October 10, 2023
Affiliate Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links. We earn from qualifying purchases.
This article grew out of a question asked of me by an editor—who makes the best pistol compensator? My response was, basically, they all work just about the same—poorly, at least when compared to those comps seen on USPSA race guns. There’s a specific reason for this. Pistol compensators have never been more popular than they are right now, and comps meant for carry guns seem to be hugely popular—thereby reinventing a concept from the 1980s, the “carry-comp.” Except these days, everyone is shooting 9mm instead of .45. Almost every major firearm manufacturer offers a model (or six) either that comes from the factory with a comp in place or sports an extended, threaded barrel. Every aftermarket barrel manufacturer is selling extended threaded barrels for most of the common carry guns.
The reason why all these threaded barrels are appearing everywhere doesn’t have much to do with suppressors, but rather compensators. The reason for all these compensators is directly because of all the red dots people are mounting to their carry guns. Everything is connected, and the physical interaction of firearm components is the reason why most compensators meant for carry guns provide comparably unimpressive performance. Let’s start at the beginning.
People have been mounting red dots to pistols since the Reagan era. As soon as they grew durable enough to last an entire match, shooters began mounting them to their competition pistols. “Open Division” pistols were born. These race guns sported red dots—in a mount attached to the frame—and large/long multi-port compensators (muzzle brakes) which vented the muzzle gases upward, thereby hugely reducing muzzle rise. Trijicon made a huge step with their introduction of the RMR—Ruggedized Mini Red dot. This wasn’t the first mini red dot optic, but it was ostensibly built tough enough for duty use and small enough to mount on the slide of a handgun, making it far more suitable for carry.
These days, the unofficial term for a carry gun with a slide-mounted red dot (usually with a weapon-light clamped to the frame rail) is a “Roland Special.” The name comes from the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, Roland Deschain—The Gunslinger. What is thought of as the first Roland Special is a handgun that was built up, reportedly, for a SFOD-D “Delta Force” operator. The story goes that this pistol was a Glock 22, and he had the slide milled to accept a Trijicon RMR, and