10 Ways to Manage Recoil

posted on September 22, 2014

During our courtship, my wife and I occasionally hunted small game with .22 rimfires. After we were married she became interested in hunting deer. A few shots from my .30-’06 Sprg. quickly revealed her sensitivity to recoil, so I bought her a Model 70 in .243 Win. Phyllis became quite proficient with that rifle, and she used it successfully on deer and other game, including a pronghorn buck so good it would take me several years to catch up. When she later took an interest in elk hunting, Santa left a Remington Model 700 in .270 Win. under the Christmas tree with her name on it. That could have been a problem given her sensitivity to recoil. So, the following is an explanation of how I addressed the issue—in addition to some solutions that may work for you when it comes to managing recoil.

1. Make Your Loads Lighter
Recalling how uncomfortable my wife was with the .30-’06 Sprg., I came up with a recoil-conditioning program for her. First the .270 was handloaded with the Speer 100-gr. spitzer over 46.0 grs. of IMR 4064 for a velocity of 2925 f.p.s. That was about what she was getting with the same weight bullet in her .243 Win. And, since the two rifles weighed close to the same, there was very little difference in recoil. A few groundhogs fell victim to the .270, but it was mostly used to punch paper from various field positions. During the next few months the velocity of the load was increased in 100-f.p.s. increments and when we peaked out at 3300 f.p.s. she was quite comfortable with the recoil. We then switched to a 150-gr. bullet at 2500 f.p.s. and by the time velocity had been gradually increased to 2900 f.p.s., my wife was ready for her first elk hunt.

For those who do not handload, several companies offer reduced-recoil ammunition for rifles, handguns and shotguns. They include CustomLite from Hornady, Remington’s Power Level and Managed-Recoil, Federal’s Fusion Lite, Hydra-Shok Lite and Truball LRS, and WinLite from Winchester. In a Nesika rifle, Hornady’s CustomLite .30-’06 Sprg. averaged 0.80" for five consecutive, five-shot groups at 100 yds. with perceived recoil about the same as for a rifle in .257 Roberts loaded with a 120-gr. bullet.

Milder-recoiling loads are not always identified as such by their manufacturers. Federal offers a 12-ga. load with 7/8 oz. of No. 71/2 or 8 shot at 1200 f.p.s., which duplicates a handload I have been using for many years. It is extremely easy on the shoulder and my guns break as many targets with it at skeet and 16-yd. trap as they do with heavier loads. It is also an excellent choice for shooting doves and quail. While I am on the subject of Federal, the company offers its 12-ga., 23/4" TruBall slug load in two different velocity ranges. Recoil of the standard-velocity load is noticeably less than that of the high-velocity load and yet residual energy differs by only 60 ft.-lbs. at 100 yds.

Then we have the matter of turkey loads. Regardless of which company makes it, the 12-ga., 23/4" magnum loaded with 11/2 ozs. of shot is more pleasant to shoot than 3" and 31/2" loads and, yet when combined with the right choke, it kills a gobbler just as dead out to 40 yds. The 20-ga. turkey gun is another possibility and is one I have used to take several gobblers, including Gould’s down Mexico way. Those are but a few of the many examples of reducing recoil through careful load selection.

2. Choose A Heavier Gun
Not long back I carried a 7-lb. rifle on a hunt high up in the clouds for Dall sheep and after a few trips up the mountain I would not have objected to it being lighter. Where actually needed, a flyweight rifle is a wonderful thing to have, but for most of the hunting many of us do, something heavier works equally well and can be more fun to shoot. And how much difference does the addition of a bit of weight make? Consider the following figures based on the recoil churned up by rifles chambered in 30-’06 Sprg. Four guns weighing 6, 7, 8 and 9 lbs. each and firing loads based on 180-gr. bullets at 2700 f.p.s. will result in recoil energies of approximately 26.4, 22.7, 19.8 and 17.6 ft.-lbs., respectively.

