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Getting kicked around.

A reader contacted me the other day. He'd had spinal surgery and had recovered well. A buddy invited him to shoot some large-caliber rifles, and he was asking for my opinion on potential ill effects from extensive recoil. I'm an English major, not a doctor, so my first thought was to suggest he ask his doctor. In fact, he'd already queried his neurosurgeon but hadn't received a reply.

My second thought: I don't have a clue. It's entirely possible his doctor wouldn't have a clue, either. His professional opinion would probably consider the nature and location of the injury and repair, but a conclusion might also depend on whether he is a shooter, and thus may or may not have any knowledge of the jolt caused by severe recoil.

We all know suburban legends about guys who fired big guns while leaning back against a tree (bad idea) and suffered broken collarbones and such. Under the right level of recoil--and the wrong position and body mass--it's possible to be knocked down, in which case the fall and the free missile that the rifle becomes are more dangerous than the kick. I have permanent scars from scope cuts, but I've never needed stitches. I've seen so much worse than I've taken: deep and bloody lacerations and multiple broken noses.

One could argue that most recoil-related injuries result from improper form or unwise practices, and this would be true. But what isn't known, at least to my knowledge, is if there are any long-term or cumulative effects to recoil. We now know there can be long-term consequences from repeated head trauma, as in contact sports, but the impact from most levels of recoil aren't even close to a helmet-to-helmet encounter or a combination punch from a talented boxer.

On the other hand, over the course of a shooting lifetime an average rifle shooter will touch off thousands of rounds--at minimum. Whether there is any cumulative effect or not is totally unknown.

There is, however, anecdotal evidence. After losing an eye to detached retina the late (and great) gun writer John Wootters did a lot of research on this malady. Although there is no scientific evidence, it turns out that detached retina has been disturbingly common among career gun writers. It's also apparently not uncommon among older trapshooters, who have withstood tens of thousands of rounds of 12-gauge recoil annually for decades.

Wootters' belief was that the effects could be cumulative. This is theory, not science. I am not suggesting that younger rifle shooters should curb their appetites, but perhaps common sense and precautions should be applied. (For the record, Wootters was not actively shooting when his retina detached.)

Detached retina is usually repairable if you catch it quick. If you don't, you will lose that eye. My old friend Bert Klineburger was on a bench in the Central African Republic, checking zero on his trusty .460 Wby., when he suffered a detached retina. He recognized the signs, called for a plane, and had the eye repaired in Paris. That was more than 40 years ago. Bert is a lot older now, but his eyes are just fine.

Frederick Selous, probably the greatest African hunter, started his career hunting ivory with two-and four-bore blackpowder cannons. In later life he wrote that the ferocious recoil from the big-bore blackpowder monsters "ruined his shooting for all time."

I have my own stories. For many years I thought I was impervious to recoil. Mind you, no one is totally proofed against it: At barely 211 got my first dose of a common trapshooter's ailment: a flinch. I was on the trap line, and my brain could not will my finger to hit the trigger. Going into that event I had a 99 average. A score of 65x100 that day ended that. I worked through it without going to a release trigger, but I never competed seriously again.

There's a rifle recoil story, too. I grew up in the first magnum craze and long accepted severe recoil as part of the game. But there came a point on a certain day. I had a double discharge from a friend's double-barreled .600 Nitro Express. I don't know if it was a malfunction or, in recoil from the first barrel, I inadvertently hit the rear trigger. Doesn't matter. Two 900-grain bullets at 1,950 fps, something over 250 ft.-lbs. of recoil.

I didn't go down, but that's only because a cameraman caught me. Seriously stunned, I was out cold for several seconds. My shoulder was sore for the next few days, but not crippling. Two days later I shot an elephant with a lighter cartridge, no problems.

Six months later, pulling a goat up a little hill on Mallorca, one of the two major tendons in that shoulder snapped. This injury is generally not repairable; you live with one tendon. There is no way to know if the double discharge was a factor. Time had passed, and in that time I had a horse roll over on me in Russia's Caucasus Mountains. So who knows? One tendon is enough since I wasn't going to pitch in the major leagues or quarterback in the NFL.

Today I'm a lot more careful about the recoil I accept. Maybe it's a good plan to start early. On the range, I often use Caldwell's Lead Sled. Essentially, it adds 50 pounds to gun weight, cutting recoil to nothing. I accept it isn't perfect; it can be hard on rifle stocks and scope mounts because the rifle no longer recoils freely. Also, the zero may not be exactly the same. But to heck with that: I use a Lead Sled for much range work. Unabashedly, I wimp up with a PAST recoil shield, and unless I'm having an extremely unwise macho moment, I limit myself to just a few rounds of extra-heavy recoil in any range session.

The best way to reduce recoil is lighter cartridges, which may be effective enough. Gun weight is the next best way to reduce recoil. Because of the increased muzzle blast (and my own hearing issues), I am not a big fan of muzzle brakes, but I concede they work and offer a solution. And in some cases they're a necessity: You really don't want to shoot a .338 Lapua or .50 BMG without a really great brake.

But while cumulative effects of recoil, if any, aren't really known, there are no secrets about cumulative effects of muzzle blast. All older gun writers, including this humble scribe, are deaf as posts. So if you survive to my age, unless you have a great desire to be the butt of younger shooters' jokes (and invest heavily in hearing aids), consider reducing exposure to recoil. But for God's sake, wear hearing protection now. I wish I had.
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Title Annotation:THE LAST WORD; postoperative period, recoil-related injuries
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Rifle Shooter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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