Muzzle Blast, Recoil, Gun Weight, Balance, Handling & Steadiness

Or, the virtually ignored factors that make you miss and how to correct for them.

In America, if a gun feels good and is easy to hit with, the standard pat answer is that it has “good balance.” But that’s only part of the equation and using it as a pat answer is like picking one number and saying it is the correct answer to every mathematical equation. That just don’t cut it. Most people let the manufacturers tell them what they want. But often the manufacturer is concerned with their profit margin more than the fine points of gun responsiveness in the hand and the ease of hitting with it. Indeed, this subject is rarely pursued very far. The result is that many people have guns that are not well suited to them and cause them to miss more than they should. There are several virtually ignored factors that can explain misses, and we will explore them here.

Muzzle blast is as big a factor in flinching as recoil is. It is much more serious than recoil, as it can quickly produce permanent hearing loss. Handgun cartridges like the .454 Casul have a decibel level so high that both ear plugs and earmuffs together cannot guarantee you will not have permanent hearing loss. Imagine shooting one without any hearing protection, as you would be doing if you were carrying one and suddenly had to fire it.
Many African guides will not let their clients use a ported Weatherby Magnum because one shot from these rifles has produced permanent hearing loss in the hunter, as well as guides and trackers standing nearby. While supersonic velocities that add a sonic boom to the muzzle blast are fine in rifles, they are hell in handguns where anything over 1,100 feet per second adds far too much noise. The old high-velocity .32-20 loads (not the mild cowboy action loads of today) were among the first big offenders. There is an old saying that every .32-20 revolver has been dropped once, when the owner first fired it and then grabbed his ears in pain. That’s why the Kimball .30 carbine auto pistol and the Ruger single-actions chambered for the .30 carbine never caught on. It hurts your ears too bad to shoot them. They should have taken note that this was the reason the Army developed, then quickly abandoned, a .30 carbine pistol in World War II. No one could stand firing it.
I have known men to quit shooting .44 Magnum handguns and other overly loud guns simply because of the excessive noise. There is a limit to what you can take and still shoot straight. Those who say it doesn’t bother them all seem to have hearing loss. That’s too high a price to pay.

If you flinch from the noise, there is good reason. Decibel level should be a consideration in your purchase. Muzzle brakes divert gas and noise back at you, reducing felt recoil while destroying hearing. It’s better to be kicked than deafened. Silencers do not remove all the noise from your gun any more than your car muffler eliminates all the noise from your car, but they do bring it down a lot. I still wear hearing protection when shooting a silenced gun, which should tell you just how much noise remains. Silencers are also the most efficient muzzle brakes possible, as the powder gases are expending all their energy pushing forward against the silencer’s baffles instead of simply being diverted back towards your ears like a conventional muzzle brake does.
Silencers should be totally unrestricted as hearing protectors. As long as they are on the NFA list, along with machineguns and cannons, many people will be afraid to own or use one out of fear of overzealous law enforcement agents spotting them and harassing or even killing them. Few can afford the $200 transfer tax or are willing to jump through the hoops the government requires for their ownership.

Recoil is another factor that causes flinching and therefore misses. To begin with, no one ever seems to teach people how to handle it, and then some guns are really fierce kickers. To shoot a gun with heavy recoil, like a big elephant gun, you should lean into the gun so it can push you straight upright instead of backwards, which can result in you falling. Women in particular are prone to balance a heavy rifle by leaning backwards so the weight is better centered over their body for more comfort. When you are straight up or leaning back a bit, don’t be surprised when a .577 3-inch Nitro Express shoves you off balance and you find yourself sitting on the ground. Leaning into the gun is only part of handling that much recoil. Hold the gun tightly without being so tight you shake, for a big 4-gauge rifle is capable of leaping out of your hands when gripped normally and fired.

