Caring for an autoloading shotgun can be an arduous, crud-busting chore to bring a neglected shotgun back into reliable service. Or you can keep your semi-automatic ticking like a fine timepiece with regular attention to maintenance, cleaning and lubricating its moving parts on a timely schedule to avoid even the merest hiccup. The choice is yours. Either way, for troublefree operation, autoloaders live and die by proper maintenance. While when you do it is up to you, how you do it is key to enjoying a slick-operating self-loader, whether gas or recoil operated, the next time you head to the sporting course or woodlands, uplands, or wetlands. Gas-operated autoloading shotguns have become very popular in the shotgun sports. Starting more or less with the modern Remington 1100 almost 40 years ago, these guns have gained popularity as lighter, less-expensive, and softershooting alternatives to fixed-breech over-unders. But one inherent drawback is that these guns are internally more complex, requiring more frequent cleaning and judicious maintenance when compared to break-action shotguns. Beretta’s 391 and older 390 and the Browning Gold are the most frequently used autoloaders in competitive sporting clays shooting. They are also very popular with hunters. The other autoloaders, such as the Remington 11-87 and 1100, Winchester Super X2, and two recoil-operated guns, the venerable Browning A5 and the Benelli Super Black Eagle, are widely used, solid shotguns and are popular with hunters. Hunters rarely shoot large numbers of shells, but they often subject their shotguns to the worst conditions imaginable and shoot heavier loads. Hunters and high-volume shooters both need to know how to maintain their shotgun. All of the autoloaders have their maintenance quirks and peculiarities. They have parts that should be checked for wear and replaced on a regular basis. Knowing how to keep your gun in good condition and learning the early warning signs of a gun that is about to malfunction is critical if you want to avoid trouble. These guns hold up very well—if you take care of them. Rick Camuglia’s Browning Gold that he is using today has had over 100,000 rounds through it, and Scott Robertson’s Beretta 391 has served him well for three years of shooting an average of 40,000 rounds per year. Timing is everything in the smooth functioning of an autoloader. All autoloading shotguns depend on a precisely timed sequence of events. If one step is slow, it can upset the sequence. A dirty chamber, filthy action, crud in your trigger group or magazine, or a weak spring can alter the timing just enough to shut it down. There are a number of basic principles of caring for a high-volume autoloader. First, these guns should be kept clean. That means that they should be taken apart and cleaned on a regular basis. How often the full cleaning is needed will vary. Just cleaning the bore, spraying a little oil on the bolt and into the receiver, and wiping down the gun is not cleaning your shotgun. Cleaning the gun means taking it apart, using the instructions in the owner’s manual, and cleaning all of the parts. You might be able to get by with pulling off the barrel and giving the receiver a heavy squirt of solvent followed by a light spray of gun oil a few minutes later, but that is like putting a bandage on a cut that needs stitches. How often you should give your shotgun a thorough cleaning will depend on the shotgun, your loads, the number of rounds fired, and the environments in which you shoot. Keep track of the number of shells that you have put through the gun since the last cleaning, and make note of when the gun first starts to cycle slowly. A pattern will emerge that will tell you how often the gun should be taken apart and cleaned. It could be as few as 300 rounds or as high as 5,000, but the gun will tell you—if you’ll just pay attention to what it’s saying. Browning Gold shooter Cory Kruse insists, “You can hear and feel the gun when it needs to be cleaned. It sounds different.”
When you step into the stand to shoot in competition or crouch a little lower in the blind as a flock of giant Canadas locks in on its final approach, you should not be thinking about whether or not your gun is going to cycle. Most autoloader shooters will give their shotguns a full cleaning before they leave home for a big shoot or go on a hunting trip. Cleaning any firearm should start with reading the owner’s manual. The general rules about cleaning are mostly common sense. The following information is distilled from conversations with gunsmiths Chuck Webb, Les Gibbons, and Jim Greenwood; product representatives Scott Grange, Mountie Mizer, and Harm Williams; well-known shooters Scott Robertson, Rick Camuglia, and Travis Mears; and shooting instructors Mike McAlpine and Lonnie Mears. Cleaning Gather all of the things you will need and find a clean, flat surface in a well-ventilated area with good light. Reduce all distractions and give yourself the time to do the job without interruptions. You will need paper towels, cotton-tipped swabs, an old toothbrush, 0000 steel wool or a Scotch Brite scouring pad, a pin punch, rubber gloves to keep your hands clean, eye protection, a cleaning rod and bore brush and swabs, chamber brush, canned compressed air, and the tools to remove the stock. The chore of cleaning can be made easier by using a customized cleaning kit like the one made by Standard American Products for the Beretta 390 and 391. You will also need a spray can of quality gun oil, like Browning Oil or Rem Oil, and a bottle of gun oil like BreakFree CLP or Slip 2000 Lube that will dispense a small drop at a time, and a quality spray solvent like Shooter’s Choice Shotgun and Choke Tube Cleaner or Birchwood Casey’s Gun Scrubber. Break Free CLP can also be used as a cleaner solvent, but the parts need to sit a longer time for Break Free to soften the residue Be sure the gun is unloaded, then take it apart using the instructions in the owner’s manual. Use canned air to spray all parts. Take the choke tubes, gas piston, and gas system parts that have burned-on powder residue and drench them with a penetrating cleaner or solvent like Shooter’s Choice Shotgun and Choke Tube Cleaner, Slip 2000 Gas Piston Parts and Choke Tube Cleaner, Hoppe’s No.9, or Break Free CLP, and put these parts aside to soak. Moisten a paper towel or a clean cotton rag with your cleaner and wipe all of the rest of the gun parts. This removes the surface grime, old oil, and powder residue. The next steps are messy and should be done outside over concrete or gravel. Take each part and spray it with canned air to remove any surface debris, then spray all surfaces with a direct stream of cleaner until it is clean. Pay particular attention to all moving parts and parts with springs. Any material left will have to be brushed or removed with a scouring pad. Remove powder residue from the surface over which the gas piston travels with brass brushes, fine steel wool, or a scouring pad. This step includes cleaning the parts like the inner surface of the Browning piston and the outer surface of the Beretta piston that have been soaking in solvent.
