Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Push and the Kick

Recoil... touchy subject that. To some people, anything more than a .22 "kicks too hard", then there's Rhinos like myself who get a BSG (Big Stupid Grin) every time we touch off a .454, or a .300 win mag.

And people aren't just recoil sensitive, they're sensitive about recoil; as if because they don't like being punched in the shoulder by a 9lb piece of wood and metal at 20 feet per second; they are somehow less of a man (or woman).

Well folks, that just aint so. The fact is, some rifles or shotguns, or pistols are just plain more pleasant to shoot than others; doesn't matter who you are; and different people have different tolerances for the different types of forces involved in recoil.

Different types? Yeah that's what I was referring to in the title of this post "The Push and The Kick". There are two dimensions to recoil, it's velocity, and it's force; and they have a very different effect on the body, and on recoil handling.

The "Push", is the total force being applied; and is usually measure here in ftlbs. The "Kick" on the other hand, is the speed at which that force is applied, and is usually expressed in feet per second.

Now, factoring the force, and the speed together with the distance the object travels, using something called the "time work equation", gives you the effective "impact", but that's more complex than I want to get into right now.

Let's just say that the "Push" is what wears you out, fatigues you etc... and the "Kick" is what causes pain. Kick bruises you, push gives you joint aches etc..., and that's just because of the way the human body deals with the forces of recoil.

John Ross has posted a spreadsheet on his site showing you how to estimate the recoil force and speed of a particular load in a particular weapon here: John Ross on Recoil

Now, there are a lot of guns out there with a reputation for substantial recoil. On the rifle side, most Americans are liable to think of anything above about the .30-06 level as heavy recoiling. On the 'big and slow" side of things, the .45-70 is considered to be heavy recoiling. Also common would be complaints about the recoil of 3" magnum slugs.

Of course, the design of the gun, the action, the stock, and the weight of the gun are all as important (or more so) than the actual chambering itself.

For example, part of the reason the .45-70 has a reputation as a heavy kicker; is that it's often chambered in light weight lever action or single shot guns; with western straight grip stocks, and flat or crescent solid butt plates with little or no recoil pad. Oh and they are most often shot while wearing standard street clothes. Pretty much the worst possible combination for dealing with recoil

The recoil of the .45-70 is stout, but not ridiculous. Even in a relatively light weight Marlin guide gun, the .45-70 has a hell of a lot of push, but it’s not too sharp push.

First thing, there's a hell of a broad range of .45-70 loads; from cowboy bunny farts, to long range Ballard match type loads, to elephant/cape buffalo loads (350gr at 2150fps).

Compared to milsurp 7.62 nato in a semi-auto rifle; even with relatively light loads, it’s a hell of a lot harder; just because you’re talking twice the mass, in a lighter gun, and without the action to act as a buffer. The impulse is slower, but there’s a lot more of it, especially in the heavy loads. Even the relatively light plinking loads there's a lot of push, but not a lot of kick.

Compared to a 3” magnum slug, personally I’d take most .45-70 loads though. The recoil impulse is far more pleasant.

The heaviest of .45-70 loads, at the highest pressures, can get into unpleasant recoil territory. In a lighweight single shot, with a hard buttplate they can be downright painful. In an 8 or 9lb gun with an optic, a sling, soft rubber recoil pad etc… they aren’t too too bad.

But then again, I’m a recoil monster.

Now, away from the subjective, there are some objective measures to help compare; though they aren't necessarily directly useful they at least give you some basis for comparison.

