How to Clean Your Firearms

Cleaning rod

Keeping your firearms adequately cleaned is imperative for both sure function and longevity. Improper or inadequate cleaning of your firearms can lead to stoppages, accelerated wear and even parts breakage. You can afford none of the above in an emergency or a long term SHTF type of situation.

The good news is that most modern guns require only simple and infrequent cleaning to perform at a high level and these operations can be performed with minimal in the way of specialty tools.

The bad news is that years and years of ingrained tradition, folklore, institutional inertia and outright falsehoods and pigeon religion has cemented improper, unnecessary or even outright harmful cleaning techniques as dogma. Is it worse to do to little or to do too much incorrectly?

Have no fear, Charles is here: today with an article on cleaning your guns to a correct field standard for reliability no matter what kind of crisis you are facing.

Whaddya Mean I Have to Clean This Thing?!

It might come as a surprise to some that guns do, in fact, require periodic care and maintenance. Lubrication must be applied at the proper intervals and to the proper locations.

Carbon, soot and residue must be scrubbed and wiped away. Springs, pins and other parts will wear out and need replacement before they fail totally. Just like any other machine made by man, preventative maintenance is a virtue when it comes to guns.

Now, guns are not identical repositories of bullets and powder, and the design features and overall quality of the gun will play a significant factor in its maintenance regimen, as well as things like firing schedule, environment and external factors like exposure to copious amounts of corrosive substances, mud, dirt and the like.

Basically some guns will gleefully fun through Hell with nary a hiccup while others choke, balk and bobble if not kept scrupulously clean and oiled. It is up to you to know the capability and reputation of your models and, more importantly, test your guns to better understand where their limits are.

But you will find that the majority of guns, grades average and up, made in the latter quarter of the 20th century through today will be highly reliable in most conditions if fed decent ammunition and kept modestly lubed.

Short of “self-sabotage” like using a sub-par detachable magazine, loading questionable or obviously bad ammo or allowing a gun to operate in a bone-dry condition with no lubrication, most will run and run and run, even full of soot and gunpowder residue, with no issues.

Even so, keeping your defensive guns in optimal condition is the hallmark of a disciplined and serious shooter. You would not let your bug-out vehicle lag behind on tires, oil and brake checks; why would you allow your trusty sidearm or shotgun to likewise go neglected? Just because your equipment is capable of tremendous feats of endurance and durability does not mean there is any reason to unnecessarily test its limits.

Fundamentals of Cleaning

You will service any given firearm in three phases: clean, wipe-down and lubricate. In a pinch, you can simply re-lube your gun and expect it to start working again most of the time since a lack of lubrication is a leading cause of misbehavior.

First, we clean, specifically meaning removing the dirt, dust, grit, sand and fouling left behind by the combustion of propellant that over time will gunk up the innards of the gun and retard cycling or other proper function.

This is achieved typically by using a specialized gun cleaner and a brush along with a cloth to remove this fouling. Additional processes in this phase may be treating the bore of the gun with a copper- and lead-removing bore cleaner; this is to be done intermittently, at most, since only the most substantial buildup of lead, copper or plastic fouling in a bore will adversely affect function or accuracy.

Next, you wipe the parts down in preparation for fresh lubricant. This is done with a clean section of your cleaning cloth and clean patches for the bore. Don’t use a dirty one: why would you go through all the trouble of cleaning your gun only to swap the gunk around with a dirty rag?

We want it off the gun, not just moved around! A degreasing agent may be helpful in this step, but you can also use fresh 3-in-1 gun cleaner or another CLP (Cleaner-Lubricant-Preservative) for the purpose.

Lastly, we re-lubricate the gun with fresh, unsullied lube at specified lubrication points internally and externally, and furthermore will lightly oil all other metal surfaces to prevent corrosion and inhibit rust formation.

It is too easy to go overboard here: excess lube is most often not harmful (unless it is in the bore!) but it is wasteful and your gun and everything near it will be a slippery, nasty mess. Don’t do it! Enough lube to leave your fingerprint wet is plenty. That’s it.

