Keep it Clean - The Basics of Firearm Cleaning and Maintenance

Breaking down what the newcomer to the shooting world needs to properly clean and maintain their firearm.

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Cleaning a firearm these days can present as dizzying an array of product options and methods as one encounters when selecting their first AR15 or concealed carry handgun. So how does the newcomer to the shooting world sort out what they need?

Back in the day, things used to be much simpler when it came to firearms cleaning and maintenance. All one needed (or really had a choice of) was the great-granddaddy of all currently available cleaning and maintenance products-Hoppe's No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner and Hoppe's No. 9 Lubricating Oil. The original Hoppe's No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner has been around for 113 years.

I recently had a customer ask about Hoppe's No. 9 the other day. He had already purchased a kit containing the Bore Cleaner and Lubricating Oil, and was concerned that since the bottle said "Bore Cleaner", it wasn't to be used on other parts of the gun. Actually, it is fine to use anywhere on your firearm where you need to remove powder residue, and to some extent, lead fouling. Hoppe's basic kit includes cleaning rods, patches for applying solvent and oil to the bore and interior of the gun, and usually a cleaning rod brush for stubborn dirt.

Hoppe's No. 9 works great on any conventional firearm. It gives off a vague cherry aroma that takes most male shooters of my generation fondly back to their early shooting days, when Hoppe's No. 9 was the only game in town. Actually, I've found out many times that wives and girlfriends aren't as enamored of the odor of Hoppe's No. 9 as guys are. After using Hoppe's No. 9 to clean the powder and grime off, wipe the arm dry, and then coat the critical metal portions with Hoppe's Lubricating Oil to protect vulnerable exposed steel parts, and to lightly lubricate the action (working parts), particularly on and in blued steel firearms. Hoppe's Bore Cleaner doesn't offer any protection of blued steel or bare metal parts.

Blued steel is reserved for mostly higher end firearms these days, but up until the mid-1980's or so, it was the most popular finish available on rifles, shotguns, and handguns. Bluing is NOT a protective finish like modern Nitrex and Melonite finishes. It is actually an accelerated form of rust that really only enhances appearance when applied properly. Colt Python revolvers are renowned for their "Royal Blue" finishes. Protecting blued steel means keeping the exterior blued surfaces of a gun covered with a very light coat of oil for protection. With blued steel firearms, immaculate cleaning of the gun and protecting the surfaces is a must if you want to keep your gun from rusting.

Starting in the 1980's, a number of things happened to reduce the amount of intense cleaning and maintenance that was needed on many new firearms. Stainless steel construction of revolvers and semi-automatic pistols aimed at the police market replaced blued steel and nickel plated handguns in police duty holsters by the time I was working full time as a uniformed police officer in 1984. While stainless steel firearms require lest maintenance than blued steel firearms, stainless steel is only rust resistant, not rust proof, and if neglected enough, will begin to rust as well-although I have never seen a stainless steel firearms covered with rust. Two other things occurred at roughly the same time to reduce previously required levels of maintenance. One was the increased use of aluminum frames in pistols (such as in the Beretta 92), and the other was the introduction of the polymer framed Glock.

In addition to using rustproof frame materials, both of these guns included the newest protective finishes on their steel parts. Because of this, these arms required less cleaning and lubrication than previous arms did, and would keep on functioning without as much attention. But even as maintenance needs were decreasing for most guns, something happened that caused an explosion in new cleaning and maintenance products-the explosive popularity of the AR15.

The AR15 is a dirty shooting rifle compared to its chief rival, the AK47. The AR15's action operates on the direct impingement method, which means that hot powder gas is diverted from the barrel and down a tube into the action to cycle it. The carbon fouls the bolt and bolt carrier after a time, and hardens as it builds up, eventually interfering with reliability. New products and tools were needed to keep the AR15 clean and functional. Furthermore, AR15s don't run happily when their action is dry. They prefer heavy lubrication, and that's were CLP (Clean, Lubricate, Protect) products come in, such as the original Break Free come in.

Break Free is the standard used by the U.S. Military. It helps to clean and loosen the carbon fouling in the bore and the action. After the fouling is wiped away, more Break Free is added to the AR15 action, and left there to assure proper functioning. Break Free and similar CLP products work fine for other firearms as well, and only requires one product to do it all.

Today, there are many additional products available that are more "environmentally friendly" than these two old war horses. Many have a water base and really do smell more pleasant, all while working quite well. Even Hoppe's has an expanded "modern" line in addition to the original No. 9, which includes their odor free Elite Foaming Gun Cleaner, which is likely a better choice for cleaning an AR than the original No. 9 Bore Cleaner.

In addition to the solvents, you will need cleaning patches and rods sized to the bore of your firearms (such as .22 caliber patches) for pistol, rifle, or shotgun. These items can be purchased separately, or as a kit. There are many supplemental items such as silicon impregnated cleaning cloths to wipe down firearms with more vulnerable surfaces between cleanings. I use one when carrying my blued steel Walther PPKs to prevent rust.

Above all, make sure you follow the cleaning and maintenance directions and information in your firearms owner's manual. It is important to protect your investment and insure reliable functioning. If you bought a used gun without a manual, they are available free online or by contacting the manufacturer. If you wish to have professional instruction in cleaning and maintaining your firearm, Vance Outdoors Obetz location offers a Firearms Care and Cleaning Course for $25, which includes a cleaning kit and supplies that make it a $75 value. As always, feel free to ask the sales staff at any Vance Outdoors location if you are unsure as to what cleaning gear is right for you.