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How to Clean a Handgun Properly: A Step-by-Step Guide

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How to Clean a Handgun Properly: A Step-by-Step Guide

It’s no secret that a clean gun is a happy gun.

Not only will keeping your pistol squeaky clean and well-maintained help to prevent jams and malfunctions, but it will extend the life of your weapon, reduce the risk of an unintentional discharge, and even improve your accuracy.

But, there’s more to it than simply wiping down the barrel every so often to keep it shiny.

Knowing how to clean a gun is a critical part of being a responsible firearm owner. Understanding how to safely disassemble, clear out dirt and debris, lubricate, and reassemble your pistol is a vital skill that will ensure it functions properly for years to come.

In this article, we’ll go over the basics of how to clean a handgun step by step so you can keep your arsenal ready for anything. First, let’s go over the supplies you’ll need to clean a pistol.

Gun Cleaning Supplies: What Do I Need?

Whether you’re buying a gun cleaning kit or assembling one on your own, here is everything you need to successfully clean a firearm:

  • Rod or pull-through cable
  • Bore brush (caliber specific)
  • Jags
  • Swabs
  • Nylon or copper brush
  • Cleaning patches (caliber specific, lint and fiber-free)
  • Cotton cloth, rag, or old T-shirt
  • Cleaning solvent
  • Gun oil for lubrication
  • Gun cleaning mat
  • Gloves (optional)

Gun Cleaning Supplies layer on top of a cleaning mat.

If you’re looking for recommendations…

  • Otis Technology offers complete cleaning kits of various sizes, individual solutions, and many other gun-cleaning items you may need.
  • For a lubricant, try BreakFree. It is a popular choice among gun owners – and for good reason.
  • Another popular brand, Hoppe’s, offers cleaning kits and sells individual products like lubricants.
  • Wheeler sells a wide variety of gun cleaning tools as well as a few cleaning kits.
  • Complete your cleaning kit with our Vedder Holsters Gun Cleaning Mat, which has a soft top and rubber back to keep everything scratch-free and in place while you clean.

Most firearm manufacturers include a guide on the best cleaning and maintenance practices for your gun. It’s always best to refer to their recommendations before using a cleaner or tool on your weapon.

How to Clean a Gun

When you’re first learning how to clean a pistol, it can feel like a daunting task. After all, there are so many supplies involved, and disassembling your firearm for the first time can be a little confusing.

But don’t worry! Cleaning a gun is not as hard as it may seem. Many firearm manufacturers offer detailed cleaning instructions in the owner's manual, so be sure to check that before you get started.

Man cleaning gun barrel - Gun Cleaning

Without further ado, here are the basic steps for how to clean a handgun:

Unload the Gun

This is by far the single most important step when cleaning any firearm. Before you do anything else, remove the magazine from your pistol and clear the chamber. Then, triple-check that all ammunition has been successfully removed. Do not skip this step! A significant percentage of unintentional discharges occur during cleaning, and you can never be too careful.

Prep Your Workspace

This may seem like an unimportant step, but taking the time to get your workspace ready can actually make or break your gun cleaning experience.

Ideally, you’ll want to plan on cleaning your gun outdoors where there’s proper ventilation and airflow. If that’s not an option, pick a spot next to a window and/or near a fan to help prevent you from breathing in harmful lead and chemicals.

Next, choose a large enough surface from which to work and clear off any items. Collect all of your supplies, and place your gun cleaning mat front and center to protect the surface from scratches and grime.

Disassemble Your Gun

Next, to thoroughly clean your weapon, you’ll need to disassemble it. The exact technique you’ll need to do this will depend on the gun, so be sure to consult your owner’s manual for step-by-step guidance on this. As you remove different parts, lay them neatly onto the gun mat, and be sure to place any small, loose pieces into an EDC tray or bowl so you don’t lose them!

If you have a revolver, this step will be unnecessary. Keep scrolling for instructions on how to clean a revolver properly, as it’s a very different process than a semi-automatic.

Clean the Barrel & Chamber

Now it’s time to clean the barrel and chamber. First, take a dry nylon or copper brush and give the chamber a good scrub to loosen any debris. Then, use a dry bore brush to clean out the barrel.

Once the larger bits of grime and fouling are scrubbed away, it’s time to break out the cleaning solvent. Saturate a cleaning patch with solvent and insert it into the tip of a cleaning rod. Slide it through the barrel until it peeks out the other side. Resist the urge to pull the patch back through the barrel – doing so will only redeposit the grime you just removed.

Clean the Barrel & Chamber Close up photography

Let the solvent sit in the barrel for several minutes to do what it has to do.

After the solvent has sat for a while, take your bore brush and give the inside of the barrel a good scrub. Then, take a dry cleaning patch and use the rod to run it back and forth through the barrel. You’ll likely need to use another patch (or two) to run through the barrel until one of them comes out clean.

Give the outside of the barrel a good wipe, and you’re done with this step!

Clean the Action

The next step is to clean the gun’s action. To do this, take your nylon/copper brush and scrub the slide or bolt to loosen up any dirt or debris as you did before. Then, spray or apply a generous amount of solvent to the action and let it sit for several minutes. When ready, scrub the action with the brush again. Once you’re satisfied that it’s clean, wipe it all down with a clean patch and let it dry.

