If you are using your guns the way you should, they are bound to start showing a little character along the way gained from hunting, training, classes, or extended forays into frozen tundra and soggy wetlands.
Even though it may rile those who admire a pristine and glossy safe-queen, that collection of scrapes, scuffs, dents and dings is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite, each is a badge of honor or reminder of times afield with gun in tow.
There is one blemish though, commonly encountered, that we must ever be on the lookout for, and that is Rust. From an adventure or neglect, rust left unchecked will ruin even the finest gun.
The good news is, common rust is easily dispatched with a few cleaning items and a little effort. If you have a rusty gun that needs some TLC, or a new addition rescued from the bargain barrel, read on.
Table of Contents
Rust – What is it?
This article is not going to be a thorough chemical and metallurgical analysis of rust. Aside from being stupendously boring to most of us, that would be beyond the education of your author and the scope of this article. I will give you a quick primer on it, reader, so that you may better understand the enemy and work to prevent and remove it.
Rust is simply stated an iron oxide formed by a reaction of iron and oxygen when in the presence of water (even moisture in the air). Rust that forms on the surface of a metal is permeable to both air and water, and so offers no protection to the metal underneath.
Comparing patina, which forms on copper exposed to the elements and has a beneficial protective quality, to rust on iron or steel, rust offers worse than no protection! It will, in fact, allow any mass of iron, given sufficient time, to completely corrode and flake away to nothing. Even a small instance of rust can corrode below the surface of metal, leaving unsightly pitting after it is removed.
Rust appears as a reddish-brown deposit on the surface of the metal. Varying from a lightly speckled “dust” rust which can be wiped away, to more obvious deposits left by droplets of water or a fingerprint, to severe rusting, where the metal is corroded badly, often flaking and cracking.
Now there are a few exceptions to the above, one being a particular variant of rust which can form a thin layer, and kept in low humidity, has a certain protective quality to it.
Another is so called “rust browning” of metal to produce an antique brown finish, discussed below. These specialty processes have little to do with the insidious corrosion we are trying to stop on our guns, and so should not bear much thought. Bottom line, if you see rust on your gun, set about getting it off as quickly as possible before it worsens.
Causes of Rust
As mentioned above, rust will begin to form on any iron-containing metal in the presence of moisture. The susceptibility and timetable of rust formation will depend on a few factors, such as the type of metal itself and the ruggedness of the finish applied to the metal’s surface.
Certain environments, such as salt water, high humidity, and the like will accelerate rust formation. Guns exposed to constant handling or carry against the body will need very frequent preventative maintenance checks for signs of rust.
This interval will be more or less frequent depending on the finish that a given gun wears.
Not all finishes are created equal, and many older finishes that offer little protection are still common or even desirable today. Some non-metallic finishes and coatings are actually completely impervious to rust and will protect the gun they are applied to at least until they are breached by a scrape or wear.
Many modern guns feature high-tech metal finishes that are nearly invincible to rust. Before we discuss rust removal, let us learn how to stop it from forming.
Understanding Your Finish Vulnerability
Like most troubling things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and preventing rust from forming should be your priority. The difficulty of this is largely dependent on the finish your gun is wearing, and how much or how little preventative care you show it.
Below you will see a list of gun finishes with a short description, and an indicator of how tough or fragile the finish is in battling rust when used in the field. Note that whatever finish your gun has, periodic, simple oiling with a cloth will prevent 99% of outbreaks.
Bare Steel- no finish applied or finish completely worn away. Most vulnerable, must be oiled near constantly in any but driest environment to prevent rust.
Bluing, or gun blue- Classic, classy, good-lookin’ blue. A traditional finish, and vulnerable to harmful rust, itself being in the rust “family.” Oil regularly to stop rust formation.
Rust Brown, or “patina”- A cousin to gun bluing. Has a deep, even brown color. Also vulnerable to rust. Oil regularly.
Stainless Steel- not a finish, but the material a part is itself made of. Many varieties, all more or less rust resistant. Typically good rust resistance, but absolutely not rust proof. Oil periodically, or wipe off after handling, especially.
Parkerizing, or phosphating- Found on steel guns, a bluing alternative. Dull gray to green gray, sometimes black, ideal for rough conditions circa World War II and beyond. Some modern finishes are in this family. Rust resistance ranges from good to very good. Oil rougher surfaces somewhat more heavily.
Ferritic nitrocarburizing- case hardening process, results in excellent rust resistance. Typically seen over-finished with another coating for aesthetic purposes, typically black or dark gray. Used by manufacturers of guns under trade names like Tennifer, Melonite and Hostile Environment Finish. Requires very little care except in the most hostile of environments for extended periods.
Duracoat- paint on, air-cured finish. Near infinite color range. Non-metallic, so cannot rust, but only modest abrasion resistance and if finish is compromised metal beneath will become vulnerable.
Cerakote- paint on, oven cured, ceramic-based finish. Near infinite color range. Non-metallic, extreme abrasion resistance, but metal beneath will become vulnerable if compromised.
Take the time to find out what finish your gun has. That’ll be important not just for knowing how much abuse you can expect it to shrug off before it starts rusting, but in the case of bluing and any coated finish, will dictate what kind of cleaner you can use to try and remove rust should the rust start forming.
It would do little good to start in after a patch of rust only to strip your finish completely off with Cousin Bobby’s Metal-Melting cleanser!
The best thing you can do for any of your guns, no matter what the finish is, is to wipe down all metal components with an oily rag, and store them in a dry environment with some type of humidity control in place.
