How to Clean your AR-15: The Beginner's Guide

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How to Clean your AR-15: The Beginner's Guide

So you just picked up your first AR-15, you’ve put some rounds through it, and now it’s time to give it a cleaning. However, you are new to this and you don’t have any experience cleaning it.  Well, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to give you all the advice an ol’ timer would, without him trying to steal all of your brass. But first, I want to emphasize something before we start and that is if your AR is going to be a tool that you use for self-defense, make sure it’s clean. Clean it after every range trip. Add the cleaning process into your shooting routine.

AR-15 Cleaning Tools

So what do you need to get started? Gun maintenance tools! Jags, cleaning rods, patches, and maybe some cool accessories. You can always improvise with a screwdriver and a cut up tee-shirt, but why bother when you can get the good stuff.

  • Hoppe’s Universal Cleaning Kit - The best for a budget. These universal kits come with everything you need to clean pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Make sure you pick up the true universal one and not a rifle or pistol-specific kit. 
  • Brass Cleaning Jags - These are a real improvement over the plastic jags that come in most of the universal kits. The plastic jags tend to bend if you push on them too hard whereas these work on even the dirtiest barrels.
  • Patches - A cut-up white tee-shirt works well in a pinch but nothing beats a big bag of patches. I usually get the larger-sized ones and cut them to size. 
  • Chamber brush - Gunk in the barrel extension (where the bolt locks into the barrel) can cause trouble so make sure you have some chamber brushes sitting around. 

There are also some great AR-15 tools that help with take down and cleaning certain parts of the firearm:

  Real Avid AR15 Micro Tool

  Leather Squirt

  Real Avid Critical Task Gun Tool

  Leatherman Mut

Gun Cleaning Solvents, Oils, and Lubes

Ready for some controversy? Don’t blow your wad on overpriced gun oils, solvents and lubes and don’t believe their hype. My personal picks are Break Free CLP and Hoppe’s No. 9 (standard, NOT the synthetic). The Hoppe’s helps break down the carbon build-up and the CLP is great for re-lubing as you are done reassembling.

Safety First

Heavy metals are toxic and can harm you over time. A box of nitrile gloves will go a long way to keep lead from seeping into your skin and causing long-term issues.

Once you are done cleaning, ALWAYS wash up after, and don’t eat or drink while cleaning your guns; seriously, it’s not worth risking your health due to laziness.

Let's Get Started

Let’s get that rifle apart and start the cleaning!

Gather all of the above supplies. A standard 5.56 AR-15 is .22 caliber, so dig out the cleaning rod and .22 caliber marked jag and put them together.

The AR-15 comes apart really easily. Push your rear pin out until the upper and lower pivot apart; it’s just behind your safety selector. The pin is captured so don’t try to remove it completely. You can clean your gun like this or you can push the front pin out too and take the two halves completely apart.

 

Pull back on your charging handle gently to release the bolt carrier. Slide your bolt carrier out the back of the upper receiver and set it aside for later cleaning. Pull the charging handle backward until it drops down into the upper receiver and remove it for later cleaning.

 

Wipe down the inside of the upper receiver and chamber with solvent. Run a solvent-soaked patched down the bore and set your upper aside for a couple of minutes so the solvent can do its job.

Cleaning the Bolt and Carrier

Next, let’s focus on your bolt and carrier. This is where your extra tools come in really handy. The front “geared” looking part is the bolt, the rear is the carrier. With the bolt facing forward, remove the cotter pin on the left side of the carrier. Some nicer carriers have an upgraded pin but they all function the same, they keep the firing pin from falling out.

With that pin removed, tip the front of your bolt carrier up and let the firing pin fall out of the rear. If your rifle is really dirty, it may take some gentle persuasion to drop free, just tap it against your workbench a couple of times.

Next, we will remove the bolt cam pin. On the top of the bolt carrier, you’ll see the gas tube pointing forward. Below the gas tube is the bolt cam pin. With your bolt pushed in, you’ll see that the cam pin cams to the left side of the carrier. Twist the cam pin 90 degrees and pull up to remove it. Without the firing pin in the bolt carrier, the cam pin will spin freely, don’t worry it’s not broken. Pull forward on the bolt to remove it from the carrier.

This is typically the furthest you need to disassemble your bolt and carrier for cleaning. If need be we can go into further bolt disassembly and cleaning next time.

Wipe down the inside and outside of the carrier with a solvent-soaked patch. The inner chamber of the carrier tends to build up carbon so focus your efforts there.

Wipe down the bolt with a solvent-soaked patch. Clean the bolt head and check that the extractor claw is free of debris and that eject piston can move; I usually just push on it with the firing pin to make sure that it moves freely.

At the base of the bolt are 3 gas rings. Make sure that they can spin freely, are clean of any carbon or lead, and that the slots on the rings don’t overlap.

Below the gas rings are where most of the carbon will build up on the bolt. If you have a tool with a carbon scraper, remove what carbon you can. This area doesn’t have to be new, just clean it to the best of your ability.

Quickly wipe down your charging handle and make sure it’s mostly free of carbon, it’ll probably be filthy.

Upper Receiver Cleaning 

Now that the bolt and carrier are clean, let's turn to the upper receiver. Grab a rag or shop towel and clean out the inside of the upper receiver and scrub out the chamber with your chamber brush. Soak some patches in solvent and run them through the barrel until they come out clean; your bore doesn’t need to be factory new, just fairly clean. Run a dry patch or two after to make sure all of the solvent is removed. Lastly, run a patch lightly soaked in CLP down the bore and follow up with a dry patch. You want the barrel to have the slightest bit of oil on the lands and grooves to keep corrosion out, especially if you plan to leave your rifle sitting around for any period of time, looking at you safe queen owners.

