A reader asks, “What’s your cleaning setup like?” It’s a great question that I often asked myself that got a number of answers that were fundamentally identical in terms of the principles but varied quite a bit in terms of implementation. As of writing this post, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer as long as the approach keeps the guns running reliably. Nevertheless, I’ll tell y’all about my setup with the hope that somebody out there finds it helpful.
Let’s begin with what I think is the most obvious caveat. Like many of the answers I received when I asked others about their setup, my setup is optimized for what works for me based on the guns I most frequently shoot (and therefore clean) in the environment that I most often use them in. It also has some biased personal preferences which have formed over the years as I’ve experimented with different products. For the most part, all the products worked – some better than others. Even though I would describe my current setup as stable, it is still likely to evolve as I try new products and old products are discontinued or my shooting activities change. The setup also has some ancillary components to assist with exceptions to my norms such as, maintaining a gun that I don’t frequently shoot or performing maintenance when I’m traveling. The point is there are many ways to skin a cat and each of you will, in time, establish a setup that is optimized for you. Based on that I suggest buying consumable products in small quantities at first to try them out and only committing to large quantities once one is satisfied that a consumable will meet their needs for a good while into the future.
With that out of the way, let’s start with a cleaning mat. This is nothing fancy, but there are a few different types out there. What I found works best for me is a padded non-slip mat that doesn’t have a fibrous material on the top side. While the fibrous material mats may be better at absorbing solvents and oil, the fibers tend to work themselves loose and end up sticking to firearm part surfaces. I also found the non-fibrous ones to be easier to clean up. All it really needs to do is protect the firearm and the cleaning surface from each other while keeping the solvers and lubricants from ending up on the cleaning surface (like a table or counter top). I picked up the mat I’ve been using for years from Amazon, but it’s no longer available. If I was looking for one today, I’d probably source one like this. I’d also say this is probably a bigger deal for folks who don’t have a workbench and might end up cleaning their firearms on a desk, a table, or a counter that they don’t want to ruin.
Speaking of workbenches, they aren’t a bad idea. If you already have one, then great. If you don’t, but have somewhere to put one, then I recommend getting or building one. If a workbench isn’t an option, then you may want to consider some sort of container to store the tools, solvents, and other cleaning supplies dedicated to gun care and maintenance. Me? I’ve got a little workbench in the garage that I use for all the tinkering. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I find it to be beneficial and convenient.
Microfiber hand towels (or washcloths) are an absolute must for me. I use them to wipe down firearms from the beginning to the end of the procedures. These can be picked up in bulk from warehouse clubs and big box stores for not too much money and they last a long time. I tend to get two different colors to help me identify between the one I use to wipe down the exterior of the firearm at the very beginning and the very end of the cleaning process and the one I use to wipe off the carbon and dirty lubricants off the individual components once the firearms have been field stripped for cleaning. I don’t know that microfiber is a required material, but I’ve found that they don’t leave much, if any, lint or fibers on the surfaces that are wiped down with them. I also throw a pair, one of each color, of these towels in the range bag which are sometimes used at the range or when I’m traveling for a multi-day match or class.
Paper towels are a viable alternative to the microfiber towels. I prefer blue shop paper towels since they are far more durable and absorbent than run of the mill paper towels, but they are a little more expensive to procure. That said, I find that the blue ones are more economical in the long term. Even though I do most of the wiping down with microfiber towels now, I still keep plenty of the blue paper towels around since they come in very handy for cleaning up. I also frequently place a blue paper towel between the cleaning mat and the firearm components as I’ve found that process to help expedite clean up after a maintenance session.
Those of you who have pistols with mounted optics like I do may also benefit from having masking tape on hand. A couple small strips of masking tape placed over the front and rear of the optic protect the lens and open emitters from solvents and lubricants used during the cleaning process.
Let’s back up a minute here. Everything that I’ve mentioned so far are items that I use when I begin a routine cleaning and maintenance session, which looks like:
- Place a blue paper towel or two on the cleaning mat
- If working on a pistol with a mounted optic, then put some masking tape over the front and back of the optic
- Wipe the outside of the pistol with the “exterior” microfiber towel
- Field strip the firearm and place the components on the blue paper towels
- Wipe down the components with the “interior” microfiber towel.
Wiping the internals with just a microfiber towel is often not enough. The exception here is usually a bolt action rifle. In the case of AR patterned rifles or semi-automatic pistols, there are several nooks and crannies that need a little extra help. For those, I’ve found that a channel cleaning tool and “Q-tips” are indispensable. The channel cleaning tool helps get the microfiber or paper towel into most of those nooks and crannies well enough. However, there are some smaller ones where Q-tips are simply the better, if not the only, option.
