Killing the Shotgun Recoil Monster

By Randy Wakeman


Recoil seems to be an endless topic. Shotguns do kick, to recoil levels that are considered dangerous in center-fire rifles. Seldom does a day go by when recoil questions come up. After all these decades of shooting, we clearly haven't figured it out.

Recoil itself is defined as a matter of physics. Recoil in foot-pounds and recoil velocities have long been established; there isn’t really much to talk about unless a new branch of physics is discovered. Chuck Hawks has put together a shotgun recoil table, which you will find on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page. Those figures are unlikely to change anytime soon.

The confusion begins when talking about felt, observed and perceived recoil. Perhaps more correctly defined as making shooting more comfortable, personal recoil management is vitally important. Recoil destroys our accuracy; if we start to flinch, we might as well just go home. Actually, we should have called it a day before we started to damage ourselves. Our bodies do not enjoy being pounded and punished, and the more we can do to solve the problem before it is a problem the better. Though prophylactic recoil management is not a common term, it probably should be. We are all a bit better off addressing recoil before it addresses us.

True or "free" recoil can be measured and tabulated. Back-boring, forcing cone work and ported barrels do not have a significant effect on recoil. Pressure of a shotshell load also is meaningless when it comes to recoil reduction. You won’t find a slot for “pressure” in any free recoil table, because the physics that have been established to date do not allow for it.

Some may be puzzled why porting, proven effective at destroying hearing more than anything else, but also working well for recoil attenuation in certain center fire rifle applications, has so little benefit in shotshells. The answer again lies in physics; most shotshell powders complete most of their burn in the first eighteen or so inches of barrel length. By the time the powder gasses reach the ports in the end of the barrel, there is scant gas velocity left to work with.

When folks debate the “better” barrel length in terms of shotgun ballistics, stating that the real difference between 26" and 28" barrels is that a 28 inch barrel gets you 2 inches closer to your target is not too far off the mark. Porting shotgun barrels, much less chokes, cannot dramatically change the way our boats float. It does make things loud, so to the extent that ringing ears can take your attention away from a sore shoulder, it offers pain of a different variety.

The quest for comfortable shotgunning begins with the action. A fixed action gun can do nothing to dampen the recoil we feel, so the harshest type of recoil will always be from a fixed action whether it is a pump, single shot, O/U, Side-by-Side, or so forth. Short recoil actions (horribly miscalled as “inertia” by those ignorant of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica do little to address the issue, although a properly tuned Auto-Five “long recoil” action can be surprisingly pleasant to shoot.

There is little question, both from well-documented military studies and personal experience, that gas-operated actions offer what is easily the best recoil attenuation over the widest variety of loads. It should come as no surprise that compensating gas systems offer far more adjustment than can springs and friction surfaces alone, although gas actions may use progressive springs and shock absorbers as well to enhance recoil isolation.

We wouldn’t expect less than a bumpy ride in a vehicle without suspension, or with only a simple spring suspension, to kill the craters in the road and we don’t find it in shotguns, either. Compensating gas actions are well known as the Beretta A390 / 391 series and the Browning Gold line today, with the Browning action a bit easier on the shoulder. Both are soft shooters, though, compared to other actions on the market. Gas actions in general, reflecting back on the Remington 1100, Beretta A303, Browning B-80 and Browning B2000, are by nature far more well-mannered than most shotguns, particularly their fixed-breech counterparts. Gas guns quite handily win the lower recoil sweepstakes. Personal preferences, stylistic considerations, aversion to increased gun cleaning requirements and what we want in handling qualities or purchase price may take us down a different path.

Next on the list is shotshell payload and velocity. A few avid reloaders will now introduce the notion of wadding or powder type as making a difference in recoil. Best left to the internment of merciful time, in turth it doesn’t make much difference. Of course, most of us have no idea what bulk powders (plural) are used by commercial shotshell manufacturers, so lacking a brand name cannister powder to bicker about, we can’t. There are some propellant-induced differences, to be sure. They are small, often vague and a sensible view of the matter is the fundamental load parameters of a specific payload, gauge, and muzzle velocity offers a fairly narrow range of propellants to work with in terms of relative burn rate and industry pressure limits, so propellant change as recoil attenuation is insignificant to trivial.