Cleaning the Lower Receiver

The last bit of cleaning to do is the lower receiver. Not a whole lot here. Wipe down the fire control group area and your magazine well and make sure the buffer is clean.

Reassembly and Lube

It’s now time to reassemble and lube your gun. Let's start with the bolt carrier.

The bolt goes into the front of the carrier with the extractor on the right side. Look down from the top at the cam pen slot to make sure that the holes line up. Insert the cam pin and twist it 90 degrees. Put in your firing pin from the rear of the carrier. Insert the cotter pin on the left side of the carrier and make sure that the firing pin moves freely within. Pull forward on the bolt and make sure it’s in the extended position, this is how it needs to be to go back into the upper receiver.

Run a little bit of CLP down the rails on the bolt carrier, they are the flat sections on the bottom and top of the carrier. The AR15 likes to run a bit wet so don’t feel bad if you get a little extra oil here and there. Wipe a bit of lube on the charging handle as well.

Your charging handle goes in first. Remember that it has to go in and up, not just straight into the rear of the upper receiver. If you look in, you’ll see the slot that the charging handle fits into. Don’t go pushing your charging handle all the way in yet though, the bolt carrier has to go in as well. Push the charging handle part of the way in then fit your bolt carrier in under it. Push both forward until the charging handle clicks in place and the bolt locks in. If you can’t get your carrier to seat fully, remove it and make sure that your bolt is extended, not compressed.

Reassemble your upper and lower and reinsert your pins.

Last thing to do is function check your rifle. Make sure you don’t have any ammo or magazines around, we don’t need any trouble at the final stage. Charge your rifle and put it on safe. Pull the trigger to make sure it doesn’t go click. Put it on fire and pull the trigger to make sure it does go click.

Your rifle is ready for life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at your next range trip.

Patrick "BabyfaceP" James is a garage gunsmith who loves anything mechanical. His motto is "With enough time and patience we can build anything and together we are learning the best way to build all things gun related."

 

Comments
jerry
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Tell the beginners to make sure the bolt is forward or the receiver won't "open." I actually forget about once a year. No, no matter how strong you are you just can't break that bolt carrier that's in the way. Carbon can really build up on the bolt and in the bolt carrier. They make scrapers for that, but I don't own one. At Fort Polk they taught us to use a worn bore brush to clean the bolt and the bore of the gas key (but it won't fit, use a .17 cal for the gas key). a .30 cal brush kinda works inside the carrier. Hope this helps.
MICHAEL ANCONA
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Been a while since doing this. Thanks for the refresher.
Wayne Foster
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Very good but a video might help us old folks who have not cleaned such a wonderful weapon. I'm from an M1 carbine generation.
Josiah
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We appreciate the feedback! I will take a look at possibly doing a video.
Marvin Lee Wakefield
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Hi BabyfaceP! I have had to clean a variety of guns and I have helped others clean their guns, especially AR-15's and I think your presentation is really great for someone new to the platform. Thank you for your creation. I only wish that you had been able to do step-by-step photos embedded in your presentation!
Josiah
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Pictures have been added!
curtis charles hektner
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very well presented.... good info
John
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Just curious, what about copper fouling in the barrel? Thanks
Rob Davis
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Good clear explanation of how to clean your AR. Would be even better if there were pictures included, for those new gun owners who have yet to learn the names of the parts.
Josiah
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Pictures have been added!
Clyde R Schnoor
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Great article ! I have printed it out to follow the procedure . Thanks for your time and EXPERTISE. They are invaluable !!!
Jack Pitluk
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Great article. A video would be 100% helpful in visualizing each step; especially, disassembly - re-assembly
Josiah
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Thank you for the feedback. We will be doing a video for the 2nd part of our "Cleaning Your AR Series." It will be a video and show the details of a detailed and thorough cleaning, not just a quick field strip cleaning.
Theresa A Morris
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Thanks for posting this article. It has been a long time since I last cleaned a weapon and never an AR-15...and I could sure use some pictures. I saw where you said you added them, but they are showing up in what I am seeing. Again, thanks so much for taking the time to write a terrific article! Looking forward to the pics!!
Raymond Rasch
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Appreciate the info . . . Thanks.
Bigdog2
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No one ever covers how to clean the gas tube. I usually put grease in with the Bolt Cam Pin when reassembling the bolt Cleaning is always a good reminder
Josiah
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Cleaning the gas tube will be the next part in the series of "Cleaning Your AR Series." The next one will be a video and will be more than just a basic field strip cleaning.
Logan
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You recommended brass jags , but I don’t see where you went over how to use them or what’s they are for
Josiah
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A JAG is what you use to clean and lube the bore of your rifle with. It can be brass, plastic, or another material depending on the vendor. You put the cleaning patch on the tip of the jag, and push it through the bore. The patch then covers the jag so only the patch is touching the bore of the barrel. Here is a link to what brass JAG looks like. https://palmettostatearmory.com//birchwood-casey-brass-push-jag-fits-22-223-5-56mm-bc-41351.html
neel
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An excellent SEO technique. Though, finding the right sites to leave comments is quite a challenge. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece. precision one ammo for sale please keep it up Maintains!
Gene Shipp
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I hate to be that guy but I am. I took my bolt apart several times. Before I only saw one spring on the ejector clip (whatever the hood is called that latches over the rim of the casing). Took out the firing pin and this time when I take that ejector hook (whatever its called) off of the bolt I noticed a tiny spring down inside the bolt where the firing pin was. It happens to fit inside of the spring that is mounted on the ejector hook, but it's quite a bit shorter than it is. I looked online but couldn't find anything. Is this where it's supposed to go? I can send a pic. Thank you
Jerry
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On the AR-15, what is the device called that holds the upper and lower at a height for cleaning when not pulling both pins to clean. Saw on YouTube.