Gun cleaning can be a pleasure or chore, depending on how you look at it. The tools and cleaners available today are staggering, but leave a lot of choices for the consumer.
Blued guns like this look beautiful, but they need a little more TLC than some of the more modern finishes.
The area where aftermarket sights meet the slide can be an area where rust sneaks up on you. Q-tips can really get into this corner and get the crud out.
Revolvers, while less maintenance intensive with such items as springs, etc., still need periodic maintenance and good cleaning when you shoot them.
I use Q-tips or other cotton swabs to reach a lot of hard to reach places. They absorb dirt/grime nicely.
By Brian Jensen
OK, so if you’re here, you probably own a firearm of your own, or you may be looking for one. Owning a firearm, such as a pistol, is a lot of fun but it’s also a lot of responsibility. One of those responsibilities is the proper care and maintenance of your gun. If you want it to last, taking proper care of it is the key.
Be it rifle, shotgun, or handgun, each has it’s own particular characteristics. Here, we’ll talk about caring for handguns, both revolvers and pistols. Revolvers will generally need less in the way of maintenance, but will still need your TLC from time to time. Take a few minutes to pull that wheelgun out, look it over, and wipe it down if need be. In a similar situation, stainless guns will need less maintenance, but they can and will still rust if not properly cared for.
First off, there is a difference between maintenance and cleaning. One is done to keep the gun ready on an ongoing basis, and preserve it long term (maintenance). The other is cleaning he weapon after use. Both are important, but both hold slightly different roles in the care of your firearm.
Before we get into the specifics about caring for the guns, let’s pause here just briefly to go over where you do your work on them. Select a place that’s clear of clutter, and with a flat surface. Avoid places that have carpet or rugs as they will suck up and eat small pieces.
Most importantly, make sure the gun is empty, and if you need to, remove any and all ammunition from the room. I cannot emphasize this enough. Far too many people have been hurt or injured by someone cleaning an “unloaded” gun. Before you even start doing anything to a weapon you bring into your cleaning area, clear it, check it two or three times, then recheck it. Once you know it’s empty, and visually as well as physically check the chamber, you can begin. This goes back to the standard principle that you should treat every gun as loaded until you check it for yourself. When you sit down to clean or work on your gun, make sure you check to make sure it is empty first.
Maintenance is less about keeping a pistol clean, and more about keeping it ready to go when bad things happen, or just for when you want to take it to the range. You may even just be making sure it stays in good shape for your kids when they inherit it. Most guns will outlast the original buyer when properly maintained, but the problem is many people forget this and leave their guns sitting in a safe, drawer, or on top of a shelf in their closet. I’ve even recovered a few that were sadly stored in a a closet with the water heater. (Just know, moisture + metal objects/tools/guns = rust) Very few guns survive this forever.
I won’t get into the merits of regularly shooting a gun you intend to protect yourself with (it is really important DO IT), but even if your gun is going to sit without being shot for long periods of time, it really needs to be checked out regularly. Otherwise you may take it down from the shelf one day and find that a whole side of it is caked with rust. Worse, it may have internal rust you can’t even see, but we’ll get to that.
For external rust, old style blued guns suffer the most in this. They have less protection against the elements than say those with more modern finishes, like Melonite or Tennifer. Stainless guns, and the chrome and nickel coated guns are also very good, but they too can pick up rust spots, and these can sometimes threaten good function.
Just handling older style blued guns can deposit oils from your skin onto the surface of the firearm. Those oils alone can start to bring on rust given the right conditions. The best rule of thumb, if you take it out, rub it down with Rem-Oil or silicone cloth before you put it away. Much less, if you take these guns out into the field, they will need to be wiped down as well.
Even guns with Melonite or Tennifer can get rust. Especially in areas such as aftermarket sights, as they will not always have as robust a finish on them, and rust can develop where they meet the slide surface.
Take a Look Inside
After checking it on the outside, I field strip the gun every so often, and look at the innards. Sometimes rust decides to go after parts inside, rather than outside. Alloy and polymer frame guns can be notorious for this. Aluminum and plastic don’t rust, but the carbon steel parts inside such as springs, sears, etc. certainly will, and are easy to forget.
All guns, whether stainless, coated, or blued will need this. Just taking the time to take it out, look it over, and wipe it down will do wonders to keep it in order. I spray into the action with Rem-Oil until it drips out the other side on all my guns that I know are going to be away for a while without being used. I have found that Rem-Oil leaves a coating that is safe for both blued steel and wood, and polymers of course, and that it doesn’t attract dust or dirt.
For a gun that’s going into storage, there are moisture protection bags to put them in long term. Dehumidifiers for your safe are also available, called the Goldenrod that you plug in, and there are several types of silicone moisture absorption systems that can be refreshed periodically by baking them in the oven if you don’t want to plug in your safe.
As an example of how important it is to check guns inside, a federal marine unit recently found out their HK’s were great in every respect, except their hammer spring, which rusted easily under saltwater conditions. The gun looked fine outside; that was until they pulled the trigger and heard a “crack” as the spring broke. Now it was a nice German paperweight…Once they realized the problem, they created a maintenance schedule commensurate with the needs of the pistol
The goal is to keep your friend up and running for a lifetime. It’s not terribly hard if you give it some periodic TLC.
