Damn Recoil!

When I take newbies to the range for their first ever live fire experience, they do not fear the bang. They do not fear the ejected hot shell casing going down their cleavage. They are not even afraid of a projectile rocketing out the muzzle of the gun at supersonic speeds. They fear the recoil! Many newbies are afraid they will be knocked back on their ass by recoil, or they will break a wrist by the recoil. That is simply not going to happen.

But what is recoil? Well, if you paid attention in high school physics class, you may have heard of Sir Isaac Newton’s “3rd Law of Motion” – for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When a gun is fired, the bullet going out the muzzle is the forward action. Recoil is the backward reaction. And if you intend to enjoy the shooting sports, you have to manage it.

There are two kinds of recoil, “actual” and “felt”. Actual recoil is the scientific, or measurable, one. When a gun is fired, the gunpowder inside the cartridge explodes. The corresponding expanding gasses of this explosion creates the actual recoil. For a given gun and a given ammo cartridge, actual recoil will be the same for every shot. On semi-automatic pistols, it is this actual recoil which causes the slide to go backwards.

Felt recoil, on the other hand, is what the shooter feels. This is the recoil which makes newbies skittish. The “reaction” energy of the expanding gasses has to go somewhere. But where?

A .44 S&W Magnum (top) vs. a .22LR. Take a wild guess which one produces more recoil.

The answer is everywhere. Some of the energy is absorbed in the gun as seen when the gun’s slide moves backwards. Some of the energy is absorbed into the gun’s frame as seen when the gun’s muzzle rises. Some of the energy is absorbed by the shooter into the shooter’s wrist, arm and shoulder, potentially giving them that kicked-by-a-mule sensation.

Felt recoil can be managed and reduced, so these newbies are not so skittish. But before we address how to reduce felt recoil, we need to understand the components which make felt recoil more pronounced or less pronounced, or in other words, acceptable or unacceptable, to shooters. For all of these components, I will be referencing the use of a 9mm cartridge, since it is the most popular cartridge in the world.

Front of a .38 Special cartridge showing the “+P” stamp

Caliber Size – The larger the caliber, the more recoil. A .44 Magnum cartridge will have more recoil than a .22LR (Long Rifle) cartridge. That makes sense, since more energy is required to push a larger caliber bullet out the muzzle.

Bullet Size – Using the 9mm example, different size 9mm cartridges affect recoil differently. The projectile, or bullet, is available for the 9mm in multiple sizes. In this case, size is determined by weight of the bullet. The three most popular sizes of 9mm bullet are 115 grains, 124 grains and 147 grains. What is a grain? It is actually an apothecary unit of measure from the days when pharmacists measured powdered medicines by dumping the medicine on a scale and measured the dosage by counting specks or grains. For comparison, 7000 grains equals one pound. So, as you can figure out, each bullet weighs less than one ounce. But as it relates to recoil, the heavier the bullet, the more energy is needed to push that bullet out the muzzle. So in this case, the heavier the bullet, the more recoil is felt.

Hot Rounds – This does not mean the cartridge is hot to the touch. It means the cartridge is loaded with slightly more gunpowder from the factory. But putting more gunpowder in the same size cartridge means the gunpowder is getting compressed more. Think of putting 10 pounds of crap in a 5 pound bag. That additional compression is what is known as a “hot round”. The cartridges themselves are actually marked accordingly so the shooter knows they are shooting a hot round. The markings on the cartridge are usually “+P” or “+P+”, as an indication the rounds are loaded to higher pressures. The owner’s manual of each gun will indicate if a particular gun can shoot hot rounds safely. As it relates to recoil, hot rounds, with more gunpowder, will create a slightly bigger explosion than normal rounds. Thus, hot rounds will provide more felt recoil.

Examples of the mushrooming effect of Jacketed Hollow Points

Bullet Style – Bullets come in two styles, Full Metal Jacket and Jacketed Hollow Point. Full Metal Jacket (or more commonly “FMJ”) rounds are made of copper or copper alloy and keep their shape when they hit the target. These are generally used for practice. Jacketed Hollow Point (or more commonly “JHP” or simply “HP”) rounds are made of different kinds of materials, and are designed to expand or “mushroom” when they hit the target. These are generally only used for self-defense. So when they hit a target, let’s assume a human torso, once inside the torso, they will expand. If you are in a life and death self-defense situation, you want the most stopping power available so the attacker stops attacking. As this relates to recoil, JHP rounds provide more recoil, because they generally are the 147 grain size. Again, in a life and death self-defense situation, you want as much stopping power as you can get. In this case, it will be the largest bullet size available. Another reason that FMJ rounds are usually not used for self-defense is because the bullet will often go through the attacker’s body. And one of the basic rules of safe gun handling is to know your target and what’s behind it. An innocent person could be standing behind the attacker, and using an FMJ round could put that innocent person in jeopardy.

