Cold Weather Considerations – Part 6, by JM

Editor’s Note: This is the concluding installment in this article series.

Firearms

No article on prepping would be complete without some discussion on firearms, and using them in winter conditions can present some unique challenges. Firearms are precision machines made from metals and polymers, and cold weather can have some big impacts. The materials themselves can become brittle at extremely low temperatures, so you should avoid sudden sharp impacts if possible. Shooting a firearm can heat up the barrel and other parts pretty quickly and cold temperatures can cool them back down rapidly, which can cause weaknesses in the materials, so you should start off with a slower rate of fire if possible so it warms up more slowly.

The more complex the firearm the more likely it is that it will be impacted by winter conditions. Break-action and bolt-action guns are pretty simple and tend to be reliable under any conditions; lever-action and pump-action guns are slightly more complex but tend to be relatively easy to clear if a problem does occur. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms are precision instruments with tight tolerances, and are the most likely to be impacted by winter conditions. Revolvers tend to be a unique case – I’ve talked to some people that have never had a problem with them in winter conditions, and others that have had jams and freeze-ups frequently. Whatever you plan on using, make sure you practice all aspects of firing and manipulation in cold, wet and snowy conditions.

Any liquid including lubricants can freeze up in a firearm and cause problems. Many common lubricants start to gum up around 0°F, which can cause jams and other malfunctions. You should ensure that every part of your weapon is dry of lubricant by disassembling it and wiping it down before using it in winter conditions, and switch to a low-temperature lubricant like Moly Coat, Slip 2000 or Break Free CLP in the winter. Water can also cause problems, especially with fine blowing snow that can get into everything and melt, then freeze up.

There’s a phenomenon known as ‘spindrift’ snow that consists of very fine snow particles being blown around by wind vortices, and it can get into the tiniest cracks. You should seal up any openings on your firearms including closing dust and optics covers, and cover the end of the barrel using a condom or electrical tape. Don’t forget to cover any openings in muzzle brakes, flash suppressors, etc. as well as the end or the barrel. A note from a friend of mine on using condoms – if you plan on using them to cover the end of your barrel, make sure you tell your spouse about them before they find them in your stash.

Magazines are another potential failure point for firearms. Getting snow or water in your magazine and having it freeze can cause all sorts of failures, so try to avoid pouches with openings in them like the ‘taco’-style ones – they work well in some conditions, but the gaps will allows snow and water through easily. That’s one of the big advantages of the smock I mentioned earlier – they tend to have pockets with button flaps around the waist for magazine, which helps keep the snow out. It does slow down your reload speed, but it increases the chance of the reload actually working.

Condensation is another concern with firearms in cold weather. A cold metal surface exposed to warmer air can cause any moisture in the air to condense onto the surface, which can quickly freeze. You should always keep your firearms at the outdoor temperature if you plan on operating outdoors – don’t bring them into a warm house or tent. If you store them in a tent vestibule or outside the tent you should bring a large garbage bag to store them in so they don’t get covered with falling or blowing snow. If you need to bring a cold gun inside for cleaning you should wait at least one hour before working on it to allow its temperature to stabilize, then wipe it down completely before taking it back out into the cold.

Ballistics can also be impacted – cold air is denser than warmer air, which increases drag on your bullet and hence increases the rate of drop over distance. This is generally only an issue over longer distances, but you should consider re-sighting your optics in colder temperatures. Temperature can also impact the rate of burn of the powder in your ammo, with colder ammo resulting in slightly fewer FPS. As with bullet drop the difference isn’t going to be significant for most shooting scenarios, but it’s worthwhile to get comfortable with the differences before your life depends on it.

Wearing cold weather clothing is something else that will impact your ability to handle firearms effectively. Those big bulky gloves that keep your hands warm will make it harder to manipulate the safety, trigger, magazine eject and all of the other fiddly bits on your guns. The trigger mitt over gloves I mentioned earlier are probably okay for handling the butterfly trigger on an M2 Browning .50, but they’re somewhat clumsy for fine manipulation of an AR-15. I’ve found that the second layer wool gloves I mentioned previously actually work pretty well for handling firearms, and they have a silicone herringbone grip on the fingers and palm, providing a good grip.

