How to Clean a Gun: Rifles, Pistols, and Shotguns [Complete Guide]

How to Clean a Gun: Rifles, Pistols, and Shotguns [Complete Guide]
December 6, 2022 Edited May 13, 2024 1532 view(s)
How to Clean a Gun: Rifles, Pistols, and Shotguns [Complete Guide]

Let me start by stating that unless you are very OCD about your shooting hobby, you probably look forward to gun cleaning about as much as you do to paying taxes. Most of my shooting buddies are boastful of the fact that they clean their guns once a year or so. I hear from them “the hole still goes all the way to the end of the barrel” or words to that effect. How they would get enough light into it to determine that is beyond me.

So… is cleaning important, if so how much cleaning is enough or is there such a thing as too much? That is what we will address herein. To you cut-to-the-chase-ers, the short answer is yes, Virginia, there is (in addition to Santa Claus) a need to clean your guns.

Let’s look at three types of guns and how to clean them. First, I must emphasize that your gun MUST be empty! I once sent a .45 ACP bullet into my reloading bench from the “empty” pistol I had to drop the striker on to get it apart. Talk about embarrassing… it could’ve been WAY more than that! Having said that, we will examine proper gun maintenance for shotguns, rifles, and handguns. So… nothin’ to it but to do it!

 

The Basics

Before we take an in-depth look at each type of gun, let’s look at what needs to happen to all guns regardless of type. All guns need attention paid to two main areas. The action of the gun may get gunked up (that’s my technical term) and would need work done to it, and the barrel/bore will need to be addressed.

There is more, of course, but these two areas are common to all guns. In years past if were to write a similar piece about gun cleaning, I might include the gun’s finish as a basic area that needed cleaned and/or polished. That would have been in the “most every gun is blued” era, the ‘70s and earlier. Nowadays the prevalence of polymer and stainless steel obviates the need to polish your piece. As with everything else we deal with, none of this is carved into stone so as the current “cool” online phrase puts it, your mileage may vary. (I get tired of seeing “YMMV” in every online gun review I read. I promise that this is the last time I’ll use it).

 

The Tools Of The Trade

Before we get into specifics, let’s take a quick look at the basic items we need to clean our guns. They might be broken down into three main areas… hardware, solvents, and lubes.

Different gun cleaning lubricants and brushes

 

Hardware

Hardware would include anything that isn’t a liquid or some type of spray. Rags, patches, brushes, jags, picks, etc. comprise the hardware part of our necessary equipment. I had access to a pile of those tough paper “rags” that are used by janitors and other maintenance personnel to take the place of cloth rags. I cut them into patch-sized pieces: large for big-bore guns and small for smaller calibers or rimfires. This is an idea that might save you some money. You can buy cleaning patches but it’s cheaper to make your own, even from old T-shirts. 

Here is a cleaning rod from Tipton, and below that other picks, brushes, and a bore snake that has definitely seen better days (as has this old towel I chose as a cleaning supply backdrop on my messy loading bench)…

Tipton cleaning rod
Various gun cleaning brushes

 

Solvents

Solvents can be liquid or spray. My go-to standby is Hoppe’s #9. Whenever I unscrew the lid from a bottle of that wonderful stuff, the smell takes me back 50 years or so to when I first started shooting. Some things never change, for good reason. There are newer solvents out there, most of which are very good. But… if you want a trip to yesteryear, open a bottle of Hoppe’s.  

Here are some options for solvents. These are basically what I had on hand. There are many other good cleaners out there that I didn’t have access to but these will do for a start. I included the old (WWI-era) military cleaner in the photo simply because I had it. There are better options out there now. I like the admonition printed on the can that it is not to be ingested...

Various gun lubricants

 

Lubricants

Lubricants come in bottles, aerosols, or pump sprayers. But, most handy in my mind are those that come in a small bottle with a needle applicator on top. I can get that into the receiver of a single-action revolver or anywhere else that a spray wouldn’t work. I want the oil inside the action, not all over it, me, and the bench. Sure, I’ll wipe the gun down when I’m done but I don’t like the overspray situation that aerosols or pumps can cause.