There are those who love to brag as to how long their favorite “brand x” pistol went between cleanings. What I rarely hear them brag about is the time it takes to eventually clean up the gun after these marathon sessions. This may be great for gun demo’s, or bragging rights, it’s horrible treatment for a tool that’s supposed to keep you alive when you need it to defend yourself.
If you get your gun dirty, clean it. Even on a plastic pistol, most of the parts of the gun that involve firing are made of machined steel. This steel travels back and forth over other steel, and the tolerances between these two parts is machined to an exact specification, usually within a few thousands of an inch. If you get burnt powder in this space, or sand, or dust, or anything else, the stuff in there turns into sandpaper, grinding away at the working surfaces of your gun.
I used to dread cleaning, and put it off for far too long. But I soon learned from a good friend who introduced me to shooting, one of the best parts was the after-shoot cleaning time. We could talk, brag, or joke around while we cleaned our guns, and some of my best memories are from those times. After a while, I learned to consider cleaning a time to relax, and I really of enjoy it now.
When you clean your handgun, whether it’s a revolver or a semi auto pistol, you need to use good quality cleaners. Fortunately, there are a great abundance of good cleaners out there today. Some are classics like Hoppe’s or Ballistol that have been around for years. Others like CLP have become a mainstay in the last decade or so. Regardless, there is usually something out there for your needs.
While some like to use all in one lube/cleaners, you sometimes need a specific copper remover or cleaner for your weapon. I like Hoppe’s #9 or Gun Scrubber for a heavily dirty barrel or to remove lead from my revolver. If the gun has old style bluing, I like to check the cleaner first on a hidden area to make sure it won’t damage the finish.
Beware that if the cleaning product you intend to use says “rust remover” on it, bluing is a slow rust process and will not survive even a dab of this cleaner.
I field strip the gun (after clearing it, of course) and clean/scrub the barrel, slide, and inside the frame. I take care to remove any carbon, lead, fouling, and whatever else is there, with a spray, brush, Q-Tip, rag, or some of the other things I will share in the tips below. Once these are cleaned I apply oil to any place I have metal to metal contact. This usually means the rails (both slide and frame), barrel, and if it has one, the barrel bushing.
Once it’s all put back together I function test it. I take an EMPTY magazine and place it in the gun, and pull back the slide, and see if the slide lock works. Then, I eject the magazine, and rack the slide a few times. I then place a pencil, eraser side first, in the barrel, and pull the trigger. If the pencil shoots up, the firing pin / trigger system is working. I then rack the slide and verify the hammer/trigger reset. Once it all checks out, you’re good to go.
Revolvers, especially stainless ones, are a bear when it comes to cleaning. The lead and fouling that accumulates in rings around the face of the cylinder are a real pain to get off, and take considerable time, solvent, and elbow grease from my experience. A good solvent such as Hoppe’s #9 and a bronze brush is the best tool I’ve found for this job. Be careful with steel brushes they can damage many types of finishes.
The cylinder face and top strap on a revolver are easy to overlook, but these are crucial areas to really get clean. If you don’t use a bronze brush to scrub, scrub, scrub all of the black carbon deposits away, these will be compounded the next time you shoot your gun.
Generally I don’t take either a pistol or revolver beyond the level of field stripping for a good cleaning. But outside of periodic inspection, again, I tend to spray Rem-Oil through the action and let it drip out the other side. Rem-Oil is your friend and I use it for everything.
Cleaning the barrel may seem like a no-brainer to you, but there is an important consideration you should be careful of. The crown of the barrel effects accuracy more than anything else on the gun. If you nick the inside of the barrel end with a steel cleaning rod, it can seriously effect accuracy. The brass rods you get in a cleaning kit aren’t an issue. Brass is softer than steel so can’t harm it. But some of the high end cleaning rods are steel, and with many you have to pay extra to get the brass sleeve that protects the bore. This is a very important addition to any steel cleaning rod. These days there are great fiberglass rods as well and I suggest them regardless.
On an auto-pistol, where you are taking the barrel out of the gun before cleaning it, clean it from the back, and use your toothbrush or other hard bristle brush on the feed ramp to get it nice and shiny. Crud can build up on it and this is a primary cause of failures to feed.
There is no mystery to cleaning barrels. If you are shooting copper jacketed bullets, check to see if there is copper fouling. If so, get some Hoppe’s copper solvent and a bronze brush. If you have lead fouling from shooting lead, make sure your lead isn’t too soft, and that you aren’t loading the lead too hot. It is important to check this stuff right away when you shoot a new load of ammo, or a new brand. Fouling can build up, especially with lead.
My favorite way to put patches down my barrel is to use an old bronze brush and put the patch on that, dipped in Hoppe’s #9. It cleans the rifling nicely, but you can use that brush as a brush anymore so make sure to use an old one. Also see the top about the Hoppe’s Bore Snake. It is a fitting replacement for patches.