Excessive powder residue inside of the Beretta gas piston and the piston housing below the barrel should be removed. A number of special tools have been developed for this task. Standard American Products’ Beretta cleaning kit, Briley’s piston brush, or a set of Troy Peak’s cleaning brushes all work well for this job. Remove most of the cotton from a swab, bend it, leaving the end longer than the depth of the gas ports, and push it into the ports to clean them. Use other trimmed swabs dipped in solvent to clean the receiver, paying particular attention to the action spring area in the end of the receiver and the bolt rails. Repeat the spray cleaner in the receiver as needed, then spray with canned air again. Removing the action spring inside the buttstock involves removing the stock from the receiver. The tube can be blown out with air and cleaner and lubricated without removing the spring in most guns. You will be surprised how much dirt and powder residue can get into the tube. Removing and cleaning the action spring tube and checking the spring is a job that may best be left to a gunsmith. Clean and lightly lubricate the magazine tube, and pay particular attention to the cap that separates the shells from the spring. Clean the trigger group using canned air first, then a vigorous spray of solvent. Use several cotton swabs to get solvent down into the small recesses of the trigger. If the swabs come out dirty, spray the trigger and swab again.
Once the trigger group is clean, oil all pins, springs, buttons (including the safety), and hinges with a drop of oil. If you are unsure of points to oil, spray the trigger group with a light coating of light gun oil, then wipe off the excess with swabs and a clean cotton rag. For the barrel, use canned air to blow out material around the posts of the vent rib and spray cleaner down the bore and in the chamber. Clean the chamber of a 12 gauge with a 10-ga. brass brush on a cordless drill. A 12-ga. brass brush with a few drops of cleaner can be used to clean choke tube threads, and use a Bore Snake or Tico Tool followed by a light coating of oil, then wipe the outer surfaces with oil. If your gun picks up powder and wad residue on the forcing cones, then it should be cleaned after each use with a good solvent and a brass brush. Special Considerations For The Beretta 391 The end cap on the Beretta 391 should be cleaned and lubricated on a regular and frequent basis. The cap has a spring-backed plate that will seize up, making the end cap almost impossible to remove, if it is not kept clean and lubricated. It is important to check the status of the end cap frequently by removing the cap and placing the bottom of the cap on a hard, flat surface and pressing down to feel the plate move. If the plate movement is stiff, it should be cleaned. Both Briley and Angle Port have made after-market end caps that address this problem. Briley’s end cap comes completely apart for easy cleaning, and Angle Port’s cap features a stainless steel insert that is less likely to seize up. Special Considerations For The Browning Gold The Browning Gold, like any autoloader, needs to be cleaned on a regular schedule based on the number of rounds fired and the shooting environment. There have been six improvements to the bolt of the Browning Gold prior to 2002, and these minor changes make the pre-2002 bolts non interchangeable. It is best to check with an experienced gunsmith or inquire directly to Browning before you move parts between Browning Golds. Replacement Parts Before you start to reassemble the gun, examine all parts for cracks, rough spots, and wear. Pay particular attention to the connecting rod, bolt, gas system parts, firing pin, firing pin spring, and hammer braces. Beretta owners should keep on hand an extra connecting rod, firing pin spring, magazine spring, action spring, and hammer braces. Browning Gold owners should have a firing pin, magazine spring, action spring, and a complete bolt at the ready. Springs in all autoloaders should be changed after 5,000-10,000 rounds, depending on the shooting environment and the loads used. If all of this information is overwhelming, find a fellow shooter who has the same gun as you, and ask him to lead you through a thorough cleaning of your gun. Once you have done it several times, it will be easy. Just listen to your shotgun; it will tell you when it is time to clean it. Then, if you keep track of how many shells you have shot, you can schedule a cleaning before it starts talking to you.
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