Throwback Thursday: What Will Happen if I Don’t Clean My Gun?

There is no hard and fast rule to when you should clean your guns.

It’s a new year, and many of you may have gotten a new firearm. Whether it’s your first or your hundredth, a good refresher is always in order. Every time you fire your gun, carbon, lead, copper, and plastic — if shooting shotgun — residue are left in the barrel, chamber, and action. After many, many rounds, this residue can begin to build up.

This fouling comes from the powder, wad, and bullets. Further, moisture from weather and sweat can cause corrosive rust to damage your gun’s metal parts. Fouling built up over time can impact a gun’s reliability. You’ll find that a dirty gun causes many malfunctions.

Types of Fouling

Almost all bullets — centerfire and rimfire — are made of a lead core with some type of copper jacket surrounding it. Even lead-free ammunition contains copper.

The four most common types of fouling are:

  • Carbon, which occurs as a result of the burning powder that propels the bullet from the chamber through the barrel
  • Copper, caused by copper-jacketed bullets leaving residue in the gun’s barrel after firing
  • Lead, caused by lead bullets leaving residue in the gun’s barrel after firing
  • Plastic, caused by the plastic wads from shotshells

It’s impossible to find ammunition that will not foul your gun. Black powder, most Berdan-primed, and a lot of military surplus ammunition is corrosive. This means there are salts in the ammo’s primer. These salts will damage your gun. If you shoot a gun using corrosive ammunition, you should clean it after each shooting session. As far as the rules regarding the frequency of gun cleaning go, this is where it stops.

A revolver and a handgun laying on a pad in preparation for cleaning
Some guns may require more cleaning than others.

No Rules

There is no hard and fast rule when you should clean your guns. Some people clean their gun after every shooting session. Others never clean their guns. Truly, there is no right answer.

Retired military and law enforcement tend to clean their guns after every shooting session. Because of their training, they feel that a clean gun prevents malfunctions. One retired police officer told me, “Clean them as if your life depends on it.” This is somewhat true. Dirty semi-automatic guns tend to fail-to-fire (FTF) and failure-to-feed (FTF) more often than when the gun is clean.

A gunsmith told me his gun cleaning routine depends on the gun. After every use, he cleans his precision rifle. However, he rarely cleans his .22s. Copper build-up inside a gun’s barrel can affect the bullet’s velocity by slowing it down. Further, barrel fouling also affects the barrel’s rifling. Shooting a dirty precision rifle can greatly affect the gun’s accuracy.

Cropped view of a man cleaning his gun
Your firearm’s manual or a short online video will walk you through the disassembly and reassembly of your firearms as well as the cleaning procedure and lubrication points.

Rust Prevention

Rust can cause severe damage, becoming corrosive and eating through the metal. I’ve even heard horror stories of parts rusting together. Rust also will affect the rifling in the barrel, causing pits to occur.

A retired Air Force veteran cleans his semi-autos after each use, but not his .22s. He says he just leaves a little bit of oil on the outside of his rimfires to prevent rust. If you are going to store your gun for a long period, you should take preventative measures to avoid damaging rust. There are many rust-prevention solvents and tools you can use to aid in storing your guns.

Can you clean your gun too much?

Some say you can, but over cleaning is just like under cleaning — it’s all a matter of opinion. I know someone who ran over 40,000 rounds through his Remington 870 and cleaned it only once because he felt guilty.

Despite differing opinions on when and how often you should clean your guns, all experienced gun owners agree that a little gun oil and lube goes a long way. I keep oil in my range bag. I have never cleaned my semi-auto .22 rifle, but when I get malfunctions at the range, I just add a little oil and I’m good to go.

Glock themed gun cleaning mat with Hoppe's 9 gun oil and bore snake
Gun cleaning mats can be very helpful in catching and soaking up cleaning solutions and lubricants. Some even have diagrams to help understand the various parts of your firearm!

A friend of mine who participates at shooting leagues goes one-step further by running a bore snake through her pistols when she experiences issues. One of the most experienced shooters I know says, “A gun that has no lubrication is going to fail much sooner than a dirty, but well-lubricated firearm.”

You aren’t doing anything wrong if you clean your gun after every range visit. Some find it relaxing and therapeutic. Others just love breaking down their gun and putting it back together. On the other hand, you aren’t doing anything wrong if you don’t clean your gun after every range visit. One seasoned shooter I know says, “If it doesn’t work dirty, then it’s not a dependable gun.”

