Cleaning Brushes and Cleaning Picks: You Need Some

Firearms are a lot like teeth. Both exhibit natural wear and tear over time, requiring consistent maintenance to avoid issues. Interestingly, brushes and picks are common cleaning implements for both. For your everyday post-range cleaning, most of the work is done on your firearm with the cleaning rod, bore brushes, and patches. These tools take care of the bore and effectively wipe down the exposed surfaces. But for the most stubborn fouling, there is no alternative to a cleaning brush or cleaning pick. But which one should you choose? There is no wrong answer, but both excel and fail in different respects, and it is important to pick the right tool for the job.

cleaning brush and cleaning pick

The Why Behind Brushes and Picks

Wiping down the parts of your firearm with a cloth patch is the equivalent of gargling with Listerine. Your mouth is sanitized and cleared of any loose debris. However, plaque that has had time to collect on teeth, gums, and tongue will not have been removed. With the pass of a lubricated cloth patch, you are removing fouling that is suspended in gun oil or grease. But the baked-on fouling that might be indistinguishable from the finish of your firearm can go undetected.

The next step is to break out a cleaning brush. Cleaning brushes come in different shapes and sizes. But what is material is what the brush’s bristles are made of. Some kits come with steel-bristle brushes. These are the ultimate in fouling removal, and although they are constructed of mild steel, they can be harder on your firearm. Most firearm brushes use either synthetic or copper bristles. Both are soft enough not to damage the firearm’s finish but hard enough to break up fouling that survived the patch treatment.

Cleaning brushes can be as simple as old toothbrushes or as involved as a set of synthetic and copper-bristled brushes of different head sizes to accommodate any hidden corner.

When you go to the dentist, you will probably get a cursory brush and floss, but that is preceded by either a rotary cleaning tool or a dental pick worked in the hands of the dentist. It is useful to think of a pick as a brush, except it has one thick, sharp bristle for breaking up hardened material at a more concentrated point. The picks you encounter at the dentist will be made of stainless steel. Tipton offers a set of picks that are similarly made. But most gun cleaning picks are made of softer materials for the same reasons that brushes are. Some picks are made of a hardened polymer, but most are either made of brass or aluminum.

Where Brushes Shine

Brushes excel at cleaning flat and grooved surfaces. Their larger size encompasses a larger surface area than any pick, and brushes make cleaning of a firearm’s working surfaces like the bolts, feeding ramps, and receivers of rifles and pistols as well as the cylinder frame of revolvers.

cleaning brushes
Brushes are perfect for removing stubborn build-up on larger surfaces.

For most purposes, after a cursory wipe-down with a solvent-drenched patch, I like to follow up on these surfaces with a brush laced with the same solvent to break up any fouling I cannot see and suspend it in the solvent for another wipe-down. I am partial to old toothbrushes, but in particularly stubborn fouling, like on the cylinder face of revolvers, I give it a bronze brush and elbow grease.

Where Picks Excell

If you only shoot occasionally, you are probably safe to stick with cleaning brushes only. But there are times when brushes will not suffice. Brushes cannot reach everything, and sometimes maintenance is never done until it is. Whether you are reviving a neglected firearm or keen to reach into tight spaces, a cleaning pick is a must-have.

winchester model 1890 pump
This Winchester Model 1890 was made in 1909. It shoots well but has a habit of not going into battery when pumped. A deep disassembly with a pick removed a hundred years of grit and restored perfect function.

I find cleaning picks particularly convenient for firearms that exhibit either a high round count or old age. I own and shoot mostly .22 rimfire rifles, and I make it a point to brush clean them on a quarterly basis, regardless of whether I shoot them or not. But even so, after thousands of rounds downrange, I started to see discoloration that was not there on these rifles when they were new. I got into the habit of taking an aluminum pick into the corners of the receiver and barrel face, particularly where the extractors mate with the chamber. Crud can build up in these areas and lead to sudden changes in reliability. I often place a cleaning patch on the end of the pick to pull out the gunk.

If you have an older gun of unknown origin, you can give it a new lease on life with a good pick. Caked-on grease and fouling can be impossible to remove with a brush. Picks, however, make quick work of removing stubborn fouling. Gritty actions and unworkable actions can then work like new.

Why Not Both?

A universal cleaning kit will often come with the essentials: solvent, oil, patches, rods, and jags. Unfortunately, the accessories included might be caliber-specific, and most kits do not come with a brush or a pick. Both excel at their respective tasks and come in handy for after-range cleanups and seasonal deep cleanings. Picks and brushes are cleaning essentials. And you’ll need some sooner rather than later if you shoot for any length of time.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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