How Often Should I Clean My Handgun?

By Bob Campbell published on in Gun Gear, How To

The more I test and use handguns, the more respect I have for the operating reliability of these machines. Tolerances held by Kimber, Colt, Glock, Ruger, Smith and Wesson, SIG, and CZ are excellent. When we fire these handguns on the range, we should have every confidence that they will fire time after time without any type of problem. After all, many of these handguns are based on service pistols that were designed to function in horrific situations.

Bob Campbell shooting a pistol

Test firing and practice are essential. Maintenance follows.

The Colt 1911, as an example, is famous for operating when soaked in mud or snow. The SIG P226 came out on top in a rigorous test in which 228,000 cartridges were fired in a grueling program. Just the same, these handguns need maintenance. They need cleaning and lubrication. Many will run dirty, but they will not run dry.

If a handgun isn’t cleaned properly, eccentric wear will impede function. Normal wear is simply even wear. The finish is worn and the pistol becomes worn as it is used. The springs eventually wear and need to be replaced. The bore becomes worn. Eccentric wear is different.

The finish or the handgun’s parts are gouged by foreign material. Dirt, grit, and unburned powder make for eccentric wear. If the tolerances are such that good accuracy is guaranteed, the pistol simply will not be as accurate if the operating mechanism is filled with powder ash from firing. Lead buildup is even worse.

The question that is often asked is how often should we clean the handgun? The answer really depends upon the firearm. .22 caliber rimfire handguns should be cleaned most often. Due to the powder used in this caliber, the .22 is the dirtiest cartridge in common use. Few .22 handguns will go more than 300 rounds without a malfunction if they are not cleaned.

Fieldstripped SIG Sauer P Series pistol

The SIG P series is easily field stripped.

A modern 9mm self loading, firing good quality factory jacketed bullet loads, may go several thousand rounds before function begins to become sluggish due to the buildup of unburned powder—but we really don’t wish to abuse our firearms. Even handguns that will perform well without cleaning at a high round count still demand lubrication.

Revolver springs seem to never go out of whack, as they are not compressed when in storage. Self-loading pistols should have their recoil spring changed every 3,000 to 5,000 rounds in the case of the 1911 .45 at a similar event with the Glock, SIG, Beretta, and other quality self-loaders.

We all know of handguns that have been going since World War II without changing the springs, but this simply isn’t optimal performance. We purchase high-end pistols so we will not have to worry about reliability, true, but maintenance is part of every firearm.

View down the barrel of a pistol

This is a nicely clean and mirror polished barrel.

The Browning, Ruger, and Smith and Wesson .22s are recreational firearms and cleaned as needed. When the chamber begins to look cruddy and the bolt seems greasy with lubricant and powder ash, I clean the MKIII. When the pistol is clean, lubricant is applied for function. When powder ash is present there is a muddy soup. When you go to the range you will lubricate the handgun more heavily because you may fire hundreds of rounds of ammunition. A carry gun is best served with a thin application. I fieldstrip, wipe down, and lubricate the carry gun after every practice session. It gets a thorough field strip and inspection every 500 rounds or so. When you are faced with a critical incident, the events have gotten out of control and there are many factors beyond your control. One thing you can control is that the handgun will be clean, ready, well lubricated, and in top firing condition.

Field Stripping

Owner’s manuals usually have good information on field stripping the handgun. Field stripping simply means removing the slide from the frame of the self-loading handgun and then separating the barrel, spring, and recoil guide from the slide. Revolvers usually do not need to be field stripped at all, although you will need to learn to remove the cylinder from a single action revolver for proper cleaning.

A professional will learn detail stripping, in order to properly maintain the trigger action, but a hobbyist has no need to do so. Most agencies have an armorer to maintain issue firearms. If you seek to modify an issue handgun, let’s hope you and the Chief are on a first name basis.

REar view of a pistol barrel showing unburnt powder

This is a dirty barrel! In addition to affecting accuracy, dirt and grime can cause certain parts to wear prematurely.

It is quite easy to damage the ejector, extractor, or firing pin through attempting to disassemble the firearm without knowledge of the correct procedure. As an example, it is easy enough to field strip a Series 70 1911. The firing pin simply slips out after removing the firing pin stop. A modern Series 80 with a firing pin block is another matter.

Some pistols have blind holes and other variances that really make a difference. There is only one correct way to do things and that means study. Something as simple as allowing a spring to launch across a room may not be serious, but small parts may take flight and not be found.

As a rule of thumb, the better quality firearms are simpler. As an example, Smith and Wesson revolvers follow a template that hasn’t been changed in many years save for an upgrade to a transfer bar ignition. Less expensive clones of the Smith and Wesson have small parts that are easily lost, and which do not make sense such as springs in blind holes on the sideplate that complicate disassembly. On the other hand, Ruger has made the revolver simpler, more durable, and has taken the SR 1911 automatic and permanently attached the plunger tube. This results in one less item of concern in this venerable design. Take each handgun as a problem unto itself, and be completely familiar with the design and take down. Take down and disassembly is found in several tiers of difficulty.

semi-automatic pistol spring with broken shock buffer

Check your springs often. The shock buffer shown came apart and could have ended the pistol’s function.

