Polishing Brass and Rifle Parts

By Bob Clayton
Co. C, 2nd U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars  

    The care and cleaning of one’s clothing, accoutrements, weapons and quarters was a necessary part of a soldier’s regular routine in order to prolong the service life of his gear and was also a source of pride to the soldiers. Saturdays were ordinarily dedicated to this kind of cleaning in preparation of Sunday inspections, and one can imagine the sight of soldiers here and there throughout the camps busily blacking their leathers and polishing their brass.

    The Civil War letters of a Regular in the 12th U.S. as well as the modern craftsman at Colonial Williamsburg are two sources that offer us practical insight into the methods commonly used at the time of the Civil War for polishing brass and other metal parts. For those that haven’t read “The Civil War Letters and Diaries of Sgt. Charles T. Bowen, 12th U.S. Infantry,” published by Butternut and Blue, this book provides a wonderful insight into the daily activities of a Regular during the Civil War. Bowen’s letters are very descriptive and full of great detail. His letters during the early years of the war underscore the army’s penchant for polishing anything that could possibly be polished. In his letters he talks about rotten-stone, sweet oil, buff sticks, button brushes, etc.

    Bowen’s references to the use of the buff stick in his letters compelled me, in a resent trip to Colonial Williamsburg, to ask their trades people the techniques they used to polished metal. I spoke with the two gunsmiths and three of the jewelers while there. They would start with a course compound of soft brick or pumice, then rotten-stone, and finally jewelers rouge to bring the metal from a rough finish to a highly polished finished. These compounds where typically applied with a buff stick coated with a layer of olive oil (“sweet oil”). They said that the polishing compounds could also be applied with a rag and mixed with water as well, which is the way most of us have been shining our brass with rotten-stone. Adding a buff stick to one’s kit is something to think about and would be easy to make. The buff sticks used by the gunsmith in Colonial Williamsburg were about five to six inches long, by about ¾” by ½” with a two inch long or longer piece of leather glued flat to one end and sometimes wrapped over the tip for polishing both flat spots like lockplates and for getting into tight corners. In one of Bowen’s letters he asks for a piece of leather two inches by fourteen inches long to make a buff stick out of. The intention here may be to cover a larger stick for polishing the bayonet and barrel of his musket (although prohibited by regulations) or perhaps to make several smaller buff sticks. In addition to rotten-stone, Bowen mentions soft brick and emery paper as polishing materials as well.

    In the “Rules for the Management and Cleaning of the Rifle Musket, Model 1855, For the Use of Soldiers” published in 1862, the manual states “The practice of supporting the barrel at each end and rubbing it with a strap or buff-stick, or with the ramrod, or any other instrument, to burnish it, is pernicious, and should be strictly forbidden.” And goes on to say “Burnishing the barrel (or other parts) should be strictly avoided, as it tends to crook the barrel, and also destroy the uniformity of the exterior finish of the arm.” The manual also states that “In cleaning the arms, great care should be observed to preserve the quality essential to service, rather than to obtain a bright polish.” Therefore the use of the buff-stick should not be used on the barrel and only used on other parts such as the lockplate. According to the manual, “Fine flour of emory-cloth is the best article to clean the exterior of the barrel” and says that “For the mountings, and all of the iron and steel parts, use fine flour of emery moistened with oil, or flour of emery-cloth. For brass, use rotten-stone moistened with vinegar, or water, and keep free from oil or grease. Use a hard brush, or a piece of soft pine, cedar, or crocus-cloth.”

    Below now are a few of the more relevant quotes on this topic from Bowen’s letters. Fort Hamilton is Bowen’s camp of instruction. The last quote is my favorite and an ideal one to end this article with.

Fort Hamilton, August 25, 1861
It’s no small matter to keep our rifles clean and bright, for after being out on guard or worse yet, on patrol in a stormy time it is as much as we can do to keep them from rusting, and if there is a spot of rust as large as a pin head it will consign the owner to the guard house so we are very careful of them and spend an hour or two each day in scrubbing and rubbing until you could see your face in them.

Fort Hamilton, August 30, 1861
We only have to buy a few things ourselves, such as sweet oil to clean our guns, brushes and blacking, and so and pay $1.00 per month for washing.

Fort Hamilton, September 22, 1861
Each one has to pay for all the little things that they need, such as soap, towels, combs, brushes for cleaning the brass concerns about the uniform, and a cloth brush, shoe brush and blacking, sweet oil and soft brick for the gun.

Fort Hamilton, November 13, 1861
I have got to have a shoe brush and blacking, a button brush, and a clothes brush, and you could send me also in the same a bottle of sweet oil and lump of “rotten-stone,” and a piece of buck skin, about two inches wide, by 14 inches long, to make a “buff stick” of, I should like it. The oil and stone are necessary but a “buff stick” may be made of calf although it is not as good.

We have to oil our guns every night and in the morning rub it off with a cloth and then use the “stick” until you can see your face in the “lock plate,” barrel, and in fact on all the iron in sight.

Falmouth, Va. February 10, 1862
We have had to stand one grand Bridage inspection and the usual Sunday inspection.

Harrisons Landing, Va. July 24, 1862
Out of my $40 after paying my debts and purchases, shoe brush, some paper, envelopes, tobacco, cleaning tools and clean colored shirt and so, I have left $25…

Sharpburg, Md. October 8, 1862
I visited the 14th New York this A.M. and saw many I knew at home. I thought we were about as dirty and forlorn a set as could live, but our camp is a parlor compared to theirs and our men clean. I don’t believe as dirty a shirt could be found in the ranks of our whole brigade, as I saw on the back of a captain in the 14th … Now a private may have some excuse when on march for a dirty shirt or even lice, but when in camp he can keep his shirt clean from dirt and keep the vermin from carrying him away bodily. But for a commissioned officer in camp is beyond belief.
I must clean up my gun, sword and bayonet, brasses and so and wash my shirt and fix up generally for if we go on a very long march we may not have a chance to wash up again for some time.

Sharpburg, Md. October 11, 1862
If we do not get pay soon I shall have to have a dollar sent to get some emery paper and chalk for my gun and brasses and some ink and blacking for my belts and boots for we have to keep as bright and shining out here in the field as we did in quarters.

Henry’s House,Va. March 26, 1863
There is a review of our Division tomorrow, and we shall have to work like Beavers to clean up, so as to appear on parade like “Regulars,” which means in other words, like neat, clean, disciplined soldiers.