You Can Do It: How to Clean Your AR-15 Rifle

Cleaning an ar-15

Matt Sandy for TTAG

Cleaning your AR-15 rifle is an oddly personal thing. Everyone seems to have their preferred way of doing it. Although there are definitely wrong ways to clean an AR, there isn’t necessarily one right way.  

In the end, if your AR ends up clean and undamaged, you’ve succeeded. Here I’m going to cover how I handle my AR-15 cleaning. The US Army was my first experience with this weapon system and is, for better or for worse, the foundation by which I do things.

Cleaning Supplies

There are tons of AR-15 rifle cleaning kits out there, but you really don’t need anything fancy to clean an AR platform rifle. An old T-shirt/rag/paper towel, cotton swab, nylon brush, bore snake and CLP was the extent of my gun cleaning kit for my first-year in. I’ve never removed any of those items from my kit, either. I’ve just added on.  

The image above is what my cleaning supplies look like now. Honestly, I use maybe 10% of what you see. I’ll discuss cleaning supplies more in-depth as I walk you through the process.

The Quick Clean

This step is a quick wipe down. This is the type of clean we do in the field, or in between live fire iterations, when things got really dirty and gritty.

Remove the rear takedown pin, then take out the bolt carrier group and charging handle.  

Cleaning an ar-15

Courtesy Author

Wipe the BCG and charging handle with a rag so they’re free of grit and black sludge.  

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

That black sludge is dirty oil. Set them aside someplace clean. Do the same with the inside of the upper receiver and lower receiver. I like using a nylon bristle brush here. Cover one end in the rag to get into the nooks and crannies.  

   Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

Next, run a bore snake through the barrel to make sure it’s clean. Once everything is free of dirt/grit and excessive amounts of dirty oil, re-oil it. I oil the outer three sides of the charging handle.

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

I put a drop or two of oil inside the BCG through the holes on the side.

Cleaning an ar-15

Finally, I’ll apply oil to the BCG as indicated below and spread it around with my finger.        

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

And…you’re done. This is supposed to be quick and simple. A 10-minute wipe-down to help make sure your AR runs smoothly. 

Honestly, this is how I clean my own AR 99% of the time. The internet is full of stories from guys that will go thousands of rounds without doing even this much. They just keep covering it in oil.

That will work for a while, but at a certain point your rifle will start to ooze black goo. That’s when you’ll need a more thorough cleaning, so I like to wipe away the old and put on some new.  

The Deep Clean

It’s good to do a deep clean every once in a while. Specifically, when you see a shift in performance, meaning if the accuracy starts to degrade or malfunctions start to happen. A good deep cleaning has an additional, often overlooked, benefit. It allows you to thoroughly inspect your weapon for damaged and worn parts. This can help you head off catastrophic failures.

You should use some kind of solvent that will cut through the carbon and oil for this step. Aside from military solvent tanks, I’ve used cleaning solvents like Hornady One Shot, Hoppe’s Elite Foaming Gun Cleaner, and M-Pro 7. For this article, I used Hoppes again and I tried out Hornady’s Hot Tub Sonic Cleaner. It’s not mine, but it was available and I like things that make my life easier.  

Shooter’s preference on the cleaning products…just pick something that will do the job. I also prefer to use paper towels instead of a rag here. Rags hold onto dirt. Fresh paper towels are always clean.  

Start by fully disassembling the rifle, then go piece by piece and make it clean.  

Cleaning an ar-15

Since my small parts are in the cleaner…

                  Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

I’ll start with the lower. Slather on some gun cleaner. The Hoppe’s foam works, but it’s a little weak. I prefer the aerosol-based sprays. The added force of the spray seems to help blast off more grime. Either way, get it wet and wipe dry.  

Cleaning an ar-15 I focus primarily on the magazine well. I want it good and clean to make sure magazines go in and out easy.

Cleaning an ar-15

I run a cotton swab around the fire control group.  

Cleaning an ar-15

I go at it until the swabs or paper towels are coming back mostly clean. You get to choose how particular you are here. If the trigger controls are super dirty, I’ll disassemble it. Otherwise, it’s not really worth the effort.

Remove the buffer and buffer spring. Wipe all of it clean. I like to twist up some paper towels to reach down inside the buffer tube.  

Next, go to the upper receiver. The order here isn’t critical, but I start with the barrel. Ideally, I’d use a strong copper solvent like Sweet’s Bore Cleaner. When I’m doing a deep clean like this, I like to strip the bore clean. Shooter’s Choice Bore Cleaner isn’t as strong, but it’s good, and it’s what I had on hand. Follow the instructions.  

