Shooting With a Recoil-Sensitive Shoulder

This is a science project. I recently acquired a recoil-sensitive shoulder. This is the story of how that happened and what I’ll be doing to continue pursuing one of my lifetime sports in the presence of an orthopedic issue. I decided to share this journey because I believe it has the potential to benefit many other LIfetime Athletes who participate in hunting and shooting sports, as well as those who face orthopedic issues and potential change in lifestyle.

I woke up in the recovery room after my recent complete shoulder reconstruction surgery. As I got my wits about me, my thoughts immediately turned to the following: “Ok…here I go and how do I start the next chapter of my life? Can I keep doing all or at least most of the things I love? What am I going to do to accomplish this? Will I be able to preserve and protect my new body part and make it last the rest of my life?”

I began a mental scan of my sports and activities and thinking about how they may be affected. Working out in general – yes but with some modifications in terms of movements, position, and load. Hiking and running – of course but with consideration regarding fall prevention and agility. Sprinting – eventually when I can use my arm at max force/speed through that range of motion. Biking, paddling my kayak, skiing, and working on building/remodelling projects – for sure with some attention to volume and intensity. Fishing, particularly casting a fly rod – certainly once I get the mobility back. Hauling a heavy pack – yup…I’ll work up to that within reason. Shooting my bow – over time as I rebuild strength from all these muscles and tendons which were cut through and reattached. Shooting shoulder mounted firearms – hmmm…not so sure and this is the crux of the story.

I must admit I cringed a little when I thought about touching off a rifle or shotgun against a shoulder that was now made of pins, screws, plastic, glue, and steel. Jeopardizing the repair seemed to be a fool’s errand. Here’s where the thoughts began to build. I could just give up shooting shotguns and rifles. I only pondered that for a minute. I’ve been shooting and hunting for 50 years and it’s one of my passions in life. I didn’t really want to give that up and I was determined to investigate the possibilities. This was a pivotal moment because many of the clients and athletes with which I work often face similar challenges. It all comes down to this – following injury and surgery, can you realistically get back to doing the thing (whatever it is…running, playing the piano, golfing, or shooting bows and guns) that is meaningful to you and a significant part of how you identify yourself? Maybe and hopefully are the most common descriptors in these situations, more so than probably or absolutely. 

The next thing I did was differentiate between shooting rifles and firing shotguns. While generally, over time with good instruction and practice, you learn to shoot every weapon with both eyes open, there are some fundamental differences between riflery and shotgunning. If we take slug guns and turkey hunting off the table, most shotgun work is wingshooting. This is the act of swinging the shotgun and smashing the trigger from an athletic stance with both eyes open as you manage your lead on the target. Just for fun, over the years, I’d done some shotgun work on my nondominant side, in this case shouldering the shotgun on my left side, and reversing the position of my arms and legs in the shooting position. While this was initially challenging, it was not impossible and simply represented an athletic motor skill acquisition opportunity. I figured I’d be able to make this switch and not have to shoot off my repaired right shoulder with a shotgun.

But when it comes to rifles, it’s a different ball game for sure. You aim the rifle as you focus on being calm and steady, squeezing the trigger predictably and following through on the shot. You are very dependent on a clear sight picture (whether you are using optics or open sights) and rifle shooting performance is highly reliant on the dominant eye. From my past experience, I knew that my ability to be precise, effective, and ethical with a rifle would require me to shoot on my dominant (repaired) right side using my dominant right eye for sighting. I’d tried left side/left eye and left side/right eye shooting configurations in the past and they were less than optimal. So in order to continue intelligently in my rifle shooting and hunting career, I had to be sensitive about how much recoil I subjected my new cyborg shoulder to as I moved forward.

