A Cautionary Tale of Rot and Evil

All of us who own enough guns to call ourselves manly men have a few that sit around year after year waiting for their turn to shoot something. This is not because there’s anything wrong with them, but because they’re specialized and time passes—sometimes lots of it—before they get The Call. As it happened, I discovered on the same day that not one but two such guns had gone weird on me, so I’m passing the tale along.

The first is a social shotgun—a 1983-vintage Ithaca Model 37 LAPD Model pump shotgun with a stock that was finished in tung oil. For those of you not familiar with it, tung oil was once a popular finish for military wood stocks, or stocks that would see a lot of hard use. It was fairly water-resistant, tough, and dried to a dead-flat finish. Because the Ithaca did nothing but sit behind a door waiting to repel boarders, I ignored it for long periods of time, only taking it out once a year to test-fire.

This year, lo and behold, the finish had dried out after being perfectly fine for over 30 years, and the buttstock was now so loose in the receiver that it wiggled. If I were to fire it, it might snap. It will have to be tightened, given a coat of oil, and a warning to be more careful next time.

The other gun is my Cape buffalo rifle, a .416 which has served me admirably for a dozen years and made believers out of several unfortunate ungulates. The problem lay not in the rifle, but in the QD rings with which it is fitted. The last time I used this rifle, I noticed that the scope was slipping in the rings* because the gunsmith who built the rifle had trued them up, which is one of the less wise things you can do in this life.**

“Holy lack of adhesion!” I bellowed, and decided to fix the rings so nothing would ever slip again. I put Barge Cement*** on the rings, let it set for a few minutes, and screwed them on the scope. The scope has not budged since. I completely degreased all the screws, including the transverse pins that clamp the rings to the bases; then I tightened them sumbitches but good.

But, when I went to unscrew them the other day, they wouldn’t budge. So I got a little plastic tackhammer and very gently went tap tap tap, on the QD levers and sure enough they turned. Except they weren’t turning, they were twisting, because the pins had corroded in place, and both pins snapped. If this had happened in the field, and I had to get the scope off the rifle to use the iron sights, or to put on a new scope, I would have been out of luck.

But since it happened at home, I removed all the ring screws, pried the ring halves apart, and got the scope free. Since the rings were pretty well ruined, I replaced them with a new pair that had not been trued up, and did not remove every last bit of grease and oil from anything. Then I tightened the levers with my fingers, and nothing stronger.

The moral to this pair of stories is, never assume that because it was OK when you put it away it will be OK when you go to use it again. Check it, and don’t wait until the night before to do so.

*How did I know the scope was slipping in the rings? Because I had drawn a witness mark in pencil on the scope tube flush against the forward edge of the front ring. This is a good idea with any hard-kicking rifle. If recoil makes the scope slide forward, even a small fraction of an inch, you can spot it right away and deal with it, or you can spot it when the scope has moved several inches and is completely off target.

**Lapping scope rings to get a perfect fit on the scope is not only unnecessary, but pretty dumb. The theory is that lack of stress on the scope from an imperfect fit will decrease accuracy. The fact is that most scopes, particularly the ones with 30mm and 34mm tubes, can take plenty of stress and it won’t affect anything. All that lapping does, as often as not, is remove enough metal so the rings can’t hold as they should.

***Barge Cement is a high-powered rubber cement used mostly by shoemakers, who can get it for you when the hardware stores have never heard of it. In its liquid form it stinks and is flammable, but it’s damned near as handy as duct tape.