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Cold weather shooting considerations

By Massad Ayoob

Massad Ayoob

Issue #126 • November/December, 2010

Winter will soon be upon us. Cold weather makes a lot of things more difficult. Running. Walking. Navigating through the woods. And, of course, safely manipulating and shooting firearms.

Whether you're talking about hunting (big game season is generally in the colder months), or just working the ranch or farm with the usual needs for firearms that crop up "on the place," or carrying a concealed personal protection handgun, there are factors to be considered and changes that sometimes need to be made. Last Christmas/New Year season, I wrote an entry called "The Guns of Winter" on my blog. It got some truly great response in terms of tips from winter-wise shooters. Let's expand upon it here in the magazine.

First, the initial blog entry that I posted then, which follows here:

Thinsulate glove pulls high tech warm & waterproof winter coat back, to reveal Colt .45 automatic kept warm, dry, and accessible through coat front in Bianchi X15 shoulder holster.
Thinsulate glove pulls high tech warm & waterproof winter coat back, to reveal Colt .45 automatic kept warm, dry, and accessible through coat front in Bianchi X15 shoulder holster.

The guns of winter

I spent Christmas in the Chicago area, and returning to warmer climes for (most of) the rest of the season reminds me of why I have lately wintered as much as possible closer to the subtropical zone.

Most of my life, though, was spent in northern New England where winters are long and cold. From there to Canada to Alaska in winter, I learned that careful planning can make guns a lot more manageable in sub-freezing and often sub-zero temperatures.

Cold hands get numb, and numb hands get clumsy. Gloved hands can be warm, but warm gloves are thick enough to reduce the sense of feel and make gun-handling clumsy...a potentially dangerous thing. Snow, freezing rain, and even a rime of ice on the gun when you're outdoors with it long enough in inclement weather won't help, either.

As to gloves, you want the one on the hand that works the trigger to come off quickly, smoothly, and silently when you need to shoot. I tried the old woodsman's trick of a thin, lengthwise knife slit on the trigger finger portion of the glove to let the warm index finger sneak out when it needed to work the trigger. Imperfect. Snow got into the glove and froze the finger as soon as you had to grab a snowy branch or catch yourself in a fall in the snow. Also, the palmar surface of the glove wants something rubbery for traction.

Traction helps on the gun itself. Consider skateboard tape. Yes, it's ugly...but it's efficient. Most lubricants thicken and get sludgy in arctic temperatures. Oil in the firing pin channel that "gels up" can cause a misfire when you desperately need to make a shot. Some of my colleagues swear by graphite. I found that thin watch oil worked great. I learned to put masking tape over the gun muzzle to keep snow out of the bore. If the bore plugs with snow, unnoticed in a fall or when a branch dumps snow over you and the muzzle-up rifle or shotgun (or catches unnoticed in the muzzle-down long arm), the stage can be set for a blow-up when the gun is fired with an obstructed bore.

I learned that a heavier trigger pull was a good thing to prevent premature discharge when working with cold-numbed or gloved trigger finger. I learned that a rifle or shotgun that fit perfectly in T-shirt weather was too long, and needed a shorter stock, when there were thick, multiple layers of winter clothing material between the shoulder and the gun butt.

As a handgun hunter in my teens, I learned from my predecessors to carry the gun under my coat, protected from the elements. With a long coat, a cross-draw holster let me reach it quick, but I found a shoulder holster worked best of all: if I fastened the outer coat up to just below the pectoral muscles, the upper part of the coat would stay closed to keep out cold and wind, but the hand could knife right in to gain immediate access. The coat-protected shoulder holster also gave the best protection to the handgun if you fell face-first in deep snow. I learned from experience that gloves would block the trigger return of double action revolvers. And I learned in the worst inclement weather to carry "beaters"—true rough duty guns, not "safe queen" guns—that wouldn't make me worry more about the gun rusting than about spotting the deer in the thicket.

Plan ahead, and get practice manipulating your guns with gloves. You may have to do just that in a fast-breaking "shoot now or forget it" situation.

There are lots of folks reading this who have tons of experience shooting in deep cold. Please—chime in and share what you've learned about that!

Note the bowed out shape toward the front of the trigger guard on America's most popular bolt action hunting rifle, the Remington Model 700. It makes the gun work better with gloves on in cold weather.
Note the bowed out shape toward the front of the trigger guard on America's most popular bolt action hunting rifle, the Remington Model 700. It makes the gun work better with gloves on in cold weather.

