September 23, 2010
As if you could stop it
"Let It Rain" was the title of a story my uncle, Art Popham, wrote for Outdoor Life about a half-century ago. Good title, good story, and things really haven't changed much. We didn't have Gore-Tex back then, but we had rubber and rubberized fabric for our bodies. We also had the same old problems for our feet and our rifles, namely boots and saddle scabbards that, no matter how well oiled, were bound to leak sooner or later.
Hunting in the rain isn't usually productive, but sometimes you get caught in it and have no choice but to do the best you can. This was the beginning of a long, wet day on New Zealand's South Island, one of many areas where rainy weather is common.
But, realistically, we could stay almost as dry back then as we could today, and we could keep our gear almost as dry. The real problem--or at least the problem I will try to address here--is how you can shoot in the rain and how seriously rain can affect your shooting.
The first rule is really simple: Don't go out in the rain unless you absolutely have to. There are no advantages but lots of disadvantages: You will be miserable. Your visibility will be limited. Your equipment will require extra maintenance.
These things would be acceptable if the hunting opportunities were increased, but usually they are not. Light mist means nothing, but very few animals across the world move during a hard rain. They don't like it much more than you do, so they hunker down and wait for it to pass. Good idea.
Unfortunately, animals have better early-warning indicators than we do, so we're much more likely to be caught out in the rain than they are. This is especially true since we tend to be on tighter schedules, and we're likely to go out even when the skies are seriously threatening. Too, while it's unlikely to find game moving during a hard rain, most animals move well after a storm. So, at least under some circumstances, you want to be out there when the weather clears. Or, in hilly country, perhaps you've spotted some game and you're just starting to move in. Then the rain moves in instead, and you have to wait it out.
Either way, you're going to get wet. How miserable you are depends on how good your rain gear is. How effective your rifle will be depends on other factors. First let's address shooting when you've just been caught in a sudden shower. Your rifle may rust later, but your immediate issue, just supposing you catch a critter as foolish as you are and out in the rain, is making the shot.
The primary problem is visibility. Rain loves to collect on optical lenses. At best, rain restricts visibility, but just a few seconds of a really hard rain can totally obscure a riflescope. This is simply a fact: In a hard rain delaying tactics are the only option.
Personally, and with apologies to all who make them, I don't like scope covers. See-through covers reduce vision. Flip-ups take precious milliseconds to release. If the scope is mounted really low, the way most of us want it, the bolt may not clear. Thank God I do most of my hunting in fairly dry country where I don't often have to worry about this. If you hunt in rainy country or you go into country where it might be rainy, it's different. You need to get a scope cover you understand, whether see-through, flip up, snap up or snap off. Learn how to use it, fast and sure. Even then, if it's really raining a scope cover will only buy you a few seconds, and a rain-sheeting lens coating like Bushnell's Rain Guard will only buy you a few more.
If there's even the slightest chance of rain, the best precaution is to tape your muzzle, preventing rust as well as water buildup. A thin layer of tape over the muzzle will have absolutely no impact on accuracy.
I can't count the number of times that I've sat on a ridge, waiting for a bedded animal to move, constantly wiping my scope's lenses, but that isn't nearly as many times as I've stalked through sodden woods, stopping every few steps to clear the scope, running out of anything dry to clear it with. That said, I can honestly say that I have never lost a shot to a flooded scope, although I've certainly gotten wet plenty of times, and for darn sure I've worried about it often enough. It can happen, and it could have happened, so I've been lucky. Absent luck, use good scope caps, and learn how to use them quickly.
Understand one more thing: One of very few circumstances in the hunting world where iron sights are superior to scopes is during a hard rain. I'll go one step further: One of the few circumstances in the hunting world where open sights are superior to aperture sights is during a hard rain. Rain can collect in the aperture of a peep sight just as quickly as in the lenses of a scope and obscure it just as quickly.
