While no one really knows for sure, industry sources estimate that there are more than 10 million AR-type modern sporting rifles in the United States. That’s a lot of rifles, a lot of ammo, and a lot of cleaning!
Inspired by the popularity of the modern sporting rifle and its many variants, and the fact that I just like them, it’s time to embark on a series of AR-15 hacks. Over the next month or so, we’ll take a closer look at all sorts of tips and tricks that will help you clean, maintain, use, and customize your AR-15.
To start things off, let’s take a closer look at cleaning tips. If you listen to the internet forums, you might believe that cleaning an AR-15 is a tougher chore than scrubbing the boilers of the Titanic. According to some, the design is so bad that more grime collects in the action from each and every shot than that deposited by all the gas semiautomatic shotguns on South American pigeon hunts over a year’s time.
Yes, the AR-15 direct impingement design does vent hot, dirty gas into the receiver and smothers the bolt and carrier with each shot. But in the scope of things, it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. If your day job is strolling through wadis in Afghanistan, where the airborne dust resembles talcum powder, then your results may vary and daily cleaning is probably a necessity. Here, I’m referring to recreational and home-defense AR use.
If you’re using your rifle for range fun, competition, or as a home-defense option, you can take a more practical approach to your cleaning chores. If you own a rifle of at least moderate quality, it’ll run when it’s dirty. Just for fun, I’ve been boycotting a cleaning job on a Smith & Wesson M&P15 OR rifle I picked up last fall. That’s right, almost a year ago. Why? I’m deliberately letting it go without cleaning just to see how forgiving it is as it starts to get grimy. To date, the rifle has somewhere around 1,500 rounds through it in all sorts of conditions, yet it runs. Contrary to popular belief, your rifle does not have to be babied to run reliably—within reason of course.
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I’ll assume you already know the basics on how to disassemble your AR-15 rifle, so I won’t go over that here. We’ll focus on tips, tools, and cleaning products that will make cleaning easier.
If we’re going to talk about doing things the easy way, step one is to figure out how you’re going to hold rifle parts during cleaning. Unlike a traditional rifle, the AR-15 hinges open, and even separates into multiple parts when you open one or both takedown pins. Holding on to a hinged-open AR that’s flopping around with one hand while you’re trying to scrub with the other is kind of like hitting a baseball with a Slinky.
The answer (for me) is a lower receiver vise block. This is a neat little gun maintenance tool that inserts into your magazine well and locks into place. The idea is to put the bottom of the vise block into a workbench vise so the rifle is supported. They’re not as cheap as you’d expect, but good tools rarely are. If you have more than one AR rifle, or are planning to do more tweaking of your rifle, it’s a good investment—you’ll use it forever once you have it.
The best part is, with the lower receiver solidly supported, when you open the rear takedown pin, the upper receiver will hinge down towards the floor. This is important for cleaning the barrel.
Ideally, you want to clean a rifle bore from the chamber to muzzle so all the powder residue, chemicals, and miscellaneous grime dribbles out the muzzle rather than back towards the action. That’s why I’m in favor of the OTIS cleaning system. In the case of cleaning the AR-15 rifle, there’s another, more specific, reason. The barrel extension is perhaps the hardest part to clean in an AR-15. Buried deep within the upper receiver, it makes you work just to get to it, and once you do, you’re confounded by a three-dimensional maze of bolt lug recesses and hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. It’s a pain. If you’re dredging solvent and grime towards the chamber, gunk will collect in those hard-to-reach barrel extension recesses.
The semi-rigid coated cables of the OTIS system work sort of like a cleaning rod, although you pull patches and brushes through rather than pushing. With your rifle open and supported by a lower receiver vise block, just feed the OTIS cleaning cable through the bore with a wet patch, get the loose stuff out, then switch to a brush. Finish with a clean or lightly lubed patch according to your preference. Couldn’t be simpler, and no wet and nasty grime will end up in the barrel extension or worse yet, the action. Just remember to put an old towel or rag on the floor to catch any excess cleaning solvent oozing out the muzzle.
OTIS provides another time-saving tool for bolt and bolt carrier cleaning. It’s called the B.O.N.E. tool. It’s designed to scrape carbon deposit from the inside of the bolt carrier, the bolt tail, and the firing pin. You can buy it separately or a part of the OTIS AR-15/M16 MSR/AR cleaning system. One end of the tool is perfectly sized to the interior of the bolt carrier—just rotate the scraper and quickly remove carbon buildup. Inside the opposite end is an inverted, bolt-tail shaped scraper which removes the fouling from there. While we’re talking about the bolt tail, don’t get too worked up about getting every bit of carbon off of it. Some residue there has no impact on function and you probably won’t every get it perfectly clean. A hole in the B.O.N.E. tool scrapes the exterior of the firing pin. The B.O.N.E. is money well spent, as it makes short work of cleaning the bolt components.
Buffer tube cleaning
Unless you’re shooting in a dirty, nasty environment, you don’t really need to clean the inside of your buffer tube every time you clean the bore and bolt. Besides, it’s intended to be a “dry” part area. You’re not really supposed to lubricate it either, so traditional cleaning methods aren’t appropriate. I use a shotgun bore mop to remove any dirt and dust from the inside of the buffer tube. It’s quick and easy, yet effective as the soft mop grabs and removes loose dirt. The spring and buffer assembly can just be wiped off with a (relatively) clean rag.
Trigger group cleaning
I’ve saved the easiest for last. The trigger group, including trigger, hammer, sear, and associated springs, are no-lube parts! To clean that area, you don’t really need to disassemble anything, just spray it out with a degreaser like brake cleaner or Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber. Don’t oil anything after you clean—that will just attract dust and powder. Later in the series, we’ll take a look at dry lubricant options that may or may not make sense for trigger parts.
These are some of the shortcuts I use. How about you? Got any killer cleaning tips to share with the rest of us?
Tom McHale is the author of the Insanely Practical Guides book series that guides new and experienced shooters alike in a fun, approachable, and practical way. His books are available in print and eBook format on Amazon.
Images by Tom McHale