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As with firearms in general, cleaning your shotgun is important for keeping it both presentable and operating at peak performance. Cleaning a shotgun is a relatively straightforward process that any shooter can learn.
Whether your shotgun is for hunting, clay shooting, or personal protection, cleaning is an essential part of shotgun maintenance.
It doesn’t matter what type of action your shotgun uses—self-loading, pump-action, lever-action, bolt-action, or break-action. Every shotgun needs to be cleaned from time to time. You should learn how to disassemble the gun and, most important, how to clean a shotgun barrel.
Shotguns with smoothbore barrels are less laborious to clean than rifled barrels. In the absence of rifling, there are no grooves into which lead fouling and propellant residue can accumulate.
That being said, cleaning the bore is still advisable.
If you want to fire sabot slugs, this requires a rifled shotgun barrel, for which the cleaning process is the same as any rifle. While the discarding plastic sleeve—the sabot—protects the rifled bore from lead, it is still exposed to the carbon of burnt gunpowder.
How to Clean a Shotgun
Regardless of whether you’re cleaning a pistol, rifle, or shotgun, you should have a clean work surface available. No clutter and nothing that could mar the finish of parts that you lay on it. As you’ll be working with cleaning solvents and gun oils, the space should be well ventilated.
If you’ve purchased or assembled your cleaning kit, you should have it on your bench, dining table, or other work surface. While the type of cleaning tools and supplies that you’ll need for cleaning your shotgun overlap, to some extent, with those designed for handguns and rifles, some are necessarily specialized. These include brushes for cleaning the bore and chamber, which are not interchangeable.
You should begin by clearing your shotgun. If your shotgun is a single- or double-barreled break-action type, you can simply rotate the opening lever and pivot the barrels downward, checking that the chambers are empty.
In a pump-action shotgun, retract the slide handle and inspect the chamber, both visually and physically, by inserting a finger. In addition, check that the follower in the magazine tube is visible, which indicates that the magazine is empty.
If your shotgun is semi-automatic, retract the charging handle and perform the same inspections as for the pump-action shotgun. However, if you own a semi-automatic shotgun fed from a detachable box magazine, always remove the magazine first before opening the breech to inspect the chamber.
Finally, ensure that there is no live ammunition near your gun.
The cleaning process must necessarily begin with the disassembly of your firearm. Once your shotgun is disassembled, the first cleaning action depends on the action type.
If you own a pump-action shotgun, after removing the barrel, bolt/bolt carrier, and magazine tube, spray the inside of the receiver with a cleaning solvent or wipe the inside with a solvent-soaked lint-free cloth. Spray or soak the bolt in the same cleaning solvent and set it aside. Alternatively, you can place the bolt in a dish or tray.
Examine the action bars and slide handle for fouling. If necessary, wipe them down using a lint-free or microfiber cloth after spraying them with solvent.
The process for how to clean a shotgun barrel is simple. If your barrel has a choke tube, unscrew and remove this. It may interfere with your ability to scrape carbon fouling from the muzzle end of the barrel.
It’s customary to clean the barrel of a firearm from the breech to the muzzle. In rifles, this is mostly done to avoid damaging the delicate barrel crown. However, it’s still sound advice in the context of smoothbore shotgun barrels.
Attach a gauge-compatible phosphor-bronze bore brush, dipped in your cleaning solvent of choice, to the end of a cleaning rod and insert the rod into the barrel from the breech end.
Always ensure the bore brush you have is compatible with the barrel’s diameter. This is no less applicable to shotguns than handguns and rifles. If you own a 12-gauge shotgun, use a 12-gauge bore brush.
Use the brush to scrub the inside of the bore, depositing the solvent. Either using the bore brush or attaching a separate head, insert the cleaning rod with a cleaning patch into the breech end and push it through until it exits the muzzle. Remove the patch from the cleaning rod from the muzzle end. Repeat this exercise until cleaning patches leave the muzzle in more or less the same color that they entered with.
Once your bore is sufficiently clean, you can begin cleaning the rest of the gun. As you’ve been cleaning the barrel, the solvent that you sprayed or otherwise deposited inside the receiver has been breaking down carbon fouling and other gunk.
You can use a cleaning brush to scrub the inside of the receiver, including any articulating surfaces that interface with the slide action bars. However, if you’ve cleaned your shotgun recently or haven’t fired it yet, wiping it down with a cloth should suffice.
The action bars of the slide handle reciprocate when you cycle the action, which causes friction. In the Remington 870, both the receiver and the action bars are steel. However, in the Mossberg 500 series, the receiver is aluminum.
Friction between the action bars and the receiver can cause additional wear due to the hardness difference, so it’s especially important to keep these bars lubricated. Apply a few drops of oil, spread over the entire surface area.
Clean the inside diameter of the magazine tube using a cleaning patch. It’s best not to use cleaning oils or solvents on the inside of the tube, as they may accumulate and attract dust or dirt.
The process for cleaning a semi-automatic shotgun doesn’t differ significantly from that of cleaning a pump-action shotgun. The primary difference will be the disassembly procedure.
Break-action shotguns are comparatively simple to clean. Your priority should be the chambers and bores.
It’s important to remember not to oil your shotgun excessively. Don’t spray or pour a bucket of oil into the action. Light oiling, one or two drops, followed by wiping with a cloth, is usually sufficient. If you own a shotgun with a wooden stock, you don’t want oil seeping out of the receiver or action and entering the wood grain.
Lightly oil the trigger mechanism if you’ve removed it from your pump-action shotgun. You can add a drop of oil to the hammer and one to the hammer spring. In some trigger mechanisms, you may need to let the hammer move forward to access the inside.
Frequency of Cleaning
The cleaning process for your shotgun doesn’t have to be complicated. Unless you fire your shotgun extensively, and even if you do, cleaning the barrel — breech to muzzle — the interior and articulating surfaces of the receiver and the trigger mechanism should be enough to keep your firearm in proper working condition.
Unless you’re firing blackpowder ammunition, which is hygroscopic — i.e., it attracts moisture and, thus, promotes rust — you don’t need to clean your shotgun after every shooting session.
Cleaning your shotgun is part of routine maintenance and responsible firearms ownership. The shotgun is no less or more complicated to clean and lubricate than any other firearm.