How to Clean AR-15 Rifle the Correct Way: A Step-by-Step Guide!

how to clean ar15 rifleLet’s say we have a brand-new AR-15 rifle in our hands. Let’s take it a bit further. Let’s say, we’ve taken it to the range and fired off two or three boxes of ammo on the trot. Now comes the hard part!

We need to clean this beast of a gun. At the very least, we need to run a bit of maintenance so that this beast growls the next time we fire it.

But there’s a catch! You, my friend… don’t know how to pick the rifle apart and clean it to good measure.

Well, you might be able to pick apart the pins. Then what? Suddenly, you’ve disassembled half the gun and don’t know what to do. It can be intimidating the first time. So many things can (and most probably will) go wrong. That’s IF you don’t have an expert (cue: Me) looking over your shoulders.

Let’s do that, shall we? In this little article, I’ll be going over the tools you need to clean the gun. Also, I’ll be showing you how to clean an AR-15 Rifle step-by-step. Let’s get to work!

When Is It a Good Time to Clean Your AR-15 Rifle?

If you think you can leave your rifles for a long while without cleaning and want to run a maintenance when it’s “Absolutely” necessary, you’re in the wrong my friend. Just like every other object in our household, a rifle has a time-frame. After that, you’d want to do a thorough cleaning.

The time-frame depends on the type (and brand) of rifle you’re using. The best thing to do is to consult the guys you bought it from.

For the new ones I own, I inspect them for clogging after every 1000 rounds of ammunition I fire. Once people hit the 5000 mark, they should move it to every 500 rounds.

The most common problems that I face is with the extractor spring, O-Rings, and Bolt Carrier Group. O-Rings tend to crack open or fray up. Then, it’s time to swap it with a new one.

Start with the maintenance immediately if you notice issues. Cracked rings, faulty and burred parts, and wear and tears will bring the performance down. Worst case scenario: It’ll cause your guns to degrade from specified specification.

 

The Tools You Need for the Trade

I’d be repeating my words if you’re a seasoned shooter and take care of your guns. Provided people clean their equipment regularly, they know what type of tools they need for the job. You’d need a cleaning kit, a mat, and a solvent for good measure.

I’ve seen users build their own kit from scratch. This takes a lot of work, I know. But it’s more “Tailored” to their needs than say, a Universal Gun Cleaning Kit that comes with everything you need. Let me give you a bit of honesty while I’m at it, people don’t need everything included.

Presenting the One I Use – Winchester DAC Gun Cleaning Kit

If you’re truly into Universal kits, I suggest you try this. The primary reason for me to recommend this stuff is the “Soft-Sided” case that you get with the package.

One can remove and rearrange individual pouches to his/her liking. Also, the users get heaps of pieces that take care of every nook and cranny of their rifles. Wondering how many pieces of equipment you’ll get in the package? It’s 68!

Dac Winchester 68 PIECE SUPER DELUXE UNIVERSAL GUN CARE KIT
Dac Winchester 68 Piece Super Deluxe Universal Gun Care Kit

Inside the pouch, you’ll find cleaning jags, patches, rods, double-ended utility brushes, breech brushes, bore cleaning mops, and more! In short, people need very little outside what this box offers. All that they need is their skill set when cleaning an AR-15.

You can read my dedicated article on this topic for other gun cleaning kit options.

UsefulThingy Gun Cleaning Mat – My Preference

To be perfectly honest with you, these mats are necessary so that people can keep the intricate parts of their guns (screws, small parts, knobs etc.) visible when dismantling it. The dark color of this object creates a contrast with my AR-15’s parts. This makes sighting small parts easier for me.

I’m recommending this for two “Key” traits. One, it’s super absorbent. UsefulThingy soaks in gun cleaning solvents, water, and other liquid within a moment’s notice to keep the surface dry and clean.

Usefulthingy gun cleaning mat
Usefulthingy gun cleaning mat

Thanks to this feature, the only thing that’ll comes out of my gun is its own dust and goo. It doesn’t soak anything extra.

The second thing I need to point out is the fact that it protects my piece from damages and scratches. Not only that, if people use it well enough… this mat even protects the surface they’ll be cleaning the gun on. Talk about being convenient.

Oh, I have an article on Best Gun Cleaning Mats as well. Feel free to check it out for more alternatives.

