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Lever action rifles, such as those manufactured by Winchester and Marlin, are American classics. To keep them in proper working order and looking their best, you need to clean them. But is the cleaning process any different?
The Importance of Cleaning
Whether you have a semi-automatic tactical rifle or a lever action deer rifle, cleaning is the foundation of firearm maintenance. Every firearm will handle and operate more smoothly when properly cleaned and lubricated.
When you’re cycling the lever of your Winchester or Marlin, you can tell immediately when it’s been lubricated and when it hasn’t had a drop of oil in months and hundreds of rounds.
However, if you’re new to lever action rifles, you may be wondering what’s different about the cleaning process in comparison with other rifle actions.
Lever Action Rifle Cleaning
A lever action rifle is a repeating firearm with a manually operated lever that also serves as the trigger guard. Most lever action rifles are fed from a tubular magazine located parallel to and below the barrel.
If you’re wondering how to clean a lever action rifle, the process itself is comparable to other guns.
The type of cleaning that you will engage in will depend, to an extent, on how dirty it is and whether this is affecting its operation. You don’t need to clean your lever action rifle after every range session—a couple of boxes of smokeless, copper-jacketed ammunition will not cause significant fouling.
However, if your rifle has accompanied you to a Cowboy Action Shooting match, a more thorough cleaning may be called for. Furthermore, if you fire blackpowder ammunition, you should clean your gun as soon as possible. Blackpowder is hygroscopic, which means that it attracts moisture, thereby promoting rust.
Winchester and Marlin
To open the action, you pivot this lever downward and forward, unlocking the bolt from the receiver and moving it rearward.
When learning how to clean a lever action rifle, it’s important to remember that disassembly differs from many modern small arms. Disassembling the Winchester, for example, is rather complicated. The Marlin is comparatively simple. Both require the use of tools.
In the Winchester Model 1894, the receiver is an open-top design and the spent cartridges are ejected vertically. In this system, to remove the bolt, you must first remove the finger lever stop screw on the left side of the receiver. Then punch out the finger lever stop pin.
Next, you’ll have to remove the link pin stop screw from the bottom of the receiver. You can then drive out the link pin stop pin from the bottom of the receiver’s left side. This will allow you to remove the lever and the link from the receiver. You can now remove the bolt for cleaning and access the breech with a cleaning rod.
In contrast to the Winchester rifle, the Marlin Model 336 is a closed receiver design. In this system, the top of the receiver is solid, and the spent cartridges are ejected horizontally through an ejection port located directly above the loading gate.
To remove the bolt of the Marlin, pivot the lever down to open the action. Use a screwdriver to loosen and remove the screw that holds the lever in place. This allows you to remove the bolt from the receiver.
You can use a nylon utility brush dipped in solvent to scrub the metal parts that you remove clean. Scrub the bolt thoroughly or let it soak in solvent.
When cleaning the barrel using a phosphor-bronze bore brush, always use an appropriate-caliber brush. If your rifle is .30 caliber, use a .30-caliber brush. If it’s .45 caliber, use a .45-caliber brush, and so on. Too big and it won’t fit; too small, and it won’t scrape the bore clean.
You should, ideally, clean the barrel from the breech end to the muzzle, not the reverse. This requires that you remove the bolt if you want to use a cleaning rod. Alternatively, if you don’t intend to disassemble your lever action rifle for cleaning, you can use a bore snake.
Using a solvent-soaked bronze bore brush, scrub the bore repeatedly to loosen lead, copper, and powder fouling and deposit the solvent evenly. Leave the solvent in the barrel for a few minutes to break down the fouling.
If you can use a cleaning rod, attach a dedicated chamber brush and clean the gun’s chamber. Replace the chamber brush with a slotted tip or jag and run a cleaning patch through the barrel. Run as many patches through the barrel as necessary before they leave the muzzle clean and white.
Muzzle to Breech
In lever action rifles, including some Savage models, where there is no convenient way to access the breech, you’ll have to clean the bore from the muzzle end. One of the concerns with cleaning the bore this way is that you’re passing a cleaning rod past the crown.
If the crown is damaged, it can cause your rifle’s inherent accuracy to deteriorate. Consequently, always be careful when cleaning the barrel in this manner. You should ensure that the cleaning rod is concentric to the bore, using your fingers as a guide if necessary so that it doesn’t touch the sides.
Although jacketed ammunition is more common today than when many of these rifles first entered production, exposed lead bullets are still widespread. This is less common in relatively high-velocity rifles because the friction can cause pronounced lead fouling in the barrel.
However, many lever action rifles are chambered in revolver cartridges, such as .45 Colt and .357 Magnum.
If you intend to use lead round-nose or lead hollow-point bullets, even at lower handgun velocities, be aware that they will leave a lead residue that you will have to scrub free from the barrel’s rifling grooves. Lead fouling can build up and interfere with the ability of the rifling to adequately grip the bullet.
Invest in the Right Tools
In lever action rifles, the disassembly process is often more involved than other types of firearms. You usually need to loosen and remove screws, in addition to pushing out pins. Invest in the right tools for the job.
Using inappropriately sized screwdrivers or bits can cause it to slip off the screw, leaving tool marks and damaging the gun. If you use the wrong size screwdriver or bit, or poor-quality equipment, you may also strip the screw head.
Regardless of the quality of your tools, however, don’t work impatiently. Pay close attention when taking apart your rifle, and you’ll save yourself the time and money of having to replace parts.
While cleaning a lever-action rifle often requires that you pay more attention to the disassembly process, it’s not all that different from cleaning other types of firearms. Be careful when cleaning your guns and use the proper equipment, and you will preserve the condition of your firearms for years.