The What & the Why: Breaking In A Gun – Should A New Gun Be Broken In?

There is disagreement on this subject. Some shooters say that every gun should be broken in before it is used. Others say that no guns need to be broken in. Still, others say that it depends on the type of gun or what it is going to be used for. In the end, it’s the owner’s decision as to whether or not a new gun needs to be broken in, but here are some things to consider when you are deciding.

Any type of gun can be broken in. It’s the choice of the owner although many different kinds of guns can benefit from it. It is particularly beneficial for a self-defense semi-auto handgun like this from Nighthawk Custom. (Nighthawk Custom photo)

There are really two reasons that a person may want to break in a gun. One is to improve or smooth the action or trigger. The other is to make the gun as precise as possible. So the first thing to consider when deciding to break in a gun or not, is what the gun is going to be used for. If it is going to be shot only for fun and to just enjoy shooting it, precision and functioning may not be that important. On the other hand, one or both of those things might be very important to the shooter.

Many precision rifle shooters insist that for the best precision out of a rifle designed to shoot small groups that the barrel must be broken in. And many precision barrel manufacturers agree. But there are some people who say that it makes no difference for any rifle.

The main reason the owner of a precision bolt rifle like this Nighthawk Custom Tactical Rifle might want to break the gun in is to reduce the size of the groups. It can also make the bore easier to clean. (Nighthawk Custom photo)

It is nearly universally accepted though that the most important attribute of a self-defense gun, whether it be a rifle, shotgun or handgun, is that it works reliably each and every time the trigger is pulled. It’s a lifesaving tool. And breaking in such a gun is probably a smart idea. The reason is that taking the time to break in the gun makes it more likely that the gun will work every time.

Breaking in any gun is basically shooting it enough that any small machine marks or rough spots left from the manufacturing process are smoothed out or completely eliminated. This makes the gun run more smoothly, shoot more precisely – meaning shoot smaller groups – and makes the barrel foul less. There are ways to do this. But even how to do it is an area of disagreement among shooters.

Maybe you have picked up a used gun sometime and worked the action, whether it was a rifle, shotgun, or handgun. You may have noticed that the action or trigger was particularly smooth with little or no rough spots. The trigger may have broken very cleanly, and if it was a double action trigger, the stroke was very even with no stacking or rough spots. Unless the gun had a trigger or action job, the reason it felt so smooth was because it had been shot a lot. It had been shot so many times that the rough spots where metal rubs against metal had been polished so it was smooth. Breaking in a gun is an attempt to gain this smoothness – or in the case of a precision rifle, make the groups smaller – more quickly.

Getting sub-minute-of-angle groups like this consistently is one reason many owners break in precision rifles. (Doug Larson photo)

For a precision rifle, the break in process is similar no matter who you talk to. There may be some differences in the procedure, but the basic idea is to shoot the gun, clean the bore and shoot it again. An added benefit to breaking in the barrel for precision is that doing so will usually result in the barrel fouling less and being easier to clean. That’s because the little burrs or rough spots that scrape off bullet material when the bullet passes through are eliminated or smoothed out so they scrape off less material. Because there are fewer rough spots and those that are left are not as sharp, it is easier to separate the bullet material and remove it from the bore when the bore is cleaned.

Here’s where the big disagreements are in breaking in a rifle bore. It has to do with how many shots to fire before cleaning the bore and how many times the procedure should be repeated. Some barrel manufacturers have recommendations on this subject. Broughton is one of them, and Broughton recommends to first clean the bore before shooting with a good bore cleaner and then to run a lubricated patch through it. Then dry the bore and the chamber with clean, dry patches. Then shoot one round. Then clean the barrel again following the same procedure. Repeat this process until the bore fouling is minimal. Broughton says that with its barrels that will take from about six to 20 rounds.

Some shooters follow a different procedure and will shoot several rounds before cleaning. An example is shooting five rounds, then cleaning. Then shoot ten rounds and clean. The options are nearly endless and every shooter will follow the procedure he or she likes.

Lapping a rifle barrel can help also. Lapping consists of running an abrasive paste or compound through the bore repeatedly with a tightly fitting patch until the bore is smooth or the shooter is satisfied. There are compounds made specifically for bore lapping. Valve lapping compound can also be used. The lapping compound manufacturer often supplies directions. And lapping can be done to not only bores, but also to slides and frames, rifle bolts, and any other parts that rub together. If the owner does not want to do it, a gunsmith can usually be hired to do it.

When breaking in a gun, or cleaning it for any reason, quality solvents and cleaners should be used. For one thing, using them makes cleaning easier because the chemicals are designed to dissolve fouling.  (Doug Larson photo)

Don’t count on barrel break in to always result in smaller groups. Sometimes, a barrel just won’t respond to breaking in, no matter what. But most shooters agree, and many manufacturers even recommend, that a semi-automatic action of any type be broken in to increase reliability. With a self-defense gun, especially a semi-automatic, whether it is a rifle, shotgun or handgun, breaking in the gun is probably a very good idea. It’s probably a good idea with a revolver also because it can make the trigger pull and the rotation of the cylinder smoother.