Gun-Max gun oil for gun cleaning

These two oils will put oil just where I need it. Note the plastic needle tip on the left and the straw on the right. I like that. (I like even more the Lucas Oil oil bottle I keep in the house with the steel, “real-needle” tip). There are specialized formulas made for specific uses.  The ones shown here are, as I said above, what I had access to. There are many good cleaners and lubes out there. Some concoctions combine the cleaner and lubricant into one – CLP comes to mind – and those can save time. I guess I’m just old-school when it comes to cleaning but I am open to the newer stuff. There are some great products out there. 

[Check out Bear Creek Arsenal's selection of cleaning kits and supplies!]

 

Frequency Of Cleaning

How often should you clean your guns? This is a question that you need to think about. I own some guns, particularly revolvers, that need to be cleaned if you simply take them out of the gun case and point them at a target, or so it seems. They get grungy just thinking about shooting.

And, in the other extreme, I’ve shot others that could go to my backyard range five or six times before needing to be cleaned. The best solution, as Goldilocks found, is in the middle.

Myself, I tend to overdo cleaning. I will at least do a rudimentary clean job if I shoot a gun for any decent length of time. I do make exceptions from time to time. If I shoot a few shots, like five or six over a chronograph, I most likely will wipe the gun down and not take it apart. This is especially true if it’s a rimfire. Why is that, you ask? Let’s look at that type of gun.

 

Rimfire Cleaning

Rimfires can require different cleaning methods than centerfires. Whether it’s a rifle, pistol, or revolver, you need to pay attention to your rimfire cleaning routine. Cleaning the action of whatever rimfire you’re shooting, whether it’s a long gun or short, is pretty much as I describe below for other types of centerfire guns.

The barrel can be a bit of a different animal, however. You should clean your rimfire barrels. When I was younger, several decades ago, the general thought about cleaning rimfire barrels was that you shouldn’t. Why not? It was thought that, since rimfire bullets are lubed externally, they imparted a beneficial coating to the bore. What folks didn’t think about was the fouling and sometimes little chunks of lead they also left behind.

After you shoot your rimfire rifle/pistol/revolver, get some sort of light down that barrel and take a look. Not pretty. Now, imagine adding to that level of gunk with each subsequent shooting session. OK, I’ll give you a pass so that you don’t need to clean the barrel after every shooting session (unless you’re the type to put boxes of ammo through your guns each time you go shooting). You might clean it every other session with a solvent-soaked patch or bore brush followed by dry and then lube-soaked patches. That is the way to preserve your accurate 10/22, Winchester 9422, Ruger Mark I/II/III/IV, Marlin 39A’s, etc. pristine bore.  

That’s all for the basics and the rimfires. Now, let’s go on to centerfire guns. We’ll start with shotguns.

 

Shotgun Cleaning

We have two main types of shotguns to consider: break-open single- or double-barrel, and pump/semi-auto. They all share common cleaning needs but there are a few differences.

 

Break-Open

After you’ve shot your single- or double-barrel shotgun, you need to take a look at it and do a few things to get it ready for your next session. The action is fairly simple and can be wiped down with a solvent-soaked patch or rag and then have a shot of lube added internally through an opening. Please do not overdo the lubing… a tiny amount will work. Otherwise, dirt will be attracted by the oil. Less is more. (Maybe I should make that into a hip abbreviation to be used for gun cleaning: LIM. Hmmm…). Make sure the lever moves smoothly and that all residue is gone. As for the barrel(s), run solvent-soaked patches all the way through until they come out clean, and then follow with a dry patch. Finally, push a lubed patch through to protect the barrel and you’re done. Wipe the exterior metallic surfaces with a light coat of oil and stick ‘er back in the gun safe until next time.

Shotgun with break-open

 

Pump/Semi-Auto

The pump gun is next up the ladder of shotgun complexity in terms of cleaning. You must check the action and clean any nooks & crannies for powder residue and fouling. There aren’t many ns&cs on a pump, but check it you must. Pay close attention to the chamber. You might need an old toothbrush or gun brush to get in there and scrub with solvent the walls of the chamber, the breech face, and the lifter. (In other words, all the surfaces inside). You want to get it clean. Make sure the firing pin hole is clear and clean. 

