How to Clean your Semi-Auto Pistol
This week we began using the YouTube channel to create video content for our new and returning shooters. The goal is to answer some of the questions we regularly get in training. You can watch the video version of this Blog entry on the Sparrow Defense YouTube channel, here: https://youtu.be/SoRtZB1ApOg
So the obligatory disclaimer here is that I'm not sponsored by or being paid by any of the folks who make the products used in the video or for this article. These are just the products that I regularly use and that I had handy. I'm also going to say that I'm not responsible for any damage to your gun. I've done this literally thousands of times, and in every case I didn't break anything. That said, you should make sure that the things described in the video and this article adhere to the recommendations of your firearm manufacturer.
The first step is to get all of your cleaning supplies together and create a space where you can work. Some of the safety precautions should include sterilizing the environment and ensuring that no live ammunition is anywhere near this cleaning station. Gun "accidents" are generally caused by negligence and a lack of preparation. Take this step seriously so that you don't end up putting a hole in yourself or something that you care about.
The products that I use are:
- latex gloves to keep the powder and lead out of your pores and body
- synthetic solvent to break down and remove fouling
- synthetic lubricant for reassembly and reducing friction within the gun
- cleaning swabs made of cotton or foam (foam preferred)
- dental pick (metal or plastic)
- cotton cleaning patches (or a t-shirt cut into strips)
- Bore Snake in appropriate caliber
- brass brush
- a cleaning pad or old t-shirts to keep the solvents and grime off of my furniture
Once you've gathered everything, ENSURE THAT YOUR GUN IS EMPTY. The disassembly process for a number of firearms involves pressing the trigger to the rear. That's why removing all live ammo from the cleaning area is key. For most gun owners with no formal training in armoring a firearm, breaking the gun into the barrel, recoil spring, frame, and slide assembly will be all you need. There are more steps you can take, but I generally don't recommend that you perform a more detailed cleaning unless you are comfortable with armoring.
To get the gun apart, some pistols require that you press the trigger. Some don't. Glocks require that you press the trigger, then hold down on a small lever while moving the slide 1/4" to the rear. Other models such as Smith and Wesson and Sig Sauers, have a lever that you flip down when the slide is locked to the rear. Smith and Wesson M&P pistols have a second lever within the frame that must be flipped down. Most manufacturers are different. Consult your owner's manual to see your specific take-down process for your gun if you don't know it already.
Once you've broken everything down into the four parts, spray everything down liberally with your solvent. The solvent will break down the carbon and fouling. Letting it sit on the parts of the gun won't damage anything in most cases, but if you haven't used that particular brand before, you may want to ensure that it won't damage the wooden or rubber stocks / grips of your pistol.
The recoil spring is usually my starting location as it's very simple and I can put it to the side. Wiping it down with a cotton patch gets the surface grime off of it. You can compress the spring a few times and listen for grinding sounds or scraping. Ultimately, there's very little to do with most of these as they are a pre-built module from the manufacturer. You shouldn't be taking these apart in most cases. Also, they rarely need lubrication. If you've exposed the gun to something gritty (such as sand), you could put it in a solvent trap or blow it out with compressed air. However, it's generally easier to spend $10.00 and replace the factory spring assembly and remove all the guess work.
My next cleaning component is the barrel. Pay special attention to the feed ramp, which is the U-shaped / curved piece of metal that will be the first place the projectile will make contact with the gun as it leaves the magazine. You can usually find some marks or discoloration in that place due to the round tilting up and being fed into the chamber of the gun. In many cases, carbon and burned powder builds up in that area, which can cause feeding issues. You may need to hit that area with your brush or the dental pick in order to clean some of that material off. If you're going to scrape, make sure that you're using something that isn't as hard as the barrel itself, or you'll be likely to cause scratches / gouges that will cause function issues.
After you deal with the exterior of the barrel, you'll want to run the bore snake from the chamber side (where the round rests in the barrel prior to firing) to the muzzle side (where the bullet exits the gun). Run it through a few times to get everything out and you should see that all the powder and fouling has been removed. The rifling of the barrel (raised rails that impart spin) should be clearly visible. If not, spray in more solvent and repeat in a few minutes when things have loosened up. Important note: DO NOT USE STEEL TOOLS OR PICKS IN THE BARREL. You're going to damage something if you do. Put the barrel to the side when you're satisfied.
Start by brushing this out or wiping it down with your cotton cloth. That should show you any caked on grit or dirt that you'll need to work on. Using the brass brush is generally a good way to start here. It's a softer material than the metal of the gun, but harder than the fouling. Most gun brushes have two ends, so use both to get into the different spaces on the slide. You may end up applying more solvent and wiping everything down multiple times to get the surfaces clean. As a special note DO NOT FILL THE HOLES / FIRING PIN SLEEVE WITH SOLVENT. You do not need to fill the gun up with solvent. It's going to leave moisture and dirt caked on somewhere and that will cause issues later.
Once you've gotten most of the gunk off the gun, it's time to work on the slide rails. Swabs work great here. Get the swab into the rails of the gun and move out any fouling. I generally use a metal dental pick and some cotton patches, but I am NOT applying heavy pressure. Less is more. If you run into something that won't come out, go back to the brush to keep yourself from damaging your slide. Repeat until you're satisfied.