Recoil was now the major concern. How much is too much? This was less about how much I could tolerate and more about how much was appropriate so as not to jar loose my components and potentially send me back to the operating room. That was an experience I’d really not like to repeat. In fact, revision surgeries are not very common with my particular situation so I am basically one and done at this point. Prior to my injury and surgery, I hadn’t considered myself very recoil sensitive. I’d shot a variety of firearms with relative proficiency. As this funnel keeps narrowing, it comes down to elk hunting for me, which is my favorite pursuit in the field. And this constricts further when we think of large, mature bull elk. These are creatures that can weigh 700-900 pounds depending upon the season and subspecies – with heavy bone and dense muscle – and the cartridges which are most effective, ethical, and lethal in dispatching them tend to be among the more powerful varieties. My personal preference in this arena had historically been several flavors of 30-caliber magnums. I’d always found these cartridges to have what writer Joseph von Benedikt calls adequate authority or wallop in the case of big bull elk. These cartridges (with the right bullet) hit hard and penetrate well to provide the desired outcome. But they notoriously kick at both ends. Simple physics. This leads me into the science project part of my story.

A shooter can certainly get away with lighter-recoiling cartridges on other game such as deer and antelope, but elk really deserve and demand a bigger punch. Shot placement is important of course but the energy just has to be there when the bullet impacts the target. In my opinion, showing up undergunned for elk is practically inexcusable. Like just about anything in this life – if you are going to do it – do it right. There is a certain amount of confidence a seasoned hunter will have if he is peering down the barrel of a .300 WinMag loaded with the ideal projectile when a bull elk is in the crosshairs. This is where I began to crunch numbers. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to shoot my favorite elk rifle any more. It would shatter my shoulder. So I sold it. I also knew I would need to find a caliber that would provide enough lethality in most hunting situations without risking my shoulder’s long term health. I knew I’d need to make some compromises on shot presentations and effective range, but I was willing to do that. If the angle of the shot wasn’t ideal or the range was beyond where the energy would be adequate, I wasn’t going to take the shot. It’s good that I’m an older, experienced hunter here, because when I was younger I probably would not have been able to make that statement or resist the urge to shoot in a marginal situation. One good thing about getting older is the wisdom and patience you accumulate.

As we dive more deeply into the topic of recoil, there are many things to think about. In general, there is published data available for every cartridge regarding the amount of recoil that is  typically generated. This is expressed in foot-pounds of energy and is correlated to the amount of powder contained in the cartridge case and the weight in grains of the bullet being fired. This is a somewhat raw figure regarding recoil energy. It’s basic physics and exemplifies Newton’s Third Law which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So if we need to fire a 180-grain bullet at 3,000 feet per second, and that ejecta (bullet and exploding gas) is exiting the muzzle of the rifle at said velocity, there is a corresponding pushback into the shooter’s shoulder. Everybody knows this and you could say it’s not “rocket science” but it actually is exactly that. 

We also need to consider recoil velocity in addition to basic recoil energy. One of the best ways to do this is to compare shotguns to rifles. Just to offer an arbitrary example, if we have a shotgun whose ejecta is leaving the barrel at 1500 f.p.s. and a centerfire rifle discharging its contents at 3000 f.p.s., there is a different speed of the recoil impact. Even though the shotgun has a heavier payload, it is moving slower, like someone placing a 20 pound dumbbell against your shoulder and pushing on it. But in the case of the rifle, it’s more like someone using a 10 pound dumbbell, but they are getting a running start and actually quickly rapping you with it from a few inches away. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that rifle weight factors into the equation. A lighter rifle is easier for that energy to move, and it comes back into the shooter a little quicker. A heavier rifle has more mass, and thus requires more momentum to kick back into the shooter. This is always the tradeoff in the hunting environment. You need a rifle light enough to carry but also heavy enough to shoot well. This is especially true when hiking the mountains for elk, mule deer, bear, sheep, and goats. Because of a rifle’s shape and size, weight is magnified when carrying it and you have to find that personal sweet spot between featherweight and tank which suits your preferences.

Thus, when we combine recoil energy with recoil velocity, and we factor in rifle weight, we get a cumulative recoil effect. Let’s call that total recoil or actual recoil. That’s the actual force your tissues are absorbing, not necessarily how you “feel about it.”

