Proper firearm cleaning and maintenance is essential. You might know this, and you may be asking yourself, “How often should a firearm be cleaned to keep it in top condition?” It’s an important question, with the short answer being that you should clean it after every use.
But, there are certain indications and factors you need to be aware of that could adjust your cleaning routine. Understanding the “why” behind this is crucial as a gun owner, and we expand on it below.
To understand how much your guns should get cleaned, you need to know the reasons behind why cleaning matters and needs to happen in the first place.
Guns are made mostly from metal (though plastic is becoming more common). All metal is susceptible to rust, corrosion through oxidation. Oxidation on steel is better known as rust, but even “rust-free” metals like aluminum and titanium can oxidize and corrode.
Metal corrosion is ugly and will ruin a fine metal finish, but that’s not the worst of it. As the metal corrodes, it exposes more area to oxidize. Metal can be eaten away until it becomes pitted and weak.
Guns come into contact with many potential sources of corrosion - open air, water, sweat and skin oil, moisture and humidity, cleaning solvents, primer compounds, and more. Regular cleaning and oiling will help prevent these processes and keep your gun in good condition for years to come.
Firearms are finely regulated mechanical devices, much like watches (it’s no surprise that many watchmakers became gun designers). They rely on a perfect balance of moving parts to work every time.
Grime and grit get in the way of proper mechanical function. By gumming up moving pieces, foreign matter can cause failures to properly feed, eject, and even fire. In the worst of cases, a dirty gun can be an outright safety hazard by causing conditions such as bore obstructions or out-of-battery discharges.
Regular cleaning and maintenance is essential to keep a gun running in top shape - especially one that we trust to defend our lives or put food on our table.
To answer this question, you need to evaluate a couple things: how often are you using your gun, and under what conditions?
Most handguns should be cleaned after every shooting session. Every time you shoot your gun, you’re leaving all kinds of contamination on it - sweat, oil, carbon, powder residue, etc.
These can be harmful to the gun if left there long term and certainly aren’t good for the proper function of the gun. Every time you shoot your handgun, you should at least field strip it and give it a basic wipe-down.
It won’t hurt anything and will leave the gun clean and lubricated for the next cleaning session.
After competitions, extended shooting sessions, or use in a dirty outdoor environment, you will want to do a more detailed cleaning of your gun. Follow the procedures in our gun cleaning article to know that you have cleaned your gun appropriately.
Check the bore for any obstructions or debris and make sure that all moving parts are cleaned and lubricated.
At certain intervals - usually 3,000 to 5,000 rounds fired - it will be time for your gun to have a full detail cleaning. This is usually done by the manufacturer or a qualified gunsmith. Every single piece, down to the last pin and spring, will be stripped from the gun.
These will be carefully cleaned and inspected. Certain springs and wear parts of the handgun, such as extractors, may be replaced at this time.
This is not something that should be attempted by the inexperienced gun owner, as it is very easy to lose or damage small parts and may even void your warranty! When it’s time for this cleaning, let the professionals handle it.
How often to clean a pistol is different if you carry it concealed for self-defense. Even if you don’t fire it, it can pick up contaminants that may cause malfunctions. Every time you take your concealed carry handgun off, wipe it down to remove any sweat or dirt that accumulated. Sweat is acidic and can greatly increase the corrosion speed of your handgun.
You should also establish a schedule - once every 2 weeks or once a month, for instance. At this time you would field strip your handgun for a more detailed cleaning and inspection.
Remember, you are trusting your handgun to defend your life and your family if needed, and it needs to work without fail in that moment. You don’t want to be in a situation where your Glock fails to fire rounds because of a build-up of pocket lint in the firing pin channel!
For the most part, cleaning a rifle will follow the same rules as cleaning a pistol. There is a big difference worth highlighting though.
The barrel is probably the biggest difference in cleaning. Most professional long range shooters know that there is a difference between a round fired from a “clean bore” and a “fouled bore.” Why is this?
Well, it’s important to understand how rifling affects rifle accuracy. As the bullet is compressed down the bore, it is squeezed into the grooves of the rifling. The grooves push on the bullet and spin it, directing it out the end of the barrel. For perfect accuracy, the bullet must travel the same path every time.
