Managing recoil from the bench
with hard-kicking rifles.
An earlier column suggested learning basic bench technique using a light-recoiling rifle such as medium-weight .223 Rem. For best consistency there should be no more shooter contact with the rifle than absolutely necessary. I personally like to have the buttpad in contact with the shoulder, while some very competent shooters feel even this is unnecessary.
But what works with an 8-pound .223 doesn’t work so well with an 8-pound .30-06 or 10-pound .375 H&H. Try shooting one of these using the same technique and the result may well be a severe scope cut, bruised shooting hand, and maybe a rifle on the ground.
When a rifle is fired it recoils away from its points of support. The greater the recoil, and the harder the support, the more violently the rifle moves. No insight here, this is old news to anyone who shoots centerfire rifles.
Light recoil lets us get away with minor errors in technique, or at least minimizes the damage. Rifles with more recoil—for example sporting-weight rifles chambered for typical big-game cartridges—are less forgiving. The rifle is going to move more violently away from points of contact; yet to maintain control of the rifle we have to hold it more firmly.
When bench shooting a rifle having some recoil (Ruger 77 .375 Ruger with Trijicon 3-9X illustrated), the front and rear rests should be elevated so the shooter can sit up fairly straight, so the body can flex with recoil.
There are two aspects to consider. One is ensuring the rifle is held as consistently as possible, and moves consistently in recoil. The other aspect is shooter comfort and recoil fatigue.
Let’s say I’ve been having a pleasant time bench-shooting a .223 and decide I want to check some loads in an 8-pound .30-06. The first thing I’ll do is get the rifle sitting higher so I can sit up straight, rather than draped across the shooting bench. I can do this by elevating the front rest and placing a spacer beneath the rear bag.
Next I’ll place padding over the bag on the front rest. It’s a tip I got from Warren Page’s book The Accurate Rifle back in the ’70s. Probably someone makes a multiadjustable high-impact “Polymagic Bag-O-Liftr and Free Range Organic Sheepskin Rest-Pad, $$ apiece or $$$ for both.”
Actually, what I use is an old phone book or two under the rear bag, and the sleeve of a heavy woolen shirt or down-filled jacket across the front rest. Not everything in this game needs to cost a fortune.
With the ’06 we need to take control. The shooting hand grips the rifle firmly and pulls it into firm contact with the shoulder, the cheek pressing more firmly on the cheekpiece. Yes, it is more difficult to maintain consistent pressure. That’s just the way it is.
Otherwise the principles remain the same. We aim the rifle by squeezing the rear sandbag with the “non-shooting” hand (the left, for a right-handed shooter). We take care not to “steer” the rifle with the shoulder, the cheek, or the shooting hand. The rifle is still supported by the sandbags, aimed only by the rear sandbag.
A PAST recoil shield reduces the chance of a bruised shoulder and makes long shooting sessions more pleasant. For the real hard kickers, .458 Lott and the like, a 25-pound bag of shot between rifle and shoulder is kind of awkward but really takes the sting out of recoil, while still letting the body flex.
A hard-kicking rifle recoils violently away from any hard point of contact (above). Adding even softer padding over the front bag (here the sleeve of a heavy wool shirt) reduces this tendency. It helps even with cartridges of the .270 and .30-06 class when used in light rifles.
The trigger finger acts independently from the rest of the shooting hand. Even though the hand grips the rifle firmly and pulls it against the shoulder, the trigger finger is squarely across the face of the trigger and does nothing but press the trigger straight back.
Keeping the trigger finger relaxed and moving smoothly, while at the same time maintaining a firm grip with the rest of the hand, is a skill which must be developed. It takes time, conscientious practice, and many repetitions. The best training method I know, though an expensive one, is to take up bull’s-eye handgun shooting with a .45 ACP pistol.
If it’s a fairly light-kicking rifle, say a medium/light .243 or 7mm-08, or just a few sighting shots with an ’06-class round, I’m comfortable wearing just a shirt. For longer sessions of load development I wear a PAST recoil shield. I also sometimes use a little nylon pouch I found somewhere, holding about five pounds of lead shot, between the rifle recoil pad and the PAST shield.
With these tools I can shoot 60 rounds or so in a session with cartridges of the .375 Ruger/H&H category with good trigger control and no fear of feeding a flinch; or a few shots, say to check the sights, with a .416/.458 category cartridge.
Longer sessions with cartridges of the .458 Win/.458 Lott class require special care but I’m out of space. (Hints: 25-pound bag of shot, Lead Sled, standing benchrest.)
But the key element to accuracy is taking pains to be consistent. I have a very accurate Tikka T3 Lite in .270 WSM whose recoil numbers are about the same as 9-pound .300 Win Mag. Because it is so accurate any error in hold is immediately evident. Sometimes it starts to feel like work—but is surely is good training!
By Dave Anderson