The Final Piece of the Puzzle – A Good Gun Cleaning Solvent

No, people can’t trust their guns (AR-15 rifle in this case) to “Just Any” solvent. You need to choose a potent liquid that works quickly and efficiently. Take me for example (I’m not the solvent, I USE the solvent). I’ve put my trust on Hoppe’s No. 9 gun cleaning solvent for years.

Hoppe's No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner
Hoppe’s No. 9 Gun Bore Cleaner

What Hoppe did well is coming up with a formula that works. And to top it all, it’s not something recent. The guys have been at it since 1903.

The formula you see has remained unchanged since then. They know what works and how. People will get top-notch results 100% of the time, every time.

This thing is concentrated enough to remove fouling from your bores without putting any scratch on it. The solvent even loosens the debris you see in the nooks and crannies. Later, you just have to clean it using cleaning patches (you’ll even get spare ones in a bundle) or jags.

The best thing about Hoppe’s product is the fact that it cleans just about any gun you have on the face of the earth (well, it went overboard a bit). The solvent adapts well with pistols, 12-gauge shotguns, and when push comes to shove… AR-47s.

One thing I liked about the product that it has a “Child Proof” cap. Meaning, the little ones will find it hard to open the bottle and spill some solvent onto them. This thing isn’t toxic to our skins to begin with. Yet, it never hurts to be careful… does it?

Naturally, people might not like what I use on a day-to-day basis. If you’re one of them, I suggest you take a peek at my article on Best Gun Cleaning Solvents to expand your options.

A helpful tip: You’d do well to get a few extra accessories like a bore snake and a toolbox-like container to keep your things in (if you don’t like pouches). What you’re doing is making room for a custom-made suit rather than using one from the rack. This will serve you better as it’s tailored to you.

 

Getting to the Point and Explaining How to Clean an AR-15 Rifle

Now that we’ve done half the prep-work for the maintenance to take place, it’s time to focus on what we’re here for and that’s cleaning the actual gun. Let’s go over the actual process step-by-step. This will help you in understanding the nuances of the job.

You’ll Need to Clear Your Work Space

The first thing one should do is to clear off the space the/she’ll be using. Here’s how I do things. I usually put the cleaning mat on the table. I’d ideally want to put on a pair of gloves at this point. This is to save my skin from the chemical backlashes. It’s never too late to be cautious after all.

The next logical step is to gather all the ammo (spare and from the mag, and the chamber of the rifle) your gun has and put them away. You’ll need a clean counter for everything to work.

I’d advise you to make your firearm safe. Meaning, you should eliminate all the chances of your rifle to go boom. Make sure you’ve done it the right way. Here’s how I clear my piece:

  • I point my piece at a safe direction where there’s nobody facing the barrel.
  • The next thing to do is removing the magazine.
  • This is the step where turn my safeguard on. Even if you can’t do it, there’s nothing to worry as the hammer isn’t pulled back yet.
  • I don’t forget to lock the bolt back to the rear, neither should you.
  • This is the point where I inspect the rifle’s chamber for any stray bullet. I remove any bullet IF I find it in the chamber.
  • Once again, I put the gun on “Safe.”

Don’t Forget to Separate the Upper and Lower Receivers from Each-Other

This is easy (if you know what you’re doing). The only thing people need to do is to push the take-down pins apart from each-other and pull the two receivers. Now, depending on the type of AR-15 you’re using, you can use your hands to pull the pins with bare hands.

However, some of the guns will require people to use punches for the job. Novice gun owners often scratch the paint on the gun while doing it the right way. My advice would be to use a nylon punch for the job. Don’t worry, you’ll get the punch with the kit that you buy or build on your own.

You Should Take Out the Bolt Carrier Group and Changing Handle As Well

Once you’ve removed the “Upper Receiver,” the Bolt Carrier Group AND the changing handle should slide out. Just pull them to the back of the gun. Be careful as these two things can be a bit heavy on your hands. Here, grip matters. Make sure your hands are balanced. Or else, you’ll hear a loud thud.

