Shooting in Cold, Adverse Weather Requires Gun Maintenance Considerations
Firearms are mechanical devices with moving parts; extreme low temperatures can cause ice buildup, grease to harden and oil to gum, which can lead to point-of-impact changes and failure to fire
Firearm setups, such as this Ruger bolt-action rifle and Leupold scope, will function and perform just fine in extreme cold weather, as long as the shooter exercises some preventive maintenance and gun care in advance. (Ed Head photo)
The Battle of the Bulge, fought during the last winter of World War II, was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was the extreme cold weather.
The freezing defenders of Bastogne experienced cold so severe their weapons often froze and stopped functioning, requiring the application of American ingenuity to defrost their rifles.
Without resorting to primitive methods, are there some things shooters can do to prepare firearms for use in extremely cold weather?
Most of the time, here in northern Arizona, the temperature and humidity aren’t much of a factor in firearm care. For example, when I lived in Florida it seemed like a fingerprint on a gun would start to rust almost instantly. In Arizona, I’ve found my firearms require much less oiling and wiping down; rust is almost non-existent.
But it does get cold here, so I decided to do a little experiment one night when the temperature fell well below freezing. I placed a blued-steel rifle in a gun case and left it outside overnight. The next morning, the temperature was a balmy 19 degrees F with 70-percent humidity. The temperature inside my house when I brought the rifle in was 68 degrees F with 43-percent humidity.
Within seconds, the entire rifle – wood stock and metal – was covered in moisture and seconds later the water froze as a thin sheet of ice. Although the rifle remained functional, I’m thinking the ice buildup would have been worse if I had taken it out and back inside several times.
I can see how – in a much colder environment – it could have frozen to the point of locking up and not being capable of firing. Letting my iced-over rifle defrost resulted in it being dripping wet – inside and out – necessitating a very thorough cleaning and oiling.
Knowing cold-weather exposure can render a firearm unusable, is there anything we can do to overcome this?
If you’re hunting in Alaska, let’s say, you might be advised to leave your rifle outside and avoid bringing it into a warmer environment. As shown in my example, if the gun is brought inside, it’s going to need some attention.
What about grease and oil?
While some products are made to lubricate and protect in extreme-cold weather, other products may gum up or freeze. Frozen grease inside rifle bolts has been cited as one of the reasons for failure to fire; hardened grease retards the firing pin.
Conventional wisdom suggests rifles used in extreme cold should be cleaned, degreased and used without lubrication of any kind. If some form of lubricant must be used, graphite is usually recommended as a dry lubricant.
Most modern sporting rifles (MSR) and semi-auto pistols will cycle and function without any lubrication, at least for as many rounds as you might need to fire, so leaving them dry isn’t usually a problem.
Editor’s Note: When planning a hunting trip to a cold-weather environment, choosing a firearm chambered with the appropriate cartridge is a given. Choosing a firearm action – semi-auto, bolt or single shot – is just as important.
Can ammunition be influenced by extreme-cold weather?
While I’ve heard of instances of slow ignition of the powder charge, I think the real problem is a change in point-of-impact. Let’s say you sighted in your rifle on a hot summer day, put it in the gun safe and pulled it back out for a winter hunt in Canada. It’s very likely the zero (point of impact) is going to shift in the cold weather. The tip here would be to sight in the rifle once the hunting destination is reached.
Shooting and sighting in at the destination also will identify whether anything on, such as the scope, or part of the firearm has come loose or been damaged in shipment.
Speaking of riflescopes, most modern scopes are immune to internal fogging due to humidity and temperature changes, but like the rifle, scope optics can develop condensation and/or ice on surfaces.
I wasn’t sure if the scope adjustments – windage and elevation turrets – could freeze, so I checked in with my friend, Tim O’Connor at Leupold, who told me the only way that could happen is if moisture gets inside the scope (and he reminded me that won’t happen with a Leupold).
While O’Connor said scopes are pretty impervious to weather, he also cautioned it’s best to acclimate them to the climate and not subject them to sudden, radical temperature changes.
Preparing your equipment for cold, adverse climate could make the difference in whether you have a successful hunt, so don’t forget to include this in your planning.