Most (if not every) gun owner who uses their firearm with any degree of regularity knows that despite the multitude of differences amongst guns, there is a universal constant for all of them: shoot them enough, and they’re eventually going to get dirty. Even guns with coated parts that promise enhanced lubricity and easier cleaning need to be properly serviced to ensure they continue to function reliably.
Routine maintenance on firearms is a lot like regularly servicing your vehicle: it not only extends the service life of the machine, but helps keep the operator safe, as well.
Without getting into a physics lesson to explain how firearms work – here’s a great infographic explaining it! – the action of a gun will result in a variety of particulate residue left over in the internals following the firing of a cartridge, including gunpowder, metals and other materials that build up over time.
Cleaning a Daniel Defense rifle. (Photo courtesy/OutdoorHub)
Nearly all projectiles, whether rimfire or centerfire ammo, are composed of a lead core with a copper or bi-metal jacket. The combination of carbon residue resulting from the burning powder in a cartridge and the leftover copper, lead and plastic residue is collectively called fouling. The more fouling that accumulates within the gun’s action, chamber, fire control group and elsewhere there are moving parts, the higher the likelihood becomes the gun could malfunction, or worse.
The best place to start in cleaning your firearm is to consult your owner’s manual, which should have come with the gun when you purchased it. This manual contains all the relevant safety, operation, maintenance and other important info about your gun, and you should always read it before using the gun for the first time. If you purchased a pre-owned firearm that comes without a manual, you can contact the manufacturer to request an owner's manual.
A field stripped Heckler & Koch pistol. (Photo courtesy/Pinterest - Anonymous Post)
Depending on what type of firearm you own, the takedown, or disassembly, and reassembly procedures will vary greatly, and the manual will detail how to properly break down the gun. Once you have read the manual and procured your desired cleaning supplies, including solvents, lubricants, brushes, wipes and other effects, you’ll need to ensure the firearm is unloaded before performing any maintenance whatsoever. Visually and physically ensure your gun is unloaded. Some firearm instructor suggest building a routine, such as spoken phrasing announcing when the firearm is loaded or unloaded, to help you reassure what condition the firearm is in. It’s also a prudent idea to remove all ammunition from the area or room where you’re servicing the firearm in order to reduce the likelihood of accidents.
Prepare your work area where you plan to clean your firearm. Choose a location that is well lit and well ventilated, as the solvents used to clean firearms can be toxic, and should be handled with care. Once you’ve ensured the firearm is unloaded and all ammunition is away from the gun and work area, engage the firearm safeties (if applicable), and field strip the gun. Your owner’s manual will provide instructions on how to do this on your particular model.
(Photo courtesy/NRA American Rifleman)
Next, clean the bore of the barrel, as the interior of the barrel is where most of the action takes and the resulting debris accumulates. Typically, it’s best to clean from the action forward to the muzzle, in the direction the bullet travels. This article from American Rifleman provides a great tutorial on how to effectively clean the bore. After you’ve cleaned the bore, move on to the frame and other components, like the lower receiver of an AR-type rifle of the frame of a semi-auto handgun.
Even though the firing action doesn’t occur in these areas, the particulate leftovers work their way into nearly every nook and cranny in a firearm. When paired with lubricant, it spreads even further, getting down into the fire control group, along the slide rails, and other spots away from the chamber.
An AR-15 rifle and cleaning tools. (Photo courtesy/The Truth About Guns)
Once you’ve cleaned the gun, be sure to lubricate it! Anywhere the firearm has moving parts will require lubrication to allow those parts to move smoothly without encountering friction, which can wear down parts prematurely and lead to malfunctions and potentially breakage. Not to sound like a broken record, but your owner’s manual will likely detail points in the firearm you should apply lubricant. Your firearm should be well lubricated before you store it, as well.
Applying lubricating oils to your firearm not only help moving parts run smoothly, but will stave off rusting. Rusting is one of the most dangerous enemies to a gun, with severe rust damage leading to corrosion and compromising the integrity of the metal. Rust damage can also impact the rifling in your barrel, leading to pits that destroy the accuracy of the gun. In a worst-case scenario, extreme rust in a firearm can lead to the gun becoming weak at stress points, making in unsafe to shoot.
A Smith & Wesson M&P40C pistol showing surface rust. (Photo courtesy/Colorado AR-15 Shooters Club)
At the end of every field strip and cleaning session, you should function-check your gun to ensure that it was reassembled correctly and is in proper working order. As always, consult your owner’s manual to confirm the reassembly process.
While there’s no one absolutely right schedule for cleaning and maintenance when it comes to firearms, the best way for you to ensure your gun keeps running round after round, year after year is to get to know it, inspect it often, and build habits for good maintenance. Routine inspections and cleanings can also help you identify problems or issues that could lead to malfunctions, such as excessive wear or cracks, that if not addressed that you might not otherwise notice during shooting.
The demands of every shooter are different; many recreational users may not need to clean their firearms after every trip to the range, while competitive shooters and tactical users who train with high round counts or corrosive ammo should service their guns thoroughly and often. Most firearms instructors suggest that users who carry a gun for defensive purposes, such a concealed carry pistol, apply extra diligence in keeping that firearm clean and serviceable at all times to ensure it is ready in an instant should you need to use it.
The most important thing is to find the routine that works for you, keep your firearms clean and serviceable, and always follow firearm safety rules at all times.
Want a more detailed, hands-on approach to firearm familiarization to better understand your gun and how to maintain it? The NRA Home Firearm Safety Course teaches students the basic knowledge and skills of the safe handling and storage of firearms and ammunition in the home, as well as gun cleaning and maintenance, primary causes of firearm accidents and more. Find a course near you today by visiting the NRA Training Portal!