Well, there’s one reason: the muscle convulsions, tics, spasms, jerks, squints and ugly faces you make as you pull the trigger in a misguided attempt to evade the movement of your rifle you know is coming. It’s called a flinch.
Perhaps it would better be called a violent cringe, reflecting the fact that it is utterly useless and entirely psychological in nature. Like trying to run away from a charging lion, it is a counterproductive response, a raw and misplaced instinct you must allow your rational mind to overcome if you are to connect with your target before it connects with you.
A flinch is not caused by recoil, it is caused by the anticipation of recoil. In other words, it’s all in your head. If you pull the trigger on a .375 Holland & Holland after having fired a box of .22s, the recoil seems earth-shaking. But if you fire a few rounds of .500 Jeffery first, the .375 is a pussycat. It’s all relative. In other words, again, it’s all in your head.
Recoil itself won’t hurt you, not if your rifle is properly stocked and you’re using sound big-bore shooting techniques, no more than a friend’s punch in the shoulder to congratulate you for a clean kill. You don’t whine about that, do you? Unfortunately, too many stockmakers build big-bore stocks the same way they build smallbore stocks, which is the only way they know how to build a stock at all, and you pay the price in escalating discomfort. On top of that, a lot of shooters try to apply smallbore shooting concepts to big kick-ass rifles and, predictably, get their asses kicked. You can’t shoot a .600 Nitro Express using the dainty techniques developed for shooting a 30-06.
The world of the dangerous-game rifle has a unique landscape all its own. When you cross over the line, it’s best to leave most of your smallbore baggage behind and get a fresh start.
I’ve seen an experienced smallbore shooter pull the trigger on a .585 Nyati, watched the rifle lift off toward the sun, cartwheel over the toppled shooter’s cowering body and bury itself in the dirt ten feet behind him, kicking a picnic bowl full of salad out of his girlfriend’s hands as it came in for a crash landing. Bad technique, yes. And if the rifle had been equipped with a straight stock of the type smallbore stockmakers are so fond of it would have been the shooter’s shoulder, or parts thereof, buried in the dirt instead of the gun. Pity the poor salad.
I’ve only heard of one instance where a person was actually killed by recoil. It seems that a small boy out with a group of adults wanted to fire a relative’s .475 Linebaugh single-action revolver. If the boy had been left to his own devices the worst that could have happened might have been an expensive handgun launched into space. But, no, some terminally helpful type decided he needed to come to the boy’s aid and teach those 1,800 foot pounds of energy who was boss by pinning down the boy’s upper arms so they would not be yanked over the boy’s head by the recoil. Recoil didn’t mind, it planted that tall front sight into the boy’s forehead. Just following orders.
You can’t reduce recoil. You can only direct it. Where you direct it, how you channel and distribute it, what the world looks like at the end of it, these are the most important skills a true stockmaker has to offer. There just aren’t a lot of true stockmakers around, certainly not on this side of the Atlantic.
The British seem hell-bent on returning to the prehistoric swamp these days, what with their confiscation of firearms, outlawing self-defense, banning the noble sport of foxhunting and other examples of hysterical peasantry and suicidal socialism. But there was a time, in their glory days of Empire, when their pioneering colonies in India and especially East Africa led them to invent, design and build the most powerful sporting rifles the world has ever known. They learned a few things.
One of the most important things the English learned was how to configure a rifle stock to best distribute a tremendous load of recoil. In order to prevent each press of the trigger from shoving your cheekbone into your eyesocket and delivering your shoulder into the next county, they took a serious look at things like cast-off, drop at comb, drop at heel, pitch and other high-faluting subjects virtually unknown to those stockmakers who consider themselves graduated after they figure out how to cut wood in a straight line parallel to the axis of the bore so that half the butt of the stock rests in your shoulder where it belongs while the other half stands up above your epaulets where it proudly does nothing at all.
The only way to compensate for the fatal flaw of a straight, so-called “American Classic” stock is to take the extra time required to deliberately place the butt of the rifle completely in your shoulder where it belongs, and then stretch your neck down and out along the comb like a rain forest python until your eyelashes brush the ocular lens of your scope. The law of compensation will prevail, which brings up another requirement for a dangerous-game rifle equipped with a scope. You need plenty of eye-relief. Just like you need a wide field of view and low magnification. These three crucial elements in a dangerous-game scope mounted over a proper stock will allow you to quickly bring the rifle up to you, rather than forcing you to dive down for it, so that you can shoot with your head upright and both of your eyes open. The better to see what’s coming at you, Little Red Riding Hood.
