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How and When to Clean a Gun

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With millions of new gun owners the questions has hopefully come up, "When and how do I clean my pistol?". Pistol cleaning has been almost as long as pistols have, and as a result there's a lot of lore and marketing out there about it. Who do you trust for advice? The guy at the gun shop that wants to sell you stuff? Some random profile in a forum? The old guy at the range? Today we're offering another option, a guy who's shot, reviewed, tested, and trained with hundreds of pistols.

(There are links in this article to help you find products we recommend)

The Basics: There are a lot of parts in a pistol, and even more options for products and techniques. It can be bewildering and I admit to having tried a lot of them. The good news is it all boils down to some very simple concepts regardless of the caliber or model of your particular gun.

  • Carbon, dirt, lint, and other filth should be removed when it changes performance or threatens to (more on this in the video).

  • Where metal rubs on metal a light coat of lubrication is recommended. You don't have to be a gun expert to identify these spots. If you've shot the gun you'll likely see a little shine or wear on these spots. Don't worry, it's completely normal to find a little surface wear. Applying a light coat of lubricant will reduce friction helping your gun run better and reducing wear over time.

  • Depending on the quality of your firearm's surface treatment a light coat of oil should be applied to prevent rust. I use the "wipe on, wipe off" method to add some protection without making the pistol a greasy mess.

  • Polymer parts will not rust, and should not show any signs of wear. Clean them to your liking with a damp cloth, scrub out build up in grip texture with an old tooth brush.

When to clean is a big variable that will depend on use and environment. If you live in a humid climate, or it's a carry gun that is near your body most of the day you'll want to check for surface rust more frequently than a gun kept in an air-conditioned house. Range-only guns will be exposed to the elements and likely have carbon build up. Clean range guns when their performance changes or after an extended range session. Over time you'll find the balance that works for you. Some of my guns get cleaning once or twice per year simply to prevent rust, guns I shoot regularly or have for self defense get attention once per quarter.

How: The Tools: There is a huge industry selling a wide variety of tools and accessories for firearm cleaning. Some of it is snake oil, others can really make the job easy. I've tried a lot of them and recommend the list below, but that list is not absolute. Aside from "Frog Lube" there aren't any products that I recommend against. Over time you'll find what you like and works for your environment and needs.

OTIS 085 Wipes (or similar): I LOVE these. Previously I used RemOil wipes, but when Remington went under started looking for something else (plus, like most Remington products I highly doubt there were made by Remington in the first place). Just as easy as any other wipes you've ever used to sanitize, polish, or clean. These wipes have a multi-role liquid on them that helps remove carbon while leaving a find coat of lubricant behind. Other brands I've tried were either too harsh of a cleaner (you may want to wear gloves) or too oily and left everything too slick. Like the RemWipes, OTIS 085 wipes make removing most carbon a breeze and leave just enough lubrication and protectant behind.

For Stubborn Filth there are all kinds of options. Probably as a habit from the Army I like to

use "AP" (all-purpose) brushes which are essentially an Army-ugly tooth brush and yes, you can use and old tooth brush if that works for you. The "AP" brushes come with a variety of materials for the bristles including plastic, copper, brass, and steel. It's important that you not use a material harder than what you're going to scrub! The steel bristles are too tough for most civilian applications. The brass and copper ones may leave a little discoloration on what you scrub with them. That will usually go away. If you don't want to take the risk, try applying some oil or cleaner and letting is soak for a couple of hours. Because pistols operate with lower pressures and temperatures than rifles most of the caked gunk will come off fairly easily.

You can also use dental picks. These are usually sold at gun shows, but I prefer the free price by asking my dentist if they have any old tools. When picks reach a certain age or use dentists toss them. Ask on your next visit and you might get a small assortment of free pics. Use these sparingly as they can scratch the surface your scratching at. Dental pics are best used to break off very tough carbon.

Those Tiny Spots that the brushes won't reach can be reached with swabs. Q-tips are likely already on hand in your house, but they tend to leave annoying bits of cotton behind. Pipe cleaners are also very handy as long as they're real pipe cleaners and not the crafting kind as those also tend to fall apart and leave a mess. (options can be found HERE) As an upgrade, there are wooden-doweled swabs as seen in the video, but those can also break and are disposable. My favorite has become the Swab-Its (older video on these HERE) brand. These are medical swabs re-branded for consumer use. They polymer shafts are strong, they leave no lint, and are washable and reusable!

Bore Cleaning is not as important on a pistol as it is a rifle, but cleaning the chamber is. If you look inside your barrel you'll see a tiny step in diameter about as deep in there as the case is long, that's the chamber. The Chamber is where the explosion is contained and the brass swells and contracts. Crud in the chamber will make it more difficult for the round to properly fit in the chamber and more difficult for the fired case to be extracted. You can use a larger-sized, forementioned Swab-Its to get in there, but I've found bore snakes to be the way to go, might as well clean the bore some too right?

Bore snake-type cleaning tools effectively replace the old method of running patches through your bore dozens of times. With most handguns a single pass of a good bore snake replaced 20-30 minutes of messing with patches. There are several brands and types out there, not all of them good. I did a video comparing a couple some time ago with examples of good and bad. If you're curious you can see that video HERE. My favorite, for multiple reasons has become the Bore Boss from Real Avid. As shown in this older video the Bore Boss is a neat and tidy way to clean bores and chambers without becoming a pile of mess afterwards, especially if you have multiple calibers of guns.

There are times when you may want to add some extra lubrication, or simply can't get lube to the spots where you need it. There's also something strangely satisfying about lubricating a firearm. As demonstrated in the video at the head of this article, I've come to love Lucas Gun Oil. Everyone has their preferences, but for me this stuff stays where it needs to be, doesn't burn off after 10 rounds, and provides superior lubrication without turning my gun into a greasy mess. Additionally, the applicator allow for precise placement. The smart way to apply conservatively is to apply to the leading edge of rails and any other part that experiences friction. When you cycle the gun the friction and pressure will distribute the oil where it needs to be.

That's All you really need to do a decent job at cleaning your pistol. Five simple tools will take care of most any need. If I had to single out just one tool that makes the biggest difference for me it would be the wipes. Using those has been such a time saver. They don't replace everything, but they make cleaning firearms much quicker and simpler.

I know many of you have quite a bit of experience as well. If so, let us know what you like and don't like, what's worked and not worked for you. Share the knowledge!

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Feb 15, 2022

Once again, great stuff. I believe I should be cleaning my range used guns more often. I tend to think the chemical debris from shooting may be detrimental to the metal if left on for an extended period, especially in a high humidity environment. Plus, it gives me solace to know they are clean and ready for whatever comes next. It would also be great if I had more range time.


Graham Baates
Graham Baates
Feb 14, 2022

and just days later I got an email from some Chinese/Amazon company wanting me to review one of those 200+ piece cleaning kits. Not necessary for most gun owners!

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