Sunday, January 6, 2013

Recoil- A Pain in the Neck

As a confession, I've never been particularly prone to being affected by recoil. I've enjoyed shooting the big guns for most of my adult life and often thought of the hard kickers as "exhilarating" rather than "terrifying".  I still hold to the notion that most people feel recoil primarily between their ears than on their shoulders- which is a round about way of saying that recoil is mostly a mental detriment to good shooting rather than a physical one. I've held to that for a long time and very little in my experience leads me to think otherwise and I've always looked sideways at most of the myriad of products (ie. read gimmicks) that are promoted to reduce or eliminate recoil. I've also taught many people to shoot high powered rifles and seen firsthand that most rank amateurs (a lot of ladies and children) who've never learned to fear recoil simply don't and as a result can effectively shoot powerful rifles without detriment. I've also seen grown men close their eyes in anticipation of the shot at even mild levels of recoil. So much has been written and discussed about recoil over the years that it's taken on mythical status among hunters and shooters.

We need to realize that recoil is viewed in a cultural context. In the when and where I grew up, the standard big game rifle was generally a 30-30 Winchester in some variety of lever action rifle. The recoil level was mild and rifles that kicked harder were often viewed as unnecessary. I've actually heard the phrase- "kills at both ends" in reference to the 30-06 and saw several shooters wearing a recoil shield while firing such moderate cartridges as the .270. In comparison- the '06 is a hard kicker when stacked up against the 30-30. When one goes West where the .270 and '06 are the more common hunting cartridges they aren't considered unapproachable by even novice hunters. If you go to Alaska or Africa where critters tend to be XXL or eat you back the '06 is seen as a "light rifle" and magnum cartridges and the century old .375 H&H are common. In Alaska and Africa, a big gun generally starts with a 4. It was examining this that lead me to believe that recoil is primarily a mental affect than a physical one since the folks firing these rifles are all pretty much the same.

What are some ways to deal with recoil? Here are some thoughts....

First, we need to limit recoil levels with beginning shooters. Exposing kids or beginners to high levels of recoil is a good way to develop a flinch that will take years to overcome. Almost without fail, all of the adult shooters that I've talked to that had the most issue with recoil were exposed to a rifle beyond their capability at an early age. An inappropriate cartridge coupled with a poor fitting stock is a good way to ensure you're kid closes their eyes before yanking on a trigger for a long time to come. Some will overcome it and some won't. So if you're thinking about sticking Grandad's '06 in your 10 year old's hands the next visit to the range- stop and reconsider what you might just accomplish.

Second we need to examine the stock. There are a number of stock designs on the market and a variety of materials and we need to realize that each handles recoil differently. Stocks that are straighter, without much drop in the butt, tend to avoid the torquing effect and keep recoil off your check bone. Rifles that run narrow in the butt concentrate recoil force over a small area and increase the pressure. The old big Winchester lever actions like the '71 tend to have lots of drop in the narrow butt and are some of the uncomfortable guns on the planet to shoot. In a similar fashion the wide "Monte Carlo" stock with a raised cheekpiece angled to the rear keeps the recoil from the cheek during the firing cycle by pulling away from the cheek and spreading the force over more shoulder area as the rifle moves to the rear. It is not by coincidence that the Weatherby rifles feature an exaggerated Monte Carlo stock and some of the hardest kicking cartridges on the market. Rifle fit is important and I wrote an entire piece related to youth and ladies rifle a few months ago.

Moving to the rear of the rifle, a decent butt pad like Pachmayr's Decelerator helps manage recoil and it often enough to tame a rifle that you find a bit too much. In the old days, the butt plate was usually a simple plate of plastic or metal without any give at all. I had a Winchester 70 in .375 at one point with a stock that looked like it was hacked from a 2x8 with a hatchet and finished with a plastic butt. It was my first exposure to the .375 and when I sold the rifle it included a partially fired box of cartridges. I never fired the whole box that came with the rifle- it was miserable. Knowing what I do today, I'd have simply restocked it and had a jewel of a rifle.

The other component of the stock to examine is the composition. Stocks of walnut tend to have some "give" in them- wood is a living material and the cells of wood have some natural space between and in them. It is a minor effect, but those spaces reduce the recoil impulse as those spaces absorb some of the whack. I have several rifles made of synthetic material- Kevlar and fiberglass or simple plastic- they tend to transmit all of the recoil effect without any sort of dampening at all.

Second, and related to composition, is overall rifle weight. The most effective way to dampen recoil is simple weight. Heavy rifles kick less than light ones and transmit that recoil to the shoulder slower- simple high school physics. Of course, in the hunting field lugging a heavy rifle overcome a single shot's worth of recoil is a trade off of diminishing return. I have one rifle in particular- a .300WSM that weighs 7.25 pounds in a Kevlar stock that kicks hard and it kicks fast. It is manageable on the range and a joy in the field, but I admit I don't shoot it very much. In contrast, I have a heavy .270 with a steel quarter rib, a beautiful wood stock and it weighs just under 10 pounds. It's a complete joy on the range but the thought of lugging it 5000' up a sheep mountain makes me tired just considering it.

You'll notice that at this point I haven't mentioned any of the gadgetry you see marketed as recoil reduction. For good reason- I'm deeply suspicious of it and most of it comes with as many detriments as advantages. The first thing, and the oldest, are the various "recoil reducers" marketed under several names but all are some form of mercury filled tube or simple weight placed in the butt of the rifle. It works, the law of physics says it must, but you have to carry that weight and on some shotguns they ruin the handling so badly they are just a waste of time. I'd rather invest money into a better fitting stock than making my current one heavier any day.