This then leads us to the concept of felt or perceived recoil. That’s not just the product of foot-pounds of energy and velocity but also the shooter’s perception of it. In other words, it’s how sensitive you are to being kicked in the shoulder by a mule versus a bunny rabbit. This is what leads to the accuracy-destroying flinch. You know you are going to get kicked so you brace or tense inappropriately in anticipation, often throwing a shot off wildly. Everybody is different here. I don’t have any judgement. I always considered myself sort of moderate in terms of recoil tolerance. I could shoot my .300 WinMag accurately but didn’t care for a .338 WM or .375 H&H. 3-inch shotgun shells were generally fine but I was never fond of 3-½ inch magnums. Everyone has their limits. You can use all sorts of training methods to eliminate or at least lessen a flinch, and these help. But honestly, what is most effective is reducing total recoil in the first place. So this whole recoil-sensitive topic can actually have two sides. It’s how much recoil is appropriate to hit your shoulder with in a purely mechanical way as well as how much you can tolerate before it starts to cause flinching and affect your accuracy. I’d say I now have both of those concerns. Mostly it’s this mechanical thing, but you better believe I’m thinking about my new shoulder and the impact I want to feel differently than in the old days. I’m sensitive. At least the new me is quite recoil-sensitive.

I think now is a good time to discuss physical recoil tolerance in the shooter. Getting away from anticipation and apprehension, it’s important to think about tissue density. Basically, bone is rich with nerve endings and is what tends to feel recoil the most. Just think of hitting your shin bone on a piece of furniture versus bumping your thigh in about the same way. The shin has the potential to get your attention quite a bit, while the thigh may not register much of an impact. This is due to your intrinsic recoil padding, aka flesh, which is muscle (meat) and adipose (fat) tissue. The more of that stuff you’ve got on your upper chest and frontal shoulder, the more cushion you have against impact. A famous gun writer who shall remain nameless once remarked that slim people feel less recoil than big people because their whole body just gets moved instead of having to absorb it. I’m calling total bullshit on that statement. That dude (who is quite portly I might add) does not have an understanding of human anatomy and viscoelastic tissue properties. The skinny dude gets pounded on the bone with recoil, while the beefy individual dissipates that force through tissue mass so that less of it reaches the sensitive bone. Since I’m a lean critter, I’ll of course be training to hypertrophy (add muscle mass) to my upper body once I’m back in full gym capacity, but that only goes so far.

Considering all the aforementioned concepts, my attention turned to trying to figure out just what might be the actual, measurable amount of recoil in a rifle appropriate for my hunting applications, and that I could tolerate without jeopardizing my long-term orthopedic health. You’d think you could just look up a few stats or research articles and immediately know the answer. Not quite so. I had two areas of concern. First, I wanted to know if there were any published studies on the effects of rifle recoil energy on post-shoulder replacement patients. Had a maximum safe level of recoil energy been established? Second, I was searching for definitive information about specific rifle designs and modifications that could help to reduce the raw recoil energy. Frustratingly, most of the data I reviewed was largely subjective in nature. I came across a few studies (which I’ll reference at the end of this article) on these topics but nothing was overly definitive. A lot of shooters return to shooting after shoulder surgery, but the amount of recoil which is appropriate is unclear.  “It depends” is really the truism here. Some of the factors upon which this is dependent include bone diameter and density, tissue mass, exact surgical procedure undergone, volume and frequency of shooting, and rifle design. 

Because I have extensive shooting experience with multiple calibers, as well as being a board-certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy for many years, I had an idea of the maximum amount of recoil to which I wanted to subject my shoulder. I wanted to be as scientific and precise as possible in this quest but I realized it was going to come down to my own judgement. I referenced a very recent recoil energy table published by Jim Harner of backfire.tv. I arbitrarily, again based on my own experience, established a goal of having free recoil energy around 15 foot-pounds and recoil velocity near 15 f.p.s. I’ll have to explain my reasoning here. These levels of energy represent cartridge performance that, given proper bullet selection, could potentially yield elk-killing performance (a minimum of 1500 ft-lbs of impact energy) out to approximately 500 yards. That’s farther than I generally shoot on game (as opposed to steel targets) anyway and as an accomplished rifleman I wanted that much performance capacity.

