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 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.
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.
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.
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.