The following information on the weight of rifles and felt recoil comes from Rifles and Rifle Shooting by Charles Askins. Rifles & Rifle Shooting is also available to purchase in print.
One of our rifle building companies states in their catalog that as a rule a rifle will shoot three inches higher at one hundred yards when shot with a muzzle rest than it will when fired off-hand. This simple statement is worth considering and analyzing in these days of light weight, heavily charged arms.
The average novice naturally concludes that when his piece is properly sighted for the distance, with no wind to affect the flight of the bullet, and he holds dead on and pulls trigger without a wobble, something is due to happen to the target. But if the deer runs away with his flag up, or the bull’seye shows no bullet hole, he humbly accepts the blame with the hope of making amends next time. However, one of the first things he needs to learn is that the rifle may be as accurate as any ever built, the sighting, holding, and pulling perfect, and yet the ball may obstinately refuse to go to the desired spot.
There are reasons for this which we cannot treat at length in this chapter, but one is light. For example a hold at 6 o’clock may be placing the bullets in the center with one light, but a change in light will possibly throw the projectile above the bull or beneath it. Again a change in temperature has its influence, and, moreover, the rifle that has been sighted near sea level will not shoot on the same elevation when in the mountains several thousand feet higher. What we wish to emphasize here, though, is that the manner of holding the weapon, and the position of the marksman in shooting may cause a wide variation of the bullet on the target—due entirely to recoil.
This is not a scientific disquisition on rifle shooting, nevertheless the bearing of recoil upon accurate rifle work is so pronounced and so unavoidable that every man who uses a rifle at all should understand it and guard against it as far as he may. In the first place, under the influence of powder gas, a rifle barrel expands; in the next place it may bend, technically called “flip;” third, it may “jump” or rise, and lastly it may move to one side or the other—all this after the marksman has completed his work of sighting, holding, and pulling trigger, and while the bullet is moving from breech to muzzle.
The principles that govern are: The lighter the rifle and the heavier the charge, the worse will it jump or flip. Long, slender barrels flip, while short barrels jump. Long, military fore-stocks running to nearly the end of the barrel lessen flip, but may injure the accuracy through binding the tube and preventing expansion. Rifles that are shot with like charges, from like positions, held with like force or grip, jump or flip uniformly, in which case the movement might be ignored.
Our military authorities once experimented to see how heavy a Springfield .45-70-500 barrel would have to be in order to reach a maximum of accuracy. They were trying to reach a weight of barrel so heavy that it would not move while the bullet was passing from breech to muzzle. They learned that the most accurate work could be accomplished only with a barrel weighing about thirty pounds. Even that weight could not be held rigidly without deflecting the ball, but must be allowed to move backward with the recoil, backed up by the shoulder or a spring. When the barrel was confined, as in a vise, a weight of one hundred pounds was demanded if accuracy was considered. A further surprising discovery was that the thirty-pound barrel gave a considerably higher velocity than one of normal weight.
Further experiments with the .45 and a certain weight of barrel showed that loading the cartridge with a five hundred grain bullet for one shot and a three hundred and fifty grain for the next, the heavy ball, which should in reason have gone the lowest, landed four inches higher than the other at fifty yards. Our combination rifles, those handling black powder and lead bullets, also smokeless powder and mantled bullets with a higher velocity, cannot be shot with the same alignment of sights—the high-pressure charge will “kick” its bullet away above the other. I have found that the lightly loaded .30-40-165 would shoot six inches higher at two hundred yards when shot with a muzzle rest than when held off-hand, this with an arm weighing over ten pounds. The same rifle would show a variation of three or four inches when shot off-hand, depending on whether it was held tightly or simply allowed to hang in the hands.
A .30-40 weight 7 1/2 pounds threw its bullets ten inches higher with a muzzle rest than it did off-hand. The .30-40, it should be kept in mind, is a weapon of very light recoil, 3.08 foot pounds. What a rifle with thirty pounds of recoil would do under a like test, the Lord knows, at least I do not.
