September 04, 2020
By Jim Dickson
A firearm’s weight is a complicated subject touching many other aspects of the gun. Among the most important is its role in keeping the gun steady for off-handed shooting. The U.S. Army determined that the steadiest weight for the average man was 16½ pounds, but that was a lot of weight for a soldier to carry, so they halved it, and the M1903 Springfield rifle was designed to weigh 8¼ pounds. The M1903 Springfield went on to establish a reputation as the most accurate military rifle of its day. Part of that was due to its extremely fine, precise sights, and part was due to it having enough weight and that weight being properly distributed.
Weight distribution is important. I remember one time years ago when I was chewing up the X ring of a target with a Stoeger .22 Luger pistol. A friend handed me an AR-7 .22 LR survival rifle. This is a super-lightweight gun with a bare, unsupported 16-inch barrel, a semi-auto action and a hollow stock, which the gun stores in when broken down. All the weight is at the butt end of the gun. I could not make that light muzzle stay still, and I could barely keep the shots on the paper. Disgusted, I handed it back and went back to hitting the X ring with my pistol. Later, I found that the only way I could hit with that butt-heavy, muzzle-light monstrosity was to rest the gun in the crook of my left arm with my left hand folded back to my right arm that was firing the gun. Hardly a classic shooting stance, and still inferior to a pistol in hitting.
The proper weight distribution is part of what results in a gun being “lively” in your hands, and when coupled with a stock made to your measurements, results in a gun that seems to effortlessly come on target by itself. It is a mystical Zen experience where man and gun become one at the moment of firing. This is one reason the Best Quality side-by-side game guns of the British Isles are the pinnacle of the gun maker’s craft. A try gun is used to take the shooter’s measurements so that a stock can be made to fit him. This stock’s measurements will be precisely made to 1/16 of an inch in every direction, insuring that when the gun is brought up on target, it will automatically be pointing where the shooter is looking.
For a shotgun to come alive in the hands, it needs more than just a properly fitted stock; it needs a splinter fore end so that you will grasp the barrels with your thumb, blocking the left eye’s view of the barrel, to prevent the master-eye dominance issues that can plague users of over and under guns. With an over and under shotgun, the left eye sees the great mass of the barrels, while the right eye sees only a narrow rib, and this can cause the left eye to fight for dominance, resulting in unexplained misses to the side when it wins.
A wide beavertail fore end will kill the liveliness of the best gun. You need the tight grip on the barrels. It is important that the hand be sufficiently closed, so that it takes little effort to move the gun. The tighter the closure of the hand, the stronger the grip and the less effort needed to mount and swing the gun. This also applies to the stock grip, which should also be as slim as possible. It is absolutely necessary to have a straight grip stock, or, at most, a semi-pistol grip stock, as you cannot reliably hit an incoming grouse straight overhead with a full pistol grip stock. By keeping the axis of the hands closer together, a straight grip stock also causes you to point more accurately.
Balance is a custom issue, as not everyone needs the same balance point. The classic point is at the hinge pin, or one inch back, but this varies with individuals and is just a standard starting point. The key is to have the gun’s weight between the hands, but since some people lift more with one hand than the other, there are slight differences in where they want that point.
Once the balance point has been found for the individual shooter, the gun will point accurately and steadily, but for a rifle, it helps if the weapon is just slightly muzzle-heavy, so the balance point is often adjusted slightly forward for the rifle. You don’t have a lot of leeway on moving the balance point, as a lively gun can go dead in your hands quickly if you move it too far in either direction. Keeping the weight centered between the hands, as opposed to adding weight at either end, is also important to getting fine results. A properly balanced gun will feel 20% lighter in the hands.
Leverage figures into this also. If you have a heavy mass near the center of the gun and just a light barrel, you can still have the barrel moving about just like the aforementioned butt stock-heavy AR-7 survival rifle, although not quite as badly. The H&K G3 series has a good balance point, but its light barrel makes it less steady for offhanded firing than it should be. A heavier barrel would help it immensely. The point is that the balance is just a part of the equation and not the beginning and the end of it.
Shotguns are different from rifles in that light weight is desirable. The old rule is that a shotgun needs to weigh 96 times the weight of the shot charge in order not to be a hard kicker. That means a six pound gun if you are firing one ounce of shot. Since a shotgun is pointed and not aimed, the extra weight for steadiness is not as necessary, and a light 12-gauge game gun will run from six to seven pounds.
For accurate shooting, a gun must have weight. One reason the old professional hunters in Africa often ordered guns weighing more than normal was because they had found that after running after game in the tropical heat, they could not hold the lighter guns steady on target when they were hot and tired. What good is a gun that is light and easy to carry if you can’t hit with it when the time to shoot comes?
Recoil mitigation is another reason for sufficient weight. A 14- or 15-pound .577 three-inch nitro express is not too bad a kicker, but an 11½ pound .577 is brutal to shoot. Some years ago, a seven-pound .500 nitro was offered for sale with 19 rounds of ammo. It quickly reappeared for sale with 18 rounds of ammo. The number of rounds dropped one round with each subsequent sale. Finally, a man bought it and sent it to a gun maker with instructions to add sufficient weight to it. Lead was added to the stock and under the barrel to bring it up to a minimum weight.
Some of the worst offenders are the light “Mountain rifles” in heavy calibers. A four- or five-pound .375 H&H Magnum is no fun to shoot, especially since the higher velocity rounds have a much sharper recoil than the slow shove of the true elephant rifles. A .375 H&H Magnum should weigh nine pounds, not four pounds. The 8¼-pound weight of the M1903 Springfield rifle was also partly decided on because the average soldier had to be able to fire 100 rounds a day from it, and that weight was necessary to keep the recoil down to a level that would permit that. The broad military butt plate that spread the recoil out over a broader area than the skinny butt plates popular on commercial rifles, was also critical to the average soldier being able to get off those 100 rounds without flinching.
Many people object to weight in a gun, but the answer is weight lifting. If you are not in shape, you are going to perform poorly at any physical endeavor, and it is not going to be a pleasant experience at all. If you take the time to build and maintain sufficient muscle, you will be able to enjoy outdoor activity instead of suffering through it.
Lack of muscle mass and tone is another definition of old age, and the truth is that you can be old at any age if you don’t work at building and maintaining your body. People who are in perfect shape tend to think and act young, while people whose bodies are weak, think and act old. This holds true regardless of the numerical age of the people involved, so if you want to have fun and do things, you must take the time to maintain your body. You won’t worry about your gun being too heavy if your body is strong.