The only established school of rifle instruction in this country, the US military, has likewise never had any need to go beyond the development of shooting techniques appropriate for 30-caliber rifles. (Even .50 BMG sniper rifles are muzzlebraked to 30-caliber recoil levels.) Add to this the favorite refrain of popular magazine gunwriters over the decades that the 30-06 is all the rifle any hunter really needs. The result of the narrow .30-inch psychological conditioning most of us have had to endure since birth is The Great American Flinch, a feverish syndrome which begins to kick in the moment we pick up a rifle suitable for hunting dangerous game.
Recoil is nothing more than a feedback system. It tells you important things about your shooting technique and your stock design. It’s a strict disciplinarian when it comes to reinforcing good shooting habits, and if something needs to be modified it will not hesitate to let you know. It also gives you a relative reading of how much force you’re directing downrange. Just like that big hole you make in whatever it is you’re making a big hole in acts as a feedback system that tells you if your sights or scope is adjusted properly and if you somehow inexplicably allowed yourself to lapse into a temporary coma at the same moment you pulled the trigger.
The thing about shooting a big-bore dangerous-game rifle is that it’s fun. That’s why we do it. It’s been called the most fun you can have with your clothes on. In fact, if you’re past puberty, shooting these rifles without your clothes on is right up there with the most fun you can have in that category as well. If you could buy a ticket to fire a .600 Nitro Express or .585 Nyati or other “elephant gun” at Dumbo’s Disneyland, you’d be willing to stand in line hours for the privilege. You’d call it a great ride. What a kick! You’d be coming back for more as long as your wallet held out, or at least until your kid dragged you off to shoot those little air-powered BB machine guns into those little red stars, a less adult shooting experience you probably can’t do at Disneyland anymore either.
It is often said that some people are more recoil-sensitive than others. That’s like saying some people are more afraid of spiders than others, thus validating the illusory ailment of arachnophobia and precluding any easy cure. It may well be that some people actually enjoy the sensation of recoil more than others, but that is not to say that anyone should be afraid of it, cringe from it, develop a potentially catastrophic flinch because of it.
As has been said, you can’t reduce recoil, but you can direct it. A stock with the proper amount of drop at comb and heel directs part of the recoil into your shoulder, part of it into muzzle rise, cast-off directs the uppercutting stock away from the tender part of your cheek, pitch plants the entirety of the butt flat against your shoulder, a longer length of pull than you may be used to puts a thicker and more resistant bunch of shoulder muscles between the butt and the bone.
Sheer weight of the rifle, assuming it is well balanced, absorbs a lot of recoil energy. If there were such a thing as a 7-pound rifle in a dangerous-game caliber it would be leaning in the corner with a cracked stock and its owner would be a former hunter with a dislocated shoulder. Unfortunately, the 7-pound weight limit is another piece of popular poppycock that has been hammered into American hunters’ minds along with the nonsensical 30-caliber rule. A fully equipped and loaded dangerous-game rifle, that is from .375 Holland & Holland Magnum on up, needs to weigh 10 or 11 pounds. Needs to. Must. A little practice handling and shooting and carrying such a substantial rifle will make it feel a lot lighter. In the worst case, you might even want to lift some weights for a few minutes every month or so.
Some people have asked me why nobody puts muzzlebrakes on African rifles. Besides being an extremely impolite if not illegal thing to do, muzzlebrakes don’t reduce recoil either. They just play games with it, directing some energy into a counterforce that exerts a pull in the opposite direction after the initial push has begun, thus jerking the shooter’s head back and forth in an action that is not likely to dislocate his shoulder but often enough detaches both of his retinas. Mercury or other liquid-filled “recoil reducer” cylinders or pistons implanted in the butt stock work in a similar fashion but to a less extreme degree and so are acceptable as long as they remain unseen and silent and you don’t tell anybody they’re there. A good recoil pad, and they’re a lot better now than they used to be, is of course mandatory.
