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When is it necessary to clean a rimfire firearm? Only after exposure to excessive moisture? Only when it begins to malfunction (for autoloaders)? With some frequency of shooting, or time, or before extended storage?

Update: Since I'm lazy, I want to know what the minimum reasonable cleaning frequency would be.

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You should clean all guns at the end of every session of use for a few reasons. I am assuming .22 or .17 cal since you said rimfire. These are the most common rimfire calibers.

  1. to prevent residue buildup which can be dangerous if a bullet gets lodged in the barrel, and even more dangerous if you somehow don't notice and shoot another round which I suppose is possible to miss with these small caliber rifles.
  2. cleaning is followed by oiling the barrel inside and out which provides a protective coating to prevent/limit oxidation/rust.
  3. oxidation/rust not only damages the barrel, but it can cause the bullet to get lodged in the gun. The less you maintain your guns, the shorter a lifespan they will have.

Always keep your guns in a well maintained condition. They are precision tools (yes even your junkier models), and they include exploding gases and extremely high speeds. You want your equipment to work right, because a failure doesn't always just mean it doesn't work, it can be dangerous.

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I clean all of my firearms, including rimfires, on about the same schedule:

A light cleaning/oiling. I swab the inside of the barrel with an oil-dampened (just oil) cloth AND very lightly coat all easily-accessible metal surfaces:

  • After each use.
  • After exposure to the elements. (I was on a backcountry hunting trip in central Idaho once where the fog, rain and damp were so bad that I discovered rust on my first morning. I was very careful to keep ALL surfaces coated with oil for the rest of the trip and had no more problems.) Be sure to wipe off any visible moisture first.
  • After a thorough cleaning.
  • When removing it from extended storage (3 months or longer).
  • After a malfunction on an autoloader (I have owned only three or four autoloaders, one of which was a rimfire, and cleaning always corrected a malfunction. I'm sure there may be other causes for a malfunction, but I haven't experienced anything other than dust and light residue buildup.)
  • This light cleaning/oiling removes loose residues, replaces moisture, and takes about 3 minutes.

A thorough cleaning. This includes the use of solvent inside the barrel.

  • After a lot of use (a few hundred shots from a rimfire (my rimfires are all .22 caliber) and a few dozen shots from larger firearms), and
  • Before placing in extended storage.
  • Long ago, I once skipped cleaning a rifle for several years (I did oil it, so rust wasn't a factor). It took several hours of applying solvent, let soak, run a bristle brush through the barrel, swab clean, repeat, until the bore was nice and shiny clean. It became very obvious why my accuracy had been suffering!
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In school I shot competitive rimfire with valuable Anschutz .22LR rifles. Our team didn't clean our rifles until the end of the season, even though we fired thousands of rounds through them during practice and competition. The problem with cleaning is that it takes barrels some number of "fouling" shots before they reach some equilibrium where peak shot-to-shot accuracy is attained.

Granted, this practice of not cleaning during the season may have been facilitated by the following features that won't be present in field use:

  1. The rifles were always stored in-doors and never exposed to excessive moisture. During the season they were shot regularly, so any moisture that might have condensed in storage would not have sat long before getting worked or cooked off.
  2. The rifles were bolt action.
  3. We only shot high-grade target/match ammunition (usually Eley).

Subsonic rimfires shot with properly lubricated bullets are unique in that their barrels don't accumulate copper or lead fouling like barrels that shoot higher-velocity bullets under higher pressures. Therefore I am only aware of four reasons to clean them:

  1. Their actions get so gummed up that they experience feeding malfunctions.
  2. They have been or might be exposed to moisture for an extended period, in which case all steel needs its protective coating of oil refreshed.
  3. They have been in storage and their condition is unknown.
  4. They have been fired with questionable ammunition that might have left lead fouling in the bore, or a squib has to be knocked out of the barrel with a cleaning rod.
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