If you’ve spent any time at all in the military, you were probably taught that the AR platform rifle must be completely free of carbon, at all times, to function properly. Even if you haven’t served, you probably have heard that the AR platform does not run well when fouled with carbon. While the AR 15 might always not require a spotless appearance, your rifle will benefit from a regular cleaning schedule.
AR-15 Cleaning and Maintenance
Credit: The Gun Zone
There is a myth that the AR 15 will become unreliable without immaculate care and an intense cleaning regimen. This is not true in the least, and actually a small to moderate level of fouling will actually improve the tolerances of the rifle resulting in increased accuracy and reliability.
The myth that the rifle needs to be perfectly clean comes from two sources. When the AR 15 and M16 were first issued in Vietnam, they were advertised as a weapon that did not require cleaning; this proved to be untrue and many service rifles ran into a ton of reliability issues until cleaning kits became standard issue with the rifles. The other place is the modern military armory, where rifles are required to be squeaky clean to get turned in; this is actually because military weapons are gauged regularly to check for signs of wear that would deem them out of speck and excess carbon will give false measurements.
The AR 15 does require a certain amount of maintenance for reliable performance and to help increase the lifespan of the rifle. While the term “mil-spec” is thrown around relatively fast and loose, not all AR components are created equally, and some rifles might require more frequent cleaning than others.
If you have any internal components of your rifle that are not coated in a protective treatment, there is the potential for rust or corrosion from cheap ammunition. Even then, the coatings on your rifle’s internal components can degrade over time, allowing carbon to build up and potentially cause irreversible damage.
Of course, reliability can become a concern if the rifle becomes too dirty, as well. An excess build-up of carbon can cause a multitude of malfunctions in the rifle, and even decrease accuracy. In a rifle barrel, there is a point where the copper and carbon build up creates perfect tolerances resulting in enhanced accuracy, but due to the gas port on the barrel it is difficult to achieve this equilibrium uniformly and accuracy will quickly degrade after a certain point.
How Often Should You Clean Your Rifle?
The answer to this question is not going to be the same for every shooter. As mentioned earlier, some coatings on components will allow the rifle to continue to function after more rounds than others. Some ammunition will also cause a rifle to foul faster than that of another manufacture. However, if you are at a training course, or shoot very regularly, you should be able to expect reliable performance for about a thousand rounds or more before a cleaning is required.
Rarely will I recommend you wait for that thousand round mark before you decide to clean your rifle. If you don’t plan to shoot your rifle for a week or longer after a range session, it’s a good idea to give your rifle a good wipe down and lubrication before storing it. If you are at a training course where you are shooting hundreds of rounds per day over the course of a week, a simple wipe down daily or cleaning as malfunctions occur will probably be enough.
*Tip: I find that the first malfunction due to carbon build up is usually a failure to extract or eject; if you see this, clean the extractor thoroughly and you should be back in business.
The Right Tools for the Job
There are certain items you should keep in your cleaning kit to get the job done right. For the barrel, many people like to use a bore snake because it is quick and easy. While I like them, they will not clean out copper fouling or get the barrel really clean. Make sure you have some cleaning rods with jags and patches to remove fouling from the bore and use solvent instead of lubrication to remove carbon build-up.
For the upper receiver and fire control unit, many people will use cotton swabs. This is actually heavily frowned upon as the cotton fibers are surprisingly durable and can cause irreparable damage to the moving parts inside the rifle if they are left behind. Instead, using pipe cleaners and rags will be a much safer and equally as efficient method of getting in those hard to reach areas. There are some felt patches made specifically for cleaning the chamber, which is the most challenging part of the rifle to clean, and they work great; use them if you value your time more than the couple of bucks a package of them costs. Dental picks also help greatly.
For the bolt carrier group, a rag and some CLP will go a long way. There are a couple of points in the BCG were carbon builds up quite heavily; don’t be afraid to scrape the carbon off with a mild steel tool. Whether you use a scraper sold as a cleaning tool, or an old screwdriver, the BCG is made of hardened steel so using mild steel will attack the carbon without marring these parts of the rifle.
For the outside of the rifle, using a rag and a nylon bristled brush will remove pretty much anything you pick up on the rifle without damaging the finish.
Wrapping It Up
While cleaning the AR 15 isn’t a requirement due to the myth of the rifle being unable to operate in less than ideal conditions, it is still a good idea to increase the life of your rifle and help maintain reliability. It is an easy platform to keep clean and functioning well if you have the right tools. Just like any firearm, when you are done cleaning and preparing to store the rifle, a light coat of oil will go a long way in keeping the rifle in working order for your next range day.