How to Clean A 1911 Pistol

How to clean a 1911

Matt Sandy for TTAG

The hardest part in cleaning a 1911 for most people is disassembling it. That’s more a comment on how easy they are to clean than how difficult they are to take apart. But since a 1911 isn’t as simple to take down as, say, a GLOCK, I will be covering proper disassembly and reassembly in this cleaning guide as well.

What’s covered in this article in terms of cleaning can be applied to pretty much any semi-auto pistol. The overall concept is simple. Wipe off all the dirt and dirty lubricant and apply some fresh gun oil.

There isn’t really a right or wrong way to clean a gun. As long as you clean it to your personal standard and don’t damage it in the process, you’ve succeeded. Gloves and eye protection are recommended when dealing with solvents and filthy firearms.

I run my 1911’s basically the same way I run my striker fired pistols. Before I start shooting, I put a light coat of oil on the rails.  After shooting, it goes back in the bag or back on my belt. When the gun has become so caked with carbon and dirty oil that I don’t really wanna hold it, I’ll clean it.

Quick Clean

First, make sure your gun is clear and safe. Then start by field stripping the gun.

Although a field strip normally implies no tools, some 1911s will have tight barrel bushings and require a bushing wrench to remove. I prefer to remove the slide first like a CZ (some prefer to remove the bushing first). Pull the slide back so the circular cutout in the slide lines up with the rear of the slide stop.

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Push the slide stop out from the other side of the gun, then gently let the slide forward. Use your other hand to capture the recoil spring and keep it from flying off as you remove the slide from the frame.

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Let the recoil spring and guide rod out easy, then twist the bushing counterclockwise and remove it along with the barrel. Some people don’t bother taking the barrel out for this level of cleaning, but it’s simple and makes things a little easier.

Use a rag or some paper towels and wipe everything down. You can buy a cleaning kit, but I find some sort of solvent like Hoppe’s Elite Foaming Gun Cleaner and some gun oil do the job.

Get the gunk out of the slide rails and make sure there’s no fouling on the feed ramp. Run a Bore Snake through the barrel. Get everything wiped down to your preferred level of cleanliness, apply a light coat of fresh oil on and reassemble. Rack the slide and check for proper operation and you’re good to go.

Deep Clean

Most shooters are only comfortable field stripping their gun for regular quick cleanings. That’s fine most of the time. But every pistol should occasionally be deep cleaned to ensure internal parts are cleaned and lubed.

That requires a full disassembly or detail strip of the pistol. Start by field stripping the gun, as above.

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Grab the slide and a small punch. Push the firing pin in, then pull down with the punch to remove the firing pin stop plate.

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The firing pin is sprung, so make sure you cover the firing pin with a finger to keep it from flying off.

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With the stop plate removed, the firing pin, firing pin spring and extractor can all be taken out. Do disassemble the frame, remove the grips. If they’re stuck, reach into the mag well with whatever finger fits and press on it from the inside.

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Next, remove the mainspring housing by tapping out the mainspring housing retaining pin and sliding it out.

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Next move the hammer to the cocked position and wiggle out the thumb safety.  It will come out somewhere between the safe and fire positions. Cover that area with your hand, as the safety plunger will want to shoot out of the plunger tube once the thumb safety is out of its way.

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With the thumb safety removed, the grip safety and sear spring should fall out. Push out the hammer and sear pins, and the hammer, sear, and disconnector will all fall out too. To remove the magazine catch, press the mag catch just a little, then turn the mag catch lock counterclockwise.

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It should easily, so if it isn’t turning, then you need to push the magazine catch in more or less. There is a sweet spot there.

Now that the magazine catch is free, the trigger should come right out. With the gun fully disassembled, you can start cleaning.

I like taking a nylon brush and scrub everything down, again using the cleaner of your choice. I pay special attention to the feed ramp and barrel throat as well as the extractor. I make sure they are completely carbon/dirt free.

Pay close attention to areas that have moving parts. This applies to the rails on both frame and slide. The space in the frame that houses the sear and hammer, the trigger track and the magazine well.

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Clean the barrel with whatever cleaning rod you have or a Bore Snake. I like to use the snake.

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Once you’re satisfied with the level of cleanliness of all the parts and you’ve applied a light level of lubrication, you can re-assemble.

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Start with the trigger and magazine catch, they go in just as they came out. Once those are installed, grab the disconnector and sear. Make sure you orient them properly.

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Once they are in the frame, I like to turn the frame on its side and use a small punch to line the holes up.

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After that, the sear pin drops right in. Install the hammer next. Flip the hammer strut up and out of the way so you can install the sear spring.

