How to Clean a Gun: A Complete Guide

March 23, 2023
How to Clean a Gun: A Complete Guide

A safe and experienced gun owner practices safety in three ways: Learning and applying the essential rules of gun safety, understanding the basics of proper gun storage, and knowing how to clean a gun.

Whether you are new to owning firearms or an experienced enthusiast, properly cleaning and maintaining your firearms is essential to being a responsible gun owner. Knowledge of gun cleaning and maintenance basics applies to all types of firearms, whether you own pistols, revolvers, shotguns, or rifles.

Why is it Important to Know How to Clean Your Guns?

Firearms are simple and durable machines that operate on mechanical principles. Most firearms do not feature batteries, electronics, or electrically-powered parts; however, they require occasional cleaning and maintenance for optimal performance, just like any other machine.

Each time you shoot a firearm, the propellant inside the ammunition cartridges is converted to burning gases, and the projectiles (bullets, birdshot, buckshot, or slugs) come in contact with the barrel until they are expelled out the muzzle. Every time this happens, small quantities of carbon, propellant residue, and metals such as lead, copper, mild steel, or nickel remain inside your firearm, forming deposits called fouling.

While most firearms can tolerate some degree of fouling, leaving it unaddressed risks impeding the gun’s mechanical functions. Fouling attracts moisture, introducing rust and corrosion to your gun’s internals. Additionally, dirty, fouled guns are less accurate, risk malfunctioning or misfiring more often, and wear out more quickly.

How Often Should You Clean Your Guns?

Many owner manuals and manufacturers recommend you clean your firearms as often as possible. However, the general rule is that the more frequently you shoot a particular firearm, the more care and attention it will require. Below are a few guidelines to help you determine when is the best time to clean a firearm based on its type and usage frequency:

  • Home defense guns: While firearms exclusively used for home defense are rarely exposed to harsh conditions, reliability is paramount to their role. The best way to ensure they function when needed is to clean them at least once a month, even if they are never fired.
  • Concealed carry guns: You should clean your concealed carry guns more often than home defense firearms, especially if you regularly carry them IWB (inside the waistband). IWB carry guns are frequently exposed to sweat, lint, dust, and body salts and should be cleaned at least once every two to three weeks.
  • Hunting guns: Hunting rifles and shotguns should receive a thorough cleaning at least twice per hunting season: once at the start and once at the end.
  • Competition guns: Firearms designed for high-volume shooting should receive the most care and attention. Clean and lubricate competition firearms after every shooting session, including training and practice.
  • Collection guns: If you have a large collection of firearms, you may own many guns you rarely shoot. You can get away with not giving them regular cleaning as long as you follow the proper storage tips. Antiques, black powder guns, and firearms with unique designs or patterns may require more specific and frequent care and attention.

Are You Supposed to Clean Your Guns After Every Use?

Cleaning your guns every time you’re finished shooting is a good habit to develop. However, this is not a strict recommendation, provided you follow a regular cleaning and maintenance schedule.

However, cleaning your guns after every use is recommended if any of the following cases apply to you:

  • You don’t follow a regular maintenance schedule or prefer cleaning as you go.
  • You frequently shoot ammunition with bare lead projectiles (e.g., cast lead, LRN, LSWC, LSWCHP), which can leave higher quantities of lead deposits.
  • You shoot rimfire guns, such as .22 Long Rifle pistols and carbines. Rimfire ammunition tends to be dirtier, requiring more frequent cleaning.
  • You used corrosive ammunition in your last shooting session.

