As the winter weather ebbs away and warmer breezes encourage us to get outside and enjoy the return of spring, many of us begin to gather our rifles, pistols, and shotguns and head out to the range to get some practice after a long winter spent indoors. With the return of warmer temperatures comes spring rains and weather that is, while somewhat warmer, a wet and soggy mess. It’s not just the rains that can turn your outdoor range into a mud hole, melting snow after months of accumulation can turn normally solid ground into a boot sucking swamp.
Most people are deterred from heading outdoors when dark clouds gather and rain pelts the roof of the house. Even when the sun is shining, a soggy trail suitable for only a 4-wheel drive vehicle can keep many shooters from reaching their outdoor shooting range. But others, like myself, are undeterred. Come rain, shine, snow, or hail… ok, maybe not hail. That stuff hurts. But barring hail, lightning, or a howling tornado, you can likely find me braving the elements.
Foolish? Some might say so, but I disagree. There is an old axiom that you should “Train like you fight.” Now, I’m not in the military, and I’m not a law enforcement officer. I’m not out there practicing dynamic entries or running a “tactical” pistol and rifle transition course, though I might practice transitions for an upcoming 3-gun match. Even though, in all likelihood, my life will never depend on my skills with a rifle or pistol, I feel that it is valuable to shoot under varying environmental conditions.
Why? For me, it’s simple. I’m an avid hunter, and an occasional competitor in USPSA pistol and 3-gun competitions. Practicing under various weather conditions does more than allow me to practice the fundamentals under adverse conditions. It also allows me to better understand how my gear works when wet, cold, and muddy. If I’m going to have a piece of equipment fail, I’d much rather have that failure occur while at the range instead of out at a competition or while watching that trophy elk dissolve into a misty tree line.
As I said, I’m primarily a hunter and outdoorsman. The fall and winter hunting season have one thing in common with the spring, and that’s cold and often wet weather. The deer and elk I pursue are out in the elements, and if I want to get to them I have to brave the elements as well. It’s important to me to know that my gear performs well on the range and how to overcome the problems that foul weather presents.
When rain approaches, I’ve seen the outdoor range quickly clear out as shooters rush to pack up gear and precious firearms before the offending droplets can arrive. If it’s just passing shower with no threat of hail or lightning, I simply go to my range bag and pull out my waterproof poncho and continue on. I also carry a few large clear or translucent trash bags and Ziplock bags of various sizes. For equipment that is not or cannot be waterproof, such as cameras or ballistic calculators, tucking them in a Ziplock bag is a fantastic way to keep them dry while in use. The plastic baggies don’t take up much room in my gear bag, and that little bit of foresight can go a long way.
Don’t forget other clothing that you’ll need in foul weather. Ignoring hunting and shooting for the moment, it’s always a good idea to keep a pair of waterproof galoshes, a poncho, waterproof parka, or rain suit in your vehicle. If you’re disabled on the side of the road, such gear can come in extremely handy. By the same token, if you’re out at the range, having that same equipment nearby in your vehicle can turn a trip cut short into a largely enjoyable experience. By planning ahead for the potential of foul weather, you can make an outing to the range or hunting trip a success instead of a failure.
Rain and Moisture
The most common threat to hunting, shooting, and outdoor gear in general, is moisture. Moisture can come in many forms, and most people think of rain, puddles, and swollen creeks or bogs as the primary threat to their gear, but fog, snow, and mist can also provide moisture that can cause problems.
When practicing at the range, paper targets quickly get soggy and fall apart on the target stands. For this reason, I prefer to shoot steel. If you have your own steel targets, paint them with a coat of white or yellow paint the night before. The paint gets blown off by the impact of the bullet, making it easy to see exactly where your shot hit. If you’re using paper targets, transparent plastic bags are very effective at keeping moisture out, even after you’ve punched a half dozen rounds through them.
Rain and snow can hamper your visibility and generally make you uncomfortable if it drips into your eyes and face. When peering through a scope, it’s difficult to maintain a good sight picture with raindrops falling onto you and the eyepiece. The easiest solution is to use a ball cap or wide brimmed hat such as a boonie hat to keep the rain and snow out of your face and off of your eye protection.
Of course, it goes without saying that all of your optics should be waterproof to some degree or another. Your spotting scope, range finder, rifle scope or red dot system should all be rated as water resistant and fogproof at a minimum. I keep a microfiber lens cloth folded up in a small ziplock baggie so that I can wipe off any moisture from the eyepiece or objective lens, but one of the best solutions I’ve found to keep water from getting onto my rifle lens in the first place is a sunshade and a high quality lens cover.
Cold weather can also play havoc with your equipment, electronics in particular. Below about 50 degrees, battery life begins to be shortened. At temperatures below freezing, some electronic devices can consume an entire battery charge in just a few minutes. Other electronic devices such as green lasers will simply cease functioning in the cold. The diode-pumped solid state system that powers most green lasers is very sensitive to temperature and can only output a bright laser beam at maximum power when the ambient temperature is between 60 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are workaround for this. For one, I keep my GPS unit and camera tucked away in my first base layer of clothing (usually inside a vest pocket) where my body heat can keep it warm underneath my parka. For lasers, wrapping a pair of handwarmers around the laser body with some gauze tape keeps it warm enough to operate in temperatures down to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mud, Dirt, and Debris
If you spend any time shooting prone or trudging through thick cover, it’s more likely than not that you’ll end up getting mud, dirt, and debris on and into your gear. Most equipment can function fine for a short period of time under such conditions, but you’ll want to clean it well at the end of every day.
Mud and dirt is basically nothing more than a combination of decomposed organic material mixed with fine clay and sand particles. It is those sand and clay particles that can wreak havoc on your gear. Acting like millions of tiny blades when rubbed or ground into your gear, they will abrade and wear away fabric, wood, plastic, and even metal. On fabric this causes fraying and premature failure. On wood and metal it can grind and polish away the finish. The moisture in mud can also begin to damage wood and cause metal to rust.
In the short term, a little mud and water isn’t going to ruin most gear. It is however critically important to clean and dry your gear completely after shooting in foul weather. If you’re out hunting or shooting over multiple days, make sure to, at a minimum, field strip your firearms and allow them to dry completely overnight.
After you’re done shooting for the day or return from a hunting trip, be prepared to detail strip your firearms, especially your wooden stocked rifles and shotguns. Moisture, dirt and mud can collect along the bedding between the barrel and the stock and cause the wood to warp and throw off the barrel aim, but don’t think that you can neglect your synthetic stocked stainless steel rifle. The build up of mud and dirt there can still affect your rifle’s accuracy from the pressure it places on the barrel, and even a stainless steel rifle can become damaged and rust over time. To prevent this, simply remove the barrel and action from the stock, wipe away any mud or dirt, and dry off any moisture there. Allow the stock to fully dry and lightly coat the metal components with oil before reassembling your rifle.
As always, be safe when shooting in foul weather. Be sure that you are dressed appropriately and have the right equipment. Cold weather gear offers little protection when wet, and the combination if wet and cold can quickly lead to hypothermia and a life threatening situation. Wear appropriate clothing that will keep you both warm and dry.
If you’re properly prepared for the elements, you can remain quite comfortable when shooting in foul weather. It’s a great way to field test your gear and a good way to hone your fundamentals while shooting under adverse conditions. If lightning, hail, severe winds or extreme cold threatens, pack it up and head in. There’s no reason to risk life and limb.