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3800 Words On Cleaning In The Field

Registered User

3800 Words on Cleaning in the Field

Posted: 8/19/03 9:58 am


Some thoughts on extended firearms maintenance in the field.

First, a true story:

The Time: Early 1944

The Place: An island "Somewhere in the Pacific"

A United States Army infantry captain stands in a clearing, surrounded by his men. Worn out, sick, sleep-deprived, the rifle company is only at about half its rated strength. They’ve been fighting both the Japanese and disease. They’re hungry and tired. And now they’ve got another problem, one that keeps looming bigger and bigger every day. Their guns are starting to fail from hard use, neglect, and the tropical weather, and the battalion armorer has been invalided off the island.

"Is there anyone her who can take an M1 rifle apart and reassemble it blindfolded?" the captain asks the troops. Nobody raises his hand. Finally, a 21-year-old farmboy and logger, from the hills above the Santiam Valley in Oregon stands up. He’s never even driven a car, and had never traveled more than 50 miles from home before he enlisted. It’s been 60 days since he’s had fresh socks, slept on anything but coral or sand, changed his uniform, or had a shower. He’s just a combat infantryman with no more formal training than any other wartime trooper, and that’s precious little. But he says he thinks that he can.

"Then do it," orders the captain. The men spread a poncho out on the ground; the young man is blindfolded with a T-shirt and given an M1 Garand. And, indeed, he can both disassemble and then reassemble that M1.

And that’s how my Uncle Eldon became the new battalion armorer, a job for which he had no training, but one that he thought was pretty good duty because he got to sleep in a tent that served as his workshop.

* * * * *

Our Man In The Sierra, Mr. Eric Stoskopf, recently asks which firearms can best sustain poor maintenance in the field. I’ve been giving this matter some thought (warning sign number one—perhaps you should just bail out of this post while you can). This seems such a simple question on the surface, but I’ve grown to believe it’s much more complex than we may first think. Answering such a question calls for someone with a first-rate intellect, deep experience, and a captivating writing style. Unfortunately, all you have is me, the equivalent of some yahoo sitting on a poncho in the jungle with a T-shirt tied around his head. Be thankful you’re not asking for medical advice.

Mr. Stoskopf’s question is more than simply academic: On the eve of spending a month in the mountains under primitive conditions, one suspects the firearms he has with him on his trip may not get the pampering they do sitting in a fireproof gun safe at home.

Firearms maintenance under field conditions is a different animal from firearms maintenance at the target range. In my experience, after a day at the range, one is (or should be) most concerned with cleaning required due to the actual firing of ammunition. In the field, however, a weapon may require much more cleaning and maintenance even though it was never fired, due to exposure to dirt, rain, snow, dust, grit, insects, and the like.

How does one decide which firearm will hold up best under poor circumstances? Most folks would just say, "Choose something stainless," and leave it at that. Yet that’s far from a complete answer, and indeed, may even be advice in exactly the wrong direction.

Here are the simple rules:

Rule Number One: Keep the firearm clean. Clean means free not only from the byproducts of shooting (powder fouling, metal fouling), but also free from dirt, dust, leaves, seeds, sweat and fingerprints. Dirt promotes corrosion, and dirt in the mechanism promotes malfunction.

Rule Number Two: Keep the firearm dry. Moisture attracts dirt, and moisture rapidly accelerates corrosion. Moisture can mean rain or snow, but dew and condensation are just as damaging.

With a little foresight and dedication, it’s easy to accomplish both.

Basic Considerations

Here are a couple of thoughts: First, you may choose to make your life easy by selecting a firearm which is easy to maintain. By this I mean one that is easy to disassemble with no major tools, has few parts, and whose major parts groups are large. Second, one may choose a firearm whose materials (stainless steel, synthetics, nickel-plated exterior, chrome-plated bore) make it more tolerant of (some) poor cleaning. And third, one may pick a firearm which by its very construction gives dirt, dust, and assorted field funk fewer places to get in or foul things up.

Simplicity, robustness, ease of maintenance and ease of assembly are of interest to most armed forces, and indeed, when we examine some of the more successful military arms, we find that they mostly meet our criteria: Another Forum contributor mentions the SKS and AK-47; in addition, the M96 and M98 Mausers, the Lee Enfields, the Arisakas, and the M1903 Springfield all disassemble into their major parts using nothing more than a bullet tip as a tool, and they all seem to tolerate lack of maintenance—the AK series famously so.

