There are plenty of ways to break a shotgun while hunting. You can slip on the ice, cracking both your head and the stock (done it); you can lean the gun against the side of a car in a gravel parking lot and drive away, gouging it horribly (done it); you can smack the barrels against a metal fence post, leaving a deep dent (seen it done-thanks, Dad).
It's equally possible to abuse a gun unwittingly in the privacy of your own home. Both lack of care and overzealous bad maintenance age guns prematurely. Here are the most common offenses:
1. Never Clean the Gas System.
The world is full of shotgunners who clean the barrels of their autoloaders but neglect the gas system. When enough gunk builds up inside, the parts will bind and wear prematurely and the gun won't work. Its manual will explain the routine maintenance required to keep it functioning. If you don't have a manual, ask the manufacturer to send you one.
2. Leave the Choke Tube Alone.
You can turn an interchangeable choke tube into an immovable, rusted-in fixed choke by not cleaning and lubing it. Any time you thoroughly clean the bores, make sure you take the tube out, wipe off the old lube, clean the threads with a wire brush, put on a fresh drop of oil or grease, then screw the choke back in finger-tight. I use Birchwood Casey's Choke Tube Lube ($6.50; 800-328-6156; www.birchwoodcasey.com).
3. Use the Wrong Lube.
WD-40 has more uses than duct tape, but lubricating guns isn't one of them. Under the heat of firing, WD-40 and burned powder form an inky sludge that clogs moving gun parts. That sludge, I am here to tell you, is a bear to remove. Stick to lubricants specifically made for guns. Rem Oil, for instance, contains Teflon lubricant and keeps guns running smoothly in all conditions ($5.75 for a 10-ounce spray can; 800-243-9700; www.remington.com).
4. Oil the Wood.
Some people like to rub gun oil into stocks to make them shine. That oil sinks into the wood, causing it to swell and, eventually, to crack. Oil is for metal, not for gunstocks. Just wipe the wood clean and leave it alone. Be sparing with oil when you lubricate your gun's metal parts, too. If you slather on the oil and then store the gun standing up, oil will run down into the head of the stock.
5. Keep the Old Grease in the Gun.
The Shooter's Choice grease that comes in a syringe ($5.56; 440-834-8888; shooters-choice.com) is perfect for the trunnions or hinge pins of break-open guns. However, grease can collect powder residue and dust, turning it into a gritty compound that abrades steel. Periodically strip the old lube off of hinge pins and ejector mechanisms and put on a fresh dab.
6. Seal It in a Case.
The worst way to store a gun is to zip it into a vinyl case with a synthetic wool interior. The "wool" holds moisture, and vinyl doesn't breathe. Store your gun like that, especially in a damp basement, and it will have a nice new coat of rust when you take it out in the fall. If you want to keep the gun in a case, use a silicone-impregnated gun sock, such as a Sack-Up ($6.89; 888-722-5877; sackups.com). It's cheap insurance for the off-season.
How to keep your gun from turning into a doorstop
After each use:
1. Clean bores and tighten choke tubes.
2. Brush out seeds and debris from the receiver.
3. Wipe the outside metal surfaces with a lightly oiled cloth.
Every 200 rounds
1. Clean barrel thoroughly, including the barrel tang of pumps and autos.
2. Clean choke tube threads.
3. Clean gas system of autos. Strip grease from break-action receivers and regrease.
End of the season
1. Repeat previous steps.
2. Remove, clean, and lightly oil the trigger group and bolt assembly. Remove debris from the magazine tube of pumps and autos with a 10-gauge brush. Unscrew the recoil pad from synthetic stocks and drain water.
3. Clean the gas system and action spring of autos. Clear gas ports in the barrels of autos with a 1/16-inch-diameter wire.