How often should you clean your gun? There are some pretty extreme positions in the gun community. Some people will clean the finish off their guns, and others are content to go tens of thousands of rounds between cleanings. We prefer a middle ground; we don’t think you should waste your time needlessly cleaning your already-clean gun. If it’s dirty we think you should give your gun a proper cleaning though. Proper maintenance preserves the longevity of the gun and guns can be life-support equipment. So, we find ourselves back at the original question: how often should you clean your gun(s)? That depends on a lot of factors.
Factors Affecting Gun Cleaning
Gun Use Frequency
This one is a no-brainer. How often you use your gun should absolutely have some impact on how often it requires a basic cleaning or in-depth cleaning. In fact, this is going to be one of the top considerations – an avid shooter will have to clean more than an occasional shooter. If you have a safe queen that hasn’t been fired since 1972, it’s probably sufficient to pull it out once a year, do routine maintenance, and make sure it hasn’t developed any rust. If you have a daily driver that you shoot all the time, more frequent, cleaning is going to be necessary.
“Using” a firearm isn’t necessarily shooting. If you hunt with a rifle, you may use it all day for several days in a row without ever firing a shot. Same with your concealed carry piece – it gets used daily and you hope you never have to use it except in training. As we will see, just carrying a gun around can cause some maintenance issues too.
All firearms are exposed to the environment they are used in, and the environment has a big impact on how often you should clean them. Carrying a gun on your body creates a micro-climate that it is exposed to. This usually involves heat, some moisture, and salt. In late spring, summertime, and early fall, “some moisture” may be a LOT of moisture. You are going to want to clean this firearm pretty regularly, or at least inspect it to make sure rust and pitting hasn’t developed. The functional components may be fine but you certainly don’t want your carry gun to be rusty.
The same goes for other environments. Carrying a rifle on a hunt in rainy – or even high-humidity climates can accelerate the need to clean. Scrambling over rocks and climbing hand-over-hand while using your gun will probably necessitate cleaning slightly more often than walking on nice, level terrain. Using a shotgun around saltwater can increase the potential for rust on the gun. On the other hand, a pistol that only comes out twice a year to go to the indoor range isn’t suffering huge environmental impact. Consider the environment when deciding how often you should clean your gun.
Type of Ammunition
Most ammunition is just fine, but some is not. So-called “corrosive” ammunition can cause and accelerate rusting, especially of the bore. Corrosive ammunition typically has Berdan primers that contain corrosive salts. All ammunition of modern manufacture made in the United States is non-corrosive, but some imported ammunition may still be Berdan-primed. You can still shoot corrosive ammo but it is imperative to thoroughly clean your gun immediately afterward.
Type of Firearm
There are a lot of factors that pertain to the type of firearm you are using and how often is should be cleaned. Let’s look at a few of them.
Material/Finish: Even “stainless” steel guns can rust. Think of “stainless” as “stain less, not stain free.” Carbon steel will generally rust more readily than stainless steel, and a high-quality finish can make a world of difference.
Tolerances: You also need to consider the tolerances of your pistol. A Glock can probably go a thousand rounds (or more) without cleaning. A custom 1911, on the other hand, has much tighter tolerances and is much more susceptible to dirt and debris, increasing cleaning frequency. A Remington 870 shotgun with incredibly loose tolerances can probably go a very long time without serious internal cleaning of the action. Depending on what you are using the gun for, that might be fine.
Use Case: What are you using the firearm for? Is it a range toy, a hunting gun, a family heirloom, or a self- or home-defense gun? If it’s just a fun gun for the range you can clean at your discretion, we don’t like to let them sit longer than a year. A hunting rifle or shotgun should be cleaned – at an absolute minimum – at the end of every season. It should be cleaned at the end of every hunt if exposed to extreme environmental conditions.
Your concealed carry handgun should be cleaned regularly. It’s a good idea to find out how it will perform when dirty, but when you hit the street and your life depends on it, it should be clean. We know your Glock will go 2,500 rounds without cleaning, it’s not better or more reliable because of being dirty. It functions in spite of being dirty.
Signs it's time to Clean your Gun
If you’re still on the fence about when it’s time to clean your gun, let’s look at some key indicators.
Visual Buildup of Debris: This is one the most obvious signs that it’s time to break out the cleaning gear. If you can look into your firearm’s action and see a buildup of carbon, powder residue, or other junk, it’s time for a cleaning session.
