We all know that firearms require maintenance and cleaning, but how often should you clean your firearms? Some insist that gun cleaning should occur every time one is fired, as well as every few months — whether they’ve been used or not. Others insist that it is fine to leave your rifle or pistol uncleaned even after multiple trips to the range.
Who’s right? The answer depends on the type of firearm, what it is primarily used for, and what ammunition and/or elements it has been exposed to.
When Gun Cleaning Is a Good Idea
There are some times when you should clean your gun every time immediately after use. If you are shooting corrosive ammunition, or if the firearm is exposed to water, moisture or other damaging elements, you should always clean your gun as soon as possible. Corrosive ammunition, water, salts, dust and dirt can all lead to rust, corrosion, excess wear and tear and eventually the early failure of the rifle or pistol.
For example, last week I went out hunting with my trusty Remington 700 in 30-06. It’s not a fancy rifle; it has a synthetic stock and factory blued barrel topped with a Nikon ProStaff 4-12x40mm scope. The weather was cold and damp, and I didn’t see any of the wild hogs I was hunting for, but it was rainy and drizzling lightly off and on so, even though I didn’t fire a shot, I still cleaned my rifle when I got home.
Why? Moisture in the barrel could lead to pitting and premature barrel wear. I also made sure to run a lightly oiled cloth between the barrel and the stock bed to clear out any trapped moisture or dirt and oil the barrel in that area as well.
“But,” you say, “I’ve got a stainless steel barrel and receiver. I don’t need to worry about moisture.” To a certain extent, that is true. Stainless steel components do help slow down corrosion and the effects of the elements that cause it, but such parts are more susceptible to excess wear from dirt, dust and fouling. Stainless steel is softer than other steel used in firearms and as such can experience faster wear.
Different Gun Cleaning Techniques for Different Guns
If you’ve got a gun that is only used for plinking, target clays, or punching holes in paper, it’s probably OK to let a few months and 3-4 trips to the range lapse before doing an in-depth cleaning. You should still be aware that semi-automatics and rimfire firearms may begin to show performance and reliability issues with excessive fouling.
My Walther G22, my favorite semiautomatic plinker, tends to run fine for about 500 rounds before it begins to have problems cycling dirty .22 rimfire ammunition. Because of this, I like to keep a bore snake, some CLP and a brush in my range bag to give the action a quick once-over should it start to hiccup.
Even so, it sometimes makes it through a couple of bricks of Federal .22 LR before it sees a good scrubbing.
On the other hand, if you’re shooting a match gun or a firearm that is relied upon for personal defense, you should always keep it clean, oiled, and ready to go. As mentioned above, fouling, dirt and dust can cause reliability issues in semiautomatic firearms. Any primary defensive firearm should, in this writer’s opinion, be kept clean and well oiled at all times.
Revolvers are not immune to fouling either: carbon build up on the cylinder can make a double action trigger nearly impossible to pull as the cylinder gap becomes clogged. For match guns, most semiautomatics run more accurate and more reliably when clean. Bolt-action rifles, on the other hand, often require a fouling shot for the best consistency out of a cold bore.
For this reason, it is sometimes easier to clean these rifles at the range where you can then fire a fouling shot (from non-corrosive ammunition) so that the bore is ready to go. Some ranges won’t allow you to clean a gun at the range, and that’s fine. You can clean it at home and store it without a fouling shot; just remember that your bore will need a fouling shot to prep the bore prior to competition.
The Big Gun Cleaning Question: How Often?
Depending on how often they are used, all firearms should periodically undergo a professional detailed cleaning where the firearm is torn down and thoroughly cleaned, oiled and reassembled.
How often this is necessary depends on the number of rounds fired through the gun and the role it typically is used for, but I like to detail strip and clean all of my firearms at least once a year regardless of whether or not they ever made it out of the gun safe at all. On firearms that are just being stored in a safe, ambient moisture in the air and humidity can cause some small rust spots to show up.
Desiccants such as Hyskore drying silica gel will help reduce the humidity in your safe and cut down on rust caused by this moisture in the air. An annual cleaning not only makes sure that all of your guns are clean and stored properly, but also gives you the chance to inspect each firearm for problems that you may not normally notice.
While you’ve got the gun broken down, look for cracks, rust and corrosion, erosion or other signs that a part may need replacing. More than once while detail stripping my firearms I’ve found pins, springs, and other small parts that were wearing and could soon fail. By replacing them early, an unexpected failure was prevented.
Final note: always make sure to wear the proper safety gear when cleaning your firearms, and always clean in a well lit and well-ventilated area. Some chemicals and solvents are dangerous and have fumes that can be unsafe to breathe. Proper eye-protection, gloves and a respirator are always recommended when working with gun cleaning chemicals.