How to Clean a Shotgun

One of the author’s semi-auto shotguns, disassembled and ready for cleaning. Phil Bourjaily

It’s important to learn how to clean a shotgun so it remains in safe, working order. Dirty shotguns rust, malfunction, and wear out faster than clean guns do. Properly caring for your gun can help it hold its value and keep it out of the gunsmith’s hands. The supplies and tools you need are inexpensive, and cleaning a gun doesn’t take long. There’s more to cleaning a gun than running a bore snake through the barrel. Here’s how to give your shotgun good a thorough cleaning in six steps:

How to Clean a Shotgun

Unload and Disassemble 

Clean the Barrel

Clean the Action

Lube Moving Parts

Reassemble and Check the Function

Wipe Down

Step 1) Unload and Disassemble the Shotgun

Unload and disassemble your shotgun before cleaning it. Matthew Every

Take the shotgun apart into its three main components: barrel, stock/receiver, and forearm.  Unscrew the choke tube(s). If the gun is a break-action, you’re done. If it’s a repeater, there’s more. Remove any pistons, rings, and springs from around the magazine tube (semiautos only). If you have to, take a picture first to make sure you put everything back the right way. 

Your shotgun’s manual will tell you how to remove the bolt handle (semiautos only), then the trigger group, and the bolt assembly, which comes out through the front of the receiver.  Taking the internals of a gun apart any further usually isn’t necessary. You shouldn’t unscrew any part of a gun without a properly fitting screwdriver. 

Very occasionally, either to clean the action spring of a semiauto, to get water out of a synthetic stock, or in the rare instance you have to get inside a break-action to clean the locks, you will have to pull the stock. Use a Phillips screwdriver to remove the pad, then take a long flat screwdriver or extended socket wrench to reach the stock bolt and undo it. 

You might occasionally want to clean the inside of the magazine tube of a pump or semiauto as well. With most guns, that means removing a retainer from the top of the magazine tube. The spring will want to hit you in the face or fly across the room. Be ready for it.

Step 2) Clean the Shotgun’s Barrel

Clean the barrel with a bronze brush. Matthew Every

With the barrel(s) laid flat so the solvent won’t run out (I like foaming bore solvent for this step) spray down the inside of the barrel(s) and let it sit for five or ten minutes to loosen plastic wad buildup. Then, with a bore snake or, preferably with a rod and a bronze brush attached, clean the shotgun barrel. Pay special attention to the chamber and to the area just behind the choke tube threads. Fouling can build up in both places. When you’re done with the brush, switch to a cotton patch. Run patches through until they come out clean. A nylon brush works well for cleaning a shotgun’s choke tube threads in the barrel and on the tube itself. Q-tips or old toothbrushes let you get into the nooks and crannies of the ejectors/extractors of break-action guns.

Step 3) Clean the Shotgun’s Action

Use a nylon brush or old tooth brush to scrub the action clean. Matthew Every

Wipe powder fouling and debris out of the gun’s receiver with a rag, a brush, or even by blasting it with a can of compressed air. If you have greased parts of a break-action gun, clean off the old grease. For pumps and semiautos, pay attention to cleaning inside the rails in the receiver on which the bolt travels. Clean the bolt and the trigger group with a cloth. Pay extra attention to the bolt face.

A good way to clean a shotgun magazine tube is with the next-size larger bore brush. Clean it just like a barrel, but you won’t have to scrub as thoroughly.

At this point, you’re pretty much done cleaning break-actions, pumps, or inertia shotguns. But there’s more to do if you shoot a gas-operated semiauto: Remove any carbon buildup off of the outside of the magazine tube, either with a cloth or with very fine steel wool. Soak the piston and any rings in solvent and scrub them clean.

Step 4) Lube Moving Parts

Lightly oil any moving parts. Matthew Every

Use lube sparingly. Too much oil is just as bad or worse than none. Oil attracts grime and dirt can turn into a polishing compound that wears away at your shotgun and can impair its function. A good rule of thumb is to use very little oil, then wipe some of it off.  Oil the parts of the trigger group and the bolt rails of a pump or semiauto and any other moving parts. 

Use grease on choke tube threads and on the trunnions or hinge-pin where the barrels pivot on a break-action, and on the knuckle, the half-round piece on some break-action frames that bear on the forend iron. Grease is a better choice for both these jobs as it stays put, unlike oil, which can migrate.

Read Next: 8 Gun-Cleaning Mistakes That Can Ruin Your Firearms

Step 5) Reassemble and Check the Shotgun’s Function

Reassemble the shotgun and check to see if it functions properly Matthew Every

After you’ve learned how to clean a shotgun, you’ll need to put the shotgun back together. Pay special attention when you reassemble a semiauto that the seat bolt link—the long piece that pivots off the rear of the bolt—goes into the return spring socket at the back of the receiver. If you don’t, you won’t be able to pull the bolt back at all. Check the gun for function after you get it back together. If you have dummy shells, run them through the action. If not, make sure the action opens and closes properly and all the controls are working.

Step 6) Wipe the Shotgun Down

Wipe any excess oil and dirt off of the gun before putting it away. Matthew Every

As you reassemble the shotgun, wipe the outside down. Use a very lightly oiled cloth on metal surfaces to help protect the gun during storage. Clean any wooden parts on your shotgun with a cloth. An old toothbrush works well for getting mud out of wood checkering. 

How Often Should a Shotgun Be Cleaned? 

At the very least, you need to inspect the gun and wipe it down with an oiled cloth every time you bring it back home. Some guns need to have the bore cleaned after every outing, others, with more corrosion-resistant barrels, are fine. After every few hundred rounds, or if the gun gets wet or stops working properly, you’ll have to do a thorough cleaning. At the end of the season, give it a complete cleaning.

What happens if you don’t clean your shotgun?

If you don’t clean your gun, it will wear out faster as accumulated grit and carbon blend with oil to form a sludge inside. It may not function properly, either. And if you let metal surfaces rust, you lower any potential resale value.

What is the best shotgun cleaner? 

The best all-around shotgun cleaner is a “CLP,” which stands for “Clean, lubricate, protect.” As the same implies, you can use for all phases of cleaning a shotgun. Breakfree and G96 are two popular CLPs. 

Should you oil the bore of a shotgun?

You should lightly oil the bore of your shotgun, as, say, by running a patch with a couple of drops of oil on it through the bore. Different barrel steels offer differing degrees of corrosion resistance. Pay special attention to the gun’s chamber when you oil it.

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