My friend Jack pulled the car into a grassy clearing. We donned rubber boots, fetched a metal detector and digging tools from the trunk, and headed off along a game trail. Our mission: To dig up and test fire a pistol Jack had buried years ago.
The trail disappeared into a wetland, which Jack crossed with confidence. The muddy water was only about six inches deep where he walked, but I couldn’t see the bottom so I waded gingerly after him. It was at this point I discovered that my borrowed waterproof boots – weren’t. I squished along after Jack. By the time I emerged onto dry land, he was standing well ahead of me, next to the stump of an old cedar that had been logged a hundred years ago.
“It’s buried right here,” Jack told me confidently. “Between this stump and that sapling.”
I was dubious. The “sapling” wasn’t exactly a sapling anymore. It had grown into a mid-sized alder tree. Besides, Jack had history with not being able to relocate a buried firearm. Back in 2004, I had mocked him in one of my Backwoods Home Hardyville columns for that very thing, an SKS he couldn’t relocate.
Nevertheless, he set to breaking up roots. I followed with a shovel.
“I didn’t bury it very deep,” he said. “We shouldn’t have too much trouble.”
They’re at it again. The politicians in Washington, DC, and their media mouthpieces everywhere are in full cry, threatening more restrictions on our right to own guns.
In response, Americans are rushing to buy firearms, particularly those that might be targets of the next ban. Without a doubt, many guns are going underground or into other hiding places. When Draconian restrictions take effect, millions more firearms will get tucked into walls, haylofts, hollow trees, and waterproof containers buried in the woods.
There are people who say, “When it’s time to bury the guns, it’s actually time to dig them up and use them.” They have a point. But in fact, there are plenty of good reasons to hide guns, now or at any other time. And we’re not talking about simply concealing a gun to have it handy in home, office, or hotel room. We’re talking about hardcore, long-term hiding – stashing guns against some urgent future need.
My friend Jack, carrying a metal detector and digging implements, heads toward a game trail that leads to the site where he buried a pistol many years ago. The game trail is right in front of him but strangers would be unlikely to spot it because of the quick-growing blackberry bramble that’s obscured it.
Three reasons to hide a gun
You might want to hide a firearm just to have a spare if your others get stolen or damaged in a disaster.
You might want to hide a firearm if you are a peaceable person who is nevertheless forbidden to own a gun because of some misdeed in your past or some arbitrary state law.
And of course, you might want to hide a firearm if you fear nationwide bans and confiscations but realize that you can’t stand alone against the gun banners.
Three types of guns you might want to hide
You might want to hide a spare carry pistol away from your home in case your everyday carry gun is stolen or damaged.
You might want to hide any firearm that’s being banned.
Or – as in the Clinton era, the last time people rushed to hide firearms – you might want to stash any cheap, but reliable semi-automatic rifle in a common caliber. SKSs were popular stash guns then. AK-47s are good, too. You probably don’t want to tuck away your best battle rifle or your most beautiful, precise, scoped bolt action hunting gun (or, as politicians will eventually call it, your “sniper rifle”). But that’s up to what you can afford to sequester and what you want to have at hand if the you-know-what ever hits the rotary airfoil. Because, make no mistake, a buried battle gun is a SHTF tool.
And of course, in all cases, you’re also securing ammunition for that gun and any tools you might need to make your well-hidden firearm work for you.
Whatever type of gun you choose, one of the most important steps is to prepare it well for long-term storage. You need to ensure that the firearm you eventually retrieve will be ready to use – and not a rusted hulk.
Three ways to prep your gun for hiding
My friend Jack favors the very simplest method of preparing a firearm for hiding. He leaves the gun fully assembled, wraps it in vapor-phase inhibitor paper (also known as volatile corrosion inhibitor or VCI paper), adds desiccants (see sidebar) to keep down humidity, then places gun and ammo into a tightly-sealed container. His SKS spent nearly 10 years underground in this condition and was perfectly fine – and ready to shoot – once he finally he unearthed it.
