How one cleans and cares for their firearms is a deeply personal decision. Some take it to almost religious levels of zeal. For me, it’s always been about making it as effective, fast, and easy as possible; the easier the process, the more likely I am to reliably perform it.
For years, I used the ubiquitous Break Free CLP to clean and lubricate my firearms. That’s still a choice of many, and it’s a good choice. But time and technology march on, and so my process evolved to Birchwood Casey Gun Scrubber for cleaning and Tetra Gun Spray for lubrication and rust protection. For years, I was happy with that system. Notice I said “was.”
Advances in technology have once again enticed me to test out some newer cleaning and lubrication methods, so I can decide for myself whether they’re really “new and improved,” as opposed to just “new.” So I decided to test out the latest craze for OCD gun owners: ultrasonic cleaners.
As always, before parting with my hard-earned cash, I did my research. And apparently, there are ultrasonic cleaners, and then there are ultrasonic cleaners. These types of cleaners originated in the medical and advanced devices field – where the difference between “mostly clean” and “actually clean” can literally mean the difference between life and death, or between success and catastrophic system failure. They became extremely popular with jewelers and watchmakers, and are now catching on with gun owners. Many of us now brush our teeth with ultrasonics.
The theory behind ultrasonic cleaning is to use the combination of ultrasound waves operating between 20-400kHz and a cleaning solution to clean items inside a tank. Cavitation bubbles then do the “scrubbing” for you, loosening dirt particles — many of them in places that would otherwise be difficult to reach. The attraction to gun owners is obvious.
Ultrasonic cleaners are classified by a number of criteria: including liquid capacity (generally expressed in liters or gallons), heater wattage (heat generally improves the cleaning process), and transducer wattage (how much power is used to generate the ultrasonic sound waves). As with all things, there is a wide range of quality grades. There are some who report decent results with a 2.5 liter plastic unit from Harbor Freight Tools for $75. And then there are commercial-grade medical units for thousands of dollars, and plenty of options in between. The effectiveness of an ultrasonic cleaner really boils down to how effectively the units can convert electrical power into sound waves. Transducer placement plays a role, as does tank size, cleaning solution used, and how you suspend the items to be cleaned. So after taking into consideration all the data I could find, I decided that I wanted a quality unit that would last a long time… meaning I wanted a commercial-grade medical-type unit. I also wanted something big enough to submerge big items (one of my revolvers has a 10″ barrel), and I wanted it to have an on-board heater. What I wanted, was a Crest Ultrasonics CP1100HT. But what I didn’t want, however, was the $1,275.00 price tag.
eBay, oh how I love thee. I found the exact unit I wanted for right around $500 from this seller. I figured it had to be a refurbished model, but it turns out it was brand new, with the owner’s manual and everything, sold from one of those companies that buys stock from bankrupt companies and liquidates them. The seller had no idea what he had (especially since the same model is going at the “discounted” price of $900+ on eBay currently). He just wanted to dump it on eBay. And I happily took it off his hands.
One of the requirements of an ultrasonic cleaner is that you must fill the tank up to a certain level (almost near the top, in fact) to provide the most efficient cleaning, as well as to protect the transducers in the unit. You also have to be able to generally gauge how much the liquid level will rise or fall based on what you’re putting in the tank. To get around this problem, many ultrasonic users employ an auxiliary pan, which is a metal pan that sits inside the main tank, touching just enough of the liquid inside the tank to allow the ultrasonic waves to pass into a secondary liquid inside the auxillary pan where the cleaning actually takes place. This allows you to use something inexpensive (like tap or distilled water) to fill up your primary tank, while using less of a more expensive cleaning solvent in your pan. This is the approach I took, which (when put all together) looks like this:
Inside the auxiliary pan, I use a stainless steel basket, which allows parts to sit suspended in the cleaning solution. Any parts resting on the bottom of the tank won’t allow cavitation on the bottom surface, thereby negating the effectiveness of the ultrasonic process.
My Crest 1100HT has a 3.5 gallon tank, a sweep frequency of 45kHz, all stainless construction, ceramically enhanced transducers, and old-skool knobs on the front to control the heater and timer (in fact, the “HT” stands for “heater” and “timer”). The controls are simple to use, and the unit feels heavy (it’s 23 pounds empty) and solid. I’ve used it non-stop for a couple of weeks now, and there’s no going back for me. The first time I tried it, I cleaned one of my pistols as best I could using my previous method (which was pretty effective). I put my “clean” gun inside my ultrasonic cleaner, turned it on, and then watched dirt stream out of the gun’s nooks and crannies until the cleaning solution was dark… all within a couple of minutes.
Apart from the ability to clean well, ultrasonics allow gun owners to place their guns in the solution without a lot (or even any, if you like) disassembly. Personally, I enjoy taking my guns apart and putting them back together. It’s relaxing to me. So I still break them down more than I probably have to before popping them in the tank:
I could drone on about how to get the best results out of an ultrasonic cleaner when cleaning firearms, but I don’t have to. Someone who knows way more about it than I already has. Lee Love of UniqueTek shared with me his whitepaper on Ultrasonic Cleaning of Firearms. It’s got lots of great info, and is primarily the process I follow.
So whether you go with a commercial unit, or start out more economically with a budget unit, I highly recommend giving ultrasonic cleaning a try. Of course, it’s important to lubricate your firearms in addition to cleaning them, and if you use a water-based cleaning solution (which I do not), you need to remove ALL of the water with an air compressor or some other means before lubricating. But those are all topics for another blog post. This post was to discuss whether or not I’m ready to once again evolve my firearms cleaning system — and the answer is an emphatic “yes.” Ultrasonic cleaning is my new standard, and my guns are now cleaner than they’ve ever been.
There are, of course, some who think it’s possible to over clean a gun. And they could be right. But I get almost as much enjoying out of tinkering and caring for my guns as I do out of shooting them, so an “overly” clean gun is fine by me. Like I said up top, it’s a deeply personal choice. Please feel free to leave your thoughts, comments, and ideas about your personal choices below!