As the weather is turning towards snow, I must remind myself of the winter firearms checklist, even in Big Bear, California. These are habits compiled based on spec-ops cold-weather training and from hunting experience.
Questions you should ask yourself:
Is the trigger guard big enough for the gloved finger? Generally, the smallest pistols have a problem. For many rifles, an oversized trigger guard is a drop-in upgrade.
Does the slide clear bulky gloves or mitten on recoil?
With a revolver, will the undercut on the trigger trap glove material on reset?
Can you reach your regular holster through the layers of outer clothing?
Is your chosen ammunition going to penetrate enough with the extra layers encountered?
Will the gun oil congeal, slowing down the action?
Can you get a cheek-weld on the stock without freezing to the metal parts?
Will the red dot work with cold batteries? Does my red dot maintain zero in freezing temperatures?
Will your breath condense and freeze on the rear scope objective?
Will your ammunition develop less power and fail to cycle the gun?
All these questions and more are concerns during freezing temperatures.
During dry practice, shooters should ensure that they can safely manipulate their weapons with heavy gloves or mittens. This is a priority! If you cannot work your gun, you must try different gloves or consider a larger trigger guard. This step is oftentimes overlooked as it seems like a simple problem that is easily overcome. If hunting, you are not shooting on your terms and will be rushed to take a shot. Rehearse with your cold-weather gear before hitting the field.
As we make ready to head out into the wild winter, clothing tends to be our primary concern. But once core body temperature is taken care of, your attention should shift to protecting your firearms and optics. The first problem we often encounter is that the warm air inside sealed optics often causes condensation to form external lenses. It takes the internal temperatures inside a riflescope about 15 minutes to equalize; therefore, factor that into your plan before heading out the door.
Rifle optics are expensive and very delicate tools. Scope lenses can be pre-treated with anti-fogging treatments, but beware: many of these solutions leave behind a visually distracting residue. I have used Cat Crap Lens Cleaner. [This Is A Real Product] since my Army days, treating my scope lenses and red dot screens at least once before winter rolls around. I also keep a clean, dry lens cloth handy in case my optics start "sweating."
Correctly sealed and purged riflescopes should not fog internally in cold weather, so a repair or replacement may be in order if you experience that problem. Flip-open scope caps (that seal or are water-resistant) will help protect lenses during rain, sleet, and snowfall.
Finding effective cold-weather lubricants usually involves some trial and error. Many naturally good lubes become thick and gooey once the temperature drops. Slides and rifle actions become sluggish, foul quickly, and short stroke (incomplete cycling). The insider tip to finding a lubricant that remains viscous in the cold is to Range Test several oils in similar weather conditions for the planned use; this will save some pain in the field. One answer that proved up to the task in the field and many operators have raved about its success in the mountains of Afghanistan is Shooter's Choice All Weather High Tech Gun Grease.
In freezing situations, actions can ice up due to moisture, improper lubrication, keep all moving parts well lubed, wipe off any precipitation, and be sure to keep the bore clear of water and ice.
Ammunition also needs extra attention in frigid environments. Unlike our rifles, cartridges can invisibly degrade internally if exposed to drastic temperature shifts for extended periods. Most modern smokeless-powder granules are elastic in nature but become brittle and can crack. Cracking reveals more surface area, which creates the potential for dangerous pressure spikes when the round is ignited. Such damage cannot be undone. If ammunition is suspect... DO NOT FIRE IT.
Always store ammunition in a dry, climate-controlled location when not in use. Keep it as close to your body heat as possible when outdoors in winter, either by wearing covered ammo pouches close to the body or use inner pockets. Rotate the ammunition loaded in a rifle's magazine and steer clear of any cartridges that have been exposed to extreme cold for extended periods. Please don't leave your cartridges to fend for themselves when you are warm in the sleeping bag at night.
I have personally spent many long, cold, uncomfortable nights sharing my sleeping bag with a rifle and ammunition. Rifles aren't the best snuggle buddies; however, everything worked when needed.
Many popular ARs have bare metal fore-ends. Compared with traditional wood stocks or polymer handguards, aluminum free-float tubes are quick conductors of the bone-chilling cold, but they can be wrapped in cloth (socks), tape, burlap, or some insulation.
I bought a $7 neoprene spotting-scope cover, cut the closed ends off, added a couple of reinforcing stitches, and slid it over my AR's fore-end. The added insulation makes a world of difference. Just be sure not to let any material extend beyond the fore-end, where it can affect the accuracy or interfere with the front sight or muzzle.
Don’t let frigid winters dampen your shooting fun. A little preparation and planning go a long way toward making cold-weather trigger time both productive and rewarding.