gun cleaning tips armorer
Matt Sandy for TTAG
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My retail shop doesn’t just sell guns, we repair them, too. We have qualified armorers who fix a lot of problems gun owners experience (and sometimes cause themselves). So here’s a follow-up to my earlier post with some handy armorer’s tips, problems we see frequently, parts that commonly fail, and things you can do yourself regarding firearm maintenance and repair.

Let’s start with the why. Lots of gun owners like to have a plan A, a plan B and eventually even a plan C for when A and B fail. You’ve heard it before: two is one and one is none. This philosophy is often followed when it comes to gear, first aid kits and ammunition. But for some reason, it doesn’t often extend to basic gun maintenance.

One of my customers is a retired machinist/aircraft mechanic who spent 25 years at the metal shop in Tulsa for American Airlines. He made a good living there based on one simple principle: you do maintenance one of two times — when you want to and when you don’t want to.

The idea is that if something is able to be caught at an early stage, you can address it before it becomes a catastrophe.

Maintenance is a funny topic when it comes to guns because I see a lot of it being done too often as well as not often enough. I cringe when I come across guns that haven’t been touched, cleaned or oiled in seven years. But I cringe almost as hard when I see someone who’s done a total detail strip of their GLOCK on a monthly schedule on the 15th of the month like clockwork, regardless of how many rounds were (or weren’t) fired.

There are good and bad points to both sides. The good side to looking at your gun once a month is you know if there’s something wrong. The bad side is the risk of losing small parts like springs, detents, etc. And if you don’t have spare parts on hand, you’ve got an overpriced desk ornament or wall hanger rather than a firearm.

So much for the “any maintenance is good maintenance” philosophy, huh?

Let’s start with something basic for our first armorer’s tip.

Have a maintenance plan. Have a maintenance schedule. It doesn’t have to be intensive, but it does have to be followed.

One thing we get in the shop from time to time is police trade-in pistols. The great thing about police trade-ins is that department policy/guidelines drive maintenance and create a structure to where every firearm is periodically inspected and approved for use in service by a designated authority. For most, this is once a year at the annual or semi-annual firearm qualification.

Police Trade-In Guns – What to Look for and What to Avoid

By having an annual inspection at qualification, any repairs can be made and after the repairs are made – they can be checked out at qualification to ensure they’re kept in good working order. The only thing worse than needing a repair is finding out that a repair didn’t fix the issue at hand and you’ve got to make a second trip. Measure twice, cut once. And after you cut – measure again.

This isn’t a bad idea for those outside of law enforcement either.

I tell everyone who comes in the store to plan an annual firearm inspection one day a year near a birthday, anniversary or some other date that you’ll remember.

One of my best friends does a big hunting trip out in Colorado every year with friends. He rents a lodge and indulges in all sorts of tall tales, strong whiskey and general gun nut gluttony for seven days. But when he gets back, every firearm in the safe comes out, gets a good once-over and if anything he’s got needs a repair, it goes to the gunsmith. If anything he’s bought needs to be sighted in, by golly it gets sighted in that day.

Townsend Whelen is credited with saying that only accurate rifles are interesting, and my friend’s corollary to that is that only sighted-in rifles are useful.

He’s not wrong. He’s a man with a plan, and he follows that plan scrupulously. Taking stock of your life, and stock of your (rifle) stocks once a year is probably something we should all do as well as making sure all our rifles are sighted in and our self defense guns run with our stockpile of JHP ammo.

The easiest problem we fix? Getting you small parts. The most frequent problem we fix? Getting you small parts. The biggest pain in our rear ends? Getting you small parts.

Parts are tricky. I went to AutoZone recently shopping for a few things. Their store had 80,000 square feet and they didn’t have the three screws I needed (nor did the warehouse). They didn’t have the windshield wiper motor that I needed either. I had the staff order them in for me and they looked a little surprised that I wasn’t upset that they didn’t have them in stock.

