My dad’s little Winchester Model 94 Trapper always struck me as a petite, perhaps slightly anemic rifle. The short-barreled lever-action is lightweight and chambered to the gentle-shooting .30-30 Winchester. I’d shot plenty of .30-30s before. This little guy shouldn’t be any different, I thought, tucking it into my shoulder at the range. Then, someone punched me in the jaw. Or at least it felt like they did; that little rifle’s recoil scrambled the few good brain cells I’d cultivated and left me looking for a license plate number after that savage hit-and-run. Recoil can be deceptive—it’s not always the product of a heavy-hitting belted magnum—and it’s seldom the first thing shooters consider when shopping for a new rifle, but it probably should be. It doesn’t matter how great the gun looks or handles, how smooth the action is, how crisp the trigger feels, or how clear the sights are if the very thought of touching off a round makes you cringe. Hard-recoiling guns can make even the most experienced shooters flinch, and flinching leads to poor shots or outright misses. For new hunters still getting a handle on the fundamentals of marksmanship, heavy recoil can singlehandedly undermine progress and potentially derail their nascent interest in shooting altogether.
What makes a gun punishing to shoot?
There are really only three primary factors that contribute to a rifle’s recoil: the gun’s weight, the caliber, and the cartridge load. A lightweight .22 isn’t problematic because the caliber is very small and even the hottest loads are very tame, whereas a lightweight .270 Winchester spitting rounds at 3,000 FPS may leave you seeing sound and smelling color. Another example of this “pyramid of recoil:” A heavy big-bore double rifle lobbing 700-grain projectiles at a puttering 1,000 FPS may surprise you with its comparatively modest recoil, as the overall weight of the gun soaks up much of the rearward-traveling force, and the load isn’t especially hot to begin with.
Gun writer and big-game hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote about recoil in the context of Newton’s third law (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction), “Reaction is what you catch in the chops from a heavy caliber in too light a rifle. Big bores bite at both ends!” But like my dad’s compact Winchester 94, smaller calibers aren’t necessarily a sure bet for less recoil, either. It’s really a balancing act between the three factors listed above.
Ways to offset recoil
If you’ve already bought a rifle and found it too stout for your tastes, there are a few ways to tame the recoil. You can start by using milder loads. It may prove challenging to find less potent factory loads that are still designed for hunting (especially during an unprecedented ammo shortage); many ammo manufacturers focus on producing high-performance rounds rather than those designed for shooting comfort. This is another area where reloading your own ammo shines: Through trial and error, you can work up a load that delivers reduced recoil while maintaining respectable accuracy from your specific rifle—regardless of caliber.
Stuck with the ammo you’ve got on hand? The addition of a recoil pad can take the edge off a rifle’s kick, while muzzle brakes and barrel porting can dramatically reduce recoil by redirecting combustion gases as they approach the rifle’s muzzle and sending them in a perpendicular direction, instead, effectively negating their effect. This may cost you friends at the range, though: Those redirected gases make for a deafening report that will rattle the teeth of anyone on either side of the shooter.
Of course, you can always take Elmer Keith’s approach, too: “Recoil? Relax and enjoy it.”
How to train for it
Some recoil is inevitable, but everyone has a different threshold for what they can tolerate. You may develop a flinch in anticipation of the kick. To help ensure you don’t blow a shot in a critical moment, practice dry-fire drills with your hunting rifle throughout the off-season and in the days leading up to the hunting season. (Safety note: Make absolutely certain your rifle is empty when conducting dry-fire drills.) This builds familiarity with the trigger pull and conditions you to expect no recoil at all. If possible, get some range time in with a .22 to help you maintain proper form and sight picture when pulling the trigger, too.