Here’s where things get a little tricky. That 15/15 energy and speed of recoil standard I set was still more than I wanted pounding my shoulder. No macho talk here. The science is decidedly unclear on this topic and I wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable with the recoil level. Going with someone else’s opinion, or best guess (including that of most surgeons) wasn’t going to cut it. I was looking for the performance I just mentioned in a rifle that kicks more like a .243 Winchester firing a 100-grain bullet at around 3,000 f.p.s. This puts recoil energy and velocity under 10 ft.-lbs. And 10 f.p.s. Respectively. However, that cartridge is woefully inadequate as a bull elk rifle in my opinion, especially out to 500 yards. After a lot of deliberation, I went with the 6.5 PRC as my choice of cartridge. It’s relatively new and popular for a reason. With long, heavy-for-caliber, high ballistic coefficient bullets, this cartridge would provide the on-game performance I needed, given my aforementioned restrictions such as range and shot placement. Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve become a monometal bullet (such as a Barnes TTSX or LRX copper bullet) fan on elk because they penetrate so effectively. The 6.5 PRC, for my needs and in my opinion, represented the bare minimum gun that I wanted to take into the elk woods. But now the science project really gets interesting. Regarding recoil, I had to turn it into a .243. 

One might suggest…just build a 12 to 14 pound gun more suited to benchrest or various styles of competition shooting than hunting, suck it up, and carry that mofo over hill and dale. Actually, I tried that once. Not for me. Lugging a lead pipe is decidedly undelectable once you get more than a few steps from your truck.

So how could I make a fairly lightweight rifle chambered in 6.5 PRC actually kick like a .243, and give me the comfort and peace of mind I wanted? Enter the rifle build. 

Building a shooting platform, or rifle system, is great fun for science geeks and gun nuts. It runs the gamut from hiring a custom builder/gunsmith to putting together parts off the local sporting goods store shelf. It all can work. For this project, I was decidedly in the middle. I didn’t have an unlimited budget but I had two thoughts revolving in my head. First, when I tallied up the year’s medical expenses, I had a six-figure shoulder. It didn’t make sense to economize on that investment and at this point in life…I was willing to bite the bullet (pun intended) to pursue the best possible outcome. Next, I was able to sell a few items from my collection and get them to new homes. Doing so basically funded this project so that I could get it done with no net cash outflow. 

My first decision was to order a semi-custom rifle. In this case, I don’t think I want to identify specific manufacturers, because I’m not sure I’d recommend one over another. If you are in the market, you have to find what best fits your own needs and desires. I wanted the ability to select certain facets such as stock design, barrel length and contour, action specifications, and “paint job” among others. I’ll describe each of these and perhaps several other features separately.

Stock design is possibly one of the most interesting aspects of a rifle. You are really thinking of material and shape in this context. These should probably be considered separately.

There are four main types of stock construction. You have solid wood (usually walnut), laminated wood (like fancy plywood), synthetic (cheap-ass injection molded plastic), and composite (fiberglass, kevlar, carbon fiber). Each has its merit. Nothing is as beautiful as finely figured walnut, but these stocks have the tendency to be temperature and humidity sensitive, shrinking and swelling slightly which can affect accuracy. Laminated wood tends to be more stable and relatively impervious to environmental change, but it is also heavy AF. Plastic stocks are inexpensive, but they trend towards being susceptible to extremes in temperature change, and they seem to kick like hell in many cases. You get what you pay for. Composite stocks, particularly those made of fiberglass, kevlar, and/or carbon fiber, while not always being the lightest, offer less fickleness to weather and can actually have a dampening effect on recoil. This is especially true in the case of carbon fiber stocks. Carbon fiber has long been used in many applications such as bike frames and tennis rackets, and it has the unique ability to dampen vibration. This is subjective but I’ve found that carbon fiber stocks seem to have the best ability to mitigate recoil in most rifles.