In terms of specific cleaning for each type, please make sure that the rail(s) on a pump gun is clean and lubed. It is pretty much given that the rail(s) won’t need much attention but every few cleanings take a look at that area and wipe or clean as needed. On a semi-auto, you add the gas system into the mix – unless you’re shooting a gun like my dad had, a recoil-operated Browning Sweet Sixteen. I won’t get into gas systems since they vary in their design and construction, so see your manual about specific needs for them.

That’s pretty much about it for shotguns. They’re fairly simple to maintain, but you do need to clean them at least every now and then.

940 JM Pro shotgun
Image: Guns ‘n Ammo

 

Rifle Cleaning

Rifles can come in a few variations. You have bolt- and lever-actions, semi-autos, and single-shots (that are generally cleaned as are break-open shotguns). There are both similarities and differences in their cleaning protocols.

 

Bolt/Lever Actions

Bolt action rifle side view
Image: gundigest.com

The bolt gun needs its action to be very clean. The tolerances are close – they have to be – so you’ll want to remove the bolt and make sure the chamber area is spic-and-span clean. Some like to take the bolt apart and clean it – you’d need to check your manual as bolts come apart differently. Use a brush to clean the chamber area well. Lube the bolt and leave a thin film of oil on it before replacing it. Then, you will want to run your cleaning rod or snake into the barrel from the breech while you have the bolt out.

This avoids possible damage to the muzzle crown. Run a few solvent-soaked patches through the bore and follow up with dry patches, until they are fairly clean. Push an oily patch after the dry ones and you are finished. The action and bore should be clean after these steps. Wipe down metallic parts with a lightly-lubed rag and you’re good to go.

Lever actions are not that different than bolt actions - the bolt is activated by moving the lever down and then up as opposed to pulling the bolt rearward via the bolt handle. Cleaning is basically the same for both levers and bolts.

 

Semi-Autos

Self-shuckers are a bit different, but remember that all guns follow practically the same cleaning drill. If your rifle is an AR-pattern gun, remove the mag and check the chamber. Pull the rear pin and allow the upper to rotate downward. Pull the charging handle and bolt out and clean as needed. Use a small brush with solvent to get into the chamber area and locking lugs. (There are specific tools that make cleaning lugs easy; check out our .223/5.56 cleaning kit for the best).

Clean the barrel from the breech as above with solvent/dry/lubed patches. Clean around the gas port if you can reach it. Lightly lube the bolt and charging handle and replace. I also like to put a drop of oil on other moving parts (LIM) like the safety and mag release but it’s not essential. Wiper ‘er down and stick it back into the safe.

AR-15 held up for display

 

Corrosive Ammo?

But, what if you were shooting corrosive ammo? You know, that lot of 7.62x39 that you got online, 4000 rounds for $12, from Zoobekistan? Steel case, very old, and known corrosive? Hmmm… better add a step in your barrel cleaning procedure before the final coating of oil. Spray some Windex down the bore and let it hit the breech face.

Ammo that is corrosive is usually (not always) so because of the primer. The powder as such is OK but salts from corrosive primers can hurt your gun if they’re left intact. The Windex’s water and ammonia neutralizes those salts. Follow up with a generous oiling of the exposed parts and you should be good to go. I once had a Turkish 8mm Mauser that came with some corrosive ammo. The Windex thing worked well. Corrosive ammo is not as common as it once was, but why take the chance? It’s a cheap, easy fix.

 

Handguns

As with both the other two gun categories, handguns consist of more than one gun type. In this case, we’ll talk about revolvers and semi-autos. (Single-shot handguns like the T/C Contender can be cleaned like a break-open shotgun).

 

Revolvers

Revolver side view
Image:cz-usa.com. I wish I still had my original Dan Wesson 15!

Revolvers are either single-action or double/single-action. They allow access to their cylinders differently but they both share the same cleaning principles.

First, make sure they’re empty. Then, remove the cylinder (single-action) or swing it open (double/single action). Clean each chamber in the cylinder with a bore brush and follow up with a dry mop brush or patch so that each chamber in the cylinder is clear and clean. Finish with an oil patch. 

