How to Clean a Rifle: Step by Step Instructions

Learning how to clean a rifle doesn't need to be difficult. Once you know what you are doing cleaning a rifle becomes easy. However, each kind of rifle is a little bit different. Before jumping in to the steps to cleaning here's a few hard earned tips for each type of rifle:

how to clean a rifle

Image adapted from mr.smashy

Tips on How to Clean a Semi Auto Rifle

  • Make sure you eject the mag before you clear the breech because you might pick up an extra round and have a negligent discharge
  • Look for the areas where the bolt carrier rides and make sure to get enough lube in there

Tips on How to Clean a Lever Action Rifle

  • Keep any parts in a plastic bag so you don't lose them
  • Check videos on Youtube to learn how to get the rifle together and apart without forcing it
  • Check the inside of the mag tube for debris and clean it

Tips on How to Clean a Bolt Action Rifle

  • When you bring the bolt out be careful not to scratch the top of the receiver tang with the bolt body
  • Don't disassemble the bolt if you don't have the correct tools and know what you're doing
  • Be careful not to bang the scope around while you clean it

Tips on How to Clean a Rifle Stock

  • Keep the solvent off the stock, especially polymer or rubber parts
  • Consider wiping it with silicone spray to polish it
  • If there's wood imperfections or scratches deal with them before they rot out

HOW TO CLEAN A RIFLE: STEP BY STEP

STEP 1: Be 100% Sure It's Unloaded

This is obvious but the people who don’t take it seriously are the ones who shoot their TV’s. Checking to make sure the gun is unloaded is different for every firearm but as a general rule you have to empty the magazine and the chamber.

When you check the chamber for ammo actually look and see if the chamber is empty. Press checks are for idiots! Casually looking at the chamber and then pulling the trigger got one of my family’s friends shot and killed.

Be very careful when you’re using firearms and follow a few tips to prevent negligent discharges:

  • Clean and handle firearms only in a single designated room
  • Lock all ammunition in a separate container from your guns
  • Be thoughtful and methodical when handling guns
  • Resist the urge to pull the trigger needlessly

STEP 2: Look for Obvious Signs of Wear and Broken Parts

rusted rifle

Image by Kordite

This is a good time to look over your gun with a fine tooth comb and make sure everything is the way it should be, or at least the way it was. Shooting guns, hunting, and storing them can be rough on them. Small amounts of rust, debris and breaking parts can happen without being noticed.

While the internals of the gun can be gummed up with power residue and broken parts can be hard to recognize but do your best.

Areas of shiny metal surrounded by fouling means the metal is wearing. Signs of uneven corrosion means you put oil on unevenly. Signs of metal shaving means you didn’t lube it properly. How a gun looks just before cleaning tells a lot about it.

STEP 3: Check for Function

This is important to know if the gun was working before you took it apart. Guns will still shoot with problems with magazine disconnectors, safety levers, and cracks, bends or just misaligned parts. After you’ve made 100% sure the gun is unloaded check for function.

Use snap caps or dummy rounds to make sure the gun loads and ejects cartridges well. Make sure the mags load and unload well, check all the springs and make sure nothing looks like it’s going to break or fly off.

STEP 4: Disassemble the Gun

Bust out the owner’s manual or YouTube and learn how to take apart and clean your gun. Don’t be the guy/gal who’s too macho to google “how to clean a lever action 30-30 rifle” but has to swallow pride for a gunsmith to order new parts.

Cleaning a bolt action rifle is relatively simple, just pull the bolt and it's ready to go. Other rifles can be much more involved. Just work slowly and methodically and you’ll do great. If you’re unsure don’t force anything off and work slowly. Some guns have set springs that can fly off never to be seen again.

Cleaning lever action rifles can be especially frustrating without an example to work off with. When disassembling a rifle follow these tips:

  • Follow all instructions in the manual or online
  • Keep parts together and small parts on a tray or in a baggy
  • Only use properly sized tools made for gunsmiths
  • Work slowly and look for small parts under spring pressure ready to fly off
  • Use the least amount of force necessary to take the gun apart

Here's an example of a Ruger 10/22 being disassembled:

STEP 5: Wipe off any Heavy Fouling

It’s much easier to wipe off the heavy dirt and grime from the gun and barrel than to try and flood it off with solvent. Especially caked on unburned powder residue use a cheap cloth and small brush, like an old tooth brush, to knock away and scrape off as much as possible.

STEP 6: Spray Solvents

A general solvent that will handle powder and carbon build up is essential for cleaning your gun. They dissolve the residues and make it easy to wipe them up instead of scrapping small surfaces and crevices.

Make sure you use the correct solvents and don’t expose wood, plastics, or fragile finishes to a solvent that could damage them.

STEP 7: Clean the Barrel

Cleaning the barrel is easy but needs some attention. Don’t use the cheap aluminum cleaning rods and avoid cleaning from the muzzle end. The reason behind this is to protect the crown and the rifling. Those cheap aluminum cleaning rods that come with bottles of solvent and oil will ruin a rifle faster than rusting it out underneath your front porch.

Those cheap aluminum rods will pick up sand and grit and drag it through your bore, scrape against the crown of the barrel and mar the surfaces that are critical for bullet engagement. The best option would be to use a bore snake and clean from the bolt end.

