Tales of an Adventurer: Using Firearms In EXTREME Cold

Skiing with sledges and weapons – the rectangle attached to the sled of the first skier is a solar panel used to keep communications equipment powered.

Skiing with sledges and weapons – the rectangle attached to the sled of the first skier is a solar panel used to keep communications equipment powered.

The Editor writes: This article was written by Adventurer on his experience of using firearms in the extreme cold. The scenario that necessitated this was an expedition undertaken by three friends to ski across the Arctic island of Svalbard.

The northern tip of Svalbard lies around 600 miles from the North Pole. The island is prone to extreme weather and is home to a large population of polar bears. The main settlement of Longyearbyen has a population of around a thousand people. Due to the threat from bears it is mandatory for anyone traveling outside of the settlement to carry a suitable firearm.

For protection our team took three weapons: A Mossberg 590 with ghost-ring sights and loaded with solid slugs. A Kar 98K that was a relic of the Nazi occupation and still carried the swastika & eagle stamped on the breech and a flare gun that was loaded with “flashbang” cartridges which would explode a few seconds after firing. The idea behind the flare gun was to be able to scare a bear away from us before having to use either of the other weapons.

Although my memory may be playing me false I have a vague notion that the Kar 98K had been re-barrelled to accept .30-06 ammunition. More learned readers may wish to debate this but in practice I doubt if there would be much difference in the effectiveness of .30-06 over 7.92 for stopping polar bears at close range.

The eagle & swastika on our rifle. The Kar 98K was a pleasure to carry and probably ideal for this purpose, however like all weapons, its effectiveness is dependent on the individual.

The eagle & swastika on our rifle. The Kar 98K was a pleasure to carry and probably ideal for this purpose, however like all weapons, its effectiveness is dependent on the individual.

Reloads for the shotgun were carried in a pouch that was secured to the belt of the shotgunner’s sledge harness. The design allowed the pouch to fall open once the user unclipped a fastex buckle, revealing several rows of cartridges secured by elastic straps. The pouch was supplied by a sponsor who specialised in manufacturing uniforms and accessories for military/law enforcement. In practice we found that snow & ice would get inside the buckle to freeze it solid and render the pouch useless.

The flare gun came in a holster that held three cartridges and was slung via a strap over the shoulder to hang at waist height. Both this and the rifle were rented from a shop on the island that specializes in outfitting expeditions to the interior of the island.

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Flare pistol – type unknown. Loaded with “flashbang” cartridges this was intended to scare away the bears before it became necessary to use the other weapons.

The rifle came with a leather sling and for the shotgun we secured from a Swedish sponsor (Neverlost) a padded sling that was made in dayglow orange. The idea being that it would aid identification and retrieval of the weapon in a high-stress situation.

We also carried a contraption known as a “Snubblebluss”. This was composed of a trip-wire that we’d erect around our tent at nights. At each of the four corners was a small flare mounted on a stake that would be set off if a bear decided to come into our camp.

A camp at night up on the glacier, at that time of year and that far north there is practically 24 hours of daylight, on the final day of the trip we saw the sun set for the last time that year. Note one of the tripwire poles on the right hand side.

A camp at night up on the glacier, at that time of year and that far north there is practically 24 hours of daylight, on the final day of the trip we saw the sun set for the last time that year. Note one of the tripwire poles on the right hand side.

“Snubblebluss warheads” attached to spare ski poles, if I recall correctly the little polar bear heads were on the safety pin that “armed” the charge once the trip wire was attached.

Snubblebluss warheads” attached to spare ski poles, if I recall correctly the little polar bear heads were on the safety pin that “armed” the charge once the trip wire was attached.

Before leaving we all familiarised ourselves with every weapon and each fired a few rounds to test the actions. Even running through some bear “drills” and rehearsing several scenarios and the rules of engagement that would govern our actions. We also cleaned the weapons thoroughly and removed all excess oil. Although I have never seen it for myself I have heard that even oil can freeze in very low temperatures. I believe that special lubricants can be obtained that have a lower freezing temperature but I hadn’t gone out of my way to source any as I thought their use was probably more appropriate to automatic weapons that could gather excess carbon deposits from extended firing under combat conditions.

