How to take the sting out of a hard-recoiling rifle or shotgun.
By John Haviland
Recoil is the rearward motion of a gun on firing. Kick is the slap of the gun's movement we feel. One thing for sure about kick: The less we endure, the better we shoot. There are a few steps you can take to reduce recoil, from modifying your shooting techniques to altering stock design and changing loads.
When I first sighted-in my .338 Win Mag off the bench, the rifle's kick made my old football injury act up. I decided the only time I would shoot the gun from the bench again would be to check its sight alignment - and that would be with a sack of lead shot between the butt pad and my shoulder.
I still had to practice with the rifle to be able to take advantage of its long-range capability on big game come fall. That would require some modification of my shooting style if I wanted to avoid the effect of football helmets slamming into my poor body. Shooting the .338 while sitting, kneeling or standing allowed my body to give with the recoil. Gripping the rifle firmly but not with a death grip, and keeping my shoulder somewhat relaxed also helped me roll with the .338's punch.
I also positioned the stock butt fairly high on my shoulder. That kept the stock comb in firm contact with my cheek so the rifle couldn't get a running start at belting me. A Harris bipod attached to the rifle with its legs firmly planted on the ground absorbed an amazing amount of recoil and torque. With those changes to my shooting style, I was good for 15 to maybe 20 rounds from the .338.
When my wife, Gail, shoots her 6-pound over/under 20-gauge, the gun comes straight back and hits her right in the hollow of her shoulder. The kick from even lightly loaded 3⁄4-ounce shot loads begin to bother her after firing a box of shells. To lessen that kick so she could shoot quite a bit and get in some good practice, Gail started wearing a Past recoil protection pad against her shoulder. The pad spread the gun's recoil over a wide area of her shoulder. The pads are available in several models from thin to thick to help tame the kick of even the largest magnums. The thin Past field pad that she now wears does not make the gun's length of pull too long or interfere with her gun mount. While wearing the pad, Gail shoots three boxes of shells as fast as I can throw the clay targets.
The stock on my Ruger Model 77 .338 has a good design to manage recoil. Its full forearm provides a solid grip on the rifle so my forward hand absorbs some of the recoil. The high, full and straight comb sends the rifle straight back, not up with a running start to whack my tender jaw. A stock with a slightly long length of pull also keeps the head erect, so on firing, your head doesn't snap back and bob around like a jack-in-the-box. It also keeps the eye that extra half-inch back from the scope to guard against half-moon cuts to the eyebrow during recoil.
Ruger apparently believes in suffering for your sport, because nearly all Ruger rifles and shotguns wear a thin hard-rubber pad. The only advantage I could see for the original pad on my .338 was that it kept the stock from splintering. Thankfully, pads like Pachmayr's Decelerator fit directly on factory stocks with no grinding. These pads absorb recoil and spread the remaining force evenly. When choosing one of these soft recoil pads, make sure it's as wide as possible to spread recoil over a larger area. Pick one thick enough so it won't bottom out on firing, to protect the solid butt from giving the shoulder a sharp jab.
All sorts of accessory devices are available to keep recoil from reaching your shoulder in the first place.
The Staub Mercury Inertia Recoil Control, a steel vial that contains mercury, fits in the bolt hole of a shotgun stock, a tube magazine or the unused barrel of a double gun. The mercury flows inside the vial during recoil and spreads out the recoil impulse. The vial's 1⁄2- to 3⁄4-pound weight also helps dampen kick. I shot a 6-pound rifle chambered in .308 Winchester quite a lot with one of these placed in a hole drilled in the rifle's buttstock. The rifle's kick was noticeably softer.
In addition to Pachmayr pads and the Staub vial, the Brownells catalog (800 741-0015, www.brownells.com) lists a wide variety of devices that dampen recoil using shock absorbers, springs and plain additional weight.
Beretta's new Kick-Off system uses two hydraulic shock absorbers in the buttstock of its Xtrema 2 to somewhat pacify the wallop of the 3 1⁄2-inch 12 gauge. I shot the Xtrema2 quite a bit at ducks this past season. The kick from 3-inch shells was like a pat on the back. The whack from 3 1⁄2-inch shells hurt only slightly.
The gas operation of the Xtrema 2 was also responsible for some of that reduced recoil. Propellant gas that's bled off to cycle a gun's action doesn't really reduce recoil, but spreads it over a longer period so it feels like the gun kicks less.
Directing propellant gas through ports in a barrel near the muzzle certainly lessens recoil. But I'm not so sure a muzzle brake reduces kick all that much. The blast of gas directed toward the shooter feels like a slap in the face. Even when you're wearing hearing protection, the muzzle blast can be deafening. If a rifle socks me so hard it needs a muzzle brake, I don't need to shoot that rifle.