3. Shoot A Gas Gun
Many years ago Wayne Leek, who was one of the designers of the Remington 1100, was asked why it was more comfortable to shoot than other repeating shotguns. He explained that its gas-operated action prolongs the recoil impulse just enough to make it feel more like a push on the shoulder than a sharp jab. Whether or not there is more to it than that could be debated endlessly, but most experienced shotgunners agree that all else—including gun weight and the load used—being the same, a gas-operated shotgun is more comfortable to shoot than a recoil-operated shotgun.

I must qualify that statement by adding that during recent years Benelli has narrowed the comfort gap considerably. A few months before the recoil-operated, 12-ga. Vinci was introduced in 2010, I put 6,375 rounds through one during a three-day period. Shouldering it that many times became a bit tiring to the arms, and my fingers grew sore from shoving cartridges into the magazine; but, otherwise, my body was none the worse for wear after the shootout was over.

Benelli, more recently, narrowed the gap again with the introduction of the Ethos shotgun with its Progressive Comfort System. While shooting one alongside a Remington Model 1100, my internal kickometer indicated no perceptible difference in recoil with most loads. The 1100 was more comfortable to shoot with 2¾" magnums, but few shooters would notice the difference.

The comfort gap is still quite wide among center-fire rifles. When all are chambered for the same cartridge, gas-operated rifles such as the Browning BAR, Benelli R1 and Remington 742/7400/750 series are easier on the shoulder than bolt-actions, lever-actions, single-shots and pump guns of similar weight. Due to a physical limitation that goes back to his childhood, a friend of mine cannot handle a great deal of recoil. He bought a Winchester Model 100 in .243 Win. soon after it was introduced in 1960. If he had cut a notch in its stock for every deer and wild hog taken since, not much of his Winchester would remain.

4. Shoot A Smaller Cartridge
The magnums have their place in the hunting scheme of things but for much of our big-game hunting, cartridges generating less recoil will get the job done. Many deer hunters obviously agree. Based on recent ammunition sales at Federal Cartridge, the .243 Win. was the top-selling center-fire cartridge above .22 cal. And its popularity has been ongoing for a very long time. RCBS has for many years published its “Top 30 Cartridges” based on reloading die sales. I have them going back to 1969 and, during most of those years, .243 Win. has ranked among the top four cartridges suitable for use on deer and larger game. Other great choices churn up similar levels of recoil. The 6 mm Rem. and .250-3000 Savage are as good as the .243 Win., and since the .257 Roberts is available with heavier bullets, it might be a tad better.Cartridges with more recoil but still quite comfortable to shoot include the .260 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5x55 mm Swedish, 7x57 mm Mauser and the 7 mm-08 Rem. I love my rifle in .300 H&H Magnum but, in addition to being more gentle on the shoulder, the .30-’06 Sprg. is quite capable of cleanly taking any game in North America and most throughout the world.

5. Cushion The Cheek
Mention recoil to most shooters and they immediately think of a rap to the shoulder, but much of the discomfort we feel when shooting a shotgun or rifle is due to the shock delivered to a more sensitive area—the cheek. A shotgun stock with a cheek pad with adjustable comb height is one of the best ideas to come along.

As far as I know, the padded comb has yet to appear on a factory rifle stock and only a few shotguns come from the factory with one. A quick and easy fix for them is the application of adhesive-backed, polymer foam padding such as Cheekeeze from Brownells. It comes in thicknesses of 1/16", 1/8", 3/16" and 1/4". The thinnest makes a big difference in shooter comfort and, while the thicker offers even more cushion, too much can make the comb too high. The padding stays put on a stock and is easily removed without harming its finish. In addition to improving shooter comfort, it is an easy fix for combs that are too low.

Other possibilities are strap-on comb cushions such as the Tactical Cheek Pad from Blackhawk, the leather lace-on cheekpiece from Brownells and the Cheek Saver from Buffalo Arms. Perhaps the ultimate in easy-on-the body shotgun stocks for Remington pumps and autoloaders is the Pro Combo model with built-in adjustments by Jack West Custom Stocks.

