Don't Fear the Recoil

Some agencies have sold off their shotguns or traded them away in favor of the rifle. Rifles are great, but so are shotguns, and you should have both.

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Photo: Michael T. RayburnPhoto: Michael T. Rayburn

A number of agencies across the country have gone away from using the shotgun in favor of the patrol rifle. The patrol rifle is an absolutely amazing tool to have in our arsenal. But there's a reason the shotgun has been a staple in law enforcement work for so long.

With a shotgun you can use birdshot to take down small sick or diseased animals. Use buckshot against bad guys in close-quarters combat. Use slugs to reach out and get the bad guy at greater distances. And the multitude of less-lethal munitions that can be fired from the shotgun is truly amazing. It's just an extremely versatile weapon.

Yet some have labeled it an antique, leaving it to collect dust in the armory. Some agencies have even sold off their shotguns or traded them away in favor of the rifle. Rifles are great, but so are shotguns, and you should have both.

Lack of Familiarity

I may be wrong, but I lay blame for the decline of the shotgun on firearms instructors and their unfamiliarity with the shotgun. Having taught a combat shotgun instructor course for a number of years, I can honestly say that most firearms instructors are not familiar or not comfortable with the shotgun. They may know how it functions, but they are not as comfortable as they should be when shooting it.

Think about your own shotgun qualification course, if you work for one of the few agencies that still carries the shotgun on patrol. Are you going to the range and shooting off a couple of hundred rounds, or are you shooting several rounds at a target and calling it qualification? The average seems to be five rounds. As if five rounds is a magical number that makes you proficient with a weapon.

Imagine if we did that with our duty handguns, and yet this is acceptable for the shotgun? This is due to this unfamiliarity with the weapon on the part of some law enforcement firearms instructors.

Probably the biggest reason for this lack of familiarity with the shotgun is the fear of the recoil. It's certainly one of the leading reasons, or excuses, used by firearms instructors when they push to retire the shotgun in favor of the rifle. The common excuse you hear is that smaller-framed officers, especially females, can't manage the recoil. This is pure bull, because if the weapon is mounted properly the felt recoil is minimal.

Does the shotgun have a recoil? It most certainly does, especially if you don't hold the weapon properly. But if the shotgun is mounted properly in the shoulder where it belongs, and the proper stance is used, the felt recoil is minimal. The amount of recoil produced by the weapon won't change, but the amount of felt recoil absorbed by the shooter changes dramatically when the shotgun is used properly.

A Solid Foundation

As with any tactic we use, you have to have a base, or a solid foundation to work from when firing a shotgun. It's like building a house; if the foundation is poor, the rest will crumble and fall apart, especially under stress. This foundation starts with the proper stance, and that starts with your feet. Your feet need to be shoulder width apart.

The easiest way to find this is to put your feet together like you're standing at attention. Now spread your toes out as far as they will go. Once you do this, spread your heels out so they're even with your toes; that will be shoulder width for you. A stance that's too wide, or too narrow, is not a good shooting platform. We walk, stand, run, and fight, with our feet shoulder width apart, so why not train that way?

There's an added benefit to having your feet shoulder width apart, and that is the ability to move quickly and fluidly. If you stand with your feet too wide, you'll have to bring them together in order to move; otherwise you'll be duck walking. The opposite is true if your feet are too close together; you'll have to spread them apart before moving. Plus, if your feet are too wide apart, or too close together, you can easily lose your balance, or be knocked off your feet in close quarters.

Whether too wide, or too close, both obviously waste valuable time because you have to switch your feet position before moving, and that's time you don't have in a gunfight. Although it may only take fractions of a second to move your feet, gunfights are won in fractions of a second.

The next part of your foundation is to bend your knees slightly. We don't walk or run with our knees locked like we're a bunch of penguins, so why lock them on the range during training? It's all about what comes naturally, or instinctively to you. If you were standing with your knees locked, how easily could you be knocked over? Bending your knees slightly, lowers your center of gravity.

