Accurizing Your Firearm: Part 5 - Managing Recoil

Send by email Printer-friendly version Share this
Accurizing Your Firearm Series

We've come a long way since the grit-your-teeth-and-take-it-like-a-man school of shooting, but there are still shooters out there who scorn recoil reducers as something weaklings and wimps use because they're afraid of a bit of pain. Sadly, these people just don't get the point - recoil reducers have nothing to do with machismo and everything to do with accuracy. No matter to what degree you fine tune your firearm, you will never shoot it well if you need to grit your teeth when you touch off a shot.

It's true that few shooters are conscious of the kick their rifle delivers when they're shooting at game and for the few shots taken in the field during the course of a year, you don't really need a recoil reducer. On the other hand, the subconscious anticipation of that kick doesn't only open your test group like a flock of jumped pintails, it's also the major reason we miss game in the field.

I wager that nine out of ten hunters who shoot big game bores without the benefit of a recoil reducer have a severe flinching problem; either that or they never shoot their gun but once a year, twice at the most. In either case, their marksmanship is compromised. The best way to determine whether or not you have a flinching problem is to have someone load your gun for you at a firing range and, after several live rounds, unobtrusively slip in a dummy round. And, if you are convinced that you do not flinch, have someone record the test on a video camera.

Most firearms generate more than enough blast to cause permanent
hearing damage, but this is intensified at firing ranges.

Chances are, on the replay, you'll exhibit all the classic manifestations-the sudden and involuntary tensing of your arm and upper body muscles, the jerked trigger pull and the facial grimace as your body steels itself for the jolt. The problem with flinching is that it ruins accuracy. Rather than squeezing the trigger smoothly, the shooter yanks at it and rather than holding the gun steady, the shooter tenses at the anticipation of the kick. As a result, the bullet flies off target.

Flinch Reaction
Flinch is acquired at the shooting range because of inadequate protection against the repeated pounding your body is subjected to, both physically and subconsciously. Even half a dozen shots are enough to entrench a serious flinch reaction which, if not tended to, can only become worse. One way to ease the problem is to do the bulk of your pre-season practicing with a .22 caliber rimfire rifle-the recoil is virtually nonexistent and you can buy a brick of 500 rounds for roughly the cost of a 20-round box of .30-06 Springfield or .270 Winchester cartridges.

But, sooner or later, you'll have to run a few shells through the kicker and that's when the flinch reaction becomes rooted. To understand it properly, we need to understand each of the elements responsible. Flinch is a physical reaction to both the real and anticipated discomfort (or pain) resulting from the discharge of a firearm. When Sir Isaac Newton stated, in the late 1687, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, he might well have just returned from a session at the neighborhood shooting range since recoil is the reaction to the action of accelerating a projectile from dead standstill to five and even six times the speed of sound in a mere fraction of a second.

The weight of the hardware; the barrel, receiver, stock, scope and mounting hardware-absorb a great deal of this energy, but the remainder is transmitted to your shoulder. Theoretically, the average shooter can tolerate about 28 foot-pounds of energy-approximately the recoil of a .338 pushing a 210-grain bullet. But the theory is based on a single firing, not the repeated pounding delivered during the course of a pre-season session at the range.

Secondly, the theoretical threshold of 28 foot-pounds is also based on a straight backward shove. However, most gunstocks are built in such a way that the recoil tends to push the gun both backwards and up, thereby delivering a violent cuff to the head via the cheek. This latter aspect of recoil explains why some light bored guns seem to kick harder than the heavy bored versions.

A third cause of flinching actually has nothing to do with the recoil of the gun and everything to do with your ears. The average report of a 22 caliber rimfire rifle has been measured at about 140 decibels which is a full 10 decibels more than required to inflict permanent damage to the inner ear and 20 decibels above the pain threshold of the human ear.

The deer is just a jump away from the spruce thicket and a fair ways out. Can you make the shot?

Decibel Range
Now let's take a look at big game hunting rifles. They generate between 160 and 173 decibels (short barreled guns have an even sharper blast)--far above the 130-decibel threshold at which the human ear suffers permanent damage. I've heard it said at the gun range that your ears only ring for the first few shots and then they get used to the sound. It doesn't much matter how tough and impervious to pain you think you are, if your ears ring, you will suffer permanent ear damage and you will pick up a nasty flinch.

This problem, fortunately, is easy enough to avoid. A pair of good quality ear protectors fitted with soft pads to provide a complete seal around the ears will do the trick for most shooting. But even the best muffs, with no defects and properly worn will reduce the blast by only 29 decibels, which theoretically leaves enough of a blast to damage the hearing mechanisms and register pain. The first results in eventual hearing loss, the other in a conditioned muscle reflex that kicks in every time you start that slow trigger squeeze. However, the decibel range generated by big game rifles is measured at the muzzle and is in most cases attenuated by as much as 20 decibels by the time the blast reaches the shooter. That's great until the guy in the bench beside you hauls out his cannon complete with recoil brake and touches off a shot guaranteed to keep your nerve ends in harmonious vibration for half an hour.