Changes in Accuracy or Function: if your gun starts to behave differently, it’s time to give it a good scrub. If the slide becomes sluggish, the cylinder of your revolver won’t close, your rifle’s accuracy begins to suffer – if any of these occur, cleaning should be your first step in attempting to troubleshoot.
Unpleasant Odors/Discoloration: If your firearm has an unpleasant, acrid odor, it’s probably time to clean it. The carbon buildup is probably significant and cleaning it may reduce this. Likewise, if your gun appears to be discolored. Carbon can build up near the muzzle and cause temporary discoloration and deserves a proper cleaning.
How to Clean a Gun
Keep in mind that cleaning your gun may vary depending the type of gun. However, the principles are generally the same.
Safety Precautions: Handling firearms is inherently dangerous. Before you begin cleaning your gun, you need to ensure that it is unloaded. We are assuming you are cleaning a semi-automatic pistol. If not, it is up to you to know your gun’s manual of arms. When in doubt, consult the owner’s manual!
For a semi-automatic pistol, remove the magazine FIRST, then ensure the chamber is empty. Leave the slide locked to the rear and remove the ammunition from the room. When you come back, double check it to ensure that it is unloaded. (Remember Colonel Cooper’s 4 rules of gun saftely!)
You will need some cleaning gear. We recommend a mat to place everything on to avoid damaging your furniture (for that matter, do this on a work bench, not your dining room table). A nylon bristle brush will help remove debris, and a soft rag for wiping everything down. Some Q-tips are nice for cleaning hard-to-reach areas, like slide rails. A cleaning rod and copper bristle brush and some bore patches will clean the bore (alternatively you can use a bore snake). And of course, you will need some cleaning compound.
Step-by-Step Gun Cleaning Process
1.Once you have made your firearm safe and removed all ammunition from the room, go ahead and disassemble it according to the owner’s manual. If disassembly requires pulling the trigger make sure the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction.
2. Apply your choice of cleaning compound to the bore. Let this sit and loosen up build-up in the bore while we clean the rest of the gun.
3. Clean the inside of the slide. Apply the same cleaning compound used earlier. Scrub all areas with the nylon brush to loosen up carbon build-up. Wipe everything clean with the rag and Q-tips.
4. Repeat this process for the frame. Be sure to clean out the magazine well, and pay special attention to the frame rails.
5. Return to the barrel. Scrub the bore going from chamber to muzzle with the bristle brush, then wipe it out with a dry patch. Repeat until the dry patches come out clean.After the bore is clean, clean off the exterior of the barrel with the nylon brush.
6. Disassemble the magazine. Wipe down the magazine spring. Brush any dirt and debris from the inside of the mag body and wipe it down. Ensure the magazine follower is clean, as well, then reassemble the magazine.
7. Apply a thin, light coat of your cleaning compound to the barrel, the inside of the slide, and the frame rails and reassemble the gun. Make sure all moving parts with metal-on-metal contact are lubricated.
8. Lightly oil the slide and sights to prevent rust.
9. Perform a function-check, ensuring that the gun functions properly and all safety mechanisms function correctly.
Weapon-Mounted Lights: The lenses of weapon-mounted lights have a tendency to get coated in carbon. This can lead to reduced light output, so it is important to keep these clean. The easiest way we have found to remove this is with a pencil eraser. Gently go around the entire lens with the eraser and it will remove the carbon. Do not use abrasive chemicals or tools, as these will permanently scratch the lens. This will reduce light output, as well as making future carbon deposits even harder to clean!
Night Sights: We recommend using lens-cleaning cloth or something similar to protect the finish on your night sights. All you’ll need to clean your sights are acetone or other cleaning agent, and oil to lightly coat and wipe your sight with after.
Recommended Schedule for Cleaning your Gun
At this point we still have not exactly answered the question, “how often should I clean my gun?” so let’s address that now with some general guidelines.
Hunting/sporting/range guns should be cleaned after each outing. You don’t have to do a detailed clean, but they should at least be wiped down and given a fresh coat of a cleaning compound. This will protect them until next range trip or trip to the duck blind. If you are putting a gun away for the season, it should get a detailed clean, as described above.
Concealed carry firearms should be inspected weekly. If an issue is identified, like accumulations of sweat or salt indicating dried sweat, they should get cleaned. This is just routine maintenance. Concealed carry firearms should also get a thorough cleaning after each and every shooting session. Again, the gun you carry is life-support equipment, so treat it that way.
Keeping your firearm clean is important. While a dirty gun will work, it’s not ideal to carry around a dirty gun. It can impact its longevity in the long term, and its reliability in the short term.