Back when I was in full time NS, the cleaning of weapons was a mundane, time-consuming, daily chore. Between the 7 troopers in a combat section, we’d have around seven small arms (M16S1), couple of grenade launchers (M203), couple of light automatics (Ultimax100), two GPMGs, and a heavy machine gun (Browning .5 HMG).
Carbon residue would get stuck in the crevices and barrels of the weapons, which is the real reason why we were really really reluctant to fire our weapons during training. Of course, this was marketed as ‘ammunition conservation discipline’.
Every day when we were in camp, we’d be cleaning our weapons. When we were in the field, we’d clean our weapons. Nothing to do? Clean weapons. If there were to be a war, it’d have to have been put on hold because we were cleaning our weapons.
One of the hardest, and somehow most satisfying part of cleaning a weapon was the barrel pull through. This entailed putting a folded piece of flannelette (variously mispronounced as flannel-lite, fannelite and fantalite) in the eye of the pull through rod, and pulling the rod through the barrel of the weapon.
The thicker the flannelette, the more carbon residue it extracted. But the thicker the folded piece of flannelette, the harder it was to pull the entire thing through. Sometimes, you had to recruit your buddy to help hold your weapon while you pulled the rod through.
Four or five pulls, then another one with a new piece of flannelette usually did the trick, but not without a considerable amount of elbow grease.
Then one day, a platoon mate came to camp with a can of WD-40. He said it would work wonders with the weapons cleaning. Of course, we tried it. It worked. It cut down cleaning time by about 10 million years. We were free.
Queues at the canteen and payphones became longer. We spent more time and money on snacks, cigarettes and contact with the outside world. It was obvious that the fragile fabric of soldierly cohesion and solidarity was being threatened.
They banned the use of WD-40 in weapons cleaning. They then spread such disinformation as “WD-40 will cause barrel explosions and blow your pretty face off when you fire the weapon. Your buddy standing nearby will get it too”. Of course, that didn’t work, because one or two foolhardy troopers went ahead to try it, risking life, limb and the pretty face of their buddy standing nearby, firing their weapons uninhibitedly, knowing that they’d either die or have a lot of free time on their hands because they never had to spend so much time cleaning any more.
I had my car radio tuned to the BBC World Service yesterday morning, and listened to the most interesting story about WD-40, and how it evolved from a rocket scientist’s solution against missile corrosion, into one of the world’s most ubiquitous brands, but at the same time remaining unchanged as a product that always delivered beyond expectations.
I did not know that 20 years ago. Now I do.