Being in top shooting shape requires diligent practice year round. The last thing you want is for the trophy of a lifetime to step out—with a 10 second window—and you miss the shot because of under preparation. I am often asked what type of preparation that really takes, especially during winter. So, where do I practice shooting in wintertime? Why, outside of course!
This winter, that has posed a bit of a problem. It appears the scientists predicting a global melting of the polar ice caps were… wrong. Even with the extreme temperatures we have been experiencing across the country, practice is still an excellent idea. You will learn (very quickly) where your negligence lies when cleaning and sighting in your firearm. Any excess lubricants or fluids that have been left behind from your last cleaning session, or as a buildup over time will readily become apparent. Sometimes it will be so apparent it will rise to the level of malfunction or non-function.
Use extreme caution if you feel you have a non-function in cold weather. The mechanisms within your firearm may just be moving exceptionally slowly. It can also cause a surprise release and result in a dangerous hang fire caused by mechanical parts moving at a molasses pace. In addition to mechanical issues, cold weather and altitude can both have an effect on your point-of-impact—all else being equal. Powder burn time, barrel resonance and flexibility, and even your optics are all affected to some extent by the cold, and some more than others.
In talking with a friend who often guides for elk, he was amazed at what would sometimes happen to a gun placed in a case in the Midwest at 60 degrees and taken out at 4000+ feet of elevation in 15F degree conditions. Stories of low-end scopes having lenses fall out and rifles shooting nowhere near their point of impact abound. This changed his attitude and provided the impetus to institute a rule of “shoot on arrival” no matter how confident the hunter is in their equipment.
Finally, you are different physiologically in the cold. Your blood flows differently. Your breathing will change. You may shiver or hunch more when shooting in cold weather. Tasks that were extremely simple at 70 degrees, such as taking your time, drawing in a deep breath, and slowly squeezing the trigger are all downright unpleasant at 10 degrees. To adapt to all of these additional challenges, we add clothing—hats, facemasks that can obscure vision. We put on bulky, insulated clothes that can change the way we mount our firearm, and how it fits after being mounted.
Gloves are a necessity in the cold. Extremities such as fingers and toes are often the most difficult to keep warm even with added layers. If it is really cold, you may even use a thin glove under your insulated glove. I still take the outer glove off—even in bitter cold—but the inner glove certainly changes the feel of the trigger.
Practicing in the cold will help you become a better shooter when you need it most, and help retrain your body to perform under extreme conditions. It will also teach great lessons about elevation, temperature and the effects they have on ballistics.