The next thing are the (newish) muzzle brakes that are growing in popularity. They work by redirecting some of the muzzle gas perpendicular to the bore via a series of small ports either drilled directly into the barrel or into a threaded apparatus screwed onto the muzzle. There are a number of figures reported about the efficiency of various brakes and the ones I've messed with do work. That reduction in recoil force comes with a vicious price though. On a conventional rifle the single quietest place during the firing cycle is directly behind the stock. A brief review of high school physics shows that to be true. When you redirect that gas perpendicular to the bore, that gas will generate sounds waves that travel back toward the shooter and radiate more sound waves to the side of the muzzle than a conventional muzzle. While it's not true that a muzzle brake will make a rifle louder (at least according to physics) it is absolutely true that it will expose the shooter and those nearby to more of the sound waves.

How loud? It depends greatly on the cartridge and the brake but I had a companion fire a braked rifle to the side of me about 10' away on a hunt a few years ago- my ears rang for several days and I'm sure I lost some of my hearing that day. Some African PHs will no longer allow muzzle brakes for fear of hearing damage to their guides, trackers and themselves with good reason. While a brake isn't an issue on the range where hearing protection is worn few hunters carry hearing protection to the field. I fired a friend's rifle a couple of years ago chambered in .338 Winchester Magnum, he had trimmed the barrel off to 20" and installed a muzzle brake. While it is true that the recoil was very mild for such a hard kicking rifle, the muzzle blast was simply unbelievable. I can only describe it as something akin to detonating dynamite on the end of a broom handle and even experienced shooters found it incredibly unpleasant to fire- recoil not withstanding. It is also my experience that most shooters will find muzzle blast more disconcerting than recoil regardless of hearing protection. As attractive as the recoil reduction is, I just can't tolerate a brake.

In case you haven't noticed, I've now said quite a few words about recoil for a guy whose been quite content to just ignore it for a lot of years at pretty substantial levels. While I do hold that recoil effect is mostly mental that leaves room for occasion for it to be partially physical. An active life has left me carrying a few injuries over the years, some have healed and I carry nothing but the scars but some just won't go away. As I type this I'm hanging out in my pajamas with a heating pad on my neck and a bottle of ibuprofen on my counter. This is the third such occasion in the last year where a compressed disk in my neck has allowed a pinched nerve to nearly stop me in my tracks. The occasions for such an injury are numerous enough but I believe a bad tumble down a scree slope a few years back was the culprit. As cool and true as the "scars are tattoos with better stories to tell" theory is, the truth of the matter is that a persistent debilitating injury pretty much sucks.

A visit to the doc and a CAT scan reveals a particular persistent injury that won't heal and can only be managed- such is the price of middle youth. The other option is a distasteful surgery that I'd really just like to forestall if i could. One of the suggestions is to avoid hard kicking rifles on an ongoing basis so my exploration into recoil goes beyond the mere hypothetical into the necessary. Range sessions with my .375 leave me aching these days rather than exhilarated. So dear reader, my interest in rifles is apt to change over the next few years- likely from my favored rifles in .300 and .375 to lighter numbers in .308 and .270. I'm also confronted by my own long running advice that I never considered might apply to me- if a shooter just can't handle the recoil the only course of action is to pursue a lighter cartridge.


Phillip said...

Welcome to my world, brother... heating pads, ibuprofen, and stronger stuff too at times. Between a broken spinal process and worsening stenosis, I'm not the kid I once was.

Like you, I've had my share of trigger time with a lot of the big guns, and I still get a kick (pun intended)out of shooting them. But when it comes to spending time at the range, I can't take it like I used to... and I have learned that you don't have to.

For me, the solution was the much-maligned muzzle brake. The complaints about them absolutely valid. They'll deafen you and you have to take precautions. But a decent set of the modern, digital ear plugs alleviates that problem. I generally hunt big game alone, although if I have company, I give warning to either plug their ears or wear hearing protection.

I can switch out the brake with an unported dummy for hunting, and just use the brake at the range. Logic tells me that this is a good solution, but some superstitious part of me won't let me change anything between the range and the field. I suppose if I were to go with an outfitter who prohibited brakes, I'd go that route though.

Beyond all that, I couldn't agree more about good training techniques. Start out with something manageable, and work up after the skills are solid. However, it only takes a moment to get a flinch. I got sloppy with a .416 last year, and let it bite me... twice. A little while later I was lining up a shot with a .308. A friend interrupted me as I was about to shoot, and when I turned back to the target I'd forgotten to chamber a round. My friend laughed his ass off when I practically shoved the muzzle of the rifle into the bench. It took a concentrated effort to get back onto my game that day.

Good stuff, man. Keep writing!

hodgeman said...

Phillip- as a question. What is your primary rifle chambered in and how effective is the brake?

I love packing heavies up here due to bears and rarely ever go below the .300.

As much as I love the .270 I can't get comfy packing one in the fall!

Phillip said...

Hodge, my go-to rifle is a Savage 110 in 30-06. I restocked it with a Bell and Carlson (the original wooden stock was obviously designed by Marquis De Sade), and that helped a lot for the first few years... but as you know, these neck problems don't get better.

The brake on the -06 makes it feel somewhere between my BLR .243 and my Remington 700 .270, depending on the loads. With 180gr Winchester ETips, which is my regular medicine, it is still pretty mild.

My favorite hog/elk gun is my A-Bolt .325wsm. Because it's a Browning (great stock and balance), and because of the brake, I'd swear it's comparable to shooting that braked Savage. You still know you've touched off a big(ish) gun, but it doesn't beat you much at all. It is, on the other hand, quite loud.

I use Sport Ears when hunting with the braked rifles, and I've found them perfectly useable. However, I don't like them when I'm calling (elk, turkey, waterfowl), and I do have some issues figuring out where some sounds are coming from. The newer, digital hearing protection is getting better and better, though.