Ballistol has been a household name in Germany, Austria and Switzerland for more than 100 years. It’s less recognized in the U.S., but that’s not because of its lack of effectiveness as an all-purpose cleaning solution. The company didn’t begin to market it to consumers living abroad until the 1980s. Since then, cans of Ballistol have ended up in American gun owners’ cleaning chests and on their workbenches. What sets Ballistol apart from its competition is that it’s extremely efficient on nearly every kind of material, biodegradable, doesn’t contain ingredients considered hazardous by FDA standards, and its shelf life is unparalleled. While the debate about which gun cleaning solution is better can be endless, most users would agree that Dr. Helmut Klever’s oil is truly a miracle oil.
In 1874, attorney Friedrich Wilhelm Klever established the F.W. Klever Chemical Plant in Cologne, Germany, where he produced oils and greases. Twenty-three years later, he patented a process of producing a unique mineral oil mixture. “Mineral oils,” he declared in 1896, “possess the property of protecting iron and steel against the formation of rust, and of facilitating the removal of any rust that may have formed.” While extremely effective at preventing rust on iron and steel machinery, mineral oils were expensive and therefore used sparingly by factory workers. To remedy this, Klever created a cheaper oil that possessed all of the qualities of mineral oil without sacrificing the effectiveness.
In 1904, his son, Dr. Helmut Klever, a chemistry professor at the Technical University of Karlsruhe, developed the first multi-functional gun oil in history for the German Army. He called it “Ballistol” — combining the word “ballistics” with the Latin word for oil (oleum). The oil not only maintained metal and wood gun parts and leather gear, but it also could be used by soldiers to treat minor wounds and scratches. It’s hard to picture a soldier using the same oil he runs through his rifle’s barrel to also treat a wound on his arm or leg, but it worked. Klever filed a patent for the oil on December 22, 1905. Nothing existed on market that compared to his revolutionary concoction — or does to this day.
Two years after Dr. Klever introduced Ballistol, a German Army lieutenant praised the oil in the magazine Kriegtechnische Zeitschrift. The officer explained that after a rifle is fired, nitrate powder clings to the barrel’s inner wall. The residue immediately starts to corrode the steel and the barrel begins to rust unless it is thoroughly cleaned. Klever’s oil prevented this from happening better than any other oil sold. The oil also retained its rust protection even when exposed to a significant amount of water. This was critical to soldiers exposed to the elements.
In 1907, the chief engineer of the Vienna firm G. Roth published the result of an experiment he conducted to test the oil’s effectiveness against rust. After firing several rifles and pistols, he coated their barrels with Ballistol and let them sit for weeks. He returned and found them without a hint of rust. He also treated some badly rusted barrels with the oil and came back after several days. After wiping them down, he noticed the rust began to disintegrate. He repeated the process and restored the barrels to an acceptable condition.
The combination of antioxidants and medical oils keep Ballistol from hardening over time. Following the Second World War, the company ran a test with several rifles and shotguns. A firearms expert applied Ballistol to the guns, wrapped them with wax paper and stored them in a trunk. Twenty-five years later, the same individual opened the trunk and inspected the firearms. None had rusted, and the oil didn’t resinify. He also fired several rounds and didn’t experience a single malfunction. In 1985, a man discovered a bottle of Ballistol from the 1920s in the attic of his grandparent’s farmhouse. Amazingly, it had the same degree of purity as a brand-new can of Ballistol.
What Can’t It Do?
Still produced today, Ballistol is said to have more than 1,000 different applications. These include polishing silver and brass, bringing out the color and grain on finished and unfinished wood, and cleaning rubber, leather, most plastics and all metals. (Pretty much the only thing it shouldn’t be used on is suede.) In 2006, Ballistol introduced a modified version called Neo-Ballistol, which is used for veterinary and human applications. Today, the company now offers 80-plus different products.
Thanks to Dr. Heinrich Zettler, who became the managing director of the company after the death of Jenny Klever in 1989, the company has become a global brand. He stepped down in 2006, and his sons, Dr. Christian and Andreas Zettler now manage it. The company is still family owned and operated. Surviving two world wars and the demolition of its headquarters in Cologne, Ballistol has experienced its ups and downs. But it has persevered and continues to find a place in homes throughout Europe and North America.
“Ballistol-Klever-Olie voor het leger,” in Indisch Tijdschrift Onder, Acht en Dertigste Jaargang, No. 1- 6, ed. W. B. Oort (Batavia: G. Kolff & Co., 1907), 439.
E.V.G. “Ballistol, ein Rostschutzmittel bei Anwendung nitröser Pulversorten,” Zeitschrift Für Das Gesamte Schiess- und Sprengstoffwesen 2, no. 24 (December 15, 1907): 471-72.
“Improvement in Lubricants.” Paint, Oil and Drug Review 24, no. 15 (October 13, 1897): 24.
Schmid, Peter. Ballistol for Skin and Wound Care: Skin Wound Oil. Norderstedt, Germany: Books on Demand, 2018.
Von Pasdach, Oberleutnant. “Die Beseitigung der Nachschläge in den mit Nitratpulver beschossenen Gewehren durch das Ballistol-Öl Klever,” in Kriegtechnische Zeitschrift (Berlin: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, Königliche Hofbuchhandlung SW, Kochstraße, 1906), 421-26.