If you were shooting Specials in a Magnum gun (.357 or .44), double-clean the ring towards the front of each chamber to remove any leading or powder residue that came from firing a shorter cartridge in the longer Magnum chamber. If left uncleaned, I’ve seen the build-up so bad that a magnum cartridge could not be inserted. Keep that area clean. 

Clean the barrel by running solvent-soaked patches through it, followed by dry and then lubed patches.

 

Semi-Autos

Taurus g2c side view
Image: sportsmans.com

Semi-auto pistols have an advantage that revolvers don’t have – you can remove the barrel to clean it. Start by taking the magazine out and ensuring that the gun is empty. Take the slide off. The procedure to do this will vary, so check your manual if you’re not sure how to do this. Remove the barrel. Run patches through the barrel as above, ending up with a lubed patch. If needed, remove the lead from the barrel as described above. Clean the feed ramp and wipe the barrel down.

Dirty feed ramp

(I forget what pistol this barrel came out of. It was a review gun I’d received. That feed ramp is as clean as I could get it but it still looks rough…).

Clean the slide, particularly the breech face and chamber area, with solvent-soaked patches and/or a brush, followed by dry patches. Use that (tooth)brush on the slide rails to get them clean and then put a drop of oil, spread out, in each rail. Clean the frame rail guides as well and lube them sparingly (LIM). 

Once the pistol is back together, work the slide back and forth and wipe off any excess oil that seeps out. A quick overall swipe with your oily rag over the metal surfaces completes the cleaning process. Modern metal finishes such as Tenifer or Melonite (or whatever other name it goes by, depending on brand of gun) is really corrosion-resistant but old cleaning habits die hard, at least for me. As I said above, the move to polymer and stainless steel has really cut down on the rust issue for revolvers and semi-autos, but the barrel still needs cleaned and the inner parts still need a drop of oil every now and again - just don’t overdo it!

 

What About Barrel Leading?

Barrel leading
Image: rimfirecentral.com

If your barrel is leaded due to shooting soft cast bullets at velocities over 1,000 or so f.p.s., there’s a solution that doesn’t involve ordering a Lewis Lead Remover kit. Go find some Chore Boy copper scrubbers. They will be near the SOS pads and other dishwashing scrubbers. Pick out one brass bore brush of the same caliber as your barrel as a sacrifice. Why sacrifice? Because you are going to dedicate this one brush to be your Chore Boy brush…

Cut a small bit of the Chore Boy pad off with some tough scissors that you don’t care about and wrap this around your bore brush. You’ll need to cover at least part of the brush and have it be thick enough that the barrel’s rifling engages it when you stick it in your barrel. You will then move the cleaning rod back and forth vigorously enough times to cut the leading out of the barrel.

Keep pulling the brush out and looking into the barrel. When the barrel is clean, run a lubed patch through it. It must be Chore Boy brand scrubbers… do not buy just any copper-colored wire scrubbers at your local store. Many of the off-brands are steel fibers just coated to look like copper… those can damage your bore. True Chore Boys are your guns’ friend. I’ve used them for years.

 

Conclusion

From the first time I first smelled – then used – Hoppe’s #9 I knew I was hooked. It wasn’t exactly substance abuse, but it was close. I truly enjoy cleaning my guns. I’m not anal about it, but I do want to keep them functioning as they were originally designed. I also want them to last so that my sons will someday benefit from my adherence to good cleaning procedures.

Whether you do that is up to you, but what can it hurt? Keeping your firearms clean is part of gun ownership – it’s just something you do. Cleaning is one instance where “LIM” does not apply. Happy shooting!

P.S. Check out the products below for all your cleaning needs! ⬇

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Steven Levy
December 20, 2022
Bear Creek Arsenal 7 1/2" lower: Comes beautifully shipped and even better unwrapped. Quality is top notch. Everything seamlessly flows together. Upper Assembly did fit and function as intended. I would definitely recommend this to anyone doing a AR pistol build.
Harry McNease
December 28, 2022
Great information here, and to the point
Lynn Mamula
January 11, 2023
Good read, thank you
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