The CZ-75 (left) is a polymer frame gun and the Glock-19 is an all metal frame gun.

Gun Material – As concealed carry grows in popularity, so does the need to offer lighter weight guns. To shave weight off a gun, manufactures are making their products with lightweight materials, such as plastics and polymers. But this is only in terms of the frame and components not directly involved with the cartridge explosion. The business end of the gun, where the explosion occurs, the gun’s barrel and breech, are still steel, but the frame may be made of polymers. As this relates to recoil, as mentioned earlier, some of the recoil energy is absorbed by the gun frame. The stronger the gun frame material, the better it can absorb the recoil. Metal frame guns can absorb more recoil than polymer frame guns.

Gun Size – Also, as another take away from the increasing popularity of concealed carry, is the need to offer smaller guns. Two very popular gun models for 9mm are the Glock 17 and the Glock 43. The “17” is a full frame gun and the “43” is a compact version. As this relates to recoil, larger guns have more material by which to absorb recoil than smaller guns. But does that mean you should avoid smaller guns? No. Smaller guns have their purpose, because they are more easy to conceal than large or full frame guns. And if your purpose of owning a gun is for concealed carry and ever have to draw that smaller concealed gun in a life or death situation to protect yourself or a loved one, no one will give a damn about any recoil, guaranteed!

Here are the relative sizes of the Glock 43 and Glock 17

Gun Style – Handguns come in two varieties, revolvers and semi-automatic pistols, or simply “pistols”. Revolvers have been the staple of handgun ownership ever since Samuel Colt invented the “Peacemaker”. But pistols have become far more popular. The primary reasons are the number of rounds a pistol can hold compared to a revolver, and the speed by which reloading can occur. As this relates to recoil, revolvers have more felt recoil. The reason is with pistols, recoil is absorbed by the slide spring. But with revolvers, there is no slide. The energy goes into the frame.

A high-speed camera image of a gun with a ported barrel being fired. The two ports on top reduce the amount of muzzle rise occurring because of recoil.

Barrel Style – Most pistol barrels are smooth from the breech right up to the muzzle. Some have tiny holes in them called “ports”. Just like a porthole on a ship is a hole cut into the hull, ports on a barrel are tiny holes drilled/cut into the sides or top of the barrel. Guns containing these holes are known as having “ported barrels”. These holes are designed to deflect or exhaust the hot gasses in an attempt to keep the barrel from rising after every shot. Ported barrels reduce recoil because some of the gasses are pushed backwards and the rest are pushed out these ports, rather than all of the gasses being pushed backwards.

Bore Axis – This is a fancy term for indicating the height of the barrel relative to the gun’s center of gravity. The higher the barrel is off the center of gravity, the more the gun will attempt to rotate around its center of gravity. When a gun is fired, the muzzle rises. This is due to the bore axis. The recoil wants to go straight back at the center of gravity, but because the barrel is not flush with, or the same height as, the center of gravity, but rather higher than the center of gravity, the gun rises. So let’s say you have a gun with a bore axis or height which is .5″ above the center of gravity, and another gun with a bore axis or height which is .75″ above the center of gravity. The gun with the higher bore axis will have more recoil. Just bear in mind if you go to a gun store and tell an inexperienced sales clerk you want a gun with a low bore axis, don’t be surprised if they give you that deer-in-headlights look, because most inexperienced gun sales clerks have no idea what bore axis means.

Example of bore axis analysis. The blue line is the center of gravity. The red lines are the bore axes. The gun on the right, with its higher bore axis, will have a higher muzzle rise than the gun on the left. The higher the red line relative to the blue line, the more recoil will be felt.