We’re living in an Amazon Prime digital delivery world where everything is at our fingertips. Apparently when the desired item needed — no matter how obscure — isn’t on a shelf in the back, some folks get upset about that sort of thing. I’m in a business where we don’t have everything available all the time, so I’m used to it. Apparently, I’m one of the few folks who understand this nowadays.

Most of the time, getting parts is pretty easy. We just check our sheets to make sure we’re getting you the correct item for your gun and we order from the manufacturer or one of the authorized parts distributors. Sometimes that can be one of six or seven vendors and sometimes it can be one of one vendor. Every manufacturer is different on how they handle parts orders. For instance, GLOCK will not sell certain parts direct to a consumer.

One of the big challenges we face is making sure we order the correct parts when folks don’t have the gun in front of them or a serial number we can reference. If I have the gun in front of me, I know exactly what to order based on what I can see and read back from old part numbers, etc. If I don’t and I have a serial number, the manufacturer can check their records and pull up the model and variant and production date to make sure that we’re getting the right item the first time.

If you have a gun that needs repair, have as much info for your gun shop/smith available so we can make sure that you’re getting what you need. Help your retailer help you.

Common problems

The most frequent problem we face is people losing small screws, detents, etc. and not having the make/model/serial number so we have a difficult time making sure a suitable replacement gets ordered. I mentioned my friend Benji in the last post and the small parts that he needed as an example.

Just the other day I had someone call in asking for some GLOCK pins. The kind that go in the frame. They weren’t aware that GLOCK makes a bunch of 2-pin and a bunch of 3-pin frames. Each of those pins are a little bit different and not interchangeable. Our caller didn’t seem to realize they needed to know WHICH pin they had lost.

History teaches us that folks in the military always keep spare parts at hand, and commonly the wear and tear items on any firearm are the firing pin, the extractor and the springs within such. As cheap as some of these parts are, it’s not a bad idea to keep some around, whether you’re in the military or not.

SIG Sauer P226 Parts Kit
SIG P226 parts kit (courtesy

The P226 kit is just springs and screws and little things, lacking firing pins and extractors, but something is better than nothing.

A classic lower parts kit from PSA about $50 and it’s got everything in there.

Palmetto State Armory lower parts kit
Courtesy Palmetto State Amory

GLOCK firing pins and extractors aren’t expensive at all. Granted, I have yet to see a GLOCK firing pin or extractor break – but it’s not a bad idea to have one or two lying around just in case.

SIG does a pretty good job about having a spare parts kit available, but GLOCK doesn’t have anything like that. I find it strange that major manufacturers aren’t giving end-users the ability to repair things in the field, but, I digress….

Recoil springs are inexpensive and easily obtainable. Often times they’re the cause of reliability problems and the first thing that we’re told to replace on any firearm having issues. A majority of the time, that fixes it.

A man with a few plans

My friend Rob is a member and big supporter of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearm Instructors and he travels to their annual training conference religiously. He has to fly cross country to get there with his firearms and he’s not willing to miss out on a great training opportunity by having gear that goes down. Whether you’re headed to IALEFI, Gunsite, or a big USPSA/IDPA/[insert discipline here] event, you don’t want to spend the money and hours traveling to only shoot for half a day thanks to a malfunctioning gun.

No plan survives first contact, so Rob is a man with a few plans.

Southwest lets him check two bags for free, so he packs two gun bags with guns and spare parts. I asked him what this year’s loadout looked like and it broke down as follows:

Bag A: Primary pistol with extra mags, backup pistol that used the primary’s mags. Spare parts kit that contained cross platform parts that would work for either firearm in a pinch. Primary rifle with extra mags and parts kit with two extra complete bolts and carriers.

Bag B: Backup to the backup pistol with two extra magazines. Backup rifle with two extra mags. Spare parts kits for both with bolts and carriers.

As Rob likes to say, you might have the smarts, but you still need the parts.

