Are Compensators Myth & Magic Or Hard Science?
A compensator is the funny looking thing with holes in it attached to the end of the barrel. Its purpose is to reduce felt recoil and muzzle rise. And it does. But how does it do this?
Basically, a compensator (or comp) harnesses energy from the gas escaping after the bullet leaves the barrel. The high pressure gas pushing the bullet blasts out of the barrel at an even higher speed than the bullet is traveling. This gas contributes to the recoil force by way of the conservation of mass. The weight of the gunpowder contributes to the weight of everything leaving the barrel and must be added to calculations to arrive at the best estimate of recoil force. This explains why some gunpowder’s produce more recoil than other gunpowder’s even though they propel the same bullet at the same speed. The powder requiring more weight will produce more recoil force because there is more gas exiting the barrel.
The force of the gas pressure is directed forward. Thanks to Sir Isaac Newton, we know force directed in one direction produces an equal force in the opposite direction. So, the forward thrust of gas produces a rearward force on the gun adding to recoil.”
A compensator also adds weight to the moving parts, which also contributes to slowing down their rearward travel speed under recoil.
When the high-speed gas hits the baffle plate, it pushes forward on the compensator. Whatever the compensator is attached to, such as the barrel, is also pushed forward. With many centerfire semi-auto pistols, the barrel and slide are locked together for the first few moments of the recoil cycle even as the slide starts to move to the rear when the bullet starts to move forward down the barrel. A 1911 operates this way. This means there is a counter force produced by the gas hitting the compensator baffle(s), pushing the barrel/slide assembly forward to help counter their rearward movement. This slows down the slide and contributes to the reduction in felt recoil.
Slowing down the slide is not trivial in some guns. If there is sufficient forward force, the slide can be slowed down too much, and the gun won’t cycle reliably. This depends on the power of the ammunition (which mostly determines the recoil force), the amount of gas and its pressure, how many chambers (baffles) are on the compensator, the strength of the recoil spring and the weight of all the moving parts.
You might be familiar with some guns built for competition having slides with various patterns of holes cut in them. Besides looking awesome, this serves to reduce the weight of the moving parts, which can help increase reliable functioning when using a compensator.
The top ports on a compensator direct the gas upward. The upward flow of gas force is, once again thanks to Mr. Newton, countered by a downward force. This downward force reduces muzzle rise. Ta-Da.
Compensators come in a variety of designs and with varying numbers of expansion chambers and ports. The most effective compensator design has a small exit hole for the bullet. The reason for this is so the bullet acts like a “plug” as it passes through the baffle plate, because in doing so it allows the least amount of gas to pass around it and maximizes the amount of gas deflected onto the baffle plates and out of the port(s).
Another compensator design common for 1911-type pistols is a bushing-replacement compensator. This type replaces the barrel bushing, and therefore is attached to the slide. When the gun cycles, the barrel passes through the length of the compensator. This requires the exit hole be large enough to fit the width of the barrel, which is much larger than the bullet. The bullet is no longer a close fit to the exit hole, allowing a significant amount of gas to pass forward to add to the rearward recoil force. These designs are less effective than compensators with a small exit hole.
Pros And Cons
Compensators can be very effective at reducing felt recoil and muzzle rise. This aids in getting the sights back on-target more quickly. Some shooters also feel compensators can help them reduce the chance of flinching due to the reduced perceived recoil.
Compensators have disadvantages, too. They add weight and length to a gun. They can be expensive and might require a threaded barrel. They might also require gunsmith installation, which adds to the expense. They usually increase the noise level, sometimes substantially.
Getting a compensated semi-auto pistol to function reliably might require using different ammunition, using a different gunpowder (in handloads), limiting the number of chambers, reducing the strength of the recoil spring (and possibly the hammer spring on appropriate guns), or reducing the weight of the moving parts. You can’t always just “screw one on” and go to work.
Compensators are not for everyone or every gun. They might be the perfect accessory for some shooters and certain types of competition where scores are based partly on time. Then, every fraction of a second spent getting follow-up shots changes your score. Whether they are practical or necessary often determines their utility.
But, like many things in life, the better designs are very effective at what they do.