6. Wear Gloves
Wearing thin, snug-fitting leather gloves when shooting a rifle or shotgun supports the muscles in the hands and reduces the amount of shock delivered to them. Shooting gloves available from Bob Allen, Beretta and other sources are perfect for the gun club, but the greater durability of lightweight leather work gloves from your local hardware store makes them better choices for the briars and brambles of hunting. Thin roping gloves sold by western wear stores are also quite good.

Padded shooting gloves absorb even more recoil. Full-fingered gloves such as those from GripSwell are designed for use when shooting rifles and shotguns while the half-fingered PAST and Cabela’s gloves are used when shooting handguns. I am into long-distance bicycling and the half-fingered gloves made for that sport also work quite well when shooting hard-kicking handguns. While recently accuracy-testing several revolvers in .454 Casull, I fired close to 100 rounds of full-power loads during one session at the benchrest and could not have pulled it off without a padded glove.

7. Weight The Stock
The original synthetic stock of the Remington XP-100 pistol has cavities molded into its barrel channel. They were put there so the owner could insert lead pistol bullets. The .221 Rem. Fireball cartridge, for which the pistol is chambered, generates very little recoil, but the added weight up front makes the gun easier to hold steady when shot over a rest. Shooters had been weighting the stocks of rifles and shotguns long before that, so the idea was not exactly new in 1963. And it is still common practice.

Drilling a hole or two into the butt of a stock and inserting lead shot is an inexpensive way to skin the cat. Another is to make several holes slightly larger than the .50- or .54-cal. Great Plains bullets made by Hornady for muzzleloaders and insert them. Adding weight only to the buttstock can spoil the balance of a firearm so a few of the stick-on lead wheel weights made for use on alloy automobile wheels can be inletted into the barrel channel of a rifle stock and held in place by a bedding compound such as Acraglas or Steel-Bed. They are available at most tire stores.

Another option I have used is a clamp-on weight attached to the barrel of a shotgun forward of the fore-end. In addition to reducing recoil, it can be used to improve the swinging qualities of a shotgun by adding weight up front. The Graco barrel weight works on all shotguns and on some rifles, revolvers and single-shot handguns. It comes with 4-, 6- and 8-oz. weights and clamp adaptors for 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauge and .410 bore shotgun barrels. If the heavy barrel you installed on your AR-15 made it too muzzle heavy, Brownells offers a lead weight specifically shaped for easy insertion into an A2 buttstock.

Other types of recoil reducers for the stock consist of a hollow steel or aluminum cylinder, some with internal piston and springs, others containing mercury. They are available for both rifles and shotguns and sizes vary. The Dead Mule (can’t kick) from 100 Straight fits inside a 7/8"x 41/2" hole drilled into the butt of the stock. The Graco BreaKO and the Edwards Recoil Reducer have also been around for many years. Graco offers two types, one for inside the buttstock, the other thin enough to be inletted into the fore-end of a rifle. It has long been debated whether their pistons, springs and mercury work as claimed, but since some add close to a pound, the weight alone reduces recoil.

8. Add Or Replace A Recoil Pad
Recoil pads on factory guns range from quite good to only a bit softer than a brick. Replacing the latter with the former will make a firearm much more fun to shoot. Many excellent pads are available, but my shoulder says the LimbSaver from Sims Vibration Laboratory, the Kickeez, the Pachmayr Decelerator and the Remington Supercell cannot be beat. A recoil pad that slips onto the butt of a gun also works, but it increases length of pull.

Another option is the strap-on recoil pad for the shoulder. I can use one of those when shooting most rifles and shotguns, even those already wearing a recoil pad, but the increase in pull length may be a bit much for shooters with shorter arms. They are an ideal solution for older firearms with steel buttplates. Two great examples I have are a Winchester Model 71 in .348 Win. and a Remington Model 81 in .300 Savage. The LimbSaver Protective Shooting Pad and the Bob Allen Absorb-A-Coil from Boyt Harness are excellent.

Last but not least are Browning hunting and shooting shirts, vests and jackets made with pockets for holding a Reactar Pad G2. Made of a flexible material called Impact Gel, its 8 mm thickness adds very little to the pull length of a gun. The pad is easily switched from garment to garment as long as each has the required interior pocket.

