Like many people, I took up a slew of new hobbies during the height of the coronavirus pandemic to fill my extra time. I decided that I would try my hand at target shooting, and in the process of learning how to safely operate my firearm, I developed an increasing curiosity about firearms and how they work.
Most notably, I was curious about firearm lubrication. What parts of the firearm require lubricant? How often do they need to be re-lubricated? Which kinds of products work best for certain applications? Do firearm manufacturers have any lubrication specifications?
In the search for answers to these questions, Lubes’n’Greases consulted some of the leading firearm manufacturers and lubricant blenders.
Firearm Lubrication Basics
“Firearm lubrication is probably the single most important thing when keeping a firearm in good working order,” said Jamie Devney, vice president of business development for Lucas Oil Products. “From law enforcement to military units, hunters, competition and target shooters, and conceal carry owners alike, firearm lubrication ensures the reliability of a firearm by keeping it running smoothly and free from harmful buildup that can cause failures and malfunctions.”
So which parts of a firearm must be lubricated?
“It’s best to lubricate the slide, the barrel, the frame and all of the components that have moving parts to prevent friction and wear,” Devney said.
Mark Gurney, director of product management for commercial firearm manufacturer Ruger, agreed: “Wear points should be lubricated. These vary in location by each firearm and are typically spelled out in an instruction manual. Lacking specific instructions, look for spots where parts rub over each other, often indicated by a shiny spot.”
Mark Nyholm, staff product development engineer and mechanical R&D manager for Amsoil, added that semi-automatic firearms have higher lubrication needs than a typical over-under breech barrel shotgun. “It’s important to understand what type of firearm you have and what specific components of that firearm need lubrication,” he said.
How often should firearms be re-lubricated? According to Gurney, there is no one-size-fits-all lubrication timeline. Instead, he noted that it is up to the firearm owner’s discretion and should be done “as often as needed.”
However, a firearm should be re-lubricated each time it is cleaned. “Generally, disassembling the gun and cleaning it will strip lubricants, so the gun needs to be re-lubricated after cleaning,” Gurney said. “Otherwise, the gun needs to be lubed enough to keep working. The cleanliness of the ammunition being used and the current environment in which the gun is being used can affect this greatly.”
Firearm lubricants generally come in three different forms: oils, dry film lubes and greases. So which type of lubricant is best for which applications? The environment in which the firearm is being used is a huge factor. “A rifle being used in a rainy, wet environment—think coastal Alaska—would need to be kept very wet with oil to keep it from rusting,” Gurney said. “But very cold conditions—think interior Alaska or even deer season in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—can get so cold that some common lubricants can gel. Guns in those environments would be better off lubricated with a dry film lubricant. Guns used by the military in very hot, dry conditions could also benefit from either minimal lubricant or dry film lubes.”
Oil is often the recommended lubricant for use between components exhibiting close operational tolerances, like some fine trigger assemblies, bolt internals, slides and firing pins. “Our firearm lubricant is a combination of high-end synthetic base oil and a grouping of proprietary additives,” Amsoil’s Nyholm said. “Those additives address corrosion, wear and heat, which are all things a firearm will experience” each time it is fired.
Devney said that Lucas Oil’s firearm lubes are also formulated using synthetic base stocks and a high concentration of proprietary additives.
Meanwhile, grease can be used for sliding, load-carrying parts, like bolt carriers, sears and slide rails. These parts are subject to greater amounts of pressure, so they perform better when lubricated with a grease. Like greases for many other applications, firearm greases are often formulated with a lithium thickener. However, many experts agree that aluminum-based firearm greases are preferable, as they offer better cold-weather performance and water resistance.
The advantage of dry film lubricants is that they are less likely to attract dirt and other debris, keeping the firearm clean and lubricated at the same time. They also keep their lubricating properties in wet environments. These types of firearm lubes are often aerosols formulated with molybdenum disulfide, along with acetone, propane and other components. Other dry film lubes come in powder form.
Is CLP All It’s Cracked Up to Be?