Taking the Bolt Carrier Group and the Bolt Apart

You’ve taken the Carrier Group out. Believe me, that’s the easiest thing to do. Now comes the hard part of the job. That is, picking the group apart along with the bolt itself. People need to be careful when they’re at it. Otherwise, they might end up losing one or two pins. So, here goes:

Remember to pull the bolt to the rear first. The next thing to do is to remove the pin that retains the firing pin (bear with me, I know… this is a bit of a tongue twister). Next thing to do is to remove the firing pin. Keep it at a place where you can easily see it.

remove firing pin

At this point, I rotate the “Cam Pin” to 90 degrees. This enables the bolt of the gun to slide out!

Congrats! You have the bolt from the carrier group. It’s time to get the extractor pin out. To do this, you’ll need a punch and a mullet. Once it’s out… keep track of the object as it rolls off the table very easily. Once you lose it in the crowd, you’ll have a hard time getting it back (trust me).

Get The Buffer and the Buffer Spring Out of the Setup

Just to be clear, I mean “Buffer Tube” when I say… “Setup.” Now that we have it out of the way, let’s get to removing the objects. Oh, you’ll need a calloused finger for the job as it requires “Some” pressure. You’ll have to push down on the retainer that keeps “Buffer” in place.

You’ll see the buffer and the spring coming out in no time. Provided you’ve got all your ammunition out of the system, the spring is the only object you’ll have to be cautious of. It flies out at a high speed. Make sure to keep your face at a safe distance while you do this.

Also, too much pressure can send the spring airborne and to the next room.

My only advice would be not to push too hard. Once the objects are out, putting too much pressure can break the retainer or render it useless.

Cleaning Your Gun Chamber and the Long Barrel

Let’s be honest with you, I have a definite way of doing things. So have the others.  No matter how you do things, keep a few facts in mind. First of all, people need to clean these two things starting from the rear to front.

Remember the fact that any brush (or rod) with patches you use is inserted from the back end of the barrel/chamber. This is done so that the debris comes out from the front of the objects. I use the “Bullet Brush” for the job. This way, it will help in keeping the rifling intact.

Clean gun chamber

Also… if you’re using patches, keep going back and forth until you see them coming out clean.

I must tell you: What you see in the movies is severely wrong. They do it for the entertainment.

This took some practice for me but I was able to get the hang of it. My tip for you is to apply a bit of bore cleaner just to make the job less taxing.

Cleaning the Bore Carrier Group the “Right” Way

Don’t fret, this is actually easier to get by than cleaning the bore of the AR-15 we’ve handled. All you have to do is to scrub the parts thoroughly to get the Carbon Fouling out of the system. Take special care of the firing pin. A universal gun cleaning kit (or the kit you built) should have the brushes.

IF they don’t, use a stiff toothbrush for the job.

I’m extra careful when cleaning the “Extractor” part of the gun. I use “Clean” rags for the job. Two to be exact. Ever heard of people using “Bleach” to clean this part? Yeah, they do. After each use of bleach, your rag should be squeaky clean.

It’s ideal to use two rags. Keep one aside for inspection. Use it later to perform a clean sweep so that the bits of Carbon you missed should be cleaned.

It’s ideal to reassemble the bolt carrier group right after we’re done cleaning. Do it the “Opposite” way you disassembled the group in the first place. Keep your bolt at the front. It helps when you’re reinserting it in the upper part of the gun. All you need is a flick of your wrist(s).

How to Clean the Buffer Assembly?

There’s not much to this step. You just need to lube up your rag and wipe everything you see. I can see people objecting about not cleaning the buffer tube. Honestly speaking, people won’t have to touch the tube unless they’ve gone through an intense obstacle course.

I know people who operate their guns in adverse, messy environment. They have a collapsible stock that needs cleaning. In that case, wipe the outside part of the buffer system. However, if you’re take frequent trips to the shooting range, this is not needed.

How’d You Clean The Upper Receiver as well as the Charging Handle?

This is just as easy as cleaning the buffer assembly. All you need is an oiled rag for the job. Wipe everything clean just as you did before. I keep doing it until my inspection rag doesn’t pick up any carbon. Now, people do it as they please. There’s no fixed method to this either.

However, once they put these things back together, the “Charging Handle” of the AR-15 should move swiftly within the upper receiver.

The Way I Clean Fire Control Group and The Lower Receiver

I use gun cleaning oil and a brush for this part. Oh, it takes a bit of patience as well. I get the brush oiled up. I use the back and forth motion to reach the nooks and crannies.