Stuff like Sweet’s will eat your barrel if you aren’t careful. Shooter’s Choice isn’t as aggressive, but I’d still follow the instructions. You’ll also need a cleaning rod, jags, and a bore brush.  

Courtesy Brownells

Courtesy Brownells

Courtesy Brownells

Use a bore-safe cleaning rod like the carbon fiber one featured or nylon coated ones. The nylon-coated ones can get embedded with grit that may scratch your barrel. Unless you are really careless with it or use it with lapping compound, it’s not really a concern. If a knuckle-dragging grunt like myself can use the nylon-coated ones in the environment that is the Army without ruining barrels, I think you’ll be OK. Just show some care. 

Wear gloves when dealing with stronger solvents. That stuff isn’t great for you. The jag holds the cloth patch that’s either soaked in solvent/oil for getting it into the barrel, or dry for removing it. The brush helps scrub out stuck-on carbon and scratch embedded copper so the solvent can work better. 

It really helps if you can put your AR in a vise (get yourself a vise block for this).  

Cleaning an ar-15

Again, just follow the instructions for whatever bore cleaner you are using. I make sure I end my bore cleaning with an oiled patch followed by one or two dry patches. This leaves a thin layer of protection for the stripped barrel.  

Next, clean the rest of the upper. I start with my nylon brush and paper towels to scrub everything I can reach.  

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

I switch to the cotton swabs for the hard-to-reach areas like around the gas tube and the star chamber. Various companies make chamber brushes, but I’ve never felt like they did much. With or without a chamber brush, I still end up digging carbon out with a cotton swab.

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15 

Now for the small parts. The sonic cleaner helped, but I still have to hand-clean all the internals.  

Cleaning an ar-15

Make sure the bolt body is clean inside and out. Check inside the bolt hole for carbon buildup and scrape it out if needed. I’ll usually swab the opening to the gas key too.

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

Cleaning an ar-15

Once it’s clean, give it a good once-over for cracks or excessive wear. Also, make sure the gas key is still nice and tight.   

 Cleaning an ar-15

Next is the bolt itself. Since I forgot to remove the extractor for the sonic cleaner, I’ll take it off now and clean underneath it. Carbon likes to build up on the back of the bolt.

Cleaning an ar-15

Go ahead and scrape it off. There are some fancy tools, like this one, that can make this easier. I’ve always used dental picks or other scrapers. Obviously, be careful to not damage it.  

Once clean, inspect the gas rings for excessive wear or damage. Check the locking lugs, specifically along the back, and make sure there are no cracks. Same thing with the extractor.  

Cleaning an ar-15

If all looks good, reassemble the bolt. Check the firing pin and cam pin the same way. Once it’s fully assembled, double-check the gas rings. Do this by pulling the bolt forward and standing the BCG up on the bolt.  

The bolt body should not fall to the closed position. It should remain extended. If it falls, the gas rings need to be replaced as they aren’t providing an adequate seal.

Cleaning an ar-15

Once it’s all nice and clean, oil it back up. I oil after the deep clean the same way I do after the quick clean. I like to put a drop on the trigger springs, too. That’s an old habit taught to me during my private days. I’m honestly not sure if it’s right, wrong or meaningless, but it’s what I do.  

Once reassembled, perform a function check and…that’s about it. Again, this is how I like to do things. It works well for me. 

If you’re new to AR-15 cleaning, I encourage you to look at multiple sources. When in doubt, follow the instructions on whatever cleaning product you are using.

If you are scratching/damaging anything on the rifle, you’re doing it wrong. Stop and seek some face-to-face help from someone who has done this a few times. Preferably a gunsmith.  

 

Matt Sandy is a gunsmith at The Range at Austin who competes in both USPSA and PRC matches. 

comments

  1. avatar former water walker says:

    I am far from an AR cleaning experts but it became amazingly simple when I discovered Ballistol. Soak it,run a brush(or boresnake) through it and let it sit. Wipe off excess. Do BCG carefully. Works great. And it won’t kill you(important when you’re old and your skin is precancerous).Also used by Hickok45 and NXZ85.

    1. avatar The Rookie says:

      Ballistol is all I use on my guns. Love the stuff.

    2. avatar No one of Consequence says:

      But that odor…!

      1. avatar Paul D says:

        I think it smells like licorice. Doesn’t bother me at all.

        1. avatar Mike says:

          I always use boretech and ballistol but the ballistol tickles my throat and makes me cough. Anyone else get that tickle?

