By: D. J. Prepelka
BBO Firearms Focus Editor
This question came to the firearms department of Big Bow Outdoors recently and prompted us to examine this subject.
PART I – What is too much gun?
The first question is to properly define what constitutes “too much gun”. Because of the macho culture that pervades some of the shooting and hunting sports, many folks just don’t want to admit that they might have encountered “too much gun”. So, the first issue is to define the problem. In this author’s opinion, too much gun is defined as either a gun or cartridge that hinders one from accomplishing the purpose for which you have the gun in the first place. For example, as I have aged, the target pistols I had used so effectively are now too heavy to hold for extended competitive pistol events. In this respect – weight – it’s too much gun, even though the gun shoots well and the cartridge is mild and suitable for its intended purpose.
Usually, though, too much gun means a powerful cartridge that is not manageable in the chosen firearm. This can occur with guns that are too light, poorly designed or with cartridges that were originally intended for much heavier firearms. An example is shooting the .458 Winchester magnum in a handgun. Too much gun is also subjective. Everybody has different reactions to recoil. Some mind it less, some a lot more than others. Sometimes poor design can make recoil much more unpleasant. A great example is the venerable M1 Garand in 30-06. Even though this rifle is a semi-automatic (which absorbs some recoil) and is heavy (over 9 pounds), the steel butt plate makes it less pleasant to shoot. I currently shoot a 30-06 in a 7 pound sporter rifle (including scope) that is more comfortable because of its stock design. So, you can see that recoil – often the cause of “too much gun” is a subjective matter, as well.
The” too much gun” problem that came to us recently was the case of hunter who for very good reasons, wanted to use a handgun that would be capable to about 100-125 yards. Now let me hasten to point out that a 125 yard shot is no small challenge for a handgun. In fact, if you hang around the range prior to deer season as I often do, you can easily see that a 125 yd. shot would present a significant challenge to most of the rifle shooters there. But, being an experienced pistol and rifle shooter and having handled lots of both, initially I had to agree with this guy that his .308 Winchester Thompson Center Encore pistol with its 15 inch heavy barrel was “too much gun”. Even with loads with the minimum powder charge, it was unpleasant to shoot and this from a 5.5 pound handgun.
PART II – Recoil
A little background on recoil might be useful for our readers. The recoil energy that one feels from the gun is a function of the bullet weight being fired, the velocity at which it’s fired and the total weight of the gun from which it’s fired. A heavier gun, a lighter bullet and a lower velocity will all make the subjective recoil more tolerable or less obnoxious.
The table below shows calculations of recoil energy for a .308 Winchester cartridge with two different bullet weights and four different velocities. As you can see from this short data collection, reducing the bullet weight exerts a great influence on the recoil energy or the “push back” that the shooter feels. At the same velocity, 2700 fps, the 155 gr. Bullet exacts a “toll” on the shooter of 22.5 ft. lbs. whereas, the 125 gr. Bullet at the same velocity “hits back” at only 16.1 ft. lbs.
However, the bullet must do its intended job. In this case, the job is to put down a white tail deer. Nosler states that their 125 gr. Ballistic tip is a correct choice for deer and antelope. So our testing will be done in two phases. One will be an evaluation of subjective recoil from reduced powder charges, hence lower velocities and the second phase will be with the lighter 125 gr. Ballistic Tip. If the 125 gr. bullet will perform adequately on a deer at a lower velocity, e.g., 2500 fps. then we can reduce the initial energy of 22.5 ft. lbs. down to maybe 13.8 ft. lbs. – a reduction of some 30%.
Of course, being a “range rat”, my first order of business was to find out how well the gun shoots at the get go. So I loaded a minimum charge of XBR 8208 (a favorite powder for bench rest shooting, hence a good accuracy choice to start with) behind a Sierra Palma 155 gr. Match bullet. After 4 shots to get the gun on target at 100 yards, off the bench, I was rewarded with a three shot group that measured less than a half inch at 100 yards. See figure 1. That’s better than most hunting rifles and a great place to begin.
