March 25, 2020
By J. Scott Rupp
I hate to be the one who adds another task to your to-do list, but hey—you’re stuck at home. You’ve got time. Take this opportunity to do some handgun maintenance. Clean guns function better than dirty ones, and especially if it’s a gun you count on for personal defense, it needs to be kept in proper condition.
People who visit our website have widely varying backgrounds when it comes to firearms, so I’m going to hit the basics—although that doesn’t mean only newbies will find this information helpful.
I’m going to break this into sections on semiautomatics and revolvers, but before we get started, make sure you have your cleaning area prepped if you don’t already have a dedicated cleaning area. Cleaning mats designed specifically for the job are terrific, but if you don’t have one, just cover the cleaning surface with material—old towels will do, as will that big ol’ mouse pad you don’t use anymore—that will protect your gun and the surface from damages caused by dropping parts or spilling chemicals. If you’re cleaning a semiautomatic, be sure the covered area is large enough to hold all the parts once they’re separated.
Because you’re dealing with springs under pressure, you should definitely wear protective eyewear—which you already have because you own shooting glasses. If you’re not intimately familiar with the takedown procedures for your pistol, whip out your owner’s manual. If you don’t have it, you can almost always download one from the manufacturer’s website. This is an important step because semiautomatics have all manner of takedown procedures—you have to pull the trigger, you don’t have to pull the trigger, there’s a takedown lever to operate, a takedown pin to remove, and so on.
Whether you already know how to field-strip your pistol or you need a refresher, the first step is always to ensure the pistol is unloaded. Remove the magazine—always do this first—then retract the slide and lock it to the rear. Look, really look, into the chamber to ensure there’s not a round in there, and it’s not a bad idea to stick your little finger into the chamber for tactile confirmation.
With the gun unloaded and the muzzle pointed in a safe direction, follow the takedown steps given in the owner’s manual. Depending on the gun, you’ll end up with the following parts: frame, slide, barrel, recoil spring and guide (some springs and guides are captured as one unit, some are separate), and barrel bushing (for 1911s).
If I’ve been keeping up with my cleaning and have been shooting only a little bit, a pull-through bore cleaner like the BoreSnake from Hoppe’s or Ripcord from Otis works well to keep the bore clean. I’ve started using Tipton’s caliber-specific Power Swabs swabs as well, and I’ve been pretty impressed by them.
But if I’m coming back from a high-volume session, I break out a rod, cleaning rod tip (slotted or pointed; I prefer the latter), patches and brass brush. Run three or so patches soaked in cleaning solvent through the bore, followed by several passes with the brush. Finish with dry patches until they come out clean. Those who shoot jacketed bullets are well-served by any general bore cleaner; lead-specific solvents are a better choice if you shoot a lot of lead bullets.
Spray a rag with a cleaning solvent. I particularly like cleaner/degreaser/lubricant formulas—Hornady’s One Shot Gun Cleaner w/Dyna Glide or Hoppe’s Gun Medic, for example—but cleaner/degreasers or just cleaners work, too. Wipe the exterior of the barrel, the recoil spring and guide, the inside of the slide and the feed ramp.
Regarding the latter, if you’ve been shooting a fair amount but not have kept up with your cleaning, you might have to grab one of those handy gun “toothbrushes” and scrub the fouling off the ramp. If it’s really stubborn, you may need to use a carbon-cleaning fluid to get it totally clean.
Now it’s time to lubricate, and once again the owner’s manual is your friend. It will tell you where the lube points are and generally how much to use. I’ve always stuck with a “less is more” approach to lubrication. One thing I would advise is to stick with lubes designed specifically for firearms, as opposed to household-type products.
Reassemble the pistol per the manual, work the slide a couple times, wipe down the exterior metal parts with a cloth lightly saturated with gun oil or rust preventative, and you’re done. Almost.
A semiautomatic is only as good as its magazine. If it’s a gun that sits at home or is carried most of the time, you probably don’t need to do anything more than wipe down the exterior with a cloth.
However, if you’ve been shooting a lot outdoors and your magazines have hit the ground or have been living in a dirty, gritty range bag, you should consider disassembling it as well. It’s just a matter of unloading it, and with your protective eyewear still in place, remove the floorplate, and then withdraw the spring and follower and wipe with a clean rag.
They make brushes for cleaning the inside of magazines, but running a clean cloth through it will work, too. Do not lube the inside of the magazines or their guts. Almost all lubes attract dirt and grit, and you don’t want that.
Swing out the cylinder to ensure there are no rounds in it. Clean the bore as above. The only difference here is a lot of us revolver shooters are fond of lead bullets, and if that’s the case with you, a lead-removing solvent makes the job quicker and easier.
Clean the inside of the frame with a brush and solvent—or, my favorite, carbon cleaner. To clean the cylinder charge holes, I usually run a solvent-coated brass brush through all the charge holes from the back then the front, then push dry patches through the holes until I see they’re clean.
I shoot .38s out of my .357 most of the time, and my double-action .44 Magnum sees its fair share of shorter .44 Specials. This means I have to pay particular attention to the charge holes. In time, firing these shorter cartridges will create a ring of fouling near the front of the charge holes, which you don’t want. Be sure to clean extra well.
The front of the cylinder gets really fouled, and I find a brush and carbon cleaner work best to keep the gun, especially if it’s stainless, looking nice.
On double-action revolvers it’s a good idea to push back the ejector rod to the point you can wipe the underside of the ejector star, the ejector rod and the area of the cylinder that’s underneath the star with a lightly oiled cloth.
If you’re cleaning a single-action revolver, apply a light bit of oil to the cylinder pin prior to reassembly, and it doesn’t hurt to apply just a touch of oil on either side of the hammer of either a single-action or double-action wheelgun—allowing the oil to work its way into the action. Again, less is more.
While it’s not something I do all the time, occasionally I will remove the stocks on a revolver and wipe down the frame and springs.
Wipe down the exterior metal with a light coating of oil or rust preventative and you’re all done.