Recoil Management and Concealed Carry

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This is a basic law of physics and it applies when you are shooting a gun. Whenever you fire a cartridge, the expanding gases from the “explosion” that occurs immediately after the primer is struck causes the bullet to travel down the barrel, exit at the muzzle, and then continue to travel downrange until it strikes something or the forces of gravity and air resistance cause it to slow down and simply fall out of the sky. At the same time, the energy that pushes the bullet out of the barrel also pushes back against the shooter’s hand(s) and arm(s). This is known as “recoil” and, in the case of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, is necessary for the firearm to function properly.

Another general principal of physics is that the more a bullet weighs and/or the faster it travels, the greater the amount of energy and recoil that is produced. Weight and velocity directly contribute to the bullet’s “stopping power,” with the heavier and faster bullets having more “stopping power” than lighter and slower traveling bullets. So, “bigger is better” but this also means more recoil that the shooter must deal with.

The movement of the gun during recoil results in the sights needing to be realigned and the sights brought back on the target. The more the gun recoils, the longer it takes to get the sights back on the target so you can fire another shot. Thus, the shooter’s ability to manage the recoil to get the sights back on target quickly is very important in self-defense situations.

There are many factors that affect your ability to manage the recoil of you gun. These include:

  • The way you hold and grip the gun
  • The size and weight of the gun
  • The weight and velocity of the bullets used in your ammunition
  • Your stance and whether you are shooting the gun with a support of some sort
  • Your upper body strength

Shooters that use a two-handed grip generally are better able to manage the recoil than shooters that only use one hand to hold their handgun. Using two hands to grip the gun results in the recoil forces being distributed along both arms rather than concentrated on just one arm. It also means you can apply more of your strength in holding your gun. Using a forward-leaning, aggressive stance allows you to apply more of your body weight to resist the recoil. Resting your gun against some solid object usually helps with recoil management because some of the recoil forces are applied to that solid object as well as your body.

The gun itself can help with recoil management. As mentioned earlier, automatic and semi-automatic firearms rely on the recoil forces to help operate the gun. As a result, some of the recoil forces are absorbed by the working of the gun’s action. Non-automatic guns—i.e. revolvers, single-shot pistols and rifles, bolt-action and lever-action rifles, pump shotguns, etc.—do not require the recoil forces to operate the gun’s action so those recoil forces are absorbed by the shooter.

The weight of your gun absorbs some of the recoil forces as well, with a heavier gun taking up more of these forces than a lighter weight gun will. The weight of the gun affects the “felt recoil” that shooting it produces.

The larger the gun, the better able the shooter is to get a good grip on it and thus resist the recoil forces. This is especially evident with some of the sub-compact pistols that are targeted for the concealed carry market. It is often difficult to get more than one or two fingers of the shooting hand on the pistol’s grip. Guns that are difficult to grip produce more “felt recoil” than other guns do. As a result, it should come as no surprise that a small, lightweight pocket pistol like the Ruger LCP® firing .380 ACP ammunition can produce more “felt recoil” than a larger and more powerful 9mm Parabellum pistol does.

In addition to the length of the pistol’s grip, the width of the grip can also be a factor in recoil management. The wider the grip, the larger the area of your shooting hand that is available to absorb the recoil forces.

The grip angle of your pistol can also aid in recoil management by helping to direct the recoil forces straight back into your hand rather than rotating the gun in your hand like the grip of most single-action revolvers are designed to do. (The designers wanted the single-action revolvers to rotate in the shooter’s hand to put their thumb closer to the hammer to re-cock it for subsequent shots.) Also, the closer the barrel is to the grip, the more the recoil forces are directed straight back into the shooter’s hand. This is one of the theories behind the somewhat radical design of the Chiappa Rhino revolver.

Polymer is increasingly being used in the construction of handguns, especially frames and grips. These polymer-framed guns “flex” under recoil and thus absorb some of the recoil forces. This “flexing” does not occur in guns with steel frames.

Magnum and +P ammunition produces more recoil than standard velocity ammunition does. Also, the larger the caliber, the more recoil there is. This is usually a result of larger caliber ammunition using heavier weight bullets. Of course, the more powerful the ammunition is, the better its “stopping power” is.

In addition to producing more recoil, some ammunition produce a “sharper” recoil than others. For instance, the “felt recoil” from a .40 S&W cartridge occurs perceptually quicker than 9mm Parabellum or .45 ACP cartridges do. The same thing occurs with the .357 Magnum cartridge. While the .327 Federal Magnum also produces a sharper recoil force it feels to be less than that produced by .38 Special +P cartridges, which has equal or less “stopping power” than the little magnum does.

All of this results in a dilemma for those that wish to carry a concealed handgun. On the one hand they want the most powerful handgun possible to give them the greatest chance of producing a one-shot stop should the need arise. At the same time, they want the smallest and lightest gun possible when they carry it. Powerful guns produce more recoil. Small and lightweight guns are not able to help absorb recoil anywhere near the extent that larger, heavier guns can. Thus it falls to the shooter to absorb the recoil forces that cannot be absorbed by the gun. Having a good grip and stance and building upper body strength are then needed to compensate for the inability of the gun itself to contribute to recoil management. More time at the range shooting your gun will help you develop these and help you learn to manage the recoil better so that fast follow-up shots are possible.

Gary Evens is an NRA-Certified Instructor and Range Safety Officer.

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