I gotta say, I think he’s onto something. He splits his gear up in a way that makes sense to him and if Southwest sends either one of his bags to an unintended destination. He can still train with his alternate set of gear.

In the event he has problems, he’s got the ability and the parts to get his gun working because he doesn’t commit all his spare parts to one bag.

He’s made so many friends at IALEFI that they all coordinate loadouts and if everything he brings goes down, he can take the ammo and the mags and borrow a backup gun from someone else – and if one of his friends has the same problem they can borrow his – because all their ammo and magazines and firearm loadouts have been pre-planned ahead of time.

I love it when a plan comes together.

His situation is probably different (and more demanding) than yours, but we can learn a lot from Rob. Spend a few bucks intelligently on small parts that might get lost/go astray or break over the years.

Easy maintenance and in troubleshooting you can do: This isn’t rocket surgery

The first question I ask when someone is wondering what kind of work they can do themselves on their firearms besides basic cleaning and oiling is this:

How’s your selection of tools/work area/tolerance for pain?

The reason I ask that is pretty simple. A single guy or gal who lives in a second story apartment with a roommate isn’t likely to have a workbench, a vise, or a whole complement of tools on a pegboard. If you’ve got a bench in your garage that’s got all of that, you’re off to a good start. But that’s not a luxury everyone has.

Also, an UN-carpeted work area is preferable when a detent, spring or screw goes flying. Note I said when and not if.

If you have basic mechanical skills, you can drift your own sights on and off with a vise and a punch. If you’re as fanatical about sights as a few gunsmiths I know, they have a digital micrometer and try to balance the length on each side as close as they can, plus or minus five thousandths of an inch.

I’ve had a few customers mount their own scopes, if they have the right torque wrench that measures in inch pounds and they use venetian blinds or something similarly to get their crosshairs leveled just right. But that takes time, patience, and the torque wrench, plus a working area large enough to set up all your gear. An easy thing for some, not so easy for others.

Depending on the malfunction a firearm is experiencing, a fix could involve something as simple as a lack of lubrication leading to too much friction or over-lubrication which attracts unburnt powder, dust, etc. clogging the action. I tell everyone to keep some gun lube in their range bag and a small cleaning kit so they can de-gunk their gun to see if that helps get it back up and running.

Otis Rifle/Pistol cleaning kit
Otis Rifle/Pistol cleaning kit

Another useful tool that I tell everyone about: a pen and a small notepad. Whether it’s a fancy one from Rite in the Rain or something from the grocery store, taking notes on malfunctions can be a fantastic diagnostic tool that will help your or your gunsmith.

Some quick notes on what the gun is doing, when it’s doing it, the ammo being used at the time and the magazines you’re using can be immensely helpful in troubleshooting. Not all firearm tools have to look like a ball peen hammer, a sight pusher or a digital micrometer.

That’s about it for now, I’ve tried to condense some of what we see most often into a 10 minute read for y’all and hopefully you’ll find it useful.

How regular is your regularly scheduled firearm maintenance and how deep to you get into your guns? Basic field strip, clean and oil? Total detail strip? We’d love to hear feedback from the readers as to how they manage.

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  1. “Also, an UN-carpeted work area is preferable when a detent, spring or screw goes flying. Note I said when and not if.”

    Bingo. Having been to a bunch of armorers schools, I chuckle when I walk into a “classroom” with carpet. Then chuckle again when one or two guys are doing the “armorers crawl”.

    As I’m finishing my new gun room, I’m leaving a bare concrete floor. I’m actually thinking of white epoxy for the floor. (Helps with lighting as well!).