The two products needed by every firearm owner to keep their gun in working condition are cleaners and lubricants. “Some companies put those two products together and call it a CLP,” Nyholm said. CLP refers to all-in-one products that claim to clean, lubricate and protect at once. “Amsoil chose to maximize the performance of each separately,” he said.
What materials make up a CLP product?
“What a marketer will do is add solvent into their lubricant and protectant product,” Nyholm said. “It’s the solvent that has some cleaning capability. Now the question is, does a CLP work? Many will argue yes, and many will argue no. In my professional opinion, products designed for singular use are very much optimized for that use. Once you start to combine chemistries for multi-use, performance suffers. For example, I want a CLP, but in order to get cleaning action, I need solvent. That solvent provides cleaning, but it also thins the lubricant and reduces lubricant film thickness. Because the solvent eventually evaporates, the resulting lubricant film left behind is thinner than it would be if you just used a lubricant without the embedded solvent.”
Many firearm experts agree that while CLP products may prove to be adequate for cleaning purposes, they may also cause firearms to jam more often and fire fewer rounds if they are treated solely with CLP liquids.
However, CLP products do have their place in the firearm care market, Devney said. “These products are ideal for long-term storage due to the added rust inhibitors; great for cleaning due to the premium solvents that break down and easily remove contaminants, firing residue and buildup; and a light lubricant to overall protect the parts,” he said.
To properly lubricate, minimize wear and get the highest performance out of your firearm, Devney recommended using a dedicated firearm lubricant in addition to a CLP product on the contact and friction points. “That’s why we sell a multi-line of products,” Devney said. “Each one is designed for a specific purpose, to do the job and to do the job right.”
No Commercial Specs?
The lubricants industry is no stranger to specifications. After all, lubricants in light- and heavy-duty vehicles, industrial equipment and marine engines need to go above and beyond to protect vital and expensive equipment.
However, commercial firearm lubricants are not so heavily regulated, if at all. “In the automotive industry, the manufacturer of the vehicle recommends specific engine oil for the vehicle, and they always reference a specification, like API SN Plus, for example,” Devney said. “This specification is regulated by the American Petroleum Institute. This type of organization really does not exist in the commercial firearms lubrication market. Thus, no firearms manufacturer calls out for a particular specification of oil to be used on their firearms, like is done in the automotive industry.”
The only specifications that firearm lubricants must meet are those required by the military. “There is a military spec if you want to go after that, but most firearm marketers don’t because it is exhaustive and expensive,” Nyholm said. “And for those marketing their products to the average consumer using their firearms for target practice or hunting, the military spec is a bit much. For this reason, there can be such a wide range of performance in products on the retail shelf. Sans any guidance from the firearm OEMs or industry associations, you can have products that provide near little benefit all the way to really good products.”
The military typically uses its firearms more often and in more extreme environments than the typical firearm owner. The type of firearm used by the military sometimes differs, too, as it utilizes rifles that are fully automatic. “When you shoot fully automatic, the amount of heat that builds in the rifle is much more than civilians trying to quickly pull the trigger to empty a 30-round magazine,” Nyholm said. “And comparatively, a soldier will fire far more rounds downrange than a civilian, so lubrication is even more important.”
Devney explained that the “same Lucas Oil product civilians utilize each day is the same Lucas product that many of our active military depend on as well. The lubricants are designed the same; however, they are tested by a private organization to obtain the stamp of approval for use in the military setting. This does not mean the lubricants are necessarily better or worse, just that they have this stamp of approval and can now be acquired for widespread military use.”
In the absence of commercial specifications, firearm manufacturers often team up with lubricant producers by including small sample sizes of a particular lubricant with each firearm that it sells. “We have partnered with over 30 different firearms manufacturers that use and recommend our Extreme Duty Gun Oil and include a 4-milliliter sample pack of our gun oil in the packaging of every firearm sold,” Devney said.
Sydney Moore is managing editor of Lubes’n’Greases magazine. Contact her at Sydney@LubesnGreases.com