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A few years ago, I suffered an injury during an on-duty incident. Although I eventually recovered, my Colt Government Model suffered an immersion in soupy mud. While the Colt would have fired again if need be, it was pretty soaked. By the time the Colt was given a thorough cleaning, corrosion had attacked the internal parts. Since then, I have kept a few parts on hand for my 1911.

Whatever type of handgun, rifle or shotgun you rely upon, you should be prepared for normal maintenance and parts breakage as well. Changing the lube and replacing springs is standard operating procedure and makes for a long-lived handgun. As a trainer and sometimes a gunsmith, I have seen many firearm malfunctions. The majority were the result of operator error, but many failures are a result of something the shooter did not do — proper maintenance. Poor maintenance, a failure to change out springs, and improper lubrication shorten the useful life of your firearm. Worse, this lack of care may result in a failure during a critical incident.

SIMPLE CLEANING

Simply keeping the piece clean will prevent most problems. Caked-up carbon deposits will impede function and reduce slide and bolt velocity. Debris under the extractor will cause a failure to extract, particles in the firing pin channel will stop the firing pin short and debris in the action will stop the action. Corrosion occurs when the firearm’s metal is exposed to salts and not cleaned or 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 may break if subjected to improper cleaning and, to an extent, this is true of the AR-15 locking lugs as well. Additional weight on, and hardened debris in, the parts are not part of a well-oiled machine.

 

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A. I am not recommending that this old .455 be on the front line – but Apex Gun Parts has kept it going. B. The locking lugs of the AR-15 rifle should be inspected from time to time for cracks and they must be kept clean.

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C. Running a few magazines through a pistol confirms reliability and also that the magazines function. A few spare parts will also go a long way to keeping your piece in working order. D. Keeping the tight spots, such as the slide lock and plunger tube, clean and free of lubrication is important for reliability and long-term service. Note the lint and fuzz around slide stop and unburned powder on the frame.

A well-maintained vehicle and a well-maintained firearm have a lot in common. A regular cleaning is like an oil change – out with the old and in with the new. Lubricant will run off of the firearm because it simply does not adhere to the metal. If you have carried the handgun a month you should not be surprised to find that it is free of lubricant. Close behind lubrication and normal cleaning is proper maintenance. Firearms have renewable resources that need to be changed with time or use. When grips crack and become worn they should be replaced. Model 1911 grip screws are common replacement items and something you should keep on hand.

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Magazines do not last forever. The useful life of a quality magazine is far less than that of the firearm. You should have a spare magazine on hand just in case you need to replace one you’ve been using. And, while it could be new, it should be proofed on the range before you store it. Just a tip: Some magazines do not come out of the box running, although it is rare for a Glock, SIG, Beretta or HK magazine to fail when new.

PRACTICE ISN’T COMBAT

When you practice, you hit the range with a properly lubricated handgun. It isn’t difficult to safely clean and lubricate the firearm at home. While at the range, you may also check for problems that should be addressed. Snap caps and dummy rounds are a great resource for checking the extractor and feed function. Check for grit under the extractor and be certain the springs feel right.

“FIREARMS COME IN LEVELS OF COMPLEXITY. THEY ARE MACHINES OF IRREDUCIBLE COMPLEXITY. IF ONE PART DOESN’T WORK THEN THE WHOLE MACHINE SHUTS DOWN.”

You cannot properly clean a self-loading firearm without field stripping it. At some point, you will also need to learn to change the springs. Firearms come in levels of complexity. They are machines of irreducible complexity. If one part doesn’t work then the whole machine shuts down. If you feel that your schedule does not allow the level of maintenance demanded by a self-loading firearm, then a manually operated firearm is better for you. This means a pump action shotgun, a bolt action rifle or a revolver handgun. If you practice, you can save your life with any of these. While they too require maintenance, the regimen isn’t as demanding.

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E. This level of disassembly isn’t always necessary, but if you have the skill to replace parts and repair the handgun you are ahead of the game. F. This M1A1 Springfield bolt and receiver are easily accessible when the gun is field stripped.
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H. This M9 9mm and the Kydex rig are among the author’s trusted training tools. Two spare magazines are good, but five is much better. I. This SW 908 is a reliable handgun that serves the owner well. It is often carried in a Cover 6 Gear holster. When spare parts are difficult to obtain you have to question whether you should purchase a long-out-of-production handgun.