The phenomenon of having and using firearms in the Arctic is that they will gather condensation if brought into the warmth. Just like the condensation that forms on the outside of a cold beer when it is taken out of the fridge. Once the temperature in your shelter drops again after the cooking stove goes out (or wood stove if you are lucky enough to be in a cabin) then the moisture that has condensed onto the metal surfaces and possibly inside the action of your weapon will re-freeze. Over consecutive nights this can lead to a build-up of ice which could jam the action.

We’d learned that NATO doctrine in the Arctic is for troops to build a small “weapon rack” out of branches to leave their weapons upright and off the snow outside a tent or shelter so as to avoid this phenomenon. However troop formations will always have a sentry, who it is hoped can keep watch and give warning of any approaching enemy, giving the sleeping soldiers’ time to retrieve their weapons.

Perhaps naively we decided not to keep a bear sentry at nights, after hauling 130 lbs sledges for 20-30 miles each day over glaciers and passes perhaps you can understand why.

Instead we chose an interim measure. When we pitched camp and lit our cooking stoves to melt snow for drinking and rehydrating our freeze-dried rations, we would leave the weapons outside. Once the temp had dropped again, we’d bring the weapons into the “ends” of the tent, between the two layers of fabric so that they’d be handier in an emergency and out of the snow that could still get into their working parts and potentially jam the action. The tent had an exit at both ends and we would keep one weapon next to each door.

The effect of “spindrift” during an Arctic blizzard has to be seen to be believed. Tiny particles of snow driven by the high winds can force themselves into the smallest of spaces and gather there. After one such blizzard I opened a pocket that had been zipped shut to find it full of fine snow. The snow had actually been driven in between the teeth of the zip to gather there over several hours. Leaving a weapon exposed to “spindrift” under such conditions could easily lead to the spaces between parts becoming jammed with fine snow and inoperable. When weather allowed, we would regularly check the actions and magazines of our weapons to ensure that they weren’t becoming clogged with snow or ice.

During the day while we were skiing and dragging our sledges, we carried all weapons slung so that they could be brought to bear at short notice. Initially we rotated who would carry what each day, but after a week we decided that we’d stick to the same weapon so that each of us would become more familiar with our particular firearm and hence more likely to use it effectively if the need arose.

I settled on the rifle and would carry it slung diagonally across my back with the butt down on the right side. I discovered that the Kar 98K is a beautifully balanced weapon and with practice it can be swung into the shoulder from this slung position in one fluid motion.

I did experiment carrying the rifle slung with the butt up over my right shoulder, thinking that I could draw it over my head with the right hand by reaching back over my shoulder. But I found that this was totally impractical.

Experimenting with carrying the Kar 98K in different styles. This one was not very practical. Note the snow that has become trapped in the heat cover of the Mossberg 590

Experimenting with carrying the Kar 98K in different styles. This one was not very practical. Note the snow that has become trapped in the heat cover of the Mossberg 590

Over time we discovered that snow would enter the open muzzle of our weapons and adapted covers from zinc oxide tape we’d brought to bind the blisters on our feet.

Initially when stopping for a break and some water from our thermos flasks I’d make a little stand for my rifle from ski poles. By linking them together in a tripod with the straps of the poles around the barrel it was possible to lean it against them so that it would stand upright and stay out of the snow. Later on I discovered that by simply smashing the butt of the rifle into the snow it would hold it upright while you could go and sit on your sledge for five minutes to enjoy some chocolate and a cigarette. This method was not possible with the Mossberg as the inertia of smashing the butt into the snow could partially “rack” the slide.

The easiest method of resting the rifle on stops.

The easiest method of resting the rifle on stops.

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At one point when we were just 12 miles shy of the north tip of the island we cached our heavy sledges and made a dash to get there and back with just light packs and weapons. Owing to the need for speed we found that it was best to carry our long-arms strapped to our packs rather than slung as before.

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Although we saw plenty of bear tracks in the snow we only saw a bear on one occasion. It was a mother and two cubs that were moving away from us as we skied along the side of a frozen fjord. She was leading them up into the hills above us (presumably to get away) and was never any closer than 200 yards. The quality of the images we got were so poor that there is little point in reproducing them here.

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Wherever possible we camped up on the glaciers and away from the sea ice. The bears are more likely to be found near sea ice because their primary source of food is the seals that come up through this ice through holes that they maintain. The bears typically hunt by waiting beside one of these holes to catch the seal as it comes up for air.