Once I’ve wiped down everything possible and therefore removed the vast majority of grimey lubrication and carbon build up on the external and internal component surfaces, I turn my attention to the barrel and begin with applying some solvent to the bore. I’ve tried several solvents and CLPs. I don’t have any empirical evidence to suggest one is better than the others, but as of writing this, M Pro7 Gun Cleaner is my favorite. How I apply it depends on the type of firearm. For pistols, I simply spray some in the barrel over one of the blue paper towels. For rifles, I apply a generous amount to a cleaning patch and apply it with a jag and cleaning rod twice (I’ll cover patches, jags, and rods in shortly). In both cases, I let it sit while I turn my attention to other stubborn carbon build up.
While the solvent works its magic on the inside of the barrel, I make use of nylon-bristled brushes with a light application of solvent and polymer picks to break up and remove other carbon deposits found elsewhere on the firearm components. The style and brand of brush is irrelevant as long as it reaches and fits the areas where the carbon build up is. I most often use Otis Technology nylon brushes on pistols, but often resort to generic kitchen brush kits to work on AR-patterned upper receivers in conjunction with chamber brushes attached to chamber rods.
Carbon build up on AR-pattern bolt carrier groups and firing pins can be quite challenging to remove. For these specific items, I’ve found the Otis Technology BONE tools to be helpful but they are far from perfect. The tools are available for AR-15 and AR-10 bolt carrier groups.
At this point in the process, I am usually ready to return my attention to the barrel. Everything else should be clean enough. I’ve got a fairly consistent cleaning procedure for the bore of the barrel which goes like this:
- Run two solvent soaked patches through the barrel.
- If I think it is necessary (which is most often the case with precision rifles), scrub the barrel with a solvent soaked brass brush.
- Run two clean and dry patches
- Repeat until the patches free step three appear to be free enough from carbon to consider the barrel clean enough.
- Run one lubricated patch and one more dry patch to remove excess lubricant
The patches, brushes, and cleaning rods used in the barrel cleaning process that I use all from J Dewey Rods. Patches are inexpensive and can be sourced from many places. Same thing can be said about the brass-bristle brushes. In terms of jags for running patches, I am strongly biased in favor of Parker Hale style jags for rifle barrels and brass pointed jags for pistol barrels. Like patches, I don’t have a particular affinity to a specific jag manufacturer so long as they can be threaded onto the cleaning rod. I’ve just found the patches and jags manufactured and sold by J Dewey Rods to work well for me.
Admittedly, I am a bit of a snob when it comes to cleaning rods though. I’ve found the multi-part universal rods available in many cleaning kits to not be particularly durable. As such, I’ve become a big fan of solid full length rods from J Dewey Rods. These can get a little spendy, but I strongly believe that the functional and long term durability characteristics of these rods make them a worthwhile investment.
When I’m traveling for a match or a training class and a firearm needs a little TLC, I usually forgo my typical barrel cleaning process. Instead, I end up running a Hoppe’s Bore Snake through the barrel a few times. I don’t bother with the solvent and oil mainly because it’s a real pain in the rear to deal with container leaks in the range bag even when stored in a ZipLock baggie to contain the mess.
At this point, the gun that’s getting the TLC is ready for lubrication. With a few exceptions, my primary lubricant continues to be CherryBalmz Black Rifle Balm. However, I no longer recommend it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s worked great so far and I would be happy to continue to recommend it if it wasn’t for the questionable business practices and lack of customer service I last experienced (details on that are available in this blog post). A couple of alternatives that I’ve considered, but haven’t tried as I still have a fair bit of CherryBalmz on hand, is a product called Snake Oil which is available from Forward Controls Design and the ALG Defense Go-Juice Very Thin Grease.
The exceptions to CherryBalmz are the competition pistols. Specifically, the CZ Shadow 2 and the CZ 75 TS Czechmate. Those currently get lubricated with ALG Defense Go-Juice oil. The main reason for this deviation is the higher frequency of cleaning and my opinion that removing oil is a little less work than removing grease. Given the lower round count between cleanings, I don’t worry about these guns running dry as much as I do with the Heckler & Koch VP9s used for defensive carry and training which are exposed to multi-day training courses with round counts that are often three to five times higher than weekend matches.
Reassembly and function checks follow lubrication and maintenance is a wrap. I did warn y’all that there would be some biases in this post and that what I’ve laid out here is what I’ve found to currently work for me based on the activities I most frequently participate in and the guns that I use for those activities. Take everything with a grain of salt and feel free to try the products and approaches that I’ve laid out, but only if you think they may work for you.
All of this is likely to be very overwhelming to somebody who is just getting started. While I feel as if I’ve outgrown the inexpensive all-in-one cleaning kits that are available, I did start on those and I still believe they are a good place to start. Chances are you will outgrow them too with experience. The key things that are needed are: something to wipe with, a way to clean the bore of the barrel (a rod, brush, patch loop, and patches), a solvent and a lubricant (even a combination solvent and lubricant like a CLP). That’s it. Don’t overthink it. Preferences will develop over time and they may look nothing like mine.