Blowback Versus Recoil Operated Pistols

Why does the barrel look crooked in my pistol? Why does a puny .380 ACP Beretta Cheetah have almost as much recoil as a 9mm Glock 19? Believe it or not, the answers to both of these questions are related. It all has to do with how straight blowback pistols work compared to short recoil operated (or locked breech) pistols.

Today, I’m giving my best shot at explaining the difference. I tried real hard not to use any big science words, too. Mostly because I don’t what they actually mean. Details in the video below and as always, you can read the full transcript, but this one has a few demos and animations that really help to clarify the concepts here, so I highly recommend watching this time.

Blowback vs. Recoil Operated (Locked Breech)

Let’s take a look at the difference between blowback pistols and recoil operated or locked breech pistols.

Most handgun shooters seem to know that, theoretically, there is a difference, but they might be fuzzy on the details. So I’m going to try to help clear that up. Now, full disclosure: I took astronomy for my science credit because they said there would be no math. So I apologize in advance to all of you physics and engineering people if I don’t get all of the terminology quite right. I’m going to try to explain this in layman’s terms because that’s what helped me to understand it.

Basically, we are looking at what’s happening in that brief instant after the round discharges when the slide moves to the rear and back again. There have been dozens of different types of designs over the years to make a pistol do this, but probably 99% of semi-automatic pistols are either blowback designs or recoil operated.

What is Straight Blowback?

With handguns, blowback is usually synonymous with a more specific type called straight blowback or simple blowback. Like all modern firearms, the cycle starts when a firing pin hits the primer which ignites the propellant or powder inside the cartridge case [1]. That creates hot gasses that rapidly expand and dramatically raise the pressure inside the case [2]. That pressure forces the bullet out of the case and down the barrel [3], but that pressure is going in all directions and it will take the path of least resistance, so it’s also pushing the case against the slide [4]. That causes the slide to open and the empty case then ejects from the gun. The recoil spring is now compressed and when the slide can’t go any further, the spring forces the slide to start closing. On the way back, it picks up a fresh cartridge from the magazine and comes to rest again in the forward position.

The challenge for anyone designing a semi-auto pistol is that the slide must not be allowed to open too far until the bullet is out of the barrel. When the bullet leaves, all those hot gases vent out of the barrel behind it and the pressure inside the barrel drops. While the bullet is still in there, the pressure is very high. If the slide were to open while the pressure is still high, the wall of the case would no longer be supported by the chamber. That could cause the case to rupture and that’s not going to be good for the guy holding the gun.

So to prevent that from happening, in a straight blowback gun, the slide is simply held in place by its own mass and the tension of the recoil spring. That provides enough resistance for the slide to stay in place just long enough for the bullet to exit and drop the pressure to a safe level. This is why most blowback pistols are chambered for small-caliber low pressure cartridges like .380 ACP, .32 ACP, and .22 LR. In order for a blowback gun to work with higher pressure cartridges like 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP, the slide has to be massive. Hi Point is one of the only companies to actually do this and that’s why their guns look and feel so awkward. They are blowback pistols chambered for high pressure calibers.

This is a more conventional straight blowback gun. It’s a CZ83 chambered for .380 ACP. When I pop the slide off, you can see that the barrel is fixed — it’s attached to the frame and the recoil spring goes around the barrel. This is a style of blowback pistol pioneered by John Browning with the FN Model 1910. Not all straight blowback pistols work this way, but a lot of them do like the Walther PP series (PP, PPK, PPK/S, etc) and the Russian Makarov.

This Beretta Model 81 Cheetah in .32 ACP is also a blowback pistol. Just like the CZ, the barrel stays in place when the slide moves. But if I take this one apart, you can see that the barrel is not attached to the frame and the recoil spring is below the barrel on a guide rod. So some of the specifics may vary, but they are both straight blowback designs.

What is Short Recoil Operated?

Most pistols made today are short recoil operated, also called locked-breech pistols. These guns can more easily handle higher pressure cartridges because when the slide starts moving to the rear, the barrel moves with it. The two are locked together. For this Smith & Wesson Shield, the locking lug is this shelf here on top of the barrel that locks into the ejection port on the slide.

But they only stay together for the first couple of millimeters. We just need a little extra time for the bullet to exit the barrel and the pressure to drop. Then when the barrel reaches a certain point, it separates from the slide — in this case, it tilts down and stops moving to the rear while the slide continues on to eject the case.

Here’s some ultra slow motion footage of this process that we recorded a few years ago. Going frame by frame, here [1], the trigger has been pulled, but we can’t see anything happening yet. Now [2], the bullet has left the case but it’s still in the barrel and the slide has just barely started to move. We can’t see the case yet because the barrel is moving with the slide. Now in the next frame [3 & 4], the bullet is out of the barrel, the barrel and slide are still locked. After one more frame [5 & 6], the barrel has dropped down to separate from the slide so the case can eject.

By far, the most common type of recoil operated pistols today are the tilting barrel style which is another John Browning invention. It was popularized by the Colt 1911 and now you find them everywhere. You can always identify these guns because when the slide is locked open the barrel will be tilted at a slight angle and it will rattle around a little bit because it’s not locked into the slide.