There are a few other ancillary steps and procedures that are specific to certain cleaning and inspection intervals or certain firearms, but that is really the bulk of it.

Best of all, these steps do not take a long time and are applicable to almost every type of modern firearm in existence. In the next section I’ll provide you with a handy step by step guide to make short work of what might otherwise be a lengthy and arduous task.

gun cleaning kit

Necessary Gun Cleaning Gear

Doing a good cleaning job requires precious little in the way of kit. Most of the big, nice, expansive kits you see on the market today are either for cleaning multiple types of guns in multiple calibers or are otherwise just packed with additional tools that, while nice to have, are not strictly necessary for keeping your gun field-grade clean.

The following is what is in my basic, “bare bones” kit and it can fit in a small pouch or tin, minus the cleaning rod. Carefully consider the weight and size of your kit and its contents before you commit it to a BOB or GHB.

Rag – A simple cloth, preferably one that leaves no lint and is made from natural fibers that will not degrade when exposed to harsh gun cleaning chemicals. Old cotton t-shirts that are falling apart are perfect for this when cut up. Bring a couple, and save one for wiping the gun dry/clean. A separate, larger rag or old bandana makes for a nice work mat and will help to corral small parts.

Patches – Little square or round pieces of cloth designed to fit the bore of your firearm snugly. You can buy these presized, or make your own from larger cloth after you have a little experience with eyeing the right size. Fit is important: too small will be loose and clean poorly while too big will be too tight and might wind up stuck. Again, go with all natural fibers.

Cleaning Rod – Specific to your type of gun. While one piece rods are nice and do the best job, you will not be able to efficiently bring a rifle or shotgun length rod with you.

Trusty standbys are the multi-section steel or brass ones that work just as well on handguns or long guns and feature the flip out handle. Great for removing stuck cases from chambers also in a pinch that may otherwise be very difficult to clear. Avoid aluminum and plastic rods.

Patch Holders – These little slotted jobbies fit on the end of your cleaning rod and resemble an oversized needle eye. They are broadly caliber specific and are designed to hold patches to mop bore cleaner or oil on the interior of the bore and, in a pinch, clean out the residue after you brush it. Jags work much better for the purpose.

Jag – Another gadget for the end of your cleaning rod, resembles a striated cylinder with a broad, flat face crowned by a spike in the center. Precisely caliber specific, a patch is laid over the jag, splashed with cleaner, and then pressed through the bore.

This, in essence, acts like a squeegee, the precise and tight fit forces the patch into the lands and grooves or walls of the bore and efficiently cleans it out with less work and wasted time.

Bore Brush – A brush that resembles a wooly caterpillar, and fits the end of the cleaning rod. Just for cleaning the bore and chamber, this must be precisely fitted by caliber to do a good job. Material is also important: choose phosphor-bronze or heavy-duty plastic. Avoid steel or aluminum bristles.

Utility Brush – The one brush all shooters love. Resembling a double ended toothbrush with one tiny, single row of bristles at the narrow end, this guy will let you accomplish 99% of your average cleaning tasks in short order. If you lose or cannot find a proper gun cleaning brush, an old toothbrush headed for the trashcan will work just fine, minus the handy detail end.

Cleaner, Basic – Designed to loosen up powder deposits and other gunk for easy removal. May have some lubricative quality or not.

Cleaner, Bore – Intended to break down and ease removal of heavy metal and plastic deposits in the bore of the firearm. Not necessary for every cleaning. Be warned: many are highly aggressive to metals and should not be left on for any great length of time. Be sure to closely follow all manufacturers’ instructions.

Simple Steps to a Clean Gun

Do keep in mind that the following steps describe a cleaning regimen for an “average” dirty gun; one that has been shot, exposed to sweat, blown dust and dirt and perhaps a little rain or other moisture.

A gun that has been exposed to a truly hostile environment, covered in sand, dunked in salt water or hideously bogged in mud will likely need more detailed rinsing and cleaning to assure trusty performance.

