In a world where autoloading handguns and rifles are the most common type of personal firearm, I’m constantly amazed at how little attention magazines are given. For any semiautomatic firearm, the magazine is easily the most important component. Without a functional magazine, you are left with a single-shot firearm at best, and an improvised club at the worst. Because of this, maintaining and cleaning your magazines is just as important as cleaning and maintaining your firearm.
AR-15/M16 magazines were initially designed to be disposable and not reused, hence the lightweight aluminum design. The US Military, always keen to save a buck, soon decided that the magazines were not disposable and reused them. Soon after this decision the design of the M16 magazine changed to allow them to be more easily disassembled and cleaned. Most handgun magazines by contrast are designed to be used hundreds of times and are easily disassembled for cleaning.
The best way to clean your magazine is to completely disassemble it and wipe it down. Magazines are great at collecting dust, dirt, and grit, and those things can cause your magazine to jam up or cause excess wear and tear on the spring and magazine body. The disassembly procedure for magazines is not universal, but most magazines have a detachable floorplate that allows the spring and follower to be removed.
USGI M16 style steel magazines are not the easiest to disassemble. A few tools are required to pull the floor plate, but a pocket knife or screwdriver and a pair of needle nose pliers such as can be found on a Leatherman or other multi-tool can accomplish the task. First, pry the tab at the rear of the magazine down so that the detents can clear the spine (Figure 2). Next, grab the tab with your needle nose pliers and pull the tab, sliding the floor plate from the bottom. The spring is usually still held in place by the floor plate tabs, but in case it is not be ready to catch it if it comes flying out. Remove the spring and follower from the bottom of the magazine body.
With the spring and follower out, wipe down the inside of the magazine by pulling a clean microfiber cloth through the hollow tube of the magazine body a couple of times. Next, wipe down the spring and follower to remove any remaining dust and sand. I like to lightly lubricate my springs to inhibit rust, but you may prefer to keep the entire assembly dry depending on the environment it will be used in. Remember that oil attracts dust in dry and arid environments, and bear that in mind when deciding whether or not to very lightly oil your magazine springs.
Reassembly is the opposite of disassembly.
With the magazine assembled and loaded, check the feed lips and spine of the magazine to inspect for any cracks. If you have a go/no-go gauge, you can measure the feed lips to make sure that the lips have not spread apart. Most MagPul magazine dust covers double as a go/no-go gauge. Only the latest MagPul models come equipped with these dust covers, so if you don’t have a go/no-go gauge you can check your magazine by smacking the base of a fully loaded mag. If any cartridges pop out, your feed lips are not in spec or you have a weak spring. If the feed lips are out of spec, you can gently bend them back into shape, but be aware that this flexing causes metal fatigue. This metal fatigue will allow the lips to be more easily bent or broken. Any magazine that fails these tests should be marked as bad and only used for practice on a range, if at all.
There are a number of polymer AR-15 magazines on the market, and most of them are much easier to disassemble and clean. The MagPul PMAG is probably the most popular after market AR magazine. Their floor plates are easily removed, making cleaning and maintenance a breeze. MagPul advertises their magazines as “virtually indestructible” and offers a fantastic warranty on their products. These magazines utilize a patented anti-tilt follower and a unique spring designed to prevent binding and maximize the life of the magazine. With the included dust cover, they require less cleaning and maintenance than normal USGI magazines.