Hard Kicking Cartridges to Avoid

By Chuck Hawks and the Guns and Shooting Online Staff

If you are a fool for recoil or need to prove your manhood (womanhood?), you can skip this article. You will not be swayed by common sense. However, if you are a rational hunter who has been suckered into thinking long range shooting is the way to hunt by media hype designed to sell specialized rifles and high magnification scopes with "ballistic" reticles for big game hunting, you might want to pay attention.

The subject of this article is hard kicking cartridges to avoid, so let's start by setting some parameters. Most shooters, experienced or not, can do their best shooting with rifle/cartridge combinations that deliver less than 15 ft. lbs. of recoil to the shooter's shoulder. Novices should choose big game hunting rifle/cartridge combinations that kick below this level and stick with it until they have several years and thousands of rounds of experience. Woods deer hunters will do very well with a .30-30 and plains or open country deer and pronghorn hunters should do equally well with a .243/6mm rifle. Those lucky enough to be able to hunt in both close cover and open country should consider the 6.5x55, 7x57 and similar cartridges in medium weight rifles.

Since recoil is directly proportional to rifle weight (a gun that weighs 25% less kicks 25% harder), avoid lightweight rifles. Rifles chambered for standard (non-magnum) cartridges should weigh no less than eight pounds and 8.5 pounds is better. Rifles for magnum cartridges, from the .257 Weatherby to the various .300's, should weigh no less than 8.5 pounds and nine pounds is better. A Weatherby Mark V Deluxe, the prototypical magnum rifle, generally weighs about eight pounds bare (empty, no sights) and over nine pounds with a scope, mount and ammunition in Weatherby calibers from .257 to .300 Magnum. Weatherby probably knows more about magnum rifles and cartridges than anyone, so take their experience to heart.

Everyone, no matter how tough or experienced, can shoot better with cartridges that kick less. This is a fact and you can take it to the bank.

Veteran shooters develop different levels of personal recoil tolerance, but experience has shown that, on average, rifle/cartridge combinations that deliver about 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy are as punishing as normal people can tolerate, even for just a few shots, without developing an accuracy destroying flinch. 15 ft. lbs. is much more desirable and sustainable. Accuracy, not raw power, is critical to humane, one shot kills, so this is very important to understand.

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 stated that recoil velocity should not exceed 15 fps; above that velocity a gun-headache was very likely to occur. These figures remain very practical maximums for the modern hunter.

The "short list" of all-around (Class 2 and Class 3 game) cartridges are around 20 ft. lbs. or less in medium weight rifles with typical loads. Specifically, the .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and .30-06 in eight pound rifles or the 7mm Remington Magnum in an 8.5 pound rifle are at or close to the 20 ft. lbs. of recoil energy line. Cartridges that develop over 20 ft. lbs. of recoil in rifles of typical weight should be avoided and these are the cartridges that are the subject of this article.

Practically everyone realizes that the powerful medium and big bore rifles designed for the largest game are hard kickers. Cartridges such as the .338 Magnums, .35 Magnums, .375 Magnums, .416 Magnums, .458 Magnums and all of the Nitro Express elephant cartridges can be punishing in the extreme. They should be avoided unless absolutely necessary and even then attempted only by the most experienced and recoil tolerant shooters for special purposes and in small doses. However, the powerful medium and big bores are not the subject of this article, since everyone already knows they kick like hell. They are not included in the lists below.

This article is primarily about hard kicking small bore cartridges, by which we mean big game cartridges from .24/6mm to .32/8mm caliber. It is cartridges in this caliber range that get most shooters in trouble with excessive recoil. The outdoor, and especially the print, media bears most of the responsibility for leading impressional hunters astray by emphasizing long range shooting with magnum cartridges in countless articles.