If those are too bulky for you there are several companies that make insulated shooting gloves, including a nice pair from Mechanix Wear. You’ll need to balance staying warm with being able to quickly handle your weapon – that’s why I attach my over gloves to my sleeves with bungie cord. I can pull the trigger of my weapon with my over gloves on if I need to in a hurry, but I can quickly pull the right one (I’m right handed) off with my teeth if I get into a protracted situation involving gunfire. If you find that getting your finger into the trigger guard is a tight fit with gloves on, oversized trigger guard are available for some weapons. As with any other aspect of cold-weather operations you should practice weapons manipulation in the winter with your preferred gloves.

One final point on using firearms in cold weather – a few years ago I was visiting Northern Maine and it was extremely cold outside (around -20°F), and some friends and I challenged each other to go outside and shoot (there was no alcohol involved – just testosterone-fueled stupidity). When we fired our weapons we noticed that a cloud of ice crystals formed around the end of the barrel, blocking our sight picture for a few seconds, and there was a beautiful trail of ice crystals along the path of the bullet, which pointed right back to the person shooting. I’m not sure what the exact conditions are that caused it (other than really cold air temperatures), but if you’re exchanging gunfire with someone and it’s really cold out you need to take shoot’n’scoot to heart.

Electronics

Most preppers include some form of mobile electronics as part of their preparations, with the most commons ones being flashlights, firearm optics, radios and night vision devices. As with everything else these can be impacted by cold and snowy conditions. The first consideration is that all mobile electronic devices require a power source, which in most cases is batteries, which are definitely impacted by cold temperatures. Batteries produce power via a chemical reaction when something connects their positive and negative terminals, and this reaction is slowed down by cold temperatures which results in less current being produced. That’s why car batteries frequently fail to start your car in the winter time – they’re too cold to produce the current required to operate the starter. Warming up batteries will usually allow them to produce more current, so you should store spare batteries somewhere where they’ll stay warm. Out of all battery choices Lithium Ion tend to be the best option for cold-weather operations, since they can remain effective down to around -40°F. The downsides are that rechargeable Lion batteries tend to be more expensive and they’re available in fewer form factors.

You also need to be aware of the limitations of the electronic devices themselves. One common electronic component that impacted by temperature are LCD and LED screens – as they get colder their response time slows down and they may stop working entirely until they’re warmed back up. Most manufacturers provide an operating temperature range as part of their specifications, so you should research that and take it into account when planning operations in cold weather. Here are some examples from devices that I own/use:

  • FLIR TK Scout – -4°F
  • Bushnell Equinox Z – -14°F
  • Garmin handheld GPS – -4°F
  • Modern cell phone – Typically down to around -15°F

If you do need to carry electronics that are sensitive to cold temperatures you can use one of the insulated molle pouches that I mentioned earlier to help keep them from getting too cold.

Radios present an additional problem in cold conditions – speaking into the microphone sends warm moist air from your mouth into the cold electronics, which then condenses and can freeze. Handling a radio with gloves on can also be a challenge. The solution I use when I take a radio on winter hikes is to keep the body of the radio inside my jacket and use a decent-quality throat microphone and finger-mounted PTT switch that I can locate either on the top of the pointer finger on my left hand glove or on my backpack strap. I cover the PTT switch with plastic wrap that’s taped shut to keep snow and moisture out.

Operational Considerations

In a WROL scenario there may come a time where you need to track, watch, engage or avoid people that want to harm you and yours or take what you have. That means you have to understand how operating outdoors in tactical situations can be impacted by winter. The first and arguably the most critical advantage you can have is just being able to operate in cold and snowy environments – most people will be unwilling or unprepared to go outside when the temperature drops and snow begins falling, meaning you’ll be much less likely to encounter other people.

Winter does present a number of considerations that can be either advantages or disadvantages, depending on your situation. For example, sound travels slower in cold dense air, but it also travels further, meaning you may be able to hear things like gunshots from at a greater distance, but you may have trouble estimating how far away they are. Snow on surfaces will absorb sound, reducing echoes, and falling snow can significantly muffle sounds at any distance.

