Minimizing Wear and Tear on Your New Gun
by Bob Londrigan, as published in Front Sight Magazine, September 2005
So you finally did it - you saved up all your hard earned money and splurged for that brand spanking new gun. Now how can you keep it looking and, better yet, functioning like new for as long as possible? That is what we are going to talk about in this article. The difference between really taking care of your new baby and abusing it can mean the difference between the gun lasting less than 20,000 rounds or it lasting in excess of 100,000 rounds. Feed your gun the right ammo and treat it properly and it will be your faithful, reliable companion for many matches to come. Abuse it and it will let you down at the worst of times.
We begin this discussion by talking about breaking in your new gun. Hopefully your gunsmith has fired enough rounds through the gun to work out any quirks before you get it. Now you can start to break it in. I suggest you get a recommended load from your gunsmith and use that load exclusively for a while. For break-in, you need to get the gun hot enough to expand the metal so that it rubs and wears in the high spots, but not so much that you overheat it. I usually run a few six-round drills using three magazines loaded with 20 rounds each. I shoot 18 rounds from each magazine until I have shot all three. Then I let the gun cool off a little while I paste targets and reload magazines. I repeat this process until I have fired 200-300 rounds. This will get the gun heated up enough to break it in without overheating it. One session like this is usually enough for a limited gun, but it might take two sessions for an open gun. Use copious amounts of oil on the gun during break-in to keep it lubed. You really can’t use too much oil.
Besides proper break-in procedures, other aspects that affect how long your gun lasts include your shooting routine, what types of loads you use, and the type of preventive maintenance you perform. Pressure, heat, and abrasive particles (powder residue, etc.) are the main enemies of your gun. You want to minimize each to maximize the useful life of you gun.
Pressure and heat are closely related as increased pressure causes an increase in heat that will accelerate wear on your barrel. Pressures at the highest levels can cause catastrophic damage such as barrel ruptures. Excess pressures not high enough to cause barrel ruptures will still cause damage over the long term. Excess pressure can result in barrel erosion, broken lugs, eroded breechfaces, and cracked slides among other things.
One comment I hear a lot is that since we are not blowing up barrels, the pressure must be OK. Excess pressure under the limit to blow up a barrel is still damaging the barrel (and slide). It is just doing it in slow motion over a long period of time. One thing that is certain is that, on average, a gun submitted to higher pressures will not last as long as one submitted to lower pressures. Pressure damage does not follow a linear equation; it is closer to exponential (i.e., 50% more pressure will likely cause 100% or more damage).
The important thing is to choose a load that will not cause excess pressure. The problem then becomes – what is excess pressure? Sometimes this is hard to determine. SAAMI specifications are a good place to start when trying to decide how much pressure is too much. These are the recommendations for pressure that the manufacturers’ use. You can also rely on the loads presented in a powder or bullet manufacturer’s list. These loads will have been pressure tested and generally come in under SAAMI specifications. Many of the loads that we use in practical shooting are not in the “book.” That is, they have not been configured to match the specifications of the load manuals. We either load longer (which affects pressure) or we load powders that are faster or slower than recommended. It used to be that people were really careful with 38 Super because there were no loads in the loading manuals that made major. You were out on your own. But with the Internet, there is now a wealth of information available on loads. Although some of this data may be good, there will be some that is not. Be very careful when following load data you find on the Internet. After all, you don’t know if the person promoting a specific load has any actual expertise in the area, or if the recommended load has ever been tested for pressure.
So what are people to do if they want to minimize damage to their gun? First and foremost, I suggest using the loads recommended by your gunsmith. He is the one with the experience, and he should know what your gun can handle. Also, if he recommends a load that does cause damage to your gun, then he will likely stand behind it and fix it. If, however, you go out on your own and use a load that causes damage from excess pressure, your gunsmith is not going to have too much sympathy for you (in fact, he is going to be upset that you just ruined the perfectly good gun he delivered to you.)
If you feel you must experiment with your load, start with something that is as close to the loading manual as possible. Most 40 and 45 caliber loads should be under SAAMI pressure specifications, whereas most 38 super and 9mm major loads will be over the limits. How much over is the question you have to be concerned with. You can probably get away with 10-15% over the limit (pressure wise), but you risk damage as the pressure increases. If you get into the region of 50% over (enough to cause primer flow), you significantly increase your chances of problems. Looking at primers for pressure signs is not a reliable method of gauging pressure. It will tell if you are way off base, but it will not give you an indication of pressures that could cause long-term damage. I recently spoke with a commercial reloader who does pressure testing. He told me that you usually do not see primer flow in 38 Super until about 60,000 PSI – which is about 50% over SAAMI specifications for 38 Super or 9mm.
Short of actually pressure testing your rounds, there are some things you can do to estimate pressure. Software programs are now available that estimate pressures based on the burning rates of the powders used. If you have access to this information, it can be helpful. Use what information is available in the load manuals and extrapolate from there. The closer you are to loads in the manuals, the better off you will be. Furthermore, always be on the lookout for signs of pressure such as: sticking cases, having to use a long firing pin to avoid primer flow, breechface erosion, erosion of the compensator, split cases, not being able to reload your brass more than 10-15 times, and needing a lot of energy to re-size your brass. If you are seeing one or more of these symptoms you need to re-evaluate your load.
In an open gun you can get a rough idea of pressure from the number of grains of powder you are using to make major. A compensator works with a combination of pressure and gas volume. More pressure and less gas volume produces the same effect as less pressure and more gas volume. So, if you have two loads that feel like they work the comp the same (assuming the same velocity) and one has 7.0 gr. and the other has 9.0 gr., the load with 9.0 gr. is running less pressure. Larger amounts of powder to make the same speed means a slower powder and less pressure, compared to another powder which requires more grains to make the same speed. Also keep in mind that every gun is different and that loads that are OK in one gun may cause damage in another. Barrel type and length, ports in the barrel, location and number of ports, and how the barrel is fit all affect how a load performs in a particular gun. Just because a load works well in your friend’s gun does not mean it is well suited to yours. In the end, you will have to decide what you are comfortable with.
Heat alone is also an enemy of your gun in that it causes faster erosion of your barrel throat. It is not good for any metal parts to be subjected to extremes of heat. You can keep heat to a minimum by being careful how many rounds you shoot through your gun during a short period of time. Plan your practice sessions to include periods to allow your gun to cool off. Take other guns out with you and rotate between them, or allow some extra time. During the hot Texas summers, I take a cooler out with me and literally put the gun on ice while I am pasting targets and loading magazines. Anything you can do in this area will help.
Another enemy of your gun is excessive wear caused by friction. This can come from a dirty gun or from lack of lubrication. Realize that burnt gunpowder makes an excellent lapping compound. You want to clean your gun often to remove anything besides lubricant. It is especially important to clean bearing surfaces often and to make sure these surfaces are always coated with lubricant. I think oil works better than grease because it will float most of the accumulated filth to where it won’t cause any harm. I clean the top end after every practice session, re-lube, and wipe down the rails on the frame. This will help keep the barrel and slide-to-frame fit like new.
IPSC shooters run a lot of rounds through their guns. They are likely to run more rounds through their guns in one month than many other gun owners will in their lifetime. If you want your guns to last, you have to minimize the wear and tear on them as much as possible. Follow the above recommendations and you can look forward to a long life for your new gun.