Beretta is among the few companies currently making non-Browning-style recoil-operated pistols. The 92-series guns use a locking block to control the movement of the barrel rather than a tilting action. And the Beretta PX4 has a rotating barrel design.

Last week, I mentioned that recoil operated guns usually have less felt recoil than blowback guns of the same size and caliber. And that tends to be true even when the blowback gun is heavier. A lot of different factors contribute to felt recoil but my guess is that recoil-operated guns transfer the recoil force to the shooter’s hand over a longer period of time. The slide moves a little slower and that makes it easier to control. It feels more like a slow push than a quick snap — at least, relative to a blowback gun of the same caliber.

These days, nearly all new pistol designs use a short recoil action, even for smaller calibers. I actually can’t think of any centerfire handguns designed this century that use a straight blowback action. I’m sure there’s at least one or two I’m forgetting about, but suffice it to say, the industry is leaning heavily in the direction of recoil-operated locked breech pistols.

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Concealed Carry Corner: Why Claws are Good for Kydex Holsters

When looking for concealment holsters, it looks like a fairly straight forward process, but there are thousands of variations to pick from. I went through several different holsters before settling on the model I use with a claw attached. I get a lot of questions on social media and emails asking why claws are so […]

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Smith & Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ Review

The Smith & Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ is not a pocket pistol and it’s not trying to be one. It’s more in line with the size of the current crop of compact single stack 9mm pistols and even a bit larger than most of those. However, I’m including this review with our Pocket Pistol Series because .380 ACP is generally thought of as a pocket pistol caliber. But that doesn’t have to be the case. While skeptics will likely see this gun and immediately consider the 380 Shield to be “too big for a .380,” for a great number of shooters, it’s just right. And that very well may include a wider variety of shooters than the ones this gun is primarily being marketed to. Details in the video below, or scroll down to read the full transcript.

This is the Smith & Wesson M&P 380 Shield EZ. As the marketing materials declare, it’s a gun that was created to be easy to shoot, easy to rack, with easy to load magazines. Since its release in early 2018, the 380 Shield has been praised as an excellent self-defense and concealed carry pistol for new shooters, small-statured females, and anyone with below average grip strength.

I happen to agree with all of those points, but even if you don’t belong to one of those aforementioned categories of shooters, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the 380 Shield as a gun that’s just for ladies and old men. But before I get into that, let’s take a closer look at what makes this gun so user-friendly.

The 380 Shield’s EZ to Use Features

First, the slide really is super easy to rack. It takes almost no effort at all. If you’ve never had trouble racking the slide on a pistol, I’m sure you’ve been out shooting before with someone who has. For a lot of people, this one issue can make a trip to the range seriously miserable, but it’s pretty much a non-issue with the 380 Shield.

On the top of the slide, there’s a loaded-chamber indicator to give you a visual and tactile reminder of when the gun is loaded.

The single-stack 8-round magazines have a convenient feature that you typically only find on .22-caliber pistols. There is a thumb stud on either side of the magazine body so you can pull down the follower as you load the magazine. Again, it’s a small thing for most of us who shoot pistols all the time, but for someone with hand strength or dexterity issues, loading mags can be a real headache. This feature is another indication that Smith & Wesson was genuinely paying attention to a severely under-served segment of the handgun market when they designed this gun.

The 380 Shield EZ’s Size

How Does It Stack Up To Other S&W Pistols?

Comparing the S&W Shield 380 EZ to the M&P 22 Compact pistol

The 380 Shield has a lot in common with the M&P 22 Compact. The internals are different, but they share almost exactly the same outer dimensions and controls. One feature I was glad to see that they carried over from the 22 Compact is the manual thumb safety. This is actually an optional feature on the 380 Shield EZ — you can get it without the manual safety.

About That Manual Safety

Generally speaking, I’m kind of agnostic on manual safeties on handguns. There are plenty of valid arguments for and against. But if you’re going to have a manual safety lever on a pistol, I think it should be designed like this one. It gives you a very positive click when you turn it on or off. It’s ambidextrous — the lever is the same on both sides of the gun. It sits in just the right spot so that as you get a grip on the pistol, the thumb of the firing hand can rest right on top of the safety lever so you can easily deactivate it, and the thumb can just stay there while you’re firing. From what I’ve seen, that seems to work well on this gun whether you’ve got big hands or small hands. As far as manual safeties go, it is pretty ideal.

The 380 EZ’s Grip Safety

Even if you get the version of this pistol without the manual safety, it’s still going to have the grip safety. If this lever on the backstrap is not depressed, the gun cannot fire. I know that not everyone was excited to see a grip safety when the 380 Shield was first announced, but it’s a feature that has some merit. In place of a grip safety, most of the other M&P pistols have a two-piece trigger. This is what makes the gun drop safe. Without it, if the gun were to fall and hit the ground on the back of the slide, the inertia could essentially pull the trigger and make the gun fire.

The problem is that if your hands aren’t the right size or shape, your trigger finger may not always be able to reach the part of the trigger that disables that safety. The 380 Shield eliminates that problem by having a single-piece trigger and the grip safety allows it to remain drop safe.

