How often should you clean your gun is a common question for anyone with a firearm. The answer is “it depends.” Several factors determine the proper cleaning frequency.
Some factors include what the firearm is used for, how often it is used, what it was exposed to, and the quality of the ammo used.
I use firearms in competition, concealed carry, hunting, and home defense – some just sit in the safe. I treat all these differently since they are used for different purposes.
We will review how often you should clean your gun, why you should, and the differences in cleaning, lubricating, and inspecting.
Why Clean a Firearm
Firearms are complex pieces of machinery. They are made up of pieces of metal, wood, or polymers that are subject to not only the shock of firing many rounds of ammunition but also debris and residue from the ammunition and the outside environment.
Much like a car’s engine, firearms have metal surfaces that slide back and forth on each other. Their lifespan will be reduced if these surfaces have debris between them or are not lubricated.
Metal to Metal Contact
As the action of a firearm works, the metal surfaces will naturally wear over time. Direct metal-to-metal contact with no lubrication will cause small pieces of metal to break off. These small pieces between the metal surfaces cause bigger pieces to break off, resulting in a snowball effect of wear. Eventually, the two metal surfaces will become rough and no longer slide against each other.
Any other debris that enters the area between the metal-to-metal contact, such as dirt or ammunition residue, can have the same effect.
A light coat of oil between the sliding surfaces on a pistol slide, rifle action, or shotgun action will allow these sliding surfaces to move smoothly and keep them from wearing out quickly.
Rust and Corrosion
Another concern with firearms is rust and corrosion. If rust or corrosion builds up over time on a metal surface, it causes the metal to pit and become rough.
Rust is caused by a reaction called oxidation. The Iron in the metal reacts with the oxygen in the air when moisture is present. Almost all non-treated metals will rust over time. This can result in those metal-to-metal sliding surfaces we mentioned building up rust debris and wearing to the point of not sliding anymore.
The presence of electrolytes or salt accelerates the oxidation process, including the salt humans produce through sweat. Salt can come into contact with a firearm from the ammunition residue, the ground, and almost always from our skin. People are different in how much salt they release when they sweat. I have a friend that can touch a piece of metal, and the next day there is a rusty fingerprint visible on it.
Some ammunition release types of salt when they are fired. This has the same effect; the residue from the ammunition accelerates the corrosion and rust process.
Firearms have some areas that require a tight fit between the moving parts to operate properly. This is typically more prevalent in high-accuracy firearms. Firearms also have a few springs that allow the action and trigger to operate. Any debris or rust on these moving parts or springs can cause them to act differently than intended or even seize or break.
Debris in the barrel of a rifle can also influence the accuracy of the rifle. As the bullet passes through the barrel, the rifling grooves inside the barrel cause the bullet to spin. This greatly increases the bullet’s accuracy as it travels through the air. If the rifling grooves are clogged with debris, they will no longer have much effect.
A dirty barrel can also cause the speed of a bullet to be slower.
If the barrel starts to rust and contains a lot of debris, it can increase the gun’s chamber pressure and cause severe damage or injury. For this reason, it is very important to ensure all firearms’ barrels are clean and unobstructed before firing.
A lot of debris in your gun could cause it to start malfunctioning when you need it most. Buildup on the action of a semi-automatic gun could cause the action to move slower, causing failure to eject or failure to feed issues. Buildup around the trigger or firing pin mechanism could cause failure to fire issues.
At a minimum, buildup will cause those sliding surfaces we spoke about to wear prematurely. If your gun has fired many rounds (over 2500), it is best to do a full teardown and remove the debris that builds up over time.
Cleaning, Lubrication, Inspection
While discussing how often you should clean your gun, it is important to distinguish between cleaning, lubrication, and inspection. You should always double-check that your firearm is unloaded before performing these steps.
Cleaning is removing the excess debris we mentioned above. You want to remove the debris so it doesn’t cause your gun to rust, corrode, excessively wear, and malfunction. The debris around the action, the trigger mechanisms, the barrel, and the untreated metal surface should be removed. Most firearm manufacturers have instructions on how to clean firearms on their websites.
After you clean your gun, it is important to lubricate it. This is to keep those sliding metal surfaces that we mentioned smooth and extend the life of your gun. Firearm manufacturers have recommendations on where to lube their firearms, so follow them. Use an oil specifically for guns (not 5W-30), and do not use too much. Excessive oil can attract and collect debris, which is not what we want.
