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6 Gun Chores to Beat the Winter Blues

These 6 gun-related jobs that will help pass the off-season time and get you and your gear in better shape.

6 Gun Chores to Beat the Winter Blues

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If you’re into skiing, ice fishing or snowmobiling, winter is your wonderland. Me, I hate being cold, and while range time is an unavoidable part of the job—never mind the weather—I don’t spend more time on the range than I must. If, like me, you suffer from winter boredom, here are some worthwhile projects to keep Old Man Winter at bay.

1. Reloading

Dad wasn’t a rifle shooter. Fortunately, he had a buddy who was and taught us the ropes. I loved it, and I handloaded avidly for decades. Over time, though, I got lazy. Factory ammo got so good I was no longer sure I could beat it, and for years my reloading gear wasn’t just sitting idle; it was boxed up.

Just prior to Covid, my big winter project was a new reloading setup. I’m not very handy, so I put in a pre-fab rectangular shed, wired it and installed my bench there. It was the best winter project ever. The timing was amazing, too. The pandemic hit, ammo prices skyrocketed and availability bottomed. I needed to handload. Some of my equipment dated back to the 1960s—serviceable, but old. I restarted with a spanking new and shiny-clean bench and a Hornady reloading kit. So as I relearned old skills, I updated with digital scale, electric case trimmer and more.

Thanks to that pesky little virus, I had all the time I needed. It seemed like that winter lasted forever—like 18 months. I spent a lot of time at the loading bench, had a wonderful time—and hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it. So if you’re looking for a major winter project, think about taking up reloading, or completely revamping your current setup.

I was lucky in that I had a stash of components and didn’t have to start from scratch. I’m still loading bullets I’ve had for decades. New components are catch-as-catch-can, and current prices are high. If you don’t already have the equipment, from a cold start it takes a lot of shooting to make it pay off. The savings are there, however, as are immeasurable satisfaction and fun.

2. Project Guns

Rifle, target, two boxes of ammo, and six cartridges for tackling project guns you want to improve.
Winter is a good time to tackle project guns. Boddington spent time working on loads that would regulate and shoot well out of his .303 double rifle.

This ties right in with reloading. Surely you have a rifle with a vexing problem you’d like to solve. I was always a lazy handloader, satisfied with “good enough” accuracy for my purpose. When I got there, I was done.

Today, in my reloading restart, I’m experimenting with new propellants, up a half-grain, down a half-grain, varying seating depth and more. Even with a rifle that’s already accurate, there’s likely some combination that works better. Long winter evenings at the reloading bench offer a good opportunity to continue the search. I load five, put them in well-marked baggies and wait for a nice day to go to the range. If something obviously isn’t working, I quit, pull the bullets and recycle the components.

I’m also always messing with different cartridges, many of which are unfamiliar. I’ve had little experience with cast bullets (that’s another cold-weather project, but beyond the scope of this article) and almost none with blackpowder equivalents.

My first winter project on the new bench was to come up with smokeless loads for a .50-100 Sharps with 515-grain cast bullets. It sounded simple, but it wasn’t because there’s not much data out there.

I didn’t want to shoot blackpowder because I hate cleaning up after shooting it, so I tried various substitute propellants. Getting the velocity up took experimenting, and accuracy was all over the map. Finally I settled on IMR Trail Boss, which was good stuff in that huge case. It’s not fast, but it’s fast enough, with accuracy as good as I can hold with the rifle’s open sights.


I started handloading for Nitro Express double rifles long before modern loads existed. On the one hand, a double rifle is an ideal proposition for a lazy handloader. Once you get the barrels to shoot together, you’re done; just don’t change anything. However, getting to that point can take a lot of trial and error.

In 2021 I bought a nice .303 British double that was regulated with 215-grain bullets, and since few manufacturers are loading for older cartridges, it’s handloads or nothing. The .303 is variously spec’d at 0.311 or 0.312 inch. This rifle is 0.312, and a search turned up a supply of Woodleigh 215-grainers along with Hornady 150- and 174-grain InterLocks. Eventually, I wound up with loads that regulate well with all three bullet weights, as long as I keep velocity to about 2,200 fps. Interestingly, Hodgdon’s H380 was the answer with the 215-grain bullet, while the rifle responded best to IMR 4064 with both lighter bullets.

My son-in-law acquired an 1885-vintage Holland & Holland exposed-hammer double in .500 Black Powder Express. I had never messed with blackpowder double rifle cartridges, so working up a smokeless equivalent load was last winter’s reloading project. A mild charge of IMR 4198 worked well…with about 16 grains of Dacron pillow stuffing over the propellant. With 440-grain Hawk or Woodleigh bullets at just over 1,600 fps, the barrels come right together. Recoil is mild, and the effect on hogs is dramatic.

3. Cleanup

Author cleaning a gun, a good wintertime task.
Cleaning guns is important, but optics also need to come in for some attention because lenses get smudged, and dirt collects around lens housings.

I admire people who clean their rifles with religious fervor after every firing, but what few OCD tendencies I have don’t run that deep. I do have a protocol. I keep track of rounds down a barrel, preferring to clean at the range after maximum 25 shots.

Invariably, this means I have rifles that haven’t been cleaned for a while, so that’s a perfect winter project. The first thing that went on my new bench, even before new and old loading presses, was a good vise. It’s padded with thick rubber panels for use on firearms.

There are lots of good cleaning products out there. Since boyhood I’ve loved the smell of good old Hoppe’s No. 9, so that’s what I mostly use. Twenty passes with a brass brush, then flannel patches on a jag until they come out clean.

