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Why Does Recoil Vary for Pistols Chambered in .380 ACP?

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Though larger in size, this blowback-operated Walther PPK (left) generates more felt recoil due to its significant slide mass. In locked-breech pistols like the Kel-Tec P3AT (right), the barrel and slide move together for a longer period, which imparts less felt recoil.

Although a little late to the defensive-pistol arena, I have chosen to standardize my efforts in pistols chambered in .380 ACP. My original idea in going with the .380 ACP came from the fact that I seem to be somewhat recoil sensitive. I wanted a caliber that I could comfortably shoot, but had enough power to be considered adequate for defensive purposes. In my search for a suitable pistol, I shot more than a few rental guns at my local range/gun shop.

In doing this, I found the felt impulse of recoil was acceptable in some .380 ACP pistols, yet objectionable in others. What surprised me was guns of the same relative size and weight left vastly different sensations in my hands when firing. For example, the Ruger LC380 was very pleasant to shoot, as was a Beretta 84F, while the SIG Sauer P232 and the Walther PPK were both snappy and sharp in their recoil. The ammunition was the same, so why was there such a noticeable difference? Appearances were certainly deceiving, and I am glad I shot before making a purchase. I ended up buying the Ruger, by the way.
V. L. Dunn, Trevilians, VA

The .380 ACP cartridge was designed for defensive purposes more than a century ago to be used in low- to medium-pressure, blowback-operated handguns. This was to accommodate the pistol’s simplicity in design and economy of production. As a result, the ballistic capabilities of the cartridge were limited to a fairly narrow range of bullet weights and velocities.

The blowback design utilized the weight of the slide and resistance of the recoil spring, as well as the mainspring via the hammer in some pistols, to control the forces generated by the combustion of the cartridge upon firing. Since there was no mechanical lockup of the barrel and slide, the simple inertia of the slide’s weight and the expansion of the cartridge case in the chamber kept the barrel sealed until the bullet exited the muzzle.

The impulse of the cartridge case against the breechface was such that it forced the slide to move against the resistance of the recoil spring to extract and eject the fired case and re-cock the hammer or striker. The energy of the compressed recoil spring then moved the slide forward, feeding and chambering the next round and bringing the slide to rest against the chamber end of the barrel.

The advantage to the locked-breech .380 ACP pistols is that they generally have more moving mass to resist the combustion of the cartridge, which in turn softens the felt recoil. Concerning the locked-breech pistols, the barrel and slide are locked together during and slightly after firing takes place. They move together for a short distance before unlocking and continuing the cycle of operation. In comparably sized pistols, the extra weight of the slide and barrel moving together and the length of time they move together provide the shooter with the per- ception of less felt recoil.

The SIG Sauer P232 and Walther PPK pistols you fired were both blowback-operated pistols, which is likely the reason they may have seemed to have had a sharper felt recoil than the Beretta and Ruger handguns. Both the Beretta 84F and the Ruger LC380 are locked-breech pistols, which would explain the added comfort in shooting either of them.

It all comes down to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, loosely translated: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, the amount of resistance and the timing of that resistance to the energy imparted by the cartridge when it fires is directly related to the felt recoil in the hands, among other factors. Locked-breech pistols have more mass to move initially and must do so over a slightly longer time frame, giving a softer recoil impulse than a gun of comparable size that uses blowback operation. 

Appearances can be deceiving, which makes shooting before buying an important part of a new gun owner’s plan.

Article by George Harris

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