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By Guy Neill

If you’ve shot a gun, you have experienced recoil. Following Newton’s Third Law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Firing the gun propels the bullet through the barrel. That’s the action. Recoil is the reaction.

Experienced shooters understand that the heavier and faster the bullet, the more the gun will recoil. The heavier, faster the bullet, the better it is to have a heavy gun to absorb more of the recoil. However, no one likes carrying a heavy handgun, so it becomes a matter of balancing the gun’s weight and the recoil.

To illustrate, I’ve included a graph showing the relationship between the amount of recoil and the weight of the gun. This in the graph is a magic gun. It gives the exact same ballistic performance, but only changes weight. The cartridge used for the example fires a .357 Magnum 125gr bullet with a muzzle velocity of 1300 fps. That produces a muzzle energy for the bullet of 469.0 ft-lbs.

To obtain the best recoil value, we need to include the powder weight. Checking a reloading manual, there is a load using 15.0gr of powder that delivers the velocity we are using. The powder comprises a significant portion of the total recoil. We’ll look at that shortly.

In the graph, the handgun weight varies from 10 ounces to 50 ounces. That range should cover most of the guns people are using and carrying most often. As expected, the more the gun weighs, the less recoil the shooter experiences, To lessen recoil, heavy guns rule.

Looking at some specific revolvers, we have several Smith & Wesson models offered in .357 Magnum . . .

The Model 360PD is a great gun to carry because of its light weight. But you may not like shooting it very much, also because of its very light weight.

The old saw is that in a shoot-out, you’ll never notice the recoil because of the adrenaline and concentration on the situation. That’s quite likely true. However, you need to shoot it enough in training to ensure you can handle the recoil and shoot accurately.

The list of guns above includes the recoil without consideration of the powder charge. The recoil without the powder is substantially less than the full recoil. While looking at the recoil without the powder may allow comparing factory rounds where we don’t know the powder charge, it wouldn’t be near the actual amount of recoil.

We could pull a bullet from a factory cartridge and measure the amount of powder. Without the powder charge, it may do as well to look at the muzzle energy of two loads to compare them.

In this example, the powder contributed 48.6% of the total recoil. Different loads will be different, but, in general, the powder portion of recoil is significant.

Colt King Cobra .357 revolver
Colt King Cobra (JWT for TTAG)

When looking a buying a new gun, you’d do well to consider the recoil. Experienced shooters may not worry too much about recoil, but inexperienced shooters may want to wait and gain some experience before acquiring a super lightweight gun. That goes for any gun – rifle, pistol or shotgun.

Starting out with a light-shooting .22 LR gun is reduces the recoil enough to allow a new shooter to learn without being intimidated by recoil. We want new shooters to learn the basics and not fear the gun, to have them enjoy shooting. If their first experience includes pounding recoil, they may walk away from shooting. That’s everyone’s loss.

Starting with a gun chambered in .22 Long Rifle is the way to go for most beginners. It offers economy and ultra-low recoil. A Ruger Mark IV model weighs about 28 ounces. Shooting it with typical high speed .22 LR rounds, the recoil will be about 0.75 ft-lbs. That’s very easy to handle and won’t intimidate a new shooter.

Recoil is neither good nor bad. It’s simply part of the physics of the process. Heavy recoil can negatively affect shooting until the shooter has accustomed himself to it (and sometimes even then).

Where I grew up, a big deer may have weighed 150 lbs. Most weren’t that big. I was always amazed at the number of hunters using various magnum rifles — 7mm Remington Mags and .300 Winchester Mags being much more common than I thought practical. Later in life, when I was in a position to answer questions from shooters, a common question was how they could reduce the recoil from their magnum rifle.

There are three ways any shooter can reduce the recoil they’re feeling. One is to add weight to the gun. One is to download the cartridge, if they reloaded. The last option is to get a gun that’s chambered for a smaller cartridge. If it’s a rifle, maybe a .308 Winchester or 7mm-08, for example.

Guns don’t work without recoil. Perhaps sometime in the future we’ll learn to defy physics and have recoilless firearms. For now, we need to deal with what we’ve got.


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