“Man!! That baby will flat out knock you on your butt!!”
“Why the kick from that pistol is gonna take your hand off!!”
“With paws like mine I should have any problem controlling the recoil!”
And so the discussions of recoil, “kick” go . . .I picked up a Ruger LC9S a few days back. I had purchased a LC9 when the original hammer fired version came out but stopped carrying it when the trigger went sideways on me. That generated a post a few years back on why you should always shoot your carry gun on a regular basis. Since that time I’ve stopped carrying that particular pistol and I use it in my course work as a “visual aid” when I talk about the topic of shooting your carry gun.
The next day after my purchase I grabbed a hundred rounds and headed to the range. My primary purpose was just an initial evaluation of the handgun and to work my way through a couple different drills. I started with 2 magazines at 3Y, 5Y and 7Y. I was fairly impressed with the results. The trigger is greatly improved over the original version in my opinion and the little guy was pretty darn accurate as long as I paid attention to sight picture, sight alignment and trigger press . . . and ignored the fact that the recoil is . . . mmmmm . . . “snappy” . . . let’s say that . . . SNAPPY! (I’ll return to this since that IS the purpose of this post)
Next I put up an SEB target and ran a number of drills. My first was from 5Y and it was Rob Pincus’s “take a lap” drill. One round in each numbered box. I dropped 2 rounds, one on the “2” and one on the “6”. From there I went to the accelerated pairs at 5Y and 7Y. Next I did the Gunsite “failure drill” at 3Y and dropped 2 on the ocular cavity box. Finally, I ran 15 rounds through from 50 feet into the pelvic girdle box. I dropped 3 there. All in all, for the first time running any rounds through the firearm, I’ll take it.
Bottom line on the gun, I like it. It’s accurate, not a bad tradeoff of size and capacity. I’ll carry it in a “7+1” mode with two spare 7 round magazines so I’ll have 22 rounds on my person rather than the 30 I have when I leave the house with my G17. But, for summer carry this will provide one other acceptable alternative IMNSHO anyway.
So . . . . back to the “SNAPPY” recoil . . . l want to spend some time on this from a physics POV, a management POV, a “run the gun” POV and a handgun “fit” POV. First, let’s get on the same page as far as the words are concerned. Some definitions . . .
Recoil: a movement backwards, usually from some force or impact. The recoil of a pistol is a backward movement caused by momentum.
Momentum: property of a moving body that the body has by virtue of its and motion and that is equal to the product of the body's mass and velocity a property of a moving body that determines the length of time required to bring it to rest when under the action of a constant force or moment
Newton’s 1st Law: Every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it. (Commonly referred to as “inertia” as stated as “a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an external force”)
Newton’s 3rd Law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Foot Pound A unit of energy, one foot-pound is the energy it takes to push with one pound-force one pound for a distance of one foot.
We start at the beginning – with the cartridge. It consists of 4 components – the case, the primer, the powder and the bullet. Two elements have “potential” energy – the chemical compound in the primer and the gun powder the primer ignites. The sulfur in the gunpowder burns first once the primer is stuck, the potassium nitrate with its free oxygen acts as an oxidizer and they then burn the remaining carbon in the gun powder. Gas is produced and forces the bullet out of the casing and down the barrel. The potential energy of the chemical compounds is changed to enough pressure to send the bullet out of the barrel at 1190 fsp for the Winchester 9mm ammunition listed below and in the process this chemical reaction generates 362 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle of your 9mm handgun.
At this point Newton’s 3rd law “kicks” into action. (See what I did there?). A force equal to the 362 ft-lb that pushes the 115gr bullet out of the barrel also acts to drive the entire handgun rearward with that same 362 ft-lb force. This is the handgun’s “Recoil”. And that is what I want to talk about.
From a management POV
“Ya gotta control the recoil!!!” says your instructor. Listen folk . . . you can’t “control” it, you’re simply not strong enough. Even for the tier one, super Delta types – recoil is “managed” and not controlled. So let’s first see what mechanical things help us to mitigate the recoil of your handgun.
Mass . . . the mass of your handgun helps. Remember the first law – a body at rest tend to stay at rest . . . unless acted on by an external force – say 362 ft-lb of recoil force. The larger the mass, the more energy it will absorb and the lower the “felt” recoil will be. For example, my daughter really enjoys shooting my Springfield 1911. To her the felt recoil is much reduced over some of my other options. That is due in large part to the fact that it weighs 39 oz. with an empty magazine – nearly 2.5 pounds! That will do a great deal to mitigate its recoil.
The Firing Cycle and mechanics of the handgun . . . the energy from the cartridge runs much of the firing cycle. It drives the slide back, which ejects the spent casing as well as “loads” the return spring. The return spring drives the slide forward and strips a cartridge from the top of the magazine and then seats it in the chamber. It also cocks the hammer or sets the striker. Add to that the friction of metal sliding against metal, the heat generated and even more of the recoil is absorbed and mitigated.
