When it comes to semi-automatic rifles, the AR-15  has become one of the most popular and recognizable rifles.
Perhaps it’s because of its no-nonsense black profile. Perhaps it’s because of its customizability. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s an easy-to-use, highly accurate rifle. All of these factor into the great appeal of the AR-15 rifle for so many, but they also contribute to a common problem with the rifle. AR-15 rifles jam. There is little more frustrating (and potentially dangerous) than taking out a rifle and having it jam again and again.
How can you increase your rifle’s reliability? The short answer is to keep it clean, exceptionally clean. Read on and I’ll explain some tricks of the trade I learned from a United States Army officer, a veteran who carried the military version of the AR-15 in the dust and grime of combat zones in Afghanistan.
No Dust, No Dirt, No Debris
Due to the intricacy and preciseness of the AR-15’s action, any dust, dirt or debris will throw off the smoothness of the mechanism, resulting in jams. While the gas blowback is enough to throw the bolt back after a shot is fired, the force at which the bolt moves forward again with the next round is significantly less. As a result, any kind of debris, however miniscule, can hinder it from moving forward freely. Take the rifle’s action apart and wipe it down with a rag. Cotton swabs can come in handy here as well. Take the bolt carrier group out of the upper receiver and clean the upper receiver. Dissemble the bolt carrier group and wipe it down. The rifle functions off of how smoothly and consistently the bolt carrier group moves through the upper receiver, so any changes and increases in friction by sand or dust can quickly lead to jams.
No Carbon Buildup
Carbon buildup in the action of the AR-15  can cause jams. While some carbon can build up in your rifle’s barrel and this should be cleaned occasionally, the action is where significant carbon buildup can accumulate and cause problems. The bolt carrier, the bolt, and the so-called “star chamber” (the area between the locking lugs and the rear of the chamber) are the areas you most want to focus on clearing of carbon residue.
Use a solvent, like CLP (which stands for, “Clean, Lubricate, Protect”), the military’s cleaner of choice, Hoppes #9, or any gun cleaner. Any organic solvent, even gasoline, kerosene and diesel fuel, can tackle carbon build-up. Use a knife to scrape the carbon off of the bolt and extractor surfaces. Dental picks or a specialized gun pick set can be quite useful in scraping carbon off hard-to-reach areas, like the star chamber. The end goal is to achieve seamless, smooth movement by all the moving pieces of your rifle’s action. Cut down on any friction by removing the carbon, and the gun will work smoothly and won’t jam.
Do Not Mix Ammo Types
While at first glance, a steel cased .223 round and a brass cased .223 round seem to have few differences, the two types of ammo can cause problems when fired one right after the other. Steel casings are covered with polymer. The polymer melts and sticks to the inside of the action. Steel casings don’t seem to have any problems cycling through with this. However, when brass is fired after steel, the polymer sticks to the brass casings and causes jams. A simple way to avoid this is to clean between using different types of ammunition.
Another thing to keep in mind with using different ammo types is that steel casings do not expand in the chamber as readily as brass ones do. This leads to carbon build-up in the chamber when firing steel-cased ammo. While steel-cased ammo is not as sensitive to this and seems to cycle fine, firing brass ammo without cleaning the chamber will cause jams. In fact, you can even end up tearing the base off of the brass casings. If this happens and the body of the casing gets stuck without its base in your rifle’s chamber, you’ll need a broken shell extractor in order to get it out. Even with the proper tools, a broken casing base can be quite challenging to remove. There’s also the danger that the brass case won’t yield, but instead your extractor will break.
Do Not Run The Rifle Dry (for extended shooting periods)
If you’re going to be doing any intense or extended shooting (100 or more rounds) with your AR-15, you’ll need to “run it wet.” What that means is that you’ll need to have some kind of lubricant, like CLP. Before you start shooting, spray some of the lubricant into the action onto the bolt, and work the bolt back and forth to thoroughly coat it. Then let your rifle sit for a few minutes. If the AR-15 is run dry for long, it will start to seize up; a little lubricant will go a long way.
Is The Magazine Causing Jams?
Most jamming issues with the AR-15 are related to the rifle not being clean enough, but occasionally the rifle magazines are to blame. If you’ve cleaned your rifle extremely well and you’re still experiencing jams, check your magazine. Manually cycle some bullets through the action to see how they are feeding from the magazine. If you have a second magazine or can borrow a magazine from a friend, try it to see if the jamming issue goes away. On some GI-spec, 30-round magazines, the magazine body just ahead of the bullet’s tip may need a little sanding to smooth it out. If that still does not alleviate the problem with that particular magazine, look on the bright side, magazines are relatively inexpensive, so you can always purchase another one to replace a faulty one.
Pistons? A Solution?
The piston AR-15 has been touted as the solution to jams. After all, without all that gas blowing back into the action, won’t carbon build-up be less of a problem? The short answer is yes, piston rifles do tend to have less jams overall and you can get a few hundred more rounds through it before you have cleaning issues, but the results are not exponentially improved. The AR-15 will never achieve the reliability of the AK-47. The reason? The AR15 has lots of pieces with tight tolerances. It is a very precise, very accurate rifle (something the AK-47 is not). The fine-tuning and the exactness of the pieces have made it into a highly accurate rifle. However, because of this, there is no room for dirt or debris in the rifle. This continues to affect both piston and gas tube AR-15s alike. The key here is not necessarily to purchase a more expensive and heavier piston AR-15, but rather to treat your rifle like the highly specific machine it is.
The tools are not as important as the care taken in keeping your AR-15 clean and functioning. A rag, toothpick, some cotton swabs, a knife and some kind of cleaner/lubricant are all you need. Add to your gun cleaning collection as you find what works best for you and your rifle.
Focus on the jamming hot-spots. The trigger group, the rifle’s exterior and the muzzle flash hider do not generally cause or contribute to jams. They may help aesthetically, but their cleanliness has little to do with the firing and cycling functionality of the rifle. Keep the star chamber, the bolt carrier group, the bolt, and the inside of the upper receiver exceptionally clean and you’re AR-15 rifle will work smoothly.
As a soldier in Afghanistan, Colin Cash would take out his rifle and fire nearly 400 rounds during target practice without a single jam. Daily, his rifle was buffeted by dust and dirt kicked up by whirling helicopter blades. The fine grains got into every crevice of his M16A4 rifle. The key to his success was simply the attention he gave to keeping his rifle exceedingly clean, knowing its hot-spots, and running it wet during range time. When interviewed, Colin Cash said the soldiers routinely cleaned their rifles. The AR-15 is an amazing rifle, accurate and customizable. Perhaps that is why it found a home with the United States military as well as among hunters , marksman and civilian gun aficionados. If you give your rifle some extra attention when it comes to cleaning it, its jamming issues will become a thing of the past.