Response from Backwoods Home readers

The many thousands of Backwoods Home readers are an absolute treasure-trove of personal experience and experience handed down through generations of rural families. I was pleased to note that there was also much useful military experience offered, from "frozen Chosin" during the war in Korea to the frigid Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan today, which applies to anyone, anywhere who has to manipulate a firearm in temperature conditions that quickly freeze human hands.

Roger, from the United Kingdom, wrote: "In arctic warfare training in Norway we used to use a condom over the barrel of our sniper rifles secured with a rubber band. A lot of the paras used an elastoplast waterproof sticking plaster. The small round ones seemed to work the best and they didn't foul the front sight. We also used to keep our magazines in inside pockets as we experienced less misfires (probably the cheap powder bought by the British government). On the old SLR (FN's Self-Loading Rifle) we used to double the magazine up but not end to end as in the movies but side by side with plastic spacer between (usually one of the thick plastic shims used by upvc window fitters) again with a condom and an elastic band on top. We would join them together with gaffer tape which sticks in almost any weather. Always carry a roll in the car even now. We used to join the mags as the SLR only had a 20 round capacity and fishing around for one in the cold wastes a lot of time that you may not have whereas the condom could be pushed off easy and change over was very rapid. Skateboard tape wasn't around then but we used to use emery cloth (cloth backed sandpaper that's waterproof) which we stuck on with contact adhesive including a small strip on the trigger as your finger didn't weld itself on to it so easily but it gave good grip. We also used gaffer tape on the radio batteries as these became loose in cold weather and would fall out. Think it was because the different materials contracted at different rates in the cold. Oh, the wonders of gaffer tape (think you call it duct tape actually). It can be used in cold weather to close up severe cuts or wounds as superglue doesn't function at such low temperatures."

Now, if I can steal a line from someone else, "I don't care who y'are," you ain't gonna get that kind of experiential advice from the kid behind the sporting goods counter at the Big Box Store in the city.

Keeping your hands warm and working

The Backwoods Home blog readers came up with some truly good advice on "handwear" in frigid climates.

Marc wrote, "When hunting in the cold I wear thin poly 'wicker' gloves under warm mittens. I can slide off or fling off the mittens as needed and still have some hand protection when hanging onto that frozen grip. They're not bulky but they help for a while, though they can be a little slippery."

My friend Erich from Albuquerque chimed in: "I got advice on gloves from a friend who's a LEO (law enforcement officer) in the Twin Cities, and use those that he recommended. Neoprene is wonderful stuff. I also make sure to bring the gloves to the range and practice drawing, shooting and reloading while wearing them. I carry A-IWB (appendix position, inside the waistband), so I don't worry about the effects of cold on my lubes or about covering the muzzle, but those would certainly be concerns were I a LEO up north. I also had the same concerns about light trigger pulls that you mention (was gratified to see that my thinking was good on that), and also find that it's important to have a gun with an adequately large trigger guard to allow access for the gloved trigger finger."

Pete added, "There are two types of handwear that you didn't mention. The first is the "shooter's mitten," a regular mitten with a separate finger sleeve for use when actually shooting. The other is a 'glove/mitten' where the fingers have individual sleeves, and a fold back mitten that covers them when dexterity isn't needed."

Van contributed, "When I was younger and hunting the upstate NY area, I tried to keep a loose fitting but thick and warm glove over a thinner glove. The thinner glove was inadequate to insulate my hand for more than a few minutes, but helped to slow heat loss when the thicker glove was tossed to the ground, or slipped off slowly. It did allow accurate and careful manipulation of the trigger and other controls. I always wanted to have a sticky substance on my thinner glove but it inhibited the doffing of the thicker glove. Skateboard tape on the gun...Duhhhh, why didn't I think of that 30 years ago?"

Pete subsequently added, "An excellent light/medium glove is the SealSkinz brand. These are waterproof/breathable gloves, with just a little more bulk than the familiar brown cotton "jersey" gloves or aviator styles. They would be great under mittens, and protect for a good while in bitterly cold conditions. We've had temperatures in the teens here in Alabama, and they are my normal glove for cold weather casual wear."

