Semi-auto pistol cleaning: what works for me

If you read the manual that comes with any new semi-automatic pistol there’s a lot of information about how to field strip it but not a lot about how to actually clean the gun. I’ve seen a lot of different techniques but for me there are some basics that I think are worth sharing.

If it’s dirty, clean it. Sounds simple and it is. If you look inside the barrel and it is cruddy, it needs a good scrubbing. I typically use Hoppe’s #9 solvent to loosen the fouling. I apply it either with a saturated patch or just dip the brass brush into the small Hoppe’s jar then put it right into the barrel. Always clean the barrel starting from the chamber so as not to damage the crown (the precisely machined end of the barrel which imparts the final “kiss” to the bullet as it begins its flight). Also don’t stop part way through the barrel and change direction with the brush. This causes the bristles to press against the inside of the barrel with too much force. At the least it will shorten the life of the brush. Always continue all the way out the other end. After letting some time elapse you will want to run clean cloth patches through the barrel until they come out clean. After that you will want to send a patch with lubricant on it through the barrel in order to leave a light coating of lube on all the surfaces.

While most folks pay attention to the lands and grooves, the chamber and feed ramp are just as critical. In fact I’ve seen pistols fail to load due to dirty feed ramps quite a few times. While I’m waiting for the solvent to work inside the barrel I usually take the time to wet down the feed ramp and the other areas surrounding the chamber at the rear of the barrel. Often there will be significant carbon buildup there which can keep the gun from going fully into battery if it builds up enough. Again if it’s dirty, clean it.

A word should be said about cleaning products. I mentioned Hoppe’s #9 but I will often just use Break Free CLP (clean, lubricate, protect) to remove fouling and to serve as the final lubricant. This is especially common if the gun was not very dirty to begin with. Even with the #9 I often use CLP as the final lubricant. It’s good stuff. Also, if the barrel is really bad inside (lots of lead and/or copper stuck in the grooves) I will use Blue Wonder and let a heavy slathering sit inside the barrel for 20-30 minutes. It’s important to turn the barrel quite a bit to insure the slimy stuff evenly coats all the way around. Then just go back to the normal solvent/brush/patch/lube routine. Works great.

Once the barrel is under control the next area I work on is the slide. With semi-autos this will include (among other things) the breech face, the extractor and the slide rail grooves. These areas are critical. The breech face is the area against which the base of the cartridge rests. It can get really cruddy and must be thoroughly cleaned. The extractor is the small hook-like metal finger that extends out and over the case rim. As the gun cycles the extractor is what yanks the case sideways and, with the help of the ejector, expels the spent case through the ejection port. If too much carbon builds up under the extractor it can fail to eject the spent case and case a major jam. I find that an old toothbrush works really well on this area, as well as most everyplace else I’ve mentioned outside the barrel.

While I like Hoppe’s for the barrel I typically do not use it anywhere on the slide. I just don’t like the idea of getting solvent inside the striker raceway and it causing undue wear on the striker and/or striker spring. So, after spraying CLP all inside the slide I then scrub all the fouling loose not only on the breech/extractor area but also the slide grooves and the entire underside of the slide, especially toward the rear of the pistol. Then I wipe it down with a series of clean patches. I use the toothbrush to get the patch down inside all the crooks and nannies…er, something like that. So, what about all the CLP that is down inside the striker raceway, etc.? I hold the slide on a 45 degree angle (upside down with the muzzle end in the air) and use compressed air to blast out all but a thin film of lube. Holding a rag around the bottom will help contain the oil blast.

Getting the excess lube out of the striker raceway is critical since oil attracts dirt and dust and in cold temps it can congeal into a mass that will hinder the striker such that the gun won’t fire. NOTE: do not use an air compressor as its air contains a lot of moisture that can get blasted into your gun. The reason canned air is so expensive is that it is clean and dry. Your gun is worth it!

After the barrel and slide are finished the only thing remaining is the frame. With most pistols there’s not much to do other than wipe off any dust, dirt or oil that has found its way down there. Some designs however integrate the feed ramp into the frame (or at least the bottom of the ramp). In this case rule #1 still applies. The same old drill with the solvent/brush/patch/lube will serve you well. With some pistols a drop of lube between the frame and trigger bar is good also. If I do lube the frame I again get all the excess out with air.

I will mention that I do occasionally clean out the magazine well, usually with a rag with some Tri-Flow on it. This insures my mags drop out easily when I hit the mag release. I don’t do this every time I clean the gun but if the mags have been going in the sand/mud/dirt then I do (along with cleaning the mags themselves).

This method take about 10 minutes of efficient work once you are used to the process, unless the gun is really dirty. Expect to spend 20-30 minutes the first time or two while you are getting to know the pistol.

There are tons of products out there and some may work better than what I use but for now this system works nicely for me on everything from my 1911 to my LCP.

About William Daugherty

William Daugherty is a firearms enthusiast, competitive shooter and Second Amendment advocate living in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of Northern New England.
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