Brownells Brownells Brownells 75th Anniversary - A Shooting Heritage

Time To Get the Lead Out! The Lewis Lead Remover

by Steve Ostrem

All you Cowboy Action shooters and cast bullet aficionados know from experience that shooting lead bullets means cleaning the barrel more frequently and using a good bit more elbow grease to do it than is the case with jacketed bullets. The trouble with removing lead build-up in the barrel by normal means is that a bronze brush can only attack the surface and has to, more or less, wear the lead away. Various methods have been tried through the years to make removing lead faster and easier, but the one that’s still around and stands out for simplicity and effectiveness is the Lewis Lead Remover.

The key to the success of the Lewis system is the brass screen that is harder than lead but softer than steel, and the rubber plug that makes the screen expand into the rifling. This enables the brass screen to go all the way into the grooves and push the lead out in front of it in whole pieces, rather than trying to wear it away. The best part is that the process is done dry, and no chemicals or solvents are required, although J-B® Bore Cleaning Compound (#083-065-025) can be used later as a follow-up to make sure that absolutely no trace of leading remains. The Lewis unit will also remove lead from the cylinder mouths and comes with an attachment for cleaning the forcing cone – two places that are normally hard to get clean. With the tool set up properly, the process is surprisingly quick and easy, but there are a few tricks you should know before trying it out to avoid any difficulties.

I decided to take a couple of Lewis kits off the shelf and give them a thorough testing under real world conditions, or perhaps I should say “unreal” world conditions. First, two six shooters were selected from the collection of reference guns we use in our Gun Tech department. They were Italian-made Colt clones, not normally known for having the smoothest bores or forcing cones. One was a .357 Magnum, the other a .45 Long Colt. My intention was to run hundreds of rounds through each one to lead up the bore and give the Lewis Lead Remover a real workout. Upon reflection, the idea of shooting a case or two of ammunition through each revolver, just to get enough leading, sounded like something that would be fun at the beginning, but a real chore by the end of the session. And, this still was no guarantee that enough lead would accumulate in both guns to make removing it a tough enough challenge.

Then, inspiration struck. Why not cast up some bullets, say two cylinders full for each revolver, and shoot them unlubricated? Why just 10 rounds each, why not go for 25? That night, 50 bullets were cast and loaded into cases with no lube on them, 25 for each gun. The .45s were loaded to normal cowboy levels, but the .357s were loaded to the maximum allowed by the manual. No wimp loads here! Normally, even one cylinder full of unlubed bullets is enough to lead a smooth bore to the point where accuracy is just a memory. These were brand new guns that had never been fired before, which meant that the bores had had no break-in period or anything. This was going to be interesting! On the other hand, if the Lewis Lead Remover couldn’t handle the build-up, someone was going to have to spend a long time scrubbing a couple of barrels!

That weekend, the guns and ammo were packed up and taken to the range. Before shooting, the bores were inspected and appeared to be clean and free of debris. Eye and ear protection were donned, and the .45 was selected to be the first candidate. As I put the gun on half cock, the loading sequence came back to me. Load one, skip one, load four, shut the gate, cock the hammer, and lower it down on an empty chamber. I only messed up once or twice, which is not bad for a guy who normally shoots Ruger® single actions. Taking aim at a metal target set up down range, I cocked the hammer and pressed the trigger five times in rapid succession. Four of the rounds found the target, so I reloaded to try again. This time only two made the metal clang, with the rest going wide. The next five were all over the place, so were all the remaining shots. By this time, any bullets that hit the plate were doing so purely by accident. I’d call that barrel fouled!

The .45 was fairly hot to the touch when I traded it for the .357. The recoil from the smaller caliber was fairly stiff, and the accuracy fell off even more quickly than with the first gun. After 25 rounds, the cylinder was removed and the barrel inspected. The rifling was still visible but had become rather fuzzy and less distinct to the eye, so I knew there was plenty of lead to get out! The .45, on the other hand, didn’t look all that bad when subjected to the same scrutiny. The rifling actually looked pretty good to the naked eye. However, judging from the condition of the cylinder mouths and the forcing cone, plus the terrible accuracy, there had to be a good amount of lead in there, as well. Now it was just a matter of getting it out.

