Rifle Recoil

There Are Many Ways To Manage “Kick”.

The late Bob Brister was known as one of the best shotgunners and shotgun writers who ever lived, but he was also a very experienced and knowledgeable rifleman. Bob differentiated between recoil and “kick,” the common name for recoil. As he pointed out, kick depends not just on kinetic energy but several other factors, such as the difference in perceived recoil between a rifle with a traditional steel buttplate and the same rifle fitted with a soft pad.

Many shooters believe big, strong men cope with recoil better than smaller, weaker humans. This isn’t necessarily so. In fact, many men who think they’re kick-proof flinch pretty badly, even when shooting rifles chambered for relatively modest cartridges like the 7mm Remington Magnum and .30-06, and some tiny women shoot well even with rifles of far more recoil. A perfect example is Coni Brooks of Barnes Bullets. I don’t know exactly how tall Coni is or how much she weighs, but she’s definitely smaller than average. She shoots a .338 Winchester Magnum for ordinary animals such as elk and grizzly, and a .500 Nitro Express for truly big game. She also doesn’t miss much!

In fact, some people believe smaller shooters can tolerate recoil better than big shooters, because they present less resistance. A real-world demonstration is the difference felt when shooting from offhand and prone: Your body and shoulder present far more resistance to the rifle when prone, so kick feels worse.

However, I suspect another difference in kick-tolerance between men and women is most women don’t correlate how much a rifle hurts them with how much it hurts whatever they’re shooting at. Plus, some men apparently enjoy the pain of a hard-kicking rifle. (Of course, some of this masochism may be due to wanting to appear manly, something women don’t worry about. Most women, anyway.)

Kick tolerance also changes as we grow older. Joints and ligaments become less flexible, and the rest of our body become more fragile. In his 60s Bob Brister suffered a detached retina in one eye; his doctor blamed the repeated pounding of shooting. After having his retina surgically reattached, Bob made sure none of his firearms recoiled very hard or fast, mostly shooting gas-operated shotguns, since they stretch out recoil time, and never had another problem.

My wife Eileen started getting recoil headaches a few years ago, after a couple of decades of shooting rifles and shotguns with no ill effects. Some people claim recoil headache is a form of concussion, and concussions are big news these days thanks to the damage some professional football players suffer due to blows to the head. Many physicians, however, argue about exactly what “concussion” means.

Such arguments aside, it’s definitely unpleasant to suddenly develop bad headaches from a .270 Winchester you’ve shot for 15 years. We eventually found a 100-grain bullet at 3,000 fps or so was Eileen’s new maximum recoil threshold from the relatively light hunting rifles she prefers.

Recoil can also be cumulative over a day or two. A few years ago I went on a prairie dog shoot with a rifle company that had just introduced a relatively light .22-250. Note “relatively,” as the rifle weighed around 9 pounds with scope, a pretty good compromise between carrying and aiming for a coyote rifle, and that’s how the company marketed the rifle. However, they wanted to get the word out as quickly as possible, so invited a bunch of gunwriters on a mid-summer prairie dog shoot. If we chanced across a coyote during the 2-day shoot, so much the better.

My assigned rifle was very accurate, and the prairie dogs proved very abundant, But around mid-morning of the second day the .22-250 began feeling more like a .375 H&H every time it went off. I could feel a flinch starting, so switched to a .22 rimfire and the flinch went away.

On prairie dog shoots I keep track of how many rounds have been fired by slipping the empty cases into a small duffel bag. That evening the bag held over 600 .22-250 cases. Now I know my .22-250 recoil limit!

For over 20 years, 99 percent of my prairie dog shooting has been with rounds no bigger than the .223 Remington, and I actually prefer smaller cartridges because they allow me to spot my own shots through the scope. This isn’t just to watch the action, but practical: Having somebody else spot shots isn’t as helpful as doing it yourself, because even if the spotter stands directly behind you, their angle is slightly different. Plus, spotting somebody else’s shots is relatively boring, so their attention often wanders.

