» DURING MY TIME AS A PROFESSIONAL TRAINER, peace officer and sometimes gunsmith, I have seen many handgun malfunctions. The majority are a result of operator error, and many of those are a result of something the shooter did not do. That something is proper maintenance. Poor maintenance, a failure to replace springs in a reasonable time frame and improper lubrication shorten the useful life of your handgun. What’s worse, such lack of care for the handgun might cause it to fail at the worst possible moment. The good news is that a proper cleaning and spring upgrade will prevent or cure most problems.
The National Institute of Justice defines reliability as the propensity of a handgun to fire with every pull of the trigger. Acceptable reliability is defined as the ability to fire 300 rounds between every cleaning.
Some parts of the handgun — the grips and the magazine — are renewable resources. The barrel is as well, but few of us reach the point of needing to replace it. You have to clean the pistol and know how to properly do so — not simply wipe it down. Caked-on carbon deposits will impede function and reduce slide velocity. Debris under the extractor will cause a failure to extract, and particles in the firing pin channel will stop the firing pin short. Debris in the action will stop the action. Corrosion occurs when the handgun is exposed to salts and is not cleaned and oiled. If the bore isn’t scrubbed free of crud, lead and copper deposits, accuracy will suffer. The 1911 barrel bushing and the Beretta 92 locking wedge might even break if subjected to improper cleaning. Additional weight on the parts and hardened material in the parts are not aspects of a well-oiled machine.
If the whole idea sounds something like vehicle maintenance, you are seeing the point. Vehicles get an oil change on a regular basis. Springs need to be replaced, or shocks or struts, and they let you know when they are becoming worn. My Corvette is at 190,000 miles and performs as new due to perfect maintenance and so does my Springfield Loaded Model at 20,000 rounds. Neither quite looks new, but that is fine. Tires and grips have been replaced. If pistol springs are not replaced, the result is the same as running on a broken leaf spring — the machine will batter itself to death. The rub is there are steps that must be taken periodically, whether the handgun is fired or not. Lint might get into the gun and so will corrosion. Lubrication doesn’t adhere to slide rails; it will run off because we carry our pistols muzzle-down.
Periodic maintenance is important even if you do not manage to get to the range as often as you would like. As an example, during action shooting, IPSC or IDPA, the shooter begins the match with a clean and well-lubricated handgun. It has been checked just before the shooter hits the firing line. Your carry gun hasn’t been checked in … how long? The handgun is fired more often during practice than during the match. Hopefully any problems will show up in practice.
Many shooters clean the handgun after every practice session no matter how many rounds are fired — a dozen to check a new carry load or 200 during a hard session mastering a new drill. This careful maintenance prevents the buildup of hardened carbon deposits and barrel fouling. The National Institute of Justice defines reliability as the propensity of a handgun to fire with every pull of the trigger. Acceptable reliability is defined as the ability to fire 300 rounds between every cleaning. This is a low standard to my way of thinking, but it is a standard.
Firearms are machines of irreducible complexity, and the level of that complexity varies from gun to gun. Either way, if one part of the handgun doesn’t work, then the whole machine shuts down.
Some folks know how to clean their firearms and some do not. I suggest we all learn how to clean and maintain the firearm we carry. You cannot properly clean a self-loading handgun without field stripping the pistol — removing the slide from the frame and the barrel and recoil spring from the slide. At some point, you will also need to learn how to change the firing pin spring.
Firearms are machines of irreducible complexity, and the level of that complexity varies from gun to gun. Either way, if one part of the handgun doesn’t work, then the whole machine shuts down. Subcompact handguns, as a rule, have the most difficult field strip. There isn’t a lot of room, and the designer makes the best of what they have after downsizing the pistol. By comparison, service-grade handguns are the easiest to field strip and maintain. Complications arise in short-slide pistols as we attempt to arrest slide velocity and prevent battering.
If you cannot ably field strip and maintain a self-loader, you should choose a revolver. There are also maintenance requirements with a revolver, but they are less demanding. A revolver does not preclude a high commitment to training, though. Understand the commitment to maintenance early in the game and let this commitment weigh into your choice of handgun.
There are differences between cleaning the pistol after range work and cleaning the carry gun. In either case, we must be thorough. After we clean, we should safely check slide operation and trigger function. Carbon might work its way under the extractor, as an example. A thorough cleaning will eliminate grit in the action. A carry gun that hasn’t been fired should be examined, wiped and cleaned from time to time. Leather shavings from a holster and lint from the covering garments often cover the handgun.
Cleaning is also a commitment to finding the likely causes of a malfunction and acting upon them.
