African Hunter Magazine

Firearm Recoil

'Dealing With Recoil' by Don Heath

One of the problems so many hunters face in the area of big game hunting is coping with recoil from the larger calibre rifles.

There have been numerous approaches to solving this problem, most of which are "quick fix" solutions that solve the recoil problem but at the same time make the rifle basically unusable in the field. Muzzle brakes, over sized stocks and added weight come into this category. They may make the rifle a delight to zero on the range, but when it weighs a ton, has all the pointability and feel of a mopane log, and the muzzle blast bursts your tracker's ear drum, that rifle is best left on the range, or better still, in the shop.

Correct fit has long been appreciated as one of the key's to reducing felt recoil, but unless you are lucky and fit the manufacturers idea of "average" this means a considerable amount of custom work. There is also the problem of the rifle's shootability from the bench when you are sighting it in, and when you are actually shooting it from a standing or resting position in the field. On a 'scoped rifle, it is possible to build a compromise stock that will be comfortable in both scenarios, but not for a rifle intended to be used with open sights. The curved stock with plenty of drop at comb and heel that makes the rifle fit so well in the field makes it murderous to use from the bench. The solution is of course to zero your dangerous game rifle from the standing position using shooting sticks to provide the stability necessary for suitable accuracy.

The second factor in recoil management is inbuilt tolerance. We all get used to something if we do it enough. Diving into an ice cold swimming pool at the beginning of summer may cause temporary cardiac arrest for the first few mornings but the body soon comes to terms with the shock and it ceases to be quite such a problem. So it is with shooting a hard kicking rifle. I well remember an old NCO who had served as a musketry instructor in World War II explaining how he got raw recruits quickly conditioned to the recoil of their Lee Enfield rifles. As anybody who has used the Lee-Enfield much will know, the designers went to great lengths to coax the maximum amount of felt recoil out of the rifle as was possible. Compared to a Springfield 30-06 or Mauser K98, the Lee is brutal, especially from prone. For men who had never fired a rifle in their lives this was a problem and war time haste demanded that they become accustomed and acclimatised quickly. The solution was to get each recruit to fire a few rounds from the Boyes .55 Anti Tank rifle and then move them onto the .303. After the .55, the Lee didn’t seem to kick at all! In many ways, the same applies to hunting rifles. After shooting a .378 Weatherby sans muzzle brake, even a lightweight .375 H&H is a joy to shoot.

Still, probably the main thing in recoil tolerance is mental conditioning and physical tension. If you believe that the recoil will hurt - it will. If you are tense, braced against the blow, you will feel all of it. It has often been stated that a lightly built person feels the recoil less than a solidly built one since they roll with the recoil rather than absorbing it all. This is true - in part, but only if the stoutly built person is rigid and braced hard against the blow. Too many people lean forward into the rifle, every muscle in arms, shoulder and back tensed to hold the rifle in position and minimise its movements during recoil.

This is a mistake.

Yes, the rifle needs to be pulled firmly against the shoulder otherwise it will accelerate backwards until it meets firm resistance, but the rest of the body must NOT be tense. The neck and back must be relaxed enough to roll with the blow - just like a boxer or karate fighter learns to roll with punches or kicks that they cannot avoid. The aim is to dissipate the recoil over the entire body, and not concentrate it into a small area.

How to learn to do this? Start small and work up and dry fire often. Most people are totally relaxed when shooting a .22, and only begin to loose the correct relaxedness when they reach 7mm. Practice a lot with your .22 and then move onto light loads in your medium rifle until you are comfortable there. Get somebody else to watch you and make sure that you are not tensing up. Also get them to load the rifle for you behind your back, sometimes leaving it empty so that you get a "click" when expecting a "bang". Any flinch or excess tension will show immediately on a surprise dry fire. Keep working up with ever harder recoiling loads until you are able to stay relaxed with full power rounds in your dangerous game rifle. Dry firing at home is also imperative. You must be used to your rifle in your hands coming up naturally and going "click" when the trigger is squeezed without any attendant noise or recoil. In time the brain will come to accept this as the normal event when shooting a rifle and you will find that you remain more relaxed and roll with the real recoil so much better. Every competitive shooter knows this, which is why they spend so much time dry firing. Hunters of dangerous game need to be just as proficient as a world class target shot and light loads combined with lots of dry practice are the only way to keep the brain attuned to not anticipating recoil and staying relaxed enough to enjoy shooting full power loads.

Don Heath

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