March 10, 2015
By Craig Boddington
Winter—late December through early March—is probably the worst time for a rifleman. Just how bad depends a whole lot on where you live, but days are short and most hunting seasons are closed. Ranges are usually open, but the weather can make serious rifle shooting downright miserable if not impossible. But, hey, the days still last 24 hours, and there's still some time that can be put to good use. Spring will come in its own time, but, for now, here are some ideas for making the winter pass more quickly.
If you're one of those people who thoroughly cleans a rifle every time you fire it, I admire you—and admit that I am not in your company. In the Marines we cleaned our rifles and pistols with great diligence, but these days I've gotten lazy. I do most of my gun cleaning at the range, punching the bore frequently when testing for accuracy and cleaning thoroughly before taking a rifle on a hunt. I usually do this on the range, and after cleaning I fire a couple of fouling shots and one last group to check zero. Unless I get into really bad weather, the rifle won't be cleaned again until it gets home. And I'll be honest, if it's a typical situation where I fired two or three shots to verify zero and a couple more during the course of the hunt, "cleaning" may mean just a careful wipe-down.
So I have rifles that have been fired and should be cleaned, and I have rifles that haven't been fired in ages but probably also should be cleaned. This is a great project for a winter day no matter the weather. I usually set up a table in the garage, open up the Tipton kit with built-in gun rest and go to work. I wish I really liked cleaning guns—I don't—but it has to be done, and it actually saves time to set up and do several at once on an assembly-line basis.
For many of us, winter is probably not an ideal time for precision reloading. Depending on the logistics, serious rifle cranks like to work up a series of loads, then go to the range and find out what works best.
Clearly, this is impossible in a blizzard. But even if you get a mild day, some propellants (and rifles) are more temperature-sensitive than others, so velocity and accuracy in January when it's well below freezing may not equate to velocity and accuracy in June when you're shooting woodchucks or prairie dogs. Unless you live in a mild climate where shooting is possible year-round, winter may not be a great time to experiment with new load recipes.
However, most reloaders have some tried-and-true pet loads that they need to stock up on. With the intermittent shortages of virtually all components, we have to grab powder, primers and bullets when and as we can get them. If those available components combine into a load known to work, then a long winter's evening is a great time to lay in a few boxes in preparation for the good weather to come.
In our house, space is at a premium. I'm not a total slob, and somewhere in my organized chaos I generally know where everything is. My wife, however, likes everything neat and tidy. One of my worst transgressions is the garage shelving where we keep ammo. Too many calibers, too many cartridges. Also, way too many odds and ends from test rifles that were used, written about and returned—leaving behind partial boxes of cartridges I probably will never shoot again.
Organizing the ammo shelves and the rest of the gear quickly becomes a daunting task. For some reason they don't stay organized very long, so this is an ongoing project that I need to tackle two or three times a year. (It's a great project for a rainy day no matter the season.)
And while you're at it, you will almost certainly discover other important maintenance projects that have been neglected. I know I need to set aside an afternoon to clean and oil my saddle—it's been much too long. But what about my other leather gear, from boots to rifle slings to cartridge carriers? Yep, spread out the newspapers to contain the mess, grab a jug of neatsfoot oil—or whatever you like—and go to work.
Winter isn't a bad time to take some time for yourself. Sad to say (especially from a writer's perspective), not enough of us read these days. Reading a good book in front of a warm fire remains one of the most enjoyable pastimes out there. You are reading this, so you're a reader (good on you). But have you also explored the world of books? There's so much great old stuff that is still available. I understand this is sacrilege, but I have always found Theodore Roosevelt's books hard to read, but as you plow through his 19th century phraseology, you'll find some real gems to bookmark or write down.
Of the old-time hunters, my favorites by far are W.D.M. Bell, Jim Corbett and J.A. Hunter—great reads all. And for sheer reading pleasure, if you haven't discovered Robert Ruark, you simply must. His two best are probably The Old Man and the Boy (a great winter read) and Horn of the Hunter, but if you're a serious reader you'll need to go on to Something of Value—perhaps the best novel ever set in Africa.
