Ed’s Red

By Jeff Cochran
Floral City Firearms

Ed’s Red is infamous in the gun world as one of the best (THE best?) homemade bore cleaners and solvents.  It compares favorably to military grade firearm solvents and has a number of minor variations that have crept in over the years and as used by different people.

The Formula

Also available from Brownells if you don’t want to make your own.

The base formula for Ed’s Red is actually an old military mix, listed as Frankford Arsenal Nitro Solvent #18 in Hatcher’s Notebook (Julian Hatcher was the Chief of the Small Arms Division in the Ordnance Department and the Assistant Commandant of the Ordnance School for the US ARMY.  Every gun enthusiast can benefit from his notebook.).  The original mixture listed there is:

  • Acetone, 1 part
  • Kerosene (Pratt’s Astral Oil) , 1 part
  • Sperm Oil, 1 part
  • Mineral Spirits (turpentine), 1 part
  • To every 800 c.c. add 250g Anhydrous Lanolin

Since sperm oil, which is oil made from the spermaceti organ and blubber of a sperm whale, and hasn’t been used since the development of synthetic lubricants during WWII, is rather hard to get, automatic transmission fluid (ATF) such as the General Motors specification for Dexron is the current substitute.  Also, many users will leave out the anhydrous lanolin, which is about the only thing you won’t normally find at your local hardware or big box retailer.

So, for most users, a modern formula would be:

  • Acetone, 1 quart
  • Kerosene, 1 quart
  • ATF, 1 quart
  • Mineral spirits or turpentine, 1 quart

Mix together in a metal bucket and store in a metal, one gallon, gasoline can.  Most plastic gas cans work fine, but acetone evaporates rather quickly and can also dissolve many plastics if left in contact with them.  Since metal gas cans are tough to find holding less than five gallons, I use a new one gallon paint can from the paint or hardware store.  Label the gallon can well, then pour some into a half pint Mason jar with a metal lid for regular use.  Acetone is extremely hygroscopic, meaning it literally absorbs moisture, so you want to keep the exposure to air to a minimum.  You can literally mix this stuff up by the drum full and dunk entire firearms in it, but there are a few caveats to its use.

Basic use and short contact of this mixture with plastic firearms, such as composite stocks or pistols or even plastic accessories will not normally cause any issues. Likewise, short contact with most wood stock finishes causes no problems.  But beware, some painted surfaces can be easily marred by this, as well as many commercial firearm cleaners, so don’t go dribbling it on your kitchen cabinets or vinyl floors.  If you spill some, wipe it up immediately and give the surface a quick wash with soap and water.  As with any product, testing it in an inconspicuous location is always a good idea.

Use Ed’s Red the same as you would any gun solvent.  It is especially effective at cleaning bores and powder residue, as well as for lighter lead fouling.  It works wonders with corrosive ammunition deposits, though you’ll want to thoroughly clean with hot water first to dissolve the salts.

Variations

There is a variation that does well with copper deposits:

  • 11 ounces of basic Ed’s Red
  • 2 ounces of 10%-20% industrial strength ammonia
  • 2 ounces of Rustlick WS-11 cutting oil or suitable alternative
  • 1 ounce of Murphy’s Oil Soap

Household ammonia is usually 5%-10% so you often need a stronger version.  Your local hardware store will usually have 10% ammonia which works just fine.  Rustlick WS-11 is a great cutting oil, but you can usually find a quart size bottle of cutting oil, sometimes even less, at your local home improvement or hardware stores.  Murphy’s Oil Soap is probably under your kitchen sink, ask your spouse.  Many users will simply add 4 ounces of household ammonia to 12 ounces of Ed’s Red, which seems to work about as well though a little slower.  If you use ammonia, keep it away from optics, including your sunglasses.  It can dissolve the anti-glare coating.  As an extra bonus, Murphy’s Oil Soap is great for cleaning up old wood stocks that you don’t plan on refinishing or that you will rub a light coat of oil on.

Tips

Mixing ATF and acetone in a 50/50 ratio will give you some of the best penetrating oil available. Machinists Workshop Magazine did an extensive test and found this mix to be far better than WD-40 and even Kroil.

Jet fuel can be substituted for the kerosene, look for Jet-A if you try this, it’s much less flammable.  Most users will choose an odorless kerosene, as well as odorless mineral spirits.  Some users will substitute diesel fuel, or even biodiesel, for the kerosene with similar results.

Acetone can cause some people to have skin rashes and it will definitely dry skin.  Many users leave it out of the mix.  Acetone does most of the work in Ed’s Red, so leaving it out means a bit longer cleaning or more scrubbing.  The simple solution is to wear disposable gloves to cut down on skin contact.

Mineral spirits have gotten fairly high in price over the last few years, and generic paint thinner is basically just a cheaper version, so feel free to substitute it.

Mink oil is easier to find than the lanolin, buy the product in the tin used for leather.  Just scrape out a tin and dissolve it in the acetone, then mix Ed’s Red as usual.