  2. I feel like mentioning my maintenance routine… I shoot my guns, minus my seasonal hunting guns, atleast once a month to function and sight check followed by an oiling and possibly a simple cleaning though that’s usually every 250ish rounds, 6months, or its nasty whichever comes first. I check my seasonal guns at the end of October for repairs (never needed to thankfully), sighting, and cleaning and they are oiled once to twice a month (its humid here). Detail strip is on a as needed basis which is rare, about 3000ish rounds or after about 3-4 years. Last time for a full strip was last year on my break shotgun/rifle hybrid that sat, oiled and lightly used, for 4 years.

    On that note I’m 23… I had a gun before 21 (in truth at age 4)! I must be some monster! How dare my parents teach their daughter safety and self protection! That’s dangerous to society and its obviously the job of the government!

    • I’m kinda anal on keeping gun metals oiled, living in a high humidly area. Neil Young was right, ‘Rust never sleeps’…

  3. I’m less OCD than I used to be. After I got an AR little I know how it would creep back in! And I have no gun buddies to “help”. I’m still apprehensive taking apart my bolt carrier😫

  4. I do a “basic field strip, clean and oil” after every range outing. Never done a detailed strip, though I’ve had issues and stripped and cleaned all of my magazines. (Plus deburring, lightly lubing followers etc.) I’ve also used nylon brushes in magazines and the mag wells and feed ramp areas.

    The BuckMark pistol gets “full field strip” once in a while and barrel and breach cleaning after every use, since I have to loktite the screws for the former.

    Question for Mr. Hank. A cleaned barrel bore has a film of oil. If I shoot a few magazines at the range and then store it in the safe for a few months, should I worry about rust forming on a non-stainless barrel?? My house humidity is usually very high.

    • ” If I shoot a few magazines at the range and then store it in the safe for a few months, should I worry about rust forming on a non-stainless barrel?? My house humidity is usually very high.”

      I live in central Florida. *High* humidity central.

      Years back, I bought a Mossberg 500 and on New Year’s Eve, went out back and fired some “Bird-Bangs” through it. Put the shottie back in the gun safe, and forgot it for a few months. Dug it out months later to shoot it, and looked down the barrel. Rust. Not a lot, bur still rust.

      If you live in high humidity, take proactive steps. Oil them before storage. A 10-watt refrigerator lamp inside the safe drives moisture away. Some folks use stuff like ‘Damp Rid’, but I don’t trust it. Guns are too expensive…

  5. I’m always a little surprised to read how few gun owners are willing to fully take their guns apart to clean them, learn what makes them tick, etc. I mean, I get it for something expensive that doesn’t need it, but lots of us own old beaters that can make a pretty good classroom. There’s no need to be afraid – the parts go back together the way they came apart (mostly!). Take pictures along the way, and organize your work, and it works out.

    I’ve fallen into the hobby of buying very inexpensive old guns (the sub $100 range) and fixing them up, both cosmetically and mechanically. I have to be a little careful about mechanics: I have a pretty good workshop, but I don’t really have the tools needed to manufacture replacement parts. I also don’t want to bubba anything too valuable or historically meaningful. So the guns need to be pretty common (enough to buy replacement bits as needed), and in adequate mechanical condition.

    Anyway, I like disassembling these down to the individual part, learning some things, cleaning them up, and making them shine again. I’ve done a Marlin 60, a Mossberg 152, and a Stevens 820b pump shotgun, including refinishing the wood, re-bluing, etc. I’ve taken some pretty bad guns and turned them into pretty nice (and nice looking) shooters this way. A fun way to grow the collection and actually connect with the guns I’m acquiring.

    • “I’m always a little surprised to read how few gun owners are willing to fully take their guns apart to clean them…”

      My gun (if a .22 plinker is really a gun) is a tool, like a hammer or a wrench. It should work when needed, no matter how many years in the draw since last use. Just to see what happens, my plan is to do no maintenance and see how long the gun will go before it just quits.

