atm-logoHow were guns cleaned in the Old West?

Ralph Bernklow
Stow, Massachusetts

During Marine Corps boot camp in the 1950s, I remember our drill instructors telling me and my fellow recruits to wash the carbon off our rifles with hot, soapy water, after we had just returned from spending three weeks on the rifle range. I thought they were pulling our legs to get us in trouble, but it really worked.

Folks on the frontier knew that secret too. Gunmen frequently ran hot, soapy water through their guns, especially blackpowder arms, where buildup could clog the mechanisms and render the guns useless. Bear grease or other animal fat served as a substitute for oil.

They also poked cloth or brushes into the guns to help with cleaning. Some of them disassembled the firearms to ensure a complete cleaning, although that wasn’t as common. Gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok reportedly cleaned his .36 caliber 1851 Navy Colts everyday.


Marshall Trimble is Arizona’s official historian. His latest book is Wyatt Earp: Showdown at Tombstone.  If you have a question, write:  Ask the Marshall, P.O. Box 8008, Cave Creek, AZ 85327 or e-mail him at

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