Stock shape is a huge consideration. I grew up in an era when almost all rifle stocks, at least those intended for hunting, were of the slim, sporter design. Some had Monte Carlo cheekpieces, but they were all pretty similar. Most shooters like myself appreciate the value of a low-mounted scope, close to the rifle’s bore axis, as well as a raised comb on the buttstock to allow for an optimal cheek weld and sight picture. Some of the target or competition rifles available today have adjustable cheek pieces to customize fit. This even pervades into the hunting rifles. However, in my opinion, it’s too much crap, complexity, and weight for an ideal field gun. I like the stocks that have a mildly elevated comb with a slightly negative profile, and a bit of a palm swell and vertical grip orientation to allow for a good trigger approach without encouraging over-gripping. A benchrest gun will generally have a wide, beavertail style of forearm, and this is great when “riding the bag.” But a hunting rifle, whether set up with a bipod or not, doesn’t need it. 

So after giving some thought to stock material and design, I went with a modern, carbon fiber stock with the aforementioned features. I chose a fairly basic grey color scheme and had the rifle outfitted with an elastomeric recoil pad and quick detach sling mounts. I’ll probably be running a picatinny rail on the fore-end for compatibility with the bipod and tripod I currently own. This stock strikes a good balance between being fairly light but still possessing some of the shootability and recoil-lessening characteristics I sought.

For the rifle’s barrel, I went with a carbon-wrapped stainless steel barrel in a light sendero contour with a threaded muzzle. Again, not the absolute lightest but fairly light and possessing the unique features these types of barrels offer. It’s relatively stiff for its weight, thus enhancing accuracy. Carbon-wrapped barrels generally dissipate heat fairly quickly, as compared to those of all steel, thus enhancing shot-to-shot repeatability. For the 6.5 PRC, it’s generally accepted that the best performance comes out of 24-inch barrels, but since I intended to use muzzle treatments, I went with a 22-inch pipe instead. This won’t sacrifice much velocity but will keep the rifle slightly more handy and compact, especially when hiking in brushy areas.

For this tool’s action, I chose a titanium operating mechanism with a fluted steel bolt. This saved approximately 7 ounces over a standard, all-steel offering from the same manufacturer, and it also slightly enhanced the weather resistance capabilities. Of the 3 types of magazines available, which are blind, floorplate, and detachable box, I am using the floorplate design. I’ve owned rifles with all three styles and they all work fine, but I prefer the floorplate. It offers the sleek profile and easy carrying of the blind magazine, with the ability to easily unload the cartridges that a detachable box does. You don’t have to cycle the action to dump the remaining cartridges in the magazine nor do you have to be concerned about dropping or misplacing the detachable box. This is a classic design element that I like on this decidedly modern firearm.

I mounted my rig up with rings and a scope which I already had. Optics choices are many but for this rifle’s purpose I wanted a decent compromise between weight and magnification. I like magnification that goes up to 15x or 18x in a 42-44mm objective design, with an adjustable elevation turret. That’s what I had in my cabinet and it should work well on this rifle.

All the specifications I’ve mentioned to this point describe the basic rifle setup. Now I can talk about how I’m going to make this 6.5 PRC kick like a .243, at least according to my shoulder’s tissues and structures. The main consideration here is that threaded muzzle. Applying a muzzle brake or suppressor (each has its merits) to the end of the rifle can offer a recoil reduction because they work to divert some of the energy that would normally be directed back to the shoulder in a relatively straight line. I’ll discuss each separately. 

Muzzle brakes can be very effective at lowering felt recoil. They screw onto the threaded muzzle of the barrel and have ports which direct some of the ejecting gas in a perpendicular direction to the bore axis. There are two main types, radial and directional brakes. The radial models have many small holes in a circumferential pattern. They are usually slightly more compact in profile but their downside is that when shooting from the prone position the ports on the underside cause a significant amount of dust and debris to be kicked up into the shooter’s face. The directional brakes generally have fewer but larger ports that only face out to the sides. They tend to dampen recoil more effectively than the radial models, in most cases, and don’t produce the dust kick-up issue. 

However, and this is a big downside, muzzle brakes are LOUD, significantly increasing the decibel rating of the rifle’s report, which is already at a level proven to cause hearing damage. I’ve long been an advocate for wearing hearing protection for all shooting, including most hunting scenarios. This is even more imperative when using a muzzle brake and it’s true for everyone in the hunting party, not just the shooter. The blast from a brake is a major concussive event. I’ve run brakes on several rifles in the past, and no doubt they work, but the noise factor is more than just an annoyance. It’s a health hazard. There is even some research that shows repetitive shooting with a brake, even when using hearing protection, can represent a form of head trauma.

