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Recoil and Effective Sight-In of Big-Bore Revolvers

Sighting-in your big-bore revolver effectively requires understanding the nature of handgun recoil.  

Recoil and Effective Sight-In of Big-Bore Revolvers

Heavy-recoiling revolvers require special attention during sighting-in. Here are some tips that will help with the task.

It’s said that good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. I’ve likely sighted-in a half-dozen revolvers for every rifle I’ve sighted. In my youth, I applied plenty of bad judgment to the task. Fortunately, I learned.

Remember, accuracy is the ability of a firearm to put bullets as close as possible to the same point of impact (POI) independent of the shooter. Sighting determines the POI relative to point of aim (POA). It is very shooter-dependent in handguns.

All firearms recoil at the moment of firing, producing a quantifiable force rooted in Newtonian physics, but big-bore revolvers throw Professor Newton a rotten apple. The classic recoil concept is, “For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.” “Opposite” implies a straight direction. In most rifles this is quite true, as rifle recoil is primarily straight back while the bullet is in the barrel. Upward rotation, if any, typically occurs after the bullet exits.

Conversely, and surely to Newton’s dismay, big-bore revolvers are far lighter and shorter than rifles. They have only one point of contact with the shooter, and that contact is inconsistent. These factors combine to create a multi-directional recoil path, making it virtually impossible to predict where the revolver goes under recoil without real-world testing.

In big-bore revolvers, much of the recoil force is a vertical component: pitch. The muzzle comes up, often rising with the bullet still in the barrel. Vertical sight correction accommodates this effect.

Some motion may also translate to roll, a twisting force that corkscrews the revolver, often to the left for right-handed shooters. Commonly attributed to the forces a big bullet exerts on the rifling, roll requires a combination of vertical and horizontal sight correction.

The third directional component is yaw, a flat, left-right shift around a vertical axis that puts the front and rear sights out of line with the target. Yaw is a sure sign of grips that are too large and/or a weak grasp on the handle. Training and better grips, not sight adjustment, best eliminate yaw.

Understanding these directional forces will help you more effectively sight your big bruiser. Learn to embrace this complex recoil arc rather than fight it. 

Sight the way you plan to hold the revolver in actual use. Sighting for one-handed target shooting will produce a different POI than sighting with a two-handed field or defensive grip.

The revolver must be free to move under recoil without contacting anything other than your hands. It should be a comfortable position. Even a sophisticated machine rest with recoil compensation will not duplicate the way your revolver recoils in your hand. Nothing on or around your test bench should interfere with the revolver’s natural recoil arc.

You must grip the revolver consistently. Shifting your hand on the grip between shots will introduce undesirable variations.

This critical relationship between your hands and the revolver means it will do little good to ask someone else to sight-in your handgun.


A huge mistake is resting the revolver butt directly on the benchtop. Recoil will dig the heel of the grip into the bench and bounce the revolver up in an unnatural way unlike recoil from a field stance, and something else very ugly can happen.

An acquaintance sighted his new custom-order S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum that included stunning presentation target grips with select wood. He placed its butt on the bench top, which was padded with a couple of layers of terry cloth, and squeezed the trigger. Something felt odd, and he was horrified to see shards of goncalo alves falling from his hands. Yes, better padding might have saved the grips, but it would still interfere with the natural recoil arc.

To best accommodate the motion of big revolver recoil, I offer the simple system I’ve used for decades. I use a triangular or round piece of upholstery foam as a rest, not for the revolver but for my forearms; the revolver hangs in air in front of the foam block. For comfort I prefer something about 10 to 12 inches high with a 30-degree to 45-degree bevel for resting my forearms.

Extend your arms close to the extension you use in the field, and that will help determine the bevel angle. I shoot a basic Weaver stance for defense and in the field, so a steeper angle works. If you shoot the “isosceles” stance, shallower is better. The grip I have on the revolver while resting my forearms on foam lets the revolver move without touching anything but me. In the field I let my elbows act as a recoil-absorbing “hinge,” and the bench technique allows for this. Any between-shots repositioning seems to have less effect.

How you cock a revolver can add unwanted variables. I found I shifted my grip when cocking the hammer with my strong-hand thumb. I now cock the revolver with my weak-hand thumb, with a huge improvement in grip consistency.

Recoil effects on sighting are less with most semiautomatic pistols or handguns with mild recoil. High-speed videos of Colt Government Models show that unlike big revolvers, the Model 1911 has little muzzle rise before the bullet exits. The highest point of semiautomatic pistol muzzle rise usually happens after bullets exit, when the heavy slide hits the stops at the rear limit of its travel. Still, out of habit, I now sight all my handguns using the rested-forearm technique.

What is the proper “dead-on” sighting distance? That is dictated by your handgun sport. My persistent “affliction” with long-range handgunning has me sighting most adjustable-sight defense handguns dead-on at 50 yards. My old Ruger Super Blackhawk is sighted for 75 yards. Most of my T/C Contender barrels are sighted for 100 yards, some more. Why long? The bullet path rise between muzzle and the dead-on distance is less than the drop beyond it.

I am not preaching here, but rather relating what works for me. See if you like it. My hope is to save others from repeating the mistakes of my youth!

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