How to Clean a Handgun

Proper cleaning is the key to keeping your guns running smoothly.


Modern semi-autos and revolvers are amazing little machines. Quality handguns built by reputable manufacturers are designed to be rugged and reliable. In fact, they've become so dependable it's easy to forget what they really are: precision-built mechanical devices which are forced to operate under less-than-ideal circumstances. Just like any other machine, handguns need proper cleaning and lubrication to keep them running smoothly.

How Often Should I Clean My Handguns?
Everyone in the shooting industry agrees that keeping guns clean is important. However, when people do disagree, it’s usually about how often cleaning is required. Some shooters treat their guns like professional racecars, paying strict attention to the state of their pistols before and after each shooting event. Others treat their handguns like the family sedan. Why would you wash it, wax it and change the oil each time you go for a drive? The whole point of buying reliable equipment is so you don't have to worry too much about maintenance, right?

For better or for worse, I follow a tiered gun cleaning schedule based on gun usage and purpose. Each gun gets a bath once a year, whether it needs it or not, to ensure it won't rust. Firearms that only come out once in a while get a lubrication check before shooting, and go back into long-term storage scrubbed and polished. Guns I shoot regularly, but casually, like my favorite .22s, get cleaned on an as-needed basis. I know they need it when the buildup of fouling starts to cause malfunctions, or when the lubrication is starting to wear thin.

Defensive handguns have a much stricter cleaning schedule. These are cleaned immediately after shooting, stored clean, carried clean and regularly checked for dirt build up and proper lubrication. Not everyone agrees with this approach, but my thought is this: Self-defense situations are driven and shaped by many factors outside of my control. Why would I willingly sacrifice one factor I can control, namely, keeping my handgun in the best state of maintenance possible?

Getting Started
The best place to start is your owner’s manual. If you don't have a manual, order one or review it online. Handguns almost always require some level of disassembly for cleaning. Be sure to understand the layout of your pistol and the tools and procedures for disassembly and reassembly. This will help you to avoid damaging the gun, launching springs across the room or losing those important little pieces that can fall out and get lost.

Cleaning & Lubricating Your Handguns:
The specifics of what a particular handgun needs for cleaning changes with each make and model. The following information touches on the general steps to follow:

1. Prepare Your Work Area
Work in a well ventilated area that's been prepared for gun cleaning. The chemicals and compounds produced by shooting, as well as those used to clean and lubricate, are toxic and should be handled with care. A quick and easy way to prepare a workbench or table is to cover it with a large plastic trash bag. Cover the bag with a couple of layers of newspaper or a layer of paper towels, and swap out the padding as it becomes soiled. When you're done with the cleaning session, just turn the trash bag inside out to capture the debris, tie it shut and throw it away.

2. Engage Your Safeties
Ensure the gun is unloaded and pointed in a safe direction before you start cleaning and that all ammunition has been removed from the area. We've all heard stories of someone getting hurt while cleaning a gun. Along with safety considerations, solvents and lubricants can damage ammunition resulting in a failure to fire.

Mark Twain quipped, "If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way." Getting a little splash of solvent in the eye is a similarly enlightening experience. As a bore brush moves out of the barrel, it flicks solvent and fouling into the air and toward your face. If it makes sense to cover your workspace, it’s logical to cover yourself as well. Wear safety glasses. A dust mask and protective gloves are also a good idea.

3. Field Strip the Handgun
It's rarely necessary to take a pistol completely apart for anything other than repairs. Field stripping is the process of partially disassembling a pistol for cleaning. For semi-autos, the pistol is broken down to its major components, such as the barrel, slide, guide rod, frame and magazine. Semi-autos have a wide variety of configurations, so be sure to read your manual and understand the field stripping process for your pistol. For single-action revolvers, the cylinder is removed from the frame. For double-action revolvers, simply swing the cylinder out into the open position. All three types of handguns may require you to remove the grip or grip panels as part of the cleaning process.

4. Clean the Bore of the Barrel:
The interior of the barrel is where most of the action takes place. As such, it's one of the most important areas to clean properly and the most labor intensive. The layer of material left in the barrel after shooting sessions can reduce the pistol's accuracy and corrode the barrel. To begin, attach a bore brush to the cleaning rod. Apply solvent to the brush and push it back and forth through the bore of the barrel several times. It's a good idea to clean and add solvent to the brush once or twice more as you work. Avoid dipping the bore brush directly into the solvent bottle, since this will foul the solvent. Instead, pour solvent onto the brush over a clean container, and then use the solvent in the container to treat patches and rags.

Once the bore of the barrel is thoroughly scrubbed, attach a patch with a patch holder or jag to the cleaning rod and run the patch through the barrel. The first patch will be quite dirty, and will need to be replaced. Run patches through the bore until they start to come out of the barrel looking relatively clean. Use a light to check the barrel bore. If you still see fouling stuck to the interior of the barrel, then run the brush and solvent again, followed by more patches.