One note from figure 1. The notation “3.226” refers to the comparator overall length. This is a measure of bullet seating depth that uses a comparator (From Sinclair Intl.) to measure the distance of the bullet in the loaded round to the initial rifling. It measures this distance regardless of bullet shape and therefore is more repeatable. Bullet seating depth is very important to accuracy. But that’s a story for another report on accuracy hand loading. The group size from center to center is about four tenths of an inch and for 100 yards, that’s impressive in anybody’s book.
Yet, even with the minimum powder charge, the recoil was unpleasant and I had to put on a glove to save the knuckle behind my trigger finger.
Before continuing, let me add an important safety note here. I heartily discourage using any powder charge that is not listed in a manufacture’s manual or listed by a trusted source. A trusted source is not every internet blog you might stumble across. There’s good reason for this. Of course exceeding maximum powder charges with the result being dangerous pressures, life-threatening destruction of firearms, etc. is pretty clear. What is less clear is that going below minimum charges can also be dangerous from a variety of conditions, including, but not limited to bullets stuck in the barrel, possible detonation – a little understood phenomenon, and other problems with such loads. So my search for the next phase of testing began with searching sources for lower powder charges while still using suitable bullets for the intended purpose, in this case hunting whitetail deer.
PART III – How to reduce recoil
Usable bullets mean clean kills and reliability. We have to remember at this point that if we reduce powder charges to make the load more manageable, then we have to account for the lower velocity and determine if that will cause the bullet to perform as the manufacture intended. In the case of the .30 caliber, we have the option to step down to 30-30 bullets which are designed to expand at velocities in the 1900 to 2200 fps range and give us another option if we can get the powder charges that low. Of course it is also important to remember that 308 bullets are designed to perform at extended ranges. If we examine the ballistics tables, we see that at 400 yards, a 150 gr.308 bullet will nominally be traveling at over 2000 fps (ref: Remington Ballistics tables for a 150 gr. Cor-lokt starting @ 2820 fps.
Continuing on with our quest to find a suitable load for the .308 hand gun, I set out four loads to represent different approaches to the problem:
1. Load lower than the data listed by the manufacturer (within limits as already noted above);
2. Load a factory recommended light load;
3. Load a lower limit rifle load with a lighter bullet (taking note of the momentum data listed above) using two “faster”, high performance powders as used in bench rest shooting.
The first test used a very light load (not detailed here because it is outside the published data of the powder manufacturer). We shall see shortly why this is not published.
It is apparent that this light load of IMR 4895 failed to stabilize the bullet, as evidenced by the larger than 6” group shown in this test.
The second test featured a load of faster powder that is recommended by the manufacturer and showed much better accuracy.
In the interest of full disclosure, there is one stray shot not shown in this picture, but it was purely the fault of the nut holding the trigger. But this shows a respectable 100 yard group. What concerns me about this load is the small volume of powder in the case. It could lead to unpredictable results as a result of where the powder might be lying in the case at the time the shot is taken. I don’t generally like loads that are much below “normal” case capacity.
The third and fourth test used 125 gr Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets to take advantage of the light weight and lower momentum with bullets that Nosler recommends for antelope and white tail deer.
These two groups were shot with two very popular and useful powders for bench rest competition shooting and demonstrate great accuracy potential and uniformity.
Again, making excuses for the shooter, these great groups are each spoiled by an errant shot, obviously shooter error. In defense of the shooter, even for experienced hands, using a pistol (long eye relief) scope at higher magnifications in a hard recoiling pistol is a challenge.
At any rate, both of these show promise and should produce sufficient velocity for the Ballistic Tip design to expand sufficiently to provide a clean, humane harvest.