First of all, not one shooter/hunter in a thousand can reliably hit the vital heart/lung area of a Class 2 (deer, antelope, sheep, goats and similar size critters) beyond the maximum point blank range (+/- 3") of the rifle/cartridge combination they are shooting in the field. That would be about 300 yards or a little more (337 yards maximum), for even the flattest shooting hunting cartridges. (See the "Expanded Rife Trajectory Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists index page for details.) Actually, studies have shown that most hunters should keep their shots within about 160 yards; beyond that distance the incidence of wounded deer increases dramatically.

This is a fact that most of the outdoor media conveniently ignores in their attempt to sell new rifles, scopes, rangefinders, etc. for their advertisers. Almost all of the print media, in the face of declining magazine sales and subscriptions, has degenerated into being nothing more than shills for their advertisers, on whom they now entirely depend for their continued existence.

In order to bring a little sanity into the discussion about hunting cartridge selection, let's look at some common small bore, big game cartridges that shooters and hunters would do well to avoid, due to their excessive recoil. Naturally, we cannot list every rifle/cartridge/load combination in the world, but these are typical examples. All of these could be considered long range hunting cartridges. Beware of any unlisted cartridge offering similar ballistics. We will list these hard kicking, small bore cartridges in order of ascending recoil energy when shooting bullets of typical weight at typical factory load velocity in rifles of normal weight. (The figures below are taken from the "Rifle Recoil Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists index page.)

  • 7mm WSM - 21.9 ft. lbs. (160 grain bullet at 3000 fps; 8.0 pound rifle)
  • .300 H&H Magnum - 23.1 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 2920 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • .300 WSM - 23.8 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 2970 fps; 8.25 pound rifle)
  • 7mm Weatherby Magnum - 25.6 ft. lbs. (160 grain bullet at 3200 fps; 9.0 pound rifle)
  • .300 Winchester Magnum - 25.9 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 2960 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • .300 WSM - 27.1 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 2970 fps; 7.25 pound rifle)
  • 7mm STW - 27.9 ft. lbs. (160 grain bullet at 3185 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • 8x68S - 29.1 ft. lbs. (200 grain bullet at 2950 fps; 9.0 pound rifle)
  • 7mm Remington Ultra Mag - 29.4 ft. lbs. (160 grain bullet at 3200 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • .300 Weatherby Magnum - 31.6 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 3240 fps; 9.0 pound rifle)
  • .325 WSM - 32.4 ft. lbs. (200 grain bullet at 2950 fps; 8.0 pound rifle)
  • .300 Remington Ultra Mag - 32.8 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 3230 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • 8mm Remington Magnum - 32.9 ft. lbs. (200 grain bullet at 2900 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • .325 WSM - 37.5 ft. lbs. (220 grain bullet at 2840 fps; 7.5 pound rifle)
  • .30-378 Weatherby Magnum - 42.6 ft. lbs. (180 grain bullet at 3300 fps; 9.75 pound rifle)

In addition to these long range magnums, most hunters would be well advised to avoid certain big bore "woods" cartridges, especially in lightweight rifles and carbines. Don't fall for the hoary old lie that these calibers recoil with a "long, slow push." The truth is they come back fast and hard. (The so-called "guide guns" are typically the worst offenders.) Again, cartridges are listed in order of ascending recoil energy when shooting bullets of typical weight at normal factory load velocity.

  • .45-70 Government - 21.9 ft. lbs. (405 grain bullet at 1330 fps; 7.0 pound rifle)
  • .45-70 Government - 22.1 ft. lbs. (300 grain bullet at 1810 fps; 7.5 pound rifle)
  • .444 Marlin - 23.3 ft. lbs. (240 grain bullet at 2400 fps; 7.5 pound rifle)
  • .45-70 Government - 26.1 ft. lbs. (300 grain bullet at 1810 fps; 7.0 pound rifle)
  • .444 Marlin - 27.6 ft. lbs. (265 grain bullet at 2325 fps; 7.5 pound rifle)
  • .450 Marlin - 33.6 ft. lbs. (350 grailn bullet at 2100 fps; 8.5 pound rifle)
  • .450 Marlin - 37.2 ft. lbs. (350 grain bullet at 2000 fps; 7.0 pound rifle)

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Copyright 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.