Movement in some types of snow can produce crunching sounds, depending on the temperature and consistency of the snow, and a layer of ice on top of the snow will make cracking sounds as it’s broken. Outer layers of clothing made from some materials like nylon can make swishing sounds as it rubs together, and as mentioned earlier having your ears covered to stay warm will reduce your ability to hear sounds. The best way to understand and get comfortable with the changes in the sound environment brought on by cold weather is to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Visual cues will also be impacted in winter. Since the days are shorter in winter you’ll have much less daylight to operate in, so you’ll need to adjust estimates for any activity that relies on daylight. Another obvious issue is that you’ll leave a trail when walking in snow, which is almost impossible to cover up unless snow is falling enough to fill it in; the good news is that anyone you want to follow will also leave a relatively easy-to-follow trail. If you’re out on patrol or other similar activity you should stop more frequently to check your back trail, and make sure you have good security out when you stop to eat or sleep.

Keep in mind that the trail you leave can last for days, so you should plan on following a trail that can minimize the impact to your security if discovered. For example, if you have a secret trail you use in the summer that allows you to sneak unobserved out the back of your property, you may be better off following a more obvious trail out the front that you’re more likely to have under observation if someone does backtrack it.

If you’ve ever been outside in cold temperatures than you’ve probably seen your breath when you exhale. That’s a result of the warm moisture in the breath coming out of your mouth freezing when it comes into contact with very cold air. Depending on wind conditions it may linger for a few seconds or disappear almost immediately. If you’re hiding behind cover or concealment to avoid being seen, having a cloud of exhaled moisture rising up from your location can easily give you away. One way to reduce the amount of moisture you’re expelling is to exhale through your nose.

Clothing such as hoods and goggles can restrict your field of view, so you’ll need to swivel your head or even your entire upper body more often to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision. Snowstorms are another thing that can significantly cut down on your visibility – there are stories from WWII of soldiers patrolling in snowstorms and ending up in the middle of an enemy camp without realizing it due to lack of visibility in heavy snow. One final note on visual observation – since the air is so cold, thermal scopes work very well in winter conditions.

Conclusion

Depending on where you live, cold, wet, snowy and icy conditions may prevail for a significant portion of the year, so you need to be prepared to handle outdoor operations and activities in winter after a TEOTWAWKI event. I realize the idea of hiking and camping in the winter may not sound like fun, but as with anything else if you wait until you’re forced into it in a life-or-death scenario it’ll be too late to find out you’re not prepared. If you have a spouse or family that’s dead-set against these types of activities in the winter try a gradual approach – rent a heated cabin in the woods for a short vacation, try renting snowshoes or cross-country skis, set up a tent in your backyard, join a winter outdoor paintball game, etc. Any experience is better than none at all, and all of you may find that you actually enjoy spending time outdoors in the winter.




20 Comments

  1. Part 6 addresses some serious operational problems that would have otherwise surprised most of us. Keeping the semi-auto rifle functioning in sub zero weather should be a primary concern.

    The AK-47 was made with Russian winters in mind, and should do fine with most light machine oils. I would oil it with just about any very light oil, even WD-40, and then wipe off the rails and bolt, and bolt carrier. There would remain a very thin film of oil that could not become gummy, or sticky. AKs are not perfect. Buying lower quality rifles of any kind presents a risk. On this AK, a custom firing pin was made to fix a light striking firing pin, and the feed ramp improved for soft point ammunition. All friction surfaces were polished, making the trigger and action butter smooth. The recoil spring slams the bolt close harder and faster as a result. The rifle was tested using hundreds of rounds.

    All magazines were dissembled, and cleaned, springs re-stretched a bit, if found to be slightly weak. One magazine still had cosmoline in it which may have caused it to malfunction in extreme cold weather, even though it functioned just fine during 3 different tests in about 20 degree F. The insides are cleaned, lightly oiled and then wiped dry as possible. The heavy and thick, yet softer steal surplus Combloc magazines are as indestructible as it gets, and not likely to crack in extreme cold temperatures. I have broke an aluminum distributor during removable in sub zero weather. Aluminum alloys can be brittle. I also do not trust plastics, or polymer magazines in sub zero temperatures.

