Gun Digest

Understanding Handgun Recoil

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A brief discussion on handgun recoil and how it impacts your shooting.

Handgun recoil can be measured objectively. The free recoil energy in foot-pounds can be calculated with a mathematical formula. According to SAAMI (Small Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute) the formula looks like this:

FRE = (WF/64.34) × (WEVE + WPCVPG)/7,000WF)²

There’s also a modifier that’s applied to the velocity of the propellant gases (VPG) based on whether you’re calculating for rifles (VPG x 1.75), or shotguns and handguns (VPG × 1.50). You can use this formula if you like, but it’s quite silly. There are numerous online recoil calculators where you just input the required data and an answer is magically given. While I’ve found the results of various calculators/websites to disagree, it’s all relative and you’ll get a good idea of how hard a handgun might kick.

Recoil is something that must be managed. The harder a handgun recoils, the harder it is to shoot fast and accurately.

The problem with all of this is that recoil is a very subjective thing. Some associates and I were recently shooting a rifle that I found to have overly offensive recoil for a .308 Winchester. The other three shooters thought it was on par with .308 Winchester rifles of the same style and weight. These variations in perceived recoil apply to handguns as well. Because our hands are different, because we all have varying levels of strengths and because the grips of some handguns are shaped differently, there can be staunch disagreements on how hard this or that handgun feels to different individuals.

For a shooter, it’s important that a handgun is comfortable to shoot. The reasons should be obvious: The more comfortable a handgun is to shoot, the more you’ll shoot it. And the less a handgun recoils, the more accurate your shots will likely be, and the faster you should be able to make them.

I know, that’s a lot of math and gibberish to go through just to simply state that the more perceived recoil you feel from a handgun, the harder it is to shoot. However, now you have the math.

The real question is this: How much does handgun recoil impact your shooting?

In other words, if you’re shooting multiple shots, fast—which is something often required with a defensive handgun—how much does more recoil increase your split times? (Split times being the time between your shots.) Just as felt recoil might be different for everyone, it’s also possible that its impact on individual shooting performance will be different as well.

This 230-grain .45 Auto load from Nosler generated 7.52 foot-pounds of recoil out of the Tisas pistol.

The Handgun Recoil Test

To get an idea of how recoil can negatively impact shooting, a friend and I conducted a test. We fired a variety of multi-shot defensive drills using a lightweight .45 Auto pistol loaded with standard and +P ammunition. We recorded the time between every shot, so that in the end we could analyze the data scientifically to see how much the harder recoiling load was to shoot compared to the lighter recoiling load. We only counted the runs where we had no misses. Our goal wasn’t to see how fast we could miss, but to see how fast we could hit.

Before sharing the results, you should know that when the standard pressure load was subjected to the recoil formula supplied in this article, it registered a Free Recoil Energy of 7.52 foot-pounds. When the +P load data was put into the formula, it was calculated to have 9.42 foot-pounds of Free Recoil Energy.

For what it’s worth, one online recoil calculator agreed with these results and another listed recoil energies of 8.77 and 10.72 foot-pounds, respectively. The results were different but proportionally mostly the same. Maybe more important was the fact that my friend and I both felt that out of the lightweight handgun, the +P load kicked like an SOB compared to the standard pressure load.

Though loaded with the same weight bullet, this Federal .45 Auto load generated about 25 percent more recoil than the Nosler load. This additional recoil resulted in split times that were, on average, 21.5 percent slower.

The results were interesting and provided at right for each load and each shooter. Going from the standard pressure to the +P load, I experienced an increase in my split times—the time between shots on multi-shot drills—of 0.06 second. That’s an increase of 20 percent. Interestingly, my assistant experienced an increase of the exact same amount of time.

One of the reasons I think this is interesting is that my assistant shot a little faster than I did; his split times were 0.04-second faster with both loads, but the +P load had more of a detrimental impact on his shooting than it did with me. Yes, he shot the +P load almost as fast as I shot the standard pressure load, but the +P load increased his split times by 23 percent … as opposed to 20 percent.

Split Times

So, what does all this shooting and all this math mean. For us, it meant that, on average, our split times increased very similarly to the increase in recoil. From a practical standpoint, this makes perfect sense. If your handgun generates 25 percent more recoil with one load, you can expect your split times to increase by a similar percentage.

This is for sure something to keep in mind when selecting ammunition. You might get better terminal performance with one load, but the increase in recoil might not be worth the reduction in the shootability of your handgun.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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