December 15th, 2018

Stainless Steel & Corrosion Resistance — What You Need to Know

Benchmark stainless steel barrel barrels match
Most modern match rifle barrels are stainless steel alloy. These are from Benchmark Barrels.

Though some grades of stainless are more corrosion-resistent, ALL varieties of stainless steel can rust if they are not handled and stored properly.

Some folks feel that they don’t have to worry about rust and corrosion on stainless steel barrels, actions, and other components. That’s not really true. “Stainless” is a bit of a misnomer. First, there are different types of stainless steel alloys, with different degrees of rust resistance. 300 series stainless is more corrosion resistant than the 416 stainless commonly used in barrels. The composition (by percentage weight) of 416 stainless is 0.15% carbon, 12-14% chromium and the rest iron. 416 stainless steel lacks the roughly 10% nickel content that makes the 300 series more corrosion resistant in atmospheric conditions. But because 416 handles pressure better and is easier to machine (than 300 series steel), 416 stainless remains the better choice for barrels.

stainless steel barrel Techshooter

Though some grades of stainless are more corrosion-resistent, ALL varieties of stainless steel can rust if they are not handled and stored properly. Forum reader Kells81 observed: “Wanna see some rusted stainless? Go to the big “C” brand store in Ft. Worth. Every stainless gun they have on the used gun rack is rusted.” Tom Easly of TRE Custom explains: “Sweat is very corrosive. Sweat and blood will rust many stainless steels. I hate to handle my guns or drip on them when I sweat. It really helps to just wipe them good with a wet rag, dry and wipe on a light coating of gun oil. I think most stainless barrels are made from type 416 stainless, and it is generally pretty corrosion resistant, but not when exposed to sweat, blood, or chlorates (corrosive priming), and some other electrolytes.”

Forum member Jacob, who is studying materials science at LSU, provides this technical information: “The basic resistance of stainless steel occurs because of its ability to form a protective coating on the metal surface. This coating is a ‘passive’ film which resists further ‘oxidation’ or rusting. The formation of this film is instantaneous in an oxidizing atmosphere such as air, water, or other fluids that contain oxygen. Once the layer has formed, we say that the metal has become ‘passivated’ and the oxidation or ‘rusting’ rate will slow down to less than 0.002″ per year (0.05 mm per year).

Unlike aluminum or silver, this passive film is invisible in stainless steel. It’s created when oxygen combines with the chrome in the stainless to form chrome oxide which is more commonly called ‘ceramic’. This protective oxide or ceramic coating is common to most corrosion resistant materials.

Halogen salts, especially chlorides, easily penetrate this passive film and will allow corrosive attack to occur. The halogens are easy to recognize because they end in the letters ‘ine’. Listed in order of their activity they are: fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, astatine.

These are the same chemicals that will penetrate Teflon and cause trouble with Teflon coated or encapsulated o-rings and/ or similar coated materials. Chlorides are one of the most common elements in nature and if that isn’t bad enough, they’re also soluble, active ions. These provide the basis for electrolytes. The presence of electrolytic solutions can accelerate corrosion or chemical attack.”

CONCLUSION: Stainless steel barrels and components won’t rust nearly as fast as blued steel, but you still have to take precautions — particularly removing sweat and corrosive salts from the barrel. Also, don’t let moisture build up inside or outside of the barrel. We recommend wiping your barrels and actions with Eezox, or Corrosion-X after each use. These are both extremely effective rust-fighters that go on thin, without leaving a greasy residue. (Eezox leaves a clear finish, while Corrosion-X has a slightly waxy finish.) Also store your guns in Bore-Store bags when the guns go in the safe. Bore-Stores wick away moisture, and the synthetic fleece inner surface is treated with rust-fighting chemicals. Bore-Stores also protect your guns against dings and scratches.