Of course, this is a rifle shooter's magazine, so let's not leave out some more technical stuff. The two most classic "gun books" I can think of are Jack O'Connor's The Rifle Book and Jim Carmichel's Book of the Rifle. New cartridges, actions and optics will come along, but these books will provide a lifetime's worth of background knowledge. In recent years, I have been really amazed at the variety of books available for electronic reading. The selection in our interest area isn't huge, but many of the classics are available—even some of my own titles. Me, I prefer the heft and feel of a book and the ability to go back and forth readily. But electronic books are cheaper, and there are no storage issues.
Speaking of electronics, it would be foolish not to recognize that TV is a part of our lives. Winter evenings are a great time to catch up on favorite old movies—you can find almost anything on Netflix or Amazon—and a new site for hunters and shooters, GSN (Global Shooters Network), is supposed to come on line before these lines see the light of day. Outdoor programming is nearly a 24/7 proposition, with the two primary networks, Sportsman Channel and Outdoor Channel, offering literally hundreds of shows. Thanks to recording devices, many of them now built-in, you can record your favorite shows and watch them at your leisure.
Unfortunately, if you spend a bit too much time relaxing by the fire, you'll probably see a few extra pounds starting to show up. Winter is a really tough time for me, partly because it's hard to get serious outdoor exercise and partly because it's my primary convention season—too much good food and not enough time. At a younger age, it was easy to defer exercise and start over in the spring, but as I get older, it becomes more difficult to shed that winter weight. I have to work at it all the time, and I actually do.
What works for me may not work for you—or even be practical for you. I belong to a gym. It's only $20 a month, but I'm just cheap enough that I'm bound and determined to get my money's worth, so I go religiously when I'm home. Weather permitting, and depending on where I am, I also hike or jog—and if there isn't anything else available, I do push-ups and sit-ups once a day.
Before starting any exercise program, it's a good idea to check with your doctor. I've had one heart attack—I don't want another—and I've still got some sheep mountains I want to climb, so I don't let Old Man Winter stop me from getting at least some exercise almost every day.
No matter how awful the weather, there is still some meaningful practice "shooting" that can be done from your snowbound home. In the military, we practiced "dry-fire" for hours and days before actually getting to the range, and it works. Rifle shooting is all about breathing, sight alignment and trigger squeeze, and the rifle doesn't actually have to go "bang" to master these concepts. Obviously, you must start with a completely safe, empty rifle, and it's a good idea to do these drills in an altogether separate space from where ammo is stored. Also, in an urban environment, you may want to draw the shades.
Dry-fire simply means cocking the action and squeezing the trigger without a cartridge in place. It is not good on a rimfire rifle, but does absolutely no harm to any centerfire. You can put a small target in place and "practice" to your heart's content. Not only can you practice the shooting basics, but also you can practice getting into a variety of shooting positions quickly. This is especially valuable with positions, such as sitting, that are hard to assume. And it's pretty good exercise, too.
Technology adds yet another element to "indoor practice." There are numerous options for adding a boresighting laser, and LaserLyte even has some really, really cool reactive targets, allowing you literally to roll cans in your living room without ever firing a shot.
Make no mistake: Shooting is shooting, and any practice you can get, including practice without ammunition, will serve you well when good shooting weather comes along.
In many states, bird and some big game seasons go well into January, but by February most traditional hunting seasons are over. But not all. And if you're feeling really sorry for yourself, then it's mostly your fault.
Not all of us can travel to hunt—and many of us don't want to—but in most states the late winter months are prime time for hunting predators: bobcat, coyote, fox and lynx. Also, our feral wild hog populations have been another great boon for offseason hunting. America's hog population is rapidly increasing in both range and numbers, and late winter is very much prime time.
Some animals are best hunted in the dead of winter. Late last January I finally took a wolf in northern Alberta. That had been a long-term project because few animals are as elusive as the wolf, and the success rate isn't high. But winter is the best time. Likewise for bison—and for many of the non-native species hunted in Texas and a few other places. And if you really want to get out of the snowdrifts—and you're blessed with lots of disposable income—there are some great opportunities in Africa and in several countries in other parts of the world in the winter months.
Or you can relax by the fire and wait for the spring thaw.