by Dave Kaiser
Reading Ron Sutton’s Straight Talk column in the January issue made me smile. His advice for winter shooting seems to boil down to the last line of his first paragraph on the subject “… if it’s too cold, don’t shoot!” As an Alaskan that would mean I’d shoot very little, indeed. As my old Dad used to say, “We have nine months of winter and three months of bad sledding.” I’d like to take a bit different tack on the subject.
What is too cold is certainly subjective. For many years the Fairbanks Trap Club ran what was known as the annual Ice Fog Shoot on the weekend closest to the 21st of December. Temperatures at that shoot could easily run to ridiculous numbers. I shot it one year and the temperature was a balmy -38F. For the folks shooting from long yardage I swear you could actually hear the shot “tinkling” on the targets. C Class Singles that year was won with a score of 25X50; even Alaskans aren’t dumb enough to shoot a 100 target event in those conditions. The skeet range at Eielson AFB near Fairbanks awarded a “40 Below” patch for those brave enough (or foolish enough) to shoot when the temperature exceeded -40F. In Anchorage during normal years it is not unusual to shoot at -10F and at times even a bit colder.
After all, we all don’t live below the Mason Dixon line, so if you really want to keep shooting through the colder months, what should you expect? First of all if you are concerned about protecting a high average you may really want to take Ron’s advice. On the other hand I’ve always thought that the winning score is the winning score no matter what the actual number is. If you beat the field and get a punch with an 87 (yeah, that happened to me one winter) is that win really any different than winning with a 97 in better conditions? Not to my way of thinking. A win is a win and that’s what should count.
What about shells and equipment? It has been our experience that starting at about 10F performance of shot shells deteriorates rapidly. Leaving your shells in the car to cold soak overnight or all day while it is parked outside at low temperatures can lead to some really weird sounding shells as wads are too stiff to seal in the barrel and powder performance suffers. The key here is to keep ‘em warm. A hand warmer in your shell bag as you go down the line can save you some grief. Bring your shells into the clubhouse and keep them warm until it’s time to shoot. For some years I shot a single with an over bored barrel and in cold conditions some wads simply would not seal in that barrel. I also believe that in cold weather 7 1/2 shot is preferable, those cold targets take a bit more energy to break.
As far as your gun is concerned, light lubrication is the answer, using heavy grease will cause problems in the action as it gets cold. Also, a precaution, don’t get in a hurry to put your cold gun back in the case, wait till it warms up a bit to avoid condensation and rust.
Okay, now what about the shooter? Generally, layer up, cowboy. Multiple thin layers work much better than bulky clothing and interfere less with your gun mount. Start with long underwear, the new compression style under layer seems to work the best. Insulated pants or even ski pants take care of you below the waist. Above the waist a turtle neck over your long johns followed by a wool shirt and a shooting jacket designed for cold weather. There are now several on the market that have lots of thinsulate liner and provide warmth without bulk. You can even buy electric jackets or vests that run for several hours on rechargeable batteries. A warm hat is a must, lots of folks just put on a knit cap right over top of their ball cap. Any hat must be capable of covering your ears unless you wear ear muffs for hearing protection.
Hand warmers are great either the liquid fueled type, the ones warmed by a lit charcoal stick or one of the new rechargeable electric warmers. If you use the warmers with the charcoal sticks be sure to have a rubber band on the case to keep it from opening in your pocket. A couple of winters ago one of our shooters was on the line busily stuffing his pocket with snow after one of his charcoal warmers came open and started a fire in his pocket! I also recommend the dry single use warmers, one of those in each glove (in the palm on your lead hand, on the back of the hand on your trigger hand) can be a life and finger saver. For the really hardcore a pair of electric gloves really does the trick. I’ve been using a pair for several years. Some years ago I all but froze both of my hands while in the field when I was still in the Army and as a result my hands are particularly sensitive to the cold. Gloves lined with thinsulate with a leather palm also seem to work well for most folks.
Nothing will ruin a good day of shooting faster than cold feet. A good pair of wool socks and insulated hunting boots is the first answer to keeping your feet from turning to ice blocks. Better yet insulated shoe pacs (think snow machine boots) or surplus military Vapor Barrier (VB) boots sometimes known as bunny boots (white) or Mickey Mouse boots (black) can be the ultimate answer. The white VB boots are designed for a bit colder weather than the black ones. If you go this route be sure to bring them in the house and get them completely dry inside after wearing before going out again. And, don’t let anybody convince you to open the air valves on the side they are there only to provide relief when in an aircraft. Opening the valve or worse, blowing air into the boot will compromise the insulating factor and defeat the purpose of the construction of the boot.
Finally, as to traps, we have found that below zero temperatures negatively affected the rubber bands on our Pat Traps and have retro fitted them with steel springs. For example, at -10F the traps would throw a target about 25 yards unless the machine was kept warm or lots of targets were thrown to warm up the band.
In conclusion, with proper preparation and equipment, shooting in the winter can be just as much fun and competitive as any other time of the year.
Soldier on, dress warm and have fun.