As this happens, the contact of the bullet will leave behind traces of metal (either lead or copper) on the inside of the barrel. This is called “fouling.” Fouling changes the way the bullet interacts with the bore, until it has built up to the point that it is consistent and repeatable.
This is the difference between a clean bore and a fouled bore. You see, a perfectly clean bore will shoot a bullet into a different spot than a fouled bore because of the slightly different path it travels in the barrel.
If you are using your rifle for hunting, you definitely don’t want to sight your gun in and then immediately clean it! Otherwise your first shot will go to a different point than you’re sighted for.
To counteract this, many shooters will take several fouling shots after cleaning. This can be a couple of 5-shot groups or a box of ammo. This allows the bullets to consistently foul the bore so they will go to the same place.
For this reason, there are a lot of opinions on when you should clean a rifle barrel. Some shooters of rimfire rifles and other rifles that use lead bullets hardly ever clean their barrels! They find that the lead shoots better when consistently fouled and that accuracy may hold up for many hundreds (or even thousands) of rounds.
In this case, the bores are generally kept lightly oiled. On the other hand, many benchrest shooters clean religiously after every time they shoot and rely on taking fouling shots to keep their gun grouping appropriately.
Ultimately, when to clean your rifle barrel is up to you. You will have to do some research and experimentation and figure out what kind of barrel cleaning schedule produces the best results for you.
Regardless, you should still always clean the other parts of your rifle, such as the bolt and extractor, to keep it in good working condition. Take note that after you clean them, it's just as important to store your firearms properly.
It can be hard to keep track of when all of your guns were cleaned last, especially if you have many for different uses. You should always pay attention to your most important guns, such as those for carry and hunting. Sometimes the guns you shoot less fall through the cracks.
That’s why many gun owners like to set a “cleaning day” where they haul out all of their guns and clean them in one day. This is a great idea for keeping up with a large stable of firearms!
Do you know the last time you cleaned your old duck shotgun, or the revolver you keep in the nightstand for self-defense? Maybe you’ve lost track and you have no idea.
Cleaning (or at least inspecting) all of your guns at once on a regular schedule solves that problem.
Let us help you figure out how to store your firearms. Check out our comprehensive buying guide below.
There are some times you should always clean your gun. Failing to do so can lead to injury or damage. Always clean your gun if the following happens to you:
Have you really worked your gun recently? Taken a 2-day tactical rifle course with hundreds of rounds fired in rain and snow? Shot a grueling 3-gun match that required you to get dirty? Taken a slide down a mud hill with your hunting rifle? Always clean your gun, especially before storing it away in one of those in our top rifle and gun cabinet review.
It sounds like common sense, but sometimes it’s not. In these types of tough environments you’re mixing carbon fouling with environmental debris.
You never know where dirt, sand, and mud can end up inside a gun, and you don’t need any surprises. Clean them and pay attention to all the crevices where dirt could be hiding.
If you’ve dropped your gun and it ended up barrel down in some thick mud, dirt, sand, or other debris, stop and clean it immediately; even if you’re on the hunt of a lifetime. Having a bore obstruction is an incredibly dangerous condition.
The ammo you place in your guns are propelled by thousands of pounds of pressure traveling through a narrow channel. If the bullet is stopped by sediment in the barrel, the pressure will have nowhere to go but to build up.
Eventually it will become too much for the gun to withstand, and can turn your firearm into a grenade - one centered right over your hands and face. If you don’t have a cleaning kit available and can’t confirm your barrel free of obstructions, don’t chance it.
Surplus military ammo is awesome. It’s cheap, it’s powerful, it’s fun. Unfortunately, it can also be dirty. Some old military ammo is loaded with corrosive primers. The residue in these primers is left in the gun and attracts moisture, which is the enemy of metal.
Failure to clean after shooting corrosive ammo can result in severe rust, pitting, and structural damage to important parts. If you shoot corrosive ammo, always clean it the same day - and make sure to use a cleaning product that’s rated to remove corrosive salts.
If your gun starts acting up, it’s time to clean it. Your gun may tell you it needs a cleaning by refusing to extract spent shells, failing to go fully into battery, or generally acting up.
Rifles may also start to hold poor groups if the barrel gets too dirty. Often, simply cleaning a gun will fix a problem. If not, you’re already working with a clean gun - the first step to troubleshooting.