Bring the buttplate firmly into your shoulder so it does not work up momentum before it impacts you, but not so firmly that the muscle is compressed. You want to have some give left for when the recoil comes. Now relax the rest of your body and let it shove you upright. Roll with the punch and do not fight it and you will be fine. Brace against a .577 Nitro Express or a 4-gauge and it can injure you, no matter how big and strong you are. These techniques are useful on all smaller calibers and will enable you to handle recoil properly.
Gun design factors immensely into recoil. Military rifles like the M1903 Springfield and the 98K Mauser have broad recoil-absorbing buttplates so the soldier can shoot 100 rounds a day without flinching. Sporting rifles are as slaves to style as a fashion-minded woman, as evidenced by their slim stocks. The narrow, hard, rubber recoil pads put on these guns as a solution to the increased recoil are virtually useless. A wide Sorbothane pad works well, though.
A M1903 Springfield weighs 8¼ pounds, but many men, in mindless imitation of factory sporting rifles, cut the wood down, reducing the weight and unleashing the recoil. Bad idea. Gun weight is a major factor in recoil. A 15-pound .577 Nitro Express is not bad to shoot. A 14-pound one is still tolerable. At 13 pounds, it kicks hard. Below that, I don’t want to fire it. Some years ago I saw an ad for a 7-pound .500 Nitro Express for sale with a box of 19 cartridges. Next month it was for sale again with a new address and 18 rounds. This repeated every month with only one round fired each time. Finally someone bought it and shipped it to a gunmaker to add lead fore and aft until it got up to a shootable weight. No man familiar with that caliber would have ever fired it at 7 pounds.
Not all stocks are well designed for recoil and no one set of stock measurements can fit everyone. The U.S. military settled on short stocks, figuring the tall men could adapt. The 13-inch length of pull used on American military rifles resulted in some men getting the cocking piece of the Springfield’s bolt in their eye when they had to work the bolt fast. In the British gun trade, where gunstocks are fitted to 1/16 inch in all directions, the only time a 13-inch length of pull has been used was for short women under 5 feet tall. I am 6-foot-2 and need a 15 9/16-inch length of pull.
A gun fitting with a try gun that is adjustable in every possible direction is standard for customers of Best Quality doubles in the British Isles. A properly fitted gunstock drastically reduces recoil, while ensuring that the gun is accurately pointing exactly where you are looking when the gun is cheeked. It’s worth a trip there just to have that done. You then can get your guns restocked or altered to your measurements. This is important because a stock that does not fit you will make you miss either high, low, or to one side or another because that’s where the gun is wanting to point.

Scopes can figure into the equation, as scopes on rifles with heavy recoil can produce the famed “Weatherby eyebrow,” when the recoil drives the scope into the shooter, making a cookie-cutter scar around his eye. Now there’s a quick way to get a flinch! Some of the best and most experienced shooters have fallen prey to this infamous injury, also known as scope bite. The solution is the forward-mounted Scout Scope. A 2¾-power Scout Scope will shoot just as accurately as the largest magnification conventional scope out to 300 yards, and you have no business shooting game past that range under normal circumstances. Indeed, 200 yards is a reasonable limit for the hunter.

After all, it’s called “hunting,” not “long-range sniping.” You are supposed to be a good enough hunter to get close to your quarry. Personally, I don’t get the thrill of shooting something that is a tiny speck in the distance that I do in shooting something that is up close and personal.

Balance is a variable factor, as all men do not need the same balance point. Basically, the balance point should be between the hands, where both hands work equally to lift the gun. A bit of muzzle heaviness for rifles can be desirable.

The problem is that not all men lift equally with both hands, so the balance point varies with the individual. You can also have two guns with the exact same balance point, yet one will feel like a fence post in the hands and one will come alive in your hands. Leverage plays a role here, among other things. Weight further out feels heavier than it is, although it has no effect on the balance point. This is why the barrels are swamped on Best Quality shotguns.
Grip size and position are important. The smaller the grip, the lighter the gun feels, because the tighter your hand is closed, the stronger the grip. Thus a small grip is taking less effort to use and that makes the gun feel lighter.
Grasping the barrels of a side-by-side double makes your pointing four times as accurate as holding a beavertail forend. Laying the thumb alongside those barrels is a guaranteed way to ensure master eye dominance. That will not work on an over-and-under, where nothing can prevent the other eye from seeing the great mass of both barrels, while the master eye sees only a narrow rib. The other eye may fight for dominance in this situation and in the odd times it wins, you miss to one side. The deep grip and the wind resistance of the over-and-under’s barrels help defeat liveliness in that design.
Remember that the O/U was the first double developed, but it was quickly abandoned in favor of the vastly superior side-by-side configuration, which achieves its highest form in the Best Quality game guns of the British Isles. The O/U is an aberration that caught on because it is in style. A successful marketing campaign worked well, as most shooters are as fashion-conscious as a well-dressed woman and just as quick to give in to peer pressure to conform to the rest of the pack. The supposedly big advantage of a single sighting plane on the O/U is all the expert shotgunner should need to recognize a con. You point a shotgun. You are not supposed to even see the barrels, let alone sight down them. You don’t aim it like a rifle. Unfortunately in America, a nation of riflemen, this sounded right to too many suckers. So they end up not hitting as many birds as the older generation did with their old side-by-side guns.
Dead Foot Arms

A fitted side-by-side game gun is so much a part of you that man and gun are one at the moment of firing in a mystical zen-like experience that is the highest thrill in the shooting sports. When they say a Best Quality game gun feels lively, they mean it feels alive in your hands with a will to hit the target all on its own. It is the only design that enables you to hit every time.
Game guns are usually fitted with straight grip stocks, as these point better. Some have a half-pistol grip stock known as a Prince of Wales grip. You can make the 90-degree straight-up overhead shot commonly encountered on driven grouse shoots with either of these, but it is difficult, if not impossible, with a full pistol-grip stock, so you rarely see full pistol-grip stocks on game guns.


