This article originally appeared in the May 2002 Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine.

By Larry Lyons 

Vanity is a strange thing. No one enjoys pain, yet in the name of machismo we sit down at the shooting bench with ‘Ol Thunder Whacker, get battered unmercifully; and come up grinning.’

“Recoil don’t bother me none,” we say as we reel off towards the car in a brain-addled stupor. It really doesn’t have to be that way, you know. There are ways to dance around the laws of physics and take much of the bite out of recoil, making shooting a lot more fun.

One of our cheapest and easiest tools in the war on recoil is the recoil pad. Pad technology has come a long way since the days of plain old rubber. Sorbothane, a synthetic polymer material, has revolutionized the recoil pad. The stuff feels squishy, almost like soft modeling clay, only it returns to its original form.

The three best known Sorbothane pads are Kick-Eez, Terminator, and Pachmayr’s Decelerator models. At this point the Kick-Eez seems to lead the Sorbothane pad field, especially with competition shooters. According to Trap and Field Magazine, more than half the All American shooters now use Kick-Eez pads.

Bob Pearce, president of Kick-Eez tells me its pad dissipates more than 75 percent of the kinetic energy generated during recoil.  Having nearly flunked physics, I can’t tell you just how that translates to actual recoil.

It’s certainly not a 75 percent reduction in felt recoil, but I can say there is a very noticeable difference between Sorbothane and the standard rubber pads, especially on hard-kicking guns. They are more expensive than other pads but worth the few extra bucks if you want the ultimate in recoil reduction.

Without question, short of lashing a 10-pound brick to the gun, a muzzle brake does more to reduce the recoil than any other single item. Muzzle brakes are sworn both by and at. One school, which I shall call the Practical Ones, consider them the greatest thing since nachos and salsa. The other school, which I will dub the Aesthetics, think they’re one of the ugliest things known to man and go out of their way to berate them.

I used to be a staunch member of the latter class but since playing with some of the new models on my custom Titanium short magnums I’m doing considerable rethinking on this subject. 

Most brakes are simply a tube threaded onto the muzzle with the inside of the tube just slightly over bore size to allow the bullet to pass freely. Holes or slots are milled into the tube to vent the gasses out sideways.

This side-venting tends to arrest rearward movement of the gun. The larger the diameter of the brake the better it works, because it provides more surface areas in the holes for gasses to push against. In addition, the longer the brake the more holes there are, which also creates more surface area.

Therein lies the brake designer’s biggest bugaboo. At what point does a brake go from tolerable appearance to being a corncob stuck on the end of the barrel? The compromise is up to you. There are dozens of styles to choose from and many can be either left full-sized or turned down to a lesser diameter.

Many variables determine how much recoil reduction is achieved by a given muzzle brake. Caliber, velocity and powder charge are just a few of the things that enter into the equation. Brownell’s, the gunsmithing supply firm, says the Vais muzzle brake is its best-seller and guesstimates it reduces the felt recoil of a .300 magnum by about 40 percent. That’s a bunch, and I would consider that estimate conservative.

For some reason noise has become a major issue with muzzle brakes, even to the point where some people who would immensely benefit refuse to try them. In my opinion, this noise business is just propaganda from the aforementioned Aesthetics School. A brake doesn’t increase the noise level: it just makes it sound louder to the shooter. What’s the difference if a gun sounds sort of loud or really loud? Guns do make noise.

When choosing a brake and having it installed, there are several considerations. Every manufacturer has its own idea on hole pattern, size and arrangement.

It’s essential that holes on the brake are equally and precisely spaced around the bore axis to prevent the gasses from escaping unevenly and tipping the bullet, thereby destroying accuracy. The brake must also be installed in perfect alignment with the bore or accuracy will suffer.

This is no job for the basement hack; only a skilled operator with precision equipment should be called upon. 

For those who just can’t handle the looks of a brake, Mag-na-porting is an option. This is simply a series of small holes milled directly into the top side of the barrel itself with no lumpy add-ons. The primary function of Mag-na-porting is to reduce muzzle jump. It also reduces some felt recoil, partly from gas action and partly by keeping the gun from jumping up and causing the stock comb to whack you in the mug. Recoil reduction is nowhere near that of a full-blown muzzle brake, however. 

Another gadget we seldom hear about is the recoil reducer. This is simply a tube with a moving weight inside. Reducers do more than just add weight. Prior to firing, the weight is at the rear of the tube. As the gun moves back under recoil the weight wants to stay stationary, so some of the recoil energy is expended in getting the weight moving. In addition, since it takes some time for the weight to travel the length of the tube, recoil is spread over a long length of time. 

One basic type of recoil reducer uses mercury, a very heavy liquid, for the weight. The other type employs a sliding weight under spring tension. Both are usually installed out of sight in the buttstock, but some models are designed to go in shotgun magazine tubes, clamp onto the barrel or fit in one chamber of a double gun.

The mercury types are the most popular and seem to reduce more recoil than the spring style. However, they must be installed at an upward angle to keep the mercury at the rear of the tube. This is easily accomplished with buttstock installations, but for those mounted elsewhere the gun must be at a slightly elevated angle when fired for the reducer to work properly. This is seldom a problem for wing shooting and most of the clay games but could be a factor with certain rifle disciplines.

The biggest disadvantage of the recoil reducer is its weight, which is typically three-quarters of a pound. Not only does it add to the overall weight of the gun; it severely changes the balance. Of course, counterweight can be added fore or aft to restore balance but at the expense of more weight yet. This may even be desirable on a trap or waterfowl gun but is seldom appreciated when scaling mountains or wandering the uplands.

The gun doesn’t have to be a mammoth-slayer to be a candidate for recoil reduction. If we can make a .270 feel like shooting a .243, why not? It will be a heck of a lot more fun to shoot. It helps those of us prone to the flinchies too. Rather than handicapping a youngster or petite female with a smaller-caliber gun, get one that will best do the job and subdue the recoil.

One of the most unique reasons for recoil reduction comes from a good friend of mine. He has gone to great lengths to reduce the recoil of his .22/250 varminter, which recoils barely more than a .22 rimfire to begin with, just so he can actually see the bullet punch the hole in the target or hit the ‘chuck.

Regardless of your reason, the tools are out there to reduce recoil. Brownell’s, 641/623-5401, is the largest supplier of such things and has a wide selection to choose from.