Despite never having to use the rifle in self-defence I can say with some justification that it saved my life. On one occasion we were skiing down a glacier to get off the high ground before a major storm was due to hit the island. Expediency had led us to choose this route in preference to a safer one. Once we reached the snout of the glacier we discovered that our progress was impeded by numerous crevasses that blocked our path.

I am ashamed to say that I stupidly left my gear and my friends to try and scout ahead for a way through. Walking without skis, climbing harness or being roped up to any of the others I fell into a narrow crevasse that was concealed by a thin crust of snow over the top. What saved me from falling any further was the rifle jamming against the lips of the crevasse and the sling under my right armpit arresting my fall. This gave me the chance to reach up and drag myself out.

Although I can’t speak for the effectiveness of the weapons we chose since we never had to use them I do know that similar weapons have been successful in stopping attacking bears in the past. One notable exception being the incident in 2011 which was covered by TFB here:

http://www.thefirearmblog.com/blog/2014/07/09/teenager-killed-polar-bear-adult-forgot-turn-mauser-98k-safety/

Apparently, while under considerable stress the “shooter” forgot to remove the safety on his rifle and cycled several rounds through the chamber while being unable to fire any of them. The same rifle was eventually recovered and an ejected round was re-chambered and used to shoot the bear dead after it had killed one and mauled two others.

The coroner’s verdict was that the safety had been on, however I’d be curious to know from anyone familiar with the trigger/firing pin mechanism of this weapon if a similar effect could have been produced by snow or ice inside the action. The rifle was a Kar 98K identical to the one I carried.

This happened about a year after our expedition.

Residents of Svalbard commonly use pump action shotguns, bolt action rifles in .308 & above and a variety of large calibre revolvers, I think the largest I saw was .500 S&W, although I believe .460 was more common. I saw one individual with a particularly nice looking Lee-Enfield carbine in a black nylon stock.

I’m sure much space below will be devoted to proposing the ideal calibre/platform combination for defence against polar bears and I’m sure I could think of a few myself that would work better – if you were to step straight out of a warm, pleasant, domestic environment and into a bear encounter.

However if the user is being exposed to the weather for months on end, freezing temperatures, spindrift, blizzards, falling over in the snow, falling on the weapon, being exhausted, having it dragged underneath you by a runaway sledge on a steep slope or being otherwise used and abused. Then I really can’t think of a better platform than the Kar 98K or indeed any other of the main WWII era bolt action rifles.

Although a pistol might be lighter and handier, I know I’d have greater confidence in my ability to line up the sights of a rifle on an incoming target in a high-stress situation. But perhaps that’s because I have more experience with the latter – others with more experience behind a pistol might disagree.

Lastly, I find it especially cool that in an age where equipment is being honed to near ridiculous levels of perfection in terms of space-age materials, metallurgy, and tacticool accessories (relevant though they may be in certain situations) – the WWII era bolt action still has a valid place in a practical life-saving application.

I look forward to hearing from others with different perspectives and experiences. To my mind the best debates are ones where I’m forced to change my opinion on a subject – because someone better informed has successfully challenged my beliefs and expanded my knowledge.



Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


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  • DIR911911 .

    I did basic in Ft Knox,Kentucky in January . . . felt like the arctic

  • dP

    Your memories about the K98 being 30-06 are correct. After the war, 4-500.000 K98s were left behind by the Germans. Many of these rifles were re-barreled by the Kongsberg arsenal in 30-06, and issued to various parts of the Norwegian armed forces. In addition to the new barrels, the magazines and receivers were modified in order to acommodate the longer COAL of the M2 ball, and the rifles were given new serial numbers (with HÆR, FLY, K.ART, and KNM prefixes, for the different branches of the armed forces). These rifles are commonly referred to as “HV-Mausers” (HV = the home guard, who used the rifles after ordinary troops were equipped with H&K AG3s), and usually change hands for around 1000NOK (125$). It’s our version of the milsurp Mosin-Nagant.

  • I wondered how necessary the action cover the Swedes designed for the Swedish Kg m/37 BAR I own was. Your story, I think, has highlighted the reason for them with the snow getting into the action. What is neat is the cover doubles as a “snow shoe” for he bipod for when you are shooting prone in thew snow. They also had a neat dog sled specifically built for it, unfortunately I have not been able to locate one for sale.

