Why Use Vinegar (acid) To Remove/Clean Acidic Black Powder Residue?


Foto Joe
May 11, 2011, 02:04 PM
I posed this question on another thread (BPC Reloading Lessons (http://www.thehighroad.org/showthread.php?p=7304901#post7304901)) when the topic started to drift.

We all use what works for us, there are very few wrong answers when it comes to cleaning a Black Powder firearm.

It seems that there are numerous folks out there who use Windex with vinegar or just straight vinegar/water solution for cleaning both guns and fired brass. Given that when water/moisture is introduced to the by-products of combustion from Black Powder, salts/acids are formed, to me, it would make more sense to use a base (baking soda solution for instance) to clean than it would an acid (acedic acid/vinegar).

It's my understanding from reading somewhere that the majority of commercial cleaning products lean more to the higher ph (alkaline or base) than not. This means that there is a major disparity between using something like Windex with vinegar versus Dawn dishwashing soap and hot water.

Somebody kindly explain to me and others what the basis for using an acid to remove acidic residue is. I'm not inquiring about other methods for cleaning, simply the reasoning for using vinegar or a product that contains vinegar to clean Black Powder guns etc.

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May 11, 2011, 02:12 PM
Continued from the other thread......

I'd be curious as to what the gas you're getting is. I'm guessing that mixing all the by-products of combustion together with vinegar might give you some hydrogen sulphide (h2s).

I'm not sure what the gas is but it is notable because I typical do this soaking in a closed tupperware container. The expanding gas bloats the container as it soaks. Clearly, the sulfur is a component because the gas does have the distinct smell of rotten eggs.

As to the use of a vinegar/water solution to clean BP residue off of brass casings it is something that someone somewhere on one of these forums suggested. If I wasn't soooo lazy or had enjoyed college chemistry more I'd probably take the time to figure this out. However, some smart fella is going to jump in on this discussion at some point and enlighten us all.

May 11, 2011, 02:20 PM
Here's a very illuminating thread about it, particularly post #9 that mentions the Frankford Arsenal.

vinger and brass??


Foto Joe
May 11, 2011, 02:53 PM
the gas does have the distinct smell of rotten eggs

What you're describing is an indicator of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas (H2S). H2S is also a byproduct of the combustion of Black Powder.


Thanks for the link, you come up with some good ones (Ballistol MSDS). The thread doesn't answer the question, but it does demonstrate that this method whether valid or an old wives tale has been around for a while. I too have heard the warning regarding ammonia on brass. I used Windex with ammonia "once" to clean brass when I first started. It turned it a real purdy blue.

Phantom Captain
May 11, 2011, 03:13 PM
Granted, I don't use the vinegar/windex deal on blued guns either. I too have unblued a gun using just vinegar and don't understand cleaning a blued gun with it.

I do however use it on my BP shot brass as I said in the other thread. I experimented myself when I read about it and found that shells that were only soaked in water came out of the tumbler dingier than those that I soaked in vinegar and water prior to tumbling. Those came out shiny new so since then I have stuck with it.

May 11, 2011, 03:56 PM
The practice of soaking in vinegar to clean brass does have some controversy which has been discussed in scores of threads. There's some contradictory information, but here's why some folks do use weak vinegar solutions. While some of the reasons appear to be based on tradition, vinegar is regarded as an all around general purpose cleaner probably because it's been shown to work.
I suspect that while corrosive BP salts can be washed away with water, there are other kinds of deposits that require something stronger, and a weak vinegar solution seems to fill the bill.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Like most metals, it tarnishes: the metal combines with oxygen and/or water to form oxides, and it gets less shiny, or green, or brownish. If it's been touched, it will also accumulate a film of oil and minerals and dirt from the skin, which minerals etc. may hasten oxidation. Many metal oxides are insoluble or sparingly soluble in water. For example, if you put a tarnished penny in water, nothing happens: the tarnish doesn't dissolve off.

There are at least two easy at-home ways to shine metals: with a mild abrasive, or with acid. Abrasives such as baking soda or cleaning powders will simply rub off the layer of oxide, leaving the shiny metal visible beneath. So you can shine a penny with Comet, if you want. Or, if you're obsessive like me, you can shine your pots and pans with a baking soda paste.

The other popular way to clean pennies is to stick them in vinegar. Why? Because the acid reacts with the metal oxide and solubilizes it (by exchanging the hydroxide for the acid's counter-ion: Fe(OH)3 + 3H(CH3COOH) --> Fe(CH3COOH)3 + 3H2O, for example). This is also why you can clean pennies in soda (pop for you Yankees): it's acidic.