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I like to start the mainspring housing in the frame in order to keep the sear spring from falling out. Put the grip safety in the frame and start to insert the thumb safety. Twist the thumb safety out of the way so you can install both plungers and the plunger spring into the plunger tube.

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Cock the hammer back and push the thumb safety in until the plunger stops it. Grab a small punch or screwdriver and push the plunger into the plunger tube as you push the thumb safety the rest of the way in.

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Set the hammer forward against the frame so you can fully install the mainspring housing. Make sure the hammer strut is properly aligned and the bottom two feet on the grip safety are captured by the mainspring housing.

I will operate the trigger to make sure everything is working right. Don’t let the hammer strike the frame, block it with your thumb or hand.

The thumb safety likely won’t function properly without the slide installed. If the slide isn’t there to limit the upward travel of the thumb safety it may move too far up and no longer properly block the sear. Don’t be alarmed, you can confirm it works once the slide is installed.

Grab the slide, install the extractor, firing pin spring and firing pin. Line up the stop plate and push it in until the firing pun blocks its progress. Grab a punch and push the firing pin down so the stop plate can fully seat.

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Apply a little fresh oil to the rails (a little goes a long way) and get ready to pop the slide on.

If you have a 1911 frame with a standard-length dust cover, install the barrel and bushing.  Turn the bushing clockwise as far as it will go.  Install the recoil spring and recoil spring guide rod with the spring sticking out the front. Put the slide on the frame and install the slide stop.

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Cock the hammer and put the thumb safety on. Put the recoil spring plug on the recoil spring, push it down and twist the bushing to capture it.

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Putting the safety on keeps the slide from moving away as you try to push the spring down. Your slide stop SHOULD have a notch on the back side.

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This notch lines up with the plunger to make it easier to push the slide stop straight into the frame. Don’t set the slide stop low and try to push it up and in. That’s a good way to scratch your frame. If your slide stop doesn’t have this notch — and not all of them do — you’re SOL. Just do your best not to scratch your frame.

If you have a full-length dust cover, I prefer to install the barrel, bushing and recoil spring plug in their final configuration.

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Then I put the recoil spring and guide rod in, compress them down and hold it in with my thumb.

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I slide it on the frame and then install the slide stop.

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I think this is a little faster. It definitely feels easier. I don’t like doing this with standard-length dust covers because it doesn’t seem to work as well.

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And that’s it. You’ve fully dissembled, cleaned and reassembled your 1911.

How often should you clean your gun? That’s very much user preference. I like to do a quick clean every 200-300 round and a full detail strip and clean between 1500 and 2000 rounds.

Lots of gun owners find gun cleaning fun and even relaxing. It’s also a great way to learn exactly how your pistol works, which is always a good thing.

 

Matt Sandy is an Arizona-based gunsmith who competes in both USPSA and PRC matches. 

comments

  1. avatar GS650G says:

    Cleaned my super redhawk the other day. Didn’t need any tools and took about 20 minutes.

    But it’s an obsolete firearm according to some.

  2. avatar Vinny Boombotts says:

    Clean them?! You can clean them?! I just trade them in when they get dirty for a new one. I’ll have to give this cleaning thing a try. Who would have thought you can clean them?

  3. avatar Minuteman says:

    you make it all sound so easy. Especially the full takedown. I have done it a few times and have cursed just a little.

    1. avatar Matt Sandy says:

      It gets easier the more you do it. Trust me, everyone rides the struggle bus the first couple times they take a 1911 completely apart.

  4. avatar No one of consequence says:

    1. Remove slide
    2. Remove grips
    3. Immerse in Dunk-Kit for an hour or so
    A. Swish around every 15-20 min
    4. Remove parts
    5. Nylon brush carbon off the barrel feed ramp, if any remains
    6. Drip dry overnight.
    7. Lube and reassemble

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      That right *there* is all it takes for the vast majority of semi-autos…

  5. avatar daveinwyo says:

    Now THAT is a deep clean. That would get you in trouble in the Army back in the day. And a bushing wrench? The .45 s I used were so loose you could just shake it on it’s side and it would fall out. Just WOW! I don’t have one, but thanks for a good article.

    1. avatar WI Patriot says:

      No shit, IF the armorer ever found out you went past field strip, you’d end up on xtra-duty in the arms room cleaning whatever they put in front of you…

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        Friends who have been in the service since the adoption of the M9 have told me that trying to do a detail strip of a M9 could get you a NJP – especially if you lost a part.

        Since the M9 loves to launch detents and springs, it is very, very easy to lose parts while doing a detailed strip of a M9, even if you’re a gunsmith with experience and doing the job at a bench.