Whatever your cleaning routine is, it’s important to remember that guns are a machine, periodic maintenance never hurts it and will only keep it in proper working order.

How often do you clean your guns? What gun cleaning supplies do you like to use? Tell us in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March of 2018. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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 (33)

  1. I at least disassemble and wipe my carry guns weekly or after a range session, not because they are dirty, but because I want to be sure there’s no issues. Other guns can wait. I *do* clean my .22s more often because .22 ammo is dirtier. I cheat on my Ruger MKII though, I remove the plastic grips, spray it down with carburetor cleaner, blow it dry, and put a couple drops of oil on.

  2. If you depend on it, and don’t clean and maintain it, at some point you may wish you had, which is 100% avoidable. The one area that is seldom mentioned when cleaning, to improve accuracy and function, is the chamber are where the bullet leaves the brass. Like say using 38 specials in a .357, the 38’s leave a ring of fouling, and can get to the point where a .357 may not load properly. When it comes to rifles, especially those with necked brass, this area is critical to get cleaned, yet it is hardly ever covered. The easiest way to do this area is to step up a bore size or two, like say a .35 calibre bore brush to clean this part of the chamber in a 30 calibre rifle. Note: When using a CHAMBER brush or an increased diameter bore brush. NEVER send it down the barrel.

  3. I have Always cleaned my firearms after every use. Not only for functionality but from an investment stand point as well. Especially when you start to amass a large “pile” as it were. You cannot afford Not to clean your firearms, especially when it comes to self defense. When it jams under fire, wishing you would have maintained your firearm isnt going to save the day. Spent many a year working in Pawn shops and gun shops and cannot count how many times I’ve seen firearms completely ruined because of neglect. So many times I’ve seen firearms brought in to get a loan on, and the last time it was put in the case or bag, they were put in moist from the field or range only to be pulled out looking like an artifact from the Titanic. The barrel looked like a stalagmite cave. Telling someone that they have turned their A5 Browning into an over the fireplace mounted wall hanger is never a pleasant thing to do.

  4. I have found it really does depend on what im shooting through it. Even among cheap ammo it can vary, Remmington UMC green bopx in my 1911s 1000 rounds is fine, they are a bit dirty but all still run like a top. Winchester white box, clean after 300-350, at 500 most everything i have run it in, right down to glocks and XDs are locking up and failing to cycle.
    Also my browning buckmark needs to be cleaned and lubed meticulously, otherwise frowning at it can make it fail.
    Otherwise my rifles, if its an old military bolt gun with corrosive, clean immediately, otherwise whenever, just make sure i has some lube to protect from rust.

  5. Proper storage between shooting is also important. Each pistol and long gun has its silicone sock. The safe has a dehumidifier plus a golden rod. I keep a hydrometer in the safe and check it every day. My carry pistols are wiped down and checked every day.

  6. i’d love to see an article about gun cleaning with ultrasonic cleaners. I bought two, one long enough to hold an AR upper receiver, The second is smaller intended for pistols. I cleaned a Ruger SR9C with Hoppes #9, but I’ve read about using distilled water (obviously need oiled afterward). I’d appreciate any and all views. Thanks

  7. My father in law was a avid quail hunter he killed truck loads of quail over the years his idea of cleaning his model 5 browning was to stop by the gas station every few years and run some gasoline over it

  8. I clean my carry guns after every session! With my LR, 1k, etc guns, they get a bore wipe every 10 or 15 rounds after 2 or 3 fouling shots & cleaned after each session. Play ARs get cleaned whenever they are too dirty, combat guns after ever session. All the other 22s – 450 Watts, get cleaned when they are looking dirty & pistol/revolvers get wiped down & checked for lead/copper. All guns, after a session are oiled & a oil patch run thru the barrel. I can’t tell you how many guns I have saved from rust by doing that. Learned in VN, Or, Wa, Ak, Va, Fl that that wet, humid climate will screw em up quick – even stainless steel.

  9. I clean my guns after use. The army taught me, no forced me! I paid good money for my guns and I can’t stand not taking care of them. I cleaned m16a1 every day as my life depended on it.

  10. My grandma has a .22 marlin 39 carbine. The last person to clean it died 30 years before I was born. I cleaned out the lever, bolt, and trigger group a few hours ago, but I need a bore snake to clean the bore, since the rivet to lock the ejector is stripped. It has been oiled, but with WD-40, which only added to the grease and goo inside the gun. Once, a chunk of grime fell out, and I thought it was part of the bolt, until it crumbled.

