The AR-15 platform success is unmatched in the world of civilian semi-automatic rifles. Not even the AK and its countless clones, in fact, can even remotely keep up with the popularity of the Stoner system family of firearms. Long-range competition and sporting rifles, ultra-accurized IPSC competition Raceguns, short barreled AR based pistols, basic range plinking rifles and a mind boggling number of different hunting configurations... the Black Rifle is omnipresent, chambered in a plethora of calibers ranging from. 22 LR rimfire up to .308, passing through pistol calibers, the 300BLK and exotic calibers such as the .458 SOCOM, with extremes in .338 Norma Magnum (the Albert Arms, for example).
The majority of the AR based guns is obviously chambered in the .223/5.56 mm caliber, and we will mostly talk about this caliber, considering that 80% of the steps detailed in this and the following articles are applicable to all black rifles; 15% include short stroke piston based guns, and the remaining 5%, blowback versions (i.e. some pistol caliber guns and rimfire).
Today, we will just discuss the average equipment set needed to maintain and clean traditional AR guns, i.e. with the Direct Gas Impingement system.
The cleaning kit
There are literally hundreds of different kits on the market, from really basic to super specialized de-luxe kits, for all budgets. Unlike a generic long gun cleaning kit, which contains the obvious rod, oil, cotton patches and bronze barrel brush, an AR-15 kit must contain a few more specific tools and brushes, to clean the bolt carrier group and bolt, the Barrel Extension, and the inside of the Upper receiver. The AR-15 Barrel Extension brush is essential, as is a fixed handle that allows rotation to properly clean the star chamber.
Bore brushes can be of various types and qualities; proper sized cotton patches also should be used. Personally, we much prefer the “easy way out”: bore felts in the caliber diameter that can be used in lieu of the patches. To finish cleaning the barrel extension, star chamber felts are also available. Proper cleaning of the bolt seat in the BCG is essential, this being the "cylinder" and the bolt the "piston" of the Stoner system. Most of the carbon deposits end up here. There are specific brushes, scrapers and tools solely dedicated to this operation, and we highly recommend their use. As cleaning oil goes, classic CLP is fine, but it is also advisable to have a specific cleaning product against heavy carbon deposit. We can recommend Ballistol products, as they are quite effective and also non-toxic: apart from the obvious health benefits, many of us do our gun maintenance on the kitchen table, and wives are not always accommodating with "perfumes" of aggressive oils and detergents ...
Replacement and spare parts
To keep our Black Rifle in perfect working order, it is advisable to have a spare parts kit to replace broken or worn parts and / or improve the functioning of our gun in specific conditions – i.e. heavy IPSC competition.
Some parts are naturally subject to wear and must be checked periodically, others never break ... but are easily lost, the AR 15 uses very small parts, many of which are loaded with equally small – and powerful – springs, that have an uncanny tendency to unexpectedly shoot out during some trivial disassembly (one such example would be replacing the stock pistol grip with an upgraded aftermarket part), and disappear in the garage hyperspace, where we will never find them again. In general, it is necessary to have at least one or two samples of the springs and plungers used for the safety selector, take-down and pivot pin.
The replacement set of the gas ring of the bolt that seal gases in the BCG cylinder is a must-have; two options are available, the traditional set of three rings and the updated single-piece version (McFarland ring).
At least two or three firing pin retaining pins (“cotter pins”), they are easily lost because they must always be removed from the BCG to disassemble and clean the bolt.
Some of the parts that can wear down or break include the extractor and its internal spring, equipped with elastic insert and O-ring to increase extraction reliability. The firing pin, even if it does not break often, in some cases can develop a sharp-edged tip that could lead to pierced primers, so it is better to always have a spare one. The spring of the magazine release button can be also be easily lost or lose tension, and – as most of the spares discussed up to now – is so affordable that we recommend ordering it together with all the other spare parts.
The bolt, if it is not mil-spec, can in some cases split at the Cam Pin hole, because the thickness of the material is reduced and an incorrect heat treatment can make the metal in this area fragile like glass. Unfortunately, since the bolt is an essential part of a firearm, it must either be purchased as if it were a complete gun, with a proof-mark, serial number, proper paperwork and declaration of possession to the authorities, or in some other cases, simply not available to civilians due to it being reserved to licensed gunsmiths. That’s right: although changing a bolt or a barrel in an AR-15 rifle is fairly easy and could be carried out by a properly equipped enthusiast, some operations in many EU countries are limited to gunsmiths.
Again, as above, before even considering advanced maintenance, check your local firearm legislation and if in doubt, without any hesitation head down to your gunsmith! In any case, you must start from a basic minimum set of tools, to which, depending on how much you use and how many Black Rifles you own, you gradually add tools that allow you to perform more complex operations or further simplify routine operations.
As a general rule, three pin punches of adequate diameter are enough: a polymer one to easily push out the pivot and the take down pins, one for the trigger pins and one for the extractor pin on the bolt – in emergency, the firing pin can be used, but we do not recommend it. In addition, for M4 owners, the castle nut wrench for the buffer extension. You can buy the wrench by itself, or in a configuration called Combination Wrench which is also used to disassemble the barrel and the flash hider; check whether it is legal to do so where you live. Finally, a screwdriver of the proper size for the rear screw on the standard stock and the screw inside the pistol grip – in both cases, it can be a slotted or an Allen screw.
We recommend, for both maintenance and cleaning, the purchase of a dedicated AR cleaning bench, which allows you to keep the firearm in proper position for operations such as mounting accessories and optics, in addition to cleaning and disassembly.
Where to buy gear and spares
Cleaning kits, you are spoiled for choice: you can find dozens of cleaning kits compatible with AR guns reviewed on all4shooters.com, and we will cover some additional products and kits in the next article that have convinced us and that we can certainly recommend.
For spare parts, especially small parts – which can be freely purchased – but also for more "demanding" upgraded parts and spares, possibly to be agreed with your own gunshop, we can suggest the various online stores, such as Brownells or Strobl.cz ensuring the quality and the origin of the spare parts, and especially for the small parts, request the Mil-Spec compliance guarantee to avoid surprises... This, of course, applies to non-proprietary firearms: if you own, for example, an HK MR223 or a SIG Sauer MCX, the parts must be specific. For tools, the same. Let's avoid, however, at least for the moment, the "complete" kits, because they will always have something more that will never be needed and will always lack the right tool that perhaps is used more often instead.
Our next article will be dedicated to how to properly clean and lubricate our Black Rifle. Many others will follow, each dedicated to a specific topic. Stay with us on all4shooters.com!