The last place I'm going to work on is the face of the slide, where the firing pin / striker is going to make contact with the primer. You'll also see your extractor (hooked piece of metal that removes the spent round from the chamber) in this location. Brush everything down and make sure that the firing pin channel is clear. You'll also want to inspect the extractor for damage and fouling at this point. You can apply SLIGHT pressure with your finger to the extractor to make sure it flexes. That piece will slip over the case when the gun is in battery and clip onto the rim, allowing it to be removed and ejected during the firing process. I always look for shiny metal at this point. It shouldn't be shiny. If you see shiny / sharp metal, it's probably damaged.
Wipe down the frame. You'll want to pay attention to the areas that will make contact with other moving parts. The blocks that will fit inside the slide rails are one place that I clean thoroughly. Also, getting a swab into the areas where you see dirt and grit is a good idea, but be wary of leaving lint there. Your firing controls and trigger assembly is also in this area, so you'll want to wipe those down and make sure that the contact surfaces are clean. DO NOT break out your Dremel to make it extra clean. I wish I didn't have to say this, yet here we are. The gun works just fine as it was sent from the factory. Doctoring it up means it's more likely to malfunction. If you're going to play gunsmith, do it with a gun that you're not using for self protection.
Ok - you've made it this far. Take this opportunity to look over all the parts of the firearm before reassembly and ensure that they are clean and dry. We don't need solvent pooled in any areas. The gun will require MINIMAL lubrication to function properly. It DOES NOT need to be dripping.
At this point I'm going to apply MINIMAL oil to the gun during the reassembly process. I'm talking a couple drops. Remember - less is more most times. Modern guns are meant to run in adverse conditions. We want lubrication to collect and move the dirt around, but too much is going to get you nothing but mess. I will place lubrication in the following places:
- The locking lugs of the barrel (the areas where it will match up and lock into the slide when the gun is in battery). These usually have a shelf or sharp angle. You'll also be able to identify them due to discoloration after you've shot a few times. The metal on metal contact will make wear marks in the finish of your gun.
- The exterior of the barrel near the muzzle. This is where the "smiley" discoloration starts. You'll see wear marks from where the barrel makes contact with the slide as it works back and forth. A drop or two will be fine. Then spread it around the outside of the barrel with a finger to coat around the surface.
- The interior of the slide rails inside the slide assembly. I generally put the slide on a mat, barrel side down on the table. I then put 1-2 drops on the inside of the slide rail and allow the oil to run down the inside of the rails. That will reduce the friction as the gun works in the future.
From here, it's just a matter of putting the gun back together. The barrel will go into the slide assembly. You'll be able to see the placement of the locking lugs and where they match up to the slide during this step. Make sure there is a LIGHT layer of oil in those places. Next, the recoil spring holds everything together. Make sure that the spring is facing the correct direction and that the ends are sitting in the locator notches usually found on the barrel. Finally, the slide will be placed on the locking blocks of the frame and you'll pull the slide all the way to the rear. In many cases, this will complete assembly. For some models, you'll need to flip the take-down lever back into the proper location to lock the gun back together.
Wipe the exterior of the gun down now to remove excess oil and any remaining surface dirt. Your gun should now be ready for function testing and use.
This is a great time to make sure that your gun works properly. That doesn't mean using ammunition. To start, make sure that the gun cycles properly. Run the slide back and forth vigorously and make sure that the slide stays on the frame. If it doesn't, that's a clue. The gun should stay together now. Next, WITH AN UNLOADED GUN, press the trigger and make sure that the trigger will activate the firing pin / striker. Hold the trigger to the rear and run the slide. Once the slide comes forward, slowly let pressure off the trigger. You should hear the click of the sear resetting. If you hold the trigger to the rear and run the slide, the firing pin should not activate until you release and press the trigger. If it does, your gun has a function issue and could possibly fire in full auto. If that's the case, hard stop and seek help. Finally, once you press the trigger, you should be able to shake the gun and hear the firing pin moving around inside the slide. That noise should be greater once the trigger has been pressed than it is when the slide is cycled and before you press the trigger. That verifies that your firing pin safety has been disengaged by the trigger and the firing pin can move freely.
At this point, you should be ready to load your gun up and put it back into service. Some people like to verify that the gun works by immediately firing live ammunition. That's problematic for most of us. Also - I just cleaned it. Do what makes you feel comfortable, but for me, the function testing I conduct after assembly lets me know the gun is in good working order.
Enjoy your clean gun!
As far as when to conduct your cleaning, I leave that up to you. I tend to err on the side of cleaning more often than necessary. If you're using it casually, every few hundred rounds / range trips should be more than enough. For those of you using this gun as a life-saving piece of equipment, I don't think there's such a thing as "too much care" for a firearm. Treat it like you'll be using it to defend your life or the life of your loved ones. For those of you about to store away your safe queen, go over the gun extremely well and wipe down most of the oil. Guns that will be stored for long periods generally don't need much lubrication beyond what is going to offset potential rust and tarnish. With that said, you'll also want to store the gun in a dry and temperature-controlled environment to prevent condensation and other issues from affecting the long term function and value of your firearm. I conduct annual (at a minimum) inspections and cleanings on investment / collection guns.