Do Semi-Auto Shotguns Have Less Recoil REALLY?

April 5, 2022

Can the action of a shotgun actually do something to reduce the recoil? This is a common question asked by all kinds of shotgun users from new hunters to seasoned pros. I have searched the internet over trying to find a good answer for this question and I was unsatisfied with what I found. That is when I realized I was asking the wrong question and I was looking for information in the wrong places.

The right question is this: Can a semi-automatic shotgun reduce felt recoil?

What Is Felt Recoil?

Nothing can reduce true recoil, it is a function of payload, velocity, and powder charge. But felt recoil, or perceived recoil is another thing. This is the recoil force that the shooter experiences. This can be reduced by a great number of things, but is the action of a shotgun one of them? Well, instead of endlessly combing the depths of the internet looking for an answer, I decided to ask the manufacturers of the shotguns themselves to see what they had to say. And their responses were surprising. 

When it comes to recoil energy, the bigger the payload and the faster it leaves the gun, the higher the recoil. This is the equal and opposite reaction to the charge being fired out of the barrel. This energy travels through the frame of the shotgun, into the stock and then into your shoulder and cheek. After a certain level, that force is enough to cause pain and eventually tissue damage in your body.

Shells with more shot and/or more velocity create more recoil and that recoil has to go somewhere. And it will go somewhere, into the shooter. BUT what happens to that energy along the way will change its effect on the shooter. Keep in mind that shotgun fit can also plays a part here. A well fitted shotgun will help more evenly distribute recoil which mitigates some of the perceived force and discomfort. For more on that, I did a full article here: How To Fit A Shotgun To You.

Slower Recoil Is Less Damaging Recoil

One of the biggest variables in the equation of felt recoil is the weight of the shotgun. A gun with more mass resists the backward push of the recoil more. A heavier shotgun cannot absorb recoil, but rather it slows it down.  The energy has to first accelerate the shotgun and then push it into your shoulder. If the shotgun is heavier then it moves slower. The same amount of force exists but the speed the shotgun is propelled into your shoulder is slowed down, ever so slightly, and then hits your shoulder more like a firm push than a sharp crack. The shark crack causes pain and damage, the firm push does not.

Think about this example. If a pickup truck hit you doing 30 mph, the effect on your body would be devastating.  But if a much heavier tractor trailer hit you at 3 mph it would do you little to no harm. Both trucks could have the same energy, but your body is able to absorb the energy at slower velocity because it does not cross the threshold for pain and tissue damage. It causes movement of the body, but not damage.

A good recoil pad works to the same aim, it compresses when the recoil hits it, absorbing the recoil energy and then releasing it a fraction of second later. The energy is not taken away by the pad but it is spread out by milliseconds which can make a great deal of difference to the shooter.

If recoil energy is a wave, the higher the peak the more pain and damage it causes. If that wave is spread out to be a wider wave with a lower peak, it has the same total force, same energy, but it doesn’t cause the pain. The amplitude of the recoil is reduced, and the discomfort with it. There is alot of debate a well about whether choke tubes reduce felt recoil, for more check out my article on that subject: Do Ported Chokes Really Reduce Shotgun Recoil?

2 Types Of Semi-Automatic Shotguns

Now, enter semi-automatic shotguns. There are two main types of semi-auto shotguns, gas operated guns and recoil/inertia operated shotguns. Before I talk about the differences, I will cover the similarities.

Both types of shotguns have mechanisms that utilize energy from the shot to eject the spent shell, compress the recoil spring, load a new round, and re-cock the shotgun. This process reduces felt recoil in two ways. First, the compressing of springs, moving of the bolt, and recharging of the gun slows down that recoil energy as it travels backwards. The bolt goes back and then forward creating a counter balancing effect as well.  Secondly, there is some friction in the process which burns up a smaller amount of energy.

All of this has the effect of slowing recoil energy on its way to the shoulder and causing less discomfort and allowing one to control the firearm easier.

Inertial Operated Shotguns

Inertia driven shotguns use the recoil energy alone to complete the auto loading process by pushing the bolt backwards, and sometimes more parts, even the entire barrel in some designs like the Browning Auto 5. Shells are exchanged and the gun recharged. The more mass that moves backward, the more the recoil energy is doing before it gets to your shoulder and the more it is slowed thus softening the effect of the shot.

Gas Operated Shotguns

Gas operated semiautomatic shotguns utilize gas pressure from inside the barrel to move push an assembly backwards which works to expel the round, compress the springs, move the bolt, chamber a new round and full recharge the firearm. The outcomes is the same as inertia driven shotguns except that gas operated actions tend to reduce felt recoil slightly more.

The reason being, gas actions relieve gas pressure from inside of the barrel and channel it backwards, and sometimes in unique ways like with the Remington Versa Max. This does not just relieve some of force which would exit the barrel creating recoil but it redirects it in the most advantageous direction, backwards. Some say that relieving gas does nothing to effect recoil, however you must keep in mind that gas does have mass, and gas under pressure does contribute to recoil when it escapes the barrel in a forward direction. But granted, the effects of this are minimal. The moving of the bolt, slide, springs, shells, etc. provides the lion share of the benefits.

Ultimately the semi-auto shotguns that best reduce felt recoil tend to be more of a function of how that particular gun is designed rather than if it was gas or inertial driven.

The Recoil Research

Now the big question is by how much do semiautomatic shotguns reduce felt recoil. This is where my research comes into play. I reached out to many of the largest shotgun manufacturers in the U.S.  Not all of them, but many of them. Companies like Mossberg, Browning, Benelli, Winchester, Remington, and more.

Not all of the companies responded to me, and of those who did, not all of them gave me helpful information. But numerous companies did weigh in on the subject. Keep in mind, these are not people on forums, Facebook, YouTube, or magazine writers, these are the people who make the shotguns. Not that there is anything wrong with people in those other channels, I am one of them! But the shotgun manufacturer will always know more about their product than the shotgun user or commentator.

I ask all of the companies almost the exact same thing. How much does your semi-automatic shotguns reduce felt recoil compared to your pump shotguns? I then inserted the names of certain shotgun models they sell, aiming for the most popular in both categories, such as with the semiautomatic Mossberg 930 and 940 vs. the Mossberg 500 pump. And the Benelli Super Black Eagle 3 shotgun vs. the Benelli Super Nova pump action shotgun. In this I asked all of the companies to compare two of their own guns that they know intimately, as I tried to look for patterns to answering the bigger question.

How Much Do Semi-automatic Shotguns Reduce Recoil?

The results are below. I will not disclose which companies responded and who said what because I did not approach them as a reporter looking for on the record statements.

In total I received 5 responses as percentages. In other words, their semi-auto shotguns should reduce felt recoil by these percentages compared to their pump shotguns.

  1. 10% felt recoil reduction.
  2. 25% felt recoil reduction.
  3. 35% felt recoil reduction.
  4. 40% felt recoil reduction.
  5. 50% felt recoil reduction.

Averaged, we are at 32%.

Now it is possible that the manufacturers provided overly optimistic figures, and I am personally working on a way to objectively measure and report felt recoil so I can put these figures to the test. However, these results are consistent with my personal experience and expectations.

So do semi-automatic shotguns reduce recoil? No. But they do significantly reduce felt recoil and could help you shoot more comfortably and effectively.

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George Konetes Ph.D. – Founder and Host of the New Hunters Guide.

The New Hunters Guide is simply what George wishes he would have had when learning how to hunt; a single place to get practical hands on knowledge about different kinds of hunting, gear, strategy, and tips that can improve your comfort and fun factor in the woods.