Recoil Management

by Bob Londrigan, published in Front Sight Magazine, July 2005

When shooting IPSC, I’m sure we all agree that recoil is something we want to reduce as much as possible.  After all, reduced recoil allows us to shoot faster and get better hits. What we are really trying to reduce is perceived recoil – how recoil feels to the shooter. Also, don’t lose track of why we are trying to control recoil.  The ultimate goal is to shoot the best hit factor on the variety of stages that you will face in a typical match.

Before we examine ways to change perceived recoil, let’s first take a look at how to evaluate it.  Trying to evaluate recoil is difficult because perceived recoil for the same system will be different from person to person. I call it a “system” because when evaluating recoil you must take into consideration the entire equation:  type of gun, type of compensator, weight of the gun as well as weight distribution on the gun, bullet weight, type of powder, power factor, your ability to control recoil, your shooting style, and the fit of the gun. It requires an ongoing process that you perform yourself.  You need to experiment with different setups in order to be able to find the best combination that consistently produces the highest hit factor for you. Remember that you will face a variety of challenges at a match and the gun will need to perform well on stand and shoot stages as well as shoot-on-the-move type field courses. 

You may have heard people refer to a specific load or gun as being “soft shooting” while another load or gun may be “harsh” or “violent.”  Many say they prefer the softer shooting version. I have found that up to a certain point the harder hitting load is often faster on the clock with better hits.  In most cases, I have found soft is slow especially in open guns.  You will have to decide what works best for you. Soft recoil means you have spread the recoil out over time or over a larger mass (heavier gun.) I stopped using subjective measurements such as shooting Bill drills and started looking more at the clock and my hits to determine what was working better for me.  One drill that works especially well is to set up a field course and shoot it using your current gun system about 20-25 times until you have a good feel for what the hit factor should be for that stage. Then switch to the new setup you are evaluating and shoot it several times to see if the hit factor is better or worse.  Also evaluate what you are seeing with the sights. Ask yourself if the gun is settling down faster.  Then during the next practice session, do the reverse.  Shoot the stage 20-25 times with the new system and then immediately go back to the old setup. If the new system results in better hit factors in both cases, they you are probably on to something.  Make sure you evaluate your true performance average and not your best performance.  You don’t want a system that improves your best performance but is inconsistent in how it affects your average performance.  This will likely produce inconsistent match results also.  Remember that consistency wins matches.

Evaluating recoil becomes even more difficult when you start talking about Open vs. Limited.  We are really trying to do two different things with these guns, so recoil has to be evaluated differently.  In limited guns, excess gases are propelled out the end of the barrel creating a rocket effect that pushes the gun back.  Since the barrel is above the pivot point of the gun, this creates muzzle flip. In open guns, the compensator and/or barrel ports (if properly designed and with the appropriate load) vent all of the gas upward instead of out the front of the barrel which results in less of a rocket effect and muzzle flip.  This being the case, the loads that most people are working with in limited use small amounts of fast burning powders combined with heavier bullets. In open, shooters use large amounts of slower burning powders with lighter bullets.  Another key factor when evaluating an open gun is that the dot not leave the scope when you fire a shot.  You should be able to follow the dot up and back on each shot.  Also the porting should be set up so that the dot does not “shatter” or disappear during recoil.  This is common with some types of porting.  Although based on their feedback from the dot, it may appear to the shooter that the gun is shooting very flat.  However, what is actually happening is that the dot momentarily disappears and then reappears.   This is something of an optical illusion.  A good way to evaluate this is to shoot the gun in dim light conditions that enable you to better track the dot. If you see the dot track up and back under low light and don’t see any movement under brighter light conditions, you are losing track of it during recoil. This will result in inconsistent match performance as you will be more likely to break a shot without seeing the dot.  What you should see if your comp/ports combination is working properly is the dot rise up without disappearing/shattering, not move out of the scope, and then come back down to the same spot. Porting needs to be balanced against compensation. Porting will make the gun shoot flatter but lessen the effect of the compensator to some degree and, if done to excess, can make the dot hard to track. Porting will also transfer some of the recoil impulse from muzzle flip to straight back motion which will hit your hand harder.

