From Sow’s Ear to Silk Purse

I’m a bit hard on my guns.

As a kid, I spent many an hour field-stripping and meticulously cleaning every gun I owned after every use, under the watchful eye of my father. At least once a year, they got detail-stripped. We used WD-40 and 3 in 1 Oil, and despite the shortcomings of those agents, rarely had a gun fail to work as designed.

That was because Dad took any piece of fouling, grit or carbon buildup on his guns as a personal insult. They never got fired enough to build up any schmutz.

Much to his everlasting shame, I didn’t inherit his fastidiousness with his weapons. I shoot mine until they break. I abuse them. About the only guns I own that get regularly cleaned and lubed are those blued steel and rich wood beauties I inherited from Dad.

Knowing this about myself, the guns I bought for myself were selected for their reliability and ability to take a beating. Rust-resistant finishes and synthetic furniture are more important to me than lustrous bluing and richly textured wood.

Probably the best example of my lassitude about gun cleaning is my old Remington 870 Express. Some time around 1996, after duck season ended, I gave it a quick wipe down and stuck it away in its fleece-lined gun boot that bolted onto my ATV rack.

Or maybe I didn’t wipe it down, electing to put it off until after I wasn’t tired and muddy. Like I said, I’m lazy when it comes to cleaning guns.

Anyway, to make a long story less long, I pulled it out before dove season, perhaps seven months later, only to discover that the case interior had been wet when I stowed my gun away. My beloved 870 was a mass of rust.

Duck Blind 01

After a bout of weeping, I inspected it to find that the bore was still fairly bright, and the slide rails were still fairly slick. So I took a wire wheel to it, knocked off all the crusticles, lubed it up and shot the hell out of it for years thereafter without a second thought.

Freed from any obligation to care about what my gun actually looked like, as long as it shot well, I engaged in a Tamara Keel-esque torture test to see just how much abuse an 870 could take before it failed.

Answer: five very hard years.

I have no idea of the number of rounds shot through it during that time. Many cases of shells, certainly. I hunted doves, quail, duck, geese, squirrel and rabbits with it, shot skeet and sporting clays with it, and ignored the sneers of the Perazzi-toters wearing shooting vests festooned with patches attesting to their shooting prowess.

Easy to do, really, when you’re scoring better than they are with your beat up old pump.

During that time, the closest it ever came to being cleaned was when it unburned powder or grit would collect in the action or trigger group, causing my action to be rough or the trigger to be a bit sticky.

I’d pop out the trigger group, slosh it around in whatever water I happened to be standing in, and shake it vigorously before re-installing in the gun. Occasionally, I’d unload the gun, hold it under the water and run the slide vigorously a few times to flush out any crap that collected there.

On opening morning of the sixth season, November 2002, with KatyBeth a newborn and weighing less than some squirrels I’ve killed, my ex ran me off from the NICU with orders to go shoot some ducks and decompress.

The first volley that morning, the first round fired stuck in the chamber and tied up my gun. I was shooting plastic-cased Active steel shot, and the extractor slipped off the rim.

I cut a tree limb to use as a ramrod, rammed the empty hull out of the chamber, ran a Bore Snake through the barrel, and went back to hunting. That evening, my 870 got its first detail strip and cleaning in six years.

I’d like to say that I was more diligent about cleaning it after that, but that would be a lie. It got cleaned, but only sporadically. But it still ran like a top.

So a couple of years ago, I decided to send it off to my gunsmith friend Joe Speer to redeem some of my free metal finishing for life bennies. I had one only instruction: Pretty it up, but leave my slide rails alone.

When he got it, he called me. The conversation went something like this:

Speer: “Dude, have you been driving fence posts with this thing? Using it for a wading pole, maybe?

Me: “Boat paddle, actually.”

Speer: “Dude, there are critter skeletons in your action.”

Me (shrugging): “Worked okay with ’em in there.”

Speer: “I should charge you extra for this, asshole.”

Me: “Think of it as testament to my confidence in your abilities.”

When he sent it back, in the case was a note:

“Slide rails untouched as you requested. That thing is slicker’n goose shit. Modifications detailed in attached list. Try to knock the dirt dobber nests and rodent skeletons out of it at least once a year, okay?”


What I got back was essentially a customized new 870. A list of the work done:

  • Cerakote entire gun black
  • Hydro-dip camo finish to synthetic stocks
  • Fiber optic front bead installed
  • Brass middle bead installed
  • Trigger job
  • Lengthened forcing cone
  • Straightened dent in barrel rib
  • New magazine spring and follower

It shoots every bit as well as it ever did, and looks 100% better. I’m quite pleased with the results.

Skeet 3

Drop Joe a line if you’re in need of some gunsmithing.

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