Shooting With a Bum Shoulder

By Chuck Hawks

Shoulder injuries seem surprisingly commonplace these days. Just ask anyone who plays tennis, football, or baseball. And shoulder problems just get worse as we age. Bursitis, tendinitis, arthritis, AC joint problems, torn rotator cuffs, etc. seem to become more common. Understandably, shoulders and other joints seem to wear faster than most other parts of the human body.

This is bad news for recreational shooters, since it is our shoulders that take the brunt of the recoil from shotguns and high power rifles. And, needless to say, recoil is not good for our shoulders. As I type these words, my strong shoulder is aching and I can hardly lift my arm. Yesterday I was shooting my .338 and .458 Magnum rifles at the range, preparing for an upcoming buffalo hunt. A perfect example of what not to do if you suffer from bursitis!

The key to controlling recoil is a relatively heavy rifle (or shotgun) and a relatively lightweight bullet (or shot charge) in front of a modest powder charge. Factory loaded shotgun shells for the common gauges are available with a wide variety of payloads from light to magnum. Save your shoulder by sticking with the light loads.

For the trap, skeet and sporting clays shooter there are light target loads. These break clay targets very well and are much more enjoyable to shoot than heavy or high velocity target loads. Wise hunters have found that standard field loads kick much less than high brass or magnum shot shells, and are almost as effective on birds. It is good shooting--swing, lead, and follow through--that bags birds, not raw power.

It is also true that with good technique the smaller gauge guns can be almost as effective as the 12 gauge. To save my shoulder I have taken to using a 20 gauge Remington 1100 Sporting clays gun with light 7/8 ounce loads for shooting both trap and sporting clays. I have just as much fun, and save considerable wear and tear on my rickety shoulder.

An ex-state champion trap shooter I know has gone to shooting a 28 gauge sporting clays gun. Watching him break targets at 50 yards with his little double is quite instructive, demonstrating that it is not how big a gun you shoot, but how well you shoot it, that matters.

Rifle shooters, and particularly big game hunters, with shoulder problems need to carefully consider their options for reducing recoil if they are to remain active in the sport. Some rifle cartridges kick less than others, yet are proven game getters for anyone who develops the skill and patience to put their bullet where it will do the most good. As I have written many times, shot placement is by far the most important component in killing power.

For hunting deer and general CXP2 class game at long range (to around 300 yards), it is hard to beat the .243 Winchester or 6mm Remington cartridges in a standard weight hunting rifle (approx. 8 pounds with scope) to minimize recoil. The recoil energy of a typical 6mm load shooting a 100 grain bullet at a MV of 3100 fps in an 8 pound rifle is about 10 ft. lbs. A .243 shooting a 95 grain bullet at the same MV kicks slightly less.

For medium range hunting (to around 200 yards) the late, lamented Winchester Model 94 Trails End Hunter in .25-35 WCF is a very soft shooting combination. Scoped, this rifle should weigh about 7.5 pounds. Shoot a 117 grain bullet at a MV of 2300 fps and the recoil energy only amounts to about 6.4 ft. lbs. This combination offers decent range and minimum recoil for the deer hunter with a sensitive shoulder. And it's a very pretty rifle! Used Winchester and Marlin .25-35 lever guns are still sometimes seen on the market.

A Winchester Model 94 Legacy or a Marlin Model 336 in .30-30 are good choices for medium range hunting while keeping recoil within tolerable levels. These rifles will probably weigh about 7.5-8 pounds with a scope. A 7.5 pound .30-30 rifle will deliver about 11 ft. lbs. of recoil energy shooting a 150 grain bullet at 2364 fps. This is an effective load for CXP2 class game. And, of course, the .30-30 will kill even large (CXP3) game effectively at moderate range, especially when using a 170 grain bullet (recoil about 11.6 ft. lbs.). It is probably the most versatile choice among the low recoil cartridges if its slighter greater kick is acceptable.

For short range use (within 100 yards) the various Winchester Model 94 and Marlin 1894 lever guns in .357 Magnum can be considered. These kick the least of any rifle even marginally suitable for deer hunting, only about 4.7 ft. lbs. in a 7 pound rifle when shooting a 158 grain bullet at a MV of 1650 fps.

Other calibers that may be of interest to the hunter seeking a low recoil alternative include the .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, 6.5x54 M-S, 7-30 Waters, and .38-55 Winchester with appropriate loads. Remember to avoid lightweight rifles.

The "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page gives recoil figures for a large number of rifle cartridges and loads. A little time spent perusing it can be very instructive.

Hunters who are already invested in all-around rifles in calibers including .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, .308 Winchester, 30-06 Springfield, and .300 Winchester Magnum can take advantage of Federal Low Recoil or Remington Managed Recoil factory loads. These cut recoil energy by about 50% compared to full power factory loads. They are loaded with bullets designed for proper expansion and performance at the reduced velocities delivered by these cartridges, and are fully effective for hunting deer and other CXP2 game. Naturally, the big magnum cartridges still kick more than the standard cartridges, even with reduced recoil ammunition. Reviews of these reduced recoil loads can be found on the Ammunition, Bullets, and Ballistics section of the Rifle Information Page.

Reloaders can create their own version of reduced recoil loads for most centerfire rifle calibers. The Speer and Lyman reloading manuals are particularly helpful in listing reduced loads. The Guns and Shooting Online article "Reduced Recoil Reloads" lists such loads for many common calibers and can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Reloading section of the Reloading Page.

Any shooter seeking to minimize the effect of recoil should equip all of their centerfire rifles and shotguns with an effective recoil pad. The Pachmayr Decelerator and Sims LimbSaver recoil pads are well known examples. Slip-on versions of the latter are now available for those who don't want to install a permanent pad on their rifle. Call me a sissy, but I installed a Decelerator pad on my Browning .243 Low Wall rifle.

For even more recoil reduction, consider a gas-operated semi-automatic hunting rifle or shotgun. A well designed gas operation mechanism lowers the peak amplitude of recoil by spreading recoil over a longer time. Such rifles and shotguns are easier on the shoulder than other designs. There are dozens of gas operated shotguns on the market, including the very popular Browning Gold series, Beretta AL391 series, Remington 11-87 and Remington 1100 models. Among hunting rifles, the best known are the Browning BAR and Remington 7400. Both are available in .243 Winchester caliber, the odds-on choice for minimizing recoil.

Another way to help save a sensitive shoulder is to wear a padded shooting vest. I have had the best results using Browning brand vests with their proprietary Reactar pad. Such vests reduce the effect on the shoulder by spreading the recoil over a larger area.

As a last resort, the dedicated hunter can learn to shoot from the off shoulder (left handed for a right handed person). Usually the weak side shoulder joint is in better shape than the strong side shoulder, as is has been used less over a person's lifetime. But, hopefully, combining a rifle or shotgun of reasonable weight, chambered for a moderate cartridge, shooting a light load, with a good recoil pad, and wearing a good shooting vest will make such a desperate measure unnecessary.

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Copyright 2005 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.