Possibly the simplest to take down and clean are the Beretta 92, SIG P226, and Walther P 1-type self loaders. Unload the handgun, press a takedown lever forward and move the slide forward and you may perform routine maintenance. The CZ 75 is a little more complicated and the 1911 even more complicated, although not difficult. The smaller the handgun, the more difficult in some cases as downsizing parts results in design compromise. Depending on the handgun, the difficulty in fieldstripping may be a deciding factor when choosing your handgun.

When you begin to care for the handgun, get in the habit of setting aside a designated work area. The cleaning materials you use can be dangerous in some instances, although the primary concern is the strong smell. This odor is more pronounced in a small work area. A well ventilated area is important. You are dealing with chemicals that have certain properties intended to cut through lead and powder deposits.

A heavy plastic covering over a table is a good idea. Even a trash bag will work well. A wastebasket will serve to handle your cleaning patches when you are done with the chore. Cleaning is necessary and should be learned properly.

Two revolvers, one with the cylinder removed

Revolver chambers must be cleaned, and you must understand how this is achieved.

Before you clean, be double certain the handgun is unloaded and the ammunition isn’t in the same room. Many of the chemicals used in cleaning, kill the ammunition’s priming compounds so keep the material used to clean the handgun well separated from ammunition. Double-check the handgun’s chamber after unloading. Be certain the magazines are unloaded; they will need attention as well.

Wear eye protection. There will be droplets of solvent thrown in the air as you vigorously clean the barrel. Do not clean over an expensive table cloth! Field strip the pistol into its basic components. If cleaning a revolver, simply swing the cylinder open. Carefully remove the stock or grip panels before cleaning if you are going a bit deeper than fieldstripping.

The bore of the handgun is where most of the cleaning is needed. Powder and lead deposits are found in the grooves of the barrel. It takes a bit of effort to clean the bore even if you have used only full metal jacketed bullets and do not use lead. There is nothing wrong with lead bullets, they are both accurate and economical, but they do leave more deposits in the barrel.

Modern hard cast bullets such as those available from Magnus Cast Bullets are very hard and not really similar to factory swaged lead bullets. I use such bullets exclusively in my handloads. I run the brush into the solvent bottle and get it sopping wet.

Magnus hard-cast pistol bullets

Magnus hard-cast pistol bullets offer relatively low leading in the barrel.

I run the brush through the barrel several times, loosening the deposits in the bore. A mixture of solvent and powder residue will run from the barrel. I switch to cotton patches next. These patches are run through the barrel. Some of the first patches will be black with powder ash. Keep going until the patches come out clean.

If the deposits are very heavy, you may move back to the bore brush. If fairly light but consistent, then soak the cotton patch in solvent and run it through as well. But the last patch should be a dry patch. The final patch should have a light coating of gun oil. This helps preserve the bore from rust.

The procedure is modified with the revolver. While the barrel is cleaned in the same way each individual chamber of the revolver cylinder is cleaned. The area at the chamber step often collects powder and lead residue and should get particular attention. The recoil plate of the revolver gets dirty and may impede function.

When cleaning the self-loader, wipe the slide rails and long bearing surfaces. The feed ramp and the outside of the barrel should be clean. Check the cocking block and locking lugs. The cocking block is the section of the slide toward the rear that cocks the hammer during recoil. The locking lugs are the part of the barrel that locks into the slide.

Look for collected grit, powder ash, and lead. The firing pin channel collects powder ash and even brass particles, so clean the firing pin tunnel occasionally. The breech face of the self-loader gets dirty and must be addressed as well. This area should be cleaned often. You do not have to bathe the handgun in solvent, but be certain that you use an adequate amount in cleaning. Once you have cleaned the handgun, it should be lubricated.

The self-loading pistol should be lubricated on the long bearing surfaces where the metal comes into contact. Some handguns—such as the 1911—need to be well lubricated, the Glock needs a single drop of oil. Heavy lubrication is needed when shooting a match or during long practice sessions. Lighter lubrication is needed for carry. After cleaning and lubrication, reassemble the handgun and wipe the slide and frame off with a clean rag. And that’s it. Get it down pat and repeat as necessary, and you will have long service from the handgun.

Do you have a tip or suggestion for handgun maintenance? How about a question for the other readers or the author? Share your tips, questions, and answers in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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Comments (41)

  • CRAIG BUTELO

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    Thoughts on ultrasonic dip tanks?

    Reply

  • Shadow

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    Gun should be cleaned every time before you put it away after use.
    Springs left compressed do become weaker, newer springs last much longer than older ones with the better alloys.
    after a thorough cleaning I put white lithium grease on a Qtip then wipe all metal to metal contact moving parts, on AR 15 i wipe down entire BCG , it makes it much easier to clean next time after shooting, I don’t need a scraper to remove carbon.