1. 8lb guide gun (sling and optic)
  • Max load 350gr at 2150fps = 28ftlbs at 15fps
  • Maximum antique rifle load 300gr at 1850fps = 18ftlbs at 12fps
  • Medium hunting load 300gr at 1750fps = 14.9ftlbs at 10.9fps
  • Bunnyfart cowboy load 300gr at 1250fps = 9.7ftlbs at 8.9fps
2. Remington 870 Express (7.25lbs)
  • 3” magnum slug, 1oz at 1780fps = 36.3ftlbs at 18fps
  • 2-3/4” slug, 1oz at 1560fps = 29ftlbs at 16fps
3. Winchester model 70 in .308 (8.5lbs)
  • Maximum hunting load 180gr at 2750 fps = 14.7ftlbs at 10.5fps
  • Standard milsurp 150gr at 2800fps = 11.4ftlbs at 9.3fps
So you’ll see, the 2-3/4” slug is actually very similar in terms of both recoil energy and velocity to the maximum loaded .45-70, and the 3” magnum slug is actually significantly worse; both harder and faster (though from a lighter gun). That said, the 870s stock is a bit better for recoil handling than the lever gun.

The medium hunting .45-70 loads, would be very similar to the heaviest .308 hunting loads; or a medium heavy .30-06 load. Mil-Surp 7.62n would be a bit harder on the shoulder than cowboy action loads in the guide gun. Again, a Model 70 stock is shaped a bit better for handling recoil than a Marlin guide gun.

If we were comparing recoil of Mil-Surp 7.62x51n in a 9-12lb semi-auto; well, it would feel a lot lighter than any of the others listed here. Both the "push" and the "kick" of the recoil would be reduced significantly.

So, how much recoil can you handle?

Well, that’s a complicated question.

As I said above, size and weight of the gun, and the design of the action and stock are as important as the chambering when it comes to recoil management. Not only that, but there's a big difference between what you can only shoot one or two of because it hurts, what you can shoot a few boxes of before it wears you out, and what you can shoot all day.

Also, muzzle brakes can make a huge difference; in that they tend to reduce the felt "kick", but they so drastically increase the muzzle blast that they can actually make shooting a gun more unpleasant, as the shock of firing batters your eyes and ears.

Remember this is all subjective, so what can I take?

Well, I’ve fired 20lb .50bmgs before, and 10-14lb .338 Lapua, .458 win mag, .460 Weatherby etc… and they weren't so unpleasant that I wouldn't do it again.

In fact, the 9lb or so .460 was far more unpleasant than the .50, because of the light weight; and the .50 having a remarkably effective muzzle brake, and recoil handling stock.

I've even fired an 8 bore, and a .577; and both were painful enough even at 20+ lbs that I didn’t want to do it again, after a single firing (the only normal, prolery functioning rifles I've had that problem with).

Generally speaking though, the medium bore high intensity magnums (in the 7mm to .350 range) are generally far less pleasant to shoot than the larger, but generally slower rounds. Yes the .458 win mag or the top end .45-70 loads hav a lot more push, but that push is slower; and the body handles that better. One of the worst recoiling weapons I’ve ever fired was a 6lb .300 Weatherby. The big Dakotas and Lazzeronis are chambered in some light weight rifles, with VERY high velocity loadings of medium to large bullets, and they’re a handful as well.

Shooting position makes a big difference as well. All of the above were far worse on the bench than either standing/offhand or even prone. Hell, I fired a .50bmg McMillan standing, once (using a standing rest). It was an interesting experience. No, I didn't fall over, but I certainly wasn’t steady or stable for a few seconds afterwards; but importantly, it wasn't nearly as painful as firing a .460 Weatherby in ANY position.

Ok so that the maximum, but who wants to beat the hell out of themselves for just a round or two?

So, what could I shoot all day and still be having fun? 7mm mag to .300 win mag is about the max for a 50-100rd session in street clothes for me. The same goes for 3” magnum slugs. Actually I find they are a bit more unpleasant than a medium magnum rifle, and after about 20 I start not wanting to shoot more of them.

With a really good recoil pad, a well designed stock, and a shooting jacket; from a reasonable weight gun (say 12-14lbs), .338 Lapua and the like are just fine for a half dozen boxes. Try that with a .460 Weatherby and get back to me though. Even compared to the .458 win mag, the .460 is a nasty beast. .458 is strong, but it isn’t fast and sharp like the .460 is.

