This cross-section of wheel guns covers five manufacturers across three continents and includes a little bit of everything — but they can all generally be cleaned the same. (All photos: Chris Eger/Guns.com)
For those with questions on how to clean a revolver, Guns.com has answers to keep that wheel gun ticking like a clock. The neat thing about modern cartridge revolvers that use smokeless powder is that, in general, they can all be cleaned and maintained in roughly the same basic manner. This holds true for both single-action wheel guns and double, centerfire and rimfire, and those with removable, swing-out, or break-top cylinders. With that being said, let’s get started.
First, make sure the revolver is safely and completely unloaded. To be sure you have all the ammunition accounted for, inventory the number of rounds you remove and account for any that are missing. This is important as revolvers can sometimes fail to extract all the rounds from the cylinder — I’ve seen it happen. Remove all brass and ammo from the room in which you are cleaning the revolver to ensure it doesn’t somehow wander its way back into a cylinder before you are ready.
You won’t be needing these while cleaning
Next, visually ensure that there is no brass or ammo in the area you are cleaning the revolver in. Be sure to do your maintenance in a reasonably clean area that is well-ventilated and away from distractions and little wandering animals or humans. A cleaning mat with a non-slip and solvent resistant pad is a good idea but not absolutely required.
Remember, no brass or ammo while cleaning
Speaking of solvent, I’m here to talk to you about guns, not sell you someone’s new Wonder Product™ and in general, as long as the gun juice you choose is something made and marketed specifically for use on firearms, you are good to go. Steer away from non-gun miracle products. On said product, be sure to read the manufacturer’s guidelines on its use. With that, if it is billed as a solvent, use it as a solvent. If it is billed as a lubricant/protectant, use it as such. If it is a CLP type of product billed as good for both aforementioned applications, hey…
Pick your poison, so to speak, just make sure it is something that is meant to be used on firearms
Once you have your unloaded revolver and solvent/CLP of choice, apply a tad to the barrel bore and cylinder and knock away the fouling and debris with a brush. Repeat this anywhere you find a build-up. Nylon or plastic brushes of all sizes and strength are your friend while some advocate copper or brass. Stay away from steel bristles. Wipe away the accumulation of schmutz with a rag or cloth that is at least less dirty than the gun you are working with. This is why my wife has never had to throw away old socks, t-shirts or drawers of mine so far this century.
Brushes, brushes, brushes. They are cheap so stock up on various sizes and types
A persistent nemesis of revolvers–especially on stainless or chromed guns– are burn rings on the cylinder face of a revolver or the inside frame and the cylinder throat. This is where some solvent such as Hoppe’s No. 9 and a green scrubby pad can come in handy.
When it comes to the barrel, some purists will argue over unwashed and permanently stained coffee cups that many gun owners overclean their barrels, hitting them both too often and too hard. A rule of thumb is that, unless I plan to store the gun and not reuse it any time soon, the barrel can be skipped until next time so long as you can still see rifling when holding it up to the light or if using a bore light. For those who are more fastidious, clean that barrel every time you clean your roscoe. Do this via running a patch soaked with solvent from the muzzle to cylinder, followed by clean patches until they come out clean.
Nylon cleaning rods are safe, although brass rods are also popular
Brass or nylon cleaning jags or brushes of an appropriate bore size can help dislodge extensive lead or carbon build-up in the barrel.
I like to use an $8 stainless medical instrument tray for dirty patches, brushes and the like, so their greasy funky contents don’t pollute the general area or the cleaning mat. You can always go cheaper than that by just using a plastic shopping bag or shop towel.
Be sure to safely dispose of dirty patches and clean your brushes after each use and don’t be too cheap to buy new ones. I’ve seen guys try to use the same worn-out teeth brush (you have more than one tooth, right?) for decades to the point that it is more of a stick with a dirty tuft of plastic than a brush.
Pay close attention to the revolver’s cylinder and make sure you have cleaned out each chamber in turn, paying attention to the clear under the ejector star as well as its rod.
Once you have accomplished the bulk of your cleaning, move on to inspecting the revolver to make sure you don’t have any festering wounds that can ruin your day in the future. This includes checking that the cylinder-to-barrel gap is not exaggerated, or the forcing cone is cracked. While this area doesn’t have to be solid, it should still be tight enough that you would have a hard time sliding even a fortune cookie paper through it.
Your cylinder lockup should be tight and with minimal movement while the gap between the cylinder and barrel should be too narrow to easily slide anything more than a piece of paper through.
Similarly, check the timing of the cylinder to make sure the chambers line up with the barrel properly. If you find that your revolver is shaving lots of lead at the range — you will see little specks of metal all over your arms and clothes — this is a warning sign. If you have lots of revolvers in the same caliber, buying a $20 range rod to ensure this alignment may be a good investment. Check the lock-up of the cylinder when secured in the frame by trying to rotate it and push it back and forth inside the frame. While a tiny amount of play is acceptable, a lot of movement is not.
On swing-out cylinder revolvers, with the cylinder kicked out, spin it slowly while watching to make sure the crane and ejector rod is still straight.
This rod can get warped over time when users “cowboy” or slap the cylinder shut like is often seen in the movies, which is less than ideal.
Finally, check that your plate and grips screws are tight. Avoid the impulse to open the lockwork and start goobering around with springs and sears unless you know what you are doing. This is sailing far past basic cleaning and maintenance and can soup sandwich a perfectly functional revolver fast, requiring a shameful trip to the local gunsmith who is often backed up fixing other failed mods.
With the cleaning and inspection complete, lubricate your revolver. In this, the prospect of “less is more” shines through. Lightly apply the lubricant/CLP strategically to areas you have noticed wear and to dynamic working parts that move a lot with metal-on-metal contact. Stay away from soaking the gun to the extent that you see running or dripping lube.
If storing a gun not in use, do so safely with the revolver unloaded and the action immobilized. Single-action revolvers, where the cylinder is easily removed, can be stored in two parts. If your gun did not come with a lock, check out Project Childsafe to find out how to get one free.
If not loaded and accessible for home or personal defense, or otherwise in use, remember to secure it.
If storing a firearm not in use for an extended period, especially in a safe, avoid the impulse to swaddle them in gun socks, zipper cases, mummy wraps and the like as these can often trap or hold moisture. I’ve seen fine classics proudly produced from the old pleather bags in which they have been stored for decades in the back of humid closets only to be shocked with finishes that were nothing but rust. Talk about avoidable tears.
Speaking of rust, before you store that finely blued revolver, give it one final rub down with a rag to remove any lingering fingerprints. These dirty human oils, if left behind on a gun for months or years, can eat away at the bluing.
Don’t forget to get those last fingerprints off
Once cleaned and put away, be sure to revisit these guns regularly to inspect, check for issues and reapply lubricant as needed.
This old snubby picked up in a trade with a friend had been cleaned and put away in a desk drawer for a decade, where it picked up some creepy crawlies.
In the end, remember that there are plenty of firearms still floating around that are over a century old that are still in excellent working condition. This came from proper care and storage, not by accident. Do your part to maintain your revolver and it can easily do the same.