    Reply

  • Mike M.

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    I have been using Frog Lube for over a year now on all my hand guns and rifles, it seems to work great. Residue does not stick to the metal as much as with oil. Gun is easier to clean and I brush on a small amount of frog lube as a solvent which also retreats the metal. I do not see any adverse wear on the guns and don’t have to worry about getting oil on my clothing with my carry guns. The frog lube soaks into the pores of the metal and then comes back out with heat, you can actually feel it.

    Reply

  • BUURGA

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    Fine article. But the revolver spring comment is a common misconception. Springs DO NOT lose strength through prolonged compression. They lose it through use (compression/reset.

    Reply

  • Damian

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    I carry a colt officers model stainless .45 it gets relubed and a patch with light coat of oil run down barrel unless i have been to range and fired the pistol about once every other month and i check for anything may be loose ,missing etc. i need this pistol to work . I also change the ammo out in the loaded mag in the pistol all the time as oil does run down into the mags overtime being carried vertically i throw those rounds in my range ammo bag and put new ones in periodically .I i have found my colt needs very litle maintenence unless i fire thousands of rounds through it i had it rebuilt with all ED BROWN custom parts about 3 yrs ago at SSK IND. here in Ohio and it runs like a champ .I have carried this same pistol over 20 yrs now along with a back up and i know everytime i pull it out it will fire and work with a little TLC done every few months .

    Reply

  • Bob M

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    This article totally ignores the use of solid lubricants — very bad!
    I use moly powder !

    Reply

  • Deplorable Robert

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    Just keep in mind that oil collects and holds dirt. I carry a Glock. After brushing the barrel then a dry patch ( no solvent needed ), I use an old toothbrush to clean the slide contacts ( four points ). I also push the firing pin out fully and wipe with a dry patch. I use a dab of gun grease on the four points on the lower where the metal is, and wipe off any excess globs. Using the patch that I wiped the excess grease off with, I very lightly lube the contact areas off the barrel that contacts the slide. I never lubricate the barrel inside with anything. After 8 years, the barrel still looks brand new, and shoots as such. The only thing needing replacement is my night sights, which barely glow green anymore. Next thing to be replaced is the sights, and the Gen 3 guide rod, to a duel spring, 18 or 20 pound springs. Glocks rock!

    Reply

    • M40

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      I used to shoot PPC and some pin & plate matches at a club in Boston. There was a guy in his late 70’s there who used a Glock 17. He’d been running a couple hundred rounds a week through it for more than a decade. Some quick math said he was somewhere over 100K rounds.

      I asked him what kind of maintenance he’d done over the years, and he said he was sure to clean it every time he’d been out shooting. He said that as soon as he got home from the range, he’d field strip it down to the 4 major parts and drop them in the dishwasher.

      We all had a chuckle over that, but he said he was serious. When asked about lubrication, he said he simply shook any excess water out and spritzed a little WD40 in the upper before reassembly.

      Reply

    • Deplorable Robert

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      I never thought about a dishwasher cleaning! But, maybe as long as there’s no detergent used. Vinegar maybe?. Don’t know. Definitely would need the WD-40 to keep the rust/ oxidation from forming, I’d imagine. I doubt I have shot100,000 rounds,as the G32 ammo is too expensive to go shoot 200 or 500 rounds at a time.
      I do handload, but brass is even expensive, powder, bullets,primers,etc.
      Thanks for the reply M40.

      Reply

    • M40

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      The ‘WD’ stands for ‘Water Displacement’. (originally used by the military as a water displacer in key parts of ICBM systems). It works great on some guns to keep moisture from attacking the mechanism without too much oil buildup to attract dust and gunk.

      I couldn’t say what kind of detergent/dish soap his wife used, but it didn’t seem to harm his Glock at all.

      Reply

    • Robert Duncan

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      As Deplorable Robert says: “Only a dab of grease is needed”. I use wheel bearing grease at 4-points with a toothpick.

      Reply

  • Ken

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    Great article! Far too often the basics are forgotten or overlooked I have been shooting handguns since my familiarization range day with a 1911 while I was in the Army. the only thing I might add would be giving whatever holster you are using a visual once over and a cleaning with saddle soap for leather and soap and water for nylon/ cordura. Holsters are part of the whole weapons system, treat ’em like your life might depend on ’em!

    Reply

  • Bud Elliott

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    BS. The gun should be cleaned after every use. Within a small time window. If never used it should be cleaned and oiled once a year. Or two.

    Reply

    • jeff

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      Sorry but no. The military with their clean enough to eat off weapons learned that they were wearing out the guns cleaning them in the 80’s.

      Reply

    • Adam

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      BS again. It only matters when it will be shot the next time, and where and for how long it will be stored.

      Reply

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