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Gun recoil – what causes it and how to avoid it

Sporting Gun editor Matt Clark says it should never really be an issue and here's why

woman learning to shoot

Unfortunately many people are put off shooting early in their career due to having a bad experience with gun recoil. That is a shame, because gun recoil is definitely manageable so that it doesn’t present a problem to the shooter.

The trick is to fit the gun and the shooter together correctly – which is something an experienced shooting instructor would be able to advise on.

The trouble is many people are introduced to shooting on a clayshooting day – classically as part of an exercise in ‘team building’. The clayshooting ground may not have an instructor experience in gun fit and just hand over a gun for the clayshoot without looking at who will be using it.

As a result the would-be shooter gets a strong kick back, possibly a bruised face and an aversion to shooting in the future.

I’ve heard this more times than I care to think about and it’s very frustrating that so many would-be shooters are put off at such an early stage. So here’s what I advise to manage gun recoil so it isn’t an issue.

Lady Gun

Gun fit is important for avoiding recoil issues

Gun recoil depends on the load and gun weight

Many shooters consider that a 20-bore has less recoil than a 12-bore but in fact, the recoil depends on the cartridge load being used and the weight of the gun.

  1. Having a light 20-bore and a heavy load, like a 28 or 32 gram cartridge will result in stronger recoil than shooting a heavy 12-bore with a 24 or 28 gram load.
  2. Gun recoil is thought to be affected by stock length. If the stock is the wrong size for you it can hurt your shoulder or cheek, so the fit of the stock is important for comfort. Shooters experiencing this issue should make an appointment with a gun fitter or gunsmith who will check out the stock and change it if needed. If young Guns inherit a gun (or have grown since getting a shotgun) it’s important to check out gun fit so recoil doesn’t become an issue. 
  3. Some people think shotgun recoil pads help – and others don’t. See which camp you fall into by testing out recoil pads for yourself. 
  4. Consider your shooting clothing. You can have a gel pad inserted into a shooting vest (and held in place with velcro). The pad will absorb shot recoil when you’re wearing something lightweight, like a shirt. 
  5. Low recoil cartridges are designed to be gentler on the shoulder.  Some hit the target a split second slower, which makes some people say (wrongly) that you are more likely to miss, but in fact the time difference is so minimal that’s rubbish. The spread of shot is about the size of a dinner plate anyway, so a fraction of a second makes no difference.
  6. Consider shooting with a semi-automatic. People use them because the recoil is absorbed by the action of the gun – the recoil effectively re-cocks the gun. Certainly worth a try if you’re bothered by recoil, it could revolutionise the way you see shooting!

What you’ve learned from this:

    • Recoil depends on the cartridge load being used and the weight of the gun
    • A 12-bore with a 28 gram load will have less kick than a 20-bore with a 32 gram load
    • Have your stock checked for fit
    • Try using gel pads in your shooting vest, or shotgun recoil pads on your gun
    • Consider shooting with a semi-auto
    • Low recoil cartridges may help

Some questions about gun recoil

Q: I took up shooting with my boyfriend 18 months ago. I started with a Miroku Sporter but found the recoil too painful and suffered recoil bruises to my lower shoulder. I now use a semi-auto which has helped a little, but I would like to go back to the over-and-under. Would it stop the bruising if I had it fitted with a recoil pad?

A: A decent recoil pad or recoil reduction system would almost certainly help ease the pain, but first you need to discover what’s wrong with the stock you shoot with.

From what you’ve said I would put money on it not having enough cast at toe to sit comfortably above your breast, and seat properly into your shoulder pocket. In other words the toe of the stock needs to be turned (or cast) outward to keep it clear of the breast. This work can easily be done by a gunsmith who will also round off the stock’s heel to make it easier to mount the gun smoothly and properly.

Q: As a lady, should I use a 12-bore to reduce recoil? I’ve spoken to other women who shoot and they use heavier 12-bores to get over the problem. Trouble is, my husband won’t listen to me changing guns because, he says, the 20 is a lady’s gun. What do you think?

A: 12 and a 20-bore are pretty much identical when it comes to performance but the lighter gun can tend to recoil a little more with 28gm competition cartridges. This might not be too much of a problem on a game shoot but the effects do become noticeable if a fair number of cartridges are fired in quick succession, as at a clay shoot.

What you need to remember is that recoil doesn’t have to be excessive to bring about a drop in performance, missed targets and tiredness. The cumulative effect of firing 100 cartridges even with ‘average’ levels of recoil in a day will produce the same result. In really bad cases recoil can also cause a shooter to start flinching and create triggering troubles.