Saturday, December 18, 2010


German 2nd Panzer Army at the gates of Moscow, December 1941: “The animals collapsed and died by the dozen. The engines likewise were out of action. There was not enough anti-freeze; the water in the radiators froze and engine blocks burst. Tanks, lorries, and radio vans became immobile and useless. Weapons packed up because the oil froze in the moving parts. No one had thought of making sure of winter oil.”
When push comes to shove in the winter, whether it be in the boreal forest, muskeg, taiga, tundra or mountains, nature tends to make conditions wherein combat comes often boils down to fairly small units of dismounted men utilizing only small arms to settle the issue. About the easiest and most effective way to increase the small arms firepower of light infantry, winter or summer, whether they are Royal Marines, Rangers, Raiders, Alpini, Jaegers, Sissi, or Chasseurs, is to increase marksmanship.
True light infantry need to be not just familiarized or qualified with their individual weapons, but masters of them, for a variety of reasons. One of these many reasons is difficulty of re-supply in hostile climates and environments. Deep snow can block supply routes and blizzards ground air re-supply. Mountains can prove particularly difficult when it comes to getting supplies forward to the troops. With resupply being so difficult, every round, even rifle rounds, needs to count.
I won’t devote anymore to my regular preaching except to say, “Go to an Appleseed Shoot!!!”
Just about every source on winter and mountain warfare I’ve come across agrees that marksmanship and the husbanding of ammunition is particularly important. In more than a few cases—Italy in WWII, Korea, Norway, the Caucus Mountains, the Italian Alps in WWI, both Pakistani and Indian outposts on Saichen Glacier—every ounce of supplies was precious. At times, only mules or horse and/or hand-drawn sleds could move supplies. Sometimes, they could only come forward on the backs of the fighting men. Bring fewer weapons but more ammo, and make the most of what you do have.

Neither motorized vehicles nor horses could operate in the Finnish taiga and boreal forest, so reindeer and native boat-shaped ahkio sleds were used in rough winter country.
A Finnish officer, veteran of both the Winter War and the Continuation War fighting in the deep snow of the forests, muskeg, and taiga near the Arctic Circle against the Soviets, heartily agreed with the mountain troops regarding weapons and ammunition when advising American troops in Alaska after the Korean War..
“Experience in war has shown that it is more desirable to have a plentiful supply of ammunition for a few weapons than to have a number of weapons without ammunition. Often the heavier weapons must be left behind in cross-country operation because wheeled vehicles are road-bound and ammunition is too heavy to allow continuous resupply…The determining factor is: How many weapons can be supplied with sufficient ammunition [original emphasis].
On December 11, 1939, during the Russo-Finnish War, good reconnaissance allowed Lieutenant Eero Kivela and his three under-strength platoons to intercept an entire Russian battalion. The handful of Finns, lacking machine guns and armed “only” with open-sighted bolt-action Mosin-Nagant rifles, took the whole Russian battalion under fire at the first light of dawn. Caught on the wide open snow-covered lake in their brown uniforms, the Soviets made easy targets for the sharp-shooting Finns. Within minutes, the remnants of the Soviet battalion had broken and fled across the lake towards the forest. The Finns counted over 200 dead on the ice, and numerous blood trails followed the path of the Russian retreat.

Why you can’t always rely on modern mechanized supply in rough terrain or climates.
“Ammunition resupply may become restricted. Everyone must be aware of the necessity for ammunition economy and fire discipline. Loaded clips, magazines, or single rounds dropped in the snow become quickly lost; therefore, careful handling of ammunition is essential. Never waste your ammunition. Make every round count.”
An American Marine NCO involved in the bitter winter fighting for the rugged, barren mountains of Korea, where often supplies could only come forward on the pack-boards of men clawing their way up steep slopes, said, “We didn’t waste rifle fire; you had to see something to pull the trigger. We didn’t use rifles for suppression; we used machine guns for that. The engagement range could run from 500 yards down to right outside my hole. I knocked people down right outside my hole and I shot them at 500 yards.”

“In winter the Panje horse proved even more essential. The Panje sleigh became the universal means of transportation when motor vehicles were incapacitated and roads were snowbound or nonexistent. During the first months of 1942 some panzer divisions had as many as 2,000 Panje horses but hardly a single serviceable motor vehicle. For that reason they received the nickname "Panje divisions." This unexpected turn of events made the veterinarian the busiest man in any panzer division.”
The German WWII Gebirgsjaeger faced even worse supply problems in high mountains, so their manual stressed doing what one could to increase the efficiency of the organic small arms the ski troops already possessed. Here are a few techniques they used to squeeze the most firepower from their small arms while conserving previous ammo in the process:
“Maximum fire power and mobility are decisive factors in determining the type and number of weapons with which the individual ski trooper should be equipped. Therefore, the men must be equipped with the largest possible number of automatic weapons, rifles with telescopic sights, and a correspondingly large supply of ammunition…The number of heavy weapons to be taken along depends on the facilities for carrying sufficient ammunition. Fewer arms and plenty of ammunition should be the rule.”

