A shotgun gives you a dose of negative reinforcement every time you pull the trigger. Whether you hit or miss your target, that loud noise and sharp jolt tell your body that shooting isn’t all fun. Recoil doesn’t just hurt your shoulder, it gets into your head, too. Over time, or sometimes just in the course of a few shots, recoil erodes your shooting skills.

Recoil affects shooters in several different ways. Being aware of these reactions, and knowing how to cut the kick, can keep you on target.

1. Recoil distracts you.

At the very least, recoil is a distraction, and any distraction that takes your mind off what you’re doing takes your eye off the target. It can happen to anyone, although it’s easiest to see in new shooters. As a shooting coach of a high-school trap team, I’ve worked with kids who haven’t shot much, and I see recoil distraction all the time. While kids may not show any outward reaction to the kick, such as lifting their heads off the stock, I can see the guns rock them. I know when their mind in on recoil, because they seem nervous. They grip the gun tightly and jam it into their shoulder, then miss. Recoil is on their minds, so their minds aren’t on the target.

The solution is simple: reduce recoil in order to reduce distraction. I’ll pull one of my supply of low-recoil shells from my pocket and say, “Shoot this. You won’t even feel it go off.” If they believe me, the very next target breaks. If they don’t, the target after that one breaks once they realize the gun doesn’t hurt them anymore.

2. Recoil causes fatigue.

Recoil over the course of the day erodes your shooting, too. Sporting clays champion Scott Robertson once gave me this succinct explanation: “You have a tank of energy. If you use that energy fighting recoil, you won’t be able to use it focusing on the target.” Over the course of, say, a 100-target round of sporting clays, recoil pecks away at your stamina. Near the end of the round you may be getting sloppy with the gun, not keeping your eye on the bird, not thinking about what you need to do to break the target. You may not even realize that recoil is part of the problem. But every time you get kicked, the needle on your energy tank nudges a little closer to zero.

I sacrificed my shoulder in the video below in an attempt to show how difficult it is to manage heavy recoil and stay on target. The gun is a very light Browning A5, the shells are 3 1/2-inch high velocity Federal Black Cloud waterfowl loads. I was trying to shoot a very easy triple on clay targets, but I could never break the third bird in four or five attempts.

3. Recoil causes flinches and other bad habits.

Recoil affects shooting over time, too. Take too much abuse from your shotgun, and you build permanent flinches. A flinch is subconscious reaction to recoil. It’s your body’s attempt to get away from the source of the pain. Once shooters develop a flinch, they are likely to flinch whether the gun kicks them or not.

There are several different forms of flinching. These are the most common:

• The Head Lift

This one is easy to spot. The symptoms include lifting the head off the gun at the shot and/or snatching the gun away from their shoulder. I know one man who would lift his head off the stock, snatch the gun from his shoulder and take a full step backward every time he shot a gun—all habits he picked up shooting guns that kicked him hard when he was young. Lots of target shooting with light loads helped him break those habits and become a very good shot.

• The Lurch

Another reaction to recoil you’ll see among experienced shooters is a lurch forward if they have a misfire. That’s not a flinch as much as it is an example of the “Labyrinthine righting reflex,” which helps us balance and remain upright (and helps cats land on their feet). Your inner ear senses when your head and body aren’t upright and initiates a reflex. In shooters, that reflex becomes an automatic reaction and we push forward to counter the backward push of recoil. I don’t believe it’s any detriment to your shooting, although you look silly falling forward when you pull the trigger and the gun doesn’t fire.

• The Trigger Dysfunction

The worst form of flinching is the trapshooter’s flinch, in which you physically cannot pull the trigger. It may or may not be recoil-related. Many researchers believe it’s a version of focal dystonia—more commonly known as the “yips.” This condition is has been seen to afflict golfers, causing them to lose control of fine motor skills at critical times.

With shooters, some believe it’s simply your body’s way of protecting itself from more pounding. The only cure is a release trigger, a special trigger for target guns that you pull and hold, then release when you want the gun to fire. For some neurological reason, a flincher can release a trigger that he or she can’t pull.

– Fear of Missing

There’s one flinch that has nothing to do with recoil, but can be just as damaging to your shooting. It has more to do with fear of missing, which causes you to over-ride your natural eye-hand coordination. It happens to me while dove hunting way from time to time. Anthony Matarese, one of country’s top shots and instructors, told me this about it: “Trying to aim the gun puts your conscious mind in the way of your eye-hand coordination, short-circuiting the eyes’ information feed to the brain. When that happens, you start to pull the trigger, then stop, then pull again, trying to make sure of the shot.”

The result is an awkward two-part trigger pull, and I am here to tell you it’s not a good way to shoot.

How To Cure a Flinch

Think you’re flinching? Have a friend take video of you shooting. Watch for the telltale signs explained above. If you’ve got a flinch, work to correct it with the lightest target loads you can find, and the help of your friend. Shoot a target and keep your head on the gun and the stock to your shoulder all the way through the shot, and after the target breaks. Only lower the gun when your friend says “okay.” Replace that flinching habit with a good, ingrained follow-through.

Don’t know your gauge from your breech? Here’s a quick guide to shotgun basics, plus some great starter models.

Your First Shotgun

The best way to not flinch is to not to develop one in the first place, by not subjecting yourself to too much recoil. A lot of the recoil sensation is noise, so be sure to wear good hearing protection. Foam plugs are very effective if you put them in correctly, rolling them between your fingers, reaching over your head with the opposite hand to pull up your ear and stuffing the plug well into the ear canal. If you’ve done it right, you’ll feel the plug expand to fill the ear. Double up with electric muffs over the plugs to really cut the noise. Champion Electronic Muffs cost $40.95 and are a cheap investment in your hearing that enable you to hear range commands, even when you wear them with earplugs, but blocks out gunshots.

When choosing a gun, consider a gas-operated semiautomatic, which uses pressurized gases emitted by the cartridge to work the action, effectively reducing the amount of recoil that you feel. Also, remember that weight is your friend when it comes to reducing recoil. Especially if you are buying a gun for clays shooting only, get a heavy one and make sure it fits you properly. If it doesn’t come with a good recoil pad, add an aftermarket pad like a Limbsaver or a Kick-Eez.

psychology of recoil
Federal Top Gun soft-kicking target loads can help stop a flinch before it starts. mfg photo

Use light loads in it. Federal’s 7/8-ounce Top Gun Target Load is very soft-kicking and breaks targets with authority.

Keep shooting sessions short. The more you shoot, the greater your tolerance for recoil becomes, but you should work your way up to long shooting sessions. Quit before you feel beaten up and while you’re having a good time. This is supposed to be fun, after all, and there’s no fun in getting pounded by your gun, or in missing because you flinched.