Some take it as a sign of manhood others of unnecessary punishment. One thing is for certain, nobody gets a kick out of excessive recoil.
Hard-kicking guns have been a source of pain and amusement for as long as hard-kicking guns have been around. Big-bore guns are often the hard-kickers … but not always: Lesser guns can pound your shoulder, too.
No doubt you’ve seen Internet videos of folks getting the snot knocked out of them. Sometimes, it’s a surprise, but sometimes, it’s an intentional joke. You might’ve even orchestrated such amusement (I know I have!).
Back in my law enforcement days, we were messing with the department’s new inertia-driven Beretta 1201 FP shotguns. These shotguns would smack you like your mamma used to, especially if you didn’t hold them tightly. One guy was bragging about how he was unaffected by recoil. (Yeah, well, there’s always one of those, right?)
We were shooting hand-thrown clays, and before I handed him the shotgun, I slipped a 3-inch magnum in the tube ahead of a couple of low-brass shells. After the first round of low brass, he turned and grinned to illustrate his magnificent level of manhood.
When the magnum load went bang!, he dropped the shotgun, squalled like a baby and screamed, “Did it blow up?”
Everyone laughed—except him. In fact, I’m laughing again as I write this.
I once communicated regularly with a custom builder who made some fantastic dangerous-game rifles. He even handloaded custom ammo for his clients and tested it in order to guarantee sub-MOA precision. I’m not sure you need sub-MOA precision with a buffalo rifle, but I’m damned sure folks will pay handsomely to get it.
At any rate, he called me one night and told me he thought he was allergic to ice cream. I asked how he arrived at that odd conclusion. He said that after dinner every evening, he would eat some ice cream. On several occasions, he’d pass out shortly thereafter. This seemed unusual, and I suggested he visit a specialist.
Come to find out, it wasn’t the ice cream: He’d had a concussion received from continually shooting too damned many rifles that kicked too damned hard. I’m not suggesting the average guy would become “allergic” to ice cream by shooting hard-kicking guns, but I’m confident that if you shoot enough of them, you will become, at a minimum, hypersensitive to shooting them.
Grandpa was right: Too much of a good thing is bad for you, and too much of a bad thing is dangerous.
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Masochistic Magnum Recoil
When I was just starting out writing about guns, I was invited on a turkey hunt. I’m not much of a turkey hunter and have never been much for shotguns—unless the attempted target is flying. There were several big-name writers on this hunt, and they all insisted on 3-inch magnum loads. I can only assume they were seriously pissed off at the turkeys (or maybe just seriously intent on impressing the “new kid”).
All the shotguns were fitted with optical sights, so they all had to be zeroed. In three shots, I had my shotgun—loaded with 2¾-inch loads—dialed in. The other guys? They pounded and pounded targets with little turkey heads on them for hours. Forget jelly-heads, we’re talking jelly-shoulders.
Eventually, they seemed modestly happy with their efforts, even though it was obvious some were flinching as if they’d been in the ring with Mike Tyson. Later that night, copious amounts of alcohol were consumed—I’m sure in an effort to deaden the pain. To add insult to injury, no one killed or even shot at a turkey.
One of those same writers came to use my range a few years back to pattern some turkey loads he was testing for an article. They were those sadomasochistic 3-inch magnums. He’d shoot a couple times, rub his shoulder and shoot a couple more. After about a dozen, he asked if I’d like to shoot some. I declined. He finished a couple of hours later, asked for some Motrin … and probably went home to cry in the privacy of his own home.
I’ve never liked rifles that kicked hard and have spent much of my personal life and professional gun-writing career avoiding them. I’ve never wanted to shoot a gun just to see how hard it kicks and have wondered in amazement at those who do.
Still, the circumstances sometimes dictate a certain level of unreasonableness. On more than a few occasions, I’ve had to crawl behind a gun that was, let’s say, “unpleasant” to shoot.
I’ve had a long love affair with the ultra-light rifles of New Ultra Light Arms. They were the first true lightweight hunting rifles. Although many have tried to copy these rifles, they remain the benchmark of that genre. I was provided with one in .35 Whelen to take to Africa on a plains game hunt. Excited about the rifle, the cartridge and the hunt, I got behind it at the bench.
I pulled the trigger, and … in all honesty, I peed myself just a little. The Hornady Superformance .35 Whelen load pushes a 200-grain bullet to just a shade more than 2,900 fps. Out of that 6.8-pound rifle, that’s almost 40 ft-lb of recoil energy! However, when it comes to recoil, recoil velocity also matters. That rifle/load combination had a recoil velocity 25 percent more than a .308 Winchester.