Soldiers always find a way, but these supplies are measured in poundage rather than tonnage.
“He [the mountain soldier] must learn to shoot in snow, among rocks, in extreme cold, while wearing mittens, at night, and especially in fog. The targets should be at varying distances, from thirty-five to three hundred, even five hundred yards. He must be able to register hits on visible targets in from five to twenty seconds. In short, no matter what the situation, he should be able to make each shot count.”
The Swiss Mountain Brigades, in a WWII article, made the point of the importance of the individual’s rifle, its portability, and its conservation of precious ammunition.
“In mountainous sectors where the mountaineer is forced to rely entirely on skis, his ice-axe, and rope for moving about, the carbine [K-31] is the ideal arm. On account of the ease with which it is operated and its small size and weight, the carbine can be carried anywhere without a great deal of inconvenience. Its simple action permits almost instantaneous opening of fire and it is not in any way affected by the cold. Its firing accuracy is excellent even at distances in excess of three hundred yards. The maximum consumption of ammunition may be fixed at six rounds per minute, and even this could be a bit high. It is not hard, therefore, to maintain a supply of ammunition even in relatively inaccessible locations.”
Table of the weight of ammunition needed to feed various weapons.
Nature of Fire
Rate of Fire
Weight of ammunition
Carbine K-31
One round at a time
6 rounds per minute
1 clip, 5.6 ounces
Submachine gun
Bursts of 5 to 8 rounds
60 rounds per minute
2 magazines, 5.7 pounds
Machine gun
Bursts of 20 to 30 rounds
250 rounds per minute
1 box ammunition, 24.2 pounds

The Weapons Themselves
Winter and mountain weather, especially extreme temperatures, can indeed have an effect on your rifle. Historically, various armies suffered different problems and evolved different solutions. Some are for emergencies or improvising, and there are of course just some simple precautions and maintenance to take care of things.
Normal lubricants can thicken and result in sluggish weapon operation at extreme low temperatures. A friend of mine experienced a non-functioning firing pin in a modern commercial bolt-action sporting rifle while elk hunting after having used nothing more than commercial gun oil. On the Russian Front in WWII, German artillery could not fire when the fluid in the recoil cylinders thickened, and even the Diesel fuel for the tanks gelled up. Lubricating oil was thinned with kerosene; a ratio of 1-to-6 enabled operation down to -57 degrees. Even standard gun oil was thinned with kerosene.
In the Korean War, the wrong lubricants were sent forward and caused problems. Many are the stories of Marines and GI’s pissing on their weapons to free them up. The first winter in Korea the impromptu solution became to clean the weapons with gasoline, removing all lubricant, and firing them dry. On a weapon like the BAR or FAL, with an adjustable gas regulator, it can be opened all the way up. Eventually, American units received the proper low temperature lubricants.
The Finns sometimes used whale oil, nicknamed Stockholm Tar, to lubricate their weapons during their frigid winters. Heating up a weapon lubed with this stuff supposedly produced an odor not soon forgotten. The Red Chinese in Korea were said to have used fish oil. Sunflower oil also remains thin at extreme cold temperatures.
Condensation forms on weapons when they are taken from the cold into any type of heated shelter. Condensation is often referred to as "sweating". The moisture freezes when you leave the heated area. Internal parts may freeze to one another causing stoppages, and rust will eventually form. For this reason, as contrary to our nature as it seems, weapons should be left outside during freezing temperatures if you intend to use them in the near future. In field conditions, while the weapons are left outside the shelter, they are of course under guard. They should still be readily accessible, but sheltered where snow, ice, or melt water cannot get to them; an anteroom, lean-to, stretched tarp. They can be set into a rifle rack improvised from a branch, “stacked arms” in a tripod of weapons, or, if all else fails, put butt down in the snow. Military forces often have dedicated muzzle covers. Really, though, it’s hard to beat the simple expedient of a piece of black electrical tape over the muzzle, applied when the metal is dry and fairly warm. It keeps the crud out yet does not interfere with the bullet when fired. It’s something I always use while hunting. Then there's always the old GI standby of putting a rubber over your muzzle.
When you do take a weapon into a warm structure to clean it, you don’t start cleaning until the metal has stopped “sweating”. One hour is about right to wait. If you’re in something like a wall tent or other more primitive shelter, placing the weapon close to the floor keeps it cooler and minimizes condensation. You most definitely do not want to lean the sucker up against the wood stove. The recommended procedure, after the sweating has stopped, it to thoroughly clean the weapon of all lubricants with an evaporative solvent (why the GIs in Korea used gasoline). Then, according to the US Army, “Oil the entire weapon with a light coating of cleaner lubricant preservative (CLP).” I’m not so sure about this. CLP freezes at -35° F, it would be reasonable to assume it starts to thicken up before then.