Step #1.UNLOAD AND ENSURE YOUR FIREARM IS CLEAR OF ALL AMMUNITION! REMOVE AMMUNITION AND AMMO SOURCES FROM IMMEDIATE CLEANING AREA! This step is 100% non-negotiable. Way too many negligent discharges happen when people start to break down their guns and bust out cleaning supplies. Don’t let one be attributed to you!

Step #2. – Strip firearm according to manufacturer’s instructions. A basic field strip is all we need, the only reason to detail strip is for annual or semi-annual inspection or parts replacement, or for cleaning after the gun was subject to major contamination.

For semi-auto pistols, this will mean tearing down into the slide, barrel, frame, recoil spring and guide rod, and magazine sub assemblies. For revolvers, often removal of the grips and opening the cylinder is adequate, though some wheelguns allow the cylinder to be easily removed.

Step #3. – Apply cleaner to carbon deposits all over gun; apply bore cleaner to bore (and chambers) if needed. Wiping or spraying on cleaner will loosen any stubborn deposits before they get too gnarly and help your brush dislodge it. Use your patch holder and rod to liberally season the bore with cleaner (bore-specific cleaner if required).

Step #4. – Scrub! (And Soak!) Use your utility brush, if needed, and rag to start lifting gunk, dirt and goo off the gun’s parts except the bore. When your cloth gets soiled, switch to a clean part or clean patch with fresh cleaner. We are deliberately letting the bore sit for a bit with cleaner on it since these deposits are often the most difficult to remove and can stand a little extra time under the cleaner.

Step #5. – Brush out Bore (and chambers on revolver). Attach bore brush to rod. Starting from the chamber if at all possible (or being careful not to ding the crown at the muzzle if otherwise) push brush entirely through barrel before reversing course. About five to ten passes will be totally adequate for most jobs. Add a little extra cleaner if brush seems very tight.

Step #6. – Wipe Down and Wipe Out. Using clean cloth, wipe down every part you scrubbed and cleaned earlier. To swab out bore, use patch holder or preferably jag with clean patch, first lightly soaked with cleaner until most fouling is removed, then dry to prep bore for next step.

Step #7. – Lube! At all proscribed lubrication points, apply oil according to manufacturer’s specification. All metal parts should further receive a light coating of oil to prevent rust and corrosion. The bore should receive a light coat of oil from a fresh patch.

Step #8. – Reassemble and Function Check. You’re done.

You will likely find that you have some traces of carbon or other sooty deposits left inside the gun when you are done. That is okay. So long as the bulk of the buildup and residue is removed and the gun is freshly oiled you can be sure it will fun like a top. Don’t be afraid if it is a little greasy!

Dispensing with Dogma

I would be remiss if I did not do my part to stamp out the most insidious of myths that persist when it comes to cleaning guns. More than any other, I see most well-intentioned gunhands fall victim to this aggravating and harmful bit of fiction: that of the “white glove clean” standard.

People, let me be 100% clean, er, clear: THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO GAIN IF A GUN IS KEPT DEVOID OF ALL CARBON, FOULING AND GUNK. In fact, slavishly striving to achieve this standard is likely responsible for more premature wear, tear and breakage than you might think. More on that in a minute.

Where did this myth originate? Like an awful lot of bad advice and bad techniques consumed as gun gospel, it came from the military.

Beginning in boot camp and other introductory training, recruits and junior enlisted men are admonished to keep their all-important lifeline, their rifle, immaculately clean and scrupulously inspected. Failure to do so, they are told, could cost them their lives, cost their mates their lives, and result in mission failure.

The consequences, should even a trace of that unutterable black carbon be found within the action of their rifle, are apocalyptically dire: bald eagle chicks will die in their shells, stillborn. Uncle Sam will shed a single, solitary tear before exploding into dust. Theodore Roosevelt will roll in his grave. The End of the World!

Except, it won’t. Should the above occur, the hapless young recruit will be severely punished, but that is all, practically speaking.

Yes, severe neglect can cause malfunctions. But I am not talking about severe neglect. I am talking about “greasy fingerprint” levels of soot, carbon and grease. All things you should expect to find in any working machine, guns included.

