Technical Information for Gunsmiths and for Classic Car Enthusiasts


Cleaning the Handgun

by Les Bengtson

Over the years, I have had a large number of handguns come into the shop dirty. It seems that not everyone understands the importance of keeping their handguns clean and well lubricated to insure proper functioning. While this may have been understandable back in the days when the NRA 2700 was the primary match course, it is not today. Back then, the pistols were assembled very tightly and frequent disassembly for cleaning was thought to decrease accuracy. Perhaps it did. They also allowed "alibis", the quaint custom of allowing you to reshoot a string when you had a malfunction. This does not happen in the more modern forms of competition. Neither does it happen in a gunfight. A handgun must be kept clean and lubricated if it is to be relied on for self defense.

The two basic handguns for self defense are revolvers and semi-automatic pistols. They have differing cleaning requirements. I will deal with the pistols, then the revolvers.

The pistol should be "field stripped" after being fired. This, normally, means to remove the barrel and the slide from the frame and separate the latter two so they may be cleaned individually. I normally field strip my pistol and run a wet patch through the bore, then wire brush it using a rifle brush, if possible (.45 rifle and .35 rifle brushes are longer and have more bearing surface). I then run another wet patch, followed by two dry ones, followed by one having some form of degreaser on it (alcohol, brake cleaner, carb cleaner, etc.) The barrel then goes to the de-leading process if lead bullets have been fired. This will be covered below. After the barrel is cleaned, or while it is being de-leaded, I clean the inside of the slide and the upper and outer portions of the frame. This is normally done using wet and dry patches and Q-tips. Small scrapers may be used to remove some of the more heavily caked powder residue such as builds up on the breech face. Some prefer to use an old tooth brush. Then, the bore of the barrel is lightly oiled (in very humid or salty climates, use RIG lightly in the bore to prevent rusting) and the same patch is used on the locking lugs of the barrel. The barrel is re-assembled to the slide. One drop of oil goes on each rail of the frame for lubrication. Too much oil can attract dust and dirt. The pistol is re-assembled and the slide locked back. The area where the barrel is hidden by the slide is then lightly oiled and the action cycled several times by hand. Any excess oil at the rear of the slide and frame is wiped off, then a silicone cloth is used to wipe down the gun. Once a month, any pistol carried for self defense should be stripped fully and detail cleaned. Parts should be inspected for wear or burrs, then very lightly oiled and the pistol re-assembled. In dusty or wet climates, you should detail strip the pistol more often. Pistols which are blued and worn next to the body should be wiped off with a silicone rag each day to prevent rusting. ALWAYS UNLOAD A PISTOL BEFORE WIPING IT DOWN.

Revolvers are both easier and more difficult to clean. Easier because you do not have to disassemble them for normal cleaning. More difficult because, if lead bullets have been used, the cylinder must be removed from the frame, stripped and de-leaded. You start cleaning by opening the cylinder to make sure it is unloaded. Then, run a wet patch through the barrel and each chamber of the cylinder. Run a pistol brush through the barrel and a rifle brush through each chamber. Run another wet patch through the barrel and chambers, and clean the rear of the barrel and the standing breech (back area of the frame behind the cylinder). Again a tooth brush may be used to advantage. Then, dry the barrel and chambers, run a slightly oily patch through them and wipe down the outside of the revolver with a silicone cloth. Blued steel revolvers should be wiped down daily if worn regularly. UNLOAD A REVOLVER BEFORE WIPING IT DOWN.

Cleaning solvents and oils

Almost any good cleaning solvent will work fine for removing powder residue. This includes the many "powder solvents" as well as some non-traditional ones like brake and carb cleaner. I have used Hoppe's Number 9 for almost 40 years with complete satisfaction. I have also used Shooter's Choice, etc. and do not have any real preference. Hoppes smells better to me.