Ear plugs-even those cheap foam plugs you roll up and place in the ear-are actually quite effective at dampening the direct noise into the ear, but on their own, they are no replacement for muffs since they allow the sonic shock to be transmitted through the bones surrounding the ear.

So why not wear both foam plugs and muffs? The old school of thought suggests that you total the effective damping of each and then subtract five decibels, while the new school maintains that you take the greatest level of protection and add five decibels of protection for the for the other. In other words plugs and muffs rated 25 decibels of damping together might give you either 45 or 30 decibels protection, depending on the school of thought.

In my sessions at the range with the Winchester Model 70 in 270 caliber, I wore both, even on days when I had the facility to myself. Better to err on the side of caution when it comes to relaxed and accurate shooting as well as avoiding what's known as noise induced hearing loss.

Recoil is not quite as easy to deal with. More and more bench rest shooters are taking to recoil harnesses which are basically closed-cell foam pads which can be strapped to the shoulder. You scarcely know you're wearing one, yet the pad will reduce kick from even a magnum rifle by 75 per cent or more. A good recoil pad on the butt of your rifle can also make the kick to the shoulder more bearable, but it doesn't much help a gun that jolts upward badly. One way to solve that problem is to replace the gun stock with one of a slightly better design.

Probably the best way to deal with a kicker, however, is to have a muzzle brake installed. The basic concept is to provide venting holes at the muzzle in such a way that the compressed air being shoved down the barrel ahead of the bullet is drawn off. Think of it in terms of jet turbines set in such a way to pull the gun forward, away from the shooter. Of course, the gun does not actually have perceivable forward momentum, but the recoil is substantially reduced. The total degree of reduction depends on the design of the muzzle brake and the caliber of the gun. On light caliber guns, only a minimal 20 to 30 per cent moderation is achieved while on heavy calibers it's possible to reduce the kick by as much as 60 per cent and, in the process, virtually eliminate the barrel jump.

Average Benefit
Even if we take an average benefit of 40 per cent reduction across the board, the benefit is that a .30-06 will push just a touch more than a .243 and a big bored .338 has about as much sting as a .270 as can be seen by the following table.

                Weight of     Bullet      Recoil       Recoil w/
Caliber        Gun w/scope    Weight      Energy       Reduction
.22-250 Rem.      6.9 lb       55 grain    8.5 ft/lb    
.223 Rem.         6.9 lb       55 grain    7.5 ft/lb
.243 Win.         6.9 lb       85 grain   11.9 ft/lb
.243 Win.         6.9 lb      100 grain   12.8 ft/lb
.30-30 Win.       6.5 lb      170 grain   15.0 ft/lb
.270 Win.         7.1 lb      130 grain   17.8 ft/lb   10.7 ft/lb
.270 Win.         7.1 lb      150 grain   19.5 ft/lb   11.7 ft/lb
.280 Rem.         7.1 lb      150 grain   20.5 ft/lb   12.3 ft/lb
.30-06 Sprgfld    7.1 lb      150 grain   20.1 ft/lb   12.1 ft/lb
.30-06 Sprgfld    7.1 lb      165 grain   22.2 ft/lb   13.3 ft/lb
.30-06 Sprgfld    7.1 lb      180 grain   23.7 ft/lb   14.2 ft/lb
.308 Win.         6.9 lb      165 grain   21.4 ft/lb   12.8 ft/lb
.308 Win.         6.9 lb      180 grain   24.0 ft/lb   14.4 ft/lb
7 mm Rem Mag.     8.5 lb      140 grain   18.8 ft/lb   11.3 ft/lb
7 mm Rem Mag.     8.5 lb      150 grain   20.2 ft/lb   12.1 ft/lb
7 mm Rem Mag.     8.5 lb      160 grain   20.5 ft/lb   12.3 ft/lb
.300 Win Mag.     8.5 lb      180 grain   24.0 ft/lb   14.4 ft/lb
.300 Win Mag.     8.5 lb      200 grain   26.0 ft/lb   15.6 ft/lb
.338 Win Mag      8.5 lb      210 grain   27.8 ft/lb   16.7 ft/lb
.338 Win Mag      8.5 lb      250 grain   32.5 ft/lb   19.5 ft/lb

A number of different models are available, but most are screwed onto threads cut into the barrel at the muzzle. A totally different type is the Mag-na-Port system which consists of a series of narrow slits cut into the barrel near the muzzle, a concept that evolved from the fuel control valving on Apollo spacecraft. While the latter provides less recoil reduction, it does effectively deal with barrel jump, allowing the shooter to stay on target for a quick second shot.

