Dumping lead and copper downrange in a fit of shooting glory always wakes the senses. But alas, not all of it makes it downrange. Leftover residue from those joyful shots clings to the nooks and crannies of your beloved firearm like cobwebs in an attic. But unlike harmless cobwebs, the various materials that leave their footprint inside your gun can eventually pit, corrode, and even completely destroy your gun.
That's why, despite any internal protest, you must clean your firearm if you want to maintain its function and accuracy. This guide will show you how.
Before we delve into this, it's important to note that almost any shooter you meet will have their special recipe and routine for cleaning. Some will be basic, get-it-finished-fast type routines. Others will be intricately laid routines, bordering on the superstitious. Most will open up energetic debate, but as long as the cleaning routine follows the basics precautions and measures laid out in this guide, your gun will be taken care of with room to cater it from here. So here are the essentials you need to know to cut through the gunk.
First, two important notes to keep you safe:
- Make certain the gun is unloaded. It might seem to go without saying, but there it is. Said. More than a few tales exist of people accidentally firing an assumedly "unloaded" firearm. Take this step boringly serious and always double check to make sure your firearm is unloaded — even if you're certain.
- Wear gloves and clean in a ventilated area. There's nothing tough or macho about dipping your bare hands in chemicals, let alone in an enclosed space where fumes go straight to the brain. Too many old-school gunsmiths working in their basement have serious health problems now. They didn't know what we do now. If you can use non-toxic cleaning alternatives that still meet your shooting needs, do it. But for most gun cleaners, non-absorbent gloves and ventilation — ideally outside — will keep your gun and you in working order for years to come.
Next, two important notes to keep your gun safe:
- Be mindful of the crown. The "crown" of a firearm is the opening at the end of the barrel where the bullet exits the gun and is the last point the bullet touches before journeying downrange. If the crown is damaged, even by a small nick, the bullet could potentially deviate significantly from its intended path. So, as you clean your firearm, make sure to handle the crown with care. Avoid dragging or scraping anything overly abrasive (like steel, or even a heavy-handed application of a brass brush) against it. This is a good rule of thumb for most metal on your firearm. While especially important for rifles and pistols, this is not really an issue with shotguns, but it's a good practice.
- Clean from breech to muzzle or back to front on the barreled action. When possible, clean from the breech/chamber (generally the area where the round is loaded) to the muzzle (end of the barrel). Some guns can be partly disassembled to expose the entire breech/chamber and barrel, so a cleaning rod can be carefully inserted down the center with no interference. Other guns are not as simple to disassemble so a pull-through option is better than stuffing a rod down the muzzle end.
Here's a list of basic tools that will get you started. Don't panic; you can easily cater this to your specific needs or pick up a pre-assembled tool kit, which should contain most of the items listed here.
Cleaning Rod. This is one of the best and simplest ways to clean most guns, especially most bolt-action rifles. It’s good to have, even if you don't have access for breech to muzzle cleaning, because if a bullet gets stuck in your barrel, you can use it to carefully free the round. Look for coated rods with brass ends. They are much kinder to most barrels than uncoated steel rods. A bore-guide is useful companion here.
Pull-through or Bore Snake. A pull-through is usually a cable of some sort with a patch holder at the end. A Bore-snake is essentially a brass brush wrapped in a threaded pull-through, which eliminates a few steps of the full cleaning process but generally isn't recommended for precision guns. When using either, it is important to ease it into the chamber opening (especially the brass end) and keep it centered the entire time as you give it a consistent pull. This will keep fairly even pressure and prevent any damage or uneven wear over time.
Jag/Patch Holder.These connect to your cleaning rod or pull through and pierce or hold your patches.
Patches. Usually small pieces of fabric that can be soaked in gun cleaner or oil and run through the barrel. They're also good for wiping down other parts of the gun. They usually come sized for each caliber, or you can buy bigger ones and cut them for your needs.
Bore Brush. This will help dislodge the more stubborn fouling in your barrel when you are looking for a thorough clean. Make certain to use the right size for your caliber.
Gun Cleaner. A good bore cleaner will remove the carbon, copper, lead and other fouling buildup.
