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Essential Tools and Tricks for Cleaning Firearms

If you are around firearms long enough, you will inevitably hear tales of someone that never cleans their guns.  These tales are usually filled with high round counts, alternatives to cleaning that will keep a gun going just as well, and other embellishments that vary from borderline possible to hilariously outlandish. While amusing, they should not be taken seriously, as cleaning your firearms is a necessary part of owning and operating them.  Unless you are purposefully conducting a torture test on a gun, there is no excuse for ignoring scheduled cleaning and maintenance. That would be similar to you driving your car with the check engine light on because changing your oil is just a suggestion.

Firearms Maintenance Schedule Depends on Multiple Factors

I do want to stress one point though: over-cleaning can be just as bad as not cleaning at all.  I am by no means telling you that you need to clean your gun every time you shoot it (you might, but read on to understand).  Cleaning too often – or with an overly aggressive method – can prematurely wear parts out, affect accuracy, damage the finish of your gun, and in some cases, cause rusting and pitting.  The key is finding a balance between too much and too little, and that is entirely going to be based on the types of firearms you are shooting, the environment you shoot in, gear you introduce that might affect how dirty the gun runs (like a suppressor), and the types of lubrication you use. 

In my career, I have been fortunate enough to work on some of the hardest-used guns that exist.  Few places on the planet, including all but the most entrenched military units, will come as close to the limits of a gun as a machine gun rental range.  Guns are run from open to close, become heated far above their normal temperature ranges, and are only given breaks when they are too hot to touch or are not working.   These extreme conditions have led to my understanding of what constitutes requiring cleaning versus just a little dirty. 

Listen to Your Firearm

The gun will tell you when it needs to be cleaned.  If you pay attention, small changes in performance will alert you that it is time to inspect and give it a good scrub.  This could be a gritty feeling when manipulating the trigger or sluggish cycling of the action.  You might be able to hear a scraping as the carbon build-up fights against the cycle of operations.  There will also be times that the gun simply stops working and thorough cleaning will bring it back to life.

Field Stripping Firearms vs Deep Cleaning

Another point worth mentioning is the difference between a field strip and clean vs a deep clean.  Field stripping and cleaning is something that any user should be able to do. Basic components are removed without the need for specialized tools, allowing the end user access to the barrel, the fire control group, and the external parts like sights, furniture, etc.  A deep clean, on the other hand, requires the use of tools, often tools specific to that gun, to fully break the gun down into the smallest pieces for a more detailed inspection of each part.  This is a much more labor-intensive and time-consuming process that should be performed by someone with the necessary skillset for that weapon system.  In terms of the military and law enforcement, unit armorers are typically the only ones allowed to do more than field stripping a gun.  Be honest with yourself about your skill level, as going beyond often results in a gun being sidelined in addition to having to pay someone to fix the issues you’ve created.

Preparation for Cleaning Firearms

Set yourself up for success when cleaning your guns.  What I mean by this is to find an area that is free of clutter to work on, ideally in a well-lit room, and with flooring that has an even, smooth surface so dropped parts cannot hide. Understand that you may be working with some chemicals that give off vapors so proper ventilation is necessary, and personal protective equipment is strongly recommended.  At a minimum, this would include some sort of eye protection and latex or nitrile gloves that are thick enough to avoid tearing, but not so thick you cannot feel the work. Depending on your setup, you may also need a respirator mask. In addition, a shop apron is rarely a bad idea, as you will inevitably spill liquid or splash grime onto yourself.   Have all of the tools and materials you’ll need close at hand so that you don’t have to wander out of the workspace to search for things.  I cannot emphasize this next point enough: if this is your first time working on a particular gun, or you just aren’t as comfortable, take pictures of each step so you can look at them when it comes time to put everything back together.