Next are 2 quotes from the same thread:

Cartridge companies use dilute acids to clean brass during manufacture.
Weak acids are way better on brass than alkaline substances.
Acids will react with the corrossion and grime on brass more than the brass .
Alkaline substances will react with the corrosion , the grim and the brass case all at once.
Ammonia and other amines , sulfur dioxide and nitrites is poison on brass and will harden the brass and speed up stress corrosion also. It is said to also react with zinc in the brass case.

Natural acids are better than ammonia or any alkaline cleaners .

Sulfamic acid is widely used to clean copper and brass . In a dilute warm solution it will clean cases quite well . It is the basis for denture cleaners. Sterident for one.
However you don't heat it to over 140 degreess F. because some of the acid will hydrolyse to stronger acids like Sulphuric....
I finally got the recipe for cleaning (not de-zinc-ifying, brass) as follows.

1/4 cup vinegar
1 Tbsp salt
1/8 oz.(up to 1/4cup) dish liquid(somone specified which brands to be avoided)
1/2 gallon water
Immerse & agitate brass 3-4 minutes
Dump mixture when done, rinse in clean water
May then chage water, agitate then dump water
In warm weather, can then spread on concrete until primer pockets are dry
(brass warm) or, can put in oven on cookie sheet @ 100F for 10 Mins. or less, 'til dry.;)


Vinegar contains a weak acid that is unlikely to harm the human skin. This weak acid and other chemical compounds in the vinegar combine with the minerals left behind by “hard” water and lift them right off the chrome or brass. Vinegar will not harm the finish of chrome or brass because it does not react chemically with these materials.


Brass polish:
Brass, copper and pewter will shine if cleaned with the following mixture. Dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of white distilled vinegar and stir in flour until it becomes a paste. Apply paste to the metals and let it stand for about 15 minutes. Rinse with clean warm water and polish until dry.


Vinegar is truly an all purpose cleaner:


The following in-depth thread discusses some of the controversies of cleaning with ammonia or vinegar. If used properly, vinegar is much more desirable:


Foto Joe
May 11, 2011, 08:32 PM
Unbeknownst to me, apparently this isn't a "New" subject. Shows how often I get off the Black Powder forum.

Thanks to arcticap this thread seems to be getting somewhere. I've spent the better part of the last hour reading the links provided. The consensus that I'm getting is that using the "NRA Mix" 1pt water, 1 cup white vinegar and a small amount of detergent (not Dawn), 1 tsp salt doesn't hurt the brass as long as you don't forget it in the solution. Note: According to one post, Dawn contains some amount of ammonia.

Contrary to my way of thinking alkaline/base solutions such as baking soda and water just aren't effective. The conclusion that I'm going to come to at this time is:

A vinegar solution for cleaning Black Powder fired brass is okay to use. I will use the "NRA Mix" the next time I pre-clean brass for my tumbler. By the way, I wash my brass before putting it in the tumbler because...I use the same media for smokeless brass. I don't want acidic residue in the media which can be transferred to the brass and then to my extremely expensive Lee dies.

I was once told by a boss that every time you learn something new, your brain grows a new wrinkle. If this is true, what happens when someone gets Botox injections?? Just a thought.

Jim Watson
May 11, 2011, 09:04 PM
In the first place, black powder residue is not acidic. The main solid compound is potassium carbonate which is slightly basic. I use Windex/vinegar for first round cleaning of my .40-65 and it works quite well. Although I think that anything mostly water with some surfactant for penetration will work, too.

May 11, 2011, 09:58 PM
So the "NRA mix" is 1/3rd vinegar to 2/3rd water whereas I was at about 1/4 vinegar to 3/4 water. Honestly, I kind of pour in the vinegar into the water until it feels about right thus my ratio is my best guess. It ain't rocket science. Ultimately, it is the tumbler that polishes up the brass.

In the first place, black powder residue is not acidic. The main solid compound is potassium carbonate which is slightly basic.

This goes a long way to explaining why I'm creating Hydrogen Sulfide Gas (H2S) when I dump the spent brass into the vinegar/water solution.

According to: Randy Wakeman (http://www.chuckhawks.com/blackpowder_pyrodex.htm)

"Blackpowder is a comparatively inefficient powder. One gram of blackpowder gives you 718 calories of heat, 270 cubic centimeters of gas, and about half of a gram of residue. Upon ignition the sulfur burns, producing hydrogen sulfide, and the saltpeter decomposes, releasing free oxygen molecules, sustaining combustion, and combining with the carbon of the charcoal to form carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Heat energy is released as the gas expands. Sulfur will vaporize at 832.28 F. The principal gases formed are carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen. About one third of the gas created is nitrogen. The solid products are potassium carbonate, potassium sulfate, and potassium mono- and higher sulfides, and carbon. The white smoke and fouling of blackpowder comprise the solids that are produced upon combustion. In one test, 82 grains by weight left 42 grains of solid residue. It should come as no surprise that about half of the fouling produced by blackpowder is typically left in a front-loader's barrel."