Any good quality gun oil will do fine under most circumstances. In certain cases, a light teflon grease may work better on the rails of a pistol. In humid or salty climates, Rust Inhibiting Grease (RIG) works better to protect the bore of a pistol or revolver (and the chambers), but it must be a very light coat to keep from increasing the pressures when firing. I have used the various teflon containing oils (Tri-Flo and Breakfree) down to -20 deg. F when in Alaska. Some prefer to degrease the pistols under these circumstances and use graphite lubricant. I never had a problem with the teflon oils under these cold conditions and have never tried the graphite myself.


Lead bullets are easy on the bore of the pistol or revolver. But, they can leave lead deposits behind. Even "full metal jacketed" bullets can do this if the base is exposed lead as most are. I had a Glock .40 barrel brought to me because of the leading from FMJ bullets (about 5,000 rounds), when the barrel was fully cleaned, there was excessive pitting under the leading and the barrel had to be replaced. This is the problem which also is found in revolvers, but to an even greater extent. I have just finished de-leading a revolver cylinder which showed sufficient pitting in the chamber areas that I would not consider it safe to fire.

There are a number of methods of de-leading that have been recommended over the years. One of the older ones is to fire several jacketed bullets through the barrel to clean out the leading. This has a couple of problems. First, depending on how much lead is involved, pressures can be raised significantly. This is particularly true in the magnum revolvers, but is also found in non-magnum revolvers and pistols. Secondly, my tests indicate that what happens is the layer of lead is spread out, but not fully removed. The clumps of lead are removed, leaving a uniform layer spread through out the bore. I do not recommend this procedure be used.

Wire brushing has long been used to reduce leading. It is not effective. Any wire brush that will remove the leading can also damage the non-leaded surfaces. This is particularly true with stainless steel brushes.

Lead removal cloths and patches, such as Wipe Away, seem to work, but can be time consuming. So is J-B Bore cleaner. But, there is an easy way to remove lead. One that can be working while you are cleaning the rest of the gun. That is the Outer's Foul Out system.

The Outer's Foul Out II is a system I have been using for several years now. I have used it with both pistols and revolvers and find it to be as effective as any system I have used. And much easier. To use it, you clean and degrease the barrel, put a rubber stopper (supplied) into the end of the barrel, fill the barrel with Lead Out solution, insert a metal rod (having rubber O rings to prevent contact with the barrel) and attach the machine. It has a light that comes on when cleaning is taking place and another light that comes on when the process is finished. I use a small vise to hold the barrel or revolver when being cleaned. Some form of stabilization is required to ensure the part being cleaned does not tip over and spill the solvent out. When clean, you disassemble the rig, pour out the solvent, remove the stopper and run a clean patch through the bore. It will come out black from the powder fouling that was trapped under the leading. The rod may have clumps of lead attached in severely leaded bores. This can be wiped off. The thin layer of lead on the rod may be sanded off gently. After the bore has been cleaned, a thin coat of oil or RIG should be applied.

With revolvers, the cylinder should also be cleaned. A great deal of lead builds up in the front portion of the chambers. This is seldom removed properly and, over time, rusting can take place under the lead. To clean the cylinder properly requires it be removed from the revolver, stripped, cleaned with powder solvent, degreased, then each chamber cleaned separately. This can be a time consuming process. On the revolver I just cleaned, with years of accumulated leading, it took a full day to clean some of them. With two of the chambers, sufficient pitting was found to make me doubt it would be safe to shoot. The cost of purchasing a new cylinder and fitting it is over half the value of the revolver. Far more expensive than a Foul Out II, AC adapter, and regular cleaning would be.

In the final analysis, proper cleaning of a self defense pistol is an often overlooked requirement. Proper care and cleaning will both protect your investment and may save your life. Any pistol or revolver used for self defense must be practiced with regularly and kept clean.

This monograph may be reproduced only for non-commercial use without other permission of the author. Reproduction for commercial use only by written permission.

Copyright © 2001 by Les Bengtson