You think repetitive-stress problems only afflict computer jockeys? Shooters are prime candidates, too.
In the last few years, I have noticed many handgunners who frequently fire big-bore handguns — those models that use rifle-type cartridges — often have master-hand problems. These maladies generally consist of pain, swelling, and possibly weakness in the strong, or shooting, hand due to damage in the bones of the wrist, forearm, and elbow of the master arm. At their worst, these problems may be stress or fatigue fractures, or they manifest as the more widely known repetitive stress injuries (RSI), one of which is carpal tunnel syndrome.
Usually, these injuries are the result of work-related damage. The classic example of activity related to this type of injury can be found in the individual who uses equipment such as a jackhammer. On the recreational side, lower-body stress fractures (especially damage to the tibia, fibula, and femur) are often found in people who participate in ballet, gymnastics, parachuting, and running long distances. Also, bowling and tennis claim their share of elbow-related injuries. Regardless of the activity, it’s apparent that trauma to joints and bones can eventually cause prolonged pain, especially when that trauma is repetitious and a shock is experienced.
You don’t need an “M.D.” after your name to see how that description fits shooters, especially handgun shooters, whose master hand absorbs much, if not all, of recoil energy. In the short term, this abused area can make shooting uncomfortable and curtail your performance. In the long term, recoil-damaged areas are prone to crippling disorders such as osteoarthritis. As a doctor, there’s no question in my mind that people who shoot everything from .357 Magnums up to 7mm Magnums in handguns are at risk.
How do you protect yourself?
Over time, heavy recoil can contribute to joint trauma. If you’ve ever noticed weakness and pain in your wrist followed by some stiffness after a lot of big-caliber shooting, then you’ve already suffered some recoil-related damage to your arm.
I once experienced pain and weakness in one wrist after a few weeks of firing around one hundred or more big-bore rounds a day getting ready for a big-game handgun hunt. When it came time to shoot game on those hunts, I had problems even holding the handgun. This kind of problem must be avoided.
But there’s no reason to let recoil get to you. I now use several strategies to lessen my risk of RSI injury, including the use of muzzle brakes, soft grips, shooting gloves, exercises, and a sensible training schedule.
Arrestors Or Muzzle Brakes
It is crazy to have a big-bore handgun and not take advantage of this technology. Said simply, if you aren’t using a muzzle brake on your boomer, you’re beating up yourself and your handgun unnecessarily.
Some of the devices I have found to be effective are available from the factory, either as stock items or options. These are the Muzzle Tamer from Thompson/Center and Fox Ridge, Integral Muzzle Brake from Magnum Research, and the SSK Arrestor Brake.
Another product which can be added to an existing barrel is the Mag-Na-Brake from Mag-Na-Port. I have used all of these products, and I’ve found they reduce felt recoil by as much as 50 percent.
On the negative side, some of these products vent the gases to the side, which increases muzzle blast. Therefore, it’s even more important to use ear protection to avoid injury.
Rubber grips give a little during recoil, softening the shock delivered to bones of the wrist and hand. In contrast, wood grips, which allow the handgun to roll in the hand, such as on single-action models, offer no such relief. Pachmayr sells rubber replacement grips for many big-bore models, including the Contender line and guns that shoot the big JDJs. These products usually cost in the neighborhood of $30.
I have been using leather shooting gloves from Uncle Mike’s for many years, and they are a lot better than the bike gloves I once used. They have a gel-foam padding that protects vital areas of the hand as well as a padded middle-finger extension that protects that finger from getting pinched between the grip and trigger guard. One thing to watch is to get the fit right, especially the size. Getting a pair too large will defeat the design features.
Arm and wrist strength are obviously important when holding out and then firing these specialty handguns. To strengthen my grip, I use a rubber squeeze-type exercise grip every second or third day. This device strengthens my hand, wrist, and lower arm muscles. To build up my upper arms and shoulders, those muscles responsible for allowing me to hold out a heavy handgun, I use 10-pound weights. To strengthen muscles and not put undue stress on my joints, I use low-weight repetition every second or third day.
It is good to practice your shooting, but to avoid repetitive trauma, I avoid using the big calibers on successive days.
My military academy pistol coach did not even want us practicing with live rounds every day even with .22 LR handguns. Dry-firing and holding drills will give you plenty of practice on your nonshooting days, so you have no need to pound yourself with a .45/70 Government every day. Therefore, play it smart and try to spread out your use of big calibers over a few days.
In conclusion, you can safely fire big-bore handguns, especially if you take the right precautions: use the brake technology available for these handguns, protect your hands with gloves, exercise regularly, and don’t overdo it. The penalty for not taking these steps could be losing your ability to shoot anything.