How To Clean a Pistol

This is....not the right way to clean your handgun.

Back when I was younger and even more naïve than I am now, I owned a restaurant and attended a seminar presented by the world's leading expert on cleaning things. He pointed out one thing that I remember to this day: bad mopping technique.

What does this have to do with cleaning guns? Plenty. Bad mopping involves swirling a mop in a bucket, wiping it around the floor, then dipping it right back into the bucket. All that grime you just picked up from the floor went right back in the clean water so it can be redistributed elsewhere on the next swirl. Doing it right, and actually getting a floor clean, requires wringing the dirty water out into an empty bucket, so the clean mop water stays relatively clean. With this common-sense method, you’re actually removing the dirt from the floor, not just moving it around.

The same principle applies to guns. If you use a nasty, grimy, gun rag to clean your gun, you're just moving the dirt around. With that said, I’d like to share my gun cleaning method. It’s not the only correct way to clean a gun, but this method works for me.

I’m using a Glock as an example here, but the methods here are pretty universal and will apply to most any pistol.

What You Need

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on cleaning supplies for pistols. Here’s the basic list of things you need:

  • A cleaning rag
  • Cleaning patches
  • A toothbrush or gun cleaning brush
  • A cleaning rod or cable
  • Combination cleaner/lubricant/preservative such as CLP, or each separately

We'll talk more about the specifics of the supplies when we get to those steps below. You can get a basic cleaning kit like this Outers brass rod cleaning kit at most sporting or big box stores for about ten bucks.

This is all you really need to clean a handgun properly. One brush and one cleaning rod is enough, but more makes things easier.

Unload, Unload, Unload!

The most important thing to remember about safety unloading a semiautomatic pistol is that it’s a three-step process. Remove the source of ammunition by removing and emptying the magazine. Next, remove the cartridge from the chamber by racking the slide vigorously. Last, verify that the magazine well and chamber are empty.

Field Strip

Every handgun has its own procedure for field-stripping and we can’t cover them all here. Refer to your owner’s manual and follow all recommended procedures carefully. In short, this “field stripping” process will break your pistol into several main components for easy cleaning: the frame, barrel, slide, recoil spring, and magazine. Your specific gun might have an extra component or two, like a barrel bushing, if you own a 1911. Here's a Glock 26, field stripped.

Soak the Barrel

I like to do this first so cleaning solvent can soak in the barrel for a few minutes while I am working on other parts. Pistols generally don't have a problem with copper accumulating in the barrel, so I don't get too carried away with copper removing solvents and such. For pistols, I use a general purpose cleaner like M-Pro 7 Gun Cleaner. Put several drops of solvent on a cleaning patch, attach it to your cleaning rod, and push it through from the breech end to the muzzle. We want dirt to “follow the bullet out,” right? Now set the barrel aside for a few minutes while you move on to other things.
With patches or brushes, it’s a good habit to remove the patch rather than draw dirt back through.

Clean the Interior of the Slide

You’ll notice a couple of particularly dirty areas on the interior surfaces of the slide—the inside, forward of the breech face, and the rail areas towards to the back. I apply a couple of drops of solvent, being careful not to drizzle it into the firing pin channel.
This is where an old toothbrush comes in handy. Use it to scrub lightly the interior areas to loosen all that powder residue and carbon.
Here’s where the clean rag comes into play. You can use a clean section of an old t-shirt or rag, or even fresh cleaning patches to wipe down all the areas you just brushed. The idea is to use the clean fabric to pick up and remove all that crud you just loosened. Using a dirty gun rag will just redistribute grime. You’ll want the inside of the slide to be fairly dry. Set it aside.

Clean the Frame

Using the same technique—a few drops of solvent and a toothbrush—scrub the visibly dirty areas of the frame and trigger area. You’ll probably find dirt in front of the magazine well in the dust cover area. You’ll also find crud on the feed ramp that guides cartridges into the muzzle. Be careful brushing around the trigger assembly as you can easily knock parts like slide lock levers out of place. It’s far too easy to lose those tiny springs. This area won’t get baked-on grime so you can be gentle with your brushing.
I like to use a fresh cleaning patch to wipe the dirt from the trigger area because patches don’t tend to leave loose fibers. Paper towels don’t work too well as they disintegrate on the sharp parts, leaving shreds of paper all over. As with the slide, this area should be dry when you’re done. If you drown the trigger parts in fluid, you’ll only attract dirt and dust.

Clean the Magazine

Most magazines have a button in the floor plate that allows you to remove the base, spring, and follower. Wipe these parts and the interior of the magazine itself with a dry, clean rag. No oil, please--magazines work better dry. Pay close attention to the orientation of the follower and spring so you can reinsert them properly.

Scrub the Bore and the Barrel

By now, the inside of your barrel has been soaking for a few minutes from the first pass with a solvent-covered patch. The grime inside should be softened up a bit. Attach a bronze or nylon bore brush to your cleaning rod and push it through from back to front, being careful to push the brush all the way through until it exits the muzzle. Now unscrew the brush, remove it, and draw the cleaning rod back through. Reattach the brush and push it through again, repeating the process as necessary until the crud inside is nicely loosened. Now, remove the bush and attach a fresh cleaning patch. Run it through the barrel, again removing it once it exits the bore. You don’t want to drag all that muck back through the bore, right? Repeat this process with clean patches until you don’t see more dirt. I sometimes apply some more solvent to the first patch to help move the mess out with subsequent patches. Using a few more drops of CLP, I scrub the dickens out of the barrel exterior, paying special attention to the breech and feed ramp area if applicable as that tends to get nasty. Use a clean section of your rag to wipe off the loose dirt. You may need a wire brush for this area, as it tends to get some caked-on filth.

Lubricate

Now you should have a bunch of clean and dry parts ready for lubrication and reassembly. For most pistols, less is more in the lube department, but follow the manufacturer recommendations whatever those are. I lubricate my guns as follows: Apply a drop of lubricant to the barrel exterior, near the muzzle. Use a (clean) finger to spread it around. Remember, this part of the barrel constantly moves through a hole in the slide or barrel bushing. Apply another drop or two to the exterior of the chamber and spread it around. This area also contacts the slide during recoil, so a little light lubrication helps.
Apply a drop to each side of the slide’s rail grooves. I apply the drops about an inch from the back, but that’s just a habit. While you’re thinking of the slide rails, apply a small drop to each of the slide rail guides on the frame itself.
Depending on your manufacturer's specific instructions, you may need to apply a drop of lubricant to the trigger bar. Check your owner’s manual to see what the manufacturer recommends. Make sure the barrel, and especially the chamber area, is fairly dry. A light coating of oil is fine in the barrel, but too much oil in the chamber will prevent proper function. The light and sparing use of lubricant is by design. Pistols, especially when carried concealed, tend to attract dust and dirt. The more lubricant slop present, the more likely you’ll just end up gumming up your gun, possibly to the point of malfunction. Besides, you don’t want a bunch of excess gun oil oozing onto your holster and clothing!
Glock recommends a drop of oil here.