These days most of my prairie dog rifles are sporter-weight, since I eventually grow bored with shooting over a bench or pickup hood and start hiking around, shooting from field positions. The biggest round I can shoot from a sporter-weight rifle and still spot my own shots has proven to be the .204 Ruger. The .204 doesn’t kick much less than a .223, but apparently the difference is just enough for the way I hold a rifle.

Some people can’t spot their shots when using a .204, but in an informal Internet poll about 2/3 of respondents said they could—and everybody said they could spot their own shots when using rounds recoiling less than the .204. I suspect that’s one reason for the recent popularity of .17-caliber varmint rounds, and also applies to the zippy .19-caliber wildcats offered by fellow Montanan James Calhoon.


There are other ways to reduce recoil than changing cartridges. Muzzlebrakes have been around for a long time, and work by diverting some of the powder gas exiting the muzzle. After the bullet leaves the barrel, the gas adds to recoil, acting like the thrust from a rocket. The ports in brakes neutralize some of this rocket effect.

Exactly how much a brake helps depends partly on the cartridge itself. A number of years ago I tested a pair of otherwise identical rifles made by the late Dave Gentry, a .375 Weatherby and a .458 Winchester. Both came equipped with Dave’s Quiet Muzzlebrake, so as part of the test I devised a primitive recoil-meter, consisting of the spare tire from my pickup resting on a piece of plywood.

Recoil was measured by how far the tire moved when each rifle was fired with its butt resting against the tire.

Testing was done with the muzzlebrakes installed and then removed. The brake reduced the .375 Weatherby’s push about 40 percent, while the .458s push was only reduced about 25 percent, even though the powder charge was similar in both rounds. The difference was the greater rocket effect from the smaller bore of the .375. This is exactly why a .300 Weatherby or .338 Lapua with a good-sized brake becomes relatively gentle—except in noise.

One side effect of a muzzlebrake is a louder boom, and the more effective a brake is at neutralizing recoil, the louder the boom. Dave Gentry’s “quiet” brake featured ports angling slightly away from the shooter. This did make it slightly quieter than other brakes with ports at a 90-degree angle to the muzzle, but it also wasn’t quite as effective at reducing recoil.

For a brief period Dave experimented with a sleeve around his brake, thinking this would cut back on noise even further. It did—but since the sleeve redirected the ported gases forward again, recoil wasn’t reduced much.

Most brakes stir up a bunch of dust, especially when shooting from prone, and can also stir up other stuff. The late Major Miller, a hunting outfitter in the Black Hills of Wyoming, told me about one of his clients who sat with his back against a ponderosa pine while shooting a whitetail buck after a snowstorm. His .300 magnum had a good-sized brake, and at the shot several bushels of snow fell off the pine, half-burying the hunter.

Brakes can also damage scopes, especially on light rifles. Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms tells me customers who order his rifles in magnum chamberings often use brakes. They often report the rifle shot very accurately at first, but then groups opened up. Melvin always suggests changing the scope, and the customers usually protest, saying, “But it’s a Brand Y!” Despite their faith in an expensive scope, the problem almost always turns out to be the scope: Most are designed to take rearward recoil, but not a relatively fast stop immediately after the rifle starts backward. This effect is most severe in lighter rifles, and light hunting rifles in magnum chamberings often end up braked.

Some brakes feature ports only on top of the barrel, designed more to reduce muzzle rise than overall recoil. Magna-Porting is the most common, but Remington VTR (Varmint-Target Rifle) Model 700s also feature top porting. I’ve shot VTR’s in .223 and .22-250 on prairie dog shoots, and the porting reduces muzzle jump considerably. In fact my present .204 is a 700 VTR, and though I had no trouble spotting my own shots with two previous sporter-weight .204s, the porting makes it even easier. (It should also be noted that hearing protection is the rule when shooting any sort of abundant varmint, even with rimfire rifles.)