S&W 380 Shield EZ pistol specifications


I’m sure someone out there is going to have trouble with this, but if you grip the gun with anything even approaching correct technique, the grip safety should disengage without issue. It really only has to be pressed down about halfway in order for the gun to fire. I tried shooting the 380 Shield with a very loose grip, I tried gripping it really low on the frame and I had a really hard time making it not function unless I put almost no pressure on the backstrap.

The grip safety also offers an extra layer of risk mitigation when you’re holstering the gun. If you thumb the back of the slide the way you would with a hammer-fired pistol, it will force you to release the grip safety. So as the gun goes into the holster, in addition to keeping your finger away from the trigger, you’ve also got the grip safety as another fail-safe to make sure you don’t end up with an extra hole in your leg.

Disassembling the 380 EZ

The disassembly of the 380 Shield is another user-friendly feature. You just lock open the slide, remove the magazine, rotate the takedown lever 90 degrees, and then pull the slide off. And now that we’re inside the gun, you can see another carry-over from the .22 Compact: unlike most of the other M&P pistols, the 380 Shield is actually hammer fired, not striker-fired. This is a true single-action only design. There’s the hammer there, it comes forward when you pull the trigger and it hits the firing pin in the slide right there.

Trigger and Shootability

The trigger is very light in this gun. In this particular sample it’s four and a half pounds with a relatively short length of travel of about a quarter inch. That, of course, is a two-sided coin. It makes the gun easy to shoot but it also makes the gun easy to shoot when you don’t necessarily intend to. I would rather this gun have a 5 or 6-pound trigger with a longer length of travel more like a double action pistol. That longer travel seems to help mitigate errors in trigger finger discipline at least as much as trigger weight. But doing that would probably also increase the trigger reach, which could be a real problem for a lot of the intended users of this gun.

So I understand why it has a short and light trigger, but I can also see that being a potential problem for a gun that’s being marketed specifically to inexperienced shooters. Say what you will about how hard it is to shoot a J-frame snub nose, but it’s also really hard to have an unintentional discharge with a 12-pound double action trigger unless you really work at it.

pistol size comparison

In any case, the trigger is not the main reason the 380 Shield is ridiculously easy to shoot. That is more the result of the very low recoil. It has as little felt recoil as any center-fire pistol I can think of short of a three pound all-steel competition gun. Part of that is because of its size.

We think of .380 ACP chambered pistols today as being tiny little pocket pistols and the 380 Shield is much larger than those. It’s the same height as the 9mm Shield with the extended 8-round magazine and the slide and barrel are just under half an inch longer. It is closer in size to some of the older metal-framed .380s like the CZ-83, the Beretta Cheetah, and the Bersa Thunder. It is lighter than any of those, or really most other guns in its size category — it’s just 21.6 ounces loaded, which is the same as a Glock 43.

pistol size comparison of the CZ 83 and S&W M&P 380 Shield EZ Pistol

Those classic metal-framed pistols I mentioned are all soft-shooting guns, but not as much as you might think because they are all straight blowback designs while the 380 Shield is a recoil-operated pistol. If you don’t have any idea what that means, the technical details are not really that important. But generally speaking, if you’ve got two pistols of the same caliber and relatively the same size, the recoil operated gun is going to have noticeably less felt recoil than the blowback gun.

And that brings me back to why I think the 380 Shield should not be relegated only to people who have trouble manipulating other handguns. A low-recoil pistol is something that anyone can benefit from. For the novice, removing the distraction of recoil and makes it easier to focus on learning the fundamentals of marksmanship.

For the intermediate shooter, effective recoil management — where the sights just unconsciously pop back to the same spot following every shot — that is one of the most difficult skills to master. If you don’t get some good training and practice fairly regularly, you probably won’t ever get really good at it, especially with small service-caliber handguns. The 380 Shield makes recoil management almost trivial. So if you can’t get in as much range time as you’d really like, you can spend that time focusing on fine-tuning things like trigger control or your drawstroke.

And if you’re already a pretty good shooter, a gun like the 380 Shield will let you shoot even better. I can run this thing with ridiculously fast splits — usually around .17 without much effort. Even if I didn’t plan to carry one, I would probably consider buying a 380 Shield just because it’s so fun to shoot. It also it makes a great loaner pistol when I take other people to the range.

We have actually been planning this review for a long time now — we picked this gun up shortly after they came out last year. Since then, I’ve let a lot of people try it out, including a dozen or so new shooters. Yes, it’s a gun that everyone likes to shoot, but more than that, it’s a huge confidence booster, especially for people who previously thought the only pistol they could manage was a .22.

So I hate to sound like a complete fan boy, but I really can’t think of many bad things to say about the 380 Shield EZ. It’s probably the best idea Smith & Wesson has had in the last decade. MSRP is $399 and right now you can usually pick them up for between $300 and $350.

If you decide to get one, be sure to feed it with quality .380 ACP ammunition. I’ve had good results with 95-grain Speer Lawman TMJ in this gun. Of course, we’ve got that and all the other major brands of .380 that you can order from us with lightning fast shipping from

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