  2. avatar GS650G says:

    I focus on the BCG and chamber up through the barrel. The deep clean isn’t a bad idea but not necessary unless you’re using it in harsh dirty environments. As with all things YMMV.

  3. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    Matt, I know your article wasn’t meant to be funny, but it was. Your first cleaning kit sounds a little better than mine. I remember a company inspection by the battalion XO. He asked me what I used to clean it. I said, “An old flannel shirt and a coat hanger.” My roommate gave the same answer. You want to keep an AR clean?
    1. Buy a new one.
    2. Don’t shoot it.
    I never had to stop shooting to clean any other military rifle while shooting to keep it shooting. An AR? Yeah. Lots of times.

    1. avatar GS650G says:

      Millions of people get good service from AR pattern rifles. They must be good for something.

      1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

        No, not really. I used one for a boat anchor once. Wasn’t heavy enough.

    2. avatar possum says:

      Never been shot and only dropped once, lol

    3. avatar EpsteinDidNOTKillHimself says:

      @Gadsden Flag,
      I have to agree with that.
      Too many people think just wiping down the BCG and punching the bore and everything is good to go.
      Nope.
      IF you are really shooting and shooting in adverse conditions (rural Afghanistan, not a pretty range) then you know how important it is to keep all the inner workings clean, dirt, dust, sand clean.

      Real cleaning, like have to pass the Gunny’s inspection turn back into the armory cleaning, is a two hour event.

      One of the reasons why I will never own a AR15.

      1. avatar jwtaylor says:

        For my multiple tours in Afghanistan, I bore snaked the barrel, CLP’d the BCG, and used canned air or an air compressor in the chamber every once in a while. The guns ran great.
        The modern M4 is an extremely reliable platform in regular use in some of the harshest environments on earth.

        1. avatar gus says:

          what do you think about using light grease instead of oil?

        2. avatar jwtaylor says:

          I don’t like grease on guns, with the possible exception of the bolt lugs on some bolt action rifles.
          SLIP 2000 is my favorite but CLP works great.

        3. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

          Weapon. The noun is weapon. Not “gun.” That was worth 25 when I was active duty.

  4. I’ve been spraying mine down with brake or carb cleaner and then dusting them with a spray oil for the last thirty years…works great and it’s fast.

    1. avatar Cooter E Lee says:

      I do that with all metal parts like uppers and shotgun barrels or guns I don’t care about like high points. It’s a lot faster to get the grime off than actually wiping down each part and I run all my firearms wet so I get a lot of grime.

      Tire black on spray on polymer parts keep those looking good.

    2. avatar strych9 says:

      I wouldn’t recommend that you do this if the metal is too hot to touch or if you plan on ripping off a few large strings right afterwords.

      Carb and brake cleaners break down on exposure to high temperatures and the vapors the reaction produces are not something you want to inhale. Exposure to inhalation of those vapors will give you, essentially, early onset Parkinson’s and as you might guess, it’s not reversible.

      So I’d be careful about exposing that to heat within a few minutes or doing it on a really hot gun. Unless you want to be permanently dancing the Jitterbug.

    3. avatar gene says:

      Use the non-chlorinated stuff.

  5. avatar Silentbrick says:

    GAH! Memories of SFC Fowler asking “I thought you said you cleaned this…..”

    1. avatar Montana Actual says:

      lol. That’s because there is always that one guy shamming out and once his gets inspected first, the rest of us are fucked.

      1. avatar Not Larry from Texas says:

        Or the one clown that decides to take a huge brown bomb right in the toilet before the bay inspection making the night unpleasant.

    2. avatar That guy from Washington says:

      I did drill sergeant!!! I did!!!

      With what private? A damn Oreo cookie?

      1. avatar jwm says:

        I was accused, more than once, of shining my boots with a hot brick and a hershey bar.

  6. avatar jwm says:

    It’s been 50 years since I took an m16 apart. Kinda the definition of ‘fiddly bits’.

    1. avatar possum says:

      I like the spring loaded springs

  7. avatar Montana Actual says:

    Is it weird this makes me horny? Strip it all. mmm yea lube it up and slide it back in. Not even joking. I’m gonna go clean my guns in my underwear now.

    1. avatar Miner 49er says:

      Fascinating. You Gun loving hillbillies are really taking it to the next level here. Getting aroused by your guns. No wonder no self respecting liberal women are into you people. I for one am a modern man with no need for guns and I only support my feminist partners hobbies. I wouldn’t dare label her anything else either as to not commit the crime of hyper masculinization.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        I know you’re not the real miner. But honestly, ‘self respecting liberal woman’, is kind of an oxymoron.