The next step in your foundation is to bend slightly forward at the waist. Don't make the mistake some people do of dramatically leaning forward to try to counter the recoil; it will only make it worse. Just bend slightly forward at the waist like you do normally. Nobody walks, runs, or fights with a stiff back, so why train that way?

Having your feet shoulder width apart, bending your knees slightly, and bending slightly forward at the waist, allows your body to act as one big recoil spring. Your body is in fact absorbing the same amount of recoil from the shotgun as before, because that hasn't changed, but how you absorb that recoil is what makes the difference. If you doubt me, stand with your feet too far apart, or too close together, with your knees locked and your back stiff, and fire a round of buckshot from your shotgun. You'll quickly notice the difference.

You can practice this stance in front of a mirror, or if you have a training partner, your partner can assist you in getting it right. Stand square to the mirror as if it were a target; don't blade your body.

Proper Mounting

Now that we've got your big recoil spring stance down, it's time to work on properly mounting the shotgun into your shoulder. This starts with finding the "pocket" in your shoulder. There are two ways to do this.

One is to hunch your shoulders up. This "pocket" is located between your shoulder and collar bone at the top portion of your pectoral muscle. If you use the fingers of your off hand you can feel for this pocket and the meaty section of the head of your pectoralis muscle. That's where the bottom portion of the buttstock of the shotgun goes, right in that pocket on that meaty/muscle section.

Another way of finding the "pocket," and this method has been around for a long time, is to raise your elbow straight out to your side. Once your elbow is raised up, take your off hand and feel for the pocket. Again, it's the meaty section of your upper pectoralis muscle where the bottom portion of the shotgun's buttstock goes.

It doesn't matter if the top portion of the buttstock is not making contact with your shoulder. It's the bottom portion of the shotgun's buttstock that needs to be in that pocket. Pull it in snug and tight. If not, you're going to get some recoil.

One common mistake a lot of people make, especially if they're anticipating the recoil of the weapon, is they try to hold the shotgun away from their shoulder thinking it's going to lessen the recoil, when it has the opposite effect of making the recoil worse. Pull it in snug and tight into that pocket, and the felt recoil will be minimal.

Keep the shotgun's buttstock in that pocket the entire time you're shooting, and maintain your stance. If you were to blade your body, as so many inexperienced shooters do, you'd notice the buttstock moves out of the pocket and onto your shoulder bone. Some even let the gun move over as far as their bicep muscle.

This is where a lot of people blame the shotgun for having this tremendous recoil. If you're going to put the buttstock of the shotgun on bone, or on your arm muscles, instead of in that solid pocket of meaty muscle in your shoulder, of course it's going to feel bad. It's not the shotgun's fault, it's your fault for not holding it properly.

Point Shooting

If you're doing this right you'll notice one thing that's pretty dramatic, and that is the end of your barrel will be in line with the centerline of your body. This happens naturally, and it's a good thing. The shotgun is a point and shoot weapon, always has been, always will be. It's meant to be shot with both of your eyes open and on the target, and just point the shotgun at what you're trying to shoot.

By having the shotgun aligned with the centerline of your body, wherever you turn or pivot to, the shotgun will be on target as long as you're square to that target. Since aligning square to the target is something we do instinctively, especially under stress, this is a good thing because you're not wasting those valuable fractions of a second trying to align the gun.

Don't fall victim to the notion that the shotgun has outlived its usefulness. The shotgun has been around for a long time in law enforcement and in the military for a good reason; because it's a versatile workhorse and a devastating firearm in the hands of a proficient operator. Become proficient with it by using this technique, and you'll further law enforcement's love affair with the shotgun. 

Michael T. Rayburn has been involved in law enforcement since 1977, and is the author of five books. He is a former adjunct instructor for the Smith & Wesson Academy, and is the owner of Rayburn Law Enforcement Training. He can be reached at

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