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How to Keep Your Firearms Fit for Duty

Follow this primer to clean and maintain all of your guns so they'll be ready to work when you need them.

January 15, 2015  |  by A.J. George - Also by this author

Photo: A.J. George
Photo: A.J. George

Guns are arguably the most critical tools of our trade. When everything else fails, we have to resort to our trusty firearms to save lives, sometimes our own. That being the case, proper maintenance and inspection is paramount. We need to know our rifle/pistol/shotgun is not only going to shoot true, but shoot at all. Sadly, all too often on my range I see guns that are dirty, worn, rusty, and neglected.

Some cops seem to have the attitude that a gun is no different than any other piece of gear and can be used up and thrown away. They'll give it a good cleaning if there's a sergeant's inspection coming up but think nothing of going 10-8 with a filthy gun that has just been through a day-long range. What's the worst that could happen, right? I shudder to think.

Now, I'm not saying that my brothers and sisters are plain lazy. That may be the case for some, but I would wager most are just not "gun people" like me and have likely never been taught the importance of firearms maintenance. Sure, they get a crash course in the academy but likely not much beyond that. From a firearms instructor's perspective, I can attack this one of two ways. I can either complain about the lack of proper gun care OR I can spend those efforts teaching my fellow cops how important, and relatively easy, it is to keep a clean gun. I've made a point to choose the latter.

We've come a long way since the good old days of revolvers and scatter-guns. We've recognized there's a specific tool for every job so today's law enforcement arsenal includes a little bit of everything. We carry precision rifles for long range, automatic AR-15s for high-risk entries, shotguns for breaching, and pistols for everything else. And that's not to mention the myriad of lights, lasers, optics, and other gadgets that adorn them. All of this highly sophisticated and incredibly critical gear needs to be maintained properly so you know it will work when you need it most.

In this article I'll focus specifically on the weapons and offer my perspective on cleaning and routine maintenance. Keep in mind, there are many ways to skin this cat and I'm not saying mine is the best. I can tell you that my methods have been honed over more than two decades of running guns and they've proven their worth.

Cleaning Products

I use a variety of cleaning products for my guns and every once in a while my cleaning "arsenal" changes a bit due to the introduction of something new to the market. I try to stick to water-based cleaners and high-grade lubricants. Both of these will clean thoroughly without damaging the metal or polymer and ensure your gun operates smoothly and reliably.

I never use "solvents" of any kind as I feel they prematurely degrade guns and are generally not necessary. If you're scratching your head on this one I would urge you to look up an article Gale McMillan wrote several years ago on "barrel break-in." You might just toss that tube of harsh, ammonia-based goop in the trash.

Now I'm not endorsing any particular product, simply telling you what I like and what has worked for me. There are far more I have tried and tossed but I'll be a gentleman and refrain from publicly bashing them. Here are a few I'm currently a big fan of:

G96 "Triple Action" Gun Treatment—This comes in an aerosol can and is what most would consider a "CLP"-type product. Although I think it is a decent lubricant, it is much better at cleaning and downright amazing at protection. The product is easily sprayed on and does a great job of dissolving fouling and even light grease and oil.

Spray it, let it sit for a few minutes, and wipe away most light grime from your gun. When you've finished cleaning your gun, give it a good wipe-down with a lint-free cloth sprayed with G96. The product includes a "carrier" that helps it absorb into the metal evenly. The carrier eventually evaporates, leaving behind a beautiful finish. I've seen several AR-15s that have been used and abused come out looking new after a good G96 treatment. It works on metal as well as polymer and is safe for use around optic glass and sensitive weapon accessories.

FireClean—Sold primarily as a gun oil, FireClean is designed to "permeate metal," which not only increases its lubrication properties but also prohibits fouling from sticking to metal, thus making cleaning easier. I was skeptical but felt it was my duty as a firearm professional to scout it out. Not to mention I'm a sucker for any new, whiz-bang piece of gear. so I bought a few bottles.

FireClean comes with a tutorial from the company that instructs the user to prep the gun parts by applying several thin coats of the product to each and then wait until each coat is absorbed into the metal. The result is an assembly that is much more resistant to fouling and highly lubricated. I did what I was told and applied three good coats of this product to the bolt group and upper receiver of my duty AR-15. After that I hit the range for a three-day instructor development rifle school. I refused to clean my gun until the end, and after about 700 rounds fired the action was still slick as ice.

