When I clean firearms, I do so with an eye toward maintaining function. For most uses, I don’t keep them spick and span museum-quality clean. I do a detail strip and clean every few months, but even this depends on how often I fire the individual firearm.
Since my personal defense pistols include high-quality 1911 handguns, Glock, SIG, and CZ pistols, and double-action revolvers, reliability isn’t an issue. My AR-15 rifles and various shotguns are not fired as often. Maintenance is everything. Recoil springs and pistol magazines are like vehicle batteries and tires. They are not part of the mechanism, but a renewable resource. I have worked as a gunsmith and found that many times the only problem with a firearm is that it needs cleaning.
.22s are dirty due to the ammunition design with its heel-based bullet and relatively slow-burning powder. Many shooters never clean the action. A stuck sear is common due to a lack of cleaning. Even Glocks are affected by a lack of cleaning. The trigger action can get pretty heavy if you don’t clean the Glock.
It is abuse to fail to clean firearms until they malfunction, but just the same, some do so. The thing to be avoided is excessive wear. Nice, normal, even wear is the bright spots we see on metal. Excessive wear comes when the parts have grit in them and a part is scoured or gouged. This is difficult to deal with after the fact, but easy enough to prevent.
How to Clean Firearms
There are different levels of clean firearms. When the gun arrives from the maker it is clean, but may have grease on certain parts to prevent corrosion. Rock Island Armory guns have a long voyage and are often heavily greased. The Glock arrives fairly dry, with a copper-colored grease to aid the break-in process. Most are in between.
When the shooter simply shoots oil into the pistol over a period of years, powder ash, lead, and copper particles are collected. The result is a solid mass, somewhat like varnish. You need to avoid this type of accumulation.
Some folks take their firearms to the gun shop and have them dunked in an ultrasonic cleaner. Be careful what you put in the cleaner, as some cerakote finishes will peel right off. I run steaming hot water through the action. This removes a great deal of crud and dries quickly. Don’t use a store-bought degreaser containing phosphoric acid. Use a purpose-designed gun cleaning combination. I know you wouldn’t, but don’t use gasoline and kerosene. I have seen this done and it isn’t pretty, not to mention being dangerous.
Levels of Gun Cleaning
Some folks just spray a little cleaner into the action and slosh the grit from one side of the gun to the other. This isn’t acceptable, save in the middle of a competition when the gun is choking or gone dry. The next level of clean — functional clean — is the one most guns are maintained at.
The bore is cleaned and freed from powder ash and copper deposits. The long bearing surfaces are clean and a light amount of lubricant is on the gun per the manufacturer’s specification. This is the Glock’s single drop of oil and the 1911 handgun’s liberal amount of lubrication, with most handguns in between. This is ready to go for personal defense and hunting.
A shotgun has its requirements and so does the AR-15 rifle. I keep my bolt-action rifles clean and lubricated. Few, if any, pay attention to bolt-action locking lugs, but I do and it pays off in function. Keep the locking lugs clean and lubed. The guns I keep for ready use and carry may not be detail stripped, but they are clean and ready.
A service gun in military use is maintained at a different level. Once the feet hit the sand, no one knows when a detail strip and clean will be possible, so the firearm goes into action as clean as possible. This is the level of clean we should have when the firearm is in storage for any length of time.
Some chemicals attract moisture, and we do not wish to allow this to occur. In this case, we will not simply fieldstrip, but disassemble the piece and carefully clean every piece of the firearm. If you live in a humid area, the moving parts are packed with preservative grease. Florida and Arizona, as examples, have different requirements for storage.
Firearm Cleaning Considerations
A word to the wise: The higher pressure the cartridge, the more likely you will suffer a problem related to cleaning. Excess lead and copper in the bore will cause pressure to build up quickly. The .357 SIG and .357 Magnum seem to be the most common calibers in the shop with a blown case head or forcing cone. Keep the firearm clean. Running low-pressure lead bullet practice loads is fine, but clean and scrub before going to high-pressure rounds or you may experience a high-pressure problem.
Running softer lead in the Glock barrel is asking for trouble. Hard-cast bullets are another matter and leave little lead. Function is impacted if you do not carefully clean the pistol’s extractor. Powder deposits build up under the ejector star of a revolver. Causing a thin metal part to work harder due to powder buildup cannot be good for the part or the firearm.
Different Guns, Different Process
Glock, Beretta, and SIG pistols fieldstrip easily and are not difficult to maintain. The AR-15 rifle is downright simple to maintain. Benelli self-loading shotguns are easy to fieldstrip. Powder ash and grit are easily blown out of the action, if you do it properly.
Fieldstrip the firearm and spray from the top, so the liquid runs out the bottom. Know your gun and its individual needs. As an example, stainless steel has larger pores and may not accept lubricant as well.
Different types and amounts of lubricant are needed. A carry gun should have only a light amount of lubrication, just enough to ensure the firearm functions, but not so much that it attracts debris. If you are ready to fire 100 rounds in a pistol match, then more lubricant is needed to ensure you make it to the final stage without malfunctions.
Gun Cleaning Tools
Obtain proper tools. An old towel on the table, cheap chain store lube, and a few rags won’t cut it. The proper screwdrivers, a mat to lay the firearm on, and good quality cleaning brushes are a necessity. Learn to fieldstrip the firearm and learn where the piece needs lubrication. The slide rails of a 1911 and action rods of a Remington 870 need lubricant. Aimlessly spraying the firearm down doesn’t work. Don’t sweat detail cleaning the firearm every time it is fired, but clean it when needed. This will ensure good function and long firearm life.
How do you clean firearms? How often? Have you ever experienced malfunctions due to lack of maintenance? Let us know in the comment section.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July of 2021. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.