For those in salt water or marine environments, cleaning is even more important (as is maintenance). Salt water will do a catastrophic number on a gun if left alone. I once jumped onto a sinking boat on San Diego Bay, and left my S&W 640 .38 stainless snubbie on my ankle. The gun needed a complete strip down and cleaning. I even took off the side panel of the revolver and cleaned it out.
Needless to say, anytime your gun gets dunked, in fresh or salt water, you need to completely disassemble it and make sure the parts are clean and dry. Wet parts can be put in the oven even (not plastic grips or frames), and then Rem-Oil them good. If your gun goes into salt water, make sure to put it in fresh water as soon as possible to stop the corroding power of the salt water. Gun Scrubber will also displace moisture on a temporary basis.
Some weapons, but very few, will need something more robust than gun oil to keep it reliably in service. Greases will stay in place longer, and have better factors for lubricity. The down side is they attract grime much easier than oil. It is better to use a thinner oil more frequently than a heavy grease infrequently. The dirt that even Lithium grease attracts will eventually turn into sandpaper in your action, and wear down your internal parts.
Tools and Tricks of the Trade
Every task these days has shortcuts and tricks that make them easier. Gun care is no different. Household items as well as tools from the gun industry can make the task of cleaning or maintenance much easier. Guns are especially frustrating, as many have little spots that are hard to get at that accumulate grime.
Q-Tips or cotton swabs – I have found these are lifesavers when getting into nooks and crannies of the underside of a slide, or inside the frame. They are a must have in any gun cleaning kit. I just buy the biggest, cheapest packs I can find. Using these cotton swabs, I can get into places more thoroughly than I would have been able to, or unless I’d completely disassembled the gun.
Pipe cleaners – You can find these in the craft department at Wal-Mart. They are great to slide between close machined surfaces that are hard to get a patch or cloth into. Some meticulous cleaning may seem like overkill, but it is really up to you how clean you want to get your own guns.
Silicone/Rem-Oil cloths – These are fantastic tools to give a wipe down of guns that you’ve handled. It can clear off any oils from your hands that may cause rust. That’s especially true for those older style blued guns. If you find yourself taking your Pedersoli Sharps rifle, or old Stevens doublegun out of the safe to fondle it once in a while, keep a can of Rem-Oil and a silicone cloth on hand, or the Rem-Oil wipes. They can mean the difference between a gun that looks like it did when you bought it for the rest of your life, and one that has round rust marks in the design of your fingerprints.
Hoppe’s Bore Snake – The Hoppe’s Bore Snake is one of my favorites tricks of the trade. I have one for all my calibers, and they make cleaning much easier. I scrub down the bore with a good solvent and then run the snake through. 99% of the time I have a gleaming clean bore. For those times it isn’t quite enough, I just repeat the process. These remove the need for patches, and can be reused for years with or without dipping them in Hoppes #9 (but I have to admit I’m a dipper).
Brushes – Toothbrushes are pretty good to get the slots and grooves clean inside the slide of an auto, but they tend to not be tough enough. To get some of the more stubborn grime, you need something generally with more tenacity to the bristles than the usual Oral-B. Companies like Otis make all types of gun cleaning brushes in various bristle types. Copper and nylon are good for the specific applications, and they are relatively inexpensive. It never hurts to have a toothbrush on hand though.
Gun Scrubber or other spray solvents – When I first started shooting, my friend used to use braek cleaner to spray down his all steel S&W semi autos. Today, Birchwood Casey has come up with Gun Scrubber, as well as the countless other versions from other manufacturers. These are far less caustic than brake cleaner, but spray into those hard to reach places and clear out grime like it was nothing. Just re-oil and you’re in business. These can, however, remove paint, as well as some wood and metal finishes, so be careful. Newer versions are even safe for polymer framed guns as well. This alone had saved me countless hours of cleanup when dealing with the underside of the slide, or inside my 1911 frames.
Dental & Electronics Pics/Tools – I have used these extensively, (my Mom worked in the dental field, and I was able to stock up on these before she retired.) These give us the best ability to get to little areas to remove caked on or stubborn grit, even rust, that has accumulated. You can find these on Ebay, or you can pick up the electronics variety at Radio Shack. Be careful with any steel tools. They can easily scratch off your finish. I use pics wrapped in a cleaning patch doused in Hoppe’s #9 to get into the small crevices.
Don’t Be Lazy!
A firearm is a significant investment, and unlike many of the other big ticket purchases in our life, like cars, stoves, cameras, TVs, they almost never end up going to the dump or junkyard when you decide you want a different one. Guns are the ultimate “durable consumer good.” They almost never get thrown away, and they are seldom worth less than 25% less than you paid for them. Often they are worth several times more later in life. If you take care of your guns, they will take care of you, whether it be protecting your life, service in the field, or as your own little retirement account locked in your gunsafe. By keeping them clean and making sure that no hidden rust or corrosion is creeping in, you will keep them in service for a lifetime, and possibly several lifetimes.