I fitted my new rifle with a suppressor. These are generally called “silencers” but in reality they don’t totally silence the rifle’s report, they just suppress it, lowering the decibel rating by a percentage. Suppressors don’t necessarily make hearing protection unnecessary but they are inarguably better for any shooter’s long term hearing health. They also reduce recoil, although not quite as much as one of those honkin’ directional brakes. Another pro in favor of using a suppressor is that the concussive wave of the shot is lessened. As someone who’s been in the business of keeping people healthy and high-performing for almost 40 years, it made total sense to me to get on board with this trend. The Hearing Protection Act of 2017, and it’s more recent revisions, made silencer acquisition easier for shooters. And…this is a big one, it helped to remove some of the stigma that previously viewed suppressed shooting as some sort of criminal act, which it most certainly is not. Suppressor ownership and hunting is totally legal in most states. I can already state that I’ll still be using unsuppressed firearms in certain applications, but much of my shooting will be with the “can.” I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same.

There is really only one downside to having a suppressor on the end of your barrel. It adds a bit of length and weight. That’s one reason I went with the 22-inch barrel because the 7-inch suppressor I’m running bumps it out to 29 inches. Admittedly, this is a little long when moving through brush or having it sticking up from the back of my pack, but I’m willing to accept the tradeoff. The added weight on the end of the muzzle must be carried (even if your silencer is titanium like many, and mine), but this often tends to slightly enhance accuracy due to its barrel-stabilizing effects. It also “buys you back” a portion of the velocity loss incurred when shortening a barrel. 

Each brake or suppressor usually has manufacturer specs on how much recoil reduction it will provide. Because this is “industry data” you have to take these measurements with the proverbial grain of salt. But they do work. My best guess is that my new rifle setup, using the suppressor, generates about 25% less recoil than the standard 6.5 PRC ballistics. This gets me most of the way there in terms of my goal of having .243-level recoil to protect my shoulder.

Now I can turn my attention to padding. Just a little extra padding is all I’ll need to absorb and dissipate that recoil shock down to my target level. First up is hitting the gym and rebuilding my chest and shoulders. In my current state of rehab, this is going to take me another full year, honestly. But at least I know what to do and how to go about that. I won’t beef up into a huge monster, but I’ll gain a little cushion from this endeavor. I’ll also probably be wearing several layers of clothing when I’m out in the field, and this has the potential to help as well. Early on, though, I’ll look at one (but not both) of two other options. I can temporarily add an extra, slip-on recoil pad to the rifle. I have a long neck and arms and the extra length of pull probably won’t adversely affect my shooting ability, but I’ll have to test this out. The other option is wearing a shooting pad, which I already own, at least in the beginning. Either of these last two interventions will get my felt recoil into what I have deemed the safe range.

From what I’ve described, I imagine you can appreciate that this endeavor really has been a science project. I’ve enjoyed the process of trying to think through and solve a problem that is of great importance to me. Right now I’m at 3 months post-operative status and I have to get a follow-up x-ray at the 6 to 9 month point to determine that everything in my shoulder is as solid as it needs to be. So I have not yet fired my new rifle. I’ll start out in the spring with some rimfire practice, which is essentially recoil-free, and work up from there. I’ll have to report back on the outcome of this journey. 

If you are a shooter, and you are wondering about returning to shooting after shoulder surgery or even shoulder replacement, I think this information may be helpful for you. But on a larger level, I see this as just one example among many for Lifetime Athletes. Injury and surgery can occur at any age, and it can sometimes challenge our abilities to do the things we love. It’s important to eventually accept change and adapt to our current circumstances, but we need to approach these types of situations with optimism and creativity. I hope you enjoyed this piece. Thank you for reading. I wish you the absolute best in every part of your journey.

RESOURCES

Rifle Recoil

The Effect of Shooting Firearms on Shoulder Replacements

Return to Sport After Anatomic and Reverse Total Shoulder Arthroplasty

Hunting Following Shoulder Replacement

Hearing Protection Act

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