How Cold Weather Kills Rifles

Extreme weather can kill your rifle. Learn how to avoid this problem.

How Cold Weather Kills Rifles

The yellow rays of sunrise were just beginning to reach me when I started torturing the digital rabbit. However, there was no heat in those frozen photons, as it was late December and -20 degrees with a stiff northwest breeze.

Apparently, the coyotes were cold, too, and hungry, as the first one showed up within minutes in the zone my hunting companion was watching. Sensing something wrong, it stopped at about 60 yards and turned broadside to offer him a perfect shot. I saw him shoulder his rifle and waited for the boom

Instead, a faint click reached my ears. I watched him cycle the bolt on his gun and try again. “Click.” He cranked the bolt again, but that just prompted the coyote to run back into the trees. Minutes later, another popped out in my zone and paid the ultimate price for it.

When we shut down that stand and analyzed what happened, we found the cold temperatures had made his firing pin sluggish enough to cause the misfires. It was a new rifle and, being relatively new at predator hunting, especially in cold weather, he hadn’t prepared his rifle correctly.

That dead rifle sent us home early.

Cold Kills

I do enough cold weather hunting that, on several occasions, I’ve seen frigid temperatures stop rifles dead. My record is hunting at -41 degrees, and not only do parts stop moving at that temperature, but they break too. Like the time my son-in-law was using a semi-auto rifle with a polymer lower receiver. The plastic snapped in the cold — another dead rifle. Extreme cold temperatures can kill a rifle just as surely as it can a person, so both should be prepared to endure it.

To prevent a rifle from freezing up, degreasing the entire mechanism and running it dry certainly works. And not long ago, this was the only option. However, modern lubricants, especially synthetic ones, have changed the game. Just like the synthetic oils used in vehicles, synthetic gun lubes shouldn’t turn sticky when the mercury drops through the floor.

However, I strongly suggest you test all your lubes for cold weather function. Just place a small amount of some different lubes on separate trays and set them in the freezer overnight. Come morning, check to see which are still fluid and which are gelled. You’ll likely throw some of your lubes in the trash. 

Storage Slays

However, even the right lubricant won’t help keep a gun running if you don’t take some other practical steps. Among those, avoiding sudden hot/cold cycles is vital. Most of us predator hunters drive between properties, and a toasty warm vehicle is terrific to take the chill out of our bones when we make a move, just don’t expect your rifle to enjoy the same experience.

Subjecting steel to sudden hot/cold cycles causes condensation to form on the metal. When that condensation freezes, even synthetic lubes won’t bail you out. A better option is to let a cold rifle, stay cold. But don’t worry, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Rifles won’t report you, keeping it cold is actually what’s best for your gun.

During cold weather hunts, I always stash my rifle in the unheated rear box of my truck when moving to the next location. I find a well-padded soft case works just fine for this. And when the day ends, I bring the cased rifle into the house, leaving it sealed for several hours, so the rifle can warm slowly. Exposing that freezing cold rifle to a sudden blast of warm, humid inside air will immediately cover it in a thin layer of ice. 

Debris Destroys

In my part of the world, cold weather also means snow, and snow brings its own set of hazards to rifle survival. Chief among these is the potential for a plugged barrel.

Hunting in deep snow, especially around snow-laden trees, is a recipe for dumping snow all over your gun, including stuffing it down the barrel. The potential for falls because of unseen hazards under the snow also increases dramatically. As a result, I’ve stuffed my rifle barrel into a snowbank more than once. Not only is snow a hazard, but mud, sand and ice will plug your barrel too.

Fortunately, preventing a plugged barrel is easily done by just placing a wrap of electrical tape over the muzzle. This little preventive action doesn’t change the point of impact or increase pressures. But it sure can save a hunt. If you find the thought of having your muzzle taped unsettling, take the time to try it at the range. Simply shoot a five-shot group, placing a fresh piece of tape over the muzzle each time. It’s worked just fine for every gun/ammo combination I’ve ever tried.

Also, be sure to carry some tape with you into the field. You can either wrap an extra foot or so around the barrel, about four inches from the muzzle, or make up a small roll and carry it in a pocket.

Water Corrodes

Everyone knows moisture and steel don’t play well together, with the most significant problem being the rust they create. While I’ve seen corrosion so extreme a rifle becomes rusted shut, this is a rarity. For most of us, rust is more of a cosmetic issue on the outside, but an accuracy robber on the inside of a bore.

Some great metal treatments are available that will go a long way towards keeping corrosion at bay. One of the most straightforward solutions is just to use a rifle made as entirely as possible from stainless steel. Of course, stainless steel isn’t rustproof either, but it’s sure a lot better at dealing with corrosion than carbon steel.

In my opinion, the best solution to rustproofing a carbon steel rifle is Cerakote. When properly applied by a professional, this surface coating is durable, extremely effective at stopping corrosion, low maintenance and cost-effective. As a bonus, it’s an excellent opportunity to change your rifle’s color scheme to better blend in with the terrain you hunt.

