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Field Fixes: Rifle First Aid

Your next great adventure is only as good as your hunting rifle. Brush up on your field fixes.

Field Fixes: Rifle First Aid
Most barrel obstructions can be cleared using Otis’s flexible-but-stiff pull-through rod (I never leave camp without one). More stubborn clogs, such as a stuck bullet, may require a portable jointed rod.

I was edging down a steep incline when my snowshoes went out from under me and I fell hard, rolling and skidding on the frozen snow that lay beneath 10 inches of fresh powder. Winded, I lay still at the bottom for a moment as the cloud of glittering flakes I’d stirred up settled around me. My right snowshoe was somehow wrapped around my right ear, and as I untangled myself, I found that not only was the action of my Pre-’64 Model 70 jam-packed with snow, but also my muzzle was solidly blocked.

Fumbling at the muzzle with a frozen twig didn’t help, and I’d neglected to pack a small cleaning kit. Clearly, the moose I was trailing would have to wait. I gathered my gear and began the long trek out to the truck.

These things happen, and if you’re not prepared to remedy the problem, they can spell the end of what should have been a good day’s hunt.

Being prepared to render first aid to your hunting tool is most critical in wilderness country, where getting it out to professional help requires serious effort and time, but it’s important even if you hunt close to home. At the risk of opening myself to ridicule, I once dropped a Smith & Wesson X-Frame .460 Magnum revolver out of a tall treestand and into the mud. Thankfully, that time I was prepared and got it cleaned up and functioning with what I had in my daypack. Two hours later, after a shocking rainsquall, I shot a very good wild boar with impressive tusks.Various types of mishaps can blindside you and your gun while hunting. If you’re prepared, most can be rectified in the field. Here’s a look at several of the most common issues, along with the gear you’ll need to fix the problem.

Muzzle Obstructions

I’ve had the barrel of my rifle obstructed by snow, mud, rainwater, and twigs. Most of the time the obstruction is at the muzzle, and while shoving sticks, unfolded coat hangers, and your buddy’s arrow shaft down the barrel may get the obstruction cleared, it also may not and could very possibly damage the rifling. I don’t like jointed cleaning rods but they are the best portable field tool for clearing a stubborn barrel obstruction. Keep one in camp or, if you can hack the weight, in your daypack.

In my pack I now always carry a compact field cleaning kit made by Otis. Unlike most other pull-through cleaning kits, the flexible “rod” contained within is a coated steel cable and has enough body that, when pushed through a barrel, it will usually clear an obstruction.

After you get the jam cleared, be sure to pull a couple of cleaning patches through your barrel to clean grit and crud from the internal surfaces. If wet, dry it out and lay down a very thin film of oil to prevent corrosion.

Other types of barrel obstructions I’ve seen are a handloaded bullet left stuck in the rifling leade when an unfired case is ejected (don’t handload hunting ammo with projectiles seated into the rifling) and the front portions of empty cases left in the chamber after the base split off (reloaded too hot or too many times—wise up, nitwit). In the first case, you’ll need a proper cleaning rod to bump the bullet out from the muzzle (another vote for carrying a light jointed rod in your day pack); in the second case, a tight-fitting bronze cleaning brush can be pushed inside the ruptured case from the breech, then pulled rearward. Bronze bristles don’t like to reverse directions, and in most cases they’ll grip and bring the forward part of the cartridge case out.

Scope Issues

This is a multifaceted topic. Scopes can lose their zero from a hard bump; mounts and rings can become loose; lenses can fog up internally, and scopes can get mashed by an inconsiderate horse or ATV.

In the last case, if you don’t have a backup scope or iron sights, you’re out of business. Get up earlier than your buddy the next morning and steal his rifle for the day’s hunt.

So, too, with bad internal fogging, which usually requires a return trip to the manufacturer, although I once did manage to unscrew the lens on a buddy’s badly fogged scope (figured it was already out of commission and was worth the gamble), dried the lenses and reachable internal surfaces, and reassembled it once it had air dried sufficiently. Professional help would be necessary once home, but that got him back into the hunt.

Field repairs are often possible for scopes that have lost zero due to a hard knock or loose mounting hardware, as long as you have the right tools. Keep a little kit containing Torx and/or Allen wrenches that fit the screws in your rings and bases, along with a small crescent wrench or Leatherman-type tool for tactical-type rings that mount with nut-secured crossbolts.

You’ll also need an adequate supply of spare ammo. Once you’ve checked and tightened all the screws in your mounting hardware, pirate a paper plate from the camp cook or whittle an aiming spot into the trunk of a dead tree and do some shooting to get sighted-in again. If the scope is way off, you might have to shoot a full box or more in primitive field conditions before you’re happy with your point of impact. I usually try to have at least 30 rounds on me. That way, even if I burn up a full box of 20 getting my zero fine-tuned, I’ve got at least 10 rounds left.

Keep in mind that scopes that have suffered a hard blow sometimes no longer adjust predictably. Once, 22 miles into a wilderness area in Montana, I fell hard with one of my favorite scopes—and when I checked, it was way off. Worse, point of impact moved unpredictably when I adjusted the windage and elevation turrets—clearly, something was distorted or broken inside. Thankfully, at least the crosshairs stayed put once moved. It took a lot of ammo and trial and error to get zeroed, but with perseverance I succeeded and got back into the field for the duration of the hunt.

Sling Swivels

One of the most dismaying things that can happen while blithely strolling down the path to your favorite hunting spot is for your rifle strap to break and dump your best tackdriver into the mud and rocks behind you. Invariably, it hits muzzle first and then clatters down, scope impacting multiple rocks. Now you’ve got a broken swivel or strap, obstructed muzzle, and potential scope issue.

Trouble is, sling swivel weakness and even strap deterioration fly under the radar. Preventive maintenance is the best cure: Rigorously pull on your swivels and give your strap a detailed inspection before heading into the field. Make sure that screw-in type swivels haven’t backed partially out. Look for cracked, dry leather and frayed, potentially rotten webbing. Examine stitching and rivets. Make sure that quick-detach swivel loops are correctly fastened to the swivel stud. And the most obvious-but-overlooked point. Make sure that adjustable webbing-type straps aren’t “creeping” in their fasteners. Being a paranoid sort, I tie a half hitch in the loose ends of webbing-type slings. If you do have a sling-related field disaster, it’s handy to have a few feet of Paracord on hand to patch your strap together. You can loop it around a barrel or buttstock and splice on to your strap, too, if a swivel has pulled out.

Either way, make sure you pull out every trick in the book the next time your gun goes down.

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