Controlling Heavy Recoil

By Paul H. Vallandigham

Everyone who has ever dreamed about hunting big game has thought of owning a large caliber rifle suited to taking the great bears or the African Big Five. The problem is that the recoil of these big Berthas will rattle your teeth and practically insure that you develop a flinch, even if you've never had one before.

I began my shooting life at 10 years of age, with a .22 rifle that my Dad owned. It was his first rifle, a Winchester, and he had used it to shoot rats in the alleys on the NW side of Chicago when he was a teenager. This was back in the 1920's. How times change!

My next rifle was his .45-70 Trapdoor Springfield, made in 1886. It was loaded with semi-smokeless powder and 500 grain lead bullets, a combination that really kicked when you touched off the old cannon.

I was too thin to be able to shoulder the heavy rifle the first time I fired it, so I shot it from the waist, holding it in both hands. I held my forward hand and arm straight down from my shoulder, stiff armed, and pulled back on the wrist of the stock to control the gun with my other hand.

It did not knock me down, or fly out of my hands. I had learned something, but didn't really appreciate it until many years later, when I was shooting a friend's .50-140-550 Sharps rifle.

That 3 1/4 " long, .50 caliber cartridge packs a lot of black powder and the 550 grain bullet pushes back enough that the other members of my muzzle loading rifle club who had fired that rifle before me didn't want any part of it for a second shot. When I arrived, my friend Ray offered me the opportunity to shoot the gun. I shot it not once, but twice, and surprised everyone there by doing so. My shoulder wasn't bruised, and I hit what I aimed at.

What I did when I shouldered his rifle was to use isometric exercises to control the heavy recoil forces of the rifle. I took a firm grip on the fore stock with my right hand (I am left handed, so you right handed guys just need to substitute right for left, and left for right to understand this), and PUSHED FORWARD on the stock to cause the muscles in my forearm, upper arms, and shoulder to tense. I then PULLED on the wrist of the stock with my left hand, with which I would squeeze the trigger, hard enough so that the wrist was locked, and the muscles in my arm and shoulders were under tension. That created a line of muscles that were pulling against each other from the wrist of my right hand up the right arm, across my shoulders, and down the left arm to the wrist of my left hand.

When I fired the gun, my entire upper body rocked back at the waist, so it was not just my left shoulder taking the force of recoil. This was caught on film, as my friend had been recording club members shooting his rifle. The camera was set-up on the right side and behind the shooter, so that he didn't notice the camera. The camera angle was good enough to catch the shooters' right shoulders being violently pushed back in recoil, and it showed the faces of the right handed shooters when they lifted their heads to complain about the recoil. Since I was shooting left handed, with my back to the camera, you see my shoulders move together when taking the recoil.

This kind of stance can be used with powerful rifles and shotguns shooting slugs. This is not a shooting technique taught in the military, or in any other shooting school of which I am aware. However, it works. Since you are likely to be shooting heavy game at fairly short distances, say less than 100 yards, this "push-pull" grip technique can be effectively employed to place a bullet into the kill zone of the animal. It Is not a shooting stance or technique to use to win target matches.

If you are facing an Alaskan brown bear or other large, dangerous animal at 100 yards or less, enough adrenaline will probably be flowing in your system to make careful, target style shooting next to impossible in any case. If you use this technique you can at least avoid the flinch that would likely throw your bullet far from the point of aim, take the recoil, and conclude a successful hunt.

I like my .45-70 Marlin Model 1985 for big game hunting. With the right bullet, it will take any animal on this planet. The rifle and cartridge can take heavy loads without complaint. I also use this technique when shooting deer slugs with my pump shotgun.

For sighting-in a big gun you can use a slip on "Gun Stock Shockabator," available from David A. Acklin, 718 Southwood Drive, Champaign, IL. (Phone: 217-359-3328). This device is made out of a synthetic material and fits over most gunstocks, whether they already have a recoil pad or not. It spreads the recoil forces over a larger area of your shoulder, so that it is possible to benchrest a powerful rifle and zero it for the load you will take hunting without getting your brains beat out. (So will a Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest. -Ed.) The $25.00 investment is worth the expense.

Take it off when you go on your hunt, but use my "push-pull" technique to shoot your gun. Practice using this on your hind legs, shooting off hand at targets at 50 yards, then 75 yards, and then 100 yards. You will get a real sense of your practical accuracy with your big rifle.

If your hunt is going to take you into rough country, I suggest you also carry a walking staff and learn to use it as a standing rest. An animal magnificent enough to hunt is worthy of your to using every possible means at your disposal to make a clean, one-shot kill. These rifles are up to it, if you are.

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Copyright 2006 by Paul H. Vallandigham and/or All rights reserved.