Still, such a casual approach horrifies a lot of people – and it definitely lacks failsafes. My own preference: disassemble the firearm, coat every bit with a film of high quality gun oil like Break-Free, wrap each part separately, and then seal everything in a waterproof container with desiccants. Some people I’ve known take the extra step of pulling oxygen out of the container using a vacuum or piece of dry ice. You can also get VCI corrosion-resistant gun bags (including more pricey VCI vacuum bags) from places like MidwayUSA.com or Brownells.
Some old-timers I know disassemble their guns for hiding, but instead of coating parts with Break-Free, they use Cosmoline. Cosmoline is the now nearly-generic term for a brown, gooey, Vaseline-like preservative that’s been used for decades to rustproof firearms. You may have encountered it if you ever bought a surplus military rifle. Commonly, such rifles have been literally dipped in a vat of Cosmoline at some point and will have the goop in every cranny even after being superficially cleaned. You might want to go the Cosmoline route if you expect your firearm to be hidden for a really long time – for instance, if you intend it for your yet-unborn grandchild. You can buy Cosmoline or similar pricey, corrosion-proofing preservatives online. But if you go that way, whoever resurrects the gun will need to have mineral spirits, a soaking tub, and brushes on hand.
Any time you store a gun disassembled, you need to store any tools required to clean and reassemble it. Maybe instructions, too. I know I might forget how to reassemble a gun that I hadn’t touched in years.
Three types of storage containers
An appropriate storage container depends on your climate and where you plan to hide your gun.
One of the most popular and secure methods of gun hiding is burying. And the most popular container for burying a gun is ordinary Schedule-40 PVC pipe from any hardware store or plumbing supply store. You’ll need a piece of pipe with sufficient diameter and length to hold your firearm, ammunition, and tools (unless you plan to store the ammo and tools separately). You’ll also need end caps and sealant. Preferably you’ll buy all this where you’re not known, and you’ll use cash, not a check or credit card. One of the caps should be permanently sealed on. The second cap may be a threaded one with a rubber gasket – but only if you are very sure of an excellent seal. My friend Jack cemented both ends when he buried his SKS. Then he also buried a saw nearby, wrapped in VCI paper, to open the storage tube.
In addition to being buried, a tightly sealed PVC tube can also be submerged in murky water or in a slurry. Painted with appropriate camouflage, it can be hoisted into a tree or into the rafters of a barn or otherwise used to hide its contents in plain sight.
If you’re lucky enough to find one at a gun show or surplus store, guns and other objects can also be hidden in old plastic mortar cases, which already have threaded lids with very tight rubber-gasket seals.
A pistol can be hidden in a tightly sealed metal ammo box – again, well oiled and with desiccants added. This is how Jack hid the pistol we were searching for. Because it was going into damp ground, he placed the ammo can inside a larger ammo can, a plastic knockoff this time. He added desiccants to that, as well. Both ammo cans had their lids sealed with caulk. Then he wrapped the entire assembly in a plastic bag and duct-taped the heck out of it. As a final precaution, when he set everything into the ground, he upended a white plastic tub over the rest. This would turn out to be the one truly useless step.
Bonus: If your climate is very, very dry and you’re stashing a gun above ground in a spot you’re certain will never get wet, you may not need any container at all. Just place your well-oiled, VCI-wrapped firearm “naked” in its hiding place (e.g. inside a wall, under floorboards). Always include desiccants. Even in dry climates, hidey-holes can still get humid.
After two sessions of digging and detecting, this is what finally emerged from the spot where Jack and I searched. A well-sealed plastic ammo box wrapped in a trash bag and thoroughly duct-taped. Inside the plastic box is an equally well-sealed metal ammo box. Both boxes contain desiccants. Inside the metal box is a pistol wrapped in corrosion-proofing paper. Once Jack finally got all the seals opened, that pistol emerged in ready-to-fire condition.
