The most commonly held myths and misunderstandings we encounter revolve around the natures of oils and greases, including penetrating or 'crawling' oils; a lack of understanding of how friction impacts a weapon; and most dangerously, the idea that a shooter shouldn't lubricate a weapon because it may "attract dust" and "cause a jam".
Educate yourself - Myths & Misunderstanding
The short version of the science behind all this, is that machines are engineered to cycle under very specific operating parameters, including energy and surface frictions, as well as load, speed, materials, and others. Every shot you take with your weapon adds friction contaminant into your action, which can include carbon, unburned powder, heat, and brass shavings. Environmental exposure adds more. And remember: friction is cumulative in guns. Every speck adds up. When running a gun 'dry', without lubricant, all this friction reaches a tipping point far earlier, where it puts more friction into your weapon than the energy it cycles under is able to overcome.
Lubricant minimizes the amount of friction those contaminants are able to apply to your friction surfaces, and pushes that friction tipping-point further out. The more properly designed the lubricant for any given machine, the further out that tipping point is pushed.
There's no way around dust - what matters is how much friction you allow it to apply to your weapon.
What actual research and testing repeatedly shows about operating in dusty environments, conducted by various organizations, are four key things: 1) it's nearly impossible to keep dust out of your weapon entirely in real-life conditions, 2) magazines are a weak-link with dust, so keep yours sealed up as best possible and never lubricate ammo, 3) running a gun 'dry', without lubricant, results in the most malfunctions, and 4) running your weapon with heavy lubrication results in the fewest malfunctions.
While there is no way around wet substances interacting differently with dust than a dry surface, again, the issue that matters is not dust - what matters is friction. Heavy lubricant minimizes the ability of sand and dust to apply friction to your friction surfaces - and the better designed for guns with base stocks and boundary lubricants a lube is, the harder it will be for this friciton contaminant to apply friction. Heavy lubricant may cause your weapon to look like a sugar cookie after time in sand or dust, but ease of cleaning and physical appearances are far secondary to whether or not your weapon will go 'bang', every time.
Minimizing friction is key to reliability - 'Dry' guns allow small amounts of contaminant to apply enough friction to cause a malfunction. Lubricants minimize the friction that contaminants apply.
Myth & Misunderstanding: "Lubes are all just the same"
This is similar to expecting all tires for all vehicles to be 'basically the same', and is a perception issue. Lubricants come in more varieties than ammunition does, for far more specific and carefully calibrated uses. This perception problem is made worse with statements similar to, "Well, I've been using ___ for years, and I've never had a problem with it." While such a statement may actually be completely true - that person may indeed never have had a problem with brand x - they may sincerely not recognize the extra wear their weapon is incurring. Or that malfunctions they've experienced weren't random, but predictable and preventable consequences of friction. Such statements generally originate with well-meaning folks who simply don't know what they don't know, largely because they've never experienced anything better. Or, perhaps, they've been doing cursory level research into lubricants to know just enough to understand that motor oil and Automatic Transmission Fluid will keep a gun running well, or they feel they've been bitten by charlatans offering snake oil.
For example, as appealing as spray-on dry lubricants are in theory, they have thus far simply not proven to reduce friction to acceptable levels in guns, especially over multiple magazines, and especially in the presence of sand and fouling. Their form and delivery of lubricity, often meant for locks or household items, is generally short-lived in guns, as contaminants grind through fairly quickly under the violence of gunfire, and reach a weapon's surfaces to add friction and wear. There's a reason you don't see vehicles, lawn mowers, or gears lubricated with spray-on dry lubricants. To the extent specialist-applied coatings are used (which we highly recommend), they are almost always used in conjunction with wet lubricants - yes, even NiB and TiN are vastly improved in performance with a properly designed wet lubricant. It's important to remember the simple reality that hundreds of thousands of variants of wet lubricants are used on machines that lives are relying on across the globe every day, because they continue to work better than anything else.
As to what happens when wet lubricants come into contact with friction contaminants, readers should by now recognize the key tribological properties of greases, in that they are designed to stay where you place them, and that when they come into contact with friction contaminant, they will generally trap it outside of friction surfaces. Oils, on the other hand, suspend contaminant and flow, making them best used in sealed systems with filters and pumps. Oils simply have a strong tendency to migrate friction contaminant into a gun's friction surfaces, or flow right out of them all together.