  • Ray

    I live in Kuujjuaq (Nunavik) North of Quebec province in Canada.
    We have 2 Benelli Supernova Tactical with 14″ barell, pistol grip and retractable stock. One for me and one for my wife.
    We generally use 3″ slug for protection against polar bears, black bears and arctic wolf.
    In winter (-50 celsius and sometime less…) we use Remington oil with Teflon.
    Those Benelli never failed us.

  • wetcorps

    Fascinating story, thanks for sharing.
    The part where you fall in the crevasse is paricularly interesting… Not sure how a modern rifle with feather ligh free floated polymer stock would hold up to such a situation, while the Mauser probably didn’t even notice 🙂

  • A Fascist Corgi

    My ideal arctic firearm would be a Vepr chambered in 7.62x54r. If I remember correctly, the Alaskan police conducted an extreme cold weather test on semi-auto rifles back in the 1980s, and they found that the AK platform performed flawlessly.

    Don’t get me wrong though, a bolt action rifle or a pump shotgun would work fine, but my only concerns are the lower capacity and rate of fire. I’d personally feel a lot safer with a Vepr slung over my back.

    The Vepr is also one of the most rugged semi-auto rifles in the world. So, I really wouldn’t worry about it not being as durable as a bolt action rifle or a pump shotgun.

    The only minor downside with the Vepr is that they look a bit more “tactical” than the standard bolt action rifle and pump shotgun, and that can scare the plebs. But that wouldn’t bug me. I couldn’t care less if people think that I’m a gun nut. And besides, a Vepr in a standard hunting configuration – with the wooden thumbhole stock and the long wooden forend – is one of the least tactical looking tactical rifles that you can get (besides maybe a Ruger Mini-14 with a wooden stock).

    As to backup guns, I’d probably go with a Glock 20 (an older Gen 3 model made in Austria would be my preferred choice, since the newer Gen 4s made in America are slightly less reliable in my experience). The 10mm is nowhere near as powerful as a magnum revolver cartridge, but you get 15 rounds of it. The much larger magazine capacity offsets the weaker cartridge power in my opinion. I also think that some Danish military unit carries Glock 20s for defense against polar bears. So, I’m not the only one who prefers magazine capacity over raw stopping power. I just don’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to shoot a charging polar bear in the brain with 5 or 6 bullets coming out of a magnum revolver. I’d much rather have 15 rounds to compensate for my (very likely) poor aim in that situation.

  • Bill

    Knowing how fast any bear can move, I might consider a 45-70 or heavier lever gun, but I have no idea of how well they’d perform versus a bolt gun in real arctic conditions. A 12 gauge with slugs seems optimal, one reason being that it is probably easier to load relatively large, ribbed shotgun shells with frozen, shaking gloved hands than slippery brass rifle cartridges. I’m assuming you’d only have to carry a few spare rounds, unless there is a bear uprising, the weight and bulk of spare ammo being a drawback in the .mil/LE context.

    Not being a hunter, I’m always on the border when it comes to caliber and power. I hear of people in Africa and the Arctic, places with serious apex predators, being content with a lot lower-powered firearms than I’d think, like the 30-06 or 7×57, which I understand has taken all of the Big Five quite handily. On the other hand, if I thought there was a serious chance of bear attack, I’d travel in a Stryker AFV, or velcro small children to myself for easy tossing as distraction devices.

    I’m extremely jealous, I’ve always wanted to try arctic travel, but thanks to arthritic knees that balk at anything below 40 F I doubt it will happen.

  • adverse

    Due to the threat from humans polar bears are advised to arm themselves.

    • Iggy

      Whelp… humanity had a good run.

  • gunsandrockets

    If a pump action 12 gauge with slugs is good bear defense, I imagine a Remington pump action carbine in 30-06 with 220 grain bullets is even better.

  • dP

    Regarding wepons for self defense against polar bears (on Svalbard only; in mainland Norway you can’t carrry a gun for SD against animals or people): rifles with a minimum caliber of 308w, or 12 gauge pump action shotguns are available for rent on Svalbard. Handgun licenses are not granted for self defense, but if you shoot competitions you can carry your competition handgun if it is suitable for the task. In general that would mean a 44, 454 or 460 reolver. Handguns with a caliber above 0.455″ were banned in 2008, but the law isn’t retroactive, so people who bought 50 cal guns before the ban are allowed to keep them.

