Exactly What a Pistol Compensator Does

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Last Updated on May 22, 2021.

Pistol shooters use compensators to reduce muzzle rise, keeping their shots on target. 

How do compensators do that? Should you consider putting one on your handgun? 

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s common to see textbooks and writers use Newton’s Third Law of Motion to explain the phenomenon of recoil in small arms. However, you may have noticed that it doesn’t recoil in a perfectly straight line to the rear when you fire a gun.

Exactly What a Pistol Compensator Does

You’re holding the gun at a point below the bore axis, which creates a pivot point. As you fire a handgun, the muzzle and the sights will rise, shifting your point of aim upward. How much the muzzle rises depends on several factors, such as the gun’s weight, the cartridge, how you hold it, and more.


What Does a Pistol Compensator Do?

There are multiple ways to reduce the recoil and muzzle rise of a firearm. The most important way to control recoil and muzzle rise is to ensure that you’re applying a correct two-handed hold with sufficient pressure. Your firing hand should also be as high on the grip as you find comfortable. The higher you position your hand in relation to the axis of the bore, the less leverage the recoil exerts when you fire.

If you find that the recoil and muzzle rise is excessive in your weapon, another option is to fire reduced loads despite proper grip and stance. However, in reducing the ammunition’s power, you should take care that this doesn’t affect functional performance. If neither has the desired effect, that’s where accessories can play a role

At one time or another, you’re sure to hear the question, “What does a pistol compensator do?” In handguns, a compensator’s purpose is primarily to reduce the muzzle rise or flip caused by the recoil. It may also reduce the recoil’s discomfort, but it’s the muzzle’s upward movement that you’re trying to mitigate. 

This allows you to fire your weapon more rapidly without sacrificing accuracy—the time interval between firing and reacquiring your sight picture will be reduced.


How Does a Compensator Work?

The compensator, as a separate device, attaches to the threaded barrel and contains several slots or holes.

As the bullet exits the muzzle, high-pressure expanding propellant gases follow. These gases enter the compensator and are exhausted vertically and/or horizontally. The escaping gasses apply downward pressure against the inside of the compensator. This diverted energy opposes the tendency of the gun’s muzzle to climb as the centerline of the bore axis is above the point of contact with your firing hand. 

Legal restrictions

In some states, a threaded barrel on a handgun or rifle is restricted. There are two ways of circumventing these kinds of laws:

1. Barrel porting

Barrel porting has been a popular option for reducing muzzle rise and recoil in handguns for decades. This process involves drilling or machining holes or slots directly into the barrel (and slide). 

2. Alternative compensators

Some companies produce compensator/counter-recoil devices that attach to the recoil spring guide rod. The escaping powder gases force the compensator forward against a spring, while the compensator also diverts these gases vertically. This opposes muzzle rise and recoil in two different ways

Function

You should always ensure that whatever type of compensator or muzzle device you install does not interfere with the reliable functioning of your gun, especially if you own or carry it for self-defense. 

Many semi-automatic pistols, especially those chambered in service calibers, are recoil-operated. This means that the barrel must be able to recoil properly to complete the cycle of operation. If the compensator adds too much weight to the end of the barrel, you may have to increase the power of the loads that you fire. 

Some of the compensator’s energy to control the barrel’s vertical movement is also energy that is not being directed rearward against the breech face. The downward pressure caused by the upward ventilation of gas may also increase friction and wear on the barrel and slide locking surfaces. 

Holsters

Depending on the compensator’s design, including its diameter and length, it may interfere with your ability to find a suitable holster. Some require the use of an open-bottom design. Fortunately, several companies manufacture compact compensators and models that conform to the pistol’s outside profile, simplifying the holster selection process.

Concealed Carry

While compensators are typically associated with heavy-recoiling hunting and competition weapons, the market does offer miniature devices for concealed carry. The increase in overall length and weight is modest. 

Concealable handguns are becoming increasingly lightweight and compact, becoming harder to control in the process, as there’s less mass and gripping surface. A compensator can reduce the snap of firing these pistols, resulting in increased comfort and stability.

Cons Regarding Compensators

Other than the possibility of a pistol compensator interfering with your handgun’s reliable function, there are cons to be aware of. These include:

 - Firing from retention

Compensators are not without their drawbacks. If you fire your weapon from retention during training courses or practice sessions, you will be positioning the barrel and slide under your chin and/or face. When the gun fires, the compensator will direct some of the powder gases upward, which may be uncomfortable. The solution here is to wear eye protection, ideally ballistically rated. You can also practice rotating your wrist to direct the gases away from your face. 

 - Noise

While you should always wear hearing protection when firing handguns on ranges, using a compensator or muzzle brake always increases the firearm’s report. In an enclosed space, this can be less comfortable, even when wearing muffs and plugs. You should be aware of this effect. 

 - Gases

If you’re firing in an indoor range, especially one with poor ventilation, you’re more likely to inhale propellant powder gases and lead residue.

 - Cost

Everything has a cost to it. High-quality compensators are not always inexpensive. If you didn’t buy your pistol with an already-threaded barrel, you’ll have to purchase one of those too.


Do You Need a Compensator?

Not every pistol requires a compensator. This can be considered a specialized device. If you own a hard-recoiling handgun results in significant muzzle rise, a compensator can help tame this weapon, providing you with a more pleasant shooting experience. 

However, for handguns that don’t fire powerful loads, the compensator can help you keep your sights on target when shooting fast—as you would during a competitive shooting match. 

Whether you determine that you need a compensator or not, you should be able to answer the question, “What does a pistol compensator do?” definitively.


Final Thoughts

Pistol compensators let you more efficiently control the tendency of your pistol’s barrel to rise during recoil. If you want to keep your gun on target consistently during fast shooting, a compensator can be an excellent accompaniment to your handgun.