The .458 launches a 350gr bullet to about 2500fps, or a 500gr bullet to 2100fps. The .460 takes that same 500gr bullet to 2600fps. Presuming both are chambered in a 9lb rifle the recoil difference is substantial.

.458 = 52ftlbs at 19.5fps
.460 = 77ftlbs at 23.4fps

Remember, the speed of the recoil is far more important to the “pain” factor than the total energy; but the total energy is what wears you down.

The example of the 6lb lightweight .300wby I was talking about above?

.300wby = 45ftlbs at 22fps

Less than the .460; but more than most any other rifle I mentioned.

Another gun with a reputation for heavy recoil, but of the "heavy and slow" variety, is the .375h&h. In a 9lb .375 by comparison has 27.4ftlbs at 14.8fps; about the same as top end .45-70 “magnum” loads.

Speaking of .45-70 magnums, there is a factory super .45-70 called the .450 marlin, and it's a pretty impressive beast. .450 marlin in a 7lb gun with the hottest heaviest loads I can find runs 42.8ftlbs at 19.8fps; pretty substantial, and fairly fast as well; about equivalent to a .458 Winchester... but it's in a 7lb lever gun.

Like I said, with a well designed stock, recoil pad, and the right clothes OK; but not for a long range session in street clothes.

Then of course there's rapid fire. Most people can't handle anything above intermediate power in rapid fire without spraying all over the place. Rapid fire, I am one of the few folks I know who can easily control a full auto in .308 or .30-06 (I’ve never tried a handheld weapon in full auto more powerful than that); but I’m also a huge guy with gorilla arms.

I've fired full auto M14s before, and I owned a semi M14. I bought 20 m14 mags and a couple thousand rounds of surplus ammo so I could learn to featherfire (a technique for rapid controlled semi-auto fire) my m14. I can easily empty an entire M14 mag into the kill zone of a human silhouette, offhand at 50 yards, in less than 5 seconds, sometimes less than three.

A lot of folks though, can't even handle 9mm full auto from an AR carbine; which I don't really understand, so long as they are using the proper technique...

Anyway, as you can see, perception of recoil is strongly effected by what you're trying to do with the gun.

... And then there's hand guns.

Now, in a handgun, you're generally talking about anywhere from 1/2 to 1/20th the energy of a rifle round. Of course you're also talking about a gun that weighs 2-4lbs (usually), rather than 6-25lbs, but still.

The heaviest recoiling handgun specific rounds out there can be pretty harsh; but in the right gun they can also be pussycats. In a handgun, weight and grip shape and composition are even more critical than in a rifle.

For example, the S&W J frame scandium pistols have a fearsome reputation as knuckle cutters when fire with .357 loads. They after all only weigh 12oz, and have a very small grip frame. Now, I personally don't find them all that unpleasant with .357. Yeah, they’re stiff and sharp, but I don't have a problem putting a full box through one.

On the other hand, when I fired a 329 (a 22oz .44 magnum) with the factory wood grips, and a full house factory .44 mag load, I put the gun down and said “I’m not firing that again”.

Firing the 329, I was actually concerned about damaging my wrist; and as well I should. That particular gun and load combo was delivering 29ftlbs to my wrist, at 33fps; which is more than some big bore rifles; and substantially more than a cruiser grip 12ga firing a magnum slug for example (about the most painful thing most people would ever want to do with a gun).

For some reason, some folks seem to think the .45acp, .40S&W, .357 sig, and 10mm chamberings all have "too much" recoil.

Well, in fact, the .45acp is a very mildly recoiling round in any reasonably sized pistol. The absolute heaviest .45 SUPER loadings (far more powerful than the acp), from a standard 1911, would produce 10.7ftlbs at 15.2fps; and standard pressure rounds produce 5.4ftlbs at 10.8fps. Now that's not exactly a gentle breeze, but it's not going to knock you off your feet either. Even from a much lighter gun like the Glock 36 (the smallest and lightest .45 in common use) you'd get 9.3ftlbs at 18.5fps.

