Gun Lubricant History: WWII & The Emergence of Newer Lubricants
With such tremendous evidence of the incredible effectiveness of Sperm Whale oil, along with the reverence many have for it, one may be left wondering why industry and governments haven't gone to great lengths to create synthetic whale oil. Lives are on the line, right? There are two very important points to note on this.
The first is that we actually did create synthetic whale oils - dozens of them, and you personally are likely to be using them daily. Government and industry invested heavily in the 1940s-1980s intensively developing and experimenting with alternatives 'esters', which are the relatively long-chain fatty molecules Sperm Whale oils are comprised of. It was a critical national need, so extensive that even automatic transmissions were designed around it.
One of the first viable alternatives was discovered in the form of a nut located in the American Southwest - Jojoba. Jojoba oil is nearly identical to Sperm Whale oil, so much so that its farmers benefited from national security-oriented farm subsidies for decades because of it. And presently, industry has created an incredible array of synthetically manufactured esters to choose from that are vastly superior in performance to Sperm Whale oil - including common, every-day Automatic Transmission Fluid. To understand just how phenomenal whale oil was, automatic transmissions using early synthetic ATF experienced ten times the number of failures in 1975 than they did before the 1972 ban on whaling. Synthetics can be complicated science, yet new synthetic esters are developed regularly.
While there are a few potential hazards with using ATF on some firearms (detergents and dyes on some plastics, fine finishes, and wood, mainly), were you to have the choice between Sperm Oil and ATF to bet your life on in keeping your gun running, choose ATF. There are dozens of tribological and practical reasons for this, and it works exceptionally well on a gun's friction surfaces. Just know that it is designed for the high speed hydrodynamic lubrication regime automatic transmissions run in, where parts generally move in the same direction for very long periods of time, which are very different dynamics from the short, reciprocating, sliding actions of guns. ATF uses a mix of detergents, dispersants, and surfactants to aggressively strip deposits away from friction surfaces, along with the properties of esters themselves, which 'crawl' and help get under contamination - this helps in transmissions, but denies a shooter the massive reliability and anti-wear benefits of boundary lubricants, such as Molybdenum, which ATF, detergents, and esters will generally attack as contaminants. Tribologists have to balance base-stock selection and additive content against boundary additives with exceptional care.
Jojoba - the oils produced from its nuts are virtually identical to Sperm Whale oil.
The second item to note on Sperm Whale oil replacements - which also relates to ATF, Jojoba oil, and other esters - and why they are inferior gun lubricants, is quite simply that they are oils. And none other than John Garand understood this, all the way back in the 1930s.
John Garand - machinist, precision tool maker, legendary weapon designer.
The reliability of the Garand-inspired actions are legendary - it's arguable that the M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, and M14 were the most inherently reliable self-loading infantry rifles American forces have ever fielded. Only relatively recently, roughly 50 years after the M-14 was retired from general service, are we seeing built-in, engineered reliability that may meet or exceed Garand-like levels, with some piston-driven platforms being fielded by Special Operations Forces, and the Marine Corps' new Infantry Automatic Rifle, the M-27.
The legendary reliability of the Garand designed and inspired weapons comes in large part from the fact that John Garand was both a machinist and precision tool maker long before he started work on his weapons. On the design side, a critical advantage he had was that, in having an intimate understanding of available precision tooling, he could design parts around the capabilities and dynamics of those tools and machines, creating some thoroughly elegant works.
However, Garand also benefitted extensively from advances in lubrication occurring at that time. Beginning in the mid to late 1920s, synthetic lubricants and modern, multi-component greases began to emerge. Consequently, with
modern greases, Garand was able to take advantage of grease's longevity and endurance on long, relatively large, unsealed friction surfaces, which would stay put even after hundreds or thousands of cycles, depending on the grease formulation and operating conditions. This was a substantial advantage over what John Browning had access to, having passed in 1926. Even the tremendously reliable product of John Thompson's Auto Ordnance factory, the Thompson Submachinegun, or Tommy Gun,
was designed in 1918, before these important lubricant advances. Browning and Thompson were limited to oils for maximum reliability, which is problematic for many stated reasons in machines like guns. Interestingly, one of the common attributes found in machines using oil outside of the gun world - reservoirs - was incorporated into the Thompson in a fairly innovative, elegantly simple way: felt pads. The pads were to be manually oiled with a relatively large, high-quality external oiler as part of maintenance, soaking up the oil, and were fixed on a clip that held them against the bolt as it reciprocated, acting as a form of internal oiler to keep the bolt lubricated. Unfortunately though, even Sperm Whale oil had its heat limitations, and the Thompson manuals noted that the felt-pad oilers were not sufficient for prolonged firing.
As admirable as the quality of these Thompson oilers are, as well as those issued to Vickers and Maxim machineguns, they reveal an utterly glaring flaw in the use of oil in unsealed, sliding machines: relatively massive consumption of lubricant. Even normal, sealed systems in general using oil utilize substantially larger quantities of lubricant than those using grease - often multiple times more. And this is compounded by the unsealed, sliding, high-heat nature of guns. A volume of grease similar to the volume of oil in a single Thompson oiler would service a 12-person squad of Garand riflemen.
The fundamental superiority of grease in unsealed, sliding systems literally allows a full order of magnitude less lubricant to be needed than those using oil in firearms. Grease simply stays put, and under such dynamics, explained in greater detail in the Lubricant Formulation & Regimes section, grease is much more effective at keeping moving parts separated in machines like guns. These and other reasons are why the fundamentally reliable Garand-inspired actions used it.
So what happened to the shooting world? If engineers and lubrication maintenance personnel would almost never use oil in an unsealed, sliding system, how did "gun oil" become so culturally normal for shooters?
The Thompson oiler, at right, was a fine tool holding roughly 1.25 oz of oil. Systems using oil consume a lot more lubricant than systems using grease - especially when unsealed.
"It it spins, oil it; if it slides, grease it. That's a one hundred year-old lubrication maxim still taught to people who work on machines, and John Garand understood it well."