Please understand that the next section is going to be recommendations based on my experience cleaning and working on guns.  By no means is it an all-encompassing list, but rather should be viewed as a jumping-off point for you to dive into researching what will work best for you.  Anything I say here should be treated as a topic for you to verify and research (that’s honestly advice that should be applied to any information someone shares about firearms on the internet) rather than a gospel to be blindly followed.  Different armorers will have different methods of achieving the same result, but I’m writing this to hopefully set everyone – from a home hobbyist to a journeyman professional – up for success.

Gun Cleaning Essentials

1. A Solvent For Your Specific Needs

No one solvent is going to work for every single gun in the world. That said, there may very well be a solvent that will work for every gun you own.  What solvent, or solvents, you select are going to be largely dictated by the platform of gun you need to clean, how harsh of a chemical you need to use to clean them, and if there is anything you do not want to remove from them when cleaning. 

One of the more mild solvents on the market is Slip 2000’s 725 gun cleaner/degreaser.  I have used this to great effect on handguns, full auto rifles (M4s, AKs, G36s, and more), and belt-fed machine guns.  This water-based lubricant does a wonderful job of cutting through grease and grime without the need to soak for lengthy periods. There is no odor and, since it is water-based, it is safe to use indoors without risk of chemical exposure ( though I would still allow for plenty of room to work).  The downside to the 725 gun cleaner is that being water-based, it will cause rust if you do not completely remove it from some parts.  Additionally, due to the water-based composition, it must be stored in an air-tight container or it will evaporate at a faster rate than other solvents. 

If you need something a bit more aggressive, but still on the moderate side for solvents, Hoppes No. 9 is a wonderful cleaner.  Designed as a bore cleaner, it will remove copper, lead, carbon, and other fouling with minimal soaking.  This will work on pretty much any gun you have and contains chemicals designed to combat rush from forming.  Be aware it has a couple of things that need consideration when using it. The first is the smell; Hoppes 9 has a distinct odor that some love and others hate.  As this is not water-based, it should be used in a well-ventilated area and you’ll want to wear an apron over any clothes you care about.  

If all you own are precision guns, Boretech Bore Eliminator is a strong contender for the top choice.  Designed to remove carbon and copper fouling, this will help keep you from altering your barrel break-in or altering the ballistics of the load data you’re trying to test.  This is odor-free, ammonia-free, and is designed to be safe for use on all barrels for any period needed.  This is a specific product designed for a specific application, so it isn’t ideal for broad use on all guns, so bear that in mind.

2. Barrel Cleaning Tools

The inside of your barrel will get dirty when shooting; that’s the nature of the beast.  To remove fouling and to clean out the lands and groves of your barrel, you need a tool that can fit down your barrel snuggly.  There are two major tools available, both of which have some strengths and weaknesses, and are generally interchangeable (except in the case of precision rifles).  These tools will be used in conjunction with your solvent of choice.

The first popular tool is the bore snake.  These come in a few different forms, but it is generally either a cloth “shoe-lace” looking tool with bristles through the middles of it or a metal wire with a similar bristle setup.  One end is inserted through the bore and then pulled out of the muzzle end of the barrel, causing the bristles to drag along the grooves of your rifling, scraping out any build-up inside.  Boresnakes do need to be the appropriate size, based on the caliber you are cleaning, as they need to be tight fitting enough to touch the groves, but not so snug they get stuck.  The downside to these is based on their design.  As bristles get damaged, you simply have to replace the bore snake as there isn’t a reliable way to repair them.  Additionally, the cloth versions can get very dirty and require cleaning. Otherwise, you’re dragging grime through other grime.  The easiest way to go about this is tossing your bore snake into a pillow case and running it through the wash (I do recommend soaking it in some solvent before doing this to break down fouling as much as possible).

The first popular tool is the bore snake.  These come in a few different forms, but it is generally either a cloth “shoe-lace” looking tool with bristles through the middles of it or a metal wire with a similar bristle setup.  One end is inserted through the bore and then pulled out of the muzzle end of the barrel, causing the bristles to drag along the grooves of your rifling, scraping out any build-up inside.  Boresnakes do need to be the appropriate size, based on the caliber you are cleaning, as they need to be tight fitting enough to touch the groves, but not so snug they get stuck.  The downside to these is based on their design.  As bristles get damaged, you simply have to replace the bore snake as there isn’t a reliable way to repair them.  Additionally, the cloth versions can get very dirty and require cleaning. Otherwise, you’re dragging grime through other grime.  The easiest way to go about this is tossing your bore snake into a pillow case and running it through the wash (I do recommend soaking it in some solvent before doing this to break down fouling as much as possible).