  • gusto

    If the purpose of the gun is strictly bear defense I think the perfect candidate are those russian revolver shotguns or those rossi 44mag revolver carbines (or that 45-70 revolver rifle that Ian from forgotten weapons showed)

    You don’t need a 300 yard sub moa gun, you need a reliable hard hitting thing, a slug fits that bill, and perhaps even a 44mag (it is up close after all)

    And what the revolver shotgun or carbin offers that nothing else offers is that you can shoot a second shoot without having to use two arms to reload, you can be tackled by a bear and still get another shoot off by just using one hand. yes a sei auto might give you the same chance but I am not trusting that in such cold, and some semis are fidgely without proper shouldercontact

    • iksnilol

      .44 mag is way weaker than 30-06. I don’t know of anyone that recommends .44 mag against polar bear.

      NOTE: I am not a wise man but I am thinking common sense here.

  • Nimrod

    I’ve hunted where there are big bears and I’ve hunted in severe winter weather. You are likely to only get one shot at a charging bear so the type of action you carry is pretty much immaterial. One sees a lot of pump shotguns and lever action rifles in Alaska as bear protection but most hunters that I see there carry bolt actions. They are generally lighter, sleeker, easier to carry and generally more reliable in adverse weather than semis, pumps or levers.

  • Cannoneer No. 4

    What this blog needs is an Arctic Warfare Olympics post comparing Canadian Rangers, Danish SIRIUS, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, Russians, and Alaska Army National Guard.

  • Qiavraluk

    I live in the western Canadian Arctic in Inuvik, about 150k’s from the arctic ocean, however we have huge tundra grizzlies, black bear, wolves and a few other critters that can be a problem.

    Generally, I spend a considerable amount of time on the land and when I go I always have my 870 Express with a Knoxx folding stock. It is loaded with 3″ slugs, after two bird shot shells, and a 12G bear banger round. For me I like this platform as it is very versatile with what I can shoot, and also for when I can swap in different shells as needed.

    I use Rottweiler slugs, from what I understand they are denser than a common deer slug for a smooth bore. Being able to anchor the bear is a common tool used by hunters and traditional harvesters up here, so being able to destroy bone and muscle structures is key. Many of these folks have told me to shoot the shoulder or hip to prevent from continuing even though they often can. For polar bears it allows a follow up shot before they can dive off the ice, or reroute to the ice field, and with grizzlies to slow the charge. That is the same regardless if they are using a 12G or a bolt action. One seasoned hunter told me that one time he used a .308 and after a few shots he dropped the grizzly and when skinning it he saw that the round was imbedded in the muscle over the shoulder. He told me to go heavier to 30-06 or 7mm Rem Mag. My bolt guns are a Ruger Hawkeye All Weather 7mm Rem Mag, or a K95 with iron sights in 8mm, but in a load following the European loads. You can’t fog up iron sights.

    As for what I take with me when I go hunting snowshoe hares and birds I usually take an air gun or a .22, but always sling my 870 over my back, as it is compact and can hold a lot of ammo. I can also use it to get several birds when they are close together and when I can get the right angle to shoot. I can also take a caribou or moose with a slug. A number of times I have been chasing birds through our thickets of birch and willows and encountered a pack of wolves, in that dense environment with very short visibility I can quickly swap in a few rounds of 000 Buckshot. Or I can also cycle out the birdshot and load bangers and fire them, or 12G flare shells. The flares are good at distracting the predators, or magnifying your presence. Also, as you all know you can keep loading on the go with a pump.

    A few folks have commented on shaky fingers and hands in the cold, it is more like cold, numb and stiff poor responsive fingers. You can experience all that greatness and still load an 870. Additionally, the single front bead doesn’t frost over when you exhale, as in when you are in a situation, and frost up an optic.

    I have experienced a few times several years ago when out hunting in the early fall, November, when it was still -28C with my 870 on my back and after a few hours of sweating and going through snow laden trees things froze over and it was an issue when needing to cycle the action. A bolt would have been easier. I have changed my behaviour to carrying my gun in an easily rip away sleeve in the shoulder seasons to prevent the freeze over. This sleeve also prevents frost up while going into my tent. As many of you know, it is alway a good thing to regularly maintain your gun. When it gets seriously cold I don’t use oil, that can freeze things up.

    Love this page.