For ease of handling on fast-moving birds, game guns are made as light as possible. The accepted limit is 96 times the weight of the shot charge thrown, as any less produces severe recoil. That means a 6-pound gun for a 1-ounce shot load. Game guns usually run 6 to 7 pounds. They are almost always 12-gauge because the British carry their shells loose in a shell bag and a smaller-gauge shell that could fall through the chamber and lodge in the forcing cone could be missed in the hurried loading when shooting driven game.
A proper shell loaded on top of it then produces a blow-up. This happened to General Franco in Spain when his loader didn’t realize a smaller-gauge shell was in the shell bag and the result was a blown-up barrel on a fine Purdey shotgun. For safety reasons, it is just better to only have 12-gauge shells there and the best way to ensure that is to not have a gun in a smaller gauge.

The twin pistol grips of the Thompson submachinegun combine with a 15-inch length of pull on the stock, perfect balance and leverage, and heavy weight to produce a remarkably steady gun – possibly the steadiest of all time. You can’t improve on this one, but you sure could put those twin pistol grips on other designs to good effect. They enable the hands and body to brace the gun in a most natural way that is extremely effective for both accurate pointing and steadiness. The current semiauto M1927A1 Thompson made by Auto Ordnance has a legal-length 16-inch barrel that doesn’t hurt its steadiness a bit. It is an extremely efficient hunting and protection rifle.
Steadiness is to be desired at all costs in a rifle if you are going to shoot well with it. Remember that offhand shooting is often the only shooting available in the field. African hunting rifles are often found to be on the heavy side, not only for recoil mitigation but also because it is difficult to impossible to hold a light rifle steady after running after game in the African heat. Anything less than 10 pounds was proving troublesome in these conditions, which proved common in Africa.
Double rifles are traditionally very steady once they reach this weight and that is no wonder, considering the fact that they are the rifle version of the Best Quality game guns. Even among them, some stand out. I was particularly impressed with the .500 Nitro Express double rifles made by the Best Quality gunmaker Paul Roberts of J. Roberts & Son in England. Paul’s response at the time was, “After 27 African safaris, I think I should know what a double rifle should feel like.” Well, he certainly does.
A long barrel can be of great help for offhand shooting, as its leverage gives the steadiness of more weight without you having to lug that weight around with you. On two separate occasions I have been able to get the first two shots in an inch offhand at 100 yards with a long-barreled M1873 Trapdoor Springfield and with a long-barreled M96 Swedish Mauser using the issue iron sights. After two shots, the weight that had been working in my favor then began to work against me and fatigue started opening up the groups. Now, if I could just shoot that well everyday. This is a good time to point out that the inverted V front sight is far, far superior to the blade front sight favored by the U.S. military. It is easier to pick up in low light and does not need front sight hoods or wings to protect it. It is just as accurate as the blade for fine shooting. General Thompson knew this when he put a big rugged hollow ground one on his Thompson submachinegun.
The worst thing you can have on a rifle is a light barrel. I will never forget the time I was shooting out the X ring of the target with my Stoeger .22 Luger. A friend handed me an AR-7 survival rifle. These have a bare barrel of minimum length and it stows in the plastic stock. I could barely stay on the paper with that thing. The light barrel just would not settle down and be still. Later I learned to hold it in the crook of my left arm to fire it, but I still hit better with the pistol. There is one exception to the rules and that is the little M1 carbine, which in my book has earned the title of steadiest gun. It’s not its balance, as adding a bayonet doesn’t change the steadiness. Bill Ruger copied its length, weight, balance point, length of pull, drop at heel and comb when he made his great semiauto .44 Magnum carbine and its 10/22 companion gun in .22 LR, and they are no steadier than other guns their size.
We may not know exactly what they accidentally hit on in the M1 carbine that makes it so steady, but the fact is, it just is! Its handling properties are superb and it takes to instinct shooting like a duck takes to water. No wonder it is the weapon with the most hits on enemy soldiers for the number of rounds fired of any weapon ever issued by the U.S. military before or since. It also is the perfect small game rifle, killing cleanly without ruining a lot of meat, yet it still is capable of taking big game. Inland Manufacturing makes a splendid example of the M1 carbine today.
Finally, you may find a particular gun that just suits you best. I know one English Best Quality gun maker who hunted with another make of shotgun of good but not Best Quality, simply because he never missed with it. That’s the best reason of all to choose a gun.

Story by Jim Dickson, Some photos from Tactical Life & GunsAmerica