How To

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

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

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.

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.

Otis Elite Universal gun cleaning kit
Searching for an all in one cleaning kit? This Otis Universal gun kit has everything you’ll need to clean every gun in your safe.

The Rusty Gun Gets the Oil

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.

So 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.

Hoppes .223 gun cleaning kit with gun oil and a bore snake
Keep your .223/5.56 rifles cleaned and lubed up with this all in one cleaning kit.

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. For the very basics on cleaning your gun, read our post, New Year New Gun: Cleaning and Maintenance.

Searching for an all in one cleaning kit? Here are some of our best cleaning kits.

How often do you clean your guns? Tell us in the comment section.

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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (17)

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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