Basic primer about cleaning and the general maintenance of your favorite sporting rifle
Whether you have built a custom one-off hunting rifle on the AR platform or you are dropping an upper receiver onto a lower and checked the headspacing, the visual and physical maintenance of the rifle is incredibly important in maintaining the safety, accuracy and reliability of your favorite semi-auto sporting rifle.
This article will help you understand some important key points about maintenance of the super popular AR platform – and how to make it an easy, simple process that helps save headaches. Follow through this article to learn how easy it is to make sure your rifle retains reliability and accuracy while out in the field.
It’s no secret that many of the readers here are well experienced in gun maintenance and general safety guidelines surrounding cleaning and lubricating firearms. The Author is a gunsmith of 20 years and designed this article to be a primer on the AR platform, with some tidbits of information that can apply to all firearms. Some of the content may seem remedial, and some may even be contrary to what you have done in the past. The goal here is safety, longevity, and reliability for your favorite sporting gun. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your specific needs.
Things you should have on hand for cleaning your Black Rifle
The modularity and mainstream build qualities that has become such a big part of the AR market makes it an easy-to-understand firearm for most users, and a very easy to maintain firearm, generally. The gun was engineered to be field serviceable with minimal tooling and is easy to breakdown, simplistic in its reassembly and with a bit of practice can be serviced by most if not all users, for most needs.
You’ll be able to perform basic servicing with the following items:
- A cleaning rod
- A bore brush for cleaning the rifled portion of the barrel
- A chamber brush for more aggressive cleaning of the Breech/Chamber area
- A “slotted tip” accessory tip for using cloth patches
- A nylon bristle brush
- A mild cleaning solvent
- A quality, light gun oil
You may notice that there are mentions of other items or solutions in the body of this article, they are suggestions, the above items lean more towards “mandatory”.
Some important notes about the importance of cleaning and inspection of your AR
This section is about safety and if you are particularly new or unfamiliar with firearm maintenance, you should pay close attention to this section. Generally, the audience reading this will have a lot of experience in the field with firearms, and these concepts will be very familiar with them. Nevertheless, maintenance is an important part to the safety of a gun. Hence, this is an important set of bullet point concepts.
- If you are ever unsure of the safety of your firearm; or in doubt that the firearm is properly maintained or reassembled, you should engage with a trusted source of knowledge or a qualified armorer or gunsmith to ensure that it is safe to fire
- A gun which has parts that are broken, heavily modified beyond normal specifications or parts that are missing should not be fired
- Excessive lubrication of certain parts of a firearm can lead to serious injury or worse – an appropriate amount of lubrication and basic checks should be implemented to ensure safety
- Always ensure that a firearm is unloaded prior to disassembly or field stripping of the firearm
- A firearm that is excessively dirty, contains a large amount of debris in and around the bore/muzzle/breech should not be fired
- Any barrel, bore, or muzzle obstruction is dangerous. NEVER fire a weapon that has any obstruction, regardless of size or type, in the barrel, or has a barrel that is damaged or incapable of firing the cartridge you are loading into it
- Generally, a .223 Remington marked barrel is NOT SUITABLE for use in firing 5.56x45mm ammunition. (A marked 5.56×45 barrel is pressure tested to handle a .223 Remington in addition to the marked caliber, and a .223 Wylde can fire both, generally). If your barrel is not chambered and marked for the cartridge you are loading, you must be sure it is rated to handle and safely fire the cartridge before doing so
- Any firearm that has not been headspaced properly after initial assembly should not be considered safe to fire, generally
- Some solvents and even some formulations of lubricant can cause damage to rifling and firearm bearing surfaces. No solvent or unknown chemicals should be left on a firearm for an extended period of time, especially on surfaces which are engaged in the chambering and firing processes
- If you are new to disassembly/reassembly of the component parts of your AR rifle, you should consult your firearms manual or a detailed manual or tutorial about how to ensure the component parts are assembled correctly before reassembling the gun
- After storage and before firing at any time, you should do a basic visual and physical inspection of the firearm, to ensure there are no barrel obstructions, all parts are assembled and functioning upon manual manipulation of the action, and that the firearm seems fit to fire
The basics of cleaning your AR Hunting Rifle
Removing the magazine and unloading it and removing all ammunition from the area, and then performing a visual and physical check of the chamber, carrier, bore and magwell areas is the best way to start cleaning the AR-15.