        Who would want one?

  8. avatar gus says:

    every time you take it apart to clean anything, scrub thoroughly under the extraction claw and inspect for damage or sluggishness.

    every time you take it apart for deeper cleaning, inspect the bolt lugs and bolt cam area for cracks.

  9. avatar gus says:

    can anybody tell me what’s a good way to scrub out the star chamber area? no toothbrush fits in there.

    1. avatar GS650G says:

      You need a chamber brush. It’s specific for cleaning the chamber area.. get one in a caliber close to yours.

    2. avatar FormerParatrooper says:

      Use a the specific bore brush for a M16. Attach to a cleaning rod. Secure cleaning rod to a battery operated drill. Put a lot of your preferred oil in the chamber. Start the drill slow, add more oil. Watch the residue as it flows out of your barrel and keep adding oil until it looks clean.

      I don’t use a drill for the barrel, just a snake. After I get the chamber cleaned, I pour a little Denatured alcohol into the chamber and down the barrel to flush any excess oil out. Denatured drys quickly with very little residue. I then lightly oil and run the snake several times thru the barrel.

      Just my way, and it works for me.

    3. avatar Wiregrass says:

      I’ve never had much luck with using a chamber brush on the star chamber. Maybe I’m just not using it right. I suppose it would work with a cleaning rod chucked in a drill. But the last gun I did that to was a Mosin Nagant M38 with stick bolt syndrome. Honestly, I have a lot of concern about wire fibers breaking off in the receiver with those. And like the author, I still find crud with a cotton swab.

      1. avatar FormerParatrooper says:

        The drill works fine for me. The key is speed, too fast and things break. Too slow and it is a tease. If you get broken bits of the wire inside the chamber, when you flush they should come on out. If it doesn’t get them out, hot water, near the boiling point could be carefully poured thru the chamber. Hot water evaporates quickly so after you flush and do your standard oiling no fear of rust. I do use the hot water for the first cleaning of my blackpowder weapons. Really gets things on track for a good cleaning.

    4. avatar Anymouse says:

      Several manufacturers make felt pads that are shaped like the bolt lugs. You put them on a handle, soak them with your favorite solvent, and rotate them under the extension lugs.

  10. avatar Nate in CA says:

    This is why I own Glocks and Hi Points… maintenance just isn’t my thing!

  11. avatar strych9 says:

    Who am I cleaning this for? An armory or myself?

    Unfortunately I’m even more anal retentive about cleaning guns I own than I ever was about someone else’s gun.

    1. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

      For me, the after-range cleaning session is a part of the shooting experience, and a nice way to spend an evening reflecting on the day…

    2. avatar DinWA says:

      Anal retentive? *ahem*… Details enthusiast! 🙂

      1. avatar PMinFl says:

        Is that what the AR in AR15 stands for??????lol

  12. avatar possum says:

    How to clean your AK: Hold gunm, fall in mudhole.

    1. avatar jwm says:

      Making sure the gun is between you and the mud.

    2. avatar hawkeye says:

      A few decades ago, I bought some pre-ban SKS rifles for my brothers and myself for Christmas, 100 bucks apiece. The dealer threw in a pile of Norinco ammo, and said to clean the guns after shooting because it’s corrosive. Well, we took those rifles to the farm and ripped through half the ammo over a weekend, and put the rifles away until the next time we could get together. Got them out later, and they looked like those mineral crystal growing experiments the school kids make. We hosed them down with WD-40, shot them a few times to blow all the crap out, and then burned through another batch of that ammo. I cleaned mine somewhat after, doused it with WD-40 again, and put it away. Not sure about the brothers. Parents sold the farm not much later, and we haven’t all gotten together to shoot like that since. I get mine out now and then, still shooting around 3 MOA and never skips a beat. Tough little rifles.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        I actually prefer the sks to the ak. One of my big regrets is getting rid of my Russian refurb sks. The red army’s version of an m1.

        1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

          jwm, I prefer the SKS to the AK also. Just as reliable and a lot more accurate. No empty mags to keep up with. Bought one years ago and a case of 7.62X39 in stripper clips. Everyone should have the caliber in their firearms battery. How are the fires treating you?

        2. avatar jwm says:

          Anytime I wax nostalgic, GF, about spending time in a smoke filled barroom all I have to do is step outside.

          This is what happens when a blue state is turned red by a vengeful God. I’m expecting locusts next.

        3. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

          jwm, be safe. Do what I do when it’s a hurricane. Get the fuck out of the way even before you’re told!

