By: Josh Wayner
In our modern world, wooden stocks have become increasingly less fashionable. Today’s soldiers, hunters, and shooting enthusiasts largely rely on synthetic materials in place of hardwood because plastics experience very little, if any, variance under temperature and humidity.
This factor makes synthetic stocks favorable for hard use and inclement weather. Despite their durability, these stocks lack the character and luster of traditional wood elements, and it’s important to preserve the beauty of historical firearm treasures.
The Evolution of Wood Treatments
The earliest finishes used on gunstocks were essentially the same treatments used on other woodcraft of the time. Most of these finishes included waxes and oils with the exact processes varying widely by region. It could be said that there wasn’t at all much standardization in these practices until war began to demand larger-scale preservation efforts – often as a result of battle in exotic locations.
Sealing out humidity and protecting the wood from external damage was easier said than done. The rigors of heavy use dictated constant maintenance instead of the “one-and-done” methods we have today. Some of the oldest stock cleaning methods involved the use of turpentine, ammonia, and alcohol to remove caked-on residue, patching grease, and oils. Since water was a primary means of rinsing corrosive powder residue out of the bore, the stock had to be sealed against moisture, as well as other water threats like saltwater and rain.
Traditional protective finishes were often comprised of stains over which were applied oils and beeswax. Waterproofing often came before glamourous finishes, and many guns, even those dating to as recently as the Vietnam War, featured baked-on metal finishes and heavy, polymerizing oil coatings on the stocks. Tung oil, also known as China Wood oil, dates back in use almost three-thousand years. Its use on guns is more recent, but it has had profound effects. The thick, plastic-like coating allowed excellent waterproofing qualities and dried rather quickly. Linseed (or flax) oil goes on thinner, but requires far more time and effort to bring about a durable finish. Both of these oils have been used in combination with other oils and alcohols for about as long as guns have been around.
Restoring Antique Rifles
If you find yourself needing to repair or restore an antique rifle, you may be surprised to find there aren’t very many options out there that are entirely original. For antique or modern muzzleloader replicas, such as the 1861 Springfield, colonial-era long rifles, and various other rifles dating to the same period, I’d use a finish in linseed oil, after staining the bare wood, and then apply a wax finish. The use of wax on a muzzleloader will give good protection against black powder residue and cleaning oil. The gunstocks, if oily or dirty, can be cleaned using steel wool and mineral spirits. I like to scrub lightly and mix some linseed into the mineral spirts in the process. This practice will clean the wood and make it so the wood doesn’t dry out.
Restoring Military Rifles
There are many options available for preserving wood on military rifles dating to the smokeless age, but not all of them are historically accurate. Unlike metal finishing, where the chemical formulas for Parkerizing and bluing are known and widely practiced, the finishing of wood is something of a regional specialty. One must be aware that the items available at hardware stores may not be exactly what they advertise. What you will want to avoid are commercial products that do not contain pure oils. You’ll want to look and make sure you get raw tung or linseed oil for these projects. Boiled linseed oil is commonly available at many stores, but it is not the same as true raw linseed.
Military rifles, such as the 1903 Springfield and M1 Garand, were finished in a variety of ways, but most made under mass production were subjected to a hot linseed oil bath and were subsequently packed in cosmoline, a petroleum-based long-term preservative that was used on everything from tanks to artillery. This heavy grease-like substance was used to prevent saltwater corrosion and also to aid in long-term storage. It is becoming increasingly rare these days, but a sharp collector can still find original M1 or Springfield rifles packed in cosmoline. The guns, even after seventy years, are still in like-new condition.
Many people with cosmoline-soaked stocks choose to remove it and restore the finish to a presentation-grade luster. This technique requires stripping the oils from the stock using chemicals (or even a dishwasher, in some cases) and completing a routine sanding and oiling job.
Attempting to restore an original finish on old guns can be a challenge, as things like linseed oil and cosmoline never truly dry like tung oil does. There are many reasons why United States WWII rifle owners didn’t use tung oil, a primary one being that many of the areas from which tung oil originates were occupied by the Japanese.
This author, in restoring a 1903-A3 Springfield rifle, attempted to use a raw linseed finish, but was dissatisfied by the quality of the finish and instead opted for a more modern Birchwood Casey Tru-Oil rub because of the unpredictable weather on the competition line. This finish is a type of linseed oil, but it will allow a build-up of polymerized coats, giving a very nice and waterproof finish.
If you decide to make your old rifle look like new, there are many good ways to go about it, some historically correct and others less authentic. Do what is right for you and your needs, and if you’re not happy with the results, another finish is just some sandpaper and a can of mineral spirits away.
Josh Wayner is a professional freelance journalist, nationally ranked competitive shooter, and industry consultant.
The photos in this article were taken on location at Bachelder Master Gunmakers in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bachelder is a world leader in firearm restoration and specializes in restorations on Parker shotguns.