Every firearm should be regularly disassembled and cleaned to maintain optimal function and preserve the life of internal and external parts. Even firearms placed in cold storage should be cleaned and maintained to protect them from the oxidizing effects of ambient humidity and dust.
As a general rule of thumb, firearms that are regularly carried and shot require weekly cleanings while firearms in cold storage require regular cleanings every 2-3 months. Some firearms might warrant more frequent cleanings due to their design, ammunition used, or if the firearm is used personal protection.
Regular firearm cleaning will reduce exposure to lead and toxic residues left by spent ammunition. Keeping a firearm clean will also preserve optimal reliability, reducing malfunctions, failures to fire, and accidental discharges. In addition, regular firearm cleaning is a practice that builds technical understanding of a firearm which will ultimately aid in marksmanship skills and training.
Factors That Determine Necessary Cleaning
Many firearm owners maintain a devoted cleaning session after each trip to the range, whether 50 rounds or 500 rounds are shot. On the opposite end of the spectrum, many other firearm owners clean their firearms only after a prescribed number of rounds. Without exposure to the elements and using non-corrosive ammunition, both of these approaches represent entirely valid practices.
If a firearm is regularly used for training and practice, weekly cleanings should be the basis for regular maintenance; if possible, additional cleaning sessions should be conducted after each trip to the range.
Firearms exposed to the humid, damp climates require additional cleaning to protect surfaces and parts. Humid climates will naturally cause oxidizing salts to accumulate on firearm surfaces and moving components and these should be regularly removed through cleaning and oiling. This includes sweat generated by the human body for firearms carried in holsters and pockets.
A firearm that is exposed to humid and damp conditions should be cleaned weekly at minimum with additional cleaning after each use at the range. In humid climates, it is important to store firearms with the aid of desiccants to reduce exposure to moisture.
Guns used for protection and security require reliable function, and fastidious cleaning should be carried out to ensure they always operate with optimal efficiency. Dirt and fouling can cause failures to feed ammunition, failures to ignite ammunition, and they can cause failures to extract spent cartridge casings. These events can make the difference between life and death, and they are more likely to occur when guns are fouled and dirty.
Firearms that are used for duty, personal defense, and other potential life-or-death scenarios should be cleaned weekly at minimum with additional cleaning after any ammunition has been used. Regular cleanings will aid in the inspection of internal parts and operating mechanisms.
Most modern firearms are designed to operate under adverse conditions which allows certain levels of fouling and carbon to accumulate without impacting function or reliability. Deviations from suggested cleaning intervals are often entirely acceptable, but in almost all cases, it will benefit gun owners to clean their guns on weekly schedule with additional cleaning after range sessions.
The firearm user manual specifies recommended cleaning requirements for a firearm along with specific instructions regarding which components require extra attention.
Different firearms might require more frequent cleaning due to their internal and external design specifications and how their design interacts with different types of ammunition.
Should Clean Scenarios
Ideally, firearms should be cleaned after every trip to the range. Cleaning after each range trip not only removes lead, carbon, and fouling, but it also helps familiarize the owner with the mechanical workings of the firearm while being monitoring the state of moving parts and operating components.
As a general rule of thumb, it is advisable to keep firearms cleaned and maintained on a regular basis, even if they are kept in storage and haven’t been fired. Firearms stored and not fired should be cleaned every 2-3 months with more frequent cleaning being desired and beneficial for the life and function of the firearm.
Must Clean Scenarios
There are certain conditions where firearms should be cleaned as soon as possible. These scenarios usually present imminent risks of rust, damage to the parts and finish, or could possibly impair the mechanical function of a firearm. Sometimes, malfunctions will indicate the need for cleaning or the replacement of vital parts.
If a firearm has been exposed to dirt, mud, dust, sand, or any other form of debris, it should be cleaned as soon as possible. If there is any suspicion that debris has entered the barrel or internal parts of the gun, it should be cleaned immediately.
