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Cold weather shooting and you

Great day for a trip to the outdoor range!

Last December, I took a defensive firearms class that was held entirely outdoors. Aside from a quick break for lunch inside a heated classroom, we spent about 6 hours in temperatures that hovered just above freezing. To make things even more fun, it was also a very wet day, alternating between drizzle and downpour. We were all troopers and nobody grumbled too much, but as the day went on our shooting declined noticeably.

There was a physiological explanation for this. To use myself as an example: as my internal temperature dropped, my body compensated by pulling blood out of my extremities (hands and feet) so that it could continue to heat my core and keep the important parts, like my heart, working properly. As my hands and feet got colder, my grip got weaker and my stance got sloppier. Most crucially, my trigger finger went almost completely numb. It was like trying to shoot with a wooden peg attached to my fingertip instead of soft flesh. Chemical heat packs in my pockets helped warm my hands between drills, but the experience did expose an important and previously undiscovered gap in my defensive abilities.

What if I were attacked after a long day of hiking in the snow? What if I were forced to draw and fire my weapon after scraping snow and ice off my car without gloves on, when my hands were nice and numb and my fingers barely worked? What if I were at an outdoor event in very cold temperatures, the kind of weather so cold that your lips don't work properly and you sort of mumble instead of speaking, and I had to protect myself with a firearm?

Claude Werner, also known as The Tactical Professor, has written about practicing our shooting fundamentals and holster draws in adverse conditions. Adding intense cold to the wet weather created an entirely different experience than I was used to. I'd trained in rainy weather many times during the spring and summer, and while it was annoying, my main concerns were slippery hands and fogged up safety glasses. Softened skin from the humidity led to an increased likelihood of cuts and blisters. The mosquitoes could be relentless. But it never seemed so difficult to exercise good trigger control.

In cold, wet weather, the delicate movement required to perfectly press the trigger without moving the sights off target was all but impossible, since my trigger finger felt like a block of unresponsive ice. Worse, the cold weakened the muscles in my hands so that my grip kept coming loose, leading to horrible follow-through and a bloodied thumb knuckle on my shooting hand thanks to unmanaged recoil. Using gloves helped with the grip somewhat, as they added bulk and kept the gun from slipping around in my hands as much. But they made my trigger control even worse, drawing me a sobering picture of what it might be like if I ever had to shoot someone without enough time to remove my gloves.

Could you shoot well while wearing your wood-chopping gloves?

Since that class, I've made it a point to practice dry firing with cold hands, as well as with my usual leather driving gloves, which I wear almost daily in winter. My "numb finger" shooting has improved significantly, and I've learned how to work around the gloved trigger finger issue somewhat. It's not as good as shooting barehanded, but it's certainly better than nothing at all.

We must be prepared to defend ourselves in as many adverse conditions as we can think of. There's usually a safe way to simulate these unhappy circumstances with a little creativity and thought. If you want to know how you would shoot with cold, numb hands, plunge them into a bowl of ice water for a minute or two and then do some dry fire drills your usual way. I bet your performance will be an unpleasant surprise. But with enough work, you, too, can improve.

Practice cold, keep warm, and stay safe out there!