May 12, 2011, 02:36 AM
perhaps using baking soda would work well for black powder. it is good for scrubbing stuff, and the acidic black powder residue might be removed if it reacts with the baking soda via a fizzing reaction. i think i will try that!

May 12, 2011, 06:34 AM
The main reason I don't use vinegar in my BP firearms is it etches steel...and that can't be good!

Carl N. Brown
May 12, 2011, 08:21 AM
I thought the vinegar wash was for use with a specific BP substitute that left alkaline residue in brass: a quick wash with winegar solution to neutralise the residue, rinse with water before the acetic acid in the vinegar attacks the brass itself.

Query: I have used ammonia-based "Windex" cleaner on gun barrel. On brass cartridges vinegar, "Windex" and (gasp) Brasso with exposure of maybe five - ten minutes and a final rinse, brush, wipe and polish in mildly soapy water, maybe 50 to 60 brass cartridges per month. Yeah, soaking in vinegar or ammonia is bad on brass. But does such short exposure for cleanup followed by a wash in mildly soapy water give acetic acid or ammonia time to damage below the surface? (I would never dump ammonia based cleaner or even non-ammonia based "brass polish" in my son's tumbler media.)

May 12, 2011, 09:12 AM
For many years i have used Windex with vinegar, now Windex Multi-Purpose Cleaner, on my BP firearms. The stuff is about three percent acetic acid: Windex with vinegar works equally well with BP and all the BP substitutes, except for BlackHorn 209. You can sometimes see it fizz as it eats up the base that makes up some of the BP residue.

i own several antique BP guns and they also get cleaned with Windex with vinegar. The stuff has never harmed the bluing on any of my guns. It might do that if the gun were not oiled.

At the range the bores of my BP rifles are swabbed between shots using Windex with vinegar. Before leaving the range the bores get swabbed with a saturated patch and left that way. The revolvers are sprayed using Windex with vinegar. That makes cleanup much easier at home. After cleaning my guns get a light oiling with Rem Oil or Militec 1. Windex with vinegar is the easiest way there is to clean an inline breechplug. Just spray the stuff on and brush the crud off.

Many CASS shooters use the stuff and so does Mike Venturino, former BP editor of Shooting Times magazine. i'll stick with Windex with vinegar.

Cop Bob
May 12, 2011, 05:19 PM
Interesting thread... I am just now getting into the BPCR thing.. I am glad to hear that so many common household items can be used...

The Vinegar thing has me a bit confused, I used to service a lot of SCUBA regulators, and vinegar is the only way to go with getting a nickle plated or chrome plated brass regulator looking like new.. however I have seen it dissolve alum, and etch steel finishes with long term exposure.. My question is, I guess,...

How long of an exposure to the vinegar solution...
I am assuming that we are talking about a plain water rinse...

Those who use vinegar to clean the firearm. Have you ever noticed damage or changes to the finish from solution that may have seeped in under fore-grips, or between wood and metal, or down deep in the works if you did not tech strip the gun for cleaning.. ????

When it comes to coal burners.. I am a true noobie..

May 21, 2011, 10:47 AM
Ammonia is very damaging to steel and vinegar on steel is not good either...it etches immediately...you may not see it with the naked eye but it's there...it's only after prolonged exposure do you see it, but by then it's too late.
Vinegar solutions are fine though for cleaning brass casings.
Hot (or even cold) water is all that's needed to clean a BP firearm...why do folks insist on making it so complicated?? :banghead:

Foto Joe
May 21, 2011, 11:20 AM
Hot (or even cold) water is all that's needed to clean a BP firearm...why do folks insist on making it so complicated??

I originally intended the thread to be about brass but I didn'nt word it the way I should have on the OP. Oh well sometimes when we are set adrift we happen upon things that we otherwise would have missed.

Vinegar Solution For Cleaning Brass - Update

Well....I tried it for the first time a couple of days ago on some 45 Colt & 44-40 brass that had been sitting for a while after being loaded with Black Powder, about 100 rounds +/-.

I used one cup of white vinegar and two cups water. I skipped the salt and soap mainly because I forgot, I'll try to remedy that next time.

The first thing that I noticed is that when I dropped the brass into the solution it "fizzed", I wasn't expecting that. Apparently there is something in the residue which is a base/alkaline, I stand corrected.

As far as how clean it got after 15 minutes in the bath, it's about the same as Dawn dishwashing soap and a baby bottle nipple brush. The difference is I'm not standing there with that nipple brush going through each and every case. I did note that I did have some water beading up on the brass due to probably bullet lube. This wouldn't have happened with Dawn and we'll see if adding some White King soap next time will eliminate this. I'm not really concerned about a little bullet lube other than it might cut down on the life span of my tumbling media, which by the way, I tend to use until it is almost unrecognizable.

