As a young man, the family and friends I grew up with were hunters. The rifles and shotguns they used were cleaned occasionally. Handguns were not used enough to be cleaned and I never saw a firearm disassembled for routine cleaning.
Even after I began firing a lot of ammunition as a result of my all-consuming interest in firearms, I cannot say I really knew how to clean a rifle. The .22s got dirty and I did the best I knew how without field-stripping them.
Later, I was exposed to institutional training and formal cleaning. We carefully cleaned the bore and every cylinder of our revolvers. Then, I learned to field strip and clean SIG and Colt self-loading handguns.
The shotgun didn’t get much attention. The mysteries of the AR-15 were eventually explored.
Truths and Myths
As time progressed and I became interested in my own AR-15 and the AK-47 types, I heard many myths and half-truths concerning each rifle. For example, the AR-15 had to be babied and kept perfectly clean with a certain type of lubricant or it would not work.
Or, you could drag the AK-47 in the mud behind a jeep and come up shooting every time. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The modern AR is a wonderfully reliable rifle—far ahead of the rifles encountered in the 1980s—and the AK will malfunction.
But either is as reliable as a machine can be, given proper cleaning, lubrication and maintenance. The two are not similar designs, but require a similar cleaning regiment.
There are different points of each to be considered, but each requires maintenance to continue to function. The rifles must be cleaned and receive good lubrication. The items identified as high-wear items must be replaced.
If the rifle is for hunting or recreation, it isn’t a big deal. If you count on the rifle to save your life and your family relies on you, it is criminal negligence not to maintain the rifle.
It isn’t that difficult. Set aside a time for cleaning. Even a quick job that covers most of the exterior and a good squirt of Ballistol will keep the piece running until you can do a detail strip.
Removing the finish and protective coatings is counterproductive, though, so don’t go that far. You don’t have to scrub the piece to an insane level.
When cleaning the AR, I field strip the piece and wipe the gas tube. I spray the bolt carrier with clean and scrub the bolt head. Then I use Ballistol to lubricate the bolt. I clean the bore well with Hoppes every 500 rounds or so.
Clean inside the bolt carrier and the bolt cam pin should be cleaned. I clean the bolt teeth on the locking lugs well. The end of the bolt always builds up carbon and it doesn’t matter at all. Cleaning the chamber is more important than cleaning the bore.
I also lubricate the charging handle. Check the bolt gas rings every thousand rounds or so. The bolt is left in the bolt carrier and turned upside down. If the bolt falls out, you need new gas rings. That is simple enough.
The primary cause of the malfunction is shooter error, followed by poor or damaged magazines. Next is a lack of lubrication. The AR-15 loves to run wet. Keep it lubricated. Keep an eye out for shiny marks on the rifle’s bolt – that is where wear is occurring.
If you are engaged in high-round training or a match, then squirt oil into the gas ports on the right side of the carrier. This gets lubrication to the gas rings.
Wear and Tear
The rifles I use are machines and they are fired often so they are subject to wear. I won’t say they are used hard, but I fire them a lot. Like any machine, parts wear. The trick is to prevent uneven and eccentric wear. Nice, even burnishing and even wear means a long life.
Proper cleaning and lubricant will accomplish this. My son tells me that a lot of the military rifles used in training are well-worn.
In the civilian world, poor quality control, improperly staked bolt carrier keys, cheap magazines and poor-quality ammunition add up to problems. I am pretty certain Gyro Gearloose built some of the rifles I see shooters attempt to use well.
Home-built or small shop-built rifles are often of poor quality. Colt is a standard for AR quality. Springfield is a new player, but a good one and a rifle I feel very comfortable with. My favorite AR is, yes, a home-built one with Aero parts.
But it was built by a rifle maker who worked for one of the big manufacturers. It featured top-grade, not gun show-grade, parts.
What About AKs?
The AK type rifle is different, but offers many of the same problems. Keep it clean. As an example, the chamber of the AK must be cleaned often if you use the steel-cased ammunition. And who doesn’t?
When the gun fires, the chambered cartridge is forcibly yanked from the chamber. There should not be any grit in the chamber after cleaning. Steel cases are not that bad, but the powder technology isn’t USA-grade.
When someone says Tula is dirty ammunition, I may reply, “Friend, you just fired 300 rounds! Of course, there is powder ash!” Steel cases allow more blow-by. It is a fact of life and cleaning time is involved.
10 Ways to Keep Your AR/AK Running
- Pay attention to the bolt carrier. Keep the bolt carrier clean and well lubricated.
- Use high-quality magazines. Magazines are the heart of the gun. Some are made as cheaply as possible. Magpul is a world standard for the AR; the Arsenal Waffle mag is the AK standard.
- Be certain the magazine is seated. This is a shooter problem, but it is surprising how many folks do not practice the positive seating of the magazine. I have seen magazines fall out of either rifle during drills.
- Replace magazine lips. The very best magazines get bent lips. Others are off-spec from the get-go. Get an AR-15 magazine gauge. You will occasionally drop a magazine during training. Replace those with bent feed lips.
- Clean the piece periodically. Both the AK-47 and the AR-15 are easy to field strip and maintain. Break open the action, remove the bolt, pop the top cover, clean. It doesn’t take that long.
- Maintain original tolerances. Sure, tightening the rifle may result in tighter groups, but is the rifle for personal defense? Some of the cottage industry add-ons are great. Some are not. A cheap plastic rattling stock isn’t ideal for anyone.
- Learn the weak spots. Gas rings, magazines and small parts (e.g. extractor) may fail. Keep a list of the round count and replace it at recommended intervals. That’s 5,000 rounds for the buffer spring and a little more for the extractor spring.
- Pay attention to the wood. This is for the wood-stocked AKs we all love. Seal the wood with a good quality wood polish intended for furniture use to prevent rot and chipping.
- Keep the rifle wet. Liberally applying cheap lubricants in sufficient quantity works just fine. Keep it pouring.
- Use good quality ammunition for serious use. We all tend to use the cheapest ammunition possible for training. That’s OK as far as it goes. Almost always, it goes bang, although some of the steel-cased loads are subject to degradation in storage and from the weather. Clean more often with cheap ammo and shoot all you want. For critical use, a properly cleaned and lubricated rifle with good quality Federal, Hornady or Winchester factory loads is a baseline.
Do you have any other tips for keeping your AR or AK running? Let us know in the comments below.