Hard-recoiling guns have been a pain, pun intended, for as long as the big kickers have been around. For some reason, handguns with authority have borne the brunt of that curse more often than long guns. But all big-bore guns can be hard kickers and some of the smaller bores can smack a shooter pretty fair also.
Extreme recoil hurts and there’s no denying that. Some people are more resistant (for lack of a better word) to recoil and some are way more sensitive. Guys like the famous gun writer Elmer Keith, who was not a large person at all, figured it was all in your mind and that’s where recoil was controlled. There’s merit to that line of thought, but when your mind expects a loud noise, followed by a solid whack on your shoulder and jawbone or even just a hard wrenching and twisting of your wrist and hand, your mind knows it’s going to be a big hit and anticipates the event.
One of my favorite rifles is the model 95 lever-action Winchester chambered in Theodore Roosevelt’s “Big Medicine” lion killer, the .405 WCF. Over the years I’ve owned several, including originals and the Browning recreations. I’ve loved every one. But other shooters, even some popular gun writers, people you’d expect to be aware of the realities of shooting bigger bore rifles, are always saying, “ those dang things kick like a mule.”
I suppose they will smack you hard if you don’t cuddle them close and treat them with firmness. Kind of like how you should treat your wife or husband. Regardless, of all the ones I’ve shot over the years, only one ever slapped me up alongside the face real hard. That was primarily because my go-to gunsmith for rifle stuff, Randy Selby, had “mic’d” the bore, found it to be a few thousands oversize, and gave me some bullets originally designed for one of the big .40-plus African calibers to try in it.
I did. And it hurt! The rifle wasn’t a model 95, but a custom single-shot, fairly lightweight and the recoil impulse slammed it into my shoulder like a runaway freight train. Those were 400-grain bullets, if I remember correctly and I had loaded them fairly stout, just like I did when shooting my 300-grain, cast-bullet handloads. However, subsequent shots proved that, despite recoil, the combination was very accurate. Unfortunately I traded that rifle, my last .405, to a dealer at a gun show for something else I just had to have.
Recently I wrote a column about shooting my .475 Linebaugh chambered Ruger Bisley that Dustin Linebaugh rechambered for me, as it was originally a .480 Ruger. That’s the smaller version of the .475. I also stated then that I thought this revolver, fully loaded with bear-busting loads, was as much revolver as I wanted to handle. It was my upper limit, so to speak. Recoil, with Dustin’s bear-killer loads, was impressive, but it didn’t actually hurt and even under full recoil, the revolver is controllable. However, you have to be paying attention. In that example, my attention span shifted and I paid the price.
The problem that arises is, in order to be proficient with any firearm, continual and concentrated practice is needed. Firearms marksmanship is a perishable skill set and, in order to be at the top of your game, practice is a requirement. As the best shot with a handgun I’ve ever seen, my late friend Bob Edgar once told me, “It isn’t that practice makes perfect, rather it’s perfect practice that makes perfect.” In other words, if you can’t be serious about it, don’t expect to improve. Bob also opined that practicing bad habits only makes one proficient at those bad habits.
So the question becomes, “How does one practice adequately when every time the hammer drops, you get the snot kicked out of you?” The answer is, quite simply put, reduced loads. As in loading less powder and just enough bullet weight to let you experience the ignition impulse and learn to control it. Once that’s accomplished, loads can be gradually increased until you master full control. Or you can choose a lighter caliber you’re comfortable with and enjoy that.
In my case, good friend George Markham told me about his favorite load for the .475 with a powder called Trail Boss, recently developed for large cases and reasonable velocities. Loading about 11 grains under a 440-grain bullet gets the big slug out the barrel at around 1,000 FPS. It also shoots to a similar point of aim as the bad boys. The big plus is that recoil impulse is slower than with most popular powders and tends to smooth out the recoil.
Another load I figured out uses the 335 grain Rim Rock bullets (They’re made in Polson, Mont.) over an intelligent portion of Winchester 231 powder for about the same velocity in the .480 Ruger case. I got my load from one of my loading manuals and it makes shooting this bad boy downright enjoyable.
Even at reduced velocity, those bad boys will still shoot clean through a Buick and kill a Pontiac parked on the other side. No slouches here and recoil ain’t all that bad. I bought a couple hundred bullets from those folks in Montana as I haven’t yet found a company selling a bullet mold for that caliber that I like. I also got a couple of boxes of Dustin’s bullets, but they’re heavyweights and I’ll save them for serious practice and for wet work. Meanwhile, I’m still looking for bullet molds for this big guy.
I’ve also come up with an new favorite load for a .44 magnum. It’s all about loading the Hornady bullet they developed years ago for the .444 Marlin rifles to give it better penetration and performance on big game critters. Initially the .444 Marlin cartridge was loaded with handgun bullets which often came apart, even on deer. Shooting anything bigger, like a bear, was a gamble that the slug would stay together, penetrate and do its job.
Hornady developed a stouter, heavier bullet more suited to bigger critters, like moose, elk and bears. I reasoned that since the Hornady 265-grain bullet was developed for improved penetration at rifle velocities, then it should basically just bore a hole at the reduced velocities a revolver is capable of. Penetration was what I was looking for, which is required for big, nasty critters that bite and claw. Since it was the same diameter as a .44 magnum bullet, I figured it should work.
Taking a handload using W231 powder straight from the manual, that 265 grain slug easily shoots through a 14 inch thick spruce tree, with minimum expansion, and exits heading for the great beyond. Be sure of your backstop with these puppies, should you elect to go this route. But for an emergency shot at a ticked-off bruin , if you can connect you’re going to ruin its day. Completely. Plus, in my 3 1/2 inch barreled Bisley, it’s handier than velcro shoelaces.
Yeah, fishing is going to be a lot more fun this summer, regardless of what artillery I’m using for peace of mind.