Back at Brownells, the guns were laid out on the workbench and the cylinders removed for inspection. The cylinder faces and forcing cones showed plenty of lead buildup, and the barrels looked just plain bad. With a conventional rod/brush combo, you could count on spending at least an hour of quality time with each piece. I can’t remember ever seeing that much fouling in any of my personal firearms that digest cast lead bullets, but, then again, I do not compete on the cowboy circuit or practice by shooting thousands of rounds every year, either. Still, even with the limited amount of cast bullets I put through my own guns, removing the lead from my barrels remains at times a sizable chore for which any shortcut would be most welcome. The way I look at it, any time saved on cleaning can be spent on casting, sizing, loading, or best of all – shooting. With this in mind, I sat down and read the instructions (rare for me) and took a good, hard look at how the thing was supposed to work.

Using a padded vise if you have one is a good idea.

The brass patch is formed while cleaning the cylinder.

The instructions supplied with the kit are pretty complete, but there are a couple additions I’d like to make. The brochure advises holding the gun in one hand and drawing the lead remover through it with the other. After a couple of decades of working on guns, I never pass up the opportunity to put the gun in a padded vice before beginning the work. This frees up a hand and reduces the possibility of dropping the firearm, or banging it against something that could mar the finish. It also makes it harder for you to hurt yourself when applying pressure on a tool, or on the gun itself. Nothing’s worse than trying to bear down on a screwdriver with the gun wedged into your lap. I know those screwdrivers don’t look that sharp, but…I don’t take any chances!

With this in mind, I removed the ejector rod housings from both revolvers and put a piece of thick leather in the bench vice for padding. Then, I put the cylinder from the .45 in the jaws, and secured it with enough pressure to ensure it wouldn’t budge under the tension of pulling the lead remover through. You’ll want to clean the cylinder before the barrel, because the cylinder acts as a forming die that literally squeezes the brass screen evenly around the rubber plug. It’s also easier to pull the lead remover through the mouth of the cylinder than it is the barrel. So, if you have trouble getting the tool through the cylinder, you know you’ll have to modify it slightly before taking a stab at the barrel.

I found the tool hard to work through the mouth of the .45 cylinder, but rubber parts, especially smaller ones can be difficult to manufacture to extremely small tolerance, not to mention every cylinder diameter is slightly different. In a perfect world, you should be able to draw the plug past the mouth of the chamber while holding the cylinder in your hand, if necessary, without any trouble. This one, however, was surprisingly tight. Knowing that it probably wouldn’t go through the barrel, I gave it a try anyway.

The plug can be sanded down if oversize, but don't take off too much!

Cinching the gun into the vise by the barrel, I passed the rod through the barrel and screwed on the cleaning attachment. With both hands on the handle, I gave a good pull and got as far as the end of the forcing cone before everything ground to a halt. Obviously, this rubber plug was too large to allow the assembly to get into and past the rifling on this particular gun. Luckily, the remedy is pretty simple. And, after removing the brass screen from the plug, I screwed the rubber piece back onto the rod and walked over to introduce it to Mr. Belt Sander.

By lightly touching the rubber to the sander while turning the rod with my fingers, a tiny amount of material was taken off the diameter of the plug. I advise caution here, as the material comes off rather quickly, and it is easy to take too much off in haste. After this treatment, my plug measured .445” in diameter, which seemed like a good place to start.

I set up the tool again, and this time the cleaning plug went through the cylinder much more easily, but with enough friction to clean well. I like to rotate the rod as it moves through cylinder to increase the scraping action of the brass screen. Once the cylinder was done, the revolver was put back into the vise and the Lewis tool was assembled in the barrel. This time, one good pull drew the cleaning plug completely through the barrel with ease. So easy in fact, I was sure I’d taken too much material off the diameter of the rubber plug. But, evidently this was not the case, because when I inspected the tool, I was amazed at all that lead that came out at one time. The Lewis tool had pushed complete strips of lead ahead of it as it traveled through the bore, and completely removed them from the barrel.

One pass, and look at all that lead!