This will keep all the crud and grime out of the action and protect the crown from any cleaning rods. Run dry patches through the barrel until they come out completely clean and then run a single patch through soaked with a light oil to prevent rust.

STEP 8: Clean the Action

Wipe out any crud and grime from the action. Make note of any metal shavings you see inside or shiny parts of metal. This means it’s being damaged and needs attention. Work methodically and use solvents sparingly in this area.

Small crevices and engagement services can hold solvents that’ll damage the parts over time. Use only what is absolutely necessary and don’t force what you’re trying to clean into areas that make will make it impossible to get out.

STEP 9: Dry and Lubricate the Gun

Get all the solvent out and make sure the metal is ready to be lubricated. Put grease where parts have to slide and use oil where they have to rotate. Use oil sparingly and anywhere you see worn finish you need lube.

A light coat of oil on the entire surface will prevent rust and keep the rifle in great condition. Parts that need lubrication, put a little extra but don’t slog too much into the workings of the gun.

STEP 10: Reassemble and Check for Function

Make sure you put your rifle back together properly. Go slow and don’t cross thread screws, insert springs backwards or drop small parts into the clockwork of the rifle. Put the whole rifle together and check for function, work the action, pull the trigger and cycle a few dummy rounds to be sure everything is as it should be.

STEP 11: Store the Gun Properly

Storing a gun properly is the last step in cleaning. You must store the gun in allocation where people who have no business with it can’t get to it. This means a locked container or at the very least a trigger or action lock to prevent a tragedy.

If you have the option put it in a safe or case, because other than security you can control the humidity level inside a safe to prevent rust. Storing in a safe keeps your weapons safe.

Grease vs. Oil vs. CLP

CLP:

CLP Stands for Clean Lube and Protect and is a type of product used to clean guns that claims to be a one stop shop for spraying onto a gun for cleaning, lubing, and protecting. As a general rule these chemicals leave a lot to be desired. The solvents don’t work very well to dissolve powder residue and fouling and the lubrication dries out faster.

Grease:​

Grease is used for parts that need to slide across each other. Grease is used instead of oil in places like bolt raceways and pistol slides because it stays put and acts as both a lubricant and a buffer for protecting parts.

Oil:​

Used for protecting surfaces from corrosion and wear oil can be spread on a light coating across any metal surface and as a way to protect parts that need to move or spin. Oil should be used sparingly because it’ll attract dust and debris that can gum up an action.

For more info click: The Best Gun Oil, Grease, & Lube​

Ultrasonic Cleaning

Ultrasonic cleaning is not a new method of cleaning but the price of the equipment has come down considerably in recent years making it great for cleaning small parts like brass, springs, bolt carrier groups and anything you can fit into the machine.

The idea is for low frequency waves to be passed through a cleaning solution that shakes the debris and crud off of metal inside the machine. It has been used for decades in the aerospace, automotive and jewelry industries to clean parts.

The great thing about the ultrasonic cleaner is you don’t have to scrub and scrape to clean even the smallest parts and they come out totally clean and stripped of anything from their surface.

The bad thing about an ultrasonic cleaner is that it involves water and it strips away everything on the surface of small parts. That includes lubrication that helps with the function and prevents rust. This combined with water can mean a whole lot of rust. The key is to thoroughly dry and lubricate all the parts as they come out of the ultrasonic cleaner.

Most ultrasonic cleaners come equipped with a timer and a heater to control the length of time the cleaner is emitting an ultrasonic pulse and heating up the solution to help clean the parts faster. This means you can drop the dirty parts in, set the timer and the temperature control and then leave the washer to do its work.

The heat is a critical factor here. When you pull the parts out of the water the heat makes the residual moisture evaporate off of the parts quickly before rust can form. For good measure you can hit the parts with a heat gun set on low, but you must be 100% sure the parts are dry before you put the gun back together. Don’t forget to lube and oil the firearm to prevent rust.

The Dangers of Cleaning Rods

Cleaning rods as mentioned previously can ruin a rifle. The way they do this is by scratching the rifling and crown of the barrel. The crown is the very last surface of the barrel that must be cut perfectly square to the bore to ensure the bullet leaves stabilized and flying true.

If you scratch the rifling or mar the crown the bullet won’t be stabilized properly and you can have all kinds of problems from decreased accuracy to key holing. Once a rifle has been damaged by improper cleaning there’s really only two solutions:

If the crown was damaged and the barrel is long enough you can cut and re-crown the barrel. If the inside of the barrel was scratched and the rifling damaged, then you have to re-barrel the rifle. Neither of these solutions are particularly cost effective but depending on the damage you have to, otherwise you have an expensive club.

If you insist on using a cleaning rod, then opt for the vinyl coated single piece rods and clean from the breech end being very careful not to scratch the rifling or the crown. Most of the people who ruin their rifles don’t know how to clean a rifle barrel.

The new generation of pull through cleaning snakes are a much safer option for cleaning a rifle. How to clean a rifle with a bore snake depends on the model and what solvents you use but they make for an easy task of cleaning your rifle.

Conclusion

The goal of cleaning your rifle is to protect it and keep it working properly. If you want it to pass the white glove test then follow these instructions on how to clean a rifle properly. Every gun owner is responsible for keeping their weapon in a safe working condition.

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