How to (and not to) clean your guns

If you’re like most gun owners, you take great pride in maintaining your guns in top operating condition, applying the care and attention they deserve as high-quality instruments you can trust with your life. But is it possible to clean your guns too much? The short answer is yes, especially if you do it wrong. 

Let’s get this out of the way right now: most shooters clean their guns far more often than necessary. In this modern age of smokeless powder and non-corrosive priming compounds, most guns can fire hundreds if not thousands of rounds between cleanings with no loss of accuracy or reliability. Frequent cleaning isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you use the right products and techniques, but over time you can do permanent damage by using the wrong tools or procedures. 

The wrong way to clean your guns

Without a doubt, the biggest mistake most gun owners make is using a poorly designed cleaning rod. 

Avoid any cleaning rod made from uncoated steel, especially one with multiple jointed sections. The hard steel can wear down the rifling and the gaps between the rod sections may bend, exposing sharp edges that can nick the muzzle end of the rifling as you scrub the barrel. Soft uncoated aluminum or plastic rods can become embedded with slivers of steel, so be careful to keep them clean, which applies to all types of cleaning rods. 

The best cleaning rods are those made from a solid steel rod coated in plastic or other non-metallic material that’s softer than the steel of the barrel. There are several good brands to choose from and it’s a good idea to have several rods of different diameters and lengths to fit rifles and pistols with various bore diameters and barrel lengths.

Another common mistake is scrubbing the barrel with a rod (especially a steel one) from the muzzle end towards the breech. Over time, this can damage the delicate rifling at the end of the muzzle, called the crown, causing a loss in accuracy. There are some firearm designs that do not lend themselves to being easily cleaned from the breech end (M1 Garands and Winchester Model 94s are two common examples). In those cases, always use a bore rod that fits over the muzzle end to keep the rod centered in the bore and away from the crown.

Bore snakes are a controversial topic when it comes to gun cleaning accessories. Being light, compact and easily portable, they are handy for maintaining your gun in the field, but they can also be self-defeating if allowed to become caked with dirt or other abrasive residues. Using a filthy bore snake can damage a barrel as easily as a bad cleaning rod. If you do choose to include a bore snake in your cleaning kit, make sure to keep it clean!

Another practice to avoid during routine cleaning is the urge to strip the gun down too far. Excessive disassembly increases the chances of breaking or losing small parts and can induce unnecessary wear on parts with close-fitting tolerances. Although a thorough detail stripping is occasionally warranted, it’s rarely necessary or even recommended after a normal range trip. 

The right way to clean your guns

We’ve talked so far about what not to do, now let’s get into how to properly clean your guns. Good cleaning procedures start by having the right equipment for the job. You don’t need to spend a lot, but here are a few basic items that should be in every gun owner’s cleaning kit:

  • Quality cleaning rod
  • Bore guide if appropriate
  • Bore solvent for dissolving copper and powder residue
  • Bronze bore brushes for scrubbing loose fouling 
  • Cotton cleaning patches
  • Bristle brushes for cleaning hard to reach spots (old toothbrushes work great)
  • Lubricating oil (see below)
  • Good set of screwdrivers and other tools

Most of these items are self-explanatory, but as far as tools go, using poorly fitting screwdrivers to disassemble a gun ranks right up there among the common ways of damaging a gun. Not every gun requires a screwdriver for disassembly (Glock pistols are a good example) but if your gun does require one, do yourself a favor and invest in a set of gunsmith drivers with hollow ground tips that fit tightly into the slots in your screws. Nothing looks worse than an otherwise beautifully finished rifle or pistol with chewed up screws.

The basic cleaning process is simple. First fieldstrip the gun into its basic components for easy access to the barrel and other internal surfaces. Next we recommend cleaning the barrel first with a bronze bore brush to remove loose fouling and powder residue, then swabbing the bore with tight fitting cotton patches soaked in solvent until they come out clean. Finally, run an oil-soaked patch through the bore for storage. Other internal surfaces can be scrubbed with solvent and a bristle brush, wiped clean with a rag, and lubricated before reassembly.


If there is any gun-related topic more contentious than the argument over 9mm vs 45 ACP, it’s what lubricant is best to use on your guns. Opinions run the gamut from cheap motor oil to the latest and greatest space-age wonder oil, with everything in between. We won’t wade into that discussion other than to say this: any oil is better than no oil. The best advice we can give about lubes is to choose a product you like, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and use it often. If your gun is properly lubed, even if it’s dirty, it will keep running. This is especially true with modern semi-autos like the AR-15, AK-47 and similar gas-operated designs. We’ve heard tales of high-round count ARs that have never seen a cleaning rod or brush with more than 10,000 rounds down the barrel, but continue to run flawlessly thanks to regular and prudent application of lubricant in all the right places. 

In conclusion, it’s fair to say that erring on the side of over-lubing and under-cleaning will cause far fewer problems than the other way around.