The most tedious part of AR-15 cleaning is the bolt. Fortunately there are tools to help, like this OTIS B.O.N.E. tool.
The most tedious part of cleaning an AR-15 is the bolt. Fortunately there are tools to help, like this OTIS B.O.N.E. tool.

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 with cleaning AR-15s , maintaining, using, and even customizing 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.

A lower receiver vise block, like this one from Brownells, makes cleaning and maintenance a lot easier.
A lower receiver vise block, like this one from Brownells, makes cleaning and maintenance a lot easier.

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.

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, AR-15 cleaning tools, and cleaning products that will make cleaning easier.

Setting up

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 AR-15 cleaning 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.

With the rifle in a vise block, it's easy to clean the bore from chamber to muzzle as gravity works in your favor.
With the rifle in a vise block, it’s easy to clean the bore from chamber to muzzle as gravity works in your favor.

Barrel cleaning

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.

Bolt cleaning

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-15 cleaning kit 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.

One end of the B.O.N.E. tool handles the inside of the bolt carrier.
One end of the B.O.N.E. tool handles the inside of the bolt carrier.

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.

Lazy? Yes, but effective for cleaning the inside of the buffer tube.
Lazy? Yes, but effective for cleaning the inside of the buffer tube.

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, other AR-15 cleaning tools or know of the best AR-15 cleaning kit and would like 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

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17 thoughts on “AR-15 Hacks: How to Clean Your Rifle Like a Boss

  1. I use a suppressor on my AR’s. Makes cleaning after every use mandatory. I got lazy once and decided to shortcut the process after 3 or 4 magazine usage with just additional CLP lube on the bolt and in the chamber, no cleaning. The 3’rd outing resulted in the 1st stuck cartridge case I ever had in 5 years and 10,000+ rounds through 3 Ar’s. Cleaning after every use is good insurance against malfunctions. Better to just learn to love cleaning. My process through trial and error mirrors the authors although a chamber brush and q-tip swabs and paper towels added to mix helps me. Takes about 5 minutes.

  2. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be actual good advice or just an ad for OTIS products.

    I have carried something in the AR / M16 family for over 25 years, as a career Soldier and retired civilian. I’ve seen a lot of cleaning advice and a lot of standards come and go.
    #1 – Don’t try to clean it while pivoted on the front takedown pin. It’s called a takedown pin for a reason – take the parts apart.
    #2 – Otis makes some nice products, but nothing in the world cleans the barrel of an AR like a good Bore Snake.
    #3 – Good advice on cleaning the buffer tube and buffer spring.
    #4 – I was with you on cleaning the lower receiver internals – right up to the point where you said don’t lube because it attracts dust and powder. Welcome back to the 1980s, everyone, when stupid white-glove inspections were the norm. We’ve learned a thing or two since then – and the biggest thing we’ve learned is that it is hard to over-lubricate an AR. They run best when wet, and jam a lot more when run dry. Dry lubes are a waste of time except in true arctic conditions – lube the heck out of it and shoot it.

    In fact, I’m with you on not cleaning much at all (though I have far, far more rounds through my personal AR than just 1,500). I pull a bore snake through every 500-1000 rounds, more out of habit than anything else, and otherwise I don’t clean anything. I do, however, use a lot of wet lube, usually something cheap but effective like CLP.

    Lube doesn’t attract grit and dust, it moves it away from the moving, rubbing parts – just like it does in your car’s engine. Nobody recommends running your engine dry, or with a wonder dry lube – so why the aversion to wet lube?

    It’s time this zombie was shot in the head. Lube your guns.

    1. Well said!
      I agree wholeheartedly. Have never had any firearm fail from lubing it in 50+ years of shooting, but sure have had some troubles with dry firearms over that time.
      When I was in the heart of competition cleaning once in a while worked just fine. I have found using some of the better modern lubes has been very helpful. Have maybe a dozen different ones on my bench. The one I keep going back to is the CLP!
      If it starts to drag a little, a quick shot and all is wonderful again.
      Last AR I put together felt the trigger dry, to test out the theory, then a tiny bit of CLP and found it was a much sweeter trigger than I was thinking it was going to be once it had a bit of lube!!
      The only things I have found that truly do not improve with a bit of lube, are teflon on teflon parts, and those a rare. 🙂

  3. Break weapon down into two parts upper & lower. put to 2×4 blocks in a vice if you have one? then clamp barrel in the vice clean as usual. for the chamber & lugs use brush as usual use solvent liberally when clean soak up excess solvent with rag then turn receiver up side down and use air hose to blow out contaminants as well dry receiver.

