Defensive firearms have to be reliable. To remain reliable, tools with many moving parts, should be clean and lubricated to keep working well. Modern firearms can be divided into two distinct categories, combat firearms and precision firearms. Over the years I have seen thousands of failures from minor through catastrophic and the vast majority are because the firearms were dirty.
So what does this mean with regards to cleaning a firearm?
It should be noted that combat firearms and precision firearms are often different in at least one major way. Many modern combat firearms are designed to operate reliably in a myriad of environments when dirty and still be combat accurate, generally this means 4” five round groups at 25 yards for handguns and the same group size at 100 yards for general combat rifles.
Precision firearms are designed for accuracy first, which means they will almost always have tighter tolerances lending to higher rates of failure in extreme conditions. Even though Saturday night specials are built with loose tolerances which helps them keep running when dirty, I still would not recommend these.
Yes, you should clean your firearm even if you haven’t shot it in a while. Cleaning a gun that has not been used, is a maintenance need and should be done to both prevent corrosion and encourage reliability should you need to use it. Another benefit of cleaning firearms is you can check springs, pins and connections to ensure everything is 100%.
When you wear a firearm daily it will accumulate sweat, dirt and lots of lint! While some suggest wiping it down daily and others as much as 3 months between cleanings, my approach is based on the individual. If you sweat allot, live in a coastal or high humidity area; run a rag over it every day. For some, you can hold off for a week or more. Again, corrosion and dirt causes far more failures than anything else with firearms.
So how do you clean a firearm that has not been shot in a while?
A few simple steps will ensure your firearm remains rust free, clean and functioning well for many years to come.
- Your very first step for cleaning a firearm should be making sure you have a solid flat workspace, ventilation and good lighting.
- As for tools and supplies I firmly recommend Ballistol (read my review here) as an L.C.P. Lubricant, Cleaner and Protectant. A good set of bronze, copper or nylon brushes and brass cleaning rods. A bore snake and good quality paper towels or clean cotton clothes. Use old t-shirts and underwear cut into small pieces and canned air works great for quick dust bunny maintenance. Newspapers or a cleaning mat will finish the needs off!
- Next make sure the firearm is completely unloaded, point the firearm in a safe direction, remove the magazine if it has one than open the bolt or slide and ensure the chamber is clear. For revolvers either release and unload the cylinder or open the loading gate and ensure the rounds have been removed.
- This next step is almost as important as making sure the firearm is unloaded, clean the barrel first. Using a BRASS cleaning rod and copper, bronze or nylon brushes is best. Brass is necessary because the inside of the barrel must remain blemish free and other metals can scratch and or nick the surface. I also recommend bore snakes and similar products as long as they use bronze or copper bristles, additionally understand that a bore snake works for cleaning when you do not have a lot of carbon build up.
- Now using Ballistol or one of the other lesser cleaners, lubricants and oils wipe down the outside of the barrel and inside of the slide or action of the firearm. Unlike in-depth cleanings you do not need to use a brush and pick! Using a clean cloth or paper towel wipe the excess cleaner and lubricant off of the surfaces.
- Lubricate as needed for your firearm per manufactures guidelines and if you do not have those the easiest way to lubricate is putting 6-8 drops of lubricant along the rails where the slide contacts them. Rack the EMPTY firearm several times and after CHECKING to ensure it is clear again dry fire once or twice to check function.
Several items that should be addressed are as follows. Most striker fired handguns are built with looser tolerances than many hammer fired handguns. While this does mean you do not need to clean them as much, it does not mean you should not do so. Additionally, lubrication needs to be done but NOT overdone! This means stick with guidelines from the factory or 6-8 drops on rails where they meet the slide.
Testing the function and component wear is necessary every few cleanings. Check the barrel, firing pin and different safeties and trigger springs. Depending on your firearm of choice the barrel can be removed, this will allow for a much easier inspection.
Visually check the inside and outside of the barrel for rust, dirt, lead deposits, barrel bulging and cracks or blockages. Lead deposits make the inside of the barrel appear completely smooth, a clean barrel has crisp clear rifling visible.
The highest carbon and lead build up will be around the chamber area. Rusting is bad, always, Hoppes #9 helps remove it and regular light use of Ballistol prevents future incursions! Dirt is easy to remove and clean, you can use gun cleaners or warm soapy water with dawn dish soap, make sure you dry the barrel completely if you use water.
On a striker fired handguns, while the barrel is out and slide is off, pull the firing pin lug all the way back and slowly let it move forward until it stops at the firing pin safety. Now push the firing pin lug forward, firmly, this ensures the firing pin safety works.
An additional test is to depress the firing pin safety button (usually on the left of the firing pin channel and lug close to the ejector tab) and repeat, except you let the firing pin lug slap forward and watch to ensure it protrudes from the firing pin channel on the bolt face.
With revolvers and hammer fired handguns, you can check hammer spring tension by carefully cocking the empty handgun and squeezing the trigger while maintaining a tight controlled release of the hammer.
Some hammer fired handguns are not designed to endure dry firing, so maintain control of the hammer, on all of these types to be safe! You should be able to see the firing pin protrude from the bolt face, after allowing the hammer to drop all the way.
Now you want to check your ejector/ extractor located on the breech face of your semi – automatic handgun. Revolvers do not have an extractor. Make sure you check these for dirt, chips, breaks and more importantly spring tension.
If your extractor develops a chip while shooting it can continue to function as long as spring tension is good. So make sure your spring tension is good-by using a spent casing and sliding it under the extractor and gently leveraging to feel the tension.
It should retain the case and make it difficult to remove by hand. A well made extractor is formed using tool steels, anything less is not enough. While you are checking the extractor, make sure to check the slide stop lever as well. Again, modern combat/defensive handguns have a slide stop, some people refer to them as slide release as well.
It is suggested that you do not treat the slide stop as a slide release. Use an overhanded pull on the slide and slingshot release, this is how a handgun is designed to work. By hand it is the closest approximation to firing, ejecting and chambering a new round.
Additionally if your slide stop fails in the field and all you train in is using it, it could impact your ability to perform under pressure. Train how you carry, train the right way.