  13. avatar Quincy McHallihan says:

    Best Lube for AR15: Slip2000 (great friction coefficient and amazing temp threshold).
    Best Lube for AR10: Slip2000 30 Weight (best temp threshold, better on heavier actions).
    Best Lube for handguns, PCCs and shotguns: Lucas Gun Oil (lower temp threshold but best friction coefficient).
    Best Grease: For sear and disconnector engagements, or for use on upper receiver extension socket threads: Tetra White Lithium Grease, Slip2000 Grease or 130-A grease.
    Best Solvent: Unless you’re running in-the-white barrel, with nitriding or chrome-lining, you don’t really need solvent unless you shoot corrosive ammo. In that case, Hoppe’s No. 9 works fine and smells amazing.
    Best Bore Coat: G96 or RemOil. Use on brushes and last few inches of a bore-snake or Otis Rip-Cord and pull it through.

    Source: AR and Glock Armorer for over ten years.

    1. avatar hawkeye says:

      +1 on Hoppe’s #9 after shave.

      I’ve come to kinda like the scent of Ballistol too, but the wife and daughter break out the clothespins whenever I crack that one open.

  14. avatar WI Patriot says:

    Learned how to clean one 38yrs, nothing has changed, and nobody is tougher to get a pass from than the company armorer, if it ain’t clean, it ain’t gettin’ turned in…

  15. avatar gus says:

    I heard that GI’s in WWII would put soapy water in a helmet, stick the barrel in there and plunge up and down with the cleaning rod a few times and that was it.

    1. avatar Anymouse says:

      I didn’t know there were WWII soldiers that used AR platform guns. I guess you learn something new every day. Seriously though, a former SEAL told me they would get out of the surf, carry theirs over the beach and into the showers to get off the salt water and sand.

  16. avatar Jimmy James says:

    You have to clean an AR? OMG!

  17. avatar Desert says:

    Does anyone ever clean the gas block? I have heard for years that “all the crap gets incinerated”, but if that were true the carbon and burnt gunpowder would not be in the receiver. I can only imagine that the gas impingement tube is dirty too, but nobody ever seems to clean them.

    1. avatar Anymouse says:

      There are extra long pipe cleaners that you can shove up the gas tube and reach the gas block if you’re worried about it.

    2. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      I did. With pipe cleaners when I could get them. There is something inherently wrong with a weapons platform that needs all this crap to clean it.

  18. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

    Tell you AR lovers what. I put my money where my mouth is. When the stupid shit is over I’ll buy another AR. Again. A middle of the road one. Say, $1200. Then I’ll take it and my Galil to the range. Both cleaned and lubed. Couple of thousand rounds. I’ll shoot until one malfunctions. No additional cleaning or lubrication while shooting. The first to malfunction I’ll get rid of. Any bets on which rifle that will be?

  19. avatar Henry Bowman says:

    Mobil 1 0W-20 synthetic motor oil is the best/cheapest gun lube ever made. I run it in my M2HB, M1919, M60, M16’s, Uzi, STEN, M10 and all of my semis. No smoke, zero sludging/thickening, maintains a consistent fluid film coating even at high temps, and cleans out easily with carb cleaner or kerosene.

    You guys can spend $10 for 5 oz of whatever super-hyped-lube you want, or $8 for 32 oz of Mobil 1.

    1. avatar Gadsden Flag says:

      You’re not Henry Bowman. Henry Bowman wouldn’t own an M-16. And he would have mentioned lubing his four bore and Solothurn.

    2. avatar Mark says:

      I wish you all the best with you eventual cancer diagnosis.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Everything causes cancer in a lab rat. Are you a lab rat?

      2. avatar Henry Bowman says:

        I’ll be dead long before cancer, thanks. Counting on it, in fact. And I’m good with that.

        “The proper function of Man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I will USE my time.”

        – Jack London

        1. avatar Toni Smith says:

          Henry Bowman I concur with those sentiments completely. No point worrying about stuff that gets in the way of actually living life

  20. avatar PTM says:

    “I put a drop or two of oil inside the BCG through the holes on the side.”

    When I read that, I just tuned out. Everyone who knows anything about the function of the AR-15 BCG knows this is a huge myt. Watch this for mythbusting this: https://youtu.be/6EuiUhPLifA

    For a far superior method, watch this video, from a guy who has put more rounds through AR rifles that, I would guess, most of, together, ever will.

    Chris Bartocci, Small Arms Solution, Author of “Black Rifle Volume II”

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