And oils also crawl to varying degrees - which is the final key myth and misunderstanding that is important to cover.
Myth & Misunderstanding: The Dangers of Crawling and Penetrating Oils
As a general rule, the only places you need lubricant in your weapon are friction surfaces - the shiny or worn spots, and places you know are sliding against other surfaces. However, it is exceedingly common to hear a shooter proclaim the virtues of 'thin' oils that crawl, spread, or 'penetrate the pores of the metal'. At the lubrication level, all this does, essentially, is provide a honing oil for your gun's friction surfaces - just enough lubricant to keep the grinding of asperities going, without stopping the action, but not enough to achieve the "hydrodynamic lift" which separates the surfaces. Light oils often result in a 'whetstone effect' in guns. Boundary additives are the only things which may prevent this, and we discuss both issues in more detail an upcoming segment.
Some also believe this 'crawling' effect is good for "getting to places you might have missed". The reality is that there are incredibly few friction surfaces in a firearm an operator cannot get to, several of which - including firing pins/strikers, as well as some trigger internals - are actually best run dry in many situations, owing to the different energies, forces, and fouling they experience, and the amount of friction surface they are subject to.
However, lightweight 'penetrating' and 'crawling' oils may also present a potentially lethal threat to you, by way of your ammunition.
Heckler & Koch, Sig Sauer, and Springfield Armory all issue manuals stating that users of their firearms are to avoid using lubricants that advertise themselves as penetrating, crawling, and/or migrating, as they can deaden primers. A couple of weapons manufacturing firms also make similar admonishments about spray lubricants. Similarly, Dillion Precision actually advises users of its reloading presses to use a penetrating oil specifically to kill primers, in the event one gets stuck in a primer tube and needs to be disposed of. RCBS also notes that oil will kill primers, and at least one very common gun oil explicitly notes on their FAQ page that their product can penetrate unsealed primers. While there has been some debate as to the severity of the threat, there remains enough question - and enough safety manuals published from preeminent firearms manufacturers explicitly stating this threat - for this threat to be taken seriously. If you currently use an oil, it may be worth your time to research whether it has penetrating or crawling properties.
Myth & Misunderstanding: Firearm Energy & Friction
Given the discussion with energy and friction, it may make sense that in guns with what we loosely term "human-powered actions", such as pump and lever guns, most adults are able to put more energy into cycling those actions than self-loading weapons are designed to cycle themselves with. Friction matters much less with human-powered actions, as our bodies can adjust and overcome typical excessive friction from contaminants, even under the harshest sand and mud conditions.
However, self-loading actions on semi- and full-auto firearms - which are what the vast majority of us rely on for survival - operate under a relatively narrow window of applied energy and friction. Very few are designed for the operator to be able to adjust the amount of energy applied to the action. Consequently, we have to pay much more attention to friction and lubrication issues with self-loading actions than is necessary in human-powered actions. This narrow window of energy and friction is your safety zone - it is your life line, and must be protected.
The only way to mitigate added friction is with lubrication – wet, dry, special coatings. Anything is better than nothing. If someone you know currently believes that lubricating their gun may cause a
Human-powered actions are more forgiving of friction contaminants than self-loading actions, because of the relatively narrow window of energy and friction semi- and full-auto actions are designed to cycle under. But every gun has its friction tipping-point.
The dust from an AT-4 firing. Real-world friction contaminants come in many forms, very few of which will be experienced at a gun range in the quantity or variety that field-use of your weapon will expose it to.
Myth & Misunderstanding: Real-World Friction
It's important to remember that the firing-range conditions most shooters encounter are very different from field conditions, and are not the best benchmark in your understanding of firearm reliability. Some direct impingement ARs, for example, have been known to fire numerous mags in a lab or on a range with little to no lubricant. Many won't. However, separate from the enhanced wear these firearms incur during such tests, the added contaminants of dust and sand during the realities of a running gun battle or rotor wash from a helicopter add completely different levels of friction contamination than a range session generally supplies. Same for a hunting trip, with dust storms, off-roading dust, and accidents. Reality and urgency can expose your firearm to friction contaminants hard to anticipate or control - everything from frost or sweat to spilled fuel or drinks, as well as blood, humidity, oxidation, and endless forms of particulate. This applies to hunters and law enforcement nearly as much as military personnel.
