Like any other tool, firearms require regular maintenance and cleaning in order to function properly. And while modern technology has brought us a long way since the days of corrosive black powder fouling and poor factory tolerances, you still need to clean your gun after every range trip if you want to avoid any future issues. Luckily, cleaning a dirty gun doesn't need to be an ordeal - we've written this short guide to give you a quick and easy way to get those guns properly sparkling.
Why Does it Matter?
Simply put, a dirty gun is an unsafe gun. Failure to properly maintain a firearm can interfere with its function, making it a danger to both yourself and anyone else around you when the weapon is discharged. Moving parts can get gummed up, corrosion can eat away at the barrel, and rust can weaken metal.
Of course, there are other reasons to keep your gun properly maintained as well: not only does it protect your investment and give you something you can pass down for generations to come, regular maintenance will also familiarize you with the operation and assembly of the weapon, which could end up saving a life some day.
The bottom line: unless you want a worthless hunk of metal that won't reliably go bang when you pull the trigger, you need to know how to clean a gun.
Prepare Your Workspace
The first step is to prepare an adequate cleaning area. You are going to want a well ventilated area, well lit room with an open window, away from any food (don't set up shop on the dining room table, for example), children's toys, or anything else that you shouldn't have caustic chemicals and lead residue near it.
I would also highly recommend laying down a tarp, rubber mat, or trash bag to keep major components and loose parts on, especially if you have a carpet or are planning to go beyond field stripping and do a complete disassembly for a deep clean - it's not fun crawling around on your hands and knees looking for a tiny spring or other small parts in shag carpeting.
With that out of the way, lets clean a gun.
As with everything relating to firearms, safety is paramount. Before cleaning a weapon, always start by ensuring that it is pointed in a safe direction, unloaded, the safety is engaged, and the magazine is removed.
For bolt action rifles or rifles like the AR 15 where the BCG is readily accessible, remove the bolt, and for semi automatic pistols, follow the owner's manual or manufacturer's instructions for take-down and remove the slide from the frame. Once you have both physically and visually confirmed that the weapon is unloaded, we're ready to start cleaning.
Tools and Materials
Depending on the type of gun you're going to be cleaning, you might need some different cleaning supplies. But if you want to have a good all-purpose cleaning kit on hand, these are a few of the essentials:
- Bore snake
- Cleaning solvent
- Cotton patches and cotton swabs
- Bore brush
- Cleaning rods
- Clean cloth
- Gun oil or other lubricant
- Safety glasses
You'll get most of these supplies in any caliber-specific cleaning kit you're going to find at a sporting goods store or big box retailer, so that's not a bad place to start - just make sure the cleaning rod is the correct size.
If you're working on a rifle or shotgun, it may also be worth investing in a cleaning cradle to help you get hands-free access those hard-to-reach areas. I'd also strongly recommend using a pair of solvent resistant gloves - while most cleaning solvent brands are fairly mild, it's not worth taking any unnecessary risks when chemicals are involved.
How to Clean Your Firearm
Now that you've got your cleaning supplies ready, your gun disassembled, and your work surface prepared, let's look at the actual process for cleaning your firearm.
Using a cleaning brush or cotton swabs, start by clearing out any visible debris or particles from the slide, cylinder (for revolvers), frame, and chamber.
Apply a few drops of solvent onto a clean patch, then use a cleaning rod with a patch holder tip to run the patch through your bore from breech to muzzle. It's usually a good idea to run at least 2 or 3 patches through the barrel - if you're still noticing a lot of grime, you may have some built up carbon fouling that will require a stronger solvent and a scrub with a brass bore brush to loosen it up.
Once your patches are coming out clean, run a dry patch through it to ensure that your gun goes back into the gun safe clean and dry.
Apply lubrication where necessary - typically the lubrication points are going to be moving parts - think the slide, rails, springs, and guide rod. On the other hand, avoid lubricating the inside of the barrel, feed ramp, or the chamber, as oil buildup in these areas can cause dangerous fluctuations in pressure when shooting.
The cleaning process for a rifle or shotgun isn't too different from a handgun. Start by making sure the firearm is safely unloaded, then place the gun in the cleaning cradle or rest if you're using one.
If you've had a particularly long day at the range, or if you've been out hunting, give the chamber a quick wipe down to clear out any potential dirt or debris that has found its way inside your gun. Otherwise, a quick pass with a bore snake should be enough to clear any larger particles or debris from the barrel.
Apply solvent to a patch, stick it in a patch holder, and run the cleaning rod through the bore from breech to muzzle until the patches come back clean - as usual, if you're shooting cheap factory ammo or haven't done a cleaning in a while, you may have some carbon fouling that will need a bore brush, stronger solvent, and a bit of elbow grease to clear out.
Also, make sure to avoid pulling the brush back through the bore in between passes - you don't want to clean the barrel only to pull the dirt right back into the bore. It may not always be convenient, especially when you can't break the firearm down easily like you can with an AR, but your bore will appreciate the extra effort.
Once all the gunk has been cleared out, simply apply lubricant to a dry cloth and give the rest of the metallic surfaces a light wipe down, including magazines. Moderation is key here - you don't want your gun swimming in oil.
And don't spray lubricant directly onto the gun - it can soften wood over time. A very light coating of lubricant in the barrel is fine, especially if it's going into long-term storage, but be sure to give the barrel a quick swab next time you go take it out to the shooting range.
Reassembly and Final Check
The final step in the cleaning is to reassemble your gun and make sure everything is working properly. If you're having trouble figuring out which gun parts go where, be sure to check the owner's manual - it should contain visual instructions or diagrams to help you along.
Check the safety and the trigger for proper function, then give the external surfaces a final wipe down to ensure that your fingers don't leave any dirt or corrosive oils behind.
And voila, the cleaning process is complete. For ideal gun storage, keep your newly cleaned gun in a dry, temperature controlled safe, and store it unloaded to avoid any potential interactions between lubricants and ammo. If you store your guns in padded cases, consider tossing in a desiccant packet to keep out moisture.
And remember - if you store a gun for a significant period of time, always run a bore snake or a swab through the barrel before shooting it again to ensure that you've cleared out any lubricant that may have settled in - as rare as it may be, there is a potential for an over-oiled barrel to have problems maintaining even pressure when fired, which is something you absolutely do not want to deal with.
How Often Should You Clean Your Gun?
Cleaning frequency depends on multiple factors, including the age of the weapon, the type of ammunition you're using, and the temperature and weather conditions the firearm has been exposed to.
Generally speaking, it's a good idea to give your gun at least a basic cleaning pass every time you take it shooting - you don't need to do a full deep cleaning, but running a bore snake through the barrel, lubricating the moving parts, and wiping down fingerprints is a quick and easy way to prevent major problems like rust and pitting. This is especially important for older guns that often don't have a stainless steel barrel and use ammo with corrosive primers.
If your firearm is just sitting in storage, we recommend still giving it a basic cleaning every 3-6 months. This helps ensure you haven't missed any problems and that the storage conditions aren't creating moisture buildup that could damage the gun.
Whether you're learning how to clean a gun for the first time or just brushing up, we hope this article has been a helpful resource for you. Proper firearm maintenance is a key component of shooting safety, and a regular cleaning regimen will ensure the accuracy, function, and longevity of your gun.
If you need to clean your gun and found this article helpful, if you have any questions about what we've covered, sound off in the comments and let us know what you think! If you want to blue your gun then check out our article on how to blue a gun And if you're looking for a basic kit to cover all of your gun cleaning needs, check out our article on the best pre-prepared cleaning systems here!