By Phil Bourjaily

Manufacturers have given us the lighter guns and hotter loads we thought we wanted. Now that we have them, we complain that they kick. And for good reason. Some lightweight 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge guns generate as much recoil as a .458 Winchester Magnum elephant gun.

Recoil is a mathematical function of three factors: gun weight, payload weight (shot, wad, and powder), and payload velocity. Gun makers can't change the laws of physics to make guns recoil less, but they can soften the blow by reducing felt recoil (aka kick). Bear in mind, however, that everyone feels recoil differently. A recoil reducer that works for one shooter may not help another.

Following is a look at the best technology and techniques available for taming excessive recoil.

Stock absorbers. Recoil-reducing stocks aren't new (Winchester offered the Hydro-Coil stock back in the 1960s), but they are becoming quite popular today. The most successful one, according to my shoulder, is the Beretta Kick-Off hydraulic dampening system on the A400. Benelli's Progressive Comfort system, a high-tech variation on the spring-mounted shock absorber, is another good choice, cushioning recoil on the 828U over/under and ETHOS semiauto.

Soft pads. Not all butt pads are created equal. Some are hard as hockey pucks and provide little recoil reduction. Soft, high recoil pads such as the Kick-Eez and LimbSaver work especially well, as do Browning's Inflex Technology and Remington's SuperCell. The gel pad-and comb-in Benelli's ComforTech stock is also effective. Recoil pads are especially welcome in the T-shirt weather of teal and early goose seasons. Later in the year, when you're bundled in five layers, you're already wearing a recoil pad.

Porting. This is one of those features that some people find helpful, others worthless. Vents cut in the barrel channel expanding gases upward to counter muzzle rise. I believe it works to an extent, but it can also annoy your partners in the blind, as it directs muzzle blast outward.

Gun fit. Although manufacturers don't advertise stock spacers and shims as recoil reducers, that's exactly what they are. A gun that fits won't kick you as badly. If the stock is too long or too short, if the drop is too much or not enough, or if the cast is wrong, your gun will kick harder. More and more modern guns come equipped with stocks that are adjustable for length, drop, and cast.

Add-on reducers. Aftermarket recoil reducers, whether they are spring-loaded, mercury-filled, or just solid steel, fit into stock cavities and magazine tubes or replace magazine caps. They all work, if only because they add weight to the gun.

Sensible loads. Nothing cuts recoil like a lighter, slower shotshell. I'm of the belief that anything over 1,450 to 1,500 fps and 1 1/4 ounces is rarely necessary. And because the change in recoil is exponential when you increase or decrease velocity and payload, you can decrease kick with slightly slower and lighter loads.

Gas-operated semiautos. Very few recoil-reduction systems function as effectively as a gas gun. As the gun cycles, some recoil energy is stored in the gun's moving parts, and then released. The result is a longer, lower recoil peak that feels more like a push than a punch. Not all gas systems reduce recoil equally. Remington's Versa Max is by far the softest-shooting gas gun I've tried. Next on the list are Browning and Winchester gas guns, as well as the Fabarm XLR5.

Gun weight. I don't understand the trend toward lightweight waterfowl guns. It's not as if we carry them much. Heavier guns absorb more recoil, and I think they are easier to shoot. I'd rather shoot an eight-pound gun than a 6 3/4-pounder. Adding a pound of weight cuts recoil by 10 to 15 percent.

Ear plugs. For some people, the unpleasantness of recoil is about the noise. It seems like a gun kicks less when it's not as loud. Wear some kind of hearing protection. Your friends will just have to speak up a little when they need to say "nice shot."