On Shooting Big Guns, Taking Your Lumps, and So On

Shooting a large-caliber rifle is fun as long as you know what you're getting into before pulling the trigger

This is being written because, last week, I shot my .375 H&H, and realized to my horror that a) I was not shooting worth a barrel of Old Hog Shit and b) the reason was, that I had not shot a big rifle for nearly two years. Shooting big rifles is different from shooting rifles, and it’s a perishable skill. The last time I did any work with a major gun was in 2017 when I took my .416 Remington to Zimbabwe to affright the local buffalo, and shot the bejesus out of it beforehand.

A big rifle is something that generates at least 40-foot pounds of recoil. This means a .375 H&H or more, and eliminates such effete cartridges as the .338 and all the .300 magnums.

I’m all for small cartridges. They’re very easy to shoot accurately, and since bullets are so good now, their lack of foot-pounds is more than compensated for by the effectiveness of their projectiles. I know half a dozen people who have gone to Africa in recent years with guns like the 7mm/08 and all the various 6.5s, and racked up strings of 15 and 16 one-shot kills.

However, this was on smallish plains game. There are some situations in which you want lots of horsepower, and you don’t have to go to Africa to find them. Here are some incontrovertible truths about big guns and their recoil. I hope you get a kick out of them.

Some hunters can handle more recoil than others. I know people who shoot guns for fun that I would not fire on a bet, and I can tolerate a fair amount of kick. I can only speculate why kick bothers some people more than others.

The average shooter can tolerate a .375 H&H, but with difficulty. They may be able to manage 40 foot-pounds of recoil, but there’s no way they’re going to handle the 60 foot-pounds you get from a .458. As Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” I can shoot a .458 Lott, which puts out around 70 foot-pounds, but I lose the feeling in two fingers of my left hand, so I don’t do it. Beyond 70 foot-pounds I do not go.

There’s recoil and recoil. The British understood this very well. They found that if you want to make a rifle with lots of power that people can shoot without crippling themselves, you make that rifle heavy, with a lot of weight in the barrel, or barrels. You design the cartridge for it to throw a heavy bullet, but at a modest velocity. I once had a .577 Jeffrey double on me and escaped permanent injury because the gun weighed 15 pounds and because the 750-grain bullets started out at just over 2,000 fps. The .404 Jeffrey is enjoying a modest renaissance because it has a lot more punch than the .375 H&H, but kicks a lot less than the .416s.

When recoil really becomes unbearable is when you put a huge powder charge behind a big bullet. You get great gobs of muzzle energy, but you also get a rifle that comes back at you so fast that you can’t roll with the kick. You’ll never be able to shoot it well.

Boxers learn to roll with the punches. If you want to shoot a big rifle, you have to learn, too. You acquire the skill with practice. If you’re not willing to put in the practice, forget the whole thing.

When you practice with a big rifle, the object is to shoot fast, and reasonably accurately, at a big target at close range. When I work with the big stuff, I rarely shoot at even 100 yards, and I spend most of my time at 25 and 50. I never use a bull’s-eye smaller than 6 inches, and a foot across is better. A hit anywhere in the black counts.

I shoot the entire magazine as fast as I can, and then reload, never looking at the rifle. I do all of this offhand.

From speaking with PHs, I gather a great many of their clients fire single shots from a bench rest and, when they’re somewhere on the target, give the whole thing up as an intrusion on their Safe Space. That’s why PHs carry .500s, and are generally doing something else by the time they reach 50. If they reach 50.

Some rifles are so fearsome that they have to be fitted with muzzle brakes. It’s a good idea to avoid them and buy something that doesn’t need a muzzle brake. When you’re in a life and death situation, it’s better to be able to hear what’s going on.

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And in closing, permit me to tell once again my favorite recoil story. It’s from Robert Ruark, who was a poor rifleman, and admitted it, but who wrote the greatest of all safari books, Horn of the Hunter.

Ruark shot a Cape buffalo with a .470 Rigby, which doubled on him. The buffalo dropped dead in his tracks. Ruark was knocked flat on his back. The PH, Harry Selby, surveyed the scene and drawled, “Really, one of you ought to get up.”