I've always been convinced increased bullet weight is the main advantage of choosing a cartridge larger than .30 caliber. So when I bought my .338 Win Mag, I stubbornly shot 250-grain bullets through the rifle. The heavyweight Hornady and Speer bullets really knocked elk and bears for a loop, too.
The summer before a moose and grizzly bear hunt, I started practicing twice a week with the .338. Even when shooting offhand and sitting, my shaking hands and quivering eyes made it clear that good practice was impossible after getting belted 20 times in a row with the kick from 72 grains of H4831 powder and a Speer 250-grain Grand Slam bullet.
Changing powder and reducing the charge weight, like to 58 grains of W760, somewhat softened the kick. However, the 300 fps reduction in velocity significantly increased bullet drop.
Switching to a Speer 200-grain bullet and a minimum amount of W760 powder really reduced recoil. An added plus was the trajectory of the 200-grain bullet at 2,700 fps was nearly the same as the hunting load with the 250-grain bullet.
All that practice paid off that fall. A week before the hunt, I sighted the rifle in with the Speer Grand Slam bullets. A single shot apiece was all I needed when a grizzly bear, and then a bull moose, stepped out.
Assembling reduced loads would be a cinch if all that was required was a corresponding reduction in powder. Unfortunately, it's not.
Reducing the charge weight of relatively slow-burning-rate powders, like H4350, H4831 and Reloder 22, more than 10 percent below maximum can lead to a dangerous rise in pressure. Ron Reiber, a ballistician for Hodgdon Powder, said this rise in pressure occurs in cartridges with a large powder capacity compared to their bore diameter. "What happens is the reduced amount of powder leaves a lot of air space in the big case, and the powder doesn't ignite properly," Reiber notes. "Some of the powder will ignite first and break down, and then the flame will jump across the air space and finally ignite the rest of powder." The pressure from the powder that has burned first moves the bullet into the throat. When the rest of the powder burns, the bullet stuck in the throat has no running start to even out the rising pressure. That causes a sharp increase in pressure.
Reiber said he has never had much luck with reduced loads in small-bore magnum cartridges. "Say you're shooting a 140-grain bullet at 3,200 feet per second from a 7mm magnum. You can switch to H4895 powder to reduce velocity to 2,600 fps, and that will work okay because the powder still takes up about 60 percent of the powder space," he said. "But to reduce the velocity of magnum cartridges slower than that, down to say 2,000 fps, it's difficult to get uniform velocities."
Generally speaking, with standard-size cartridges like the .30-06 on down to the .223 Rem, the slower the velocity desired, the faster-burning powder the handloader should select. For example, the .25-06 Remington shoots full-power big-game loads accurately with 120-grain bullets and slow-burning H4831 or H1000 powders. For practice and small-game shooting out to 250 yards, the 85-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip and H4985 shoots accurately at a reduced velocity of 2,900 fps. Even faster-burning H4198 shoots the Speer 87-grain bullet well at 2,600 fps. And way down at 2,100 fps, faster-burning-yet H4227 accurately shoots the Speer 87-grain bullet. That's because each of these powders delivers its best ballistic performance within a certain pressure range. The faster a powder's burning rate, the lower the pressure range at which it works best.
Don't despair, though, if you're not a handloader. A couple of years ago, Federal Cartridge and Remington introduced loads that significantly soften recoil.
Federal's Low Recoil ammunition is available in .308 Win and .30-06. Both cartridges shoot a 170-grain bullet at a mild 2,000 fps, which essentially duplicates the .30-30 Winchester. The Low Recoil loads reduce recoil by nearly 60 percent compared to regular .308 and .30-06 hunting loads. Low Recoil loads averaged 1.5 inch groups for three shots at 100 yards from a Mauser Mark X .30-06.
Remington's Managed Recoil loads tame the .270 Win, 7mm Rem Mag, .30-30 Win, .308 Win, .300 Win Mag and .30-06. However, Remington went the other direction and used a lighter bullet at slightly reduced velocity. For example, the .270 is loaded with a 115-grain bullet at 2,710 fps, the 7mm magnum a 140-grain bullet at 2,710 fps, and the .30-06 a 125-grain bullet at 2,660 fps. These loads soften recoil a good 60 percent. Three-shot groups from a Ruger Mark II at 100 yards ranged from 1 to 2 inches with the .30-06 Managed Recoil loads.
Many things help reduce a gun's recoil. The proper stance allows you to roll with a gun's punch; a correctly shaped stock directs recoil to where it's felt the least; a butt pad and recoil reducers spread recoil over a wide area and a longer time; and lighter-kicking loads that take the sting out of practice all combine to reduce recoil to a manageable level.
Reprinted from the July 2006 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.