      • Some get a check and a bore snake w/oil once a year.
        Some get checked for function or rust and put back.
        That’s it.
        The only one that gets taken down to the bone is my 10/22 that rides in my truck/atv and not more than 3-4 x /year.
        Worst I ever messed with was #3000 10/22 owned by a rancher friend.
        He called me up “my gun won’t work!?”
        Couldn’t seat or extract a round.
        Been riding in a ranch jeep for 30+ years with NO maintenance.
        Stripped, disassembled trigger group cleaned with boiling water and soap, then #9 then oiled.
        Shoots fine 5 years later, and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t cleaned it since.
        Got tired of “over cleaning” in the Army.
        And I don’t/won’t own an AR.

      • “Just to see what happens, my plan is to do no maintenance and see how long the gun will go before it just quits.”

        I do this with most of my guns. I usually break them in with 3-500 rounds and the clean them fairly well. Then it’s shoot until they fail to see how they perform. I just recently had my first post break in failure on an echo trigger equipped AR at about the 2000 round count. Really looked like a mag failure so I’m not cleaning it just yet.

        • “Really looked like a mag failure so I’m not cleaning it just yet.”

          Took my Beretta space gun outta the box, wiped it clean on the outside, and took it to the range. Maybe 500rds in a coupla years. It only has one magazine, and with all the stories that mags fail more than guns, I may not be able to determine if a fail is mag related. Will probably have to buy a new mag to find out. OTOH, a fail could justify buying a new gun at some point.

        • “OTOH, a fail could justify buying a new gun at some point.”

          Sounds fair to me. I’ll have to take care of that tonight. $2700 modular pistol set? Or 18 High Points?

        • “$2700 modular pistol set? Or 18 High Points?”

          A $2700 tricked out High Point might be nice to show on YouTube.

        • “$2700 modular pistol set? Or 18 High Points?” A $2700 tricked out High Point might be nice to show on YouTube.

          Already done my friend…”

          Kooo-el. Got pics, or a link? That’s something I want to show around bar.

        • “Koooo-el”

          Haha. Just watch the link and screen shot as necessary. Appalachia Problem Solver is the channel, or something like that.

    • “I’m always a little surprised to read how few gun owners are willing to fully take their guns apart to clean them, learn what makes them tick, etc.”

      Some guns are best never fully broken-down, unless absolutely necessary.

      Dyspeptic Gunsmith (who has an impeccable reputation in TTAG) *strongly* cautions to *NEVER* fully break down a Beretta 92, as it is asking for tiny parts to fly off, never to be found again…

  6. The author left out some important points.

    1. A firearm is like a car the more you use it the quicker it wears out. Contrary to myth guns are not meant to last a life time and never were and they do not. If you can afford it buy two of your carry guns. One to practice with and the other only to carry (after it is broken in), If you cannot afford two identical guns at least get a cheap .22 rimfire pistol and practice, practice , practice with it and not from a shooting bench but in the standing position which is the position you probably will be in if attacked.

    2. Maintenance. Use a good grade of grease on any two parts that are constantly grinding together, this is called a pressure point. I have even seen shooting competitors competing with guns that not only were not greased but not even have a drop of oil on them. When I questioned them about this they simply told me “Don’t you know guns never wear out or break”.

    3. Cleaning. I always clean my pistol or pistols even if I only shoot one box of ammo through them as it is too easy to get lazy and before you know it you may have put way more than 1 box of ammo through it and the dirtier it gets the quicker it wears out and the harder it is to clean it. Its surprising how even modern pistols can start to malfunction once they get even a little bit dirty.

    4. Do not panic when it comes to cleaning them if you are like many people these days and are not so mechanically inclined. In most cases its only necessary to field strip them to adequately clean and lube them. You do not have to strip them down to the frame and many modern pistols were not designed to be fully stripped down anyway. If you ever removed a part like a mag release button or safety and suddenly saw a small detent spring zing off into the stratosphere you will be better off not getting into such a mess in the first place and its even more catastrophic if your pistol is no longer being manufactured and parts may not even be available for it anymore. If you absolutely have to take apart something that you know in advance has a detent spring put the gun inside a plastic bag that you can see through when disassembling it as it will catch the rocketing spring if it gets away from you (which I guarantee it will, Murphy’s Law)

    Tools you will need:

    A squirt bottle filled with kerosene to blast out burnt power from the trigger mechanism and other hard to reach spots. Its much cheaper than using bore solvent and will not damage plastic parts.

