The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Playing in the Sandbox

Photos by RECOIL Staff and Muzzle Flash Media

RECOIL recently held its first-ever live event, Summit in the Sand, in Phoenix, Arizona. We hosted a number of great instructors teaching equally interesting topics. It generated a lot of lessons to be learned both by the students and our team. We thought we’d reflect on a couple and share them here for those of you who couldn’t make the Summit in person. Hopefully, we’ll see you at the next one.

The weather in Phoenix was unseasonably hot for early October, and Cowtown Range, like many places in the Southwest, has a knack for blowing dust and loose rocks. One of our Summit guest instructors, RECOIL contributor Dan Brokos, taught an excellent block of instruction on technical marksmanship with a scoped carbine. Aside from Brokos’ awesome lesson plan, the high temps and dusty gusts reinforced a couple other principles on how to keep your carbine up and running in the desert air.

While Arizona was our proving ground, there are lots of high desert, both in and out of the United States. Places where a properly functioning carbine could mean the difference between eating and starving, or life and death. While this is by no means a comprehensive user’s guide, we wanted to impart a couple of pertinent points.

Don’t Be Color Blind
Different colors absorb and reflect sunlight at different levels. Black — the single most popular OEM color for ARs and other service carbines — retains more light, and hence more heat, than the rest. Carrying a black rifle under intense sunlight can quickly become uncomfortably similar to picking up the wrong end of a branding iron. One way to avoid an M-LOK or rail-shaped palm tattoo are quality shooting gloves. Rail covers or wraps are another potential answer, but they only address one part of the weapon — the handguard. The trigger, charging handle, metal foregrips, and other accessories still get hot.

Another part of the solution can be as simple as changing the color of your weapon to something lighter that absorbs less heat. All those pictures of Mk-18s painted tan overseas? Sure, it looks operator as f*ck, but it also serves a more practical purpose: preventing your weapon from reaching Chernobyl temperatures 20 minutes into a 10-hour dismounted patrol.

You can achieve this end result with a can of spray paint or with any number of high-end aftermarket finishes. When choosing a surface coating, matte or rough-surface coatings may be a slightly better choice than high-gloss or reflective ones. Though, full disclosure, this particular suggestion is based largely on anecdotal evidence and some self-inflicted palm blisters over dozens of rifles handled in hot weather.

Our examples from Summit in the Sand were SIG MCX VIRTUS carbines, finished in stealth gray. This lighter finish kept the MCXs cooler to the touch despite 10 hours on the range and nearly 1,000 rounds per rifle under the desert sun. The VIRTUS is also available in FDE, depending on personal preference, but either choice — whether factory finished or sprayed on from a can — will reduce the chances of searing your support hand like a sirloin. In the end, regardless of what color your weapon is or how you got it there, you can’t shoot your gun if you can’t hold your gun.

summit in the sand recoil

An additional environmental factor to consider is that as temps drop steeply overnight, condensation can form on your rifle. Whether you’re in a tent, deer stand, or sniper hide, if your weapon is outdoors with you overnight moisture collects. Any untreated metal parts or components can start to form surface rust in a matter of hours. So in addition to protecting your hands from the gun, a quality surface treatment will also protect the gun from the environment.

Be a Hero, Check Your Zero
If you zero your weapon in one climate and shoot it in another, confirming your point of impact (POI) becomes critically important. It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting paper, four-legged prey, or two-legged predators, your weapon must be adjusted for the density altitude. The author personally remembers days in Iraq where the temperature would reach 140 degrees F during the day and 80 to 90 degrees F at night. That’s a 50-degree temperature change in a single 24-hour period.

After Summit in the Sand concluded, we reached out to Brokos at Lead Faucet Tactical and asked for some of his accumulated wisdom on temperature and bullets. His rough rule of thumb is that cold weather will drop your impact, and hot weather will raise it.

A higher density altitude causes less resistance, while a lower density altitude causes more drag on the projectile. Each environmental factor affects the increase or decrease of DA.

A higher density altitude causes less resistance, while a lower density altitude causes more drag on the projectile. Each environmental factor affects the increase or decrease of DA.

Relying on how weather changes feel to you serves as a good reminder that your rifle’s zero is shifting as well. In regard to zero shift, temperature fluctuations don’t take the full blame. Density Altitude is the term given for a culmination of atmospheric conditions.

Each atmospheric shift, individually, can affect how easily the projectile travels downrange. For shooting, we mainly take into account altitude, barometric pressure, temperature, and moisture content. Separately accounting for each of those conditions takes too much time when you need quick data for making an important shot. Instead, we use the all-encompassing measurement of Density Altitude. Density Altitude uses all those separate factors to give a final number as the DA, which we can more easily and quickly use. Many ballistic engines give the option for updating atmospherics. Ballistic engines that are downloadable to your phone are handy and fairly inexpensive. For the most accurate data, a handheld device, like the Kestrel 5700 Elite Meter with Applied Ballistics, will hold all your gun data and update for atmospherics at your exact location. A Kestrel is a pricier option, but it’s also the most accurate for measuring atmospherics and giving updated information for elevation and wind holds.

