Don’t fear the recoil

Samuel B. Mann

Gun recoil is just physics and typing ‘recoil calculator’ into your browser will bring up the numbers – but they’re only numbers. What you experience depends on the nature of the gun and your own build and sensitivity. I heard 40 years ago the average shooter couldn’t stand more recoil than from a .30/06 and that’s why the .35 Remington succeeded while the 358 Winchester languished. That’s fine but if you want to hunt big critters you need power unless you’re Karamojo Bell, a crack shot afraid of nothing except, possibly, recoil. In the Australian sambar scene at least, those last two calibres are pretty rare yet the heftier 35 Whelen is doing fine.

For many the short, sharp jolt of a high-velocity medium rifle is preferable to the heavy push of an ‘elephant gun’ but I used to opt for that until thumb collected nose while shooting a 458 Lott. My 3kg 270 WSM kicks like a mule, according to some, but it’s just a bump with no depth and hasn’t bothered me so far. Repeated recoil can cause us to flinch if we don’t prepare for it and many experienced shooters, me included, do flinch but can shoot well enough when really concentrating or, paradoxically, are completely spontaneous. The ideal situation is to use whatever’s needed but not develop a flinch – forget ‘manning up’ and just keep your nerves uncompromised for the serious shots.


There are obvious ways to guard against flinching. As a teenager, stick with calibres and gun dimensions matching your size – but not too light. I shortened and slimmed down an AyA 20-gauge double for my sons because I couldn’t find a 28-gauge at a cut-down price. Available ammo was no lighter than 12-gauge cartridges adults were shooting at clays, so I prised open some 20-gauge pie-crimps, removed three grams of shot and replaced it with a light wad. I’m no expert but doubt a small wad between shot and the plastic cup will lift pressure.

When you’re fully grown but still young, use guns of reasonable mass to soak up recoil and if the extra weight’s a problem, don’t shoot big animals unless others will carry them out of the bush. Choose a calibre which fits the game category but don’t overdo it. The 35 Whelen is good for sambar but kicks less than a 9.3×62 or .338 Win Mag. The .375 H&H Mag and .450/400 are both legal for the biggest African game and it’s better to make a good shot with one of those than wound with a .500 NE. At the extremes I’d rather shoot buffaloes with a .577 nitro-for-black than a .600 NE and almost anything is easier to use than a 378 or 460 Weatherby.

First up install a modern, soft recoil pad. They work better than the old hard rubber ones and Savage even sells one with a gel pouch. This is the ideal time to think about fit as you may need to shorten the buttstock – longer stocks with minimal drop at heel should give less felt recoil and may limit the smack against your cheekbone. Monte Carlo combs sloping down towards the grip make sense to me. Best dimensions depend on your body size and shape and usual shooting position, of course, which should rarely be prone if much recoil is involved. Have the wood modified for you by a stock specialist or keep looking until you find a gun that really fits.

Have heavy triggers adjusted. ‘Dangerous-game’ rifles are safer with some resistance but Hemingway’s “last turn of . . . a sardine can” described the triggers on a .470 and he found they made it torture to shoot. When installing a riflescope find one with longish eye relief and position it to use with the hunting clothes you’ll be wearing – what works with winter clothes and a daypack may turn nasty in summer (or Africa in a thin cotton shirt). A bloodied nose means more than the wound as the nervous system remembers and can later trump your ego. It may be the ‘punch’ from a rubber eyepiece, while not drawing blood, may be even more noticeable.

With shotguns, steer clear of heavy shot loads and high velocities. The Brits once claimed a gun should weigh 96 times the shot charge, probably more to do with imperial measures (96 x 1oz equals 6lb) than any God-given formula. They mostly used 30g (1-1/16oz) loads and would have their side-by-sides whittled down to 6½lb (less than 3kg) for continuous tilting at driven game, a tiring task for effete nobility on a good shoot.

Considering O/U guns are rarely that light and we’re bound to use high-velocity loads at some stage in the Australian hinterland, it’s time we went metric and made it the ‘100 Rule’. As we usually shoot at least 32g loads at game, that means your gun should weigh a minimum 3.2kg (7lb-plus), more if you ever intend using 36g or fast cartridges. Better still, go for a heavier gun but save yourself the powder, expense and kick of fast ammo. The main advantage of high-speed lead cartridges was their tendency to deform shot, causing wider patterns from the tight chokes shooters thought they needed.

With steel shot even this advantage is gone. Wind resistance affects velocity retention of high-speed pellets much more than standard loads, another take on the Law of Diminishing Returns. If you really want more power try a slower but slightly heavier load of larger shot. With newer models sold here that’s not likely to need a stronger gun though you could add weight to the one you have. I don’t know if tight chokes kick more but suggest using open ones – bagging the bird will help you forget the recoil – and on stationary targets, snap-shoot rather than take careful aim. Loading with faster-burning powders reduces the weight of ejections slightly and some claim to feel the difference.

Sighting-in the problem

Flinches are developed at the range, not when hunting big game. I doubt the old elephant hunters did much sighting-in – the maker had done that – and with the target at seven yards it didn’t matter much anyway. Shoot at something big enough and you’ll feel no recoil and hear nothing but distant thunder. So instead of sighting-in the big rifle yourself with full-house loads, have some old hands do it – they may like recoil, be immune to flinching or just past complaining (some instructors say this doesn’t work, as individuals can shoot to different zeroes).

Fore-end grip aside, I suspect that’s mostly where flinches have already developed. Then, making shots from a rest is a world away from offhand shooting, so pandering to flinches at the bench makes for a fool’s paradise, better to have the sights reflect the true bullet fall and manage to shoot to it without flinching. If you do shoot it in yourself, consider exercises to build shoulder muscle, as light rifles in extreme calibres can even dislocate bones, then wear a jacket with shoulder padding or perhaps a gel pouch.

Newer ideas

Though the 1960s Hydro-Coil stock failed to take off, a mercury recoil reducer can be installed in the butt, they’re heavy and good for big rifles but mercury is toxic and may be banned by some airlines. There’s a commercial rest for benchwork that will take almost all the recoil if you let it and definitely save you from developing a flinch but if too much lead is used to dampen one, it might damage a fine stock or split a cheesy one (I wouldn’t use one with a double rifle).

Make some sub-loads to practise with or ask gun dealers if they know who’ll do it for you and use the lightest bullets and lowest-listed load of the least-efficient powder you can find. In double rifles, a bullet three-quarters the usual weight in front of the normal powder charge often regulates adequately. The temporary addition of weight secured in a magazine will slow the recoil, though the zero reached might suffer. Tube magazines should either be full as when hunting (secure a net for when the range bell tolls) or weighted somehow.

If you do use a big rifle on a benchrest, have something to limit the recoil against your shoulder. A small flat sandbag can work as it adds mass and will spread the shock over a greater surface. My favourite these days is a medical gel pouch protected between two sheets of grainy packaging material, wrapped around the butt and secured with electrical tape. Don’t fire too many heavy cartridges in one session and finish the shoot with a lighter rifle of the same design to help your body forget the abuse. Oh, and tuck your thumb in.

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