Don’t let gun or gear malfunctions spoil a hunt in seriously cold weather.
Our bush plane landed on a tiny ice-rimmed lake a dozen miles from Gravina Bay, Alaska. It was early November. Randy Brooks and I were there to hunt the big brown bears for which the area is known.
Snow fell throughout the night and was knee-deep by morning. Guide Ed Stevenson used a brush knife to hack through branches bent to the ground under their icy load. Each stroke triggered an avalanche, blanketing us and our rifles in wet, heavy snow.
Before we left the tent, Ed warned us to cover our rifle muzzles with strips of tape. Otherwise, our bores would quickly become packed with snow. Stainless steel rifles weren’t yet commonplace; ours were blued-steel guns.
We slathered the exposed metal surfaces with oil every night in an attempt to stave off corrosion. In spite of our efforts, the rifles were red with rust by the time we made it home. They had to be completely refinished.
I now own two all-stainless bear rifles: a Savage bolt rifle in .338 Winchester Magnum and a stainless Winchester Model 70 in .375 H&H trimmed to 5¾ pounds. A muzzle brake makes recoil manageable.
These rifles are rust-resistant, not corrosion-proof. The punishment Alaska’s winter weather doles out soon leaves a patina of rust even on stainless-steel surfaces.
Over-oiling actions can cause problems in sub-zero temperatures. When hunting in meat-locker conditions, it’s wise to remove any oil or grease inside your gun’s action, taking particular care with the bolt and firing pin. Don’t leave the action dry.
It’s important to lightly lubricate the rear face of bolt lugs and other bearing surfaces. Otherwise, they can bind.
Grease (and some oils) can congeal in extremely cold temperatures. This makes bolts sluggish and can put autoloaders totally out of action. Best bet is to degrease the action, then sparingly treat bearing surfaces with something like Birchwood Casey’s synthetic gun oil with PTFE lubricant. This product, and others like it, retains its viscosity at temperatures as low as minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and does a good job of keeping rust at bay.
Dri-Lube, offered by Hoppe’s, Remington and others, is a liquid aerosol spray that leaves a lubricating film when it evaporates. There are no sticky oils or silicones that might gum up.
A problem sometimes encountered in seriously cold weather is a rifle that won’t fire because of a frozen firing pin. Before heading to sub-zero country, it’s important to disassemble your rifle’s bolt and remove the sticky layer of grease coating the firing pin and its surrounding spring.
Even with this grease removed, it’s possible for your firing pin to hang up at the penultimate moment. If you bring your rifle into a heated tent, cabin or other warm shelter after spending the day in very cold weather, condensation can form on the firing pin. Take the rifle outdoors the following day, and that condensation will turn to ice, freezing the firing pin in place.
Another tip is to trip the trigger on an empty chamber before setting your rifle aside for the night. If a firing pin left in the cocked position freezes up, you’ll have to thaw out the bolt to make it operational again. This could take time you don’t have when facing a charging bruin. But if the firing pin freezes with the spring decompressed in the fire position, cycling the bolt and dry-firing the rifle will cock the spring and — hopefully — free the firing pin. This can be done before you leave camp. Just make sure there’s no live round in the chamber.
The repeated freezing and thawing causes rust to form in out-of-the-way places that may go unnoticed. Instead of bringing your rifle inside where it’s warm and cozy, leave it in the vestibule of your tent, on the cabin porch or inside your truck. If your rifle remains cold, condensation won’t form.
Riflescopes deserve similar attention. Quality scopes are designed not to leak, but if there’s even a tiny bit of moisture trapped inside, fog can coat inner lens surfaces. Several scope models now sport hydrophobic (moisture-hating) coatings on exterior lens surfaces. This causes rain to bead up and then rapidly slough off the lens.
If you’re an eyeglass wearer like myself, condensation can curse you in many ways. Warm breath can be counted on to fog your glasses, and has the same effect on scope eyepieces. This is exacerbated if you wear wide-brimmed headgear like my cowboy hat. That brim tends to trap exhaled breath underneath it, where it steams up eyeglasses and eyepiece lenses.
One way to counter this is to coat eyeglasses and scope lens surfaces with Rain-X, FSI or another anti-fog product.
Most scopes are advertised as waterproof. This is something you can easily check before leaving for the far north country. Simply dunk the scope in water for 30 or 40 minutes, keeping a careful watch for ascending bubbles that indicate leaking. Next, stick the scope in your freezer for several minutes. If it fogs up, find a scope that won’t.
As a general rule, I don’t trust bargain-priced scopes for frigid-weather hunts. Go with one of the quality brands, and relax. It’s still a good idea to test for water-tightness before you leave for a hunt.
Even good scopes can fail when you’re afield. It’s good insurance to install your scope in quick-release mounts, then bring a second scope along with the same kind of rings attached. Sight both scopes in on your rifle, and you’ll be good to go if one of them packs up. Just be sure that when you leave camp, you have the backup scope (and necessary tools) in your coat pocket or pack.
I’m a traditionalist who generally favors well-figured walnut stocks, but for hunting in extreme conditions, I opt for synthetics instead. Real wood looks and feels great, but it has a nasty habit of absorbing moisture, then swelling or shrinking depending on temperature and humidity. Synthetic stocks are more stable, regardless of weather conditions.
This article was published in the December 2009 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.