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Light recoil: If you need to rethink hard-kicking guns

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By Dave Anderson, GUNS Magazine

Recoil isn’t a big deal, until it is. During the 2013 Shot Show I began seeing a lot of “junk” floating in my left eye. An ophthalmologist found two horseshoe-shaped tears in the retina.

Emergency and follow-up laser treatment isolated the tears, greatly reducing risk of a detached retina. All the docs said I was very lucky to get treatment before the retina detached.

According to the doctors a detached retina in someone with healthy eyes is most often caused a severe blow to the head, e.g. from boxing, or a vehicle accident. They didn’t seem to think recoil alone would be a cause (though I doubt they had ever fired, or seen fired, a really hard-kicking rifle).

The risk factors they identified are heredity, nearsightedness, and (ahem!) age. While recoil may not be a primary cause, I’d still like to keep recoil exposure to a minimum.

In this column I want to talk about getting the most performance for the least amount of recoil. The accompanying chart shows recoil velocity (RV) and recoil energy (RE) for a range of cartridges. The rifle weights and powder charges shown are typical, for comparison sake.

Recoil can be reduced by lighter bullets, slower velocities, smaller powder charges, or heavier rifles. We can, of course, change combinations of all four factors.

The powder charge plays a significant role in felt recoil. A larger case needs more powder than a smaller case to achieve the same velocity. Increasing velocity, assuming a constant bore size, is a game of diminishing returns.

For example, a .308 Win can accelerate 180-grain bullets to 2,600 fps with 44 grains of powder. A .300 H&H with its much larger combustion chamber may take 58 grains of powder just to reach the same 2,600 fps. Assuming an 8.5-pound rifle for both, recoil velocity is 11.3 fps vs. 12.4 fps, recoil energy 17.0 ft-lbs vs. 20.5 ft-lbs.

Of course the .300 H&H can shoot a 180 at 3,000 fps, which the .308 can’t. My point is, if we’re satisfied with 2,600 fps and want minimal recoil, it’s better to use a smaller case filled to capacity than to download a larger case.

Rifle weight matters. Strictly speaking there aren’t any hard-kicking cartridges, only hard-kicking rifles. Extreme examples: a Savage .338 Lapua I tested was quite pleasant to shoot—hardly a surprise since all-up weight was 18.5 pounds, with RV of 8.9 fps, RE 22.8 ft-lb. My early-model Remington 700 Ti .30-06 weighs just 7 pounds and has much more recoil, with RV 16.0, RE 28.0.

I believe it was Jeff Cooper who speculated one reason American shooters tend to be recoil-shy is they carry their own rifles and are concerned with weight. British hunters in pre-WW II Africa had gunbearers and were more concerned with rapid recoil recovery.
For unlimited centerfire shooting I like the .223 Rem. Where game regulations allow, and with appropriate bullets, it is a capable deer/antelope cartridge.

If a larger diameter bullet is required, with absolute minimum recoil, wildcats using 6mm to 7mm bullets on small cases, such as .222, .223, and .222 Rem Mag are worth considering. In my wife’s 7mm-08, a 120-grain bullet at 2,700 fps has proven to be a very effective deer load. The same ballistics could likely be achieved in a 22-inch barrel using the .222 Rem Mag case or the 7×45 Ingram (7mm x .223 Improved).

The .243 Win and 7mm-08 Rem are standouts, with a wide array of choices in both rifles and ammunition. I’m using this as an opportunity to spend time with some old favorites. I bought my first .250 Savage, a Ruger 77 in 1975 and have since added two Savages—a 1920 and a 99R.

Around 1981 I bought one of the new Winchester 70 Featherweights in 7×57 Mauser. I still have it, along with another 7×57, a classic Brno ZG-47.

Until I’m sure the eye business is squared away the plan is to hunt with a .223 delivering a 75-grain bullet at 2,800 and a .250 Savage delivering a 100-grain bullet at 2,800, or 7×57, 140-grain bullet at 2,800 fps. If I really need something bigger it will be my CZ-550 FS in 9.3×62, although I’ll likely add some weight to bring it to 10 pounds.


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