Illustration from: TC 21-3 Soldier's Handbook for Individual Operations and Survival in Cold-Weather Areas, a good source to have.
The Army Alaska Command illustrates once again why a couple of black plastic garbage bags are too valuable not to have in your kit.
NOTE: To prevent condensation from forming on objects moved from a cold to a warm environment, place the object in a sealed non-breathable container. A plastic trash bag will suffice. This prevents exposure of the object to the warmer environment. The condensation will form on the container instead of the object. When the object is “room temperature,” remove it from the container.
There is an issue item intended for cold weather which works much better, LAW, Lubricant Arctic Weapon, but, as in Korea, you can depend on the Army not to get it to you when you really need it. Smooth-Kote is a good commercial dry lube, good down to 65 below zero. Powdered graphite on interior working parts also reduces friction without freezing up. I’m running automotive lithium bearing grease on my Garand; it’s supposedly good to -45 degrees. I’ll have to take their word for it, as I’m not good to -45 degrees. When it gets that cold, this old dog curls up by the fire.
When enemy contact is imminent, the interior climate of troop compartments of transportation systems (especially aircraft) should be maintained close to freezing (32°F). This prevents overheating of troops dressed in the cold regions uniform. It also prevents moisture from condensing and refreezing on weapons as troops debark into the cold from warm aircraft and vehicles.
The following advice comes from a German WWII Cold Weather manual detailing their lessons learned on the Russian Front. Most of the advice can still be applicable today, or suitable for emergency use.
In winter, especially in extremely cold weather and during thaws, additional maintenance and careful handling of weapons and equipment is necessary. Frequent inspections and tests should be made. Weapons should be kept in places maintained at the temperatures in which they are intended to function…
Weapons should, if possible, be cleaned daily. Use a cleaning wick or a soft rag lightly dipped in oil. A thin film of oil is sufficient. If too much is used, it will solidify and stoppages will result.
Parts which have frozen fast should not be forced. They should be moved gradually after careful warming and application of kerosene or of gun oil mixed with kerosene. Before loading weapons, go through a few dry loading movements.
When firing, do not permit the hot parts of the weapons to come in contact with snow. When changing hot [machine gun] barrels, do not lay them in the snow, or they will warp.
a. Rifles and Carbines [Bolt-action]
If the triggers do not function satisfactorily in very cold weather, drop some pure kerosene from above into the opening for the trigger sear and from below into the opening of the trigger guard. Then pull the trigger several times until it works satisfactorily.
b. Semiautomatic Rifles
Care must be taken that snow and water do not penetrate the gas port or piston. If the trigger does not work, it may be made to function again by carefully putting drops of kerosene on it (but only in case of emergency). If, during combat, the gas-cylinder mechanism is found frozen fast, shoot until it has thawed out (with single shots, loaded by hand). This procedure also applies to the submachine gun…Water which has penetrated must be removed later when the weapon is cleaned.
c. Magazines
Keep the magazine and cartridges dry (not oiled) and free from dust. In order to clean the cartridges, the magazine should, if conditions permit, be emptied and refilled daily. In doing this, check the magazine for warping and dents. Damaged magazines should be removed; as well as cartridges which are rusty or dented. After filling the magazine, press the top cartridge down several times and let it come up again so that the cartridges will be in proper alignment. Care should be taken that the cartridges do not jam in the magazine.
The Canadian Army, of course, has long experience and training in regards to Arctic warfare. Their manual goes into considerable detail regarding the use and care of small arms in extreme cold weather conditions.