Essential Gun Cleaning Supplies and Tools

Essential Gun Cleaning Supplies and Tools

You can purchase ready-made gun cleaning kits with the essential tools already included or assemble your own kit. Typical gun cleaning supplies include:

  • Cleaning rods: Cleaning rods are used to clean the inside of your barrel. Keep a selection of cleaning rods of multiple lengths to suit different barrels. Always ensure your cleaning rods are made of a softer material than steel, such as aluminum, brass, or carbon fiber. Because gun barrels are manufactured from steel, steel cleaning rods may scratch them and damage the rifling.
  • Cleaning jags: A cleaning jag is an attachment for your cleaning rod. Its purpose is to hold a cleaning patch in place while you push the rod down the barrel. Jags are available in various sizes, each compatible with a range of bore diameters.
  • Cleaning patches: Gun cleaning patches are circular strips of white cotton. Some patches are designed for specific caliber ranges, while others are all-caliber. They are designed to absorb cleaning solvents with which you can clean your barrels.
  • Bore brushes: Bore brushes resemble cleaning rods but feature arrays of bristles arranged in a spiral pattern. They are used to dislodge hard fouling, are made of barrel-safe materials, and come in various sizes for different bore diameters.
  • Utility brushes: A utility brush resembles a standard toothbrush but features hard bristles made of nylon or similar fibers. These brushes can access your firearms’ hard-to-reach areas.
  • Bore snakes: The bore snake is a soft, flexible bore brush available in various sizes, each intended for a specific range of bore diameters. They feature tails made of cleaning bristles designed to spread solvent inside the gun’s barrel.

Your gun cleaning kit should also include solvents, degreasers, lubricants, and protectants. While many cleaning solutions can perform multiple jobs, it is crucial to understand which fluid to use at each stage of the cleaning process.

  • Solvents: Gun cleaning solvents are designed to remove lead, carbon, copper deposits, and other hard fouling from your gun barrel.
  • Degreasers: Spray gun degreasers displace dust, dirt, oil, and other contaminants, leaving a clean surface for lubricants and protectants.
  • Lubricants: Applying a layer of this solution on your gun’s moving parts protects them from rust and friction, increasing its service life.
  • Protectants: Gun protectants apply an additional layer of barrier protection to your firearm’s surfaces, typically designed to repel rust and corrosion.

Synthetic Gun Oil Lubricant

Steps for Cleaning and Maintaining Your Firearm

While every firearm has a different design, you can apply the basic principles of gun care, cleaning, and lubrication to virtually every gun. Follow these steps for easy gun cleaning and maintenance.

Preparing Your Cleaning Environment

Choose a flat, clean surface with plenty of space, such as a gun bench or a workshop table. Ensure your work surface is in a clean, well-lit, and adequately ventilated room.

Avoid using a kitchen table or a surface primarily used for eating food. Gun cleaning solvents are toxic and can contaminate food, and cleaning firearms may expose the table and objects on it to lead and other harmful elements.

Always keep the surface you’ll use for cleaning your firearms 100% free of live ammunition to prevent potential safety hazards.

Rendering Your Gun Safe

Start by removing all ammunition from the firearm. If your firearm is magazine-fed, always remove the magazine first, then cycle the action once to remove the chambered cartridge, if any is loaded.

After emptying your firearms, visually inspect them to confirm they are empty. Set the magazines and ammunition away from the working surface to maintain safety.

Field-Strip Your Gun

Field stripping is a partial disassembly of your firearm for cleaning and maintenance. Once field-stripped, your gun is ready for cleaning. If unsure of the steps for field-stripping your firearm, check the owner’s manual for your specific gun model.

Clean the Gun Barrel and Chamber

Select a bore brush appropriate for your firearm’s bore diameter, and use it to dry-brush (no solvents) the inside of your barrel. Ensure the bore brush travels in a chamber-to-muzzle direction. Repeat the process several times to dislodge larger chunks of carbon, lead, and copper fouling from the barrel.

Next, pair a cleaning rod with a jag that matches the gun’s bore diameter, then drip gun solvent on a cleaning patch. Attach the wet patch to the jag, and push the cleaning patch down the barrel from the muzzle to the chamber. Doing so should fill the chamber and barrel with solvent and help remove any remaining grime and fouling.

Do not pull the cleaning rod back out; you risk re-depositing the fouling into your barrel. Instead, pluck the cleaning patch off the jag and carefully remove both from the barrel.

Let the barrel sit for 10 to 15 minutes while the solvents break down fouling from the surface. Then, attach a dry cleaning patch to your cleaning rod and push it down the barrel, from muzzle to chamber. Assess the amount of fouling on the patch: if you see any, use the bore brush once more to scrub your barrel, then push a new dry patch down the barrel. Repeat until the patch comes out clean.

