It’s cold out there for much of the USA.
As the days get shorter and the leaves finally fall, for many of us, our outdoor shooting pursuits tend to be limited because of limited after-work daylight hours and the weather turns cold.
We can still get some trigger time at our favorite indoor ranges and some outdoor facilities may have an old barrel stove to warm us up, but our fingers and our guns need some additional attentional attention to keep functioning as the mercury dips.
Much of what we’ve learned about firearms and their functioning in the cold comes from military experience and research. We have also taken a few tips from hunters who venture to the far north in search of muskox or caribou.
What we know is that our normal warm weather cleaning and lubrication regimen may not be sufficient once the temps drop and in some cases moisture in the form of snow, ice and condensation conspire to keep our guns from functioning.
The Cold Weather Challenge
Fortunately, most shooters probably won’t encounter the sub-zero temps that can hamper functioning due to lubricants getting sticky. Today’s modern lubricants have pretty low-temperature ratings and for the most part, your semi-auto firearms shouldn’t have any trouble.
We’ll take a look at some of the best options a little later.
Where guns start acting up is when moisture is involved. It doesn’t take but a drop or two of strategically placed rain to freeze a firing pin in place on a late season elk hunt or varmint hunting trip. We may not even need moisture in the form of precipitation to take our gun out of the fight.
A trip into a warm house, truck or tent after being in the cold all day will cause condensation on and in the gun. With that fine film of moisture in your bolt or trigger mechanism when you head out the next day and expose the gun to the frosty temps things tend to start freezing up.
Not to mention the exterior glass of your optics fogging up. If you have older optics you may start seeing the interior fog as well if there is a microscopic hole in a seal somewhere.
Another thing to consider when shooting in the cold is the behavior of our ammunition and the changes in our velocity and how our bullet flies through the dense air.
Finally, we need to consider the shooter. I don’t care who you are, when you are outside for extended periods in cold weather your extremities (fingers and toes) are going to get cold and not work as well as in warm weather.
You need to keep your hands functioning to safely operate your gun.
Keep The Guns Running
Let’s look at a few simple things we can do keep our rifle or handgun running in cold weather.
Keep Them Dry
No kidding! But try still hunting through a spruce jungle after a wet snow. Everything you own will be wet. If we get our guns wet on a warm spring day, no problem. The guns will shoot and we take care to clean and dry them when we get home.
Now, get the gun sopping wet in a late-season hunting situation and the temps are say 24-28°F and you will start seeing the water droplets turn to ice on the exterior of your gun and very likely freezing the internals as well.
I recommend leaving your guns outside once you get them cold. When we backpack into our elk hunting area, the guns never come in the tent. They go up against a tree, usually with a garbage bag pulled over them to protect against rain and dripping snow.
As mentioned above, when you expose a cold gun to the warm interior of the tent or cabin, you allow condensation to settle in and on the gun. This encourages rust and greatly increases the odds that you will freeze something and render your gun inoperable if the outside temps stay below freezing.
The exception, of course, is if you freeze your gun. A few years back we were caught in a freezing rain coming back to camp late at night after boning out an elk. The next morning as we prepared to head out I checked my rifle and found the trigger inoperable and the firing pin frozen in the bolt.
We brought the gun in the tent, pulled the tape off the muzzle and removed the bolt. I propped the gun against a backpack, muzzle down to allow any moisture to drain away from the action. I then cleaned every surface I could and dried everything. We waited about two hours to be sure all the moisture had dried out then headed out.
With a 100% dry gun I did not have any other issues and managed to shoot an elk later that day.
Simple Cold Weather Tips
Tip 1: Cover the muzzle with electrical tape. Place a piece lengthwise over the muzzle, then take a wrap around to keep everything in place.
If you do this before you leave home it has to get really cold for the tape to stop sticking and come off. This keeps your bore dry and prevents snow or other debris from getting in and potentially plugging your barrel.
Just shoot through the tape when spot your trophy. You can also use finger cots, condoms or specially made muzzle covers for this purpose. It’s OK to tape over your muzzle brake as well. The tape will blow right off when you fire the gun.