    Unfortunately I have little experience with ARs, but have installed a high quality buffer spring with an extra 1 pound of force (Tubb’s flat spring), honed the chamber, and made lots of other refinements that has apparently fixed the problem on a new rifle. So far it tests good after being outside all night at 20 degrees, but I’m hoping to test at -20F before trusting it entirely. Until, only the AK will see sub zero temps. The AR had trouble going into battery at 40 degrees using brass cased ammunition. The chamber was very rough and so was honed, and the new spring performs beautifully, and is noticeably stronger, providing additional assurance. The spring makes no ringing sound after the bolt closes. It is now a different rifle than when purchased. The A2 flash hider was replaced by the much better Vortex flash hider as NV will be used on this rifle. Many small parts are probably made in China, and used on rifles made (assembled) in the U.S. Because the original firing pin still had machining marks on it, there was clearly failure in the quality control department here in the U.S.

    Even with all this work performed to ensure that these rifles will be reliable, should I forget and bring the rifle inside during a ‘warm up’, and then go back out, condensation will likely collect on the inside of the action, and freeze once back outside. This means the rifles could have ice on the surfaces where the bolt rides, and the rifle could fail to operate. With the AK, I could simply bust the ice loose by post holing the rifle, or use the foot on the bolt to clear it. The AR might simply be out of business. I would have discover what drill I could use with the AR in this event. I am wide open for suggestions…. I may in fact induce this condition, and learn by doing, rather than learning hard way. Those that need stupid simple like myself, should buy high quality AKs. The AR requires a much higher level of training make sure it remains reliable.

  2. It’s been interesting reading this series as someone who never saw snow for the first 35 years of his life. While Australia does get snow (roughly an area the size of Connecticut) it only occurs in what passes for the high country and far removed from major population centers.

    I may not have much opportunity to put any of this into action, but knowledge is power.

    Thank you for sharing your hard won knowledge.

    1. A number of times, the author mentioned the usefulness of garbage bags. I have heard that it’s one of the few items taught to have in a kit at West Point. A contractors size garbage can be used to melt ice, collect water, a ground cloth, a wind break / shelter, keeping firewood dry overnight, a rain coat, and a duffel bag. Worth its weight.

      1. SK – I absolutely agree that garbage bags are one of the most useful items you can have in your kit. The ones I carry in my various prep kits are the 6.0mil ones made by PlasticPlace; they’re expensive but I don’t use them for general trash duties. You can find them on Amazon, or if you only need one or two you can actually order samples from their web site pretty cheaply.

    2. Tony says, “I may not have much opportunity to put any of this into action, but knowledge is power.”

      I know a woman who wears a button that says, “Knowledge is power; Power corrupts; Study hard and do evil.”

      Carry on (that isn’t on the button)

    1. Rumor is FLIR is no longer selling to the public. It’ll take awhile to get confirmation on all this. The info on the PVS-14, was 40 units were commandeered from Ready Made Resources. Prices elsewhere on NV have reportedly gone up. If what happens in Virginia is big enough, the government could step in a do a number of the things. I made sure everything was squared away ahead of this event. Ammunition sales have been climbing. Top off today if you can. The price/availability is likely to change.

  3. Very fine 6 part series on winter living up in northern Maine on the Canadian border I can relate to a lot of things in these articles and I’ve learned things also which I was not aware of thank you for posting this series.

  4. I did biathlon competitions. The coldest shooting we did was -20 F at West Yellowstone, Montana and in Vermont at Camp Ethan Allen in the -teens F.

    We used Anschutz bolt action .22s. We were keenly aware of the variance in various brands of ammo and their performance. You can test them yourself by freezing them, in a magazine, then speedily do a precision test firing while cold, carefully noting the accuracy.

    We used REM oil for competitions, exclusively, but now there are more modern oils available.

    We also used flip-down muzzle covers, which I suggest you install instead of trying to unwrap a condom with mitts on at -25F. In forested areas we would also beware of needles falling off trees into our barrels. Just one fir needle will cause a catastrophic firing event in a large bore discharge.

    Making sure your sleeve slides down over the top of your knitted-top insulated shooting glove helps with heat conservation and maneuverability.

    Strips of duct tape running only on the back of your hand and then down just the backside of each finger helped prevent frostbite immensely.

    For biathlon, or basically maneuvering in extreme cold we could get wool thermal knitted top and bottom underwear with pre-installed wind shield material on the front of it. Not cheap but oh, so worth it for extreme physical exertion in sub-zero.