As a rule, bolt guns protect their mechanisms relatively well. Modern commercial bolt guns—especially the Remingtons and Rugers—do not readily allow the user to detail-strip the bolt, but one may disassemble it far enough to maintain it, and, as we’ve noted before, the striker mechanism is relatively well protected. Lever guns are also easy to strip, although maintaining the inside of their magazine tubes and keeping these dent-free can be a challenge. Non-military autoloading rifles are often a handful, and their gas systems prone to corrosion. Single-shots like the H&R or NEF offerings are excellent choices—few parts, well protected, easy to disassemble (to a point).

Revolvers, surprisingly, come in second to most autoloading pistols, even though for most wilderness situations revolvers have much in their favor. Grit entering through the trigger/frame junction can tie up the mechanism in surprising order. Swing out or remove the cylinder and you can clean up the worst of things, but if grit or moisture gets into the lockwork it’s a tougher job. M1911-series autoloaders are famously robust and easy to maintain, and single actions tend to have fewer parts compared to double actions.

With shotguns as with rifles, singles and doubles easily break down into their larger component parts; pumps protect their mechanism well and generally disassemble with ease, and autoloaders require the most TLC.

A couple of other observations. When the United States Army switched over from the old "Trapdoor" Springfield to the more modern Krag, they were surprised to see the new rifles suffer from rusty bores. The Trapdoor, after all, used notoriously corrosion-inducing blackpowder loads (the .45-70), while the new Krag used modern "smokeless" powder. But the visionaries in Washington failed to consider two points: The Krags’ cartridges used corrosive primers, and the new smallbore .30 barrels were tougher to clean than the bigger .45-caliber tubes on the trapdoors. That’s no small thing, and a lesson that has not been lost on Your Humble Narrator. It’s fantastically easy to keep a 12-gauge single sparkling under field conditions. That big .70-caliber pipe doesn’t wick water through capillary action the way a .22 will, and even if you’re without proper cleaning equipment, you can drop a piece of parachute cord through the big bore or even cut a willow branch to use as a cleaning rod. Since they’re easy to clean, they get cleaned more often, and, perversely, because they’re clean, it’s easier to keep them clean.


Look at that high polish and all that pretty blueing. Just a rich man’s seduction, right? How I wish it were. Truth is, a smartly polished metal surface is easier to keep clean, and retains less moisture. Polishing also removes scratches, minor irregularities, and fissures that promote a phenomenon known as "crevice corrosion" (more on this in a bit).

High-quality blueing can do an exceptional job of protecting a firearm. I have several Mauser rifles in my safes, four of which have been through two world wars, and which are rust-free. And these are issue-grade weapons that have seen severe service in the field and which have not been refinished. Mauserfabrik in Oberndorf, and the Swedish Husqvarna and Carl Gustav concerns, used high-quality steel, and in the case of the 1896 and 1938 Swedes, alloyed it with a bit of copper, enhancing the rust resistance. Indeed, the bolt bodies on those Swedish Mausers are in the white (raw metal with no finish) and they remain rust-free, even though one of them is 105 years old.

Blueing is really just a thin layer of surface oxidation that serves to protect the metal underneath. When applied correctly and carefully, it can offer substantial protection against corrosion.

We all know that under most day-to-day exposures, aluminum does not corrode either (exposure to severe acids, bases, or salt-air are notable exceptions). Yet handle uncoated aluminum (aluminum which has not been anodized or coated with lacquer), and your hands will soon be dark. Why? Aluminum oxide. You see, aluminum naturally oxidizes a thin layer at its surface, and then stabilizes. This thin aluminum oxide layer protects the parent metal underneath, and consequently, aluminum doesn’t "rust." Climbers and other outdoorsmen who have handled aluminum carabiners know this instinctively, even if they don’t understand the reasons why. A day spent climbing will leave your hands black from aluminum oxide, yet those aluminum carabiners don’t pit or rust the way steel would. The aluminum oxide layer is thin and soft, and readily rubs off; blueing is thin and hard, and while you can rub it off (note the so-called holster wear at the sharp edges of a revolver’s muzzle), it’s really pretty durable.