    * air nozzle should have a rubber tip on the end (no scratch the weapon or i break ur face)
    *Also if the little lady in the hooch gets pissed when you clean indoors OR you don’t want to clean the garage floor when you are done hang a plastic baggy on the end of the barrel (note) here, only takes a min to make. Make a hoop for the bag.
    keeps work area much cleaner no fuss no muss throw the whole thing in trash can. Besides most trash collectors love the smell of gun cleaning products verse rotten ole trash..
    Now for the rest of you this is how it was done back in the day.

    Dissemble – have a smoke – throw the upper into 55gal can cut in half full of cleaner (diesel) most of the time.
    Slosh it around push or pull cleaning rod threw barrel depending on the mode you were in.
    have a smoke
    take bolt- diss. put parts in helmet (not your own) or a ration can full of what ever was in the 55 gal can at the time.
    shake but don’t stir clean with brush wipe on what ever is handy OIL have beer if available & smoke shoot the bull while reassembling weapon.

  4. If you get caught with your pants down and have rendered your weapon to the point that it needs to be striped and cleaned
    IE mud sand submerged in water snow etc, & with the standard ar15/m16 (not the telescoping stock model) and you have used the storage compartment in the stock for every thing but a few patches & a vile of grease/oil follow these steps it may save face & your butt. How ever these are last step measures & you are out in the middle of no where.

    clean barrel. lighter fluid – soap & water Dawn if ya got it – gas – diesel – Kerosene – if you have none of this available flush with lots of water, use boot lace with cut piece of material as a bore snake (shirt, underwear, etc. for patch do what you can best you can.

    Action. No tools OK do the same as above for barrel when the weapon is cleaned & dried as best as possible {And again i say you have almost nothing with you in the way of taking care of this problem} Go to your vehicle open the hood and take out your OIL DIPSTICK let the oil drip on the weapon and patches give weapon a good bath in the oil let set for about 30Min. Wipe clean (action) dry patch Barrel.
    When you get home give the weapon a double dose of cleaning procedure and she will be as good as the day when you said OH Shit.

    Take care out there.

  5. That’s good advice. The only things that I do differently is that I use a Tipton carbon fiber cleaning rod and/or a Bore Snake depending upon which rifle I’m cleaning and how dirty it is. I also use an Iosso Complete AR-15 cleaning kit, a Tipton Rapid Bore Guide Kit, a Tipton Best Gun Vise and, last but not least, a Wheeler Engineering mag well vise block (mounts to the Best Gun Vice) to securely hold the rifle in place. I also have a similarly designed BCG scraper, but I don’t recall what brand it is. Lastly I put a dab of grease on the face of the hammer where the BCG rides over it, but I don’t lube anything else in the trigger group.

  6. Instead of paying over $20 for a lower vise block, you can use a cheap $5 magazine (CDNN has them) or an old one that is past it’s prime. Works just as well and saves money too. I am a carpenter by trade, so I cut down a scrap piece of 2 x 4 into the proper shape and size. Cost = FREE.

  7. I agree with Ibeacham, I also run suppressors and a lot of nasty dirty gas completely covers every internal part of your rifle. A few of my rifles are full auto so multiply that nasty grime by 10. Personally I remove the upper from the rifle and use an upper block in my vise that holds it horizontal on the bench for easy access to the entire upper, not just one end. I also clean as much carbon and crud from the BCG and inspect the gas rings after every time I use it, one bent or broken ring can cause a lot of issues. I then drop the BCG and the lower into my ultrasonic cleaner, 15 minutes in there makes it like new! These can be found for a reasonable price and are well worth the money. As far as lubing the lower, consider this, there are a lot of steel parts, the two pins (three on autos)that hold everything together are moving against aluminum. Of the two which is going to wear first? A few drops of oil on these pins goes a long way! If you want to significantly reduce the amount of crud in your lower, install a piston kit. They make a huge difference in cleaning and especially performance!

  8. I disassemble, put parts in sonic cleaner. 10 minutes in cleaning solution. Rinse well with water. Dry completely. Put parts in sonic cleaner with the lube solution for 5 minutes. Re-assemble and wipe, removing excess lube. Good to go. I’m getting a little “lazy” in my older age!!

  9. You cleaned the bore but made no mention of cleaning the chamber. News flash, the chamber is the ONE item you want to clean on an AR15 rifle if you clean nothing else. Properly cleaning the chamber helps prevent stuck cases. Use an AR15 chamber brush. Also, the trigger group is absolutely supposed the be lubricated. Apply grease to sear contact surface and a few drops of oil to the pins. The trigger pull will be much smoother and less gritty.

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