The other major option is a cleaning rod, which requires different attachments to work.  At its simplest form, this is a rod with a handle that you screw a brush tip into.  You coat the brush in some solvent, push it into the bore of your gun, and press until it pops through the muzzle.  Pull back until it comes out of the bore, clean it, and repeat. The rod should spin as it is pushed through the barrel, as this is what allows the bristles to engage in the groves and follow their path to sweep out any fouling or debris. 

Cleaning rods have several configurations and if you add in brushes and attachments, the possible setups are vast.  My recommendation for the workbench is a one-piece rod for your pistol and one-piece rod for your rifle.  The multi-section rods can be useful but I find they aren’t as robust and tend to flex and bend much more, which can lead to some issues down the road.  That being said, they are great for tossing in a rifle bag for range use or out in the field on a hunt if you suddenly notice a decline in performance and need to clean your barrel.

With the rods, you will need brush and jag attachments.  Most often these are brass tips with nylon or brass bristles, then brass jags for pushing patches through.  The brush must be the appropriate size for the caliber you are cleaning, as removing a stuck brush (especially if it comes off the rod) is a time-consuming chore.  Additionally, if you find yourself cleaning a precision barrel with a fast-acting copper remover, it is worth finding a brush like the Proof-Positive Nylon brush to use, as it uses an aluminum core and nylon bristles to avoid falsely discoloring patches.  One step that many people seem to miss is cleaning your rod after a pass or two.  The rod and brush are being pushed through everything that is trapped in your barrel, they will get filthy.  I tend to hold a paper towel or clean shop rag in one hand near my bore and as I pull the rod out, I wipe it down to remove as much contamination as possible.  I then reapply the solvent to my brush, dousing it as needed to remove any soiling, and repeat a few times. 

Jags and patches are the final pieces of the puzzle here, working together as the last step of ensuring your barrel is clean.  A jag is screwed into the rod and poked through a patch before pushing the entire thing through your barrel to wipe out any remaining solvent, fouling, or debris on its way to the muzzle end.  Patches should be just tight enough to create a bit of resistance when shoved through the barrel, but not so tight that you cannot push the rod through with minimal effort.  While patches are readily available in different caliber sizes, be prepared to trim your patches as needed, as there is some amount of variance from brand to brand.  One trick I like to use when cleaning is to mount my gun at a slight angle so the muzzle end is lower than the bore, with a trash can under the muzzle.  This allows my solvent to freely travel in the direction I plan to push it, and when running patches, they protrude out of the end of the gun and pulling back slightly will usually catch the patch on the muzzle and cause it to fall right into your trash can. Patches should be run until they come out clean, as this lets you know the barrel is free of fouling.

3. Brushes for the Rest of the Gun

Aside from the barrel and chamber, there is still the rest of the gun to clean.  While there are specific brushes that can be purchased for this, they range from nylon to stainless steel and need to be selected carefully.  If you aren’t sure what brush you need, your best bet is to use a stiff-bristled nylon brush, as this will be very difficult to cause any damage to your gun.  In place of a specific brush made for cleaning guns, a toothbrush with stiff bristles can work well, though avoid one with plastic inside the bristles as these can mar some polymers and also snap off inside your guns while working on them.

If you find that nylon isn’t getting the job done, there are copper-bristled brushes on the market.  These are only suited for use on metal parts such as exteriors of barrels, metal frames, or anything else that is not polymer or that might get marred by the metal bristles.  I would steer most people away from using the stainless steel bristled brushes, as they can chew up guns and cause unintentional damage that is costly to fix.