Conclusion

Ed’s Red is a tested, time-worn formula for gun cleaning that has worked for many users over nearly the last century.  You can mix a gallon up for $20 or less, about what a pint of Ballistol or Break Free CLP costs.  Try some for yourself and see if you can convert some of your gun cleaner purchases into those to0ols and jigs you’ve really wanted.


14 Responses to Ed’s Red

  1. Awesome article!

    I’ve known about the 50/50 ATF/Acetone mixture (for about 2 years now) and have a small glass dropper bottle of it on the workbench (with a label on it). The rubber squeezer on the dropper has not dried out or dissolved from the acetone fumes. I make sure the bottle stands upright 100% of the time so the acetone doesn’t directly contact the plastic and especially the rubber portion of the dropper.

    I would like to add that Acetone and ATF do not emulsify, therefor I always swill/stir the mixture immediately before extracting any into the glass dropper tube so that extraction is close to 50/50. This helps to make sure you’re not getting more of one than the other, ie. a 70/30 mix, or whatnot.

    Does the ATF emulsify in Ed’s Red? Does it say something on the bottle like “shake well before using”? I wonder if the ATF emulsified in the original mixture (Frankford Arsenal Nitro Solvent #18), or if it was a “shake well before using” type of product?

    About 3 years ago I purchased a 1 gallon can of Ballistol on sale for $70 CAN. For the last 1+ to 2 years I haven’t seen it budge less than it’s retail price of $100 CAN. If it gets back down to $70 I’m getting another gallon.

    Ballistol is safe for use on almost everything. You don’t have to worry about ruining something (staining, disolving, etc) because you unknowingly dripped some Ballistol on it (unlike Acetone mixtures). I love the diversity and simplicity of Ballistol. So many uses for it that I just can’t “Break-Free” from Ballistol (will always keep some Ballistol around).

    Lots of great info in your article Jeff, thank-you! Very well written!
    Cheers

  2. I have used ZEP parts cleaner witch is red and it cleans bores squeaky clean and I have other products with different names but its the same as ZEP .

  3. ATF is commonly used in motors instead of a cleaner just before an oil change Put a pint in the full oil and run the motor (don’t drive it) for 5 min before changing the oil.

    So, it makes sense that it would work well in this formula.

    This mixture will be volatile, so make sure you aren’t mixing it in a garage with the door closed and heat on. Also recommend eye protection as well as those disposable gloves when mixing or pouring.

  4. A wistful question, but is there a less lethal formula? I’ve used Ed’s Red for decades, but my oncologist (yup – that happened) has forbidden me to handle most solvents. Is there something better than hot soapy water and vegetable oil that will keep me in this game a little longer? I am using commercial products now that appear safe, but they’re less effective.

  5. Now,my only question is: Does it smell as good as the OLD GI bore solvent? I still have some of it from 50 years ago but it’s getting low. Between that, Hoppe’s #9, and a sizzling steak, not sure which smells the best.

  6. I use a mixture of 50/50 kerosene and transmission fluid just to wash out burnt powder out of the action. I would never use Ed’s red not only because it can cause cancer but it will destroy plastic parts and stock finish.

  7. Wear solvent proof gloves and adequate ventilation with these solvents. They cwill be absorbed by the skin and lungs. Your liver has to detoxify these and remove them just like alcohol.

  8. I’m having a problem with separation. I was going to use this mixture to finish small batches as-needed (say, 4-oz.) by adding 3-parts of this mixture to 1-part acetone in a small glass bottle.

    However, one of the clear liquids separates. I’ve mixed 250ml of mineral spirits, kerosene, and ATF. Overnight, it separates, with a layer of clear liquid at the bottom about 125 ml in volume. The remainder floats atop this, having taken on a sickly, poison-pink color.

    Has anyone else seen this? Is it the ATF or one of the other ingredients? Using Deron IV ATF, kerosene heater fuel and odorless mineral spirits, all from Walmart. I’d hate to spend a lot more on experimentation, as the idea is to economize.

    Any ideas that don’t involve trying a half-dozen other brands of ATF? That would buy a lot of Hoppe’s.

    • Ray,

      Check out my first comment posted to this article (comment #1), if you have not already. It touches on two of your questions.

      My comment also suggests what I think is the best and safest product alternative in place of any deleterious/hazardous/harsh products. Ballistol may not be the most economical product to start with but in the long run it is!

      Hope this helps.

    • I’m no chemical engineer and I haven’t tried mixing this up, but chances are it is because the liquids are of different viscosity. Same thing as your oil and vinegar salad dressing. You can mix it but over time it naturally separates again. The trick is going to be just mix it up again before you use it…just like the salad dressing.

      Next time you want to make up a batch, try your local dollar store or thrift store. Sometimes they have cheap bottles of ATF. If you are friendly with your mechanic, you might ask him if he has a partial quart sitting around. Sometimes they top off something and have several partials sitting around. He might just give it to you if you tell him what you want it for. My dad used to do that for good customers who needed a little of this or that and he already had some open.

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