There are two takedown pins on the connection between the upper and lower receiver groups of the AR Rifle. You do not need to remove both pins to field service and provide basic cleaning and maintenance for the rifle. The rear pin can be pushed from left to right through the receivers and rest in the detent stop on the side of the lower receiver. This gives access to all crucial servicing areas. However, the front pin can also be removed similarly to make it easier to perform a detailed cleaning by separating the two major component groups (Upper and Lower).
Removing the charging handle from the upper receiver by pulling it towards the rear of the upper and removing the bolt carrier group from the channel in the charging handle allows both the carrier/bolt assembly, and the charging handle to be taken out completely through the rear of the upper receiver.
The bolt and carrier assembly and the chamber area are two crucial cleaning spots.
The carrier and the bolt can be separated by removing the firing pin retention pin; by pulling on the rounded end of it and sliding it out. After its removal, the firing pin, unless stuck in place a bit by debris should fall out when the bolt face is tilted upward. The bolt and carrier can be separated by pushing the bolt back into the carrier and pulling the cam pin, which should offer only slight resistance and come straight out (perpendicularly from the bolt) when the bolt is fully rearward.
You have performed the most basic field disassembly of the AR at this point.
You now have access to the breech area, the components in the upper, and can clean the bore.
You also have access to the buffer tube area (standard on gas impingement driven AR rifles/pistols), and the firing group, as well as the magwell.
Servicing the buffer tube assembly on an AR
There are some very minor nuances depending on the type of rifle you have regarding buttstocks, forearms, and gas systems. Generally, a gas impingement driven rifle can see the buffer tube removed by holding down the buffer retainer pin, which is a small, inverted cup that is under spring pressure. It is located on the ring that has threading that is at the top rear of the lower receiver. You will need to depress both the buffer rearward, and the retainer pin/cup downward to then release the pressure slowly, remove the retainer pin and spring, and then allow the recoil and buffer move forward under controlled pressure to service the interior of the buffer assembly. Both components are under relatively heavy spring pressure.
Note: unless you are particularly rough with your buttstock assembly, the firearm has experienced some trauma, or you see a significant amount of debris, like unburnt powder, copper jacket flakes, or lead deposited into the buffer tube area, this step may not be necessary, at least not as often as other cleaning variables.
Servicing the Upper receiver and bolt/carrier group on your AR
Some important pieces of information:
- Generally, you should try to avoid cleaning the bore by shoving patches in from the muzzle end of the barrel. Instead, it is a best practice to clean a bore and chamber by cleaning them separately, chamber first, in the direction that the cartridge and projectile would travel into and through the firearm. You can accomplish this by attaching a bore rod to a chamber brush or bore brush at the chamber opening and pulling the rod back to the muzzle end of the barrel, and repeating as needed
- No cleaning step should require excessive pressure or overtly aggressive activity. The bolt face and chamber may require a bit more attention to detail and aggressive servicing, but it doesn’t need to be unnecessarily rough by default
Many times, it will take several boxes of ammunition to create a cleaning necessity. Shooting 2-3 shots on a hunting trip may not give the visual signs that a gun needs to be cleaned. It is nevertheless a best practice to do a light cleaning to ensure no rust, bore inclusions (this includes nicks on the muzzle exit/crown) or impacted debris exist after your hunt or range trip, even if you don’t fire a lot of ammunition.
A bore brush and chamber brush are not essential for some cleaning regimens, but they are still helpful and can be used even if there is not an excessively dirty chamber or bore. Certainly, the “clean patch” test should be used as a good indicator that a firearm is finished with the cleaning. Again, the best practice is to push the rod through to the chamber and attach the brush, followed by pulling gently through the bore. You can also do this with a swiveling rod and pushing by attaching the brush to the rod and going through the rear of the upper receiver into the chamber, and then forward, through the bore.
A Chamber brush should never be forced down the barrel, or transition at the front of the chamber into the freebore. If you are unaware, the chamber as a location in this article, is referring to the entire area where the cartridge is loaded immediately before being fired.
Solvent should be used if you need to dissolve lead in the bore, and to partially “lubricate” the surfaces during the process of cleaning. All solvent residue should be removed before storing the firearm, and light lube used in specific areas (more on that later).
While cleaning the barrel, you should be looking for issues in the barrel or chamber including “inclusions” (like dings to the interior of the rifling), cracks, pitting, or “rings”, which may indicate that there has been damage to the areas. If you see any of these issues, you should inspect further. A bulge or barrel ring could be fatal if the weapon is fired without replacing the barrel. You can also easily inspect the rifling and chamber with a flashlight or by holding the empty barrel and receiver up to a light source and using visual inspection.
