Firearms Lubrication: Do’s & Don’ts

All one needs to do to suffer complete confusion is walk down the aisle of any gun store where the gun lubricants are shelved.

Then start reading the claims made on the cleaners’ and lubricants’ labels, e.g., Silicon formula repels water, slick as silk, Teflon-based, petroleum-pure, won’t burn, removes lead and copper build up, chosen by Navy SEALs, works in all conditions, dissolves carbon, etc., etc. Most of us read these claims, buy a solvent/cleaner or lubricant that sounds good and have no clue about what we’re really applying on our guns to protect them against environment and wear without sacrificing reliability.

Let’s begin with a basic understanding of our primary goal(s) and work toward the solution. We are concerned with two things; Maintaining our firearms in the best condition possible and operating (shooting) them with the highest confidence in their reliability attainable. To accomplish these two goals we do two things. We clean, lubricate and store our firearms to preserve their availability (ready condition), and we practice shooting them for proficiency under (most often) ideal range environmental conditions.

Real-world carry resulting in a gunfight is a rare event for most everyone, save our law enforcement and military communities. Thus, we are lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to the maintenance measures we afford our firearms. Subsequently, we select cleaners and lubricants mostly based on manufacturers’ claims or cost economy. But there is a better way.

There is no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to solvent cleaners or lubricants. A cleaning agent or lubricant that claims both qualities, is generally inadequate for either requirement when it comes down to the dynamic attributes demanded by both.

In comparison to lubricants, cleaning agents are, by necessity, generally thin viscosity liquids or sprays that are designed to penetrate with the express purpose of dissolving or loosening carbon, lubricant sludge, bore lead, copper build-up, etc. Some cleaning agents also displace moisture and some provide a protective surface coating to discourage rust.

Some cleaning agents are more effective than others, even if the difference in chemical formulation is subtle and undetectable to the user when it’s applied. Most cleaning agents are not formulated to be firearm-operating-system-specific and are designed for general purpose use on any firearm. Lacking specific attributes is not necessarily bad or good. Rather, it is a market-driven matter of fact.

There are some things to be aware of and avoid when it comes to cleaning agent formulation. When you clean your firearm you’re not just cleaning the surface metal. You need to think about cleaning at a macro, even a micro level. Removing surface sludge and carbon so the bolt and bore shine is indeed important to reliability. However, displacing and removing moisture at the metal’s granular level is equally important.

If you were to view your firearm’s metallic surface under a microscope, you would see its metal structure is granular and is actually composed of tightly compacted metal grains. You would further observe there are microscopic voids between the grains. Machined surfaces look much like a microscopic flagstone patio. The seams between the grains vary, as do the grain size and layout (structure), depending upon the type of metal and the process used to form, harden and temper it. Steel, for example, is more tightly organized (granularly compacted) than aluminum. Billet-machined metal, for example, is granularly different from cast or sintered metal and very different from hammer-forged metal. Chrome and nickel, used as plating, are very tightly grained and oxidation resistant. That’s why they make such an effective anti-wear and preservation surface plating on other, less hard ferrous and non-ferrous metals.

So–when cleaning, the objective is to not only clean the surface metal but the micro-surface. This means you’ll need to have an understanding of the cleaning solution you’re using that goes beyond the manufacturers’ fine print. There are few solvents that have the ability to penetrate at the metal’s granular level and displace water that can ultimately contribute to metal failure. In general, silicon and Teflon-based cleaners and lubricants displace surface water but do not penetrate at the granular level. In fact, they may actually serve to hold moisture in the metal’s granular structure while providing surface water repellency. This is to say that just because you see rain beading off your gun’s metal parts on a rainy day hunt, doesn’t mean your gun is truly protected.

Assuming you’re not a chemist, how do you identify a penetrating cleaner that displaces water at the granular level? Try this experiment the next time your gun gets soaked. Dry it with a clean absorbent cloth. Now liberally spray the metal surfaces and bore with WD-40 (WD stands for water displacement, 40 is the formulation number). Place the gun in a muzzle down position so the WD-40 doesn’t run onto the stock. Wait a few minutes and observe water slowly appear and bead on the surface of the metal. Wipe it off with a dry cloth. Reapply the WD-40, and you’ll find no water will form.

Wipe it dry again and this time clean the gun and apply a suitable viscosity lubricant to the wear points and a light preservative to the gun’s weather (outer) surfaces. WD-40 will work fine to protect the weather surfaces. This is not meant as an endorsement for WD-40, but it’s available at all hardware stores, it’s cheap, and it works. There are other penetrating water displacing cleaners that will work equally well that additionally dissolve sludge and carbon. Read the formulation fine print between manufacturers and compare the basic tenants of cleaner formulation. Stay away from silicon and Teflon-based formulas for displacement of granular water.

Assuming you now have properly cleaned your gun, what type of lubrication should you apply and how should it be applied? The short answer is always apply lubricant liberally to all wear surfaces, springs, catches and hinge pins. Choose a lubricant for the wear points with a viscosity that won’t melt off when your gun is hot or wash off in the rain.

Far too many shooters shoot their weapons in a “dry” condition. They properly clean and lubricate their gun, then wipe the lube off the gun parts before reassembly. That’s a suicidal bad habit if you expect your gun to reliably fire more than the round you have chambered. Granted, there are circumstances where a gun must be maintained in a “dry” condition like desert and artic environments. However, there are specifically formulated “dry” lubricants available for use in such extremes that don’t hold grit and ice.

The general rule of thumb is use plenty of lube on your gun’s moving parts, especially the wear points like slide guide rails, bolt carrier groups, hammer hinge pins, firing pins, ejector mechanisms, recoil springs and spring rod guides, springs in general, magazine springs and followers, etc. Use a heavy viscosity lube on wear points like guide rails and bolt lugs. Use a light viscosity lube on springs, firing pins, magazine springs and followers. Use a corrosion preventive on weather surfaces like gun barrels, receivers, top covers, etc.

Never use cleaning solvents or lubricating oil on a wooden stock surface. It can soften the wood finish or even remove it, ruining the stock’s beauty and weather resistance. Applying any cleaner other than soapy water to clean a polymer stock is simply a waste of cleaner.

Finally, in most cases it is not necessary to clean your gun every time you shoot it, unless you’ve shot several hundred rounds, or your gun was exposed to environmental extremes. If you shot your gun on an indoor (even an outdoor) range under ideal conditions and only shot a box or two for practice, you probably don’t need to clean your gun.

Today’s non-corrosive primers and propellants don’t threaten rust or corrosion. Simply wipe your gun down with a surface protectant and re-lube the wear points sparingly. Wipe off any excess and you’ll be ready for your next practice. If you carry the gun you’ve just used for practice, clean it, lube it and return it to its carry-ready status.

Modern firearm designs generally facilitate easy disassembly for cleaning and repair. Screws and springs are captured so they aren’t lost, and many designs require no special tools for cleaning disassembly. There are even a number of space-age surface coatings that are gaining popularity that make major firearm components like receivers, barrels, bolts, etc. nearly impervious to rust and corrosion and even possess self-lubricious characteristics.

These coatings are applied by spraying or painting them on, or through electro-static or electroplating processes. Some require oven curing, or curing at room temperature over a period of several weeks. These coatings are not cheap, but most are effective – some more than others. Even coatings require cleaning and some form of lubrication. Don’t neglect cleaning them because they’re coated.

Cleaning and lubing your guns properly will extend their life expectancy well beyond your own. Proper cleaning and lubing will extend yours too if you get into a gunfight that requires your gun’s operational reliability to win.