The blowback vs. recoil debate almost exclusively deals with pistol design and can get people pretty riled up concerning what each is technically designed as. But, when it comes down to it, both are actions and reactions caused by forward and backward pressures. No matter how you argue it.
Let’s take a look at what this means, how it may relate to your pistol, and why the debate surrounding these terms technically isn’t worth bothering with.
Action and Reaction: Basic Gun Operation Principals
Newton’s Third Law states for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Pistols operate on one of two principles: the locked breech, recoil-operated principal, or the blowback principle. In semi-automatic firing pistols, the breech or breech bolt is the main part of a pistol’s autoloading function. This is also called the slide.
This action/reaction system contains a forward force and a backward force due to the movement of the pistol’s working parts upon the firing of a cartridge. In a blowback operation, the cartridge is released due to pressurized gasses that drive forward the bullet while forcing the slide backwards. This is called blowback.
In a locked breech, recoil-operated pistol you also have a cartridge and slide acting under the same series of events upon pulling the trigger. Forward forces push the bullet, while backward forces drive the slide. This is called recoil.
However what’s being described is exactly the same since both have the same parts acting under the same pressures, resulting in the same reloading of the next cartridge. This is where the debate often begins.
What is Recoil?
When you fire a locked breech, recoil-operated pistol, recoil becomes the force you feel. A locked breech has a locking mechanism to keep the action closed, which can handle heavier, more powerful forces. If you wondered which pistols would have more recoil, this would be it since they can handle larger calibers than a blowback system.
What is Blowback?
Blowback is the force you feel when you fire a blowback-operated pistol. Blowback relies on a spring and the mass of the action to keep the action closed until pressure drops. There are two types of blowback mechanisms, simple and delayed blowback.
Simple blowback mechanisms are more common, but they only work on smaller cartridges since they cannot handle the higher pressures. Because of this, the principal is reserved for pistols as they cannot handle anything larger.
In delayed blowback, the opening of the bolt is delayed (hence the name) which allows use of a heavier cartridge and can even be found in some rifles, but it’s rare. The delaying of the bolt can be done in a few different ways depending on the firearm’s design.
Recoil vs. Blowback: The Argument
Since automatic loading occurs due to the same series of steps and pressures, the argument remains that blowback and recoil are the same things. The separation of the ideas is simply due to the names applied to the principles of the firing mechanisms.
To further this argument, you can use John Browning’s patent of the original 1911 pistol, a locked-breech system that perfectly describes how blowback works. You can see the entirety of the patent here.
“… on firing the rearward pressure of the powder gasses in the barrel acts upon the breech-bolt and initiates its recoil, and so that the breech-bolt may continue to recoil under its momentum alone to complete the opening of the breech and the compression of the reaction-spring after the gas–pressure has ceased relieved by the exit of the bullet from the barrel… On firing, the breech-slide recoils and carries the barrel rearward until the rear end of the same, swinging rearward and downward on the link and pivot-pins, becomes unlocked from the breech-slide.”
Wrapping It Up
Recoil and blowback are the same things when it comes right down to it. Despite the different firing principles and mechanisms, forward pressures fire the bullet while forcing back the slide to reload. The forces are the same, the results are the same, and the only difference is how the parts are designed to work to accomplish this – and the names associated with those parts.
If you prefer to call the forces from a blowback operation blowback; and the forces from a locked breech recoil, you can definitely do so. But, if you want to look at the line – they are the same thing.
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