Military target-shooters are taught to take a couple of minutes before they open fire to anchor their rifles to their bodies with tight leather slings, a highly stylized little bit of business that is neither practical nor desirable either with a hard-yanking dangerous-game rifle or in a fast-moving African hunting environment for reasons that should be perfectly obvious. A sling in Africa is a carry strap, and then only if you’re in the clear enough not to hang it up on something. The last thing you want to do is tie yourself up in it. And if you’re unfortunate enough to have been taught the Hawkins position in Vietnam, where you hold onto the front end of the sling at the swivel with your left hand as you fire, be sure your PH is prepared to snatch your rifle out of mid-air and sew a finger or two back on your hand when you’re finished.
Military shooters are also intimately familiar with shooting from the prone position, but no hunter experienced in the art of lying down in front of a charging elephant could be found to explain the virtues of that reportedly very stable position. The steadiest position you’re likely to find in Africa is standing up with the forearm of your rifle resting in the cradle of a couple of bamboo sticks held together by a strip of old inner tube.
Shooting on your hind legs is perhaps the most graphic example of the difference between smallbore and big-bore shooting technique. To confuse the standing position used by smallbore target shooters with the offhand position, with or without the aid of sticks, commonly required of dangerous-game hunters in the field is nothing less than instant disaster. A lightweight 308 with a short length of pull might feel right at home with its bottom metal resting delicately on the fingertips of your faceful of left hand with your left elbow searching for your hip and your right elbow stuck out sideways like a broken wing and your body tilted backward at the waist in some kind of crooked house-of-cards balancing act. Try that with a heavy-recoiling rifle and you may never see it again.
Firing a heavy rifle is a two-handed, not a one-handed, proposition. Your length of pull needs to be long enough to help you tuck your right elbow in and down, not let it fly out and back, because this position gathers your shoulder muscles in the right place to act as a recoil pad. Your left hand needs to reach out and grab the checkering at the front of the fore-end firmly, holding the rifle rather than just cradling it, and pressing the butt back tight into your shoulder. This is why African rifles have open wrists you can hold onto while your right hand and fingers are performing the more delicate operations of working the trigger and the bolt, not acutely angled grip hooks you have to pull back on to keep the rifle in your shoulder while the trigger guard is banging into your fingers under the heavy recoil and your left arm is going for a stroll in the fresh air.
In a real sense, shooting a heavy rifle is like shooting a big-bore combat pistol -– you need an aggressive stance as a foundation, you need both arms and both hands working together, and you have to hold on to the highly animated beast with a manly grip. Without actually fighting the recoil, which is a battle you cannot win, you need to set up firm but flexible resistance to it on all fronts so that it engages your whole body in the dance and doesn’t just step on your exposed toes.
It’s well known that, quite often, a woman -– once she overcomes the inexplicable feminine tendency to approach a rifle from the side instead of the rear -– can soak up heavy recoil better than a man. Perhaps it’s because women tend to be smaller, more flexible and compact, just as shorter men also tend to handle recoil better than taller men. But it may be simpler yet. I think it’s because a woman is accustomed to dealing with sensual overload by spreading it throughout her entire being, whereas a man is accustomed to concentrating anything he can feel at all in one rather small and fragile spot.
Practice is the key that will let you learn how to stop flinching and love the booming recoil of a big dangerous-game rifle. Practice, that is, of the right kind. Shooting off a benchrest, for instance, is not practice. Nobody hunts dangerous game from a bench. This little chore is for sighting in and chronographing loads. Get it over with and move on. In fact, shooting off any kind of rest at all is not practice. You may be lucky enough to find a tree branch or an ant hill or something out in the bush you can put to momentary use but this is hardly something you can practice. Keep it simple. Practice only the most necessary and difficult position -– offhand, sometimes with sticks. Any other position-of-opportunity will be easy in comparison.
Shooting without thinking about what you’re doing is not practice. Mindlessly capping off rounds, if your rifle doesn’t deliver a convincing lesson in concentration painful enough to get your immediate attention, usually just reinforces your bad habits. Like flinching. This is why some expert airheads say that the more you shoot a hard-kicking rifle the worse your flinch will become. If you remember to engage your brain before you disengage your safety, just the opposite is true. The more you shoot a hard-kicking rifle properly, the more you will enjoy the exhilarating (and painless) experience and the less you will tolerate any rude flinch that tries to crash your party.