Using your solvent of choice, you would soak the brush and scrub the grip, frame, internal components, etc. until they are thoroughly cleaned.  Then you want to dry everything as much as possible using your preferred method (Q-tibs, cotton balls, paper towels, or an air hose are all great tools, especially when multiple are used).  Apply proper lubrication and reassemble as needed before function checking.

4. Lubrication

Lubrication is one of the most heavily debated topics surrounding the cleaning of firearms, as everyone seems to have their favorite. After trying several lubes manufactured specifically for firearms, along with several that are made by companies trying to expand into the firearms market, I will tell you this much: what you need out of your lubrication is going to be heavily dependent on the firearm you are using, the environment it is used in, and how much labor you feel like putting into the application. Avoid using lubes that are made by companies in other areas and dipping into the firearms market, as they often do not hold up as well and can contain carcinogens that you don’t want to add to an already toxic air when shooting.  Similarly, I’m not a fan of using greases, as I find they get gummy, and honestly, I’m too lazy to have to break down an entire weapon system to apply and further applications require that plus cleaning.

I live in Las Vegas, smack in the middle of the desert.  My weather conditions typically produce high heat, incredible amounts of particulate in the air, very little humidity, and seasonal colds below freezing.  The lubrication I’ve had the best success with on handguns and carbines have been FireClean Advanced Gun Oil and Slip 2000 EWL.  Both lubrications have very high-temperature ratings, hold up well in colder settings (though I have found Slip 2000 had a slight edge in this variable), and are extremely easy to reapply.  If my moving parts start to feel gritty or hindered, a quick douse of lubrication will generally free them from any particulate that might be stuck there and allow me to continue the training class or range session I’m at.  I do want to stress that this is a quick fix that should only be used if you are sure no other issues are present; proper lubrication is of paramount importance but is not a substitute for proper cleaning when needed.  I cannot see myself switching from one or the other in other areas of the country/world unless they suddenly became unavailable.

5. Small Tools Make a Big Difference

Aside from the above resources, there is a litany of small tools that make cleaning a firearm a much easier and more enjoyable experience.  Not all of them will be useful on every platform, but most will find use across more than one. Many of these are inexpensive and should be considered consumable items that will require replacement over time as they bend, break or deform. 

A variety of small picks and scraping tools are invaluable.  These don’t have to be anything crazy as they will be used to scrape stuck carbon from metal parts, pry small pieces of debris from tiny crevices, and clean harder-to-reach places.  This is one of the few times I will say that the Harbor Freight variety is more than adequate for the job and that there is no need to run out and buy expensive watchmaking picks. 

An air compressor and hose will speed up your cleaning and help combat rust better than almost anything else available.  For handguns, shotguns, and carbines, use an air hose and compressor to blow air through the gun to ensure it is dry, loosen any debris you may have missed, and ensure no solvent is trapped inside.  I do not use this on my precision guns though, so if you chose to, it is at your own risk. 

Punches are going to be necessary if you are disassembling your guns.  At some point, you need to drive a pin out, drive one back in, apply pressure somewhere, etc.  I am partial to Starrett drive pin punches for most bench work, as they hold up well and don’t cost a fortune.  Just bear in mind that punches, especially the thinner, smaller diameter ones, can bend and break.  

As punches have come into play, a good gunsmithing hammer is something you basically cannot live without.  My go-to is the Brownells 1-inch nylon/brass hammer, as both sides are non-marring and it has enough weight to accomplish most jobs without being too heavy to use on smaller parts. The key is knowing when you need a bigger hammer, and knowing when to ease up to not mangle things.  A good general rule of thumb is that anything requiring an inordinate amount of force to drive out or put back in is being done wrong.  

This is just a glimpse of a much larger picture when it comes to cleaning firearms.  A few basic items, some time, and some understanding are all you need to keep your guns in a well-maintained state, and you as a responsible owner should make the time to check them periodically.  Consider the above in determing the appropriate cleaning schedule for you. That said, every few thousand rounds is generally what is advised (without any other factors coming into play).

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