Nickel or chrome plating (especially chrome-plated bores) resist corrosion surprisingly well, so long as no ammonia-based solvents attack the copper "strike" between the chrome or nickel and the parent metal. And rust in the bore is often the number-one enemy: the bore is comparatively tough to keep clean, is subjected to both thermal and mechanical stresses from firing, and even a small amount of corrosion here has an immediate effect on both accuracy and perhaps safety.

Other finishes like zinc phosphate (Parkerizing) and proprietary finishes (Rogard, etc.) generally work well so long as the finish is not scratched through. Some are tougher than others. Due to their excellent surface finish, Glock handguns, for example, have proven exceptionally durable even though they are produced using conventional carbon steel.

Stainless steel, of course, is the modern solution for many. Yet stainless is not the magic bullet one would think. In January of 1981, the American Rifleman, that much-regarded journal of the National Rifle Association, published an article entitled "Stainless Steel Firearms," authored by Norman J. Whisler and Richard D. Overley (that I sit here looking at an original copy simply proves that I should clean out my library more often and get a life).

The authors took steel-alloy coupons and pieces from both stainless (410- and 300-series) and carbon steel (4140 chrome-molybdenum) and subjected them to corrosion tests. All parts were tempered to Rockwell C-30, typical for common firearms parts (the tempering process influences corrosion resistance).

In a nutshell, here were their observations: The 4140 exhibited signs of rust earlier than the stainless steel (410), which remained corrosion-free for seven days under their test conditions, "after which the corrosion of the stainless became much more severe. In the course of 24 hours, the 410 changed from being apparently unharmed to being much worse than the 4140, and remained so for the remaining three weeks of the test. Red rust was clearly forming on the surface of the 410 fouling."

The authors then tested some gun parts fashioned form 300-series stainless and 4140. Here, "the 300-series stainless reacted much more slowly than the 410 coupon." Yet it too eventually developed rapid and severe corrosion, eventually far worse than the 4140. "The 4140 [was] lightly attacked over its entire surface, while the 410 had pits about 1-2mm wide (.04-.08") and about as deep. In the second test, the chrome-moly steel hammer was subject to general attack . . . [while] the stainless hammer contained a number of deep pits."

The authors continue, stating that "localized corrosion of stainless steel is more likely to be a problem for gun owners than general attack, since it is most likely to occur in small crevices which are not reached by ordinary cleaning. Such corrosion can penetrate deeply into steel in a relatively short time.

"The most common harmful form of localized corrosion in firearms is pitting due to an oxygen concentration cell. This can be established when fouling or degraded (gummy) oil is left unattended on the stainless steel surface. An area underneath the deposit may become depleted in oxygen. Lack of oxygen may destroy the passivity of stainless steel, and the metal at the depleted site will pit, If the surrounding area is in the presence of oxygen, the pit may grow even more rapidly than in the case of common steels, This is so because of the large galvanic potential between the passive stainless steel and the non-passive portion which is corroding. Pits, once formed, tend to perpetuate conditions, which cause pitting.

"Crevice corrosion requires an existing notch, hole, or interface to initiate. In firearms, crevices may be found at the frame/grip-plate interface, at the barrel/frame interface, cylinder-notch/cylinder-stop interface, and in the corners of the rifling."

The authors further note: "Pitting can occur if the surface of stainless steel is contaminated by ordinary steel. This can occur if the stainless steel is cleaned with (non-stainless) steel wool, or if it is ground, filed, or machined with items that have been previously used for ordinary steels. Tiny particles of ordinary steel will remain on the surface of the stainless steel after the operation has been completed. Not only is this rust unsightly, but it will destroy the passivity of the stainless steel underneath, thereby initiating pitting."

In short, clean your stainless firearms as scrupulously as you would your blue-steel guns, and pay particular attention to the crevice corrosion to which stainless firearms are particularly vulnerable.

Protecting the Piece

Since so much firearms corrosion in the field has to do with the elements and not actual firing, protecting the weapon from unnecessary exposure is a large step in the right direction. This may take the form of a fabric breech cover, a case, a full-flap holster, or a piece of electrical tape covering the muzzle. A coat of hard-paste automotive wax, especially in damp climates, is also a good prophylaxis.