The cleanliness of a range, even during realistic training, rarely provides real-world levels of friction contaminant.
Because of the unpredictable severity with which friction contaminants present themselves in a real-world situation, it's prudent to cast a very critical eye towards any lubricant. They're not all the same, and your life may be on the line. Or your dinner. Be especially questioning of lubricants marketed towards shooters relying on either specialized surface preparation, sprayability, or theoretical protection methods that you don't see being used commonly in other machines around you.
The reason such skepticism is good, is that engineering firms and tribologists spend billions of dollars annually on R&D - it's a near certainty that any worthwhile development in any corner of this world will have long ago spread to the machines and lubricants you come into contact with regularly. There is almost nothing "new and revolutionary" in tribology and lubrication - most advances come with formulations practicing excellence in the fundamentals as applied to specific machines, creative applications of existing tech, and incremental evolutions in understandings or manufacture of existing materials.
It would be easy to try to hype a lubricant with confusing and ambiguous jargon, but the reality is the core concepts are very simple, even if some of the engineering can be quite difficult. Regardless, there's very little new under the sun with tribology - so be suspect. Skepticism is good. A big part of our mission is to spread understanding of the basics so that you can keep yourself alive. Guns simply do not occupy a magical space that separates them from the laws of physics or the lubrication realities of millions of other machines, so beware of gimmicks. Especially lubricants that may be repackaged industrial oils, or cross-over lubricants not specifically designed for the operating parameters of firearms and the environments we operate them in.
Myth & Misunderstanding: "Attracting Dust"
Your weapon's reliability is not an issue of dust - it's an issue of friction. It's critical to understand that not lubricating your weapon to avoid 'attracting dust' is a lethally dangerous myth, even if it is incredibly common to hear. This myth has been repeatedly debunked under testing and experience, not only by our firm, but also by special operations personnel, private-sector instructors, and by the US Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. In 2007, the US Army Test and Evaluation Command released a report titled "Baseline Reliability and Dust Assessment for the M4, M16, and M249", which covered this issue. The evaluation involved a multi-phase test, with 60,000 rounds fired per phase. What they found with the M4 specifically was that when lightly lubricated in a dusty environment they failed 9836 times - a failure rate of nearly 1 in 6 rounds. When heavily lubricated the M4s failed 678 times, or roughly 1 in 90 rounds. That's the difference between 5 failures with every magazine you fire, or 2-3 failures across an entire 210rd basic soldier's load of ammo.
When running an otherwise sound gun with quality ammo, it's important to fully internalize that the core issues of weapon reliability are friction surfaces and friction contaminant. Guns engineered to minimize either factor will cycle longer without lubricant. The flip side to that reality, is that weapons with long, tight friction surfaces, and actions subject to more friction contaminant, will shut down much earlier if dry. But no matter what, every gun has its friction tipping point, and your weapon will shut down on you if you reach it. Some are more tolerant than others, but they all have their friction limitations.
Lightweight oils are used on whetstones for a reason.
malfunction by "attracting dust", it's important they understand this myth is endangering their life, and the lives of those depending on them. We'd sincerely ask you to have them purchase a lubricant from any of our competitors, or even something from an automotive supply store - reliability is an issue of unforgiving consequence, and almost any lubricant available will keep a weapon running longer than operating it dry.
The key question for you to ask, is not whether friction contaminants will be 'attracted' to lubricant - the question is what your lubricant will do in their presence, because it will come into contact with multiple forms of friction contaminant every time you shoot. And it's nearly impossible to eliminate such contaminant, especially in the immediacy of combat or the unexpected.
"Guns do not occupy a magical exemption from the realities of physics - like any other machine they need to be lubricated, and the more appropriate that lubricant selection, the safer you are. Beware of inherited myth."