I'll grant, that at 18.5fps, the gun can be a bit dificult to hold on to in rapid fire unless the grip fits you very well; which is in fact why I sold mine; but at no time was the gun uncontrollable or painful to fire.

The .40S&W and .357 sig both produce similar but slightly less recoil force to the .45acp, but they are a fair bit faster, in the 15fps range; and the 10mm produces recoil at about the same speed and force as the .45 super.

Again, not nothing; but not uncontrolable; and none of them are in the range of the really big bore handguns.

The heaviest recoiling common handgun rounds are generally considered to be the .500 S&W, .475 Linebaugh, the .454 Casull, the .460 S&W, the .480 Ruger, the .50action express, and the .44 magnum. All of them offer energies at least equivalent to those of a small rifle (or even medium magnum) cartridge, and in fact are often chambered in small rifles, They are all used for hunting up to medium game, when fired from both handguns and rifles.

Of these, the "power" king is certainly the .500; and it's one hell of a beast indeed.

The top end .500 S&W loads, which to my mind really should only be used in a carbine, produce 58.6ftlbs of recoil at 29fps when fired from the X-Frame revolver; which really is enough to cause damage to your wrist.

Standard loadings are much lighter, producing in the 20-25ftlb at 16-20fps range; which is a lot certainly, but it's not painful for most people given proper technique; and good gun design (which the X-Frame is). Because of the weight, and excellent recoil controlling design, I don't find the standard loadings of .500 S&W to be painful, but I do think it’s excessive for a handgun.

I’ve also fired several handguns in .45-70 (a bfr, and a couple of TCs), and I found them to be ridiculously excessive, and more than a bit painful. In fact, in general as I mentioned rifle rounds are far more energetic than pistol rounds; and firing them through a far lighter weapon, with far less capability to absorb recoil built into it's design and nature... well that's just a recipe for pain.

All that said, I love shooting hot handgun rounds.

I LOVE 10mm, .45 super, hot .357 and .44 magnum, super hot .45 colt and .454 casull. I can’t wait for the .460 S&W to be chambered in something other than the X-Frame, because I don’t care for the X-Frame (and especially to get a companion carbine for a .460 pistol).

I’ve fired a heck of a lot of rifle caliber pistols; and in an encore, an XP100, and other similar large single shot designs, anything up to about the .308 range isn’t too bad; but those are very large, relatively heavy single shot guns with stocks specifically designed to deal with heavy recoil.

So what's too much recoil?

Well, as far as velocity goes, anything more than 20 feet per second tends to be quite shocking to the body; be it in a handgun or a rifle. That's about where the "kick", and often the bruise really set in; and other than a good recoil pad and shooting jacket (or glove) there's not a lot of mitigation there.

In terms of recoil energy, handguns with more than about 10ftlbs, or rifles with more than about 15ftlbs tend to be thought of as "hard recoiling", but don't seem to be "painful" or "uncontrollable" to most until you get over about 20ftlbs, and 30ftlbs or so respectively.

If you are well prepared for recoil, with a good gun design, shooting pad, proper shooting position etc... Then pistols with 40+ftlbs of energy, and rifles with 100+ftlbs are still shootable, at least once or twice anyway.

Of course this is all entirely subjective; as I know folks who shoot .50bmg from 2olb guns all day long (purse permitting), and others who think that .223 is painful.

Ok... those .223 folks are nuts... and the .50cal shooters aren't far behind; but really there is a very wide variation even within the standard deviation. I can shoot my '03 springfiled sporter with a solid plastic butt pad all day (200 rounds in one session anyway) like it was a .22; whereas my friend JohnOC starts flinching after 5 rounds, even when he's got his PACT pad strapped on.

Hell, try one of the thumpenblitzenboomers, you may really enjoy it; and if not you can sell it to me cheap.