Evaluating recoil is the first step.  Changing your shooting system to improve your scores is the next step.  You want to do two things: 1) Reduce actual recoil; and 2) Change the perceived recoil to match your shooting style. 

Actual recoil can be reduced by using loads that are close to the power factor floor. Just make sure you have enough cushion so you don’t go below.

Aspects of perceived recoil that we need to consider are:

To reduce perceived recoil we need to talk about open and limited separately.  In an open gun a well designed comp can actually reduce not just perceived recoil but actual recoil itself.  The gases hitting the baffles of the comp actually push the gun forward and reduce the recoil transferred to your hand. This action is more important than the upward push of the gases that reduce muzzle flip but it does not reduce the recoil of the gun.  Reduced muzzle flip is important to improved scores but it is a trade off.  With less muzzle flip the recoil has to go somewhere so it comes straight back at the shooter and is felt in the hand, elbow, and shoulder.  This is why an open gun pushes so hard in your hand. Lighter bullets with slower powders will work the comp best and usually produce the best results. Barrel ports will reduce muzzle flip but there is a trade off – the less muzzle flip the more the recoil will come straight back into your hand (harder feel). Ports and comps work together as a system and one can affect the other.  More or larger ports and the gun shoots flatter, but the comp does not have as much gas to work with. The comp does not push forward as much with reduced gas pressure.  These two factors will cause the gun to hit your hand harder.  If you want an extremely flat gun you will have to put up with a harder hit in the hand. Softer shooting but a little more flip might be more suited to your particular style. One thing you’ll find is that you will be trading muzzle flip for a softer feel in the hand.  You have to decide what combination is best for you.

Spreading out recoil over time will also feel softer.  The same force (recoil) exerted over a longer period of time will feel softer but will be slower.  This is where softer is indeed slower, and it is something that needs to be evaluated by each individual shooter.

Spreading out the recoil over more mass will again make the gun feel softer but you will give back time in transitions and shooting on the move. Weight and weight distribution are always a trade off – the heavier the gun is the more recoil will be absorbed by the added mass.   Anytime you slow things down you are spreading out the recoil force over a longer time frame, and it will feel softer.  If you are good at controlling recoil with your grip, stance, musculature, etc., you may want to try something that is faster recoiling.  Soft=slow and may not be the best setup for you if the soft recoil is coming from spreading out the recoil over time. You must also consider the weight distribution on your gun when adding weight.  Some shooters like a muzzle heavy feel.  I personally like the gun to be neutral in my grip -- balanced over the middle finger of my strong hand. I don’t like to try to control muzzle flip with a gun that is heavy at the muzzle.  It dampens the flip but makes the front of the gun move around a lot.  I prefer a lighter comp and, if necessary, will add weight in close to the hand instead of on the front of the gun.

On a limited gun you don’t have quite as many options.  Most people will load a heavier bullet (180 gr) with a fast powder.  By using this combination your total charge weight will be smaller.  Most limited shooters run around 4.5 to 5.0 grains of powder as opposed to open shooters who use 9 to11 grains of powder.  Limited loads reduce the jet out of the front of the gun – less powder equals less gas.  Beyond that, to get a different balance and feel for the gun you can alter only the total weight of your gun and/or the distribution of that weight.   You can change the weight with a steel or plastic frame, a longer or shorter slide, a lightened slide, a tungsten guide rod, a long dust cover, a bull barrel, a large magwell with different weight material, and a steel or aluminum mainspring housing. Depending on what combination you use, you can configure a gun that weighs anywhere from 33 oz. to over 50 oz. and has a balance point anywhere from bottom heavy, to neutral, to muzzle heavy. Since there is significantly more recoil to control in a limited gun the slower, heavier setup may work better for you.

So the key to getting something that will shoot the best for you is to evaluate, then change, and then evaluate again.  Keep what works and reject what doesn’t while slowly heading towards the best gun system for you.  Then as your shooting skill increases continue to evaluate your equipment to make sure it keeps up with you.  What did not work for you as a “C” shooter may work great once you are an “M.”



1911 parts at Brazos Custom