Maintaining firearms is a simple task that adds another element of responsibility to firearms ownership. Similar to any mechanical device, firearms are prone to wear, breakages, and corrosion that accompanies any device that has moving metal on metal. Be it rifle, pistol, shotgun, or anything in between, there are some very common things you can do to prolong the life of your firearm and ensure its proper and reliable function.
Before I press on with discussing the “how,” there are a few questions of “why” that needs to be satisfied. No discussion of firearms is complete without some words of caution and safety.
Cleaning your firearm carries the very real risk of negligent discharge, and as with all handling; you should physically verify that the weapon is empty. When I clear my weapons to handle or clean them, I take the following sequential steps. It’s absolutely imperative that you do not get in the habit of thinking that your habits apply to your friends – take this approach every time you pick up a weapon you do not intend to fire – and save yourself, at a very minimum, an embarrassing and expensive mistake.
Eject the magazine (if it exists), engage the safety (if it exists), and charge the weapon three times – rotate the weapon to the side of the ejection port to ensure that any shells or cartridges have to fight gravity as well as you. Once you’ve done this, lock the slide to the rear. At this point, visually inspect the firearm to ensure it is clear.
A further (borrowed) word of caution:
An estimated 34 485 (95% confidence interval [CI], 25 225-43 745) persons (6.7 per 100 000 population; 95% CI, 4.9-8.5) were treated for unintentional, nonfatal firearm-related injuries in US emergency departments during the 2-year study period. The majority of patients were male (87%) and aged 15 to 34 years (61%); 38% required hospitalization. Injuries were most often to an extremity (73%), were self-inflicted (70%), involved a handgun (57%), and resulted during common gun-related activities.
Consider firearms maintenance a common gun-related activity.
Like many elements of gun culture, much of what leaks its way into popular culture stems from the military or from older times. The military’s infatuation with spotless weapons, for example, can be traced back to the days of non-chrome-lined barrels, corrosive salts, and primitive bluing techniques at a time when leaving your weapon fouled could literally cause it to deteriorate into ineffectiveness.
Today, with chrome-lined barrels, Parkerizing, and modern powders, some fouling on your firearm is not the end of the world. What we want to accomplish isn’t stripping the finish off your rifle or pistol by over-cleaning it, but rather ensure that no amount of buildup hardens on the surfaces, impedes function, or gums up small parts.
Taking apart a weapon can be a confusing process until you’re familiar with it. Often as not, you’ve got devices that are under spring tension (which can lead to some lost parts, or eye patches, depending on the firearm being cleaned) and things that rely on a very specific order of assembly to work properly. It’s cliché to suggest that people just consult the manual, and often, if you’re an enthusiast, you’ve probably decided that the manual can wait until YOU have a chance to disassemble your new tool and can’t get it back together. (Been there.) Lesson learned? Use the manual. Seriously. If your enthusiasm is that overwhelming, try to find a friend who knows the platform so that you’re not in the dark about it.
Part 1: Prep work
What you’ll need:
- A solvent (Hoppe's No. 9 is my go-to)
- A bore brush and rod for the correct caliber
- A cleaning cloth (old t-shirts work fine)
- Q-tips or a toothbrush
After triple-checking that my firearm is clear, the next step I take is laying out my cleaning supplies and clearing a place to clean. As with all firearms-related activities, common sense has got to be used – don’t do it on the kitchen table while your wife or girlfriend looks at you like someone magically stole your forebrain. If you wouldn’t clean a fish there, don’t clean your guns there. Find a quiet spot, away from prying eyes, where you can keep all your pieces together.
I like using Hoppe's No. 9 solvent for regular cleaning and Windex for corrosive ammunition. The ammonia in Windex will help neutralize the corrosive salts used in old primers, which is a concern primarily with Soviet surplus ammunition from the 80’s or before. Set out the appropriate bore brushes and cleaning rods. A good silicone cloth will help you take the fouling off without removing oils that help your metal components from wearing themselves down.
If you’re like me and like to grab a burger after time at the range, lay out some latex gloves. Nothing ruins a good sammie like petrochemicals and powder fouling. Once you’ve got your tools lined up, it’s time to get to it.
Part 2: Cleaning
Now that you’re ready to start maintaining your firearm, begin by disassembling it. You don’t need to take it down to the pins and springs – just look at the main components:
- The barrel (bore)
- The frame or stock
- The slide or cylinder
- The bolt and carrier (if present)
- Magazine(s) (if applicable)
If you’re unsure how to identify these components, please ask! There is absolutely nothing wrong with questions about nomenclature.
What to Look For
Barrel: The bore should be free of fouling, pitting, and rust. There should be no fouling hardening along the throat (where the bullet “sits” in the barrel) or feed ramp (the tapered portion that guides the cartridge into the barrel). The bore should appear “polished.”
An unserviceable barrel will have ‘pits’ where rust has changed the shape of the lands and grooves (also known as the rifling) in the barrel.
In addition, check the barrel links, which can be shorn from their bounds if you use overpressure loads:
Again, this is an uncommon problem, but check around the links for stress fractures if your pistol has them.
Frame or stock:
Not always this obvious, the frame should be looked over for any fissuring, chips, or excessive wear. This picture is not meant to scare prospective shooters, and you’ll probably never see frame fissures on your pistol or rifle. These kinds of incidents are almost always the result of improperly hand-loaded cartridges that are too powerful for your firearm. Using factory ammunition will almost completely nullify the risk of a catastrophic failure.
All the same, make sure you give it a look, to minimize the risk. A rifle stock can split as well, so be sure to inspect it for stress!
The main points of concern with the slide or cylinder are checking to be sure it’s free from obstructions and that it is not overly saturated with fouling.
Again, look for stress fractures or wear marks, lightly coat exterior in oil, and wipe dry.
A healthy bolt is a happy bolt.
An unhealthy bolt is going to fail you when you need it. Check for stress! This one snapped in half (6.8 Caliber AR-15).
Now that you’ve inspected the weapon for wear makes, stress fractures, and bore serviceability, it’s time to ensure function by cleaning and oiling your firearm. At this stage, you should have the items discussed in part one “Prep Work”: Oil, a cloth, a bore brush, and a good rigid toothbrush.
If you’re cleaning an auto-loading rifle, lithium bearing grease is handy and will provide lubrication and viscosity for quite a high volume of shooting.
The trick to this process is to knock the fouling off and coat any part where metal is touching metal.
The military harps on polishing your rifle until there’s not a speck of fouling, but this isn’t beneficial. All it does is take the finish or Parkerizing off your rifle and leave it bone dry while it sits. This contributes to mechanical stoppages in weapons that deposit fouling into the bolt, such as the M16/M4 series of rifle.
Neither rifle nor pistol needs excessive oil. The important part here is that you pay attention to the following critical parts:
- The bolt. It should have a light coat of oil (applied with a silicone cloth) to keep it healthy.
- The bolt carrier (if applicable). The carrier should have a very light coat of oil, and then be wiped clean. You do not want too much oil in here, as it will snag particles that will gum up the function of the bolt. Clean, and then wipe dry.
- The bore. Pass swabs through the bore of the weapon until they come out clean. This is especially important in weapons without chrome lining! If you have a question as to whether or not your weapon is chrome-lined, consult the manual, or ask! It’s very important to know, as this will drastically impact the weapon's service life.
- Trigger mechanisms. Make sure these are wiped clean, cleared of debris, and have very little oil.
- Moving parts. Anywhere you have metal riding on metal that moves, apply a very light coat of oil, and let it sit.
Once you’ve completed these steps, your weapon is ready to be stored, carried, or fired.