The carry gun demands attention whether or not it is fired. As an example, a student in one of my classes suffered a failure to fire. He had carried the pistol in a pocket without a holster- a common idea, and a bad one. When I detail-stripped the pistol there was a hard piece of something, a breath mint perhaps, lodged in a pivot of the trigger. There has to be some give somewhere and the foreign object was small and hard enough to slip into the path of least resistance and jam the action. On another occasion, one of the smartest fellows I know allowed his cocked and locked Springfield’s safety to rust shut. The Novak custom pistol had not been fired in months and corrosion got into the hard-chromed safety. Stainless isn’t stain-proof and should be cleaned and lubricated regularly. One pistol was found with brass shavings in the firing pin channel and another with a piece of brass beneath the firing pin block, locking it in the fire mode.

LOCATION, LOCATION

When you clean and maintain the firearm, find a quiet location. This is not time for TV or the kids. I do not need a lot of space, but I place the firearm on a spacious clean surface that will not absorb cleaning material. The TEKMAT mat is ideal for handguns and has a schematic of the chosen pistol on it, which is really neat. I do clean the Glock on the 1911 mat and vice versa, but the mat provides a nice reference when needed.

I have been using Sharp Shoot-R green cleaning material for several reasons, most of all because they work well. The pungent smell of conventional cleaning products is OK when I’m outside but I do not change the Ford’s oil on the front steps either. I not only clean the piece, I also check it thoroughly for proper function. There must be no lint or debris in the action and nothing under the extractor. Lubricant must be replaced often with a carry gun because the muzzle down carry position results in the lube running forward.

MAINTENANCE SCHEDULE

The family sedan lets you know when it needs struts or shocks and so does the handgun. When slide velocity increases, the spring is weak. When slide velocity slows down, the pistol is dirty. Recoil springs should be replaced when the spring has lost a free inch of travel. Recoil springs should be replaced every 3,000 rounds and 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 to be replaced. If the follower and magazine body are in good condition, a magazine spring will make the magazine function like new. If the spring is weak, feeding problems occur and, in some cases, the slide lock will not lock properly on the magazine follower. In my opinion, the minimum number of magazines to have when carrying a personal defense firearm is three – one in the gun, one on the belt and one resting.

SPARE PARTS

You should keep spare magazines on hand as well as clean fresh ammunition. A recoil spring and a firing pin spring should also be in the kit. It isn’t a bad idea to have a spare set of stocks or grips handy as they are frequently cracked.

For more specific recommendations, short slide pistols are harder on recoil springs than those with longer slides. The shorter the slide, the greater the momentum to be controlled is. Conversely, the new Glock-type recoil spring/buffer seems never to give shooters trouble. For the 1911, grip screws and bushings are must-haves for spares. A spare extractor from Ed Brown, available from Brownells, should be in the kit too but be certain to specify whether you need a Series 70 or Series 80 when ordering.

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J. Whatever type of rifle you deploy there is always maintenance involved. K. Ease of maintenance should not be the only criteria in choosing a handgun. The 1911 is tightly-fitted and can be a bear to field strip. L. Keep a small area clean and free of distractions, then cleaning and maintenance is a simple thing.

A barrel bushing for those 1911s that use them is a great idea for your spare parts bin too. Yes, they seldom break, although I broke one at 12,500 rounds, bit they are lost more often than they break. Be certain that the extractor and barrel bushing are pre-fitted- you will have to do the fitting. For the Beretta 92A1, a spare locking wedge (some-times called the locking block) is a good part to have on hand. I have seen them crack at 3,500 rounds and others seem to go on forever.

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M. Keeping a few parts on hand for hard-use firearms is a good idea for minimizing down-time. N. This pistol is perfectly clean but not lubricated yet. The locking block doesn’t show signs of wear. (Beretta 92)

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O. If you change grips on a handgun, keep the old ones, just in case. P. It isn’t difficult to replace magazine springs; most require that the magazine plate be removed. Q. The Beretta open top slide allows easy access to clean the breech face and check the extractor. R. This Sharps Rifle Company bolt and carrier are coated with NP3 firearm finish. In the long run, this high quality bolt makes a lot of sense. S. A spare set of grips for a hard-use handgun is never a bad idea. The author has this spare set for his Beretta, along with grip screws and bushings. T. This is the firing mechanism of an M1A1 Springfield. It is easy enough to clean and lubricate this assembly.

Having a spare extractor for the AR-15 is a good idea. An NP3 firearm finish-coated bolt from Sharps Rifle Company will put you in like Flint and solve a lot of long term wear problems. For the Remington 700, an extractor and plunger is a good idea. The Glock trigger return spring should be kept on hand by Glock users.

For other firearms, you should do some research and carefully consider the weak and strong points of each design and the availability of parts before you buy. If you’re going to carry, you need to make sure you don’t have any surprises when you pull the trigger.

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.