Wing Shooting and Recoil: A Closer Look

By Randy Wakeman

Recoil is bad, just plain bad, for a number of reasons. How often, when asking about a new shotgun, do we ask, "Does it kick?" We care about recoil, very much so, whether we care to admit it or not. Recoil never increases field accuracy, whether the discipline is pistol, rifle, or shotgun. It can, however, impede or destroy it. If we are affected enough to flinch seriously, we might as well go home.

Recoil is usually discussed in terms of "kinetic energy." That term sometimes confuses the issue, as recoil means recoil: the rearward movement of a gun upon firing. Kinetic energy is misleading, as that term completely ignores heat energy, vibration, and angle of rearward force.

We are affected by recoil, and we need not groan in pain or start to flinch to be affected by it. If it impedes or slows our ability to reacquire the target it is a problem. Whether duck, dove, pheasant, clay pigeon, any recoil recovery period distracts us from the matter at hand, cleanly taking that next bird. Shrinking or eliminating the momentary recovery period helps make us more effective shots.

Fixed breech actions transmit to most felt recoil, as they give us all the force our gun-shell combination has to offer. We can address it, disguise it, and shrink the initial force by adding gun weight, lowering shot velocity, and lowering shot (ejecta) mass. There is a limit, though, as to what we can do without also negatively affecting field range and lethality.

The troublesome force we call recoil can be addressed most efficiently in action type. Consider the shock absorber on a car, few people seek to remove them these days, and the Harley "hard tail" is unlikely to become back in vogue. Springs and dampening work of course, we use that to the benefit of our comfort every day. We use both pneumatics and hydraulics to make our journey more comfy every time we get behind the wheel.

One of my Winchester 1200 pump guns came with the factory "Hydrocoil" stock, a plastic monstrosity that telescoped on a spring array when the gun was fired, and even the Winchester 1400 gas semi-auto had this as an option. Although it added noise, movement, plastic, and weight, it worked. So did the Browning Recoil-less trap gun, though I never could get used to the trigger serving as a release for the spring-loaded barrel to fly forward prior to firing.

I've purchased countless used Browning A-5's, and not one has come with the bonze friction set installed properly. Some have had the friction ring missing altogether. Undeservedly, the A-5 has a reputation as a kicker. Not true, of course, if properly set up. The beefy fore-end spring does a substantial job of absorbing initial force, releasing it after the primary recoil shock is over with. If we set it up properly, that is.

Onto the modern gas-operated action, as explained by Bob Brister along with Wayne Leek (designer of the Remington 1100) in Shotgunning The Art and The Science. Here is a very rough approximation of what takes place with a gun and shell combination that creates 25 ft. lbs. of recoil.

With a fixed breech gun we immediately get it all 25 ft. lbs. of recoil. However, with a gas-operated semi-auto you have segmented or "staged" recoil. Before the mass leaves the muzzle, about 10 ft. lbs. of our original force is transmitted to and momentarily stored by our gas piston, action bar, and breech bolt array. A fraction of a millisecond later, we are kicked by about 15 ft. lbs. of recoil (the original 25 less the 10 temporarily stored in the operating mechanism). Then we get pushed by about 5 ft. lbs. when the action bar slaps against the breechbolt, and we get pushed by the remaining 5 ft. lbs. when the breech hits the back of the receiver (or breech stop). The total recoil, as dictated by Newton's Law, is still 25 ft. lbs. but it is delivered in stages rather than all at once.

This in necessarily an inexact representation, but I believe it accurately depicts the dynamic. Rather that a sharp 25 ft. pound pop, we are only hit by around 15 ft. pounds, with two smaller, lighter pushes coming momentarily after the initial pulse.

A favorite 20 gauge pheasant load combination is the Federal 1-5/16 ounce Grand Slam, now renamed the Federal "Mag-Shok," in my Beretta A303 20 gauge. This load is a clean 55 yard killer. My Beretta has no recoil pad at all, just a hard plastic butt plate, and weighs around 6 pounds, making it a fun gun to carry.

Considering ejecta mass of about 585 grains and 20 grains of powder in the shell @ 1185 fps, this combination develops 32.73 ft. lbs. of recoil. In a fixed breech gun, this level of recoil is unmanageable (at least as far as I am concerned) for any sustained period of time.

Referring to Chuck Hawks' "Expanded Rifle Recoil Table" on the Tables, Charts and Lists Page of this web site, that much recoil is more than double that of many common center-fire rifles weighing 7.5 or 8 pounds. It approaches the kick of the .338 Win. Mag. and .375 H&H in 9 pound rifles. Try this load in any 20 gauge upland O/U or side-by side, and you won't enjoy shooting it for very long.

Yet according to Bob Brister, who is about as accurate as anyone can be with so many variables in play, the felt recoil from a gas-operated semi-auto is somewhere around 40% less than from a fixed breech gun of similar weight. That works out to be less than a 20 ft. lb. perceived kick from my heavy 20 gauge load.

On the dove field, you can hardly feel a one ounce load working in a Browning 20 gauge Gold shotgun, and the Beretta A303 remains reasonably pleasant despite its light weight. Dropping to 7/8 oz. loads, both guns are dreamboats to shoot for the young, seniors and, of course, me.

Now you know why gas semi-autos have tremendous appeal. It's also easier to get that third dove with three shots available. Added to all this, you still have the recoil taming approaches cited in the "Controlling Shotgun Recoil" article to work with in addition to your 40% head start. Your best girl will thank you, so will your kids, and you'll likely have a great time yourself on those high-volume days. I know I do!

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.