The next phase reached back into history to the Lyman reloading manual I bought when I first started reloading more that 40 years ago. There I found a load recipe that used a light-normal dose of a slow powder (H-4350) behind a light bullet – in this case a 125 gr. Sierra Spitzer. I tried both this bullet and a Sierra 110gr. HP varminter bullet, but would not use the varminter bullet on medium game. Even at low velocities, I suspect that this bullet would not perform the way we need for a humane harvest. The load with the 125 gr. Sierra was fairly accurate given the range conditions – rain, winds at 15-25 mph and 35 degree temperatures. With its balance of moderate recoil, reasonable accuracy and a bullet that should work on deer sized game, this load with either the Sierra or the Nosler Ballistic Tip 125 gr. will be presented to the subject for his personal evaluation of recoil. After all, recoil management is mostly subjective to the shooter and in the final analysis; the shooter is the person who has to use the load and the gun with confidence.
To summarize where we started and where we ended with this project:
The initial “rifle hunting” loads I normally use consist of 45.5 gr. Varget loaded behind a Nosler 150 gr. Ballistic tip. This load generated about 2550 fps in the 15inbarrel of the encore. In my rifle, these loads generated about 2750 fps on average. So, you can see that the short barrel of the encore pistol (15”) subtracted at least 200 fps. This velocity reduction is in line with other studies comparing popular pistol – carbine cartridges.
The candidate load for this Encore shooter ended up at about 2050 fps for a 125 gr. Bullet with a 45.0 gr. Charge of H4350.
Mandatory safety notice: all loads discussed herein were found to be safe in the firearm used and under the range conditions at the time of testing. If you choose to use any of these loads in your firearm, you must first determine that you have a published, trustworthy resource verifying such a load and that you are loading at the minimum starting load levels and refining such loads from that point: always being careful to watch for any pressure signs or other peculiar behavior. Big Bow Outdoors, Ltd is not liable for the use of any loading data that is not verified by the component manufacturers of the components used in such loads and loaded under safe and reliable loading practices.
These differences equate to following calculated values:
Recoil energy of 18.36 ft-lbs. vs. 10.97 ft-lbs or a reduction of about 40% due to both the lower bullet weight and the lower velocity. Since the recoil is the most objectionable feature of this handgun, this is the most important reduction. Of course, the muzzle blast is no box of chocolates either.
The respective recoil velocities are 14.66 vs. 11.33 fps. For a 23% reduction
The recoil impulse in lb-sec. is 2.50 vs. 1.94 or again, a 22% reduction.
So we have tamed this beast somewhat and now have what could be considered a useful hunting cartridge to 100 yards.
A study of terminal ballistics is beyond the scope of this investigation. However, I would recommend the use of a 30-30 bullet rather than a 308 Winchester bullet because of the lower velocity. 2000 fps is well within the range of the normal 30-30 cartridge and the bullet performance of 30-30 bullet would be more predictable, particularly at extended ranges where velocities would be good bit lower. The excellent Hornady Flex Tip bullet would be a good candidate when it becomes available in a 125 gr. Weight.
Of course the only way to know is to test the load in game or a substance that replicates game. Road kill is one useful, but extremely messy test. Short of that it’s either ballistic gelatin for the sophisticated experimenter or wet phone books for the rest of us (so long as we can still get these anachronisms in this computer age.)
So there, you have it – one man’s answer to the question, “what to do when it’s too much gun.”
David Prepelka, Firearms Focus Editor, Big Bow Outdoors
Copyright 2013. All right reserved.
As a footnote to all this, for those who don’t reload, an alternative to the work presented about could be found in a factory loading. The best example is the Remington Managed Recoil load with a 125 gr. Bullet.
RL3081 Remington® Managed Recoil® 125 Pointed Soft Point Core-Lokt®
*Data courtesy of Remington Arms Company
Remember that this load is presented in the Remington literature as being fired from a rifle. In this form, the bullet is exiting the muzzle at 2660 fps and loafing along at 1546 fps at 400 yards. This indicates to me that Remington expects satisfactory performance at 1546 fps. Now, remember that we lose at least 200 fps from going from a rifle barrel to the 15: Encore barrel, so this load could be expected to start out at about 2450 fps from the Encore Pistol. That’s still a whole lot snappier that the load we developed at Big Bow, but a commercial alternative, none the less.