Look carefully at photographs of German troops in Russia during World War II and you’ll often see them with small bits of rag stuffed in the muzzles of their MP38/40 machine pistols or Kar98k rifles. They were trying to keep dust, dirt, and moisture out of their bores, but this was an exceedingly poor technique in attempt to accomplish a worthy goal. The inevitably cotton rags wicked moisture, even in the hot Russian summers of 1941, 1942, and 1943, and I’ve seen many, many Eastern Front Mausers with severe corrosion in the last inch of their bore, even though the rest of the barrel was pristine.

* * * * *

I’ve carried quite a few firearms in the field, often under conditions of continuous use and exposure. Yet I’ve even managed to preserve blue-steel cap-and-ball revolvers loaded with black powder from rusting, sometimes for many weeks at a time. How?

I try to do whatever I can to keep them both clean and dry. Sometimes this takes the form of protective covering. Sometimes it means disassembly in the field. It always entails both lubrication, and often the wiping of surfaces with a lightly oiled piece of fabric. Once clean and dry, I try to keep the pieces protected from the elements, and that includes condensation due to rapid changes in temperature. Whenever I can, I take advantage of a warm day to clean and dry the arm as well.

You don’t need a whole toolbox with you. A ziplock bag holding an eight-inch-squared piece of fabric saturated with your favorite firearms oil or a pre-impregnated silicon cloth is enough for wipedowns. Some dry material to absorb moisture is helpful, but this can be as simple as a rag, toilet paper, or a paper towel. Take the tools you need to dismount the firearm. (Screwdriver? Allen key? Will your Swiss Army knife or Leatherman suffice, or do you need something more? Try your tools at home before your presume they will work in the field. I’ve reground the screwdriver on my pocketknife to fit my Mauser’s guard screws.)

A small brush is really quite useful for cleaning off dust and dirt where there’s no high-pressure compressed air to be found. I’ve got a special little one from Brownells, but you can find a serviceable equivalent at your local Starbucks or kitchen supply center—just look for one designed to clean out espresso machines. They usually have a wooden handle about four inches long and bristles two or three inches long, and are round, not flat like a paintbrush. The coffee-machine brush bristles are a little soft, but a rubber band or string wrapped tightly about halfway down their length effectively stiffens them up.

Normally, a one-piece cleaning rod is preferable for all cleaning chores. Yet this is the real world, and under the rigors of serious field use, a one-piece rod is simply too cumbersome and susceptible to damage. So find a good multiple-piece cleaning rod, a bore brush, and a cleaning jag.

Yes, you can use a string to pull a patch through your bore, and that rig will fit in a 35mm film can. But to really clean your bore or to dislodge debris, you need a rod. Again, for a 12-gauge, you may be able to tiller one out yourself from a straight branch, but for rifles you need to bring one of your own. There are no shortage of these on the market, and over the years the U. S. military has outfitted the troops with some passable designs that fit into the buttstocks of rifles like the M1 Garand, the M14 (both .30 caliber), and the M16 (.223 caliber). A tiny container (one ounce will do) of nitro solvent is a welcome addition once you have a proper cleaning rod, as well.

* * * * *

Once upon a time, when I was assisting Mr. Hood and other survival instructors with some regularity, I went on a quest, and convinced myself that a Ruger Security Six was the answer. Here was a stainless-steel .357 Magnum revolver that could be detail stripped with virtually no tools. Especially impressive (I convinced myself) was the ability to drop the entire lockworks in one assembly without having to remove a sideplate.

Yet in reality, even after pretty much four years of continuous duty, of guiding in all four seasons, and of my own trips, I never had to tear the Ruger down in the field, and eventually opted to carry something else. Today, it’s a house gun, and almost never travels afield, replaced by other choices.

So today I carry pretty much whatever weapon I deem suitable for the task at hand, and I pay precious little attention to weather it’s blued steel, Parkerized, or stainless. I carry a small field cleaning kit, and a cleaning rod. And I just try to pay attention and not get lazy.

A Final Story:

In the early 1980s, I had a young cousin who joined the Navy and shipped off on a guided missile frigate in the Pacific. He was 18, and was trained as a communications man. At sea, he was standing watch late one evening, monitoring radio traffic from his duty station on the bridge, when one of his young shipmates whose duty that night was to patrol the deck walked into the compartment to warm up.