Multiple factors to consider

Cold weather shooting capability isn't about just one thing. Syd reminded the blog readers of that very effectively when he combined two important elements in this post comment: "I agree with Roger... about the use of condoms and a rubber band to keep the barrel of a rifle or shotgun clear of mud and snow. I've used them more than a few times in hunting and in military service. Finger Cots (rubber or nitrile covers for finger wounds) work as well and are shorter to keep from fouling up your sights. I also recommend not using oil at all as a lubricant. There are several synthetic lubricants on the market today that work well and unlike oils don't freeze or attract dust. Among them is a thing called Mili-Tec but an even better product that I was introduced to at the NRA convention a few years ago is called SLiP 2000 and SLiP EWL. They have done really well on my M-21 in Iraq and Afghanistan where temperatures can be extreme and dust is a real problem."

Syd continues, "One of the tricks for cold weather especially in the Hindu Kush: I've been using the issue Nomex flying gloves inside of a shooting mitt (mitten that has a Velcroed opening in the palm) so that I can pull out my fingers when I need to shoot while having a very close fitting glove that offers some protection (flesh will freeze to metal when it's cold enough) for dexterity. It's actually a trick I learned hunting elk in Colorado and it works fairly well in keeping fingers flexible and warm most of the time."

More voices of experience were heard on the topic of lubricants in extremely cold climates. Mike S. pointed out, "3 winters in Germany, 1 in Korea, 3 at Fort Dix, one in Afghanistan, back to Afghanistan for next winter. M16A1, M4, M9 pistol. I have always used, and never had a problem with Breakfree (CLP). Before CLP we had LSA, and that worked fine, too. Use LAW (like sewing machine oil) in extreme cold (below about -10). Used CLP in Afghan and Iraqi dust—no problem, if you keep cleaning it. Most problems I've seen came from dirty weapons—poor maintenance. Even with the dust, I don't do lube-free weapons: Both the M16 and M9 require SOME lube to work."

Mike S. added, "To keep mud/snow out of the muzzle, an issue muzzle cap, condom, or tape will work. An SF (Special Forces) trick that I heard of was to put a foam earplug in the bore of the M9. Tried it—the things keep falling out. Gloves: GoreTex ski gloves in winter, and practice trigger squeeze to become competent. 39 years Marines, then Army Infantry, now Civil Affairs."

Barnhart Burner grips give a "skateboard tape" effect to another Colt .45 auto pistol, shown here in that gun's appropriate state of readiness, "cocked and locked."
Barnhart Burner grips give a "skateboard tape" effect to another Colt .45 auto pistol, shown here in that gun's appropriate state of readiness, "cocked and locked."

When you get home

Eventually, your adventure in the frozen wasteland will end, and you'll get back to your "backwoods home," be it a cozy cabin with a roaring fire in the hearth or the comfy condo in the metropolis that you fled for a while to enjoy hunting in the winter wonderland. Don't forget that the cold steel of your hunting gun has been chilled, perhaps soaked with rain or snow or sleet, then put back in a heated vehicle, and then brought into your warm house. Treat it like your horse after a long and tiring ride: take care of it, before you take care of yourself.

When I was a teenage kid hunting in northern New England in the winter, I always made a point of cleaning and oiling down my gun(s) even before I took that first hot shower once I got home from the woods. Condensation doesn't hurt us, but it does hurt our expensive metal tools. This practice kept my guns from rusting. It was one of the relatively few smart things I did when I was young.

On the Backwoods Home blog commentaries, a reader who chose the screen name WaterWings addressed this point sincerely. I appreciate that.

Remember, it's not just about the gun. When you're out in inclement weather, spare ammo can be compromised, too. A fall into a creek, or even a snowbank, can leave moisture in and around your cartridges and shotshells. Do you reload? I've noticed that damn few shooters waterproof their primer pockets, the way the ammunition factories do with premium ammunition for hunting, defense, or police and military contracts.

Before this nation was even born, a watchword among the Colonists was, "Keep your powder dry!" In second quarter 2010, we filmed my segments for the fifth season of Personal Defense TV on the Sportsman Channel (www.thesportsmanchannel.com) at Firearms Academy of Seattle. The saying among folks who live in Washington State is that there are two seasons there: warm rain and cold rain. The season we got was...rain. If you watch this season's shows, it will be apparent that it was raining for half of my segments, and an absolute downpour in a couple of them.

In the course of filming, a couple of boxes of ammunition I'd left on the range got absolutely soaked, one of Remington 9mm and another fifty rounds or so of Speer .38 Special. At ammo prices today, was I gonna throw that away? Naah...

But was I gonna trust it? Naah...

