Should You Clean Suppressors?
March 10, 2015
OK, we all like to clean guns, right? Right? Well, some of us do. Mostly we just wipe the biggest chunks of mud off, spray a bit of cleaner here and there, and keep our firearms lubed. But when it comes to suppressors, some people just get OCD. The levels of "OhmygodIhavetoclean" just go off the chart. So, the question becomes, just how much do you have to clean a suppressor? In fact, do you have to clean a suppressor?
The answer, in a nutshell, is; some of them. Some you never clean. Some you always clean.
Let's start right out with the things you should never, under any circumstances, do.
First off, do not ever poke a cleaning rod, with a cleaning patch on it, down your bore and through your suppressor. If that patch falls off, you now have an obstruction. "Oh, it's just a bit of cotton, it will burn up." Maybe it will and maybe it won't, but until it does, do you want it possibly getting in the path of the next bullet? And destabilizing it enough to thwack a baffle?
If you have a suppressor cranked onto your muzzle, and are loath to remove it, and simply must clean your bore, use a cotton swab that is a threaded-on rod attachment. At least that won't come off inside your suppressor.
Second, don't go using aggressive solvents when you do clean. Aggressive solvents also attack metal, and you don't need that inside your suppressor.
Third, most don't need cleaning. Say what? I'll explain.
To repeat; most suppressors don't need cleaning. Let's take the exemplar in this, a can made for .223/5.56, and run with factory ammo or good, clean reloads. The heat and blast of the exhaust gases will scour a lot of the carbon out of it. In fact, it will scour most of that stuff out, and leave behind a thin coating. And this continues regardless of how much ammo you put down it.
So, if the carbon in your suppressor builds up, the heat and pressure increases until the pressure is high enough to scour the carbon off. If the pressure doesn't scour it off, the heat becomes so great it essentially evaporates it.
The system builds and decreases, staying within a small region of not-very-much buildup. This holds for all the high-pressure calibers, so your .223/5.56, 6.8/6.5 and .308/.300 Win. Mag. suppressors all burn themselves clean.
I have for your perusal photograph No. 1. This is a cross-sectioned suppressor that has had a significant number of rounds through it. Care to take a guess? The answer is at the end.
The quick answer here is that if you have a sealed unit, you leave it alone, you don't go poking things into it, and you don't go pouring liquids into it.
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Why not slosh some solvent in, and pour it out? Because the baffles aren't designed for it. If you trap any liquid in there, it will be there the next time you fire. One of the attributes of water is that it is an incompressible medium. Water in a "wet" can, for a pistol, doesn't add that much to the internal pressure. But a rifle, with its stout muzzle pressure, and water not compressing, can exceed the internal design pressure of your can. It can break things.
And if the solvent is something flammable, you could have even more pressure, when the heat ignites it.
So, what suppressors might require cleaning? Well, the obvious would be taking your 5.56 specific suppressor, and in a moment of "what the heck," putting it on your .22 Long Rifle for an afternoon of plinking. The carbon build-up from the relatively low-pressure .22 Long Rifle (which is still over 20,000 psi, by the way) and the lead and lube splatter, build up.
You'll be a long time, scouring it out by scrubbing it, but all the manufacturers of suppressors tell me to simply run a bunch of .223/5.56 through it, and that will clean it out. Obviously, if you spent a weekend plinking a brick or three of rimfire through your 5.56 can, you'll be a long time burning the gunk out with centerfire. That's as good an excuse as any to buy a designed-for-rimfire suppressor that can be taken apart and cleaned.
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Now, all of these take on an entirely new meaning when we go to cartridges that have high expansion ratios. A small case, or a subsonic load, can't produce enough gas pressure to create a self-scouring suppressor.
The worst example here is the .22 Long Rifle, which is so grubby you can find it difficult to take apart your suppressor for cleaning after plinking off a brick of ammo. A 9mm, .40 or .45 suppressor, in an afternoon's neglect and use of lead bullets, can be as bad or worse.
There, we have a hellish mix of carbon, bullet lube, bullet metal and oxidation to weld things together.
This explains why your regular 5.56 suppressor is a sealed unit, and can't come apart, but rimfire and handgun cans all disassemble by the user.
The buildup of gunk in a rimfire suppressor can be impressive. I was just at an industry function where we shot a brand-new, clean, rimfire suppressor for the cameras. When it was new, the baffle stack slid right out when the ends were unscrewed. After a couple of boxes of ammo, the baffle stack had to be pressed out once the ends were removed. To work well the parts have to be tight. Once you had even a little bit of powder residue and lead splatter, the parts have to be pushed out.
Now, imagine a brick of ammo, on a humid day, and then no cleaning. The next time you go to the range, it might be a sealed unit. The problem with a lot of rimfire and pistol units is that they are made of aluminum. That means you have to be careful in wrestling with it, and if you aren't you can mangle the threads of the end caps. It isn't so much the cost (although it will cost you some) but the hassle of waiting for two transfers, one to the factory for repair, and one for return.
And if you don't clean them?
You basically pack them full of powder residue, lead, bullet lube, and that is all bad stuff. Oh, the suppressor will still work as a suppressor, and you may or may not notice the loss of a couple of decibels of effectiveness. But you won't be doing your gear any good.
I had a chance, at the same shindig where I saw the high-volume 5.56 suppressor, to see some sectioned rimfire and pistol suppressors. They were never cleaned, and were basically caked with residue, to the point of leaving just a channel down the center for bullet clearance.
One caliber doesn't fit these two descriptions; .300 Whisper/AACBlackout.
At the supersonic performance levels, it does act pretty much as a hot, suppressor-scouring caliber. There might be some buildup, but here you have the same advantage as the 5.56 shooter who has plinked a bit of rimfire; you can put your .300 suppressor on something a bit hotter, and burn the gunk out.
No, I'm not suggesting that you attach your .300 suppressor to a .300 Win. Mag.; that might be too much cleaning "vigor." (As with all things, read manufacturers suggestions first) but a couple of magazines on a .308 will clean it.
And the subsonic loads use a pinch of fast-burning (for a rifle caliber) powder, and won't leave much residue, and again can be burned out.
But the important thing to keep in mind is the attachment. If you are using a direct-thread attached suppressor, you're good to go. But the quick-attach mounts need some TLC. If you don't remove and clean the suppressor seat and muzzle device, you may find it is a more-or-less permanently attached suppressor.
In talking with Kyle Lamb, our retired Delta guy, he reported that the Army testers shot the suppressors they were testing so much that they could not later remove them from their QD mounts.
It doesn't make much sense to pay for, and install, a QD muzzle device, only to carbon-weld it in place. So often enough to matter (and you'll find out if you've gone too far) remove the suppressor from its QD muzzle device and clean the suppressor seat and the device.
I just recently found this out, having to enlist the assistance of a fellow shooter to wrestle a suppressor off of its QD mount. Had I not done it then, I might not have ever gotten it off the rifle.
To summarize; if it is a sealed, centerfire rifle can, never poke in it, or slosh liquids into it. If it is a rimfire or pistol can that can be disassembled, open it up and clean it. Now. If not now, it may be never that you can get it apart, so get to it.
Oh, and if the manufacturer has, or supplied, a special disassembly tool, keep it with the can. Lose it, and you may be tempted by the torque abilities of channel-locks or vise-grips. That would be bad, ugly, and expensive to repair.
Oh, and the sectioned suppressor in photo No. 1? A reported 148,000 rounds. That's 10 barrels' worth of shooting, and never cleaned.
For more on suppressors, visit the Guns & Ammo Suppressor Section.