Once you have removed all of the visible fouling with the bore brush, then run a patch or two treated with solvent through the barrel to remove any loose particles. Follow this with dry patches until they come out looking clean. Finally, run a clean patch treated with a little gun oil or lubricant through the bore. This thin layer of oil will protect the bore from moisture.

This process is only conducted once for semi-autos, since you only have the barrel to clean. Revolvers, on the other hand, have one long barrel and five or six chambers in the cylinder. Each chamber should be brushed and patched like the barrel.

5. Clean the Frame & Other Components:
Use your nylon brush, with some solvent, to scrub the other parts of the gun, and then use a rag to wipe off the solvent and residue. Be thorough in your inspection of the pistol. If something looks dirty, it is. Check the nooks and crannies for a buildup of fouling. For semi-autos, pay close attention to cleaning the slide's interior grooves, under the ejector and the contact points between the slide and the frame. For revolvers, keep an eye out for build up around the forcing cone, the face of the cylinder and the cylinder ratchet. For double-action revolvers, don't forget to check under the ejector star as well.

It's not necessary to get the gun dripping wet with solvent. A little goes a long way. How much cleaning attention is needed, and where it should be directed, depends on the gun and how much it has been shot. Just like your work with the patches, if you rub an area with a clean cloth or swab and it comes away smudged, more cleaning is required. Wipe the pistol clean of all solvents before lubricating.

6. Lubricate The Handgun:
The lubrication points differ from pistol to pistol. In general, semi-autos need lubricant where the various parts rub against each other as the action cycles. Revolvers need only a little lubrication. Single-actions need some on the cylinder pin and ratchet, while double-actions need some on the ejector rod and cylinder ratchet. The key is not to over lubricate. Too much will only serve to attract and hold gun fouling.

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24 Responses to How to Clean a Handgun

http://guncleaningsolvent.com wrote:
October 07, 2013

Yeah everyone has their own piece when it comes to how often to clean. While some do not clean their guns as often as they should, some others clean more than they should. Ha! bottom line it is important that you choose the best gun cleaning solvent for your gun.

Phil wrote:
August 06, 2013

As to how detailed and how often to clean you firearm someone asked? If this is a self defense weapon (all can be used for self defense), is your life or someone else's worth the approx. 30 minutes once or year to be able to depend on it. I would also recommend that if it is used for self defense and it is 'magazine fed' either box magazine or tube magazine, I would recommend relieving the spring compression at least every two weeks-I alternate my magazines every 7 days. As a LEO for one federal agency, where they did not remove the bullets from the semi-automatic service firearms magazine for 3-4 months at a time. My previous job, before the above was as an armorer, I recommend they stop this practice and down load the magazines nightly to get a very accurate count on returned ammo. Nope. A little common sense goes a long way. Invite someone new & trustworthy to go shoot with you, spread the good feeling of 10 ring shooting. Good article.

Karen wrote:
March 03, 2013

Thank you to all.

Chad wrote:
January 25, 2013

Great article and great comment feedback.

Mike wrote:
January 02, 2013

Someone posted a you-tube video stating the best and easiest way to clean a handgun is to spray it and literally soak it in Simple Green cleaner. Any comments or reaction?

joshua durante wrote:
December 08, 2012

I clean my 40 and my 22 evey 2 mouths because i dont want mines to build up and back fire on me

Loran wrote:
November 24, 2012

I clean my conceal carry pistol after every trip to the range. Not only to ensure the gun is in optimum working condition, but also because I enjoy it. There's something oddly therapeutic about disassembling and cleaning a gun.

Lilly M Boughtontrumble wrote:
June 15, 2012

I have a handgun I bought from my daughter & son-on-law. I have only did some shooting at a gun range one. Afterwards I cleaned it under my daughter & son-on-law's supervision. This done in 2001 the gun has not been fired since or cleaned. So from what I read in you article I should have been cleaning it at least once a year???

wise wrote:
June 07, 2012

I don't like the boresnakes cause they don't work as well as advertised. If I pull my boresnake through the barrel and run a patch after, the patch is dirtier when running just patches through. These are my shotguns, u don't use them for handguns, but the result would be equal. I put gun oil in my shotguns and mob them with the cotton brush, covered with a patch. This does the trick of you keep to the 'before sundown' rule. I rarely use the brass brush for my smooth bore rifles. For handguns the steel brush, followed by patches works the best. The 'clean breach to muzzle' is for fixed action rifles, so you don't bring dirt in the action, but the handgun barrel doesn't fit that description. My humble oppinion. Wise, The Netherlands.

