
  • Most surface rust can be removed by first lubricating the area with a light penetrating oil and cleaving it off with a sharp scalpel held at a very low angle to the metal. It requires close attention, a steady hand, and some patience, but if you are careful, you will probably get most – if not all – of the surface rust off without leaving a scratch. There is always an element of risk in such work. If you are at all uncertain, hire a conservator before causing irreversible damage. When done, remove any remaining oil with mineral spirits.

3. Disassembly and Reassembly

  • If you are organized and systematic  you should be able to safely disassemble and reassemble most firearms successfully.
  • Probe the floor of every external screw slot with a sharp point held at a very low angle. It’s amazing how much dirt can be packed into a “clean-looking” slot. All foreign matter must be removed for the screwdriver to do its best, safest work. .
  • A good selection of screwdrivers is a must. Their tips must be matched perfectly to each slot in order to maximize the area of mechanical contact. Taking this precaution will minimize slippage and the scratching and scarring that can result. The internal shapes of screw slots have changed a lot since their invention and screwdriver tips often have to be ground or filed in order to get a good match. Keep this in mind when regrinding a screwdriver’s tip.
  • There are many publications that offer exploded drawings and disassembly/reassembly tips.

4. Coating Stocks

  • Wood is neither thirsty nor hungry. It is usually covered by a finish which may have become corrupted in some way, making it look “dry.” The wood beneath the finish does not need to be “fed”, (despite what wood-care product commercials may claim).
  • Never put oil of any kind on an historic finish. There may well be unintended but permanently damaging consequences to ignoring this advice.
  • A cautionary word about linseed oil.
    • Linseed oil takes forever to dry and will trap dust. (It will not stop water penetration either).
    • When linseed oil oxidizes, its molecules cross-link with one another, making it increasingly more difficult to remove as time passes.
    • Oxidized linseed oil (linoleic acid) eventually becomes linoxin, better-known commercially as Linoleum! Repeated, or seasonal, applications eventually develop into a surface that can look like very dark brown alligator skin, and can become almost impossible to remove.
    • Applying a modern finish over an equivalent historic finish can forever confuse the finish “history” of a stock by making it difficult, if not impossible, to tell what (if anything) is original, and what is a restoration material – even with an analytical microscope. Therefore, you would not want to touch up, say, a shellac finish with shellac. Use paste waxes only: i.e., carnauba-based furniture waxes on wood stocks. Avoid wax mixtures which include a high percentage of bee’s wax. They are not especially harmful, but are relatively soft (fingerprint easily) and can be slightly acidic.

5. Coating Metals (this advice is strictly for guns which have been “retired” from use and will never be fired.)

  • Avoid using oils. They are not the best material for long-term protection of collection pieces as they trap dust and dirt, eventually break down and have to be periodically replaced. A high-quality light oil is fine for maintaining a gun you still shoot, though.
  • Use a microcrystalline wax as a protective coating. They are practically inert, remaining stable for a very long time. Apply and buff out with a soft cloth or brush – inside and out.
  • Brass parts can also be coated with wax such as an acrylic spray lacquer because it is easily removed with solvents but bonds especially well to copper-alloy metals, and will withstand more abuse and last longer than wax.

6. Minor Stock Repairs

  • If a split or detached piece of a stock must be repaired, use an adhesive that is both strong and reversible (i.e. can be safely removed at any time in the future). There is only one: traditional hide glue.
  • Do not proceed if there is evidence that the damaged site has been previously repaired. In this case, consult a conservator.
  • Unless you work with hide glue every day – make it up fresh in small amounts as needed. It doesn’t take long to prepare and it will do a better job than using old glue. Hot hide glue is preferable to liquid hide glue as it is less affected by humidity.
  • Dampen the area to be glued with hot water. Blot the area and wait a few minutes. Then apply hot glue to both surfaces with a brush and clamp immediately. An appropriate clamp can be as simple as a few pieces of masking tape, rubber bands, bicycle tire strips, or small padded weights. Use the least force needed to do the job.
  • Clamps can usually be removed in a few hours, but it takes at least 24 hours for the repair to fully harden. · Excess glue can be removed with a lint-free cloth dampened with hot water. The best time to do this is usually right after removing clamps.

7. If you still need help

  • Seek the services of a professional conservator.
  • Contact the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works (AIC) for a referral.
  • There are few, if any, conservators who treat nothing but firearms. Look for an “Objects” Conservator with experience working with metal and the other materials (wood, celluloid, leather, etc.) that are part of your artifact.

What’s your best advice to taking care of your antique firearm? Do you follow the guidelines in this post or have you ever been a professional conservator? Share what you know in the comments section.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (5)

  1. Thanks for mentioning using nylon bore brushes and not steel brushes when cleaning out the barrel. I’m thinking about getting an English Flintlock pistol for my antique collection on my desk and I want to make sure I can take care of it. I’ll be sure to remember these tips as I narrow down my search for these pistols.

  2. Quite a fine article it is defining the techniques to clean & keep the vintage firearms in a new working condition.

  3. How about Renaissance Wax for the wood stock on my antique long gun ? Is that okay or is the Wax just for the metal parts ?

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