There are some tricks you can play on yourself. Even a clever and rebellious mind is pretty obvious in its paranoid stratagems and fairly easy to manipulate. Look at your face. Well, imagine looking at it. Your face is the window of your mind, and I don’t mean that in any poetic sense. Ask any decent poker player. If your face is all scrunched up while you’re pulling the trigger you’re going to flinch. No doubt about it. Don’t let your face spoil your shot. Wipe off that grimace, relax your facial muscles and the rest of your body will follow. If you wear a mask of calm serenity on your face while you’re pulling the trigger, you will not flinch. It is virtually impossible for a creature with the face of an angel to yank on the trigger like a beast from hell. Your mind will fall for this one every time.
A lot of my rifles have set triggers, of either the single or double persuasion, especially the midbores -– the 9.3s and .375s. When time-and-space-appropriate, I use the set triggers in the field, but more often I practice with them. I use them to demoralize any evil-minded flinch that may be slinking around the shadows of the old saloon. Even the meanest flinch in town will not find it easy to beat a 12-ounce trigger to the draw. And every flinch you drill between the eyes with a steady shot is one more dead flinch. Practicing with a set trigger also helps break the habit developed by some shooters, especially those who don’t shoot offhand enough, of taking forever to get off a shot. In any hunting situation, especially with dangerous game, you don’t have forever. So don’t practice taking it. Learn to trust your initial good sight picture. Practice shooting quickly, including some instantaneous flash-sighted snap-shots. Push yourself.
Handgunners long ago invented the most effective and fool-proof and by far the dirtiest trick anyone could ever play on a flinch. Revolver shooters simply leave one chamber empty and spin the cylinder as randomly as a roulette wheel. Semiauto shooters have an accomplice insert a dummy round somewhere between the first and last round in the magazine. Bolt action rifle shooters can do the same. There is no escape from this dirtiest of all tricks. Even a flinch that has been perfectly camouflaged and hidden down deep in a shooter’s subconsciousness sucking out his brains for years is suddenly revealed in all its ugly nakedness as it jumps out and bites you in the face with all the teeth in its bloody little alien head the moment the hammer falls on an empty chamber or dead primer, its rude discovery accompanied by the loudest click anybody ever heard, the silliest jerky little dance any slapstick comedian could ever come up with, and embarrassment as brutal as an ice cold shower out in front of the blizzard-battered tent up in the snow-covered mountains at elk camp. It’s an unforgettable lesson. The absence of a flinch, on the other hand, sets off a classical string quartet and the soothing sound of a French horn drifting in on a warm breeze from enchanted green hills somewhere as the firing pin smoothly lowers itself into its waiting bed. Absolutely works every time.
No matter how much you shoot you can’t shoot enough, though it’s a good policy to take a break now and then if you’re in danger of getting sloppy brain-dead exhausted. That’s what shade trees and good Cuban cigars are for. If high-quality shooting is necessary to keep your little gray cells lubricated, high-quantity shooting is necessary to weave thick cables connecting your memory with your muscles. The basic rifle course at Gunsite Academy calls for 1500 rounds over five days. Multiplying that by the cost of a factory-loaded round of .416 Rigby ammo quickly explains why a lot of guys shoot light-loaded “practice” rounds when nobody is looking. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, as even a fairly stupid brain can figure out that a synthetically reduced little tap of recoil coming out of a big rifle capable of so much more is bound to be some kind of cheap trick. I think it’s better to get yourself a good bolt-action .22 or .223 or Hornet and buy ammo by the carload. This will work just as well to indelibly engrave muscle memory, and you may just forget that such a thing as recoil exists. When you remember, pick up your real rifle and shoot as much of the full-power stuff as you can possibly afford.
There is one guaranteed sure-fire way to completely eliminate the recoil of any rifle known to man. Go hunting. A blast of adrenaline will blow out any recoil fantasy you may be tempted to entertain. That’s what adrenaline is for. Adrenaline and whatever other mysterious surge animates the being of a hunter at the imminent moment of the kill. Nothing like a charging buffalo in your scope to clear your mind of girlish daydreams and self-indulgent hypersensitivities. But you don’t have to worry about that anyway. You programmed your muscle memory and cured your flinch habit at the range.
From the shooter’s end of things, the one and only difference between pulling the trigger on a .505 Gibbs and a .22 Long Rifle is recoil. We can therefore conclude in the best Socratic tradition that the entire element of heightened fun, excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction we get from shooting the hardest kicking dangerous-game rifles we can afford to feed resides solely in the happy phenomenon of recoil. It naturally follows that recoil, at least the part of it that is real, is a very good thing. The best.
Recoil is your friend.