So, I simply put each saturated box into a separate Ziploc™ bag clearly marked, "Water-soaked ammo: Slow Fire Practice Only." (Why slow-fire only? Because if moisture has seeped into the cartridge from the front of the case mouth and ruined the powder, but the primer still works, the primer alone can generate enough force to drive the bullet into the barrel and lodge it there. If you are practicing flat-out rapid fire, your finger can pull the trigger again before the brain has processed the fact that the last shot was a "poof" instead of a "bang," and that next shot will be a "Ka-BOOM" that ruins the gun and may injure the shooter and bystanders. Ergo, "slow fire practice only.")

When I got home, I made a point of shooting up that ammo. Every round of it fired perfectly. It had served the purpose of every cartridge ever manufactured: it was shot. It contributed to my practice and skill development. You want to practice regularly with your carry loads/practice loads anyway, right?

If you're on a long-hiking hunt, keep a practical amount of rounds for field reloading on your person, but carry the whole boxes of spare ammo in carefully sealed airtight plastic bags. By the time the ammo in the above example got saturated, those bags just kept it segregated from the stuff that wasn't in any way compromised. But if I'd been smart enough to put it into sealed plastic bags beforehand, knowing that it was going to be raining hard, the ammo wouldn't have been compromised at all. I've had good experiences with a new product in this vein called LokSak™, www.loksak.com.

And, when in really hostile weather...

Flavet offered this advice on the blog: "Massad, I've never tried this myself but I have it on good authority and offer it as a tip to you and your readers. My nice, quiet unassuming younger relative spent the very late Fall of 1950 near the shore of a mountainside lake. The lake is well known locally and has gained some international fame as the "Chosin Reservoir" in North Korea, where temperatures at that time of year can drop into the range of -40F to -50F. That was the case in 1950 when David went up there with his comrades in the 7th Regiment of the U.S. Marine Corps. Hardly anyone in the group had thought to bring synthetic lubricants for their weapons. David and most of the others were equipped with M-1 Garand rifles that they lubricated with government-issued gun oil. During the course of an unusually busy time when there were numerous targets for their "assault" rifles the oil in the weapons froze, locking their actions. Had this condition been allowed to continue the Marines would have had only bayonets, entrenching tools, and pineapple-appearing metallic explosive balls to subdue their prey. David and the lads were resourceful, though, and found a method for rapidly thawing the rifles' actions so they could bring them back into the fray. Although their trouser flies were secured by buttons instead of by the more convenient "zippers" used in civilian tailoring, the troops found themselves able-despite the lethally cold temperature-to open the fly, bring the necessary body part into play, and pee on the rifles' actions. Happily, they were able to resume effective firing and a few days later were given the opportunity to walk down the mountains to a seaside town from which they boarded ships and cruised to a warmer climate. They welcomed the plates of steaming scrambled, reconstituted eggs and cups of powdered coffee that were served on the ships."

After half a century of M16/AR15 rifle use on the range and in combat, manufacturers have learned the advantages of enlarged winter trigger guards, to allow access to gloved fingers.
After half a century of M16/AR15 rifle use on the range and in combat, manufacturers have learned the advantages of enlarged winter trigger guards, to allow access to gloved fingers.

Planning for the weather

You wouldn't fail to put anti-freeze in your car, or snow tires on, before a Maine or Wisconsin winter set in. You wouldn't go out in that weather in Bermuda shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt. Plan accordingly with your firearms.

While it's still warm, go out to the range with your Guns Of Winter, and your winter gloves. Find out under controlled conditions how the cold weather accommodations are going to affect your gun handling. Shoot your long guns from the shoulder with the heavy clothing on to make sure you have the right eye relief—distance between the eye and the near lens—on your telescopic-sighted hunting rifle now, not on a frigid December day when you have the Great Stag of the Forest in front of you, and only a second or two to mount the rifle to your shoulder, take perfect aim, and score the winter meat supply for your family. Make sure that you can draw your sidearm from under your winter coat and fire it with your winter gloves on, before you find yourself on a frozen, windswept roadside with only seconds to draw and hit, or die, in a self-defense scenario.

I've about run out of space here, so let me gratefully thank those who contributed to the Backwoods Home blog entry in question. This is the first time I've tried a crossover between the blog side of the magazine and the printed publication itself. Do feel free to write the magazine (or me, at the blog) and let me know what you think of the concept.

People in my age group will know which musical artists of our time get the credit for the line when I say, I did this article "with a little help from my friends."




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