Reduction in payload, albiet at the expense of effective pattern density, dramatically reduces recoil. Reduction in effective pattern density is not much of a price to pay if recoil prevents our patterns from being placed as effectively as they could, of course. So, some will tout the effectiveness of, say, 1 ounce loads versus their 1-1/8 ounce counterparts. My pattern board tends to show that more pellets cannot hit it than exit the muzzle, but nevertheless, if regular payloads negatively affect an individual’s shooting, cutting payload size reduces recoil. Your pattern board, at the ranges at which you intend to shoot, tells you the price you pay for that reduction.

Velocity is a major component of both free and felt recoil. Reducing velocity often is no negative at all. The fastest thing I can possibly get out of the muzzle has never been the most satisfactory load for me in pistol, rifle, muzzleloader,  rimfire, or shotgun, and usually not even close. Round balls are horribly ballistically inefficient; bleeding off velocity rapidly. This is not to say that there no increase at all in terminal velocities. What it is fair to say is that birds don’t care how fast you miss them, super-high velocity often has a negative effect on pattern quality and a muzzle velocity increase with a round ball offers a very poor return in downrange performance. No matter what we try to do with #7-1/2 or #8 shot, it cannot possibly be the equal of #5 shot in terms of lethality or wounding ballistics. A friendly 1200 fps load looses very little to a 1500 fps load downrange, except perhaps needless recoil and bad pattern potential. “Super-Speed” means “Super-Lousy” to me, with rare exception.

Beyond shotgun action type and shotshell specifications; we have firearm weight. As we increase firearm weight by a certain percentage, both free recoil on impressionist recoil decrease by a simliar amount. For trap, skeet, sporting clays and blind hunting heavy guns can be fabulous in terms of reduced recoil and smooth swinging. Those same virtues become a liability of sorts when our wingshooting moves to flushing game. The weight that helps in the blind and on the clays field is just no fun to carry over rough country for long distances. Whether we shoot more than carry, or carry more than shoot determines what weight is desirable in a gun. There are extremes in both directions, of course. I find the 7 pound gun carry-friendly without becoming too whippy to swing and the 8-1/2 pound gun to be smooth to swing without becoming too ponderous and slow handling for sporting clays. Nothing beats shooting as many guns as possible and deciding for yourself how they meet your personal needs.

Mercury filled recoil reducers that are inserted into the butt stock are touted to reduce felt recoil. Whether the flowing effect of the mercury actually reduces felt recoil is debatable. The argument in favor is that it spreads the recoil over a longer period of time, which is theoretically part of the way gas actions attenuate felt recoil. To the extent that these devices add weight, recoil is reduced in kind. By adding weight in the butt, they also alter the balance of the gun. The latter can be a good thing if the gun was muzzle heavy to start with, but otherwise can result in the gun becoming butt heavy and "whippy." On the list of tangible effects to my shooting, mercury gimmicks are meaningless on my shoulder recoil-o-meter and just aren't worth the bother.

Recoil pads can’t be ignored if your gun has more bite than bark. There are at least a couple of types that have univerally been very good at taking the edge off of sharp recoil pulses to my shoulder: Limbsaver and Kick-Eez pads both have done an exemplary job for me. (The Pachmayr Decelerator has also done well for me. -Ed) The choice among recoil pads is contingent on the exact gun the pad is going on. For guns that need a little more weight to the rear, the solid Kick-Eez pads can help balance them out. If the gun in question is already balanced close to what you are looking for, the pneumatic-chambered Limbsaver may be the way to go. I’ve had great luck with both types. You may have heard that Limbsaver pads “get gummy.” That hasn’t been my experience. What did happen a couple of years ago is that Limbsaver let a run of improperly cured product slip out. Limbsaver has replaced those pads, which did indeed get gummy, for all of their customers that requested it.

There are also clothing products that can make the difference at the end of a long day of shooting. Limbsaver and Browning, for example, offer shooting shirts and vests with pads that help to absorb and spread the effect of recoil. These do make a difference, although not to the degree of a good recoil pad.

There are plenty of touted ways to manage recoil, and people buy them. As long as they are sold, tales will be told. There are reasonable approaches to shotgun shooting comfort; I’ve listed them here to the best of my ability. It won’t take you long to find out what approaches make the biggest differences to you; after all it is “our” recoil we need to address, nobody elses. Good luck out in the field, folks.




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Copyright 2007 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.



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