  6. avatar DaveM says:

    Looking for info on the flat coil recoil spring.
    Currently use Wollf extra power springs on Kimber and Colts, no more FT’s of any kind.

    1. avatar Matt Sandy says:

      EGWguns.com has a lot of great 1911 parts including ISMI flat wire recoil springs. Make sure you have the matching guide rod. Guide rods for 1911s come in two different diameters. Round recoil wire uses the larger diameter, so if you are switching to a flat wire spring you will need to get the appropriate smaller guide rod or it won’t fit.

  7. avatar jimmy james says:

    That’s not how Les Baer recommends field stripping his guns. I’ve never done the over hand/under hand method. I have a blue plastic/polymer bushing wrench with a lobe on 1 side that keeps the plug and spring from flying out. Push out the bushing with the barrel. LB bushings are tight. I dont know about the detail stripping. Ive done it before on 3 different guns but not sure on the mfr’s reccos on oil or lube on the sear and what not. Careful with cleaning solvents and lubes on some modern finishes. It will destroy or at the very least cloud the finish. Follow mfr reccos.

  8. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

    If you have a GI-style 1911 (ie, with slotted grip screws instead of allen-head screws, no full-length guide rod, no froo-fah-raw additions and “improvements”), you don’t even need any tools to do a detailed strip. All you need is the rim of a .45 ACP case.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      You’re just the guy to ask, DG –

      How do they make flat springs, like the recoil spring above?

      Google is only telling me about spiral springs like watch mainsprings…

      1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

        When you say “flat spring,” I think of a spring like the sear spring. You said “recoil spring,” so I’ll tell you how both flat-wire coil springs are made, and how flat springs/v-springs are made.

        Flat-wire coil springs: They’re made much as round-wire springs are made, only with a bushing that holds the flat wire oriented to keep the flat towards the previous/next turn. The wire is wound on a mandrel, sometimes with the grooves on it, in a machine that is much like an engine lathe – ie, the rate of advance of the wire between coils can be set on the machine.

        You can use many different types of materials for making a coiled spring; anything from common music wire (which is a high-carbon steel, from about 0.70% C to 1.00% C) to silicon chrome to 3xx-series stainless steels. The latter alloys cannot be heat-treated to harden them, but they work harden very easily, so pulling the wire through a reducing die before you wind it on a form adds the hardness.

        Now, a flat spring, like the sear spring for a 1911: these are made from a high carbon steel, much like music wire (0.7% to 1%C). You work the steel in the annealed state, forming it to the shape you want. If you have a really radical shape you need in the steel, you heat it red hot to make the bend, then allow it to cool slowly.

        When you are done shaping a flat/V spring, you harden by heating the whole spring to a red/orange temperature, quench the steel (in brine, water, oil, etc), then you clean any scale off the steel, then temper the steel by heating it to between, oh, 400 to 700% F for a prescribed about of time to make it less brittle. You can do the tempering step in something like nitre salts if you wish. I prefer to use nitre blueing salts for this – it gives a nice, uniform heating to the spring.

        Brownells sells flat spring stock metal. I regularly make V-springs for older guns this way, with a bit of hand file work, polishing, heat treating, etc. In the old days, gunsmiths used to use sperm whale oil for both the quenching and tempering. Sperm whale oil used to make a good quenching media – just drop the red-hot spring into the sperm whale oil to cool it.

        Then, the old-school way to temper a v-spring for a shotgun or revolver, you’d put the full-hard spring into a snuff can lid, add a couple of tablespoons of whale oil, light the oil with a match, and allow the oil to be completely burned. Ta-da, one tempered spring.

        Today, you obviously cannot get sperm whale oil. In the early 60’s, Brownells used to ship the stuff in quart cans. Wonderful for lubing guns and gunsmith work.

        It used to be that making springs by hand was a core skill of gunsmithing. It isn’t as much any more, and it is a reason why many modern gunsmiths don’t work on older revolvers and shotguns (esp. side-lock shotguns like LC’s) – they worry about breaking the old V-springs.

        1. avatar Kevin says:

          That was really fascinating. Thank you for the education, DG!

        2. avatar Geoff PR says:

          Thanks!

  9. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    You mean they don’t teach how to field strip and clean a 1911 in pre-school anymore?

  10. avatar MGD says:

    I’ve completely torn down one of my 1911’s once. Three years later and hours of therapy, I’m getting to where I like the pistol again. If I want it deeply cleaned, I’ll take it to my gunsmith and let him pay for the therapy.