While most modern firearms are mechanically robust and can resist the presence of debris and other particulate matter, it is necessary to clean firearms after exposure to sand, mud, dirt, or dust as soon as possible. Such debris grinds away at moving parts while accelerating overall wear and tear. Fine sand can be particularly damaging to a firearm due to its tendency to stick to oily surfaces and accumulate between small parts and fine crevices.
If a firearm has been directly exposed to water or any other form of moisture, it should be cleaned as soon as possible.
Water will seep between fine parts and it might fail to evaporate. This can interfere with function and operation and will sometimes generate unintended pressures within a firearm. Similar to dirt and debris, water and moisture will contribute undue wear and tear of parts and finishes, especially if they contain significant levels of salts. Left unaddressed, these salts will strip away protective finishes, damage moving parts, and will invariably contribute to oxidization and rust.
If a firearm shoots corrosive ammunition, it should be cleaned after each session where corrosive ammunition is used.
Corrosive ammunition uses primers that leave behind salts when burned. These salts attract ambient moisture from the air which invariably wear at parts and cause rust. Most retail ammunition today is non-corrosive, and factory ammunition will indicate if corrosive primers are used. The primary source of corrosive ammunition is older military surplus ammunition.
If a firearm is experiencing feeding, extraction, ejection, or firing malfunctions, it should be cleaned as soon as possible.
While certain types of malfunctions can be a product of improper grip or firing technique, malfunctions often indicate that a gun needs to be cleaned immediately.
Failures to feed ammunition, failures to eject spent casing, and failures to fire are often caused by fouling and carbon buildup which have accumulated to the point where they are interfering with a firearm’s moving parts.
Failure to feed ammunition from a magazine into the chamber often indicates excessive fouling on the breech or bolt. Extraction and ejection malfunctions indicate that carbon and fouling have accumulated on an extractor claw or its spring; in severe cases, a complete failure to extract might cause a double-feed malfunction.
Light strike malfunctions, where the firing pin fails to ignite cartridge primers, are often caused by carbon buildup on the breech face, on the bolt face, or on the firing pin itself. In severe cases, carbon buildup will cause the firing pin to be affixed in the forward position which can create a potentially dangerous slamfire discharge. In less severe cases, the firing pin will fail to exert adequate force to ignite a chambered cartridge causing a failure to fire.
Levels of Cleaning
There are several levels of cleaning, and if performed regularly, even the most basic forms of cleaning will help protect a firearm from rust and corrosion, thus preserving its function and lifespan.
The most basic form of cleaning is a simple wipe down and exterior oiling.
As stated earlier, even when firearms are placed into cold storage, they are still subject to the elements such as ambient moisture and dust. These firearms should receive an occasional wipe-down using a cleaning solvent and then receive a thin coat of oil on exterior parts. The wipe-down will help clear dust and salts, and oil will provide a layer of moisture resistance. Firearms in cold storage should ideally be cleaned this way at least once a month and minimally every 2-3 months.
The most common form of cleaning involves field-stripping, cleaning, and lubrication of moving parts.
Field-stripping allows the most crucial forms of cleaning and lubrication to be performed on a firearm to remove carbon fouling and dirt generated by live fire practice with a firearm. In this partially disassembled state, wear and tear of internal parts can also be observed allowing for proper maintenance, replacement of parts, or necessary repairs performed by a professional gunsmith. If a firearm is regularly fired at the range or carried on one’s person, this form of maintenance should performed at least weekly.
The most involved form if cleaning involves a full detail strip of a firearm, disassembling it to its most minute components.
Complete disassembly of a firearm should be conducted regularly but sparingly. The goal is to expose all parts in order to clear carbon buildup, fouling, and dirt that accumulates in the frame and trigger mechanism of a firearm. This level of cleaning provides the maximum level of restoration of a firearm, but it can also expose relatively fragile and small parts to undue wear and stress. Depending on the design and construction of a firearm, detail stripping should be performed around every 1000 rounds of use.