The most common reason for a detachable scope backed up with iron sights is on a rifle that might be used for dangerous game. OK, that's valid. But I submit that the most compelling reason for a detachable scope is to give you additional options when it's raining, whether it's a sudden downpour or you're in wet country. Most of us cannot shoot as far, or as well, with iron sights as we can with scopes, but when it's raining, visibility is sharply limited anyway. Good old iron sights, properly zeroed, may well be a sound option, especially when you can't wipe fast enough to keep your lenses clear.
Accuracy is a more interesting issue. You will not shoot as well in a hard rain as on a lovely clear day, but there is little evidence that precipitation specifically interferes with a bullet's passage. Be careful with this. Visibility is clearly limited when it's raining, and you can't shoot better than you can see. At extreme range, as any artilleryman will tell you, humidity does affect the flight of projectiles. But no one shoots game at long range in a driving rain because you can't see to shoot in a driving rain. So if you can see it, you can probably shoot it without unusual adjustment. Maybe.
When I was a kid, I devoured the few hunting-related books in the school library. In one of J.A. Hunter's books (note: All of Hunter's books should be required reading) he told about closing on a really big elephant in a sudden shower. He passed on the shot because he was afraid the barrels of his double .500 were full of water and perhaps his shot would go high. Honest, guys, I don't have a clue where his shot might have gone, but I'm damn sure a barrel full of water is a very bad thing. At worst it will blow the gun. At best your shot will go somewhere.
If you think it even migh
t rain, the best answer is to tape your muzzle. Electrician's tape is perfect, but any tape will do. Obviously, you don't want to block the barrel in any way, which means that putting a cork in the barrel is out of the question. But a thin layer of tape over the muzzle is not a hazard and will not impact accuracy. I've tried it--honest. The prevailing theory is that the jet of air pushed ahead of the bullet will clear the tape before the bullet ever arrives. Whatever, there is no appreciable affect on accuracy. On most hunts in mountains or forests where rain is likely I usually have enough sense to tape my muzzle. When I don't, I often regret it.
Rust forms extremely quickly in a rifle barrel and is probably the most insidious affect of being out in the rain. But it is also the easiest to fix. When you get home or back to camp, wipe down your rifle, punch the bore, and that's the end of it. Now, it's what you can't see that will hurt you. If there's moisture in the air, stainless steel metal and synthetic stocks are the way to go. Rust can form in a matter of hours in the nooks and crannies of blued carbon steel--under the barrel channel, around the bolt, in the magazine box, any place you haven't looked.
The same moisture, given a bit more time, will do nasty things to wooden gunstocks. Cosmetics are the least of it, but I've had several really nice walnut stocks bleached white after a few wet days. More insidious is swelling, which, if it's in the barrel channel, will quickly alter accuracy.
Many years ago I had a Savage 110 in 7mm Remington Magnum, the first left-handed rifle I ever owned. Like most Savage rifles, it was wonderfully accurate, but the barrel channel was unsealed and a bit too tight. I got it really wet on a caribou hunt, and it shifted right nearly a foot because of pressure on the barrel. It became the first rifle I ever owned with a synthetic stock.
When my uncle wrote "Let It Rain" there were a few stainless steel barrels out there, but the rustproof metal finishes and synthetic stocks so common today were unheard of. If you live in or are going into rainy country, there is simply no question: Stainless and synthetic are the way to go. Add good scope covers, and tape the barrel.
There have been many times when I've followed my advice and many times when I haven't. Most of the time a good cleaning has fixed my folly but not always. In 1997 I took a beautiful .416 Rigby, one of the last London-made Rigby rifles, on a forest hunt in Central Africa. I got my bongo at midday on the tenth day of the hunt, and then it began to rain. It rained in torrents all through the afternoon and into the evening, and when we finally got back to camp at midnight I'm not sure I'd ever been so wet for so long.
I oiled the rifle before I went to sleep, but mild rust was the least of my problems. By the morning the stock had swollen and split at the pistol grip, not so badly that I couldn't get through the safari but badly enough that an irreplaceable piece of English walnut was useless. Yeah, I still take nice rifles in bad places, but when it's wet I try to keep with stainless, synthetic and a thin strip of electrician's tape.