Three places to hide a gun
The first thing to know is where not to hide a gun. Do not hide it in or around your home unless you’ve figured out a way to make it undetectable – not only to opportunistic burglars, but also to metal detectors, ground-penetrating radar, and even gun-sniffing dogs (yes, there are dogs specially trained for this job; they’re actually taught to alert to gun oils, powders, or firing residue).
Of course it’s fine – and routine – to place everyday firearms in secure locations around the house. But remember, that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the gun or guns that you’ll go get when the other guns are gone or when government agents are on a confiscation campaign. So unless you have extensive, difficult-to-search property, or some insanely clever and difficult hiding method, it’s best to hide firearms away from home.
Three common places are: underground, above eye level, or right in plain sight, but so disguised nobody sees what you’ve hidden.
Undergound: Because this is one of the most popular, durable, and most secure methods – but also one of the trickiest – we’ll spend the most time on it. You’ve prepared your firearm using one of the three methods above. You’ve sealed it inside a PVC pipe, complete with desiccants, ammo, and tools. Now what?
Find a spot where you can be unobserved.
A spot where you can be confident everything is likely to stay undisturbed for years.
A spot where nobody but you is ever likely to spend time.
A spot with landmarks you can recognize – now and 10 years from now.
A spot with lots of old metal objects strewn about is a plus.
So is a spot where the soil has already been disturbed; this makes digging easier and could help foil ground-penetrating radar if anyone became serious enough about gun confiscation to try to use that against you. But disturbed ground is optional and may not be ideal for other reasons. It may be in a place with too much traffic, for instance. You can’t have everything, so make your own best choices.
Your chosen caching location might be in the woods. Or an old, disused junkyard. Could be the grounds of an abandoned factory. Or a high sandy ledge in a desert canyon. Could be property belonging to a law-abiding relative (less likely to come under scrutiny than you and your own property).
Now, having found the ideal spot, dig. There are two schools of thought on this, particularly when burying a rifle: vertical and horizontal.
Inserting that precious PVC tube into the ground vertically gives your gun a much smaller – and much less gun-like – signature to metal detectors. That’s good. Unfortunately, it’s also much harder to dig a deep enough hole. Superman with a manual post-holer could do it. But you may need a mechanical auger.
To further compound the problem, your container should go entirely below the local frost line – which in places like Wisconsin can be as deep as four feet. And that’s for the top of the container. Bury too shallowly and frost heave could crack your container or eventually thrust it to the surface.
Unburying a vertically buried container can also be a problem. Even after you’ve uncovered the first foot or so of the tube, the ground is going to cling hard. You might need a winch, a hand-cranked come-along, a rope, or at least a lot of muscle to haul your stash out of the ground. (See Charles Wood’s excellent article in Issue #115 (Jan/Feb 2009) of Backwoods Home for more helpful details on burying and unburying firearms. He used the vertical method.)
In the Pacific Northwest, where my friend Jack buried his guns, it’s less of a problem. The ground doesn’t freeze more than a few inches down. Nevertheless, Jack opted for the easy method when he hid his SKS. He went horizontal. This is where having a lot of metal debris in the vicinity really helps to hide the telltale signature of a long, narrow object like a rifle.
After burying, be sure to cover the spot with the native topsoil, leaves, needles, bark, or metal garbage to disguise it.
Above eye level: It’s a funny thing; people don’t look up. You can hide something in a tree or in rafters. You can hide something in the clerestory of an old factory or warehouse. Or in the trim at the top of a building. Or even in a false gutter on a house. And unless they’re really determinedly searching for it, people simply won’t see it because they don’t look up. Of course, it’s still best to use camouflage techniques when hiding firearms in such places. Also, when it comes to trees or old buildings, you should consider these only as temporary hiding places – a few years, at most. Buildings get demolished. Trees are logged or fall over in storms. When you hide in such places, you need to go back frequently to check on your stash – and that itself can compromise security.