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      Having detail stripped a few dozen different types of pistols, I have to say that the 1911 is one of the easier handguns to detail strip and re-assemble in original form. I think I can have a 1911 detail stripped in about three minutes if I’m taking my time. It takes me about five minutes to put it back together.

      Doing a detailed strip/reassembly on something like a S&W Model 41, a Beretta 9x, or possibly a CZ-75, many gun owners may be sorry they tried to take it apart…

      1. avatar Matt Sandy says:

        Agreed. The 1911 isn’t nearly as bad as the other guns you mentioned.

      2. avatar MGD says:

        I took a Sig 1911 apart. I had the hammer block in it. You have to hold your mouth just right to get everything back together. My Colt; much easier. It just takes experience and the right tools. I have neither.

  11. avatar VicRattlehead says:

    Should I pull the trigger before removing the slide? 😏

    1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      Vic, that was funny!

  12. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    If you can’t tear down a 1911 you should probably take your truck to Super-Lube.

  13. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    And you probably do.

  14. avatar Widdler says:

    I’m OCD, I field strip and clean my gear after every range trip. Complete tear down after every 2nd trip, it’s what the oldman taught me growing up. Do the same with my fishing gear as well, like the article said I find it fun and relaxing. The amount of patches and Q-tips I go through every year is ridiculous, but it dose help if I decide to trade up or sell it.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “Do the same with my fishing gear as well, like the article said I find it fun and relaxing.”

      The majority of my fishing is saltwater, so it really isn’t an option, when using older gear…

      1. avatar Widdler says:

        I only fish salt water, it’s all we got. Learning to strip your gear is pretty mandatory, got a few 60yr old Luxor/Mitchell reels that still run like clocks.

  15. avatar Jay in Florida says:

    I hate removing the safety lever on most 1911s I own. I can usually completely strip a 1911 in about 5 minutes.
    Just got a 25 year old Springfield Commander sized 1911 last month.
    The safety has never been out and still isn’t.
    Danged thing wouldn’t release. I pushed I pulled just short of hitting it with a punch……………………… Cleaned the gun as best as I could and put it away.

  16. avatar HueMan1911 says:

    I’ve always had trouble with re-installation of sear spring. Just can’t get it right once it came out

  17. avatar Guest says:

    “Don’t let the trigger strike the frame, block it with your thumb or hand.”

    I think he means the hammer

    1. avatar Matt Sandy says:

      Yup, I meant hammer.

  18. avatar captain fudd says:

    decent article, however 99.99 percent of 1911 users on here will have a series 80 which adds a few steps to removing the firing pin and a few more parts to clean on the slide.

    1. avatar Guest says:

      99.99% are Series 80? This is pure nonsense.

  19. avatar raptor jesus says:

    Step 1 – spray the nooks and crannies with ballistol
    Step 2 – walk away
    Step 3 – ???
    Step 4 – profit

    1. avatar Dyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      There are times when, faced with a pistol action that is rather complicated (eg, some .22LR pistols that are buggers to get all the springs to hold still while I re-assemble them), I will pull all the wood/plastic/etc off the gun, make sure it is de-cocked, and then put it into an ultrasonic tank for awhile to dissolve the gunk and grime. I’ll pull it out, use moderate-pressure compressed air to blow it out, I’ll look into the innards to see how clean it is, then I might put it back in the ultrasonic tank again. Heated ultrasonic tanks can remove a lot of gunk from a gun. It won’t clean a barrel, tho. Where ultrasonic tanks are really good is for .22LR blowback pistols that have lots of bullet lube, unburned powder and congealed oil in them.

      NB: I have some plastic cages/mesh/etc in my ultrasonic tank. Don’t put a nicely finished fun into an ultrasonic tank without something non-abrasive and softer to keep the gun off the stainless steel tank bottom, so you don’t have a wear mark on the gun when you pull it out. I also like to use a fine wire basket to hold parts suspended in the tank to keep everything together and off the bottom.

      Ultrasonics aren’t as good as a full strip, clean and re-assembly, but sometimes, it is the more prudent course of action.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        “Don’t put a nicely finished fun into an ultrasonic tank without something non-abrasive and softer to keep the gun off the stainless steel tank bottom, so you don’t have a wear mark on the gun when you pull it out.”

        Cut-up pieces of old bath towels work well for that…

  20. avatar GlockMeAmadeus says:

    You could follow this 1000 word in depth step by step highly involved cleaning procedure for 1911s.

    Or just get a Glock, and dont bother worrying about cleaning it. With all the money saved on cleaning supplies you can get one of those way cool Punisher skull backplates and stand apart from the crowd!

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