Reducing Recoil, Part 1

Nothing good happens at the rear end of the gun.

Field & Stream Online Editors

My landlord Seth was a leathery old farmer who weighed about 130 pounds and shot geese with a 10-gauge side-by-side that frequently doubled. The recoil never fazed him. "I'm so light it just picks me up and throws me backward," he said. "I'm afraid that gun would hurt a big guy."

If two 10-gauge goose loads are launched in one direction, a little farmer and his feed cap will indeed go sailing off in the other; that's Newton's Third Law of Motion in action. Whatever happens at the muzzle produces an equal and opposite reaction at the butt.

In the short term, recoil bestows bruises, sore jaws, stiff necks, and headaches. In the long run, hard-kicking guns condition you to flinch as you pull the trigger. Ultimately, cumulative recoil can detach your retinas, injure your spinal disks, and put your chiropractor's children through college. Serious target shooters are the principal victims of recoil abuse, but the trend to high-velocity shotshells and 3-inch magnums means that even we ordinary hunters take our share of lumps when we pull the trigger.

Getting Your Kicks
Although we can't eliminate recoil, we can reduce it. Actually, we can reduce recoil in two ways, because there are two kinds of recoil: "free" and "felt." Free recoil, or recoil energy, is a quantifiable function of gun weight, payload weight, and payload velocity. Felt recoil is "kick," or how much those recoil energy foot-pounds hurt us when we shoot a gun. A recoil pad, for instance, doesn't affect a gun's recoil energy but does soften the blow, thereby cutting felt recoil.

In the next Shotguns column I'll talk about more ways to reduce felt recoil, but today, we're taking aim at recoil energy. While the recoil energy formula looks like a daunting jumble of numbers and letters (see sidebar), boiled down it's pretty simple: Recoil energy equals-roughly-payload times velocity, squared, divided by gun weight. Small changes in shot weight or speed, therefore, result in exponential change in recoil.

Decreasing payload by 10 percent reduces recoil energy by almost 20 percent. Lowering velocity yields similar reductions. Increasing gun weight decreases recoil as well, but not as dramatically. Make your gun 10 percent heavier by, say, pouring 3/4 pound of lead shot into the stock's bolt hole, and you'll lower recoil energy by about 10 percent.

The very best recoil reducer is a lighter and/or slower shotshell. Decreasing shot weight by 1/8 ounce or cutting velocity by even 50 fps causes a noticeable difference in recoil. Keep that in mind as you choose hunting ammunition. Ammo gets faster and heavier each year, offering a powerful temptation to stray from the path of lightness when shopping for shells. Here are some practical suggestions for the recoil-conscious:

  • Unless you're pass-shooting geese, there's no reason to throw more than 11/4 ounces of steel shot at waterfowl. I have extolled the virtues of high-speed steel in prior columns, and I'm not going to change my story now. Speed kills. It also kicks. Shoot 1450 to 1500 fps steel but stick with those 11/8- to 11/4-ounce payloads for lower recoil.
  • In the uplands, a modest 1 to 11/8 ounces of shot is enough to drop everything that flies, except perhaps pheasants, which often require 11/4-ounce doses of lead pellets. Lead retains energy much better than does steel; so high-velocity shells aren't as necessary for birds as they are for waterfowl. The 1220 fps, 11/4-ounce live pigeon load kicks 20 percent less than the 1330 fps, 11/4-ounce high-velocity stuff and kills ringnecks almost 100 percent as dead.
  • Dove hunters should know that the 1-ounce "Dove and Quail" loads you see for $3 a box at the marts in August are loaded to almost 1300 fps to ensure that they'll cycle in autoloaders. Spend a few more dollars and shoot light trap loads instead. When you're wearing no more padding than a camo T-shirt, 1-ounce target loads at 1180 fps deliver excellent patterns and less bang for the buck, which is what we're after. If you want speed, try International target loads, which are quite fast at 1325 fps, but low-recoil thanks to their 7/8-ounce payload.
  • Three-and-a-half-inch turkey loads have even more kick than scary big-bore rifles such as the .458 Winchester Magnum. Frankly, the logic of enduring elephant-gun recoil to kill a 20-pound bird escapes me. Three-inch turkey loads flatten gobblers as far away as any of us need to shoot them. The nearly forgotten 11/2-ounce, 23/4-inch short magnum is deadly to 40 yards and generates two-thirds the recoil of a 2-ounce load. Lighten up; your shoulder will feel the difference¿¿¿even if the birds don't.