Don’t worry, not a lot of fouling or dust will crowd this area. The only thing you need to pay attention to is that there aren’t any cracks on the hammer. Make sure there are none on the lower receiver as well. Otherwise, the gun won’t function as you intend it to.

Assembling the Entire Thing Again!

Be prepared, this step WILL take you A LOT of work and time. People will have to do everything backwards just like in the step where we assembled the Bolt Carrier Group. Speaking from experience, it took me about six or seven tries before I got good at assembling my old gun.

Don’t worry, once you’ve done it a few times, you’ll develop a muscle memory for it. Oh, be prepared to do it over and over again (probably a hundred or so times) during your gun’s life-cycle.

Lube Up The Gun’s Joints

What did you think? We’re done with the cleaning and have nothing else to do? Well, you’re right. At least, right to a degree. Yes, we’re done with the basic cleaning. It’s time to get the gun up to speed and test it for efficiency. The first step towards the job is to apply some lubricant.

Right after we’re done cleaning the intricate pieces, we should apply a thin coating of lubricant onto the gun’s parts. Everything from the pieces inside the bolt carrier group AND the charging handle should have a nice sheen of lubricant.

Yes, I could go deeper into the process. However, let’s keep it basic for now.

When I lubricate my AR-15 rifle, I make sure that my Mag button (the one I release it with), Fire Control Group, the bolt catch, and safety release receive some love to (among other parts of course). At least, one or two droplets. All I’m saying is, every moving part should be lubed up.

Check Your Gun To See If It Works Fine

Remember at the beginning I told people to set aside all the ammunition from the mag and the chamber? (You DID keep the bullets apart, didn’t you?) There should be none around right now. It’s time to do a bit of empty firing to see if the mechanism works as it should. Let’s go over the steps.

  • Point the barrel of your AR-15 in a “Safe” direction.
  • You’ll have to press the bolt and release it forward.
  • Don’t forget to put the “Safety Lock” on and press the trigger.
  • The hammer shouldn’t “Click.” If it doesn’t, congrats! You’ve made it.
  • It’s time to release the lock and fire again. The hammer should “Click” now. Congrats! We’ve made it through the tough part.

Cleaning the Mag (or Magazine) of Our Guns

Honestly, I don’t consider this as a “Core” step of my gun cleaning routine. Don’t at me for this, I think it’s not necessary to clean our bullet holders after every trip we make to the range. Instead, I depend on the “Feel” of the magazine.

Check if the mag binds up while you load bullets into the chamber. It might become very hard to load up bullets at time. Worst case scenario: You’ll hear dirt rattling.

Cleaning the mag is just like cleaning the “Buffer Setup” of our guns. We’ll need a pick for this. Removing the base plate is the first order of the day.

Then, remove the spring and the follower behind it. All you have to do is to wipe everything clean. I use a patch for the job. A damp cloth works just as well.

A Tip from Me: Do buy an anti-tilt follower if you want to avoid malfunction in the long run. It works great if you have GI mags.

 

Some Tips to Keep in Mind When Running Maintenance

Honestly speaking, this guide on “How to Clean AR-15 Rifle” has gone on for way too long. I’d better not drag it any further. Even then, I should give you some tips just to round up the process perfectly.

I’d tell you to avoid firing corrosive bullets. If you do… your gun deserve a specific maintenance procedure. Do your research on it and be better equipped.

When inserting the pin that holds the firing pin in place, measure the holes. You should put it in the big hole… not the small one. IF someone picks the small hole, good luck my friend. You have a long, tedious day ahead of you.

LUBRICATE EVERY PART OF YOUR PIECE. No matter how tiny and insignificant it may seem. This is one thing I’ll tell you to do over and over if I have the chance.

Take better care of your gun. You should always store it in a case. There are cases of different sizes and specs. Pick one depending on the usage and how often you travel with it. My preference is a lightweight gun bag with a lot of cushioning. If you’re using custom scopes, there should be designated places for them inside.

Doing the maintenance on your own? Kudos to you! Gun maintenance takes work. If I’ve helped you even a bit in learning the ropes, I’ll be more than happy. Do let me know how it turned out for you in the “Comments” section. I’m here to answer your questions.