Shooters & Hunters: How To Manage Recoil

For the shooter, recoil is a constant fact that must be dealt with properly if extreme accuracy is ever to be achieved. This season, take some time to learn to manage recoil.

A number of years back I invited a buddy on his first Saskatchewan goose hunt. Unfortunately, the only shotgun he owned at the time was a lightweight, 12-gauge over-and-under. A shotgun that, despite being chambered for three-inch shot shells, was designed for the upland bird hunter. At the end of the second morning, his entire right shoulder was black and blue from the pounding he was taking from those magnum 1-7/8 ounce, three-inch goose loads. What was even worse, he was becoming so sensitive to this heavy recoil that his shooting success was nigh onto nonexistent.

Conversely, I have a friend who is a terrific wing-shot but has a horrible time with a rifle. You could visually see him tighten up prior to pulling the trigger. The simple difference is that wing shooting is instinctive, whereas with a rifle he had to face focusing on the shot when he knew he was going to get belted by the recoil. Whether we like to admit it or not, recoil is a factor we need to reckon with. It can cause serious problems such as flinching if we don’t heed its potential influence. Despite having fired a lot of heavyweights, including a fair few of those British Doubles where it would appear that you could rattle a loonie down the barrel, the worst gun I ever fired for felt recoil was an old single-shot 12-gauge. With its poorly designed stock and light weight it felt like I was unleashing the fury of Mother Nature herself every time I pulled the trigger. So what does this mean? In short it means that a lot of factors go into what is perceived as felt recoil.


Recoil, if you take it in its simplest terms, is the rearward push when a gun is fired. The debate of exactly how to measure recoil has been going on for the better part of a century and more than one approach has been put forward. But rather than get into the minutia of how to measure recoil, I will simply indicate that for all intents and purposes it involves the weight of the projectile, the amount of powder being burned and the weight of the gun. In other words, the heavier the bullet or shot, the more powder you burn, and the lighter the gun the more recoil there is going to be. It also occurs in less than a blink of an eye. In fact, in as little as 1/100 of a second! However in that mere fraction of a second the amount of recoil energy can vary greatly.

As an example, a one-ounce, 12-gauge target load at 1,180 feet per second (FPS) in a typical 7.5-pound gun is reported to have 17.3 foot pounds (ft-lbs) of recoil, about the same as a .270 rifle. But up that ante to a three-inch, 1-7/8 ounce magnum load in that same weight of gun and the shooter is being belted with over 60 ft-lbs of energy. This is equivalent to the recoil force of a .378 Weatherby Magnum rifle. In other words, we are not talking about a lack of significant force here but rather one that can influence how we shoot. Adding to that, not everyone reacts to recoil the same way. I, for one, while not being particularly recoil sensitive and despite being a big guy, still don’t like getting beat up, particularly on the range. So, what can we do about it?

The Fixes

The first stop along the fix highway is gun fit and shooting technique. The gun should fit you properly so that the butt can be properly positioned on your shoulder. It should come smoothly to your shoulder so that your sight plain, when your cheek is planted on the stock, is correct for your sight picture. You should not have to move either forward or backward to obtain a good sight picture. Too much forward creep on a rifle stock and the scope can leave you with a nasty cut over your eye — something to be avoided I can assure you. Which brings me to proper butt placement: make sure it is positioned properly against your shoulder in the hollow between shoulder and your collarbone and not against the upper arm. Grip the gun in a manner that while relaxed it will still offer you control as the gun is being fired. Always remember that tight muscles generally do not react well to recoil nor do they perform as well. Follow through on your shot whether you are shooting at a fast fleeing roaster or during your hold on big buck. It will aid in lessening the perception of felt recoil. One of the easiest places to develop a flinch is on the rifle range so go prepared, particularly if you are going to do a lot of shooting or are shooting big bores. I often use a slip-on shoulder recoil reduction pad as well I ensure that I‘m properly set up with the rifle or gun properly in place on the rests and against my shoulder. A number of my shooting acquaintances even go as far as using Caldwell’s Lead Sled shooting rest. A very good idea. If at any time you think that you may be flinching, have a buddy at the range, under safe conditions, load your rifle for you so that you won’t know if it contains a cartridge or not. Then proceed to fire it as if it contains a live round. It won’t take but a few dry fires to see if you have a flinch problem. If so, look at the following additional suggestions as a potential fix:

The second step is to consider features that reduce recoil. And there are any number of which I will discuss those that, from my perspective, are the most useful. One of the simplest is to either buy a gun with a proper recoil pad or have one such as my favourite, the Decelerator, installed. Just make sure that when your gunsmith installs the pad that the overall length is not altered unless, of course, you need to have it altered. I have removed just about every factory pad on every rifle I own and replaced them with Decelerator pads.

Next are muzzle brakes. While there are a number of varieties to choose from, I found the KDF muzzle brake or similar models to be the most effective and have installed them on all of my big bore guns and on a couple of medium bores as well. The reduction in recoil is remarkable but, just as importantly, they significantly reduce muzzle jump. On many an occasion I have been able to hold so steady on my target after the shot that I have been able to see the exact location of the impact on game. What a great asset when hunting as you can see exactly how the animal reacts to the hit! And, if necessary, it additionally offers a much quicker follow up shot. There is, of course, a downside and that is muzzle blast; they are loud so you want to ensure that you and anyone around you is wearing adequate ear protection when shooting a rifle with a muzzle brake. I even double up on protection by wearing earplugs as well as earmuffs.

Gun design can also significantly alter the recoil of a gun. For example, autoloaders, be it a rifle or shotgun, will reduce recoil as some of its recoil is dampened or utilized in the recycling portion of the firing process. Then there are guns, such as the Berretta Xtrema 2, that incorporate a whole series of design features to reduce recoil. Features such as its gas operation with recoil reduction, bolt damper, spring/mass recoil reducer in the stock grip, Optima-Bore overbored barrel, Gel-Tek recoil pad and Kick-Off reduction system that collectively reduce recoil by 44 per cent over other shotguns. And it works. On a trip to Argentina, where I put 2,800 rounds through it in four days of wing shooting the only thing that hurt were my fingers from the constant reloading. Additionally, the heavier the gun the less it is going to impart felt recoil or conversely the lighter it is the more impact you will feel. A lightweight magnum rifle or lightweight shotgun with heavy magnum loads is just going to recoil that much harder than their heavier counterparts, as any of us who have fired either can attest.

The final approach involves two essential elements. The first is if you are recoil sensitive, shoot a smaller calibre and leave those mega-magnums to other folk. A .270 Winchester or a .30-06 Springfield will kill a deer just as effectively as will a .300 Ultra Magnum. Or you can consider light or reduced load cartridges that are now being made available by various cartridge companies. Or get into hand loading and load your own reduced cartridges. When I was into a lot of trap shooting I found that I could more readily sustain a long day on the trap range when using reduced or light loads and they broke just as many targets. And when it came to my rifles and a fun day on the range, I could plink away a lot of reduced powder charged hand loads without nary a recoil issue.

In the end, what we have to remind ourselves is that guns do kick, some a lot more than others and we should never be remiss in recognizing this fact and making whatever personal or equipment adjustments are necessary to avoid the flinching blues.

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