Not only is there a variation in the landing point of the bullet when shot with a rest and off-hand, but there will be a change, either vertical or horizontal, every time the rifleman adopts a new position or a different style of holding. The rifle shot from the knee rest, for instance, may shoot high or it may place its bullets to one side or the other. The sitting position will probably again necessitate a change in the sighting. Even shooting the weapon with extended arm, or with body rest and guard in the palm will make a difference in elevation.
Probably the two positions that shoot the nearest to one elevation are the off-hand and the prone. It is not likely with either of these that there would be enough variation to cause missing of game though for fine target work the sights would have to be changed.
The gist of all this is that if the hunter has a rifle of high power and heavy recoil he should devote a great deal of study to its idiosyncracies. A rifle of recoil above twenty-five pounds can never be shot with accuracy from any description of rest that might be resorted to in the game field, and as a consequence the sportsman must never be tempted to rest his piece for the sake of a more secure aim, if he does the result will be a certain and outrageous miss regardless of how well he may have held. Unless the owner has tested his piece thoroughly in the three common positions used in game shooting, off-hand, knee-rest, and prone, and knows just how much the sighting should be varied, he had better confine himself to the off-hand, no matter if he cannot hold so steadily. The bullet will at least land where he pulls it and that is something it may not do with any other style of holding.
Where time and opportunity serve, however, the hunter should practice with his weapon until he knows it by heart. He can then, without change of sight, vary his holding enough to make allowance for the effect of recoil in the position he finds most opportune.
If the rifle shoots to the right from the knee rest, something it is quite likely to do, why hold a trifle to the left every time you kneel to shoot. If it shoots low in the prone or high, be sure to find it out and exactly how much. In passing, it might be well to state here that the man who can keep ten shots in the eight-inch circle at two hundred yards, shooting one shot from the prone, one from the knee, and one standing, following it up in regular rotation, possesses a higher order of rifle skill than he who could keep his ten straight in the bull off-hand.
It is a common thing to discover that a rifle will not shoot the same for two different people without change of sights. This is usually ascribed to difference in vision, which of course might be true, but often it is a mere matter of whether or not the weapon is pressed firmly to the shoulder and how it is gripped. One of the hardest lessons to learn in rifle shooting is that of grasping and backing up the piece uniformly. If under excitement and nervous strain the marksman tightens his grip upon the arm to an unusual extent, the result will surely be noted on the target.
Everything here said applies emphatically to heavily charged rifles of light weight. It requires a high order of skill indeed to shoot a .450 high-power rifle, and few are the men who can make a good pattern with it whatever the position from which it is shot. More than one sharpshooter can keep his ten shots in the six-inch at two hundred yards with the Schuetzen .28 who could not stay in the three-foot circle with the Jeffery .333. Hence we have the axiomatic advice, be sure in the first place that you are buying a rifle that you can hit something with, and afterwards consider other qualities.
The gallery rifles, .22 short and .22 long-rifle, have respectively about a tenth of a pound and a quarter of a pound of free recoil, this with an average weight of rifle of ten pounds. A gun of this kind should shoot nearly to the same center, however it might be held. The Schuetzen .28-30-120 has, I should estimate, a recoil of two pounds and the .32-40 three pounds. The marksman would have to be very sensitive who would object to this, and yet the arms have to be grasped very uniformly, with the hands in like position every time in order to maintain an even elevation. The guns from which these cartridges are shot usually weigh from twelve to fifteen pounds. The principal utility of the heavy tube is a negative recoil, to prevent the barrel from being moved by the pressure of the charge while the bullet is passing to the muzzle.
While the finest rest shooting has been accomplished with a heavy rifle having a recoil of six foot pounds, yet such a piece has been considered as having too great a kick for the best work off-hand. We thus see that the finest results in off-hand shooting demand a rifle with not over a quarter of a pound of recoil to the pound weight of the rifle; even a half pound to the pound weight of the gun would be objectionable.