Canadian troops training in what is obviously an extreme cold weather environment.
Weapon Mechanisms
1. Special care must be taken to prevent the bolt or breech-block from freezing.
2. The most common time for the bolt or breech-block to freeze in the closed position is shortly after being fired when condensation will form at the head-space of the bolt or breechblock and the cartridge chamber. This condensation is formed by the cooler face of the bolt or breech-block being in contact with the much warmer mouth of the cartridge chamber. This condensation will form and freeze very quickly, producing a stoppage that at times is almost impossible to remedy, with the exception of thawing out the weapon in a heated shelter.
3. It must also be noted that after a weapon has been fired condensation will form in the barrel as well as the cartridge chamber. When the condensation freezes, it produces a stoppage by not allowing a round to be fully seated, thereby making it impossible to fire the weapon. This is overcome by leaving the live round in the chamber. If this round freezes in the chamber and cannot be extracted by using the cocking handle, it can be fired. It must be understood that the instant this round is fired, that the great heat that is immediately generated will melt any frozen moisture that is between the casing and the cartridge chamber, before any ejection action begins to take place. To help prevent stoppages, because of the effects of cold weather, carry out the following drills:
a. After firing, work the mechanism every few minutes, leaving a live round in the chamber, until all danger of freezing is past. This may take up to an hour.
b. Check your weapon at each halt to ensure that snow is not seeping in through the breech cover.
c. Work the firing mechanism by hand before firing to ensure it functions freely and to reduce the possibility of misfires.
Another problem that faces the soldier in areas of severe cold is a higher rate of breakage.
Cold makes the metal in the weapons brittle and when a weapon is fired in sub-zero temperatures, breakages will occur to the working parts early in the firing. Weapons should first be fired at a slow rate and once the parts have warmed up the rate of fire can be increased to the weapon's normal rapid rate of fire.
Another point to note is that if the weapon has been zeroed at higher temperatures, it will impact below its normal point in sub-zero temperatures. Very cold propellants in the cartridges can burn slightly slower than normal. After a few rounds, the chamber and barrel begin to heat cartridges sufficiently for normal burn rate and trajectory to return. On the other hand, in the mountains, a weapon zeroed at a much lower altitude will print higher than normal.
During extended prone firing, the snow in front of the muzzle can become dark or discolored; during pauses in firing, fresh snow can be spread over the spot. Short-barreled weapons and weapons with flash suppressors and muzzle brakes can cause dry snow to billow up with each shot, revealing the rifleman’s position. A white camouflage poncho, firing through a clump of small trees or brush, or pouring water onto the snow in front of the firing position can prevent this.

A “Sniper Snow Angel”. The Precision Rifle Workshop in Colorado offers a special Cold Weather Ops class for snipers.
Here’s something I’ve yet to really encounter; if I shoot when it’s that cold, it’s usually a single shot at a coyote or bobcat. I suspect it applies mainly to automatic weapons.
Visibility may be difficult as a result of firing weapons in temperatures below -20F. As the round leaves the weapon, the water vapor in the air is crystallized creating minute ice particles. The ice particles produce ice fog. If the air is still, the fog can remain along the gunner's line of sight for several minutes. When faced with this problem, fire at a slower rate and/or relocate to another firing position. Like a jet contrail hanging in the air, the line of ice particles points right back to the shooter’s location. Pakistani light infantry firing at Indian troops in a battle for the Saichen Glacier revealed their location when extended firing created an ice fog that hung over their positions like black powder smoke in the days of the muzzle-loading rifle.
One last thing that concerns the individual rifleman in mountain fighting is compensating for firing up and downhill. It may come as a surprise to some but you actually need to aim lower both up and downhill. The straight line distance to the target is shorter than the horizontal distance that affects normal trajectory. Naturally, the steeper the slope, the greater the disparity.

The following text is taken from a more modern Canadian Army manual. Where the appropriate photographs lacked sufficient detail, I used illustrations taken from the German WWII Gebirgsjaeger manual.

Prone Position. This position is normally adopted when fired upon by the enemy. When this happens, immediately go to the ground, then, by using your hands and feet while squirming the body, dig down to a depth of approximately 18 inches. Under hard snow condition, break the surface by using either snowshoes, skis, poles, or rifle butt. Once the body is below snow level, if necessary, use the snowshoes or skis as an elbow rest or weapon platform. If pulling the toboggan, adopt the prone position behind it and use it as a cover and weapon platform.

It’s hard to hit what you can’t see.

Kneeling and Squatting Positions. These positions are normally adopted during the attack phase where low cover, such as snow drifts or brush, is available. No difficulty should be encountered when wearing snowshoes, using either position, or skis using the squatting position. In the kneeling position wearing skis, the right ski is lifted backwards and placed diagonally behind the left with the instep of the foot facing towards the ground. In soft snow, the right knee can be supported by placing a ski pole under it. In both positions the ski poles may be used as a weapon rest.

Kneeling Position on Snowshoes
c. Standing Position. This position is normally adopted in forested areas where adequate tree cover is available. In some instances the ski poles may be used as a weapon support.

d. Automatic weapons can be fired from the prone position using a snowshoe or ski pole basket as a rest for the bipod. Some machine gunners attach a wide strip of canvas to the bipod legs. When the bipod is opened, the canvas stretches out between the legs over the snow and stops the legs from sinking.

There are many more aspects of cold weather and mountain warfare that can be discussed in future columns. For me just writing about this made me cold and so, even though it was a balmy 2° F here this morning, I think I’ll fire up the woodstove and have the dog curl up at my feet.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a story my late dad, a WW2 veteran who served in Europe told me. Dad's M1 Garand froze after firing one round one frigid night. Thinking quickly, he "tactically urinated" on the action and fixed the thing. God bless him and the Greatest Generation. Dan