Preliminary Un-Scientific Conclusion

The vinegar solution is probably easier with about the same result. Both methods have a less than desirable odor according to the spouse but she claims that the vinegar has less "hang-time". Also, I've had issues with the BP residue in the water affecting my hands when I'm "nipple brushing" all that brass, almost like a light burn if you know what I mean. At least with the vinegar my hands aren't in the soup so to speak.

May 22, 2011, 01:09 AM
Well, I've never used straight vinegar, but I do use Windex with vinegar. It cleans the fouling out better than anything else I've tried. It makes cleaning a BP gun easier than cleaning a smokeless gun.
I first read about it in the early 90s in a Guns and Ammo article written by Mike Venturino.
I've never had a BP gun rust from being cleaned with Windex with Vinegar.

I have used a 50/50 mix of vinegar and household hydrogen peroxide to remove lead fouling from stainless steel guns. It's so easy, it feels like cheating.
I wouldn't use it on blue guns because it will remove the bluing.

The amount of vinegar in Windex is so little, I doubt it will etch the steel.

I've tried everything I can get my hands on, to clean my BP guns. Windex with vinegar is the only one that I haven't had problems with bore rusting after cleaning.
It also seems to be very good for cleaning smokeless guns after firing corrosive commie ammo.

May 22, 2011, 01:43 AM
Nothing cleans corrosive salts better than water. Everything else is in the old wives tale category.

May 22, 2011, 06:09 AM
I have read quite a few threads on this. According to the chemists that posted the vinegar has no effect on the corrosive salts. It does however clean the rest of the fouling out very nicely. The water will clean the salts. Vinegar is used to artificially age a gun to an antique finish so I would not leave it on bluing for very long.

Foto Joe
May 22, 2011, 10:52 AM
Vinegar is used to artificially age a gun to an antique finish so I would not leave it on bluing for very long.

Case in point:


I really did mean to do it to this gun. However, this is what 15 minutes of white vinegar will do to the bluing. Now, we'll see what kind of patina we can get to come out. I shoot this gun more than all the others combined.

The brass looks polished in the photo but in reality it hasn't been touched in over a year.

Aren't we all
May 22, 2011, 12:06 PM
Like dissolves like?

Carl N. Brown
May 23, 2011, 09:14 AM
FotoJoe #16 The first thing that I noticed is that when I dropped the brass into the solution it "fizzed",

Notice that myself using vinegar as a neutralizing bath for black powder substitute brass cartridge cleaning. (Reaction to carbonate residue?) When the fizzing stops, I put the brass in hot soapy water.

I have no doubt that hot soapy water and a little more elbow grease works too, but getting the brass as clean as possible in the shortest amount of time, with minimal exposure to vinegar/ammonia, is my goal. Leaving corrosive residue (or strong cleaners for that matter) on the brass will shorten the life of the brass. I usually clean twenty-five rounds rifle and twenty-rounds pistol brass per BP match in a seven-month season, and just like to get it done thoroughly and quickly the evening after the match. I have been leaning toward Triple Se7en as a easy out (requires water only) but still have Goex, Elephant, Pyrodex RS and P in my reloading supply locker.

May 28, 2011, 10:52 AM
Maybe I'm just old-fashioned - I prefer Luddite, myself - but I clean my cap-and-ball revolvers with plain old warm water. I fill a pan with water, and have a wire basket strainer in the water. As I detail-strip the pistol I drop each small part in the strainer. The big pieces - cylinder, frame, barrel, etc. go in the pan.

I scrub each small part as I take it out of the strainer, and place all of the parts on a towel. I then use a cleaning rod with a patch jag on it, and scrub the bore and chambers. I follow this with a patch soaked in Ballistol, leaving a film of Ballistol in the bore and chambers.

As I reassemble the action, I coat each small part with Ballistol, making sure each part is dry first. I coat the threads of all screws with Crisco, and liberally coat the cylinder arbor with Crisco, as well as putting a thin smear of the stuff on the recoil shield before putting the cylinder in place.

After the revolver is assembled, I wipe down the exterior with a thin coat of Crisco, and put a drop of Ballistol in places, such as the loading ram pivot points that I can't otherwise reach.

So far this regimen has worked for me. No rust.

I do not use any petroleum lubricants anywhere.

I recently disassembled and cleaned a revolver that had had it's internal parts lubricated with petroleum grease last time it was cleaned after firing several years ago. The petroleum grease had converted into a sticky tarry substance that was difficult to remove. I had to add dish detergent to my water to scrub that goo off!

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