Mass of the Shooter . . . finally, we get to the end of the chain in the mitigation of your handgun’s recoil. You . . . and your mass. The remainder of the energy that is left will be used to drive your body rearward. Any mechanical weaknesses in your grip, the way you’ve driven your arms outward, your stance . . all will allow the recoil to be SNAPPIER and will move you in such a way that may well be painful and prohibit you from reacquiring your threat in a timely fashion should the need arise. So let’s work from “gun to butt”.
Grip . . . I’ve talked about the Grip before. You want your dominant hand high on the back-strap getting the barrel’s centerline as close to the centerline of your extended arm as you can get it. You want your support hand’s meaty part of its palm to close the gap left on the grip by your dominant hand and its fingers to wrap around those of your dominant hand as well, providing a full 360 degrees of coverage by your grip. You want to have a very firm grip . . . but I do not subscribe to a “death grip” on your handgun.
The grip is the first point of weakness that can occur. A weak grip allows the recoil to drive the gun off center and in a worst-case scenario it could actually drive the handgun completely out of your hands.
Driving your arms to the threat . . . I encourage my students to “drive the blade to the center of the threat”. This means that your arms are fully extended and the elbows are held “firmly” in place. I am also not a proponent of locking your elbows. I want them “firm” but not “locked”. This is also a point of weakness. If your elbows are not firm enough, a part of the recoil will move your elbows a bit. This will take energy from your handgun and in the case of semiautomatic pistols is a leading cause of “failure to eject” or “stove pipe” issues. The common term is “limp wrist-ing” but it has more to do with arms and elbows rather than wrists.
Nose over toes . . . is the next component in the “gun to butt” evaluation. You want your weight forward and “into the gun” rather that the shooter leaning back. You put more of your mass immediately behind the gun and allow it to mitigate the recoil simply because it takes a fair amount of energy to move even the average person’s body mass reward.
Stance . . . the typical phrase is that your feet are shoulder width apart. And, I usually take my dominant foot about half a foot’s length back as well. This is commonly called a fighting stance or defensive stance. It’s not exaggerated, just comfortable. And, if you have a firm two handed grip, have driven your front blade fully in front of you at the center of the threat, if your nose is over your toes and you have a solid grip on your handgun . . . you are in the best position possible to allow your body to absorb your handgun’s recoil in the center of your upper body where a major portion of your physical mass is. It is this that allows you to “manage” your recoil in such a way that if the need arises you can have rapid and accurate follow-up shots.
Run the Gun . . . is one of the primary reasons you manage recoil as consistently and properly as you can. If you do not help contain as much of the recoil energy as you can in the gun, it’s just won’t run right and failure to eject will become your new best friend. Your entire “package” – stance, nose over toes, grip, driving straight out to the threat . . . all allow you the best chance to manage the recoil, insure the firearm functions properly and positions you for the 3 to 5 rounds high center mass that may well be needed to stop a mortal threat barreling in your direction. These things allow you to run the gun – your gun – to the best of your ability.
Fit . . . is the last piece of this little walk through recoil. And the most important in my opinion. We’ve all see YouTubes of the jerk boyfriends who give their girlfriend their .454 Casull revolver that shows her splitting her forehead open on the muzzle of the revolver as the recoil drives it out of her hands and into her face. An obvious example of a handgun that is NOT a good fit for the shooter.
Other examples are subtler. For example . . . the LC9S that the hubby buys for his wife because it’s the “right size” for her hand. That may well be true but if she doesn’t have hands strong enough for a firm grip the results – while not as dramatic as a .454 Casull – will still be frustrating if she can’t consistently shoot her firearm accurately. The amount of energy generated by 9mm round is exactly the same whether fired from a 17oz LC9S or a 43oz 9mm Loaded Springfield 1911. However, one will do much more to mitigate recoil than the other.
Also, smaller grips do not always mean a better grip is possible by the shooter. All of these things go into whether the handgun is a good “fit” for the shooter. And to that the ability to “run the gun” – easily load the firearm, work the slide or cylinder release, clear malfunctions – these things also go into the concept of “Fit”.
Bottom line . . . smaller guns are susceptible to a “SNAPIER” felt recoil simply because . . . “smaller gun”. The only thing that can mitigate that is the shooter through their grip, stance, the way they drive to the threat and getting their weight forward and into the gun. For most this is a learned process . . . for some it is simply not physically possible for their body to mitigate the recoil enough to accurately shoot it.
And, on other part of this equation. To be competent with your firearm, you need to shoot your firearm frequently enough to get competent and to maintain competence. If it beats you up, hurts your hand and is just plain no fun to shoot . . . you won’t. And, you’ll develop all those crappy training scars that goes along with this as well.
My advice. Try a bunch of different handguns. Choose one that fits, that you can run, that you can shoot accurately and one that you can well and truly manage the recoil on.
Additional info and links . . .
Energy of a 9mm 115gr cartridge in foot pounds
A Physics discussion on Momentum for the geeks in the crowd . . .
Newton’s 3 laws explained . . .
Interesting discussion of “foot pounds of energy”
Kenetic and Potential Energy