Custom Cut Gun Cleaning Patches

By Mike Nelson

This article presumes that you have selected an appropriate, one-piece cleaning rod and a bore guide. It also presumes that you have appropriate cleaning fluids. Any responsible dealer will provide assistance in selecting rods and fluids; they also sell patches, so they will not likely suggest that custom patches will improve your cleaning procedure, but I think they will.

When I began serious rifle shooting, and started reading articles on rifle maintenance, I learned the value of systematic, regular cleaning. Though many pundits pontificate profusely on their preferred method of break-in and cleaning, few spend much time on the lowly patch. Whether wisdom or folly, I began to think that the patch was important because that's where the "cleaner meets the bore," to plagiarize a common expression.

The patches discussed in this article are for use on a round jag with a point that sticks through the center of the patch, and they might also apply to any round jag over which the patch is draped. This article does not address either eyelet jags or jags around which a patch is wound. The former seems applicable only to very large bores, and the latter are beyond my experience; the nearest I have come to that is wrapping an undersized brush with cloth for the really tough cleaning jobs. That is another subject that has been written about in numerous articles about rifle cleaning. The following I discovered on my own, and I have found no other articles that delineate the resulting procedure for selecting a patch and jag combination. If you know of one, please send me a citation, and I will adjust this paragraph accordingly.

The popularity of commercial cleaning patches presents an interesting phenomena among gun enthusiasts. Clearly, in contrast to bullets, we send a wide range of cleaning "diameters" down our barrels. Forums and product comments at vendor sites provide some interesting insights ranging from one person who admitted that he had to "drive the rod through the bore" because the patch was so tight to another who suggested using an undersized patch because the advertised size was too tight. That probably left some readers cringing at the probable damage to one bore and the probable neglect of the other. Clearly there are major questions as to which size patch fits which size bore.

Jags and precut patches come in a variety of sizes for a given caliber or caliber range. Clearly some jag manufacturers presume a different material thickness than others, and some patch vendors presumed a different jag diameter than others; finding the best combination can be costly and frustrating. It was the frustrations in matching jag to patch that led me to cut my own. Custom cut patches were not only a better fit, but were much less costly than commercial patches, though cost was not the primary reason to cut my own.

Patch material varies considerably, ranging from highly-rated, 100% cotton twill to a non-woven synthetic, one desired because it soaks up lots of solvent, the other desired because it doesn't. Since I'm likely already in enough trouble with this topic, I'll forgo mentioning any specific solvents except to say that natural fibers are likely to absorb them more readily than synthetics. Patch shape should, theoretically, be round, but that might be a bit ideological considering the extent to which the trailing portion of the patch compresses as it folds around the jag. In addition, it is easy to select a jag that precludes the need for a round patch.

The cost of commercial patches is also interesting, and not always easily understood. One would think that patches would be priced somewhat by their area, that is, the number of patches produced by a yard of fabric, but that is not the case. For example, one line of high-quality patches is priced such that the price per yard of fabric ranges from $8.63 to $16.12. Furthermore, this line of patches, as do most others, also purports a wide range of calibers for each patch size. The resulting patch-jag combinations could not all be equally effective. Matching patch to jag to bore is not as simple as it might seem.

Frustrated in attempts to match commercial patches to jag and bore, I decided to cut my own, which, incidentally, proved a lot easier than one might think. Synthetic fabrics do not absorb liquids well; I found them a bit messy. Reading and experience led me to select 100% cotton material. Cotton is absorbent, it is more compressible than synthetics, and it is unlikely to scratch anything. I tried several kinds of cotton fabric, including the hard-woven twill and the softer flannel. I also tried scraps from an old bed sheet and an old T-shirt. The best seemed to be cotton flannel that is soft and squeezes down to about 0.015 inch in the fat part of my caliper blades. This material will cover most jags, hold adequate solvent, and capture lots of debris.

I am sure that several of the available cotton fabrics would have been suitable, but because of its texture and absorbency, I selected "Cozy Flannel," a product dependably available at Jo Ann Fabrics. (I have no particular preference for the company except for the availability and consistency of this particular product.) Fabric choice notwithstanding, I believe that the following procedures would work for almost any fabric one might select, whether natural fiber or synthetic.

The first step in fitting jag and patch to bore is to select a jag. There are three distinct sections to the jag/patch/bore relationship. 1) The tip of the jag pierces the patch and nominally centers it. 2) The working area of the jag, typically concentric ridges along the jag shaft, presses the patch into the rifling. 3) The excess fabric at the bottom of the patch compresses against the narrower shaft of the jag. This third section can be important, especially in smaller calibers. If the cleaning rod is almost as big as the working area of the jag, and if the jag is too short, or has too large a shaft, or has too long a working section, then the bulk of the outer edges of the patch could easily be too large for the bore. A long, slender shaft section below the working area also precludes the need for cutting round patches since it easily accommodates the extra material below the working area of the jag. Thus, one can confidently cut square patches without compromising cleaning effectiveness.

Having selected a jag for the caliber in question and a patch material, begin with an undersized, square patch so that there is no danger of getting the patch stuck in the bore. I also recommend this be done with a clean, dry bore. Gradually, in about 1/8 inch increments, increase the size of the patch until it is as tight as you like. Though no one seems to know exactly what that is, my guideline is large enough to press firmly against the bore, and small enough not to force my cleaning rod to flex against the rifling. I found that, for my jag, a 1"x1" square of Cozy Flannel fit my .223, and a 1.5" x 1.5" square fit my .243/6mm, with the latter about as tight as I dare, so I am careful not to cut them oversized, and I don't worry if I occasionally get some at 1.4" square.

At this point, you have a patch that is snug in a clean bore. If your bore is heavily fouled, this patch might be a bit tight, so it might be advisable to remove the heavy fouling with an undersized patch, a brush, or a Bore Snake, just to get out the big chunks. After one pass with either, you can proceed with confidence using your custom-fitted patch.

Cutting Patches. You can mark fabric with water-based markers and cut with scissors, but it is more efficient to use a rolling knife on a fabric cutting pad. From the fabric shop, I procured a cutting pad and a rolling fabric knife. The pad is marked in one-inch intervals, so cutting patches for the .223 is easy. I cut a 12" section of 1x2 fir to approximately 1.375" wide, and I use it as a width guide for cutting my 1.5" patches. I align it with the grid of the cutting pad for the 1x1 patches. The fabric is purchased by the yard, and is nominally 44" wide. Folded twice lengthwise, it forms a four-layer strip about 11" wide. The rolling knife easily cuts through the four layers, and I can quickly cut a matrix of 400, 1x1 patches or 224 1.5 x 1.5 patches with my 12" cutting guide.

Take notes. If you use this method, you might cut patches only once or twice a year, so there is a chance that you will forget something the next time you need to cut patches. To save time, make notes so that the next cutting session can be set up quickly and efficiently.

Interesting trivia. Patch size increases geometrically. My .223 patch is 1 square inch, and I can cut 1440 per yard of fabric; the folds cause a bit of loss, but the efficiency gained is worth it. The .243/6mm patch is 2.25 square inches, and I can only cut 672 from a yard of material. Thus, the .223 patches cost about 0.25¢ each, and the .243/6mm patches cost about 0.6¢ each. For comparison, both the .223 and the .243 commercial patches cost about 1¢ each, differences in the amount of materials required notwithstanding.

Now that cutting patches is routine, I can cut several month's supply in a session, and I never have to worry about the fit between the patch and the jag. Seems to me a small price to pay for dependable and predictable cleaning supplies.

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Copyright 2003, 2013 by J.M. Nelson. All rights reserved.