Wrecking Ball

Recoil can ruin your shooting. Take steps now to lessen the blow.

It's possible to mitigate the effects of recoil by shooting from positions with more give, but the wisest course of action is to limit exposure to heavy-recoiling rifles.

The elephant were spread out, feeding and moving slowly. By the time we got the wind right and isolated the one we wanted, the light was going quickly. It wasn't too dark to shoot, but it was pretty dim for a brain shot with open sights--which, I'm sure, is why my partner missed the brain with both barrels. But at this moment the reason didn't matter. What mattered was that it was awfully late in the day, the elephant was still on its feet, and my friend's double was empty.

I'd been lugging a double .600 for several days, and this was my chance to use it. I stepped around my buddy and raised the rifle to take the "going-away hip shot." That's the last clear memory I have, at least for the next hour or so. I sort of remember being propelled backward, completely out of control, and I think I understood that both barrels had gone off.

One of our party caught me, and a video camera shows that I got one barrel loaded, and we went forward so my buddy could finish his elephant. After that I had to sit down for a little while.

Recoil has never bothered me a great deal, but I clearly met my match on that late afternoon in the Zambezi Valley. The opening lever cut my left thumb to the bone, and that same thumb smacked into my cheekbone at speed, raising a welt a prizefighter would be proud of. That stuff healed quickly, but the gun doubled four months ago, and my shoulder isn't right yet. I assume it will be in time, but I'm not gonna put any money on it.

For some reason we tend to think that standing up to massive amounts of recoil is, if not exactly fun, at least really cool. Conversely, we're sissies if we admit that recoil is unpleasant.

Unfortunately, recoil is an inescapable byproduct of all shooting. Most of the time it's harmless, but if you take it too far it can hurt you--and there's nothing at all cool about getting hurt. There are two reasons for this. The obvious is that if you let a gun hurt you, then you need to heal up before you can shoot again. Less obvious is that unpleasant recoil may not cause physical damage, but it can really mess up your shooting.

I trust we can all agree that I took things too far when that .600 doubled, which could've happened either due to my trigger finger inadvertently hitting the second trigger under recoil of the first barrel or due to mechanical malfunction. Regardless of how it happened, I took about 280 ft.-lbs., mostly straight into my shoulder. That was quite enough, thank you.

This was a rare incident, but there are lots of other ways where recoil can get to you. It doesn't take a bunch of foot-pounds of recoil to give a really nasty scope cut; all it really takes a weird shooting position so that the rifle is allowed to get a running start before the ocular lens embeds itself in your forehead.

Clearly, the more recoil you're dealing with (and the less eye relief) the greater the risk, but I've seen scope cuts from 6mms and .25s, and one of the worst ones I ever got was from a .30-06, fired hastily at a deer from the prone position.

Actual body bruising is a lot less common than a scope cut, but it can happen. My wife, Donna, has no problem with her .270 or my .30-06, and she can shoot our Heym .450/.400-3-inch all day long. Last year, in South Africa, I made the mistake of offering her a shot at a black wildebeest with my .375. She took the shot sitting, and somehow the rifle got loose and bounced down her arm. I don't know how she avoided a nasty scope cut, but I've never seen bruising like that--all the colors of the rainbow.

I have heard of broken collar-bones from recoil, but that might be an urban legend. Genuinely possible, and very serious, is recoil-induced detached retina. John Wootters essentially lost an eye to detached retina that wasn't caught quickly enough. He did some research that suggested two things: Older people are more susceptible, and the effects of recoil might be cumulative. Just on the off chance this is true, I have backed off on the big guns.

It is true that, very rarely, recoil can directly cause detached retina. Hunting legend Bert Klineburger was checking a .460 Weatherby in camp in Central Africa when it happened to him. He knew he needed an eye doctor, quick, and he got himself to Paris within 24 hours. He had no loss of vision and has had no recurrence.

Actual physical damage from recoil is unusual, but mental effects are common--and more difficult to spot and correct. The great African hunter Frederick Selous started hunting elephant with the massive blackpowder guns, eventually making the transition to smokeless powder. Later he wrote that the big four-bores of his youth adversely impacted his shooting for the rest of his life. Note: It's a whole lot easier to get a flinch than it is to cure one.

The best way to avoid problems with recoil is simply to limit your exposure. I have heard supposedly knowledgeable guys say that it's sissy to pad yourself. That's ridiculous. I wear a PAST recoil shield on the range, and I do as much bench work as possible with a Caldwell Lead Sled. With 50 pounds of chilled shot on board, it turns a 10-pound rifle into a 60-pound rifle. Sissy, no. Sensible, yes. Final zeroing must be done the old-fashioned way, as point of impact can vary with the added weight. And, of course, actual practice for field shooting can't be done from the bench at all.

Practice is clearly essential, but it's not an exam you can cram for. Also, shooting is shooting. Practice as much as you like with .22s or light centerfires, but ration yourself on the big guns. With really heavy recoiling rifles, just a dozen shots is an awful lot in one session; half a dozen is probably a more sensible limit.

For the last few months, my own limits have been somewhat lower. So far I don't think my incident with that .600 left any mental scars, but I don't think I want to shoot a rifle that big ever again. If I have to I will, but I sure won't load both barrels. Once was enough.

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