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Rusted: Fixing Found & Gifted Guns

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Tips on Dealing with a Pile of Oxidized Rifles

Photos by Dave Merrill

It happens to us on occasion when we acquire a firearm that’s in less-than-ideal condition. Maybe it was passed down from a family member, or found out in the woods, or bought with the intention of cleaning it up for resale. Whatever the case, guns sometimes come to us with ample evidence of the hard lives they lived.


With the abundance of online resources and the fact that most of us keep an internet-connected computer in our pocket, identifying what type of firearm you have is quick and easy. The other question to ask is what you plan to do with this particular gun. If you’re going to shoot it, then the inspection becomes more laborious. If it’s a wall hanger, simply removing rust and carbon might be all you’ll need to do. If you’re planning to resell the gun, you’ll have to be aware of any restoration work that might devalue it in some way. Deciding on the level of restoration you’re committed to will determine your next steps.

If you don’t already have working knowledge of the firearm, it’s best to start with some research. Forums are a good source of information on historic and not-so historic firearms. Use what you find online to make a checklist of things to look for and what common problems you may encounter.

There’s no guarantee pops cleared that rifle before he passed it on. Safety is paramount, complacency kills, and lawyers ruin everything, so bear with us when we remind you to check the chamber before you handle any old gun that comes your way.


Start with a cursory visual inspection of the outside of the gun. Identify rusted areas and note how bad they are. Simple surface rust is easily removed; deeper rust with pitting requires a different level of service. Check the action parts such as the bolt, hammer, or firing pin for deep rust, especially if you plan to shoot this gun.

Cracks are also important to find. Old rifle stocks are prone to cracks and dents, whether they’re wood or plastic. Shooting a cracked stock could be catastrophic and painful. You should also inspect the trigger, trigger parts, hammers, and bolts for hairline cracks.

This is a good time to perform a gentle, basic cleaning on the gun to remove carbon, copper fouling, dirt, and dust that’ll reveal imperfections that may be hiding.

Simple cold blue can help renew — assuming you do it right.

Inspecting the bore of any firearm is always a good idea; again, be sure the firearm is unloaded. Use a flashlight to examine the bore. Check for obstructions, rust, the condition of the gas port if present, and the rifling.

Inspecting rifling is tricky in general, more so if you don’t know much about the gun to begin with. There are several different types of rifling. Some rifling looks non-existent, where others are very prominent. Go back to your online research to get an idea of what you should expect (or hope) to see in your particular firearm.

Another area to inspect carefully is the chamber. Use caliber-specific go-no-go gauges to determine if the headspace is correct. Headspace is an important factor, but not the only factor, to consider before deciding if the gun is safe to shoot.


Unfortunately, rust happens and not all gun owners take proper measures to mitigate its effects. Different climates result in different degrees of oxidation, but overall you should expect to find rust on old and/or neglected guns. RECOIL consulted firearms expert Keith Ford for advice on dealing with old guns. Ford currently works for the national firearm and accessory retailer Brownells. He’s been in the industry for decades, and one of his current duties is inspecting customer returns. To say he’s seen it all is not an understatement.

With some care, a handful of simple tools can get the job done.

Ford explained light rust is easily removed with simple 3-in-1 oil and steel wool. Using light pressure, rub the oiled wool on the rust spots and they should come off easily. Then wipe the area down to remove any leftover residue. This remedies light rust on any area of the firearm.

Heavier rust is combatted using the same 3-in-1 oil and ratcheting up to a brass brush or brass wool. This is a more aggressive abrasive combo that reduces the potential for damage to the bluing. Using the same techniques previously described, gently rub away the rust.

Ford says, “For really intense rust, like flaky rust,” rub it with the 3-in-1 oil and a pre-1982 copper penny. He explains that post-1982 pennies contain more zinc than pre-1982 pennies, making them harder and more than likely to scratch the firearm. The earlier pennies are softer and allow you to rub away much of the rust.

Search your change jars, but pre-1982 pennies only.

For absolutely terrible rust, Brownells makes a product known as “Steel White.” Ford says this product is for the most extreme cases and really only a last resort. He says it’s extremely effective at removing rust, but it’s equally good at removing bluing from the firearm. So, this route is really reserved for when the firearm will be re-blued or refinished in some way. If that’s your plan, then this is an excellent user-friendly choice that won’t ruin other metal types on the firearm like copper or soldering.


Cleaning the firearm’s bore is also crucial if you intend to shoot the gun. Ford recommends using a mixture of Kroil and JB’s Bore Bright. A good way to clean out any unwanted gunk that affects accuracy — and possibly safety — is to use absorbent felt bore cleaning pellets dipped into the mixture and run down the barrel with a cleaning rod numerous times.

This AK mag was scrubbed, brushed, cleaned, and re-blued. Calm down, purists: iIt’s Chicomm and supposed to be blued.

Ford also noted that when it comes to springs, as a general rule, you should just replace them. Old, rusted springs may snap once put under tension. First and foremost, this is a safety concern but also a way to damage the gun.

The job isn’t done until the freshly cleaned and exposed metal is protected from rust reinfection. For small jobs, where rust is cleaned up in a few small places, cold bluing is a great option. It allows you to do small touch-ups at the kitchen table that increase the visual appeal and protect bare metal on the gun. Ford stresses this isn’t a method to blue an entire frame of a gun, unless you want it to look like fifty shades of polka dot.


Inheriting a gun is always exciting. Even if the gun’s inexpensive or not a collector’s Grail gun, it’s still a gun. Cleaning it up and turning a crapper into a shooter is easy nowadays with the cornucopia of information found online, over-the-counter chemicals, and elbow grease. The number of products on the market for firearms maintenance is staggering but also helpful for anyone who wants to turn an old rust bucket into a decent weekend shooter. Our parting advice is to do your research and take your time; while you might be excited to start wrenching on your new project right away, be wary that charging in may do more harm than good.

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