COLUMN: Take care to keep your barrel dry

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If you hunted deer or elk last weekend, you probably hunted in rain or snow.

Did you know that a slight bit of rain or snow in your gun barrel can drastically alter the accuracy of your shooting? Let me give an example. Several years ago I was hunting whitetails west of Kalispell. I was sitting on the ground, leaning against a tree, watching a deer feeding area. It was a mild. rainy, midseason day, with no tracking snow.

After sitting for about a half-hour, I spotted a doe and fawn slowing walking and feeding towards me. They were legal game, but I was buck hunting. A few minutes later, a nice buck came on the doe track, sniffing to see if doe was ready to be bred. The buck was standing broadside, less than 100 yards away. I was sitting, perfectly rested and shooting from a stable sitting position. That buck was as good as being in my freezer.

I put my crosshairs just behind the shoulder and squeezed off a shot. The buck wheeled and ran off. There was a fair amount of conifer young growth, so I didn’t see the buck go down. But I knew he was dead.

Then I walked down to where the buck was standing and looked for a blood trail. H’mm, no blood.  I circled around where the buck was standing, but I could find  no blood.  But I’ve shot deer before where a layer of fat under the hide closed off the exit wound, leaving no blood trail. So I walked along the buck’s escape route looking for blood or a body.

To make a long story short, I never found any blood or a body. I knew I could not have missed! But apparently I did. A day later I made a clean one-shot kill on another buck.

Last week I read an article that may have provided a clue as to why I missed that deer. The culprit might have been some moisture in the rifle barrel on that rainy day. I did not have any tape or rain protection device on my rifle barrel.  

The article I read was written by an experienced hunter, who was also the chief ballistician for a major manufacturer of hunting ammo. He, like myself, missed a sure-fire shot on an antelope. Prior to that shot, he crawled through some fresh snow to his shooting position. Later that day, he made a clean kill shot at a much greater distance. He wondered if the reason for his missed shot might have been caused by snow in the barrel?

So when he got home to his rifle bullet ballistic testing facility, he did a test.  He was shooting a 300 win.mag with a 165 grain bullet. With this load, he fired a three-shot sub-minute of angle accuracy at 200 yards. That is what he expected to shoot.

The second part of his test, using the same rifle and load, was made with a dry barrel with a piece of electrician’s tape over the end of the barrel, designed to keep out any rain and snow. With the tape over the muzzle, the velocity of the bullet and the bullet accuracy was identical to his dry barrel test without tape over the muzzle.

For his third test, he dipped the rifle barrel into a bucket of water, then allowed the water to drain out. Even with the barrel drained, some moisture particles remained, similar to getting a raindrop or two into the muzzle while hunting. He then shot another three-bullet test. With a slight bit of moisture in the barrel, bullet velocity dropped a little, but nothing of significance.

But the bullet’s accuracy opened to over six inches for a three-shot group at 200 yards.  This test made him believe the reason for his missed shot on the antelope was moisture in the barrel. I suspect this might have been the reason for my missed shot on my rainy day deer.

I learned two bits of hunting advice from that article.  First, do everything possible to keep your barrel bone-dry. Secondly, putting a piece of tape over your muzzle, to keep your barrel dry, does not affect bullet accuracy. Apparently, the pre-gases in front of bullet open the tape to allow the bullet to travel unimpeded.

So as the old flint-lock rifle era slogan advised, “… keep your powder dry.” We modern hunters must keep our barrels dry. Enjoy your hunt this weekend with a dry rifle barrel.

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