Oil. After initial cleaning, coating the metal parts of the gun lightly in good gun oil will protect the metal from moisture and corrosion, and prep it for storage.
Lube/grease. A little thicker than oil, a good lube or gun grease should be used at any wear points in the gun. A small dab goes a long way in preventing excess wear and tear on crucial operating parts.
Bore Guide. Normally a cylindrical piece of metal or plastic that lines up with the chamber opening. The cleaning rod is then inserted into both the bore guide and chamber, and the guide keeps the cleaning rod consistently centered to avoid uneven pressure and wear points. This is not essential to every gun type, but it helps save time while maintaining accuracy. It is more crucial when cleaning precision guns.
Dental Pick. Especially effective in cleaning small and hard-to-reach crevices and corners in your gun. Be careful though, a light and precise touch is best as the steel can damage your gun.
Gun Cleaning Swabs. A good follow up for the dental pick, gun cleaning swabs make it easy to clean hard to reach areas.
Toothbrush. Yep, just a standard plastic toothbrush. While the wire bristled brush has its place, generally it's too harsh for nice guns and too stiff to reach those tiny places where fouling hides. A plastic brush bends and flexes, and you can scrub the heck out of your gun without worrying if it's going to damage anything.
The Cleaning Process
What follows is the procedure for a clean gun.
It should be noted that while every gun should be cleaned and maintained, if you plan on shooting it shortly after cleaning, you may want to reconsider a complete cleaning of the barrel, depending on gun and application. But these are advanced techniques for extreme accuracy, better served at another point.
For now, every gun will eventually need a good cleaning, and as a general rule of thumb, shooting a few "fouling" shots after a thorough clean will not only warm up the barrel, but prep the gun for consistency before going for the bullseye.
Here's how to make that metal squeak and shine:
- Always make sure your firearm is unloaded before cleaning.
- First, run bore cleaner soaked patch through the gun, breech to muzzle. This pushes out any large debris and preps the barrel for the bore brush. Again, make sure to keep the rod or push-through centered the entire time.
- Run a bore brush all the way through the barrel and fully out of the crown about three to five times. Never reverse a bore brush while still in the barrel. This can cause permanent damage. Always exit the crown fully.
There are two generally accepted methods to this step:
- After fully exiting, immediately reverse the brush and carefully drag it back through the gun and fully out of the chamber opening.
- Detach the bore brush, pull the rod back out of the gun carefully, then reattach the bore brush to enter the chamber once more, therefore always cleaning from breech to muzzle.
While there are mixed reviews on whether the latter is necessary or not, it doesn't hurt anything but your time to do this. With my precision guns and a little excess time, I tend to do the latter. But in truth, I've used both methods and haven't noticed a difference in accuracy. (If you choose the former, then be aware that this has potential to bring debris back into the chamber and may necessitate a more advanced chamber cleaning.)
Run two to three gun-cleaner-soaked patches through the gun. When the patches eventually come out clean, you're probably finished (visual inspection of shiny bore rifling can verify). If the third patch is still fairly dirty, repeat steps 2 and 3 until it comes out clean.
Once the bore cleaner patch comes out fairly white, run several dry patches (nothing on them) through to soak up any leftover cleaner. This step is essential, as bore cleaner can corrode metal over time.
Run through dry patches.Scrub the extra bits and metal parts with gun cleaner and get rid of any debris that's hiding. This is where the dental pick, gun cleaning swabs and toothbrush come in handy. Remember the bolt face, the crevices around the breech, etc. On an interchangeable choke shotgun, remember the threading. Then make sure to rid the gun of any traces of gun cleaner.
Use a light coating of gun oil on all the metal parts, and a small dab of the thicker grease/lube on any wear points. Work the parts to make sure they feel smooth and in working order. This also serves to spread the oil into hard to reach places. If you are storing your gun for a long period, run a patch soaked in oil down the barrel. That will keep rust and corrosion at bay. When you wish to shoot again, remember to remove the leftover oil. While there are variations, special tools and advanced steps one can add to this guide, you've got the basics you need to keep your gun in working order for years to come. You can stick to this guide or build on these basics to create your own cleaning routine. Just make sure if you choose the latter, throw in a superstition or two of your own — just for good measure.