There is a new wrinkle. These days, lots of us shoot copper alloy bullets, and in California we’re required to use unleaded projectiles for all hunting. Some copper fouling is inevitable and may not be visible. So I often use a copper cleaning solvent with lots of ammonia. The ammonia cuts the copper. It will also eat brass/copper bore brushes, so I apply it by soaking a patch, then letting it sit in the barrel for ten minutes before using tight patches. The patches come out green until the copper is gone.

Gun cleaning doesn’t stop with the barrel, and winter evenings are perfect for detail cleaning. I use patches, swabs and Q-tips to get down into the nooks and crannies of action and magazine, and it’s a good idea to strip the bolt and clean the parts.

4. Checking and Smithing

Author checking action screw torque, one example of firearm maintenance that's a good winter project.
It’s a good idea to give rifles a once-over, checking action-screw torque, repairing sling swivel studs and the like.

In assigning this story, editor Scott Rupp suggested re-bedding as a good winter project. My suspicion is he’s handier than me [Ed. note: I’m not.] There are simple things I will do, and many things I won’t touch. Altering, perhaps improving, factory bedding is not so difficult, but improved accuracy is not guaranteed.

Honestly, being unhandy, for me most gunsmithing falls under do-it-yourself brain surgery. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disassemble and inspect guns thoroughly, looking for problems. As a normal part of detailed cleaning, at a minimum remove the stock. Rust often creeps in between stock and barrel and/or action. Before taking anything apart, make sure you have proper screwdrivers that fit the screw heads.

One of my pet peeves with rifles—and this applies to many costly models—is how often sling swivel studs come loose in the stock. It starts with a quarter turn, then a half, and it’s only going to get worse. I’ve had sling swivel studs pull out completely, setting the rifle free like a weighted pendulum, serious damage averted only through luck.

The cure isn’t so simple and, sadly, is rarely permanent, but re-bedding screw-in studs with epoxy or a liquid metal compound works—at least for a while. While you have a rifle in the shop for cleaning, check all functions and moving parts, and pay attention to your sling swivel studs.

Cleaning and checking doesn’t stop with guns. Detail-cleaning your optics—glasses, scopes, binoculars, spotting scopes, rangefinders—is another great project for a slow winter’s day. Lenses get grungy, but make sure you don’t kill with your cure. Start with clean water, clean rags and a soft lens brush, finishing with a good glass cleaning solution. Especially on binoculars and riflescopes, the inner surfaces of ocular and objective bells, around the lenses, are awful for collecting gunk. This is cleaning that I don’t do often enough.

5. Lather and Leather

Dad was a horse guy. He had good saddles with all the trappings; he loved them and took care of them. When I was a kid, we’d get a fire going in the fireplace and spread newspapers over half the den, heat up neatsfoot oil next to the fire and set out a pot of warm water with the saddle soap.

You may not have saddles, but we all have leather gear: belts, slings, cartridge slides, boots. Depending on climate and frequency of use, good leather can last a lifetime. But over time, leather dries and becomes brittle or, in damp climates, attracts mildew.

Since almost everybody has leather products, leather care products are probably more prolific than gun care products. I start with saddle soap, working it into a lather and getting down into all the tight places—more than once—then wiping it clean. With some leather, saddle soap is enough, depending on the finish. For saddle gear, slings and leather hunting boots, I follow up with neatsfoot oil, applying it liberally and letting it soak in and dry. It will initially darken the finish, which you may not want, but occasional application will somewhat waterproof and greatly extend the life of your leather gear.

6. Indoor Practice

The author practices firing from a seated position, a good use of off-season time.
One of the best things you can do for your shooting is dry-fire. Use it to reinforce marksmanship basics as well as to get your body accustomed to moving into various shooting positions.

When I was a youngster, we put a bullet trap down in the basement, and fired untold thousands of rounds of .22 Short. There were things we didn’t know in 1960, and it’s a miracle I haven’t died from lead poisoning—and not surprising that I’m deaf as a post. An indoor range can be properly ventilated and can be completely safe, but it isn’t practical for every basement or cellar.

Airguns offer a quieter and more easily controlled solution for indoor shooting practice. Good airguns have the accuracy; just use a smaller target to compensate for shorter distance.

Even that isn’t for everybody, but we can all get perfectly good “shooting” practice in the privacy of a garage or living room, no matter what the weather is outside. In the Marines, we called it “snapping in.” Today we call it dry-firing.

In my day, Marines in training spent hours in a school circle, dry-firing from prone, kneeling, sitting and standing positions. In the center of the circle was a barrel with miniatures of the Able, Dog and Charlie targets we’d address on the range. Dry-firing isn’t good for rimfires, but does no harm to modern centerfire rifles in sound condition. Just be sure to check magazine and chamber, and leave all ammo elsewhere. These days, it’s a good idea to block all windows from outside view.

Yep, I still “snap in.” And it’s more important today because I’m not as limber as I once was. It’s getting more difficult to drop into good sitting and kneeling positions. Also, I’m not as steady. Dry-firing helps in all positions but is especially helpful for standing. It’s essential to have a small aiming point to concentrate on.

Dry-firing allows you to concentrate on position and body alignment. It also enables you to practice the good old basics of the BRASS rule: Breathe, Relax, Aim in, check Sight alignment and trigger Squeeze. You’ll be amazed what regular dry-fire practice has done for your shooting when the weather gets nice again.

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