But the object of breaking in a self defense gun is not to produce more precision. It’s to make sure it will work smoothly, and work every time the trigger is pulled. Again, it’s a life saving device and it needs to work every time.

Breaking in a semi-automatic handgun, rifle, or shotgun for smooth functioning is pretty simple and straight forward. And most people agree on how to do it, but not everyone agrees on how many rounds need to be fired. First though, don’t just take the gun from the box and start shooting. I know it is hard and may hurt a bit for American males, but READ THE MANUAL. I know, you’ve been shooting all your life, and know all about guns, and they all work the same way. But just because you have been shooting all your life, doesn’t mean you know all about guns. And all guns do not work the same way.

Manuals contain information about the characteristics of the gun that may not be the same for other guns. So, you might learn something different about your new gun. And the manufacturer may actually have written procedures about breaking in the gun. For example, the Kahr PM9 manual says that the gun should be broken in and that it should take about 200 rounds. Some manuals are silent on this subject. So people have their own rules of thumb. Some say 100 rounds should be fired. Others think 500 rounds is the magic number. Still, others say 1,000 rounds. And if the gun is really tight or has a lot of machining marks, it could take more rounds.

Some manuals, like this one from Kahr for its line of small self-defense guns, sometimes specify that the gun should be broken in and even tell you how many rounds is recommended.  (Doug Larson photo)

Before shooting any new gun, clean it. Manufacturers test fire guns before shipping them. And most manufacturers do not clean the gun after test firing. The test fire might be only a few rounds, so the gun is not very dirty, but it should still be cleaned. For one thing, it gives the gun a better chance of working right if it is cleaned. And even though the gun may appear to be lubricated, it might not be. Sometimes the oil put on the gun when it leaves the factory is there to reduce the chance of corrosion and is not necessarily the best oil for lubrication. So, clean the gun and then apply a good lubricant. Cleaning will also remove any leftover metal fragments or grit from the manufacturing process that could damage the gun.

After making sure the gun is well lubricated, take it to the range and shoot it. For break in purposes, you don’t need the most expensive ammunition. Just make sure it is quality ammunition and not some stuff of unknown origin like reloads you bought from some guy at a gun show. Factory ammunition from a reputable manufacturer goes through quality testing so it is more likely to work correctly without squib loads or other problems.

When breaking in a gun, don’t use cheap ammunition of an unknown origin. Use quality, factory ammunition like these loads from Black Hills and Hornady, even if you are using only full metal jacket or lead ammo. (Doug Larson photo)

One more thing. If you are going to use a semi-automatic that feeds from detachable magazines, get more magazines. It’s not unusual for a gun owner to have five or six, or more, magazines for each gun, especially if the gun is used for self-defense. You see, magazines are disposable items and are often the cause of malfunctions. Magazines wear out. The springs can become weak or the magazine lips wear or bend. While springs can be replaced and magazine lips may be bent back into the proper shape, the lips may not hold that shape or the right dimensions. So get extra magazines when you buy the gun, because down the road, the manufacturer may discontinue making them and they may become hard to find.

So once you get all the magazines you want, it’s a good idea to number them or mark them some way so that you can keep track of them and will recognize one that may not work. And break in the magazines along with the gun. First, clean the magazines and then lightly oil them so they won’t corrode. Don’t use much lubricant. It should not puddle or drip and all excess should be wiped off with a dry cloth. Lubricant not only attracts dust and lint, but it can also contaminate and ruin ammunition.

Once the magazines are prepared for breaking in, use them in rotation during the break in period so you will know they work with the gun, and so any rough spots will get smoothed out.

That’s the what and the why of it.

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About the author: Doug Larson is a former Contributing and Field Editor for Guns & Ammo magazine, Doug Larson’s articles have appeared in many top firearm publications. He has completed hundreds of hours of firearm and self-defense training provided by some of the finest world class gun fighting instructors and schools. He has experience with handguns, rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, machine guns and other crew served weapons. He reports on the tactics, techniques and procedures developed by real life gunfighters and taught at the best martial arts schools. This information is passed on to the reader to stimulate thought and a desire to get the best training possible.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Big Al 45 November 7, 2020, 10:51 am

    For years I argued for the idea of a break in period on any gun, especially a carry piece.
    I found through the years that once one has put about 500 rounds through a gun, it should be relatively reliable for carry.
    And I have made good on others belief that if it doesn’t function right out of the box, sell it.
    I have purchased many Auto’s for a great price when folks didn’t want to be bothered with a ‘break in’ period.
    ANY mechanical device is prone to some sort of issue initially, because as humans we are NOT perfect, therefore our works are not perfect.

  • Griffendad November 2, 2020, 9:05 am

    When you take that semi apart, even expensive ones, it’s amazing the number of burrs and rough spots there are if you take your time to really look it over.
    I like to leave the barrel, guide rod and spring out then run the rails manually for a minute or two, check for friction, see where the rub and wear is and stone that and the rails with some light oil. When the slide just falls off after tipping the barrel down, I’m happy.
    Get those burrs out or it will compromise your steel.

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