    I insulated once with duct tape on the front. It worked, but was heavier and sweatier

    In 25 years in Wyoming and Montana, I was in vehicles, on skiis, horseback, and afoot in plenty of minus wind chill and blowing snows. Wind shell garments are must haves, and to this day I carry shell pants in my BOB.

    They roll up small, zip all the way up on each side so I can put them on and off without removing my footwear, with a front zipper for the crotch.

    A silk weight skull cap on your head as a liner under your primary head warming cap is a huge bonus.

    Look for Touring skiis when you decide to go mobile. They are usually at least your height, are flexible, and as wide as your boot. Our family had 10th Mountain Division war surplus skiis I used as a teenager. For you, Rent first.

    God Bless

  5. In extreme cold you need to get all the lube off your firearm. Doesn’t matter if it’s a bolt, lever, or semi. I’ve been out with guys that left a thin film of oil on their rifle. Nice deer walks out of the bush at about 200 yards, and buddy’s bolt is frozen closed. I’ve seen it happen with levers as well. It’s definitely important to sight your rifle in hunting conditions. No only is the air heavier, but some powders are temp sensitive. It’s also a whole different ball game with multiple layers of clothes on

    I know of a lot of younger guys that rely on their phone for everything – DON’T. In cold weather the battery will drain very quickly, and it you are using it as your compass/GPS, it’s now worthless. I see a lot of guys out with their phone as comms, compass/GPS and even flashlight. They laugh at me with my old fashioned Silva and a Fenix light on my belt, until they’ve been out for a few hours and their phone is dead.

    I try to run everything on the KISS principle. And practice in real situations. Don’t just shoot from a bench when it’s warm and sunny. Don’t just pick up the equipment that the author talks about and store it. Get out and use it. Find out if it works for you. Experience is always the best teacher, and it’s always better to take some of life’s tests when your life isn’t on the line.

    1. Even when wiped dry, and then allowed to dry, CLP leaves a thin coating of Teflon and is recommended down to -35 in M16 rifles. Below that temperature, they recommend https://www.armyproperty.com/nsn/9150-00-292-9689. I do not know if this actually works in AR rifles. The manual also instructs to cycle the bolt every 30 minutes to check it’s operation. I would not strip the lubricant out of the rifle with solvents or hot water, without applying some kind of very light lubricant, and wiping it dry with cotton cloth. I’m currently attempting to get up to speed on the AR for cold weather conditions. Here is a good on line manual on the AR: https://www.bevfitchett.us/army-m16a2-rifle/thorough-cleaning.html

      After removing corrosive salts deposited by some older surplus ComBloc ammunition by pouring hot water though the AK barrel and gas system, then remove fouling, and reapply a lubricant, and then wipe it dry for cold weather conditions. The general rule is to use an oil below 40 degree F, and a grease above 40 degrees F. The AK will run even on the lubricating effects of rust as it would on graphite, better than it will on bare metal. It will still run, but it will be slow. The AK could run on any oil and fats, such as lard, or Crisco shortening (grease), or olive or other vegetable oil. It is a firearm for the most austere conditions, and for the least trained personal. I would give the AK to anyone new to firearms, and it will likely not fail them. It would take days of training to get someone up to speed on the AR.

      Part 6 got me to look deeper into how to run an AR in ECW. Thanks! It is a better and lighter platform for weapons mounted NV, that one can easily roll with. Literally.

  6. Reading an article on the Canadian Rangers getting their new Sako T3 CTR rifles.

    Was looking for an excuse to buy one and think this article might have done it 🙂

    P,S. Alaskan state troopers picked the Colt AR-15 over the Valmet AK which is strange because the AK is better suited for that environment.

    Be curious to see what they did to make their AR-15s more reliable ?

    1. Wally – you’re correct. If you do have to bring it inside for something like cleaning you should wait an hour or so to allow the weapon to reach room temperature, then make sure you wipe it down completely inside and out before taking it back out in the cold.

  7. The only thing I have against my AK’s is the metal underfolding stocks. Darn cold against the face when you have to shoot! Have missed a deer with the AR because a snowflake decided to block the peep sight, and blowing it out spooked the deer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.