Several types of lubricants do exist, including some that contain Teflon. Different options work best for different guns. It is best to use what the manufacturer recommends.
Inspecting your gun is simply checking it for obvious issues.
- Check the sights. Make sure they are secure and not loose. If you have an optic, make sure the battery is good.
- Check the action or slide. Make sure it moves freely.
- Check for any loose screws, cracks, or rust.
- Check that the lubrication points of your gun are lubricated. Add a drop of oil if they are dry before you fire the gun.
- Check the barrel to make sure it is not obstructed. Use a cleaning rod if you can’t see through the barrel from the breach.
- If your gun has magazines, check them for cracks or damage. Magazines need periodic cleaning, too. If they are full of debris, clean them.
- If you see a lot of debris, you may have forgotten to clean it! Clean it before you use it again.
How Often Should You Clean Your Gun?
Based on what you have learned above, you can probably answer your own question now. This is largely a personal preference based on the purpose of the gun, how often you use it, and how much time you have to clean it.
Cleaning your gun more often is not a bad thing. Like your vehicle, the longer you wait to clean it, the harder it will be when you finally do. If you have a cheap, single-shot shotgun you use just for fun, just like that old farm truck, you may not clean it as often as your concealed carry semi-automatic handgun. Regular inspection of your gun will tell you what you need to do.
General Cleaning for All Firearms
All guns should be cleaned after being fired or exposed to moisture, dirt, or sweaty hands. Don’t forget salt accelerates the oxidation process when combined with moist air. Even if you haven’t fired your gun, it makes sense to wipe it down with a lightly oiled, nearly dry cloth after handling it.
You depend on your home defense gun to operate correctly when you need it. Typically, a home defense gun spends most of its life not being used. Once a month, inspect your home defense gun as outlined above. When you are finished, wipe it down to remove any sweat residue that may be on it from handling.
While we are not getting into the training here, you should practice with your home defense gun periodically. After you practice, fully clean it. For some, they choose to have one 9mm handgun for home defense and concealed carry. If that is the same for you, follow the concealed carry recommendation.
Like your home defense gun, a concealed carry gun must function when needed. Since you typically have a concealed carry gun near your body, it will likely be exposed to moisture and sweat often. Keep a cloth in your safe and wipe it down when you lock it up at night.
Lint from our clothes can also collect on the gun and spare magazines over time. Every two weeks, perform an inspection and lubricate if needed. If you notice a lot of lint or debris during an inspection, use your judgment if it should be cleaned.
Hunting firearms are typically not fired very often and are only used during the hunting season. However, they can be exposed to rain, dirt, and sweat during the season.
Before the season, fully clean and inspect your hunting firearm. You should probably also practice with it a few times to ensure it is sighted-in. After you fire it, clean it again.
After each hunting trip, at least wipe it down and inspect it. Since we are usually out in the early morning, your gun was likely exposed to a lot of moisture. Even if you didn’t fire it, it should be cleaned to remove any moisture before storing your gun.
The demands on competition guns are high. They are fired a lot and exposed to the elements frequently. I have shot many matches in the rain. You should clean your competition gun after every match and every practice session. After about 2500 rounds, fully tear it down and clean every part.
Competition shooters know their guns very well. If you are new to competing, ask someone for help if you are unsure how to tear your gun down. The shooting community is very helpful. As you progress and shoot more, you can tell when something doesn’t feel right with your gun. Most can even tell the difference in the ammo they shoot in a short time.
Before each match, fully inspect and lubricate your gun. I keep some oil with me just in case it rains (rain seems to follow me to matches) so I can add some during the match. Once it rains, it usually gets muddy, so keep some extra magazines with you just in case.
If you have your guns in a safe in an air-conditioned part of your home, you shouldn’t worry about them much. Keeping a desiccant type dryer in your safe is also a good idea. We list a few options in our best guns safe review. Inspect the guns in your safe once a year and wipe them down.
If your safe is in a garage, basement, or other non-air-conditioned area, humidity may be an issue depending on where you live. If you live in a humid area, inspect your guns every 3 months. A proper dryer is a must-have in this case. You do not want a lot of moisture in your safe.
Be sure to wipe your guns down, and don’t touch their metal parts as you put them back in the safe.
Now that you have your gun clean – check out our other DEFEND guides and reviews. Buying a new gun online is easier than ever. Also, check out our civil unrest preparedness and bug-out bag articles for how firearms can be incorporated into home and self-defense.