In game rifles, though, some sacrifice of hair-splitting accuracy must be made. Few men would be willing to carry a hunting arm weighing above ten pounds and many go to the other extreme, asking for a six-pound weapon or lighter. A recoil of a foot pound to the pound weight of the arm should scarcely be felt in actual game shooting, though it might strike people as unpleasantly assertive in a match rifle or one from which a large number of shots were to be fired.
This proportion of pound for pound would give very high pattern values with reference to the holding. This weight of recoil relative to arm can be had practically in the various cartridges from .30-30 to .33 Winchester and .35 Remington. Anyone who can shoot a game rifle at all should be able to fire these cartridges without flinching, or scattering his bullets through inability to hold a kicking rifle steadily.
In the next class of weapons, like those of the .30-40, Springfield ’06, .280 Ross, 8 mm. Mauser, .35 Winchester, we have from two to three pounds of recoil to the pound weight of the rifle. Not one man in fifty can shoot such arms well without special training in their use. With these weapons the slingstrap will be found of considerable assistance in controlling the piece while the bullet is passing out of the barrel. Once a marksman has become inured to the recoil and has learned how to control it and make allowance for its effects, these are among our finest and most accurate game cartridges. Nevertheless, it is not to be disputed that many men will never learn to handle these guns and cartridges so effectively as they would those of less power.
Guns of four to five pounds of recoil to the pound weight of the arm, including the .405 Winchester, .333 Jeffery, .318 Westley-Richards, 9 mm, Mannlicher, .375 cordite, are weapons which require considerable skill to shoot well with in more than one position. For the ordinary marksman it will be found wise to attempt to shoot these rifles only in the off-hand and the knee-rest. Even then he should not expect to accomplish what a rifleman would consider really fine work, though his game hits will make up in power what they lack in accuracy. These are specialized game cartridges, neither adapted to the average man nor to general service. He who could make a good diagram with them at two hundred yards would have reason to congratulate himself on a performance that is quite beyond the capabilities of most men.
The .400, .404, .450, .475, and .500 cordite are big game rifles to be used on animals of the largest size, or in stopping dangerous beasts at short ranges. It is not expected that the hunter will be able to shoot accurately at long range with these arms. Except the weapons are made very heavy, they have a free recoil of from five to seven pounds to the pound weight of the rifle, and along with it a severe concussion. A Sir Samuel Baker or a Roosevelt could handle them and a few other men who are as kindly endowed by nature.
Two classes of sportsmen might consider the purchase of these arms, one those who are liable to be placed in the path of a charging lion, and the other the men who can take a heavily loaded ten bore shotgun, weighing eight pounds, and shoot off both barrels at once with a deliberate aim, time after time, without betraying any tendency to flinch. Having undergone this test, try the rifle at a mark and if the two hundred yard diagram of ten shots is satisfactory, buy it. If I had to shoot the elephant rifle with its charge of one hundred grains of powder and nine hundred grain bullet it would only be in case of life or death anyhow, at one end or the other.
Table giving minimum weight of rifles for proper proportion of charge and recoil.
.30-30 Winchester should weigh 7 pounds
.303 Savage—7 pounds
.30 Automatic—7 pounds
.32 Special—7 pounds
.33 Winchester— 7 1/2 pounds
.35 Remington—7 1/2 pounds
.30-40 Krag—8 pounds
.401 Winchester—8 pounds
.30-40 Army ’06—8 1/2 pounds
.280 Ross—8 1/2 pounds
7 mm. Mauser—8 1/2 pounds
8 mm. Mauser—8 1/2 pounds
.35 Winchester—8 1/2 pounds
.405 Winchester—9 pounds
.218 Axite—9 pounds
.333 Jeffery—9 pounds
11 mm. Mauser—10 pounds
.50-110 Winchester—10 pounds
.400 Jeffery—11 pounds
.404 Jeffery—11 pounds
.475 Cordite—12 pounds
.500 Holland—12 pounds
.500 Greener—13 pounds
.577 Magnum—15 pounds
.600 Jeffery—20 pounds
4 bore—20 pounds
Note that for the English cartridges double rifles are frequently built of about the weight given here; single barrel and bolt-action rifles are generally lighter, being frequently too light for comfort and accuracy. Foreign bolt rifles are as a rule light of weight relative to charge. Our own arms are constructed near the weights given, often a trifle heavier, though we have some featherweights.
