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Cleaning your firearm is part of routine maintenance — it’s often necessary to keep your gun functional. Gun cleaning may sound complicated, but it only requires a few tools, some simple guidelines, and patience.
Guns are complex machines comprising several moving parts. Shooting is also a dirty activity.
When you fire a gun, the burning propellant produces high-pressure expanding gases to propel the bullet. It also produces what are called combustion products. This takes the form of fouling — propellant residue that sticks to metal surfaces — and lead particles from the bullet and primer.
Some guns can continue to fire reliably without regular cleaning. Others need regular maintenance to perform optimally. To ensure that your weapons perform at their peak, it’s best to strike a middle ground. If you don’t, your gun may experience stoppages or other failures — leaving you with an inoperable gun when you need it most.
Gun Cleaning 101
Unless you shoot black powder, you probably don’t need to clean your guns after every shooting session.
Blackpowder, being hygroscopic, attracts moisture that can cause rust. You may also want to clean your firearm immediately following the shooting of ammunition with corrosive primers. These primers contain corrosive salts that, when combined with moisture, form acids.
However, most cartridge ammunition contains smokeless powder, and most primers in the U.S. are non-corrosive. You’ll often find Soviet surplus military ammunition has corrosive primers, but not NATO.
Cleaning serves multiple purposes to the discerning gun owner. The first is function. When propellant residue, lead fouling, and gun oil accumulate in a firearm action, they can interfere with cycling or the free movement of component parts. This can cause sluggish operation, short cycling, or binding.
Another is appearance. While some like the look of a dirty gun that shows signs of use, others prefer to keep their weapons in immaculate condition at all times. You don’t need to aim for either extreme, unless you’re a collector and want to preserve your guns as display pieces.
If you own firearms for self-defense and hunting, you need to focus on periodic maintenance to ensure reliable functioning. This includes cleaning the barrel and action and proper lubrication.
When disassembling your firearm for routine maintenance, always clear it first. For a semi-automatic pistol, remove the magazine, then check the chamber by retracting the slide. Don’t reverse these steps.
If you’re unsure of its status, insert your little finger into the chamber for a tactile inspection. The same principle applies to semi-automatic rifles, such as the AR-15 pattern, but substitute “charging handle” for “slide.”
Always remember rule 1: “All guns are always loaded. Even if they are not, treat them as if they are.” The underlying principle here is to never assume that a firearm is unloaded. This has caused far too many preventable accidents.
Before you clean your firearm, designate a workspace that’s clean and free from clutter. You need ample light, and since you are working with cleaning chemicals, your workspace must be well-ventilated.
Wear safety glasses or goggles, since many gun parts, such as pins and springs, are under tension. During disassembly, they may fly in unpredictable directions. Gloves can also help protect your skin against toxic lead residue and chemical cleaning products.
Cleaning Tools and Supplies
Whether you decide to assemble a cleaning kit from scratch or buy one, you need certain tools and other supplies for thorough cleaning and lubrication. These include the following:
This lets you clean the barrel using patches, either dry or soaked in a solvent.
A bronze-wire brush, specific to the caliber of your firearm, allows you to scrape away lead and copper fouling and powder residue from the bore.
Nylon utility brush
A nylon cleaning brush allows you to clean or scrub the articulating surfaces of a firearm’s action, which can include the fire-control group of a rifle or trigger mechanism of a handgun. You may decide to brush these surfaces dry or use a suitable solvent.
This is a spear-like attachment for your cleaning rod. You use this to pierce the patch, pushing it through the barrel.
Use lint-free cotton or flannelette square or circular patches primarily to clean the bore, but you can also use them on other surfaces.
Cleaning solvents for the bore and action allow you to scrub away and dissolve carbon residue.
Guns need lubrication to ensure reliable operation of reciprocating parts with close tolerances.
Part by Part Cleaning
Begin by disassembling your firearm. Ensure the weapon is unloaded with the magazine removed. A field strip may only be necessary, but if your gun fell in mud or sand, or hasn’t been cleaned in years, you may want to detail strip it.
For more information about disassembly, consult the owner’s or operation and maintenance manual for your gun. If you no longer have the manual, you may be able to find a digital copy online or order a replacement from the manufacturer.
Clean the barrel from the chamber to the muzzle using the bore brush. This removes hard carbon and metallic fouling first.
Take one of your cleaning patches and soak it in the cleaning solvent. Attach it to the cleaning rod and push it through the barrel from chamber to muzzle. You can then scrub the barrel out with the bore brush again.
Follow this by pushing a dry patch through with the cleaning rod. Repeat this with as many patches as necessary. You may notice, if you haven’t cleaned a gun before, that it takes several patches to wipe away all the fouling. This is normal.
After you’ve cleaned the barrel, don’t neglect the action. The slide, bolt, and other working parts essential to the firearm’s operation need cleaning and lubrication as well. Your utility brush comes in handy for this, as does a lint-free cleaning cloth.
After cleaning the action and the inside of the receiver (if applicable), you can use an applicator to place drops of oil at various points. Follow the manufacturer’s guidelines if available. Otherwise, consider lubricating those parts that are in direct contact with each other, such as the slide — including slide rails — the frame, receiver, hammer, outside diameter of the barrel, and so on.
If your firearm is semi-automatic, the magazine is essential to its self-loading operation. Take care to disassemble and clean the magazine from time to time. Be careful not to use any cleaning or lubricating products that may damage or deactivate cartridge primers.
The Final Word
Clean guns can remain functional, free of rust, and pristine in their appearance. To keep your guns clean, acquire some basic tools and cleaning chemicals. Always consult the manual for your firearm, if you have it. Follow firearm safety rules diligently.
Once you have the equipment and know how to clean your firearms, how frequently you follow these guidelines is up to you. A good rule is to clean it after every use, or twice per year if you don’t shoot it frequently.
A clean gun will serve you well, regardless of the circumstances. While you don’t need to clean your guns every day for them to function, it’s worth taking the time to properly care for them.