Robert H. Scales Jr. is a retired Army Major General and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
After graduating from West Point in 1966, Scales was commissioned as a field artillery officer and sent to West Germany. After two years in Europe, he was sent to Vietnam.
On June 14, 1969, an artillery commander was killed and Scales was named his replacement during the Battle of Hamburger Hill.
At 3 a.m., his base was attacked when nearly a hundred North Vietnamese soldiers overran the base in the predawn assault.
The North Vietnamese had crawled toward the base for hours, dragging their Soviet AK-47’s through dirt and mud.
When the battle erupted, the enemy’s AK-47’s operated with devastating effect, seemingly untouched by the mounds of mud the rifles had been carried through.
On the American side, every person and object in the unit was covered with reddish-brown clay that had been blown upward by rotor wash from Chinook helicopters delivering ammunition earlier in the day.
American soldiers were sleeping beside their M16 rifles when the North Vietnamese attacked and they immediately returned fire.
Scales admits that his men hadn’t cleaned their M16’s that day and he hadn’t made it an issue, even though they had heard rumors that the M16 didn’t run well dirty.
Despite explosions all around him, Scales rotated among his gun crews, firing at the enemy, helping his men, and radioing instructions to helicopter gunships, after which he was awarded a Silver Star for his actions.
After the battle, Scales found multiple soldiers who were dead, lying atop M16 rifles that were broken open in an apparent attempt to clear jams. Scales says to this day that those images still haunt him.
The fact is, many guns these days can run fine with dirt and being submerged in water. But, it’s always a good idea to take care of your guns and clean them often… especially if they’ve been wet.
With that being said, here are the most common problems you run into when your firearm gets wet and the best ways to overcome these issues.
Rust. The problems posed by rain or standing water range from long-term rust to catastrophic blowup on firing. While the latter is less likely to occur, rust can easily happen even after just a little bit of exposure to water.
Now, I’ve taught many firearms courses in the rain and snow since you could encounter these elements during a deadly situation. The key is to properly clean your firearm after it has been exposed to rain, dirt, or mud.
The best way to do this is to completely strip and dry your firearm with water-displacing chemicals, towels and dry air.
Failure To Function. A more immediate problem with water or dirt is the failure to function. This can commonly be due to water collecting in the firing pin channel or interfering with feeding.
Now, rainwater is one thing, but standing water often includes grit or silt, which can get into the weapon and greatly increase the chances of friction between parts.
Clearly, the best way to avoid this is keep your firearm from being submerged in water or by keeping it wrapped in cloth or plastic.
However, if your firearm has been submerged or covered in dirt and you don’t have the option to carefully clean the firearm, your next best action is to open the slide or bolt, and shake or dump out any grit or water.
Sight Failure. One of the more overlooked problems related to firearms and water is the failure of sights. Small aperture sights can collect water that can be difficult to remove from the sight.
On the other hand, open sights seldom get waterlogged and neither do ghost rings. In addition, most higher-end scopes are entirely waterproof, though they may rust over time after exposure to water.
The same is true of red dot sights, lights and lasers. In other words, just like you would clean your gun after exposing it to the elements, you should also clean your sights, scope, and lasers.
I realize most shooters will probably avoid training on days when the weather is inclement. However, you should always be prepared for extreme conditions when it would be useful to know how much your firearm can handle.
The fact is, you never know if the day that you need to defend your life it could be snowing, raining, or in the middle of a dust storm.