I emptied my bladder, wiped my watering eyes, manned-up and fired two more shots to get a three-shot group. Amazingly, it measured 0.68 inch, center to center! Fortunately, when shooting from field positions, the rifle was much more manageable, because that’s how those rifles are intended to be shot.
I bought the rifle but never used it again. Later on, I sold it to my best friend, who runs the Baptist Mission in Kodiak, Alaska—partly because I realized I didn’t need to be kicked that hard to kill anything, and partly because he needed a rifle in case he had a run-in with a bear. And, as it turned out, he used it to stop a charging grizzly at only a few feet. It now rides with him on his horse everywhere he goes.
But that wasn’t the hardest-kicking or most-painful-to-shoot rifle I’ve ever fired. The most painful was a Marlin 1985 Cowboy that was chambered for the .45-70 Govt. Granted, .45-70s can kick like the devil when loaded with the heavy Buffalo Bore ammunition, but this rifle—with its hard-plastic butt plate—would bring a tear with every trigger pull, even when using the “anemic” Remington factory ammunition.
I fired a box or two of ammunition through it—the rifle was astoundingly accurate—and sold it. Speaking of .45-70s and Buffalo Bore ammo, I used that combination on my first two African buffalo. However, those Marlin lever-guns had a nice, soft recoil pad. The recoil was forceful (maybe a tad less than a hard hit from a professional linebacker) but not unbearably painful. After about a half-dozen shots, I always got a headache.
As it turns out, those heavy loads are probably not needed for most of the game animals a hunter might use a .45-70 for. On an African safari in 2007, a buddy used those “weakling” Remington loads to take a very nice blue wildebeest. It ran about 30 yards and piled up.
The .500 Cyrus Recoil
The hardest-kicking rifle I’ve ever fired was when a custom gun builder convinced me to take a .50-caliber rifle he’d made to Africa. The wildcat cartridge he’d created was called the .500 Cyrus and was really rather ingenious.
Unlike the .50 BMG cartridge, which shoots a 0.510-caliber bullet, this cartridge fired a true 0.50-caliber bullet. This limited bullet selection, but he’d worked with a custom bullet maker to create some really revolutionary projectiles. Surprisingly, this monstrosity was short enough to fit in an action sized for the .308 Winchester.
The rifle, which was as beautiful as it was demonic, would launch a 345-grain bullet at 2,700 fps. In case you’re mathematically challenged, that’s 5,584 ft-lb of muzzle energy. But, here’s the thing: The rifle only weighed 8 pounds. This meant felt recoil was in the neighborhood of 60 ft-lb—three times that of a .30-06.
Even so, this rifle was incredibly deadly. I used it to take two eland and a blue wildebeest, all with one shot each. When I returned home, the custom builder offered to give it to me. I declined. I told him unless the world was once again infested with dinosaurs, I would never be mad enough at anything—ever—to pull that rifle’s trigger again.
After almost a half-century of shooting guns, some of which kicked like a violated mule, I’ve found only one foolproof way to avoid the pain: Don’t shoot hard-kicking guns. But, for those of you wanting to flirt with detached retinas and blown-out rotator cuffs, there are a few ways to combat violent recoil.
One way is to select a heavier rifle. On average, 2 pounds of additional rifle weight can reduce felt recoil by as much as 20 percent. You can also invest in one of those recoil pads that strap to your shoulder (for instance, Limbsaver makes one for about $35). They don’t reduce the recoil force, but they do help distribute it over a larger area, thus limiting the pain involved.
Another method is a shooting technique taught to me by a Gunsite Academy instructor. He suggested pulling the rifle into your shoulder with your shooting hand while pushing the rifle away from your shoulder with your support hand. In other words, you create sort of a dynamic platform that applies the logic of “opposite force.” In practice, it works wonderfully well and can make a rifle that’ll knock you cross-eyed almost pleasant. On the other hand, it takes a good deal of practice to apply this method unconsciously and with accuracy.
Lastly, there’s no substitute for good shooting technique. Keep the butt firmly in your shoulder, and square your body up perpendicular to the rifle—don’t shoot hard-kicking guns across your body. In addition, make certain you maintain a good cheek weld—don’t let the comb of the rifle smack you in the face.
And, for the love of Elmer Keith, don’t crawl the stock and get your eye too close to the riflescope. That half-moon scar you see on the brow of some shooters is not called the “Weatherby ring” for nothing.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.