Tip 2: Cover the gun with a waterproof sleeve. Many years ago Kifaru International sold a silnylon sleeve to cover your rifle and keep everything dry. They work like a charm. My gun sleeve went missing someplace years ago.
Now if I’m packing in on a late season trip I just pull a Kifaru Meat Bag over my rifle. It covers the barrel, scope and action, and everything stays dry. It comes off in second and you’re ready to fire. Something as simple as a garbage bag will work, too. Just keep the gun dry.
Tip 3: Clean and lubricate your firearm for cold, wet weather. If you are expecting extreme cold like the Arctic or maybe Wyoming or the Dakotas you want to clean your gun with something that removes all traces of oil, especially that made for warm conditions. Clean the trigger group, bolt and firing pin as well.
A couple of top choices for extreme cold are Bio-Syn Extra Firearm Lubricant CLP. This lube is a blend of vegetable and synthetic oils and has been tested in military arms to temps as low as -51°F.
Not only will it keep your bolt guns running, but it thrives in the world of full-auto and semi-auto weapons systems.
SLiP 2000 is another cold-weather lubricant worth looking at. This lube has an operational temperature to -100°F. It is recommended that you clean your firearm thoroughly, then coat all surfaces with the SLiP 2000.
Let it sit for 15-20 minutes and allow the lube to bond to the pores of the metal. Each subsequent use fills more microscopic pores to create a microfilm lubricated surface and to repel water.
Reports are that bore cleaning becomes much easier over time and some have reported increased velocities over more traditional lubricants.
Break Free CLP is probably fine for the vast majority of shooters. It’s rated to -65°F and is available almost everywhere guns and shooting supplies are sold.
Taking Care of Your Hands
Your hands will get cold in the winter. You lose dexterity and fine motor skills as you get cold. Many times you may not be able to feel the trigger. An extremely light trigger is probably not recommended in cold weather.
My hunting partner almost missed a chance at a nice whitetail because he sent a round before he was ready because he couldn’t fully feel the trigger. With today’s adjustable triggers maybe you should take it up a pound or two before your late season hunt.
Tip 1: Buy a box of hand-warmers and keep them in your mittens. I prefer a lightweight pair of wool gloves inside mittens. That way I can keep a hand-warmer on each hand and slip off the mitten when it’s time to shoot. Or use mittens with a flap to allow your fingers to sneak out and squeeze off a shot.
Hand Warmers, mittens, and liner gloves help keep your fingers working
Tip 2: Don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, don’t consume caffeine. OK…so we’re not likely to give up our morning cup of Joe or a sip of something dark and smooth at night, but be aware our vices are also capillary restrictors. Meaning, less blood circulation in our fingers and toes. That means our hands get colder faster.
Tip 3: Do isometric exercises with your hands. Squeeze them tight and hold for a few seconds. Extend and stretch your hands and hold. Rapidly open and close your hands. All these things encourage blood flow and create heat from muscle activity.
Anything will help keep your hands more functional.
Cold Weather Ballistics
Keep in mind that cold air is denser than warm air and your bullets will fly slower in the winter. Some powders are more temperature sensitive than others and your velocities will be different than your summer shooting adventures.
During World War II the British artillery units conducted research on artillery in cold weather. They determined that for every 3.6°F below freezing there was a 3% loss in effective range. In the context of our small arms, a temperature drop from 32°F to 0°F can reduce the effective range of a typical .308 Winchester by as much as 400 yards.
Bottom line, don’t expect your long-range rifle and ammo to perform as well in the winter when the targets are way out there.
Don’t let winter slow down your outdoor shooting. By properly caring for and protecting your firearms you can ensure reliable functioning.
Dress warmly and do whatever you need to do to protect your hands and keep them warm.
Do some experimenting with your normal summer loads and if you have access to a chronograph it might be kinda fun to see how much the lower temperature affects the ammo you are shooting.
By all means get out and shoot! Tell us about your tips and tricks to keep your guns active in the winter. Then check out our go-to guns & gear in Editor’s Picks.