A soft recoil pad really helps on harder kicking rifles. The Pachmayr Decelerator was the first modern pad made of super-soft polymers, but these days we have several choices, some even softer. Many shooters who use really soft recoil pads, however, still suffer from the comb of the buttstock slamming into their cheek. This can be even more painful than a shoulder slam, because less flesh typically covers cheekbones.

Cheek pain partly means the rifle’s stock doesn’t really fit you—or is the right height for iron sights, like the Ruger No. 1’s buttstock. I’ve owned a bunch of No. 1 rifles, but when chambered for larger cartridges the comb can be a little punishing when shooting with a scope. For a while I hunted with a No. 1 in .375 H&H, and found it more comfortable to shoot with an NECG aperture sight than scoped, despite weighing only 8-1/4 pounds unscoped, because my cheek was firmly on the wood rather than hovering a little above.

Some shooters suffer less simply by switching to stocks with Monte Carlo combs. Yes, we’ve all heard a straight “classic” comb results in less felt recoil, because it comes straight back—but if you have a longer neck and/or more sloping shoulders, then the classic buttstock tends to place the toe (bottom of the recoil pad) right in the middle of your shoulder joint. This isn’t very comfortable itself, but the comb also tends to rise during recoil, biting your cheek.

Adjustable combs are becoming more popular for this very reason, but an inexpensive cheekpad can help a lot. I recently went on a shoot at the FTW Ranch in Texas where we all used Ruger rifles with Tac-Ops strap-on cheekpads (with Ruger’s name on ’em, of course). This really saved my face while putting 150-some rounds through a light Ruger American .308 Winchester over a couple of days.

Length-of-pull also has an effect. If too long we can’t control the rifle very well. If too short the thumb on our grip hand may bonk our nose, or the scope can whack our eyebrow. One rule-of-thumb often used by stockmakers is to add or subtract 1/8-inch of length of pull for every inch of the shooter’s height above or below 5 feet, 10 inches, modified by other physical characteristics such as weight and arm length.

Mercury-filled recoil reducers such as the Graco BreakO help too. When installed in the buttstock they reduce the speed of recoil, somewhat like a gas-operated autoloading action, but their weight also slows down recoil.

A heavier contour barrel, like Magna-Porting, reduces muzzle rise, though there are limits on how much weight we can add before a rifle becomes unwieldy. As mentioned earlier, I’m not all that fond of heavy-barreled varmint rifles, and lugging a 10-pound rifle up a Rocky Mountain for one shot at an elk is more than most hunters want to tote, since unless we’re riding a horse we’re also carrying a pack weighing at least 15 pounds, and maybe twice that.

Mountain Rifles

Somebody once said about so-called mountain rifles, “The effects of gravity are constant, the effects of recoil only temporary.” This is basically true when the rifle’s chambered for the relatively light-recoiling rounds most of us shoot at big game, whether a .25-06 Remington or .300 Winchester Magnum, but not so true with cartridges for really big game.

The “big” rifle I hunt with most is a .416 Rigby weighing 9-1/4 pounds “naked” or 10 pounds with a 3X Leupold scope. Most Cape buffalo hunting takes place in country less steep than the Rockies, and in Africa the rest of your load is usually a mid-sized binocular and maybe a point-and-shoot camera. Aside from recoil reduction, there’s something to be said for the steadiness of a 10-pound rifle, even on a 30-yard shot, when your palms are slick with sweat and the animal may decide to shoot back.
By John Barsness

Gentry Custom LLC
314 N. Hoffman, Belgrade, MT 59714
(406) 388-4867

41302 Executive Dr.
Harrison Township, MI 48045
(586) 469-6727

Pachmayr Decelerator
Lyman Products Corp.
465 Smith St., Middletown, CT 06457
(800) 225-9626

Remington Arms
870 Remington Dr.
P.O. Box 700, Madison, NC 27025
(800) 243-9700

Tac Ops Cheekpad Brownells
200 S. Front St., Montezuma, IA 50171
(800) 741-0015

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