A handful of rounds or even a couple of magazines fired is most often no cause to strip down and start scrubbing and soaking with ever more caustic cleansers your firearm until you achieve that elusive sparkling shine.

All that will do is wear off protective finished and surface hardening faster than normal use. Congratulations: your gun is alabaster clean but you cut your service life by a third or more. Don’t be a smoothbrain.


Keeping your defensive firearms clean is crucial, but overemphasis on ludicrous standards of operating room-like cleanliness has led most shooters to waste entirely too much time and material in pursuit of nothing more than bragging rights.

A proper cleaning regimen is quick, efficient and leaves the gun ready for action and safe from rust without causing undue wear on man or machine. Learn to clean your gun properly when required and get on with the business of prepping.

cleaning firearms pinterest image

Charles Yor

About Charles Yor

Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.
View all posts by Charles Yor →

3 thoughts on “How to Clean Your Firearms

  1. Not clean your weapons completely, and every day? Geeze, Chesty Puller must be rolling over in his grave. 🙂

    Seriously, the military (particularly the Marine Corps) is pretty anal when it comes to weapon maintenance. Boot camp is the worst.

    However, the military also grubs around in some pretty nasty weather and terrain with their weapons, and getting clogged with mud, sand, rust, and other junk is a distinct probability. When the M-16 was first introduced, the McMorons in charge at DoD changed the powder formulation in the ammo to something cheaper, and much dirtier. Frequent maintenance was a lifesaving requirement in Vietnam. I mean having to field strip and clean in the middle of firefights frequent. When they finally re-changed the powder back to something cleaner burning, and chromed the bolt parts and chamber, and added a forward assist, things improved significantly and constant maintenance wasn’t as crucial. Of course, the M-16 took quite some time to lose that reputation as a grunt killer (and I don’t think it has completely with some vets). When I was in the Corps, I had an M-16A1 in Vietnam, which incorporated all of the improvements and I never had an issue that wasn’t magazine related (and that was only once).

    Over the years in the Corps and later the Air Guard as a security policeman, and as a civilian police officer/firearms instructor and armorer, I learned that the old boot camp daily (at a minimum) cleaning regimen was not necessary. I did learn, the main reason we had to clean our rifles so much in boot camp, was primarily to teach us how to do it correctly and to pay attention to detail. Also, the DIs pulled all kinds of dirty tricks to make certain we had to. Like spray a fine water mist on the rifles in the racks and watch the rust grow. Then see if we noticed (we always did, thank God). Or, make us take them into the sand pit with us for punishment, and kick tons of sand all over them while doing bends and thrusts (then get five minutes to clean them inspection ready). We used M-14 rifles when I went through boot camp.

    Having said that, when in Desert Storm, we did clean our weapons just about daily. Mainly a good wipe and brush down to get the sand out. Besides being abrasive, eventually sand build up will cause reliability issues in any firearm. Minimum lube was also the order of the day.

    These days, I rarely clean my AR to boot camp standards after I get back from the range. Sure, it’s clean and reliably functional, but not sparkling and ready to put a smile on my DI’s face (which wouldn’t happen anyway unless he found something wrong and was thinking up an innovative punishment).

  2. Thanks for sharing, I bet theres tonnes of people out there right now with a gun in their keep safe but don’t realise it will probably miss fire due to being dusty or dirty from lack of use.

    It’s good go be prepared in case the situation called for it.

  3. Just found this blog over a flashlight post. Really interesting stuff you guys, however i have one objection about using too much oil. Full disclaimer i never handled or owned a real gun because of the legal situation where i live but i do skate a lot and keeping your bearings lubricated is essential here and most people say excessive oil does not only oozy out but will actually attract and bind abrasive grit and flush all the way around you bearings. This is probably a much larger concern within the prepotorusly small tolerances of a bearing but its nice to keep in mind. Especially with precision firearms, im convinced its different with full blown machine guns, i heard those beasts are pretty thirsty but thats probably only the concern of a small majority of civilians.

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