Chip B. wrote:
March 25, 2012

Mike, nothing "wrong" with boresnakes, they are just more commonly used for rifles. I like them, but they can only get a gun as clean as they are! Once you've run it through a dirty barrel, IT needs cleaning! As long aS you're using clean snakes, you should be in good shape.

mike vaughn wrote:
February 02, 2012

No mention of bore snakes? Aren't tyhry any good?

Kevin J wrote:
January 22, 2012

I have been cleaning weapons for at least 40 years and this is a very good article. I have been in the military for 32 years. CLP sucks! When I was in Iraq, it collected any and all dust. And dust was everywhere. After the first week there I changed to graphite. I would clean my weapon with CLP, wipe it down driy and add graphite as a lube. I never had any issues since then. I would not recommend, nor do I use graphite on my personal weapons. In the combat zone you have to do what works!

Pete B wrote:
January 05, 2012

Be very wary of "all in one" products. The US Army learned the hard way that their all-in-one CLP (clean,lube,protect) was too thick for Iraq, when the fine dusty sand mixed with it and gummed up weaons at the worst possible times. I stick to the old way of RBC (rifle bore cleaner) followed by LSA (lubrication, small arms. Or, in civilian terms, Hoppe's 9 to clean, then thorough drying, then the appropriate amount of nice, thin gun oil.

Tom wrote:
December 20, 2011

one of the better articles about handgun cleaning I've run across. I always worried about it; now I won't

John wrote:
November 24, 2011

Re: EEZOX. I find it very useful on the magazines (incl springs, interior, exterior, etc) since it's a cleaner, "dry" lubricant and protectant all in one. Makes the job a little easier. The "dry" part is good so that the magazine doesn't collect dust and dirt and doesn't contaminate the cartridges. After the first time I did this the magazines seemed to go in and drop out easier. I'm not so convinced about using EEZOX for the entire pistol though. I prefer solvents (Hoppe's #9 and occasionally the one for copper fouling) and Hoope's gun oil for the body & barrel and then special gun grease for the slides. Each part has a specific function and therefore a specific cleaning protocol and lubricant. Re: lubricating the barrel interior, I run an oiled patch through and then a dry patch to soak up the excess oil. Also, I wouldn't use some of the stainless steel tools out there as it's a harder metal than the barrel and could damage it over time. Go brass, bronze or plastic. Also, glasses are absolutely critical to protect from solvent spray and springs that fly out of magazines! Don't chance it. Your eyes are way to valuable.

Pete wrote:
October 29, 2011

Would you comment on a gun lubricant called ' EEZOX '. It is supposed to CLEAN, LUBRICATE AND PROTECT. And, to be the best product on the market! I appreciate your help. PETE

PartsfreaK wrote:
August 07, 2011

The article mentions not dipping the brush into the solvent bottle as to "not foul the solvent", Since I am usually cleaning more than 1 handgun at a time I pour enough solvent into a bowl to cover the barrels and let them soak while I clean the rest of the assemblies. When Im done I pour the solvent back in the bottle and re-use it. Just dont pour the dirty stuff from the bottom of the bowl. My solvent is still good.

Don M. wrote:
July 08, 2011

Good points. My method only differs in that I don't push and pull brushes or patches back and forth. I always clean from the breach to the muzzle. Also, I leave the brush or patch tip a couple turns loose on the rod or cable. This allows the brush to follow the rifling. I clean weapons after each use, or every 6 months for those that don't get out of the safe. Concealed carry guns are checked weekly and cleaned every other week, or when ever I practice with them. On a two or 3 day match event, I only clean after the match is over.

Bill N. wrote:
July 07, 2011

I once had my carry weapon (.40 Glock)jam as I was clearing it. It was jammed with lint from riding in the holster. It gets cleaned and checked better now !!

Pete Chilton wrote:
May 29, 2011

On the cleaning issue. They way I think goes back to when i was active duty. We cleaned our weapons usually upon return from the range. And usually this was a very careful class A cleaning. It afford me the time to inspect them closely also.

Shepard Humphries wrote:
May 25, 2011

Gun cleaning is more divisive than religion or politics, 27 of us will have approximately 34 "best" ways to do it. Great article! "A dirty gun is a happy gun." :)

John P. wrote:
May 09, 2011

Very basic but very important. Thanks for the info. I have a motto I clean by. Never let the sun go down on a dirty firearm. If not possible, never let it go down twice.

Jay Davis wrote:
May 09, 2011

Nice article. Cleaning the mags are important from time to time. Also cleaning is good time to check spring compression on the action and mags. Be careful to not leave lint in the tight places. I would also put small parts in plastic containers or on white cloth so its not lost in the bag.

gun nut 53 wrote:
May 09, 2011

Another thing to remember is to NEVER use WD-40 or any other penetrating lubricant on a firearm.This stuff will penetrate the primers and cause misfires...