Lubricate

After everything is thoroughly cleaned, it’s time to lubricate. Gun oil is designed to prevent corrosion and keep moving parts working smoothly, so you never want to skip this step!

Before you do so, consult your owner’s manual to see which parts of the gun they recommend lubricating. As a general rule, however, you’ll want to apply a drop of oil to areas of the action and slide assembly that see a lot of friction, as well as the outside of the barrel.

What you DON’T want to do is over-lubricate your firearm. This can have the opposite effect that you want, in that too much lube can attract debris and gum things up so that they’re less reliable.

Reassemble & Wipe it Down

Finally, it’s time to put everything back together. Reassemble your firearm following the manufacturer’s guidelines. Once everything is back in place, give the entire gun a wipe-down with a clean, dry cloth to remove any excess solvent, oil, or grease.

Check the Firearm

Finally, double-check that the weapon is back in working order by racking the slide or bolt. Not only does this ensure everything is functioning properly, but it helps to disperse the gun oil to evenly lubricate everything.

If you’re still confused, check out our YouTube video How to Clean Your Handgun for a visual walkthrough of the pistol-cleaning process.

Check the Firearm - Man checks weapon is in working order by racking the slide.

How to Clean a Revolver: What’s the Difference?

As you may have guessed, cleaning a revolver is a bit of a different process than cleaning a semi-automatic pistol. In fact, it’s a lot easier!

Because of their design, revolvers have fewer moving parts, and there is virtually no disassembly required. The main difference in cleaning is that you need to thoroughly cleanse each cylinder and the barrel with a bore snake to clear out any grime. You’ll want to make sure you scrub the revolver’s extractor star with a brush and solvent as well.

If you really want to clean every nook and cranny of your revolver, you can remove the grip panels and wipe everything down. There’s no need to separate the cylinder from the frame, and you should never attempt to disassemble the cylinder – leave that to the professional gunsmiths!

Once you’re done cleaning, lightly coat the revolver and individual chambers with a bit of lubricant, and voilà! It’s that simple.

How Often Do I Need to Clean My Gun?

For most shooters, a good rule of thumb is to clean your gun after every trip to the range. This prevents a buildup of powder residue, grime, and other contaminants that can impede its function. If you've spent an afternoon plinking cans or ran a few boxes of ammo for target practice, be sure to break out the cleaning kit when you get home.

Gun disassemble on top of a gun cleaning mat and man cleaning a part of the gun.

Those in humid or coastal areas should bump up their cleaning frequency, even after minimal shooting. Moisture is a gun's worst enemy, as it can lead to corrosion and rust. Those in dry climates can go slightly longer between thorough cleanings, but you should still try to clean it after a heavy training day or once every few trips to the range.

Ultimately, you’ll need to consider your firearm, shooting frequency, and climate to determine your ideal cleaning schedule. But when in doubt, erring on the side of caution with more frequent cleanings ensures your gun is always ready for action.

What Happens if You Don't Clean Your Gun After Every Use?

Whether you take a lot of trips to the range or just aren’t much of a clean freak (no judgment) you may be wondering how bad is it really not to clean your gun after every single use?

In all reality, if you skip a cleaning every once in a while, your handgun will probably be just fine. But, if you make a habit of neglecting this step, you may start to notice some negative effects on your firearm.

Gun laying on top of a cleaning mat and some cleaning supplies

Failure to clean dirt, debris, and excess lubricants from your weapon can eventually lead to a buildup of said grime, which can impact its accuracy and performance. Not only can this cause corrosion and wear to your firearm over time, but it can cause malfunctions and jams, which could mean the difference between life and death in a defensive encounter.

So, while skipping a cleaning or two every so often isn’t the end of the world, it’s a good habit to build for the overall health of your firearm and to ensure it will function properly when you need it most.

Summary

Ensuring your gun is clean, oiled, and well-maintained is essential for keeping it in safe, working condition. But there’s more to it than wiping it down with an old rag and dropping some gun oil into the action.

The method for how to clean a handgun is pretty simple once you’ve done it a few times. First, UNLOAD the gun – then triple-check it. Next, you’ll need to clean all the grime from your pistol with swabs, brushes, and solvent before lubricating moving parts and reassembling.

One of the best ways to keep handguns clean and debris-free is to store them in a quality holster. If you’re looking for a new IWB, OWB, or pocket carry holster, visit our Holsters by Gun Model page for Kydex holsters that are custom-made for your weapon of choice.

Interested in items beyond holsters? Check out our Resources Page for links to recommended products like lights, lasers, first aid, maintenance, and more, and browse our selection of apparel, and accessories at our website, vedderholsters.com.

To stay up-to-date on all the latest Vedder Holsters content and offerings, check out our blog and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. And be sure to visit our sister company, GeoGrit, for all your American-made minimalist wallet needs.

*This page contains affiliate links. When you purchase a product included on this list, we receive a commission at no extra cost to you.

Mikayla Blair

After launching her career as an award-winning journalist in the American Southwest, Mikayla Blair joined the Vedder Holsters team as a content writer in 2021. She writes about all things guns, holsters, and concealed carry, and is especially passionate about women's self-defense.

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