Cleaning is also a commitment to finding the likely causes of a malfunction and acting upon them. As an example of a problem with a carry gun, a few months ago, a student in my class could not convince his double-action-only .380 pistol to fire. The trigger simply would not complete its travel. I first thought it might be a bent drawbar or a failed trigger return spring. The true culprit was found with a detail strip. There was a small, hard object — a chip off of a breath mint or a peanut — jamming the action at exactly the right place to bring things to a halt. The shooter had been carrying the handgun in his pocket, and the offending morsel had found its way into the action. This is one of many reasons why the handgun should always be carried in a holster. We hope a weekly cleaning and wipe down would have found this problem.
On another occasion, I was cleaning a pistol that had brass shavings in the firing pin channel. On yet another occasion, I had fired a handgun during a practice session and then cleaned, oiled and reassembled it. When I loaded and decocked the handgun, it fired. The culprit was a piece of brass under the firing pin block plunger. A detail strip found and fixed the problem. Another time, the firing pin of a pistol stuck forward and failed to retract — a result of a combination of a filthy firing pin channel and a weak firing pin spring.
When cleaning a firearm, I avoid all distractions. TV, pets, children and my smoking hot wife are nowhere around. I do not clean firearms on a surface that will absorb cleaning fluids or carbon deposits. The TEKMAT (tekmat.com) is ideal for handguns, as it features a schematic of the individual gun but has utility for use as a cleaning mat for any handgun. (I place mine on a rollout table in the laundry room.) I have gravitated to clean-and-green cleaning material from Sharp Shoot-R, largely because there is no pungent odor and also because the concoction works.
Few of us will fire off a few boxes at the range and take the time to clean on the range table. (Sure, I did that in uniform after qualifications, but I was on the clock.) If you are cleaning and lubricating your carry gun, you will be doing so at home. After range use, I thoroughly clean the handgun with solvent, run a bore brush through the barrel and generally nit pick the piece for any potential problems. This takes time, but it is time well spent.
A pistol readied for range use should be heavily lubricated. Firing actually blows lubricant out and off of the gun, and you want that gun to keep firing.
First, triple-check the handgun to be certain it is unloaded. Remove the magazine, clear the round from the slide, lock the slide to the rear and place your finger in the chamber to be certain that the chamber is empty. Do not have ammunition in the same room; not only could the ammunition be contaminated and damaged by cleaning products, it’s just safer.
When inspecting a carry gun that’s clean but requires other attention, I also make certain the handgun is unloaded and leave ammunition in another room. I check the barrel bushing, slide and moving parts for lint. I examine the pistol for corrosion. Sometimes it will be just a sprinkle of rust. I use a copper penny to carefully wipe away small rust spots, then place a tiny amount of oil on those spots. I check the trigger and safety for normal operation, I examine the extractor for sharpness and I check the firing pin and firing pin spring. Never lube the firing pin channel. Some, such as the Glock, already have a plastic lining. Lubing this channel will only invite carbon deposits to find a home and allow oil to run to the cartridge primer. I check the breechface, which should be clean and free of lubrication. Lube might contaminate a cartridge’s primer, resulting in an ill-timed failure to fire.
A pistol readied for range use should be heavily lubricated. Firing actually blows lubricant out and off of the gun, and you want that gun to keep firing. On the other hand, with a carry gun, less is more. A light lubrication along the slide rails and barrel hood of most handguns is all that is needed. The Glock needs a single drop of oil where the trigger bar and connector meet. The 1911 needs more lubrication than a SIG, and the Glock needs less than either. Most handguns will fire a magazine or so even without lubrication, but I do not wish to bet my life on it.
Lubricant needs to be replaced often with a carry gun. Muzzle-down carry results in the lube running forward. As an experiment, I placed a number of pistols on a white poster board, muzzle-down and hammer- (or striker-) up. After a few days thus positioned, each had a puddle under the muzzle and showed little lubricant left on the long bearing surfaces. Even if a pistol hasn’t been fired, it should be lubricated occasionally.
Cleaning is one thing but maintenance is another, and part of maintenance is replacing recoil springs. Recoil springs should be replaced every 3,000 rounds, perhaps a bit sooner with a compact handgun firing a powerful cartridge. The STAR PD, as an example, demanded the recoil spring assembly be changed every 500 rounds. Pieces began to chip off the buffer by that round count. We have come a long way since the first subcompact .45, but light guns are harder on the springs. When slide velocity becomes noticeably greater or empties are slung further than before, the recoil spring needs replacement. Replacement springs are available at fair prices from Brownells (brownells.com).
The firing pin spring should be replaced every 5,000 rounds. The extractor in the 1911 probably should be replaced at 8,000 rounds, likewise for the CZ 75 in most renditions. Magazine springs are more difficult to gauge, but if the force needed to load the magazine becomes noticeably less, the spring needs replacement. If the follower and magazine body are in good condition, a magazine spring will make the magazine function as new. If the spring is weak, feeding problems occur, and in some cases, the slide lock will not engage properly on the magazine follower. The minimum number of magazines for a personal defense pistol is three — one in the gun, one on the belt and one resting. Your handgun is an instrument that might save your life, so treat it with the respect and maintenance it deserves.
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