    For the bore there are upteen million gun solvents out there but the old standby Hoppes No. 9 is still hard to beat. Avoid quicky harsh bore cleaners that have lots of ammonia in them as they can and will damage bores if not used properly or if left in the bore. Harsh Solvents with an excess amount of ammonia are on my “never to use list”. Never use Windex to clean out corrosive ammo, its another bore destroyer.

    Q tips for reaching hard to get at spots to clean

    A large sewing needle to scrape out burnt powder from under the extractor.

    A professional gunsmiths set of screw driver bits so as not to damage screws and unfortunately you may have to thin the blades of some of the bits down for some European screws with knife edge slots.

    Use A good grade of gun oil made for guns not some cheap 3 in 1 oil. The last thing you want to do is skimp on the quality of the gun oil. I use Break Free CLP as it lasts a long time and does not evaporate off like many other gun oils do. Unlike Rem oil, Break Free CLP is a good rust preventative as well. A good test is to coat some steel nails and put them in salt water and then observe how much your favorite lube prevented rust from forming. Few people ever bother to test any of the oils or greases they use , often with disastrous consequences. Motor oil, although its a great lubricate, will actually cause guns to rust as it traps moisture between it and the outer surface of the metal. Again only use oils made for the gun industry. I once had over a dozen bullet molds rust by trying to preserve them with motor oil. I never made that mistake again.

    Use a good grade of grease formulated for the gun industry but “Never Seize” in both aluminum and copper is a great friction reducer but messy to use and yes it will stain your cloths. Glock uses the copper flavor when they lube their pistols at the factory (at least they used to) I have not bought a new Glock in years.

    Rig gun grease is the best you can buy for preventing rust. I use it religiously on the outer surface of all my guns to prevent rust. A little goes a long way. Its a little on the thin side for lubrication so I do not recommend it for this but its better than no grease if you happen to have nothing else on hand at the moment.

    Everyone has their own idea about what is the best oil or solvent or grease to use but few test any of them in any meaningful way. This is what has worked for me and my guns have lasted for years and never rusted either.

    • “Contrary to myth guns are not meant to last a life time”

      Bullshit. (Caveat – cheap junk guns yes).

      A quality gun will last several lifetimes with good care, unless you run many thousand of rounds through them annually…

    • @Rubiconcrossed:
      Regarding field stripping: I had an example of the new Colt Cobra for a while. Its instructions cautioned that FIELD STRIPPING VOIDS THE WARRANTY. That, among other things, turned me off, and I sold the damn thing.

      On the other hand, I have never had any problem field stripping a Ruger revolver (for instance), but I’m too fat fingered to DETAIL strip firearms.

  7. I have a Dan Wesson 44. The most important springs for it seem to be as plentiful as aluminum in 1750. I once had the tiny spring you could barely see on Walther knock off go zinging away. I had to use a 15-pound magnet on a cord to sweep an entire room to find it.

  8. I have a friend what is a dental tech, when her tools (You know, what they scrape teeth with) become out of specs or worn, she runs them through an autoclave and then gives them to me. They are great tools when cleaning firearms, rebuilding an auto transmission or a carburetor. Mineral spirits work great at cleaning firearm parts or transmission parts and it is not that expensive. For lube I use Mobil 1 synthetic oil in a syringe, works great, never a problem.

  9. When did you last clean the lint out of your carry gun – all the nooks the crannies? It gets everywhere in there – inside the magazine, around the sear, inside the striker channel, around the magazine release and trigger hinge pin – everywhere!


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