  11. I clean them when I feel like it. I used to clean them while watching The Walking Dead until it became a soap opera. That was kinda fun. The excuse I use is I want to make sure they function dirty. I mostly shoot Colts, BCMs, and Glocks, but that is likely to change soon as I want a Palmetto State Armory beater rifle, and a smaller carry pistol

  12. I realized I haven’t cleaned my guns, a .22 revolver and a .22 bolt action rifle, since the last time I went shooting. It was about a month ago. The realization has left me edgy and nervous. If I wasn’t at work right now, I would be cleaning my guns.

    I’m glad for this article. It’s helped me relax. Soon as I get off work, though, it’s straight to the gunshop for a cleaning kit and then right to the work bench. My babies mean the world to me and I want them to last forever.

  13. I have 3 AR’s that i clean no sooner than 500 rounds per rifle. I use wolf or herters ammo 99% of the time, which is harder on guns than nice brass cased american ammo. My oldest AR has 7000 rounds through it and i have always used SuperLube grease on all the moving parts and i use plenty of it too. It is very wet. This rifle gets very dirty after 500 or so rounds of Russian ammo, but every part is still very wet with the SuperLube grease. All that being said, at my 5000 round service on the rifle, i noticed that the parkerizing on the bolt carrier was just starting to wear off. However, the anodizing on the upper receiver was not worn through at all, which is a good thing. This rifle always has shot well and the only malfunctions i have had were with sticky cases inside the chamber from the junk Russian ammo. This is a DPMS rifle too just to let you know. So anyway, even after 500 rounds of dirty Russian ammo, which coats the entire bolt carrier group with a heavy layer of muck that resembles very wet mud, the wear on the rifle still isnt bad in my opinion. I dont mind buying a few new replacement parts now and then either. Im actually going to change the barrel out this weekend. Take all this for whatever its worth.

  14. Am I the only person on here who will admit that he’s a lazy bastard who doesn’t clean his guns? Seriously, what with work and wife and kids, I can scarcely find time to go to the range 4 times a year, much less have time to clean guns. I mean, I WANT to go clean the guns sometimes, but I almost never find the time.

  15. I completely agree with those who said it was a relaxing way to spend some more time examining and learning about my guns. Always with the utmost care though! There was a story in the local news not too long ago about a father who accidentally shot and killed his 10 year old son while cleaning his rifle. Who doesn’t remove the bullets from their guns while they are cleaning them??

  16. As a routine, I clean my guns after every range visit. A Clean Gun is a Working gun. I also carry my 9mm gun everytime I leave the house…

  17. I clean them every time I bring them home from the range…. I take the AR completely apart clean it good and reassemble it…….

  18. Please correct me if I’m wrong here, but it seems that in an AR, or any autoloader for that matter, if the Bolt Carrier assembly is “Sloppy wet” with oil then dust, dirt, sand, etc.. could contaminate the lube and cause excessive wear. Since AR Uppers are made of Aluminum this would wear faster than normal. Personally I use a Dry Moly Lube on the underside of the carrier and the same Synthetic lube that the Army does where the bolt fits into the carrier. As for Barrel maintenance, I keep it pretty simple, Solvent and a bore snake followed by a dry patch until the patch comes out clean. I finish with an oiled patch, except for my AR, since it has a chrome lined barrel I store it dry and ready to use.

    I work with a Army Reservist. He told me that other than running a bore snake through the barrel they were advised to only thouroughly clean the carrier after about 2500-3000 rounds, don’t sound enough to me, but if it works for them then so be it.

  19. I have to agree with both writers above. It’s just always been a rule (of my own) to clean it often, that my gun serves me… and if I wish it to continue to do so, then I will serve it also. A good cleaning after every outing and it will appreciate you. A love affair can only work if it’s two sided. A forgotten firearm will soon forget you, and in no time you will lose your admiration and be wanting to get rid of it. I say, “Clean it, handle it, know it thoroughly and it will treat you accordingly when you, if and when, need it next time.” You may never sell it, but hand it down in the family. I would wish to think that whoever inherits one of my guns has the same respect for it (and me for doing so). Yes, and even talk to it now and then… but I wouldn’t suggest doing this where folks can see and hear. 😉 Roger

  20. I spend considerable more time cleaning than shooting. My 22 target pistols are a pain, they have to be unscrewed and it’s not that easy to put the recoil spring back in. I enjoy cleaning all and maybe the long guns not so much. But still a labor of enjoyment.