Onboard, most of the sailors had a nickname, and they called this young man "The Merc" (as in the mercenary), because he as always playing around with guns and knives. (A thought—he may now well be a member of this very Forum. Perhaps they should have called him the Hoodlum!) Since he was standing watch on the deck, he’d been issued with a sidearm, at the time a Government Model Colt M1911A1, the familiar "Colt .45" we all know and love.

The Merc decided he was going to impress my cousin by showing him how to detail-strip his the old warhorse, and got it down to a bunch of tiny pieces. But when it was time to reassemble it, he got flustered, and forgot how. He tried and tried, but the clock was ticking, and in just another minute his watch ended and we was going to have to turn the gun, belt, holster and flashlight over to the next watch. Finally, he just scooped up the parts, dumped them into the holster, stuck the gripframe on top, fastened the holster’s flap shut, and resumed his watch.

Thankfully, he was only an anchor-clanker and not an infantryman or a Marine, and his life did not depend upon having a functioning sidearm that night. One may only wonder which poor swabbie eventually opened that holster and attempted to draw that Colt, and came up with only the grips and slide rails.

The moral, of course, is that don’t know that one should become familiar with one’s firearm’s assembly and disassembly procedures at home, before you have to take the crash course out in the woods, just as you should understand how your vehicle’s jack works before you try to instruct yourself by Braille in the middle of a Sierra snowstorm.

* * * * *

For 22 years I lived in the unreconstructed deserts of the American West, and at home I hardly gave corrosion a second thought. Prior to that I’d spent a great deal of time in the wet Pacific Northwest, where hunting in the rain was an accepted fact of life. In central Europe, too, I’ve had plenty of outdoor equipment survive rain, fog, and snow. But now I live within sight of a large ocean, and my job title has been reduced to Fleet Corrosion Control Officer. Everything, so it seems, is susceptible to corrosion, from the cars in the driveway to the contact switches in the stereo and computer. Even in this harsh environment, though, my firearms remain largely corrosion free, as does my saltwater fishing gear. It’s an endless, thankless fight, and every once in a while I do see that telltale orange stain that tells me something’s gone undetected. Out with the Scotchbrite and WD-40! It’s a tough battle, but you can win.

A series of good men took awful good care of that old Mauser rifle for 105 years. I don’t intend to let them down, and to let rust win now.

Best regards,




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Registered User


Posted: 8/19/03 4:05 pm


(This message was left blank)


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Registered User

Re: as usual ml...

Posted: 8/19/03 5:26 pm


you have hit the nail on the head,

there must be preventive maintinence done on your equipment or you will get a rude suprise. having hunted in alaska i will tell you that you must oil up you rifle every day. i keep a special oily rag just to do it with in a zip lock bag. and a can of spray oil spritzed down the barrel then a dry patch also. i dont use silicone based oils as they might kill a primer, but you better be paying attention to you rifle or you will be sorry when it goes click instead of bang (the loudest sound in the world) especially in alaska where " you are not at the top of the food chain anymore toto".


Edited by: alco141 at: 8/19/03 5:31 pm


Posts: 1132 | IP:

Eric Stoskopf

Cool Calm Calamity


Posted: 8/20/03 11:32 am


An entire six pages of valuable information. Incredible.

I'm sure Cleaning in the Field will remain on my desk and within easy reach for quite some time.

Many thanks to ML for yet another informative lesson.

Now. How how does one deal with the guilt of not having the time to finish a measly trip report after having just read a 3800 word masterpiece on firearms maintenance!




"In the school of the woods there is no graduation day"

Horace Kephart


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Registered User


Posted: 8/20/03 4:50 pm


I just was talking to Wally the other day about the .22 caliber Romanians. I have become quite familiar with them and even though they have some crevices that are susceptible to dirt and grit, they are easy to strip and clean. I must admit that some advise you gave about cleaning in general and the need for a rod and not just a bore snake saved me a weekend of hunting last year, as a bullet lodged in the barrel of said .22's and if it wasnt for that rod I would have been home after just 2 hours. I tried the stick as rod trick, but quickly realized that it was a dream and pulled out the rod that I had reluctantly packed.



p.s. I only wish you could be an English Comp proffesor, as that was a hell of an essay!