Hand Grip – This is the grip you provide on your gun. Grip the gun firmly, but not so firmly that you cut off your circulation to your shooting hand. This also means locking your wrist so the gun does not pivot around your wrist when fired, which is more predominant if you have a gun with a higher bore axis. You also don’t want to grip the gun loosely, either with your fingers or your wrist. This is the number one factor affecting felt recoil, and is completely within the shooter’s control for recoil reduction. This will allow the recoil energy to go into your arm, then be absorbed by your arm and body.

Arm Lock – This is having your arm completely straight out and locked at the elbow and wrist, whether you are shooting with both hands on the gun or only your shooting hand on the gun. This also will allow the recoil energy to go into your arm, then through your body.

Stance – This is being in the correct stance to help you balance yourself from the recoil. Your stance is the number two factor affecting felt recoil, and is also completely within the shooter’s control for recoil reduction. Using the normal isosceles stance we taught you in class, lean forward slightly at the waist. If necessary for balance, take your foot opposite your shooting hand and move it forward slightly. So if you are a right-handed shooter, move your left foot forward slightly once you are in your stance.

Okay, now that you have an understanding of the causes of greater or lesser felt recoil, are there actions you can take to minimize felt recoil? Yes, here they are:

First, determine the purpose of your first gun. This decision is by far, the biggest determinant of your anticipated recoil. Will your first gun be used for concealed carry? Will it be for home self-defense? Will it be for target shooting? If you want a self-defense gun, do not get one chambered in .22LR in an attempt to reduce felt recoil. While .22 cartridges are lethal, they are generally not used for self-defense because the rounds fired from a .22 have to hit the bad guy in the correct spot on his body to stop an attack. Shooting him in the leg will piss him off, but probably will not disable him to the point the attack stops. However, double-tapping him in the head with your .22 will stop the attack. The rule of thumb for self-defense is to look at what law enforcement uses. They never use a .22.

If you want one for concealed carry, do not select a model the size of a Howitzer. Select one, based on size and weight, that will be acceptable for you to carry all day. If your purpose is only for home defense, then you can go with a full frame gun, because that gun will be sitting in a safe or a nightstand until you need it to put down an armed intruder.

Second, pick the correct bullet size for your caliber. For 9mm, generally, 115 FMJs are perfect for the range, and 147 JHPs are perfect for self-defense. If you are going to shoot more than one magazine’s worth of rounds at the range during your visit, then select the smallest bullet you can to reduce the per round recoil as much as possible. Your goal at the range it to improve skills while having fun. Improving skills but hating the recoil of each round will make for a lousy time at the range.

Third, ignore hot rounds. The purpose of a hot round is to over penetrate the bad guy. If you are in Miami, everyone wears thinner clothes, so a hot round is not necessary. However, if you are in Fairbanks Alaska, where everyone wears a winter parka, hot rounds make sense, so the round travels through the heavy winter clothing easier.

Fourth, pick up a lot of FMJ rounds, as these are your standard practice rounds. At some point, however, you will need to practice using JHPs, so God forbid, if that self-defense need ever arises, you will have practiced with them.

Fifth, select a gun style of your choice. Some shooters love revolvers, most don’t. So if you want to reduce recoil, get a pistol, not a revolver.

Sixth, select a gun whose material and size you can live with, based on your purpose above. If you are going to conceal carry, do not get a full frame metal gun. There is nothing wrong with doing so. It will just be a heavy gun not easily concealed. But recoil will definitely be reduced. So gun size and material are compromises. Pick the best comprise for you. I own a Sig Sauer P226 MX-25 edition. Great gun. Accurate gun. Love shooting that gun. Hate carrying that gun, because this model is the identical model issued to the Navy SEALS, who do not need to conceal a thing.

Seventh, if the gun you are interested in is offered in both ported and non-ported barrels and you want to reduce recoil, go with the ported model. It will be more expensive than its plain-Jane counterpart, but there will be a reduction in recoil. A qualified gunsmith can also help you port your gun’s barrels.

Eighth, practice shooting with your grip firmly around the gun, your arms locked at the elbows, and having a correct stance. Then practice shooting with your hand grip looser, elbows unlocked and bent slightly, and no lean in the waist. Compare the felt recoil.

Ninth, practice, practice, practice. Of course dealing with recoil can be tricky if you are just starting out. But over time, you will learn how to adjust what you need to in order to minimize recoil as much as possible. Did I mention practice?