Take care of keeping guns in cases or holsters, especially soft cases, as these can trap moisture against the gun, accelerating rust. In the case of holsters, they can trap moisture but also leech chemicals from the tanning process that can affect certain finishes like bluing.
When you go afield, if the gun gets wet dry it off as thoroughly as possible, and then oil it when you can. There is no need to fret if you are carrying a gun with a hard-use finish, as they can shrug off even intense moisture and salt for a long time with no ill effects. You will need to be more thorough and careful if using a gun with a blued or browned finish.
Dry the gun very thoroughly being certain to remember the bore and internals, and then wipe a clean, oiled cloth over all metal components. You will obviously not need to worry over any plastic parts. Don’t go crazy on the oil; a light gloss or sheen is more than sufficient.
Guns that are handled often, carried concealed or taken out near any salt-water environment will need more frequent checks and care. For a carry or often-handled gun you should be checking visually at least once a week for rust formation.
Pro-Tip: Pay particular attention to small parts, sights, and controls: these are often not finished like the major components of the gun, and may require more frequent oiling to prevent rust.
Well, despite our best efforts, or because of lack of effort, we have a little rust on our trusty gun. Time to get if off. Below I will outline a step by step process for removing commonly encountered rust that any gun owner can deal with at the bench or counter, but before we go, a few important tips.
For severely rusty guns: or for an obviously corroded gun, a trip to the gunsmith is required in order to ascertain the safety of the gun, and to both remove the rust and refinish the gun if it is salvageable. Rust weakens metal. Do not assume a rusted gun is safe!
Pro-Tip: you must be sure your chosen cleaner will not harm your finish! Typical bore cleaner used in this manner will not, especially when neutralized afterward and over the short timeframe we are working on.
Pro-Tip: when scrubbing or rubbing the rust off, follow the grain of the metal if it is visible, or the long axis of the part that is rusty if not. This will minimize the appearance of swirls and cobwebbing should it occur.
You’ll need a few items, below:
Bore Cleaner, or specialty gun-rust remover- Hoppe’s No.9 works well on common rust, and nearly every store carries it.
Cloth, natural fiber- harsh cleansers can melt some synthetics. This with a little bore cleaner on it wil make short work of dust rust, and soften up more serious deposits for removal. Make sure it is clean.
Cleaning Brush, soft copper- used when a cloth and bore cleaner won’t cut it. Make sure it is copper, and not bronze, as bronze is more likely to scratch lustrous finishes. The bristles should have a little flexibility to them.
Steel Wool, 0000- Pronounced “four ought.” This is very fine steel wool, and things are getting serious if we pull this out for removing rust. Use this in conjunction with bore cleaner. Note this has a higher chance of marring your finish.
Steel Wool, 000- Pronounced “triple ought.” Not as fine as 0000, this is our last stop for scrubbing rust away. Significant risk of marring finish, especially lustrous one. If this does not work, think long and hard before doing anything else. A trip to the ‘smith is probably in order.
Before you get started, lay a mat or old shop towel under the gun. You probably also want to put on protective gloves and eye-pro: bore cleaner to the eyeball burns like hellfire and fine steel wool sheds like crazy. See steps below, and remember that we will try our solutions in ascending order of harshness. That being said, if you have a very rusty barrel for instance, you will probably want to skip the scrubbing with a cloth and go right to the brush or steel wool. When in doubt, go gently.
- Lightly soak rag with bore cleaner. Wipe down affected area on gun. Should be wet, but does not have to be dripping.
- Leave to soak for 5 minutes or so.
- Attack rust with clean cloth wet with bore cleaner. Check for red-brown deposits on rag. That means you have rust coming off. Keep at it, and change to a clean part of rag with fresh bore cleaner.
- If 3. fails, step up to copper brush. Use back and forth motion. Wipe off area periodically with clean rag and bore cleaner. Check progress.
- If 4. fails, step up to 0000 steel wool. Use back and forth motion. Wipe off area periodically with clean rag and bore cleaner. Check progress.
- If 5. fails, use 000 steel wool. Use back and forth motion. Wipe off area periodically with clean rag and bore cleaner. Check progress.
- Once rust deposit is removed, check pitting underneath, if present, carefully. Be sure no rust is trapped below surface, as rust will return quickly. Use brush to remove if possible.
- Wipe off affected area one more time with rag with bore cleaner, then wipe dry thoroughly with clean rag.
- Wipe down affected area with clean, oily rag generously to neutralize bore cleaner residue and protect from future corrosion.
Okay, that wasn’t too awfully bad. Now that we’re done, be mindful of your finish; depending on how bad the rusting was, or what kind of shape the gun is in overall, it could be much more vulnerable to rusting in the future.
Take care to keep your gun well oiled. You will notice as mentioned above that pitting left behind by rust will likely be a constant headache in that department.
Depending on the role of your gun and its value, you might want to look into professional refinishing to halt it in the future. A home refinishing job is within the reach of a serious DIY’er, and can turn out a gun with greatly improved corrosion resistance.
Any defensive or service pistol will definitely benefit from a professionally applied, modern, corrosion resistant finishes. While expensive, many are nearly completely impervious to corrosion and some metallic finishes have additional self-lubricous qualities that reduce friction, yielding a smoother, nicer action and less dependency on being oiled. If you can afford it, they are a worthwhile investment to a few dedicated carry pistols or extreme duty long guns.
Rust has ever been the enemy of firearms, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, until metallurgic advances render it no concern. That day is sadly a way off, and until it gets here, you should know how to prevent and remove rust from your firearms.
Even the best finishes and advanced steels can rust from neglect, or simple bad luck. So keep it oiled, keep it loaded and keep it close.
Look below for a variety of refinishing services and information on finish types.