Servicing the bolt, carrier and firing pin areas
The bolt face, carrier and firing pin channel are particularly important areas that need good attention to detail.
Removing the impacted debris is important. You can do this with mechanical action like scraping lightly, or physically removing it with a cloth, a toothbrush or other cleaning tool. You can also use a carbon scraping tool and bolt face tools to ensure that the area is sufficiently serviced. A lot of tools and cleaning implements are available on the market to help with this. A bit of brushing, a heavy-duty cloth and some visual inspection is usually enough.
Pay particular attention to the bolt face, the extractor, and the firing pin pocket. If these areas are left dirty, or are lubricated too heavily, they can cause dangerous conditions in some cases.
The basics of lubricating your AR Hunting Rifle
Lubrication is important for functionality, but it’s also important to note that firearms don’t need excessive lubrication to function. Just adequate lubrication, and only in specific places, where there are functional, bearing surfaces. The rest should be a light film for protection from oxidation, only.
The “light film” concept with lubrication is important and can be used as a test to determine that you have not over-lubricated. You may, but do not generally need to “oil” the bore, and chamber. This may be important to mitigate potential rust of those areas, but you need to exercise caution so that excessive pressures are not created inadvertently, by adding a lot of lubrication. Never use grease in the barrel, unless it is wiped completely clean with a patch.
A muzzle brake or front muzzle attachment should always be checked for excess pooling of oil. The bolt itself should also be checked for the same, specifically in the firing pin channel and the bolt face. The gear-shaped engagement (“star”) area of the breech should be checked for pooled oil or lubrication. This is an area that can be dangerously, inadvertently over lubricated.
The gas tube should not be lubricated with more than a light film of oil. Though it should be cleaned well and wiped down. Very rarely, even in excessive volume shooting, should most users disassemble the gas tube from the firearm. Most of what needs to be serviced on the gas system can be reached in the field stripped condition. Excessive oil in the gas system can cause more problems than it aims to resolve. In gas piston versions, generally the opposite is true – the piston area and the gas system should be rigorously cleaned each time you clean the firearm (which may by necessity, be less often in a piston driven platform).
All areas that are not otherwise stated as needing specific cleaning instructions can generally be cleaned with a good wipe-down with a microfiber cloth or similar. A simple rub down with an oil holding rag can be sufficient. This includes the magazine, buffer/tube outer barrel, magwell, internals of the receivers, etc.
Occasionally, the trigger group can be cleaned with a spray cleaner to remove debris, and even hit with a spray can of compressed air or using an air compressor. A drop or two of oil is usually sufficient on bearing surfaces in the trigger group.
Pins of all types on the Black Rifle SHOULD NOT BE LUBRICATED. These pins rely on tension to maintain tolerances and holding capacity. While many have detents to keep them in place, excessive lubrication is still a poor practice on pins and detents in the AR. Additionally, no spring should be lubricated with drops of oil, rather a wipe down only.
Reversing the disassembly steps mentioned earlier in this article will return your firearm to the proper condition for storage or use. It is recommended that you perform a visual safety and a physical functional test by manually actuating the firearm (without ammunition) prior to using it; after cleaning. This should occur any time the firearm is taken out for use.
Some final notes about maintenance and how to maintain custom builds
Many reliability issues are due to spring tension failures, excessive debris, and magazine failures, in the AR. A basic inspection and cleaning to manage these conditions will be a normal maintenance procedure. Furthermore, it will likely be pretty evident when a spring is lacking in tension, especially in the magazine. It takes a lot of volume to ruin a magazine spring for an AR in a quality magazine, so you’ll know more often than not, if the spring will be an issue.
Checking often on the bearing surfaces and all the areas that engage during the chambering process will keep you out of trouble.
Most of the parts that engage in the firing process of the AR are made from very durable steel and won’t have issues that cannot be seen beforehand in visual inspections. Look for deformation, mushrooming, soft steel indicators, and cracking. Always inspect the barrel and chamber for issues and do not over lubricate.
The AR platform is a proven entity in the hunting world, the sporting world, and the gun world at large. It’s been functioning on battlefields for decades under some very austere conditions and has a very good track record over the past 25 years. With basic understanding of the way the rifle works, and how to check for concerns, the average AR user can usually ensure a long life and many thousands of rounds of longevity out of their AR Rifle.