Lubricate and Protect the Gun Barrel

Once you have visual confirmation the gun barrel is clean and free of fouling, apply a small quantity of gun lubricant to a size-appropriate bore snake, then run it through your barrel. If you plan to shoot this firearm in the future, you do not need to add a protectant or gun grease after the lubricant.

If you plan to return the gun to long-term storage or won’t be shooting it for several months, use heavy-duty rust protectants or an equivalent gun grease, such as Barricade or Hoppe’s No.9 Grease.

Clean and Lubricate the Action

In addition to the barrel, your firearm’s other surfaces must also receive regular cleaning and maintenance. Check any moving parts or surfaces where one part rubs or slides against another to be part of the gun’s action to determine if they need to be cleaned.

The exact parts to clean vary depending on your firearm type. Remember to follow the cleaning instructions appropriate to your specific make and model in the owner’s manual.

  • Semi-automatic pistols: Slide rails, interior of the slide, slide rail channels
  • Revolvers: Cylinder exterior, interior of each chamber
  • Pump-action shotgun: Interior of the receiver, pump/slide, bolt, and any metal-on-metal contact points
  • Bolt-action rifle: Bolt, bolt face, any metal-on-metal contact points
  • Lever-action rifle: Receiver, lever assembly
  • AR-15: Bolt carrier group, bolt face, locking lugs, interior of the upper receiver
  • AK: Bolt carrier assembly, piston, ejector, bolt face

Reassemble and Function Checking

After cleaning, degreasing, and lubricating your gun barrel and action, reassemble it and, if applicable, insert an empty magazine. Function checking a firearm consists of cycling the action on an empty chamber, then pulling the trigger (dry-firing) to verify the mechanism works.

If your gun is chambered in a rimfire cartridge, insert a caliber-appropriate snap cap in the chamber before pulling the trigger. Do not dry-fire a rimfire gun on an empty chamber; doing so may damage the breech face of specific models.

After reassembling and function checking your firearm, clean and wipe its external parts with a dry cloth or cleaning patch. Wipe any excess oils or lubricants, fingerprints, dust, or lint until the surface is clean and smooth.

Clean Magazines

If your gun uses detachable magazines, the components may be exposed to dirt, grime, and fouling, potentially making them less reliable. Fortunately, they are simple to clean and maintain.

Disassemble your magazine and separate the body, base plate, spring, and follower. Clean the interior of the magazine body with a dry brush, then inspect the spring for signs of rust and grime. Use a dry cleaning patch to wipe the spring.

Avoid using solvents or oils to clean magazines; not only are solvents unnecessary on magazines, but wet magazine parts risk attracting more fouling than you removed.

Gun Cleaning Tips and Warnings

While knowing how to clean a gun is essential, it can be messy. These additional tips can help streamline the cleaning process and minimize mess.

  • If you are unfamiliar with the design or pattern of a new firearm, research it to understand how to field-strip it, which parts to clean and lubricate, and how to reassemble it.
  • Although you may not necessarily need to clean your guns daily, inspecting guns you carry or regularly use as often as possible is a good idea. Check often-used guns daily.
  • Always use cleaning products specifically intended for gun care. Solvents such as WD-40 evaporate too quickly and are not suitable for lubrication.
  • Wear eye protection before you begin. Many small firearm parts are spring-loaded, carrying a risk of impact.
  • Avoid applying excessive quantities of lubricant, and do not apply lube to the interior of the barrel, the chamber, the interior of your magazines, or the firing pin channel. Doing so risks causing malfunctions.

Find Quality Firearms and Gun Owner Education with IFA Tactical

All gun owners should understand the basics of proper gun care and maintenance to be as safe and responsible as possible. Besides keeping your firearms in the best condition, knowing how to clean a gun is critical to ensure you do not experience malfunctions at the range or in a self-defense situation.

At IFA Tactical, we are committed to providing education, training, and helpful information to gun owners, regardless of their experience level. Contact us today to learn more about how to clean a gun and firearm maintenance.

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