During my time as a professional trainer, peace officer and sometimes gunsmith, I have seen many handgun malfunctions. The majority are a result of operator error, and many of those are a result of something the shooter did not do. That something is proper maintenance.
Poor maintenance, a failure to replace springs in a reasonable time frame and improper lubrication shorten the useful life of your handgun. What’s worse, such lack of care for the handgun might cause it to fail at the worst possible moment. The good news is that a proper cleaning and spring upgrade will prevent or cure most problems.
Why Firearms Maintenance and Cleaning Is Important
Some parts of the handgun — the grips and the magazine — are renewable resources. The barrel is as well, but few of us reach the point of needing to replace it. You have to clean the pistol and properly do so. Caked-on carbon deposits will impede function and reduce slide velocity. Debris under the extractor will cause a failure to extract. And particles in the firing pin channel will stop the firing pin short. Debris in the action will stop the action. Corrosion occurs when the handgun is exposed to salts and is not cleaned and oiled. If the bore isn’t scrubbed free of crud, lead and copper deposits, accuracy will suffer.
Gun care is a bit like vehicle maintenance. Vehicles get an oil change on a regular basis. Parts will let you know when they are becoming worn and need to be replaced. My Corvette is at 190,000 miles and performs as new due to perfect maintenance and so does my Springfield Loaded Model at 20,000 rounds. Neither quite looks new, but that is fine.
Periodic maintenance is important even if you do not manage to get to the range as often as you would like. Lint might get into the gun and so will corrosion. Lubrication doesn’t adhere to slide rails; it will run off because we carry our pistols muzzle-down.
When Should You Clean Your Gun?
Many shooters clean the handgun after every practice session no matter how many rounds are fired — a dozen to check a new carry load or 200 during a hard session mastering a new drill. This careful maintenance prevents the buildup of hardened carbon deposits and barrel fouling. The National Institute of Justice defines reliability as the propensity of a handgun to fire with every pull of the trigger. Acceptable reliability is defined as the ability to fire 300 rounds between every cleaning. This is a low standard in my opinion, but it is a standard.
It’s important all gun owners know how to maintain the firearm they carry. You cannot properly clean a self-loading handgun without field-stripping the pistol — removing the slide from the frame and the barrel and recoil spring from the slide. At some point, you will also need to learn how to change the firing pin spring.
Firearms are complex machines. And the complexity varies from handgun to handgun. But in general, if one part of the handgun doesn’t work, then the whole machine shuts down. Subcompact handguns, as a rule, have the most difficult field-strip. There isn’t a lot of room, and the designer makes the best of what they have after downsizing the pistol. By comparison, service-grade handguns are the easiest to field-strip and maintain. Complications arise in short-slide pistols as we attempt to arrest slide velocity and prevent battering.
If you cannot ably field-strip and maintain a self-loader, you should choose a revolver. Though revolvers also require maintenance, it is less demanding. Understand the commitment to maintenance early in the game and let this commitment weigh into your choice of handgun.
There are differences between cleaning the pistol after range work and cleaning the carry gun. In either case, be thorough. For example, carbon might work its way under the extractor. A thorough cleaning will eliminate grit in the action. After cleaning, safely check slide operation and trigger function.
As well, a carry gun that hasn’t been fired should be examined, wiped and cleaned from time to time. Leather shavings from a holster and lint from covering garments often cover the handgun. Cleaning can also be an opportunity to find likely causes of a malfunction and act upon them. Weekly cleaning and wipe downs can help prevent problems.
When cleaning a firearm, I avoid all distractions. I do not clean firearms on a surface that will absorb cleaning fluids or carbon deposits. The TEKMAT is ideal for handguns, as it features a schematic of the individual gun but has utility for use as a cleaning mat for any handgun. (I place mine on a rollout table in the laundry room.) I have gravitated to clean-and-green cleaning material from Sharp Shoot-R. There is no pungent odor and it works well.
After range use, I thoroughly clean the handgun with solvent, run a bore brush through the barrel and generally nitpick the piece for any potential problems. This takes time, but it is time well spent.
First, triple-check the handgun to be certain it is unloaded. Remove the magazine, clear the round from the slide, lock the slide to the rear and place your finger in the chamber to be certain the chamber is empty. Do not have ammunition in the same room. This will prevent ammunition from being contaminated and damaged by cleaning products. And it’s just safer.
When inspecting a carry gun that’s clean but requires other attention, I also make certain the handgun is unloaded and leave ammunition in another room. I check the barrel bushing, slide and moving parts for lint. I examine the pistol for corrosion. Sometimes it will be just a sprinkle of rust. I use a copper penny to carefully wipe away small rust spots, then place a tiny amount of oil on those spots.
I check the trigger and safety for normal operation, I examine the extractor for sharpness and check the firing pin and firing pin spring. Never lube the firing pin channel. Some, such as the Glock, already have a plastic lining. Lubing this channel will only invite carbon deposits to find a home and allow oil to run to the cartridge primer. I check the breechface, which should be clean and free of lubrication. Lube might contaminate a cartridge’s primer, resulting in an ill-timed failure to fire. A pistol readied for range use should be heavily lubricated. Firing actually blows lubricant out and off of the gun, and you want that gun to keep firing.
But less is more with a gun for concealed carry. Light lubrication along the slide rails and barrel hood of most handguns is all that is needed. The 1911 handgun needs more lubrication than a SIG, and the Glock needs less than either. The Glock needs a single drop of oil where the trigger bar and connector meet. Most handguns will fire a magazine or so even without lubrication, but I do not wish to bet my life on it. Lubricant needs to be replaced often with a carry gun. Muzzle-down carry results in the lube running forward. Even if a pistol hasn’t been fired, it should be lubricated occasionally.
Cleaning is one thing. Maintenance is another. Part of maintenance is replacing recoil springs. Recoil springs should be replaced every 3,000 rounds, perhaps a bit sooner with a compact handgun firing a powerful cartridge. The STAR PD, as an example, demanded the recoil spring assembly be changed every 500 rounds. Pieces began to chip off the buffer by that round count. We have come a long way since the first subcompact .45, but light guns are harder on the springs. When slide velocity becomes noticeably greater or empties are slung further than before, the recoil spring needs to be replaced. Replacement springs are available at fair prices from Brownells.
The firing pin spring should be replaced every 5,000 rounds. The extractor in the 1911 probably should be replaced at 8,000 rounds, likewise for the CZ 75 in most renditions. Magazine springs are more difficult to gauge. But if the force needed to load the magazine becomes noticeably less, the spring needs to be replaced. If the follower and magazine body are in good condition, a magazine spring will make the magazine function as new. If the spring is weak, feeding problems occur. In some cases, the slide lock will not engage properly on the magazine follower. The minimum number of magazines for a personal defense pistol is three — one in the gun, one on the belt and one resting. Your handgun is an instrument that might save your life, so treat it with the respect and maintenance it deserves.
Tekmat Gun Accessories: TekMat.com