Once I got home I pulled my gun apart and, although it was downright filthy, most parts wiped clean with very little elbow grease and no additional cleaners. The exception was the tail of the bolt itself, but even that only required a stiff nylon brush to knock away the caked-on soot. Cleaning any part of an AR-15 without cleaners and a lot of scrubbing is a heck of an accomplishment so FireClean earned a permanent place in my kit after that.

Frog Lube—Touted as the "world's only complete bio-based green weapons care system solvent and CLP," Frog Lube is what I would call a very good lubricant for most general use. Although I prefer FireClean for my rifles, Frog Lube seems to work wonders for my Glock and other firearms that don't experience extreme heat and fouling.

Available in a liquid and a paste, Frog Lube is, as expected, green and has a pleasant minty smell. As the name implies, it was also created by a Navy SEAL so I think it is safe to assume it works well in real-world applications. I apply the liquid version with a cotton swab and forget about it. The carrier seems to evaporate over time but the lubricant remains, forming an almost waxy residue that is anything but sticky. As it is water-based, it also cleans off easily.

In addition to the above, I have a few "tools" that seem to make this job easier. Nylon brushes, bore patches, swabs, and a couple of good lint-free rags are a must. If you're a real shooter I would recommend investing in a quality ultrasonic cleaner. There are many high quality machines on the market these days at very reasonable prices. I use a Lyman TurboSonic (www.policemag.com/freeinfo/11358) that I reviewed a few months back, and it is easily my favorite piece of gear after any long range session.

When to Clean

Now that I've covered the tools needed for the job, when do you use them? I've always followed a simple rule for cleaning. Anytime the weapon is fired, exposed to the elements, or at a minimum of once a month it gets cleaned and inspected.

Now, I'm not saying you need to spend an hour on each gun every time one of the above applies. Today's firearms, especially those we carry in law enforcement, are designed for hard use and will run reliably even when extremely dirty. What you're after is getting the weapon clean enough to ensure it will operate when you need it to and to prevent any long-term damage to the gun due to corrosive residue and grit. You also want to seize this opportunity to do a thorough inspection of your gun to ensure everything is in working order. No broken parts, no misaligned sights, and no dead batteries in your pistol lights or optics.

The most obvious is your trusty sidearm. I carry a Glock 22 and I would imagine most of you carry something similar. Like Glocks, SIG Sauers, Smith and Wesson M&Ps, and even 1911s are all combat grade pistols and will take a good amount of abuse before they fail. When I break down my Glock it is into four parts: the frame, slide, barrel, and recoil spring.

I start with the recoil spring. If it isn't damaged in any way I simply wipe it down and set it aside. Next I move to the barrel. A good, stiff nylon brush will likely remove any fouling around the breach face and a similar nylon bore brush will plunge out the barrel. A little G96 on a patch run through the barrel and a quick wipe down with your G96 treated rag and the barrel can join the recoil spring in the "done pile." The frame and slide are easy as they generally don't collect much direct fouling. I use the trusty nylon brush and treated rag to wipe away the residual carbon and grit. Rifles and shotguns are a bit more complicated but that is mainly because they have more parts, not because they require some special technique to get the job done.

Once everything is clean and inspected,P it is time for lube and assembly. When it comes to lubricant, I subscribe to the "less is more" philosophy. Lubricant is needed to keep moving parts moving and to keep them from wearing out. It also collects dirt and grime so don't get too crazy with that bottle of oil. If metal is rubbing on metal, it needs a little bit of lube. If it is a mechanical parts group, like a fire control system, it needs to be clean and dry. If you pay attention you should be able to gauge what your gun needs over time and adjust accordingly.

Finally, once your gun has been reassembled it is crucial that you perform a proper function check to make sure everything is in good working order.

Maintenance and Inspection

The most critical task of any firearm maintenance plan is a good inspection. You should be familiar enough with your firearm to know if something doesn't look right and you should have an idea of how long each gun or gun part has been in service. I don't replace parts based on a round count or time period. I shoot a lot and failing parts will generally reveal themselves over time. When I notice a spring becoming weak or a firing pin begin to erode I know it is time to replace that part.

For some reason cops seem to think guns are made to last forever and that simply isn't true. Our guns are tools, not heirlooms. Come to terms with the fact that every part of your gun will need to be replaced eventually and be prepared to invest a few bucks in new parts. That investment is well worth the peace of mind you'll get knowing your firearm won't let you down when it matters the most.

A.J. George is a patrol sergeant with the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Police Department who also serves as the SWAT team's crisis negotiation supervisor.


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