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Throwback Thursday: How to Clean Your Firearms

firearm bolts and gun cleaner spray on table

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.

disassembled semi-auto pistol
Feildstrip your pistol for a proper 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.

fieldstripped revolver and screwdriver
Use care when removing screws so you do not scratch the firearm’s finish.

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.

cleaning firearms barrel
Be sure to thoroughly clean the barrel.

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.

clean firearms feildstripped revolver
Wood grips can be damaged by the chemicals in some cleaning solvents.

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 and mini revolver
When cleaning a revolver, be sure to run your bore brush through the barrel and each cylinder hole.

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.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (18)

  1. Another reason NOT to use WD40! It is a “creep” oil and will easily kill primers.. This was discovered years ago by Is HP armorers when troopers went to qualify and rounds carried in service would not fire due to dead primers!

  2. @michael… I know the feeling. My dad is 70 and it absolutely drives me up a wall that he STILL thinks “cleaning” his Marlin Mod. 60 is opening the action, pointing the barrel down, going to town with the WD-40, and calling it a day. Let’s just say when I actually opened it up to give it a proper cleaning… uggg… I could literally scrape the gummed powder and lead with a knife… rediculous.
    I was 2nd armorer for a state law enforcement agency (also former US ARMY AIRBORNE mechanic) so keeping your firearms at least functionally clean is sort of a peeve of mine. They don’t necessarily need to be clean enough to eat off of but sheesh at some of the grungy stuff I’ve seen. We always had the supplied CLP but I kept a bottle of Hoppe’s No.9 in a “secret stash”.

  3. It made me smile to see the .380 Colt Govt Pocketlite . I have one & it’s the one pistol i don’t like disassembling , b/c reassembly is such a PITA . The rotating / flip up extractor pin inside the frame always drops down & i feel like i am going to break or bend something . I love the pistol . But shoot it seldom. B/c I don’t want to thoroughly clean it.

  4. @ Michael , I agree with the never use WD40 or brake cleaner for guns ..(EXCEPT >> one set of pistols I do use brake cleaner on during competition shoots. 2 matched Ruger Vaqueros .45 colt , polished stainless. CFDA uses wax loads driven by 209 shotgun primers. They get dirty FAST, Brake cleaner is a cheap wonder for this , ONLY down the barrel/cylinder bores. When I get home the they get a grip panel off & cylinder out – true cleaning with Hoppe’s and Rem gun oil. I would never THINK of using brake cleaner on a blued gun ( only stainless ).

  5. I use Eds Red works just as well as all the others sometimes even better and its an all around lubricant cleaner protector i wipe it on all parts and let it sit for long term firearm storage its really good stuff

  6. “oh yeah dont EVER and i mean ever use wd40 or brake cleaner or any other solvent like that to clean your weapon. ”

    Many people think WD-40 is a lubricant – it is not. The WD is short for water displacement – it is a water proofer and actually gums things up if used as a lubricant.

  7. Micheal, hopefully a first time gun owner will see an article like this, and the comments, and start asking questions. Don’t diss 1st time gun owners. We were all there at one time. What I know now is staggering compared to what I knew when I bought my first gun 40 years ago. With the sheer number of ‘first time’ gun buyers, it is incumbent on both gun writers. like the author, and knowledgeable gun owners to share that knowledge and experience with ‘first timers’. How we treat them will determine whether their experience will be a positive one with the firearms community or negative one.

  8. I’ve lived by a simple standard when it comes to cleaning firearms. The gun gets shot, it gets cleaned, top to bottom, mags and all. Could be the reason when you squeeze the trigger on them, they go bang
    Worked in a gun shop, pawn shop years ago. Always remember dudes coming in with a rifle, shotgun pistol, or revolver. Opens up the case to get a loan. Looks like it was pulled out of the Titanic, and the bore was a stalagmite cave… Rode hard and put up wet…

  9. oh yeah dont EVER and i mean ever use wd40 or brake cleaner or any other solvent like that to clean your weapon. it stips the coating and ruins your weapo. i have had to give so many negative counseling statements to stupid soldiers and the occasional article 15 with loss of rank and pay. thats how serious it is

  10. the fact that this article even exists is sad. if you own a gun and dont know any of this you seriously have no business owning one. this is so basic and yet important yet people buy guns who are so ignorant of taking care of them it’s pathetic

  11. I agree with Billy, good article Wilburn.

    Probably too clean. I inherited a safe-full of guns-both handguns and long guns-when my dad passed away. I strongly suspect that they may have never been cleaned, both from their condition and from the fact that I haven’t found any cleaning supplies in his shop.

    So I’m in the process of working through all of them, with Hoppe’s #9, RemOil, and finishing with a silicone rag. It’s slow, but it’s a labor of love. Currently working on a Massachusetts Arms single shot 16 gauge that belonged to my grand dad. Let’s say it has “patina”.

  12. “Which lubricant do you prefer?”

    I usually use CLP or Hoppe’s Elite. I also wipe the exteriors down with a Rem Oil wipe and run a patch of Rem oil wipe through the bore to give everything a nice protective coating. What is everyone’s thoughts on Bore Snakes? Do you think they clean the bore as completely as patches and brushes or just better than nothing in a pinch?

  13. Many years ago I purchased a used Para Ordnance Tac-Four from an auction site. When i got the pistol,I field stripped and cleaned it. I took it out to the range and had multiple problems, failure to feed, eject, not firing all the time. I field stripped it again, cleaned it again, and still had the same problems. Was ready to get rid of it until a friend asked if I had disassembled it and cleaned it. I told him I took the slide off and cleaned it. Long story short, I disassembled the pistol and when I attempted to remove the firing pin, the problem became apparent.The fire pin and spring had never been removed, much less, cleaned. After removing the built up grease, oil, gun powder, and stuff, the gun ran flawlessly. It is now one of my go-to guns for self defense. Now any used gun I purchase gets a complete strip-down and cleaning before it hits the range. Good article Wilburn.

  14. I clean lubricate the bore and the bolt / firing pin and slide areas after each visit to the range. I rarely go further than that. All my rifles are stored in a humidity controlled gun safe in gun socks to prevent rust plus I tend to buy stainless steel guns.

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