Even with all the information in the world about how atmospherics will affect projectiles, an accurate zero is a must. Zero and zero often. Zero before taking important shots and confirm zero whenever there’s a climate change or you have traveled to a vastly different location. If you’re in an area where the DA is constantly shifting, either use a ballistic engine that’ll give real-time updates or print out DOPE cards that reflect multiple Density Altitudes.

The topic of terminal ballistics along various temperature gradients is one that has filled books all by itself. Without going too far down the rabbit hole of ballistic science, we raise this point for the sake of general awareness and as a reminder that “keeping your gun running” can (and should) also include keeping it running accurately. For more information on this topic, see “No True Zero” on page 166.

To Lube or Not to Lube
Lubrication seems to be a bad penny of the carbine consumer base — it just keeps turning up. No matter how much information is made available to the populace, the debate never seems to really be settled. Particularly in the context of a dusty or sandy environment, passionate arguments are made about how much (if any) lubricant should be used on a weapon. The argument goes that using wet lube on a weapon in this environment will attract dust/grit and induce malfunctions faster than running it dry.

Lube used during Summit was an industry stand-by: Hoppe’s 9. Keep your gun clean and well lubricated. That goes for both literal and metaphorical “guns.”

Lube used during Summit was an industry stand-by: Hoppe’s 9. Keep your gun clean and well lubricated. That goes for both literal and metaphorical “guns.”

On paper, the logic feels sound. The problem we see is that this supposes a dry weapon won’t hold any dust. Practical experience hard-earned by several of our team … and many others who live or work in places where blowing dust is a fact of life … doesn’t support this. The bottom line is that, in the desert, your weapon is going to collect dust. Regardless of how much or little lubricant is applied, sandstorms, dust devils, haboobs, and sudden gusts are going to kick loose debris up into the air and onto/into your gun. If we accept this as unavoidable, the question then becomes how to overcome the grit that does make it inside the action.

The bottom line is that any situation that involves metal surfaces moving against each other requires some degree of lubrication — engines, guns, metal-cutting, etc. A proper amount of lubrication can allow any debris to be sluiced out of the action during the firing cycle, or at least reduce the possibility of binding by allowing that debris to move with the bolt carrier, vice caking on as the chamber heats up. But, in sandy environments, it can be a fine line. If you’re used to lubing by the pint, maybe dial it back some.

Zero data isn’t only specific to environmental conditions, but also to choice of ammo. In this case, Federal’s 55-grain American Eagle FMJ.

Zero data isn’t only specific to environmental conditions, but also to choice of ammo. In this case, Federal’s 55-grain American Eagle FMJ.

You want enough to keep the parts running in spite of some fine particulate, but you also need to avoid collecting a bunch of sandy sludge in the nooks and crannies of the receiver. The best recommendations from Brokos are to use a lubricant that’s very slick — stay away from grease or thicker cold-weather lubes — and don’t just douse your BCG like some folks normally advocate. A thin, functional coat should get you best results. For the VIRTUS rifles running at Summit, we used good old Hoppe’s 9 and had zero issues with any of the demo guns we ran for two days straight. Lube your rifle in the desert like you lube for sex: you don’t want it dry and chappy, but you don’t want to be dripping on the floor either.

A shooter’s version of Occam’s razor. If you can just cover your weapon up, or put it in a case, do it. The better the case, the cleaner the weapon.

A shooter’s version of Occam’s razor. If you can just cover your weapon up, or put it in a case, do it. The better the case, the cleaner the weapon.

Cover it Up
Our last tip may be the most obvious — making it the one that folks are most likely to either forget or blow off. Whenever possible, cover your weapon. Or, at least, cover the parts most likely to let debris in.

A couple of the biggest culprits are the muzzle, ejection port, and magazine well. We’ve seen all manner of muzzle covers used on rifles: fingers cut off of latex or nitrile gloves, condoms, sandwich bags, caps — basically anything that will prevent foreign material from getting down the barrel you can shoot through. All the examples listed can be made almost watertight with a few turns of good tape. Ejection port solutions will vary by rifle. In the case of AR-pattern weapons, keeping that ejection port cover closed as much as possible will make a difference. With bolt or other manual cycling actions, keep them closed until needed.

The MCX VIRTUS’s monochrome finish may help keep the weapon a little cooler a little longer.

The MCX VIRTUS’s monochrome finish may help keep the weapon a little cooler a little longer.

Of course, the absolute easiest way to keep your weapon clean and ready is to keep it out of the environment by way of a case. This isn’t the practical answer for most situations — but it can work for some. If you can haul your weapon in a drag bag or soft case until you’re in your shooting position, that’s something to consider. If your rifle breaks down into halves, it can be dropped into a daypack and made ready when needed. Again, this will not apply to everybody’s needs, but explore every option you’ve got based on your circumstances.

Conclusion
Our military’s long-term engagement in various campaigns across Southwest Asia have given us a wealth of practical knowledge about how to keep individual weapons running smoothly in some of the most hostile conditions available for firearms. At the end of the day, decreased maintenance intervals and regular confirmation of zero as conditions require will go most of the way to heading off any potential issues caused by sand and dust. The points raised here will hopefully get you thinking about how to best set yourself up for success, whether you’re facing this kind of environment for business or pleasure.


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