Testing Accuracy and Alignment of Sight
The make up of a cartridge and the reputation of the builders of a rifle are a pretty good general guarantee of its accuracy. From some cartridges greater accuracy is to be expected than from others, and some manufacturers have a worldwide reputation for the close shooting of their rifles. Nevertheless, not all arms of a certain caliber and make will show equally fine diagrams. Nearly every weapon will probably do good average work, but occasionally one will be found capable of shooting wonderful patterns, and just as surely there will be an odd gun now and then that is a bad performer. Tests at the factory cannot always be depended upon to detect the poor barrel, hence it is well to be able to test the shooting of a gun ourselves.
The best way to target a rifle that the writer has discovered is to make a neat fitting box to sit in, having a firm rest for the back and side pieces for the arms to rest upon. Have the box strongly made and immovable. Place a bag of sand across the front of the box and dent a place into this where the barrel is to be placed—sand bag to be at such a distance as to rest the barrel about six inches from the muzzle. Hold down firmly with the left hand when you fire and do not vary the grip from shot to shot.
Place the bull’seye at the distance you wish the rifle sighted for and hold just under the black, where the bullets should land in the center. Do not expect to secure the finest work the barrel is capable of even with this rest; perfection in rest shooting requires training and a lot of it. Endeavor to call every shot and make due allowance for bad holding, the effect of wind, etc.
Remember that the character of the sights will make quite a difference in the resulting diagrams. With the ordinary open hunting sights ten shots in about a ten-inch circle would be as good as an inexperienced man could expect to do. Globe and peep sights might narrow the circle to eight inches, and with telescope, after enough practice, to six. Finer work than this would necessitate much training on the part of the marksman or a machine rest.
If the weapon maintains an even elevation but the shots spread laterally, I would be inclined to consider it the marksman’s own fault or that of the wind. If the bullets simply scatter about over the target, as a general thing the fault lies with the shooter. Where the elevation is irregular the trouble might be in the way the marksman is gripping his gun, or the barrel may be wrong. When the piece plays a number of bullets in one group and then changes to a spot some inches away and begins grouping again, condemn the barrel; there is little you can do for it. If the barrel shoots well, except that it throws an occasional wild shot, it is more than likely that the ammunition is to blame.
Never rest the rifle against anything solid or attempt to confine it rigidly in any way when testing for accuracy. An eight-inch bull at two hundred yards will be found about the right thing for open or peep sights, a telescope might be aligned on something much smaller. Naturally the distance at which you test the piece would be governed by its caliber and the purpose for which you intend to use the gun. Generally big game rifles are targeted at two hundred yards, small game at one hundred, and miniature at fifty yards or for gallery use at seventy-five feet.
Alignment of Sights
If the arm shoots high or low, it is a simple matter to correct that with the usual adjustable sights. Bear in mind, however, that the rifle should shoot higher with the rest than it would when the barrel touched nothing. After the sights are properly aligned with a rest, a few shots in the off-hand will give the correct elevation for that style of shooting.
Should the rifle shoot to one side or the other, first see that the front sight is exactly over the center of bore, after which do not touch it again but turn your attention to the rear sight for the correction of further errors. If the rifle is shooting to the left move the rear sight to the right, and vice versa. Usually such sight can be moved in its slot, the slightest movement probably being sufficient. When you get it right be sure the sight is tight enough not to be moved by any accidental jar.
If the Lyman or other tang sight doesn’t shoot to center place a piece of paper under one side and cant the sight over in the direction you wish the bullets to go. Of course if the sight has a wind gauge, that can be moved the most readily, but as a rule adjust correctly in the first place without the use of the gauge, and then it will be easier to read windage from zero afterwards.