9. The Recoil-Absorbing Shotgun Stock
Winchester’s Hydra-Coil stock of the 1960s was invented by Hollywood cameraman Ralph Hoge. As the story goes, he got the idea while working on the shock absorber of one of his big cameras. At first it was available only on a custom basis and was used in stocks made of walnut. Winchester offered it on the Model 12 shotgun and, as a way of reducing cost, made the stock of a thermoplastic resin called Cycolac. The color options were brown and white.

The Hoge system is basically a two-piece stock with its front section dimensionally shaped to allow it to travel a short distance into the hollow rear section (the shooter’s cheek rests on the rear section). The two are joined by an internal apparatus containing a hydraulic cylinder. When the gun fires, it gradually overcomes the hydraulic resistance and recoils into the rear section of the stock. As the recoil impulse recedes, the front section (and the rest of the gun) is pushed forward by the piston to its rest position. In other words, resistance from the shooter’s shoulder holds the rear of the stock stationary while everything else travels to and fro during the recoil cycle.

I have not fired a shotgun with the original Hydra-Coil stock, but during my more serious trap and skeet shooting days I shot a Krieghoff Model 32 over-under with a very nice stock of English walnut containing a copy of the Hoge unit. The valve of its air cylinder was much like we see on a bicycle tube and the outfit came with a small hand pump with a pressure gauge. An air pressure of 125 p.s.i. was recommended but it could be increased or decreased to suit the individual shooter. The firing of thousands of rounds in the K32 made me aware of a downside to this type of stock. The gun has to be held rather loosely with very little pressure from the hands, otherwise the wrist and elbow will be stressed more than when using a regular stock.

A number of companies offer stocks or units for installation in stocks that reduce recoil. Some use an air shock absorber, others use metal springs; between the two I find the former to be much better. Since everything up front moves rearward during firing they obviously are not recommended for use on a rifle or shotgun wearing a scope. Manufacturers that make them include: SoftTouch, Mako, Counter Coil, Graco Gracoil, JS Air Cushion, G-Squared Shockmaster, Knoxx from Blackhawk, Talon from Advanced Technology, the Mesa Tactical and the Counter-Coil from Danuser.

10. Use A Muzzle Brake
There is no middle ground with muzzle brakes; shooters either love or hate them. I don’t like them and prefer to not use one when hunting, but we cannot ignore the fact that they are quite efficient in reducing both recoil and muzzle jump. I was recently reminded of that while putting quite a few rounds through the African and Guide Gun variants of the Ruger Hawkeye from a sandbag rest. Both were in .375 Ruger, and they had the recently introduced Muzzle Brake System consisting of brake, thread protector and muzzle weight. The perception of recoil varies from shooter to shooter, but, to me, shooting the African was about like shooting my Model 70 Featherweight in .30-’06 Sprg. with no muzzle brake. The Guide Gun tapped the shoulder a bit harder, but it was still quite comfortable to shoot.

When those rifles were zeroed with the brake, replacing it with the lighter thread protector caused them to shoot high. But since the muzzle weight (which I would most definitely use when hunting) weighs the same as the brake, the rifle shoots to the same zero with it. Numerous muzzle brake designs are available and, while there is probably very little difference in their efficiency, the Ruger system has an edge in versatility. Another good design is the adjustable brake offered by Savage on its Model 16/116 Bear Hunter and 11/111 Long Range Hunter, available in all calibers—except for .338 Lapua Mag. It remains on the rifle at all times with twists of the wrist turning it “On” and “Off.” An occasional drop or two of oil applied to its sliding surfaces will prevent the Savage brake from binding. The most successful brake for handguns is the Mag-na-port; rather than being attached to the muzzle, it consists of trapezoidal ports cut through the wall of the barrel by Electrical Discharge Machining.

Wearing good ear protection is important when shooting any firearm and even more so when it has a muzzle brake. I long ago learned to double up with both foam plugs and muffs.


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