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Howard Wallace

Registered User

moderator - consider moving this to the FAQ

Posted: 8/20/03 5:22 pm


before it falls off the end of the forum. If any other of ML dissertations are still extant perhaps they should go over there also.

Howard Wallace

---Pro Libertate---


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Registered User

Many, Many Thanks

Posted: 8/20/03 5:58 pm


Thank you all for the kind responses. They are most appreciated, and I sincerely mean that. For while (some) of these little epistles are fun to write, especially those which require me to do a little research and thus further my own education, the longer ones do take a little time, and thus they often show up a little late in this “instant” web world. Still, it is gratifying to know they are appreciated, and that they sometimes make a difference (Neohobbit’s experience as a case in point).

Also, I need to voice a long-overdue thanks to Ron and Karen Hood for providing the bandwidth, the opportunity, and indirectly the audience.

Finally, a personal indulgence, addressing the “English Professor” comment: Should you have attended a certain university in California during the late 1970s and early 1980s when for a time I was a member of the English Department faculty, indeed you could have suffered through one of my Freshman Composition classes, although I don’t know how much fun it would have been. But I can note that the first day of classes and the opening day of deer season were often perilously close, and that more than once I was off hunting while a colleague generously substituted for a couple of days. I think that rattled some of the other department members, but they chalked it up as just another one of my colorful eccentricities—of which I had and continue to have no short supply.

It’s vogue among some Forum members to bash universities and university educations, saying that they’re a waste of time. Sorry they had that experience. I would not trade my years as an undergraduate and a graduate student for anything—indeed, I continue to take night classes with some frequency, even though there’s plenty of gray in my moustache now. In the university, I learned much that continues to enrich my life. That in addition to my purely academic studies I was also lucky enough to take classes personally from Ron Hood and other gifted outdoors instructors, and got paid to lead and guide outdoor survival, climbing and backpacking trips, and spent my free time riding motorcycles, hunting, fishing, and shoehorning a Chevrolet engine into my old Toyota Land Cruiser when classes were finished made those wonderful years even better.

Thanks again. I’ll try to continue making some meaningful contributions.



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Bill Hay

Registered User

Many, many kudos...

Posted: 8/20/03 6:41 pm



While the "instant" web makes it often difficult to keep up with postings, many of us live lives that seem to match the same insane pace...

Your time and experience is a worthy substitute to our taking our own time to research subjects... And much more efficient, I might add...

There is always an audience, always a market, for knowledge. Granted, our current society has fewer and fewer who thirst, but there are always a few.

The youth should always hold a valued place for the experience and wisdom of the aged.

Or in modern American English... "Duh. Like, keep 'em comin', dude!"

And an additional note of recognition to Ron & Karen for providing the environment that we can continue to learn, and share what we have learned.

I'm struggling with a raging cold, and a system full of antihistamines, so appologies if any of this doesn't make sense.


Conventional thinking promotes conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom promotes conventional action.

Conventional action promotes conventional results.

Conventional results are average.

A webpage... of sorts...


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Registered User


Re: Many, many kudos...

Posted: 8/20/03 8:42 pm


im struggeling thru a case of beer, and i second Bill Hays words..

ML, thank you again for yet another insightful, intelligent and educational post. ive often considered and wondered about your writting style and now understand why. kind of suspected an english background, or higher than most education. as always i look forwards to more of yore writtings, stories, and experiences. for that wich you hca contributed and i have read, sir i am in your debt.

Ron and Karen, thank you again and again and again for providing this forum, and this meeting place for like mined people to come and gather, share, swap stories, knowledge, information, lean on one another, share our lives and experiences. Sir and Ma'am, for your hard work, i am in youir debt.

there are many many MANY of you who help to make this forum what it is.. and i also thank you for being exactly who and what you are.. good people, honest people, helpful and careing people. good to know ya.

now im going back to my lurking and thats nuff of that sentimental $h!t!!! take care all.

Ray in California

"Beware the man with only one gun, chances are he KNOWS how to use it."


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I survived WASP


Thread copied from Weapons forum

Posted: 8/20/03 10:02 pm


(This message was left blank)


Of all the things I've lost, I think I miss my mind the most.

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