In terms of other advantages and disadvantages, the screw-on brake can be removed and replaced with a screw-on cap that protect the threads and virtually restores the gun to its original profile. Many models create a severe blowback of gases and muzzle blast to the point of being uncomfortable and disconcerting for shooters on neighboring benches or for hunting companions/guides in the field. Figure on about $150 for the brake and normal installation-most reputable gunsmiths can do the job and they typically offer a ten-day turn-around during the off-season. The Mag-na-Port process, on the other hand, calls for specialized machinery and can only be carried out at the Mag-na-port International in Mount Clemens, Michigan. Figure on a minimum three week turnaround time and a price tag of about and $150. Problem with the Mag-na-Port is that the modification is permanent and it reduces the resale value of the gun. Yet, despite their disadvantages, I find that the muzzle brake installed on the Winchester Model 70 made a world of difference in the accuracy of the gun by improving my own accuracy at the range, but especially in the field.

The sum total of these modifications was that not only did the out-of-the-box, production grade Model 70 shoot wonderfully tight groups, but the few changes in shooting habits also enabled the shooter to realize the accuracy the gun was capable of delivering. It became as good as many a custom gun and the shooter developed the confidence and ability to shoot well. And that made is worth the effort and the expense.

George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.


BikerRN's picture


I would agree that the total sum of these articles is outstanding!

I liked that the author touched upon hearing protection as a way of reducing recoil. I found that when I shot with foam plugs and ear muffs, given my lack of hearing already, I shot better scores for qualification. The advent of electronic muffs opened my groups up and it took a lot of work to get them small again. Sometimes I revert back to plugs and non amplified muffs and it does wonders for my shooting.

Recoil Pads are a great, yet inexspensive, way to reduce the sensation of recoil. I won't even consider a rifle or shotgun without some form of recoil reducing pad on it unless I'm shooting in Cowboy Action. People say I'm tough but I beg to differ. I'm just stoic and hide my wimpiness well.

Shooting is a perishable skill that deteriorates without practice. If one is getting hurt by thier rifle or shotgun then they need to fix the problem so that it doesn't hurt them. I find that an accurate, to me, firearm that doesn't hurt to luanch a pill down range is a joy to shoot if the stock and optics are agreeable to me. I think most of us find it this way. That being the case I do what I can to make my firearms agreeable to me. Also keep in mind that while we may be able to handle the .338, or other caliber, now there i nothing to say that we may not be able to handle it in the future due to various reasons.

Accurate firearms are a joy to shoot and accurate firearm that don't hurt one even more so. This set of articles, or rather my finding them, couldn't have come at a better time as I am working on next years hunting rifle now. This gives me much to consider, as well as discuss with my Gunsmith, in my quest for the perfect hunting rifle for me. Thank you again for a great set of articles. I look forward to reading much more of your work in the future.


Retired2hunt's picture

  A very good article


A very good article covering some hard points that affect accuracy.  I have a 30-06 myself and often find myself flinching on my readiness for the percussion of my rifle's discharge.

I will be adjusting my trigger so I am not pulling 6+ pounds in order to fire my rifle.  I think that is one very important aspect that was left out of this article.

A muzzle break is another solution to the recoil and something I wil investigate for my rifle.

While wearing hearing protection is a must at the firing range it is not pratical out in the woods and do not see this as any recoil reducing benefit other than at the range.

So in my opinion the answer is a better trigger pull that doesn't take more than 3.5 pounds pull plus the muzzle break... and lots of practice so you overcome your recoil issues.


Bush Boy's picture

One through five these have a darn good read

No one author and no one article can say it all, however, these five pieces by George Gruenefeld have been a real pleasure to read. I've just bought a 270Win T/C Encore Pro Hunter and I'll have these very close to hand when I mount my trusty Redfield 3-9x50 and the rifle up so the only thing to blame when I miss will be me! Thanks folks...

hunter25's picture

A great article on a subject

A great article on a subject that has ruined a great many hunts. I had a terrible time when I was younger keeping my flinch under control due to all the things mentioned here. The advent of better recoil pads and better hearing protection changed everything for me.

I jsut added a muzzle brake to my daughters 30-06 for this reason and it changed her shooting completely. She has total confidence now and rarely misses a shot whereas a just a couple years ago her shooting was getting progressively worse.

Don't be afraid to admit you don't like recoil and do something about it so when the shot of a lifetime presents itself you're ready to make it count.

Related Forum Threads You Might Like

ThreadThread StarterRepliesLast Updated
4 ways to cut down on recoildeerhunter02808/12/2007 17:57 pm
Chuck Hawks Recoil Tablejim boyd512/30/2010 07:50 am
New X-Bolt!!cyendrey111/08/2009 13:42 pm
PA Black Bear Season Looking GoodStruttinAnRuttin111/16/2006 12:37 pm
Rifle Stocks - "Felt" Recoiljim boyd1003/16/2011 19:23 pm