Of course, it can’t be applied inside the bore, so good old-fashioned cleaning is required there. If you’re in the field and need to dry the bore, one of the many pull-through products is a great solution. Keep one in your pack, or at the very least in the truck.  

Carelessness Breaks

Not all the hazards to a rifle’s survival come courtesy of Mother Nature. A fair number originate in the space between our ears. My personal nemesis is having a rifle fall over after I’ve leaned it against a tree or a fencepost. Early in the season, it just falls over onto the frozen ground and knocks the scope out of alignment. Once the snow arrives, it buries itself in a foot of fluff, and it takes an archeological dig to find it. Then, how do you get the snow off?

I’ll tell you what not to do. Don’t take a deep breath and try to blow it off. Warm breath will just condense on the cold steel, and then you’ll have a coating of ice and snow to deal with. I see people new to cold weather hunting do this all the time when a little snow gets on their scope’s lenses. Trying to blow snowflakes off a cold lens will turn a nuisance into a real problem.

But back to leaning a gun against something, like the side of a truck. I’ve done it, but only once. It was a harsh lesson. The gun seemed stable enough, but when my buddy closed the tailgate, my rifle hit the dirt. Never lean your rifle against the side of a vehicle. It won’t survive.

Sand Seizes

As bad as cold, snow and water are for guns, I suspect sand is even worse. At least that’s what people who have worked in extremely sandy environments tell me. I don’t have a lot of experience in those dry, desert conditions, so I must rely on what the folks who have been there reported. Larry Vickers probably says it best regarding sand. “You can run a gun dirty and wet, but not dirty and dry.” He, like many others with similar experience, advocate for lots of lube and keeping the gun as protected as possible from the environment until it’s time to use it.

Of course, some firearm designs tolerate the intrusion of foreign material better than others. A bolt-action may still function as designed, while the same amount of dirt/sand will turn a semi-auto into a single shot. Fortunately, we predator hunters don’t usually have to deal with the same kind of harsh conditions soldiers do. Meaning we can clean our guns more often and care for them better. So, just do it.

This is also an excellent time to return to that cold weather lube test. Once the freezer test is finished, leave the tray sitting around for a week or so in a hot location and see what happens as evaporation takes its toll. Of the last seven lubes I tested, only two remained fluid after a week, and several turned into a sticky glue-like substance. If none of your current lubes pass these tests, try G96 Synthetic Gun Lube. It’s always been a top performer in my tests.

Scopes Stop

It’s worth mentioning optical sights here because if weather kills a scope, the rifle isn’t of much use. Fortunately, most modern scopes are excellent at shrugging off bad weather. Keeping the lenses covered and protected with flip-up lens caps or a quickly removable scope cover is about all that’s usually necessary.

Although, I could add that if your scope has removable caps over the adjustment turrets, make sure the caps are screwed down tight, as this can help keep moisture out of the scope’s internals. The scope’s aluminum body won’t rust, and the lenses of quality optics are treated to be hydrophobic, so they should repel moisture.

Stocks Shift

Of commonly available gunstock materials, there’s no doubt that solid wood is the most susceptible to breakage and to shifting a rifle’s point of impact due to swelling or shrinking in response to moisture changes. There’s also little doubt it can be the most attractive. Meaning, if you like real wood, you may have to decide between beauty and survivability.

Significantly further along the spectrum, we have laminated wood, which, in my experience, is excellent at surviving nasty weather. Likewise, the various synthetic materials used to make gunstocks are also great.

When chassis systems first began showing up, I had concerns about their potential to shift the point of impact as temperatures fluctuated. After all, aluminum expands and contracts at a different rate than steel, so I thought they might cause problems. So far, my limited testing is inconclusive, and it’s going to take more experimenting to determine what’s really happening.   

Ammo Decelerates

My testing has shown that extreme temperatures can cause fluctuations in ammunition performance. When testing the same rifle/ammo combinations in temperatures varying from 73 to -15 degrees, I found average velocity to differ as much as 85 fps over this 88-degree range. And this from a powder advertised as being “insensitive to temperature fluctuations.”

The lesson is clear. If you plan to hunt in extreme temperatures, it’s best to test your ammo and zero your rifle at temperatures you’ll be experiencing on the hunt. While the difference isn’t really a question of rifle survival, it is very much about your point of impact and trajectory predictions surviving.

Adding It Up

Adding up the information I’ve provided here reveals a few principles to up the odds of rifle survival. They include using rifles featuring corrosion-resistant metals and/or treatments, stable gunstocks, quality scopes, the use of synthetic lubricants, carefully selected ammo, which is tested and zeroed at hunt-realistic temperatures and handling these wonders of modern rifle technology with care and wisdom.

Just like hunters, rifles and shotguns can survive some extreme weather conditions if adequately equipped and prepared.


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