I laid the tool down for a second and grabbed a bore light to take a look. What I saw was bright, crisp rifling with a few particles of debris lying loose at the bottom. I passed a cloth patch through the bore, and it came out with some gray streaks and powder residue. A second patch came out completely clean. I couldn’t believe it. The barrel went from being hopelessly fouled to clean in a couple of minutes! The best part is no messy liquids or smelly solvents were needed.

This euphoria lasted about 10 seconds until I noticed the forcing cone attachment still lying in the box unused. Those instructions I’d read so carefully, earlier, clearly stated to clean the forcing cone first! Dutifully, I slipped a new screen over the attachment and threaded it onto the rod that had been reinserted into the barrel. Pulling the handle while rotating it formed the screen to the tapered attachment and made it conform to the angle of the forcing cone. A few twists on the handle and the job was done. All in all, it added about three minutes to the process. One more patch through the bore to remove the newly dislodged particles and the job was really done, and done the right way!

Brass screen conforms perfectly to the forcing cone.

At this point, I was pleased with the way the bore looked. But, for the ultimate bore cleaning, you can follow the deleading process with an application of JB Bore Cleaner put on a tight-fitting patch. The JB can remove the microscopic lead particles that are sure to remain on the metal surface even though you can’t see them. It also removes copper fouling for those of you that like to shoot copper-clad bullets from time-to-time. This is doubly important for shooters who demand the utmost accuracy from firearms in which both copper and lead bullets are used. For the gun to shoot cast bullets, well you are supposed to remove all traces of copper fouling. To shoot copper bullets, the reverse is true. Lead residue can keep the jacketed bullets from grouping as consistently as they should on the target, and JB Bore Cleaner is the best way to remove those last traces of lead or copper residue.

With the .45 clean and ready to go, I set up the .357 single actions to get the same treatment. Again, I found that it was necessary to trim the rubber plug just slightly to get a workable, but still snug fit. Remember, this is only necessary if the tool seems hard to draw through the front of the cylinder, and, in most cases, will not be needed. This time the tool was much easier to use due to the smaller bore diameter and smaller corresponding gripping surface of the plug and screen. Like the first time, the amount of lead that came out on the brass screen was amazing, and the amount of cleaning time that had been saved with this method was delightful. It seemed too easy, and in the back of my mind I was sure that something was not quite right. Luckily, a short shooting session back out at the range proved me wrong. In both guns, the accuracy had returned to normal, resulting in nice, tight, circular groups at 25 yards. This, of course, was with regular ammunition. No more need for the unlubed stuff!

Rifle kits in .30/.32, .44/.45, .38, and even .50 caliber.

For my money, the Lewis Lead Remover is the greatest thing to come down the pike for the cast bullet shooter in a long time. I know it’s been out there for some time now, but a lot of folks, like me, are just now discovering what an effective tool it really is. For a really lazy, I mean busy person, like myself, having this tool in my arsenal means I will be spending a whole lot less time and effort cleaning my guns, and more time reloading or shooting them. There have been times in the past when I hesitated to even shoot this or that gun, especially with cast bullets, because I didn’t want to deal with the cleanup later. But, that’s all changed now.

Even your coach gun can get a thorough deleading with these 12-and 20-gauge kits.

And, because Brownells also has kits for rifles that attach to a cleaning rod, my old lever guns that shoot some of the old pistol calibers are going to get taken out more often. Just for kicks, I tried the .32 kit on an old Marlin 1892 that had a good deal of pitting from black powder. Afterwards, the rifling looked as good as I’d ever seen it. Of course, the pits were still there, but it looked like there was a lot more clean rifling available to help spin a bullet. Some more shooting will be necessary to see if it makes a big difference. I’ll bet that .40 caliber adapter kit would be just the ticket for my 38-40, as that gun is used exclusively with lead bullets.

Recently, the Lewis line has also been expanded to include kits for 12- and 20-Gauge shotguns. These have 5/16”-27 threads and are designed to be used with your standard shotgun cleaning rod. The rifle kits have the smaller 8-32 thread size for standard rifle rods. In all other ways, they are the same as the original design and will remove plastic wad residue and powder fouling with equal effectiveness. Now, no matter how much shooting you do, or how dirty you get your guns, you’ll have an ace in the hole with the Lewis Lead Remover as part of your cleaning gear.