How Heavy Should Your Rifle Be to Control Recoil?
By Chuck Hawks
How heavy should a rifle be to keep recoil energy within reasonable limits? Obviously, that depends on the cartridge for which it is chambered and the load you intend to shoot, while "reasonable" is subjective and depends on the recoil tolerance of the shooter. Still, we should be able to formulate some general guidelines based on typical loads for various calibers commonly used for hunting CXP2 and CXP3 (deer and elk) size game.
I am going to divide hunting cartridges into two groups, standard and magnum, based on recoil energy. For standard cartridges of potentially moderate recoil, say from .243 Winchester to 8x57mm Mauser, let's set a recoil limit of 15 ft. lbs. These are cartridges a shooter might reasonably choose to keep recoil within his or her comfort zone and 15 ft. lbs. is about the comfort limit for most shooters.
In 1909 the British Textbook of Small Arms stated that 15 ft. lbs. of free recoil energy was the maximum allowable for a military service rifle. (The standard British .303 Lee-Enfield infantry rifle was below that figure, as are most service rifles to this day.) The 1929 edition of the same textbook also stated that recoil velocity should not exceed 15 fps; above that velocity a gun-headache was very likely to occur. These figures remain practical maximums for the modern hunter.
Above that level, recoil increasingly tends to degrade accuracy and we all know that bullet placement is the key to quick kills. Note that maximum loads with heavy for caliber bullets in the largest of these cartridges (.270, .280 and .30-06), will elevate recoil to around 20 ft. lbs.
For the magnum cartridges, let's set a more generous upper limit of 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. That is widely considered to be about the maximum recoil most shooters can tolerate without developing an accuracy destroying flinch. Shooting powerful rifles isn't expected to be fun, but it should be tolerable.
Note that these rifle weights include the sights (scope and mount) and accessories (if any). It is the actual weight of the rifle as fired. Also, recoil figures vary depending on the specific load and what formula is used. Thus, the figures below are only approximate. If you don't agree with them, calculate your own. The results are listed by cartridge, bullet weight @ muzzle velocity: rifle weight in pounds (to the nearest 1/4 pound).
Standard Cartridges: Minimum rifle weight required to keep recoil energy less than 15 ft. lbs.
The standard cartridges shown above are all suitable for use in light to medium weight rifles. Remember that these are theoretical minimum weights based solely on acceptable recoil. Some of these minimum weight rifles would be too light for smooth swinging and steady holding and this would be detrimental to accuracy in the field. (In reality, I don't like to hunt with any rifle that weighs less than about 6.5 pounds.) Now let's see how much rifles for some of the typical small bore (under .32 caliber) magnum cartridges should weigh to keep recoil under 20 ft. lbs.
Magnum Cartridges: Minimum rifle weight required to keep recoil energy less than 20 ft. lbs.
None of these magnum cartridges are suitable for use in lightweight rifles if recoil is to be held to tolerable levels. The .264, .270 and 7mm Magnums listed above can be chambered in rifles weighing 8.25 to 10.25 pounds, which most shooters today would consider medium to heavy. The .300 Magnums require rifles so heavy that most shooters would decline to carry them on a hunt.
Of course, you can build practically any cartridge into a lightweight rifle, but would you enjoy shooting it? Conversely, I wonder how many .300 WSM rifles actually weigh 11 pounds, or how many Ultra Mag rifles weigh around 20 pounds? Not many, I'll bet! No wonder the .300's have a reputation for violent recoil, when they are commonly used in 8.5 pound (or lighter!) rifles. I suggest you keep these figures in mind when considering your next rifle, especially if you are planning to order a custom built rifle.
Copyright 2011 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.