  21. No David, you’re not a nut, if you are, then so am I. I know a lot of people that do the same with their weapons as we do, it’s called preventive maintenance, and a love for and respect for our weapons that we chose for whatever purpose. You are not a nut and I agree with you 100%. I love my guns/weapons, I have accumulated many over the years, and for the most part I have struggled to get them and they mean a lot to me as a story goes with every one of them. I don’t think we’re weird at all.

  22. If I shoot ’em, I clean ’em! I’m the guy that finds it very relaxing to clean my guns after shooting ’em. I also love to know that they are going to work when I pull the trigger, especially because my life or significant loves life, could be on the line. I’ve also cleaned my .22s the most because a .22 round is the dirtiest round in this world, and I never, ever throw oil on top of the grime and gunk that gets into a .22s action, making something that resembles mud mixed with metal shavings, which makes a .22 most unreliable during ejection and feeding, and the barrel can get most gunky also, slowing the bullet down and making the gun in-accurate, and even worse than that, it will cause wear beyond belief and premature aging on working parts. It’s kind of like dumping about a quarter tube of course lapping compound into the action and leaving it there during all your range visits. If you like the gun, clean it, and it will last a lot longer, if you don’t like the gun, or you have plenty of money (unlike me) just buy a new one every year.
    My father taught me to clean my guns and keep them in tip top shape so that when you need them you can absolutely count on them to go bang, every time you pull the trigger.
    I have a Remington Rand 1911 .45 that was issued during WW ll, and it is in great shape. I deer hunt with this pistol and have killed many a buck with it. I never just run a bore snake through the barrel and then load it and forget about it, ‘cos that gunk can get down in the action and wear at your gun like crazy. It is my home defense/ concealed carry/deer hunting/best range friend and my all time favorite gun ever, it sees a lot of action at the range. It never malfunctions, mis- feeds, catches a spent cartridge or anything like that, because I keep it in tip top shape, because my life may depend on it someday. It will also spit out hollow points just as well as round ball.
    My SKS w/ paratrooper folding stock/red dot/laser/tac flashlight is a real dream to shoot and clean also. It’s almost as accurate as my Remington 700, in 30.06 which has a 4x16x56 Accu-shot(Leapers) S.W.A.T. scope and I’ve made a lot of long deer kill shots with it. Being from WV, it’s hard to find a long shot area like that, but my deer hunting buddy and I have it in Jackson Co. WV. and we take full advantage of it, giving our rifles an accuracy check, as well as keeping ourselves in good operating condition for long range shooting.
    I have one rule my father taught me about cleaning guns, and that is; If you shoot it, you clean it! Just like the rule my wife has about the dishes; you dirty it, you wash it! Both of those rules keep me out of more trouble, and in more ways than I could ever convey.

    1. “Just like the rule my wife has about the dishes; you dirty it, you wash it!”

      Um, I think she was talking about your underwear. 😉
      Seriously though, that’s a good analogy for me because I wash dishes way more often than I shoot; and as others have said about cleaning their guns, I sometimes find washing dishes by hand relaxing despite never wanting to do it. To make the task enjoyable I turn on the radio and listen to classical music as I wash; I’m going to try that for ‘washing’ my gun too. Thanks for commenting.

  23. I clean and lube each gun after every use, particularly my AR’s. Carbon buildup on the AR bolt happens after firing only 60 rounds, and I have had a failure of the bolt gas rings before. If I hadn’t cleaned and inspected it I would have never known. Also, I once read that AR’s work best when “sloppy wet” (upper receiver and bolt carrier), and that has served me well. Besides, I like fooling with my guns and hope to do some gunsmithing in the future.

    When buying a new or used gun it should be cleaned and inspected before firing. Why not do the same before each future firing?

  24. I guess the military and my Dad governed my way of thinking. I clean my weapons after every trip to the range. I do find it relaxing and I just enjoy time wih my weapons. Am I strange? Maybe I am! For me it is a type of love affair as I truly am a weapon nut! I also like inspecting as I clean for possible future issues. I think of it the same way as washing my car. It gives me the chance to look it over real good and discover any damage/s. I also believe a clean weapon is a happy one and will preform flawlessly for you. As far as the comment of reliablilty when dirty I do believe a tighter tolerance semi auto is less forgiving and will FTF if not well maintained. That does not mean buy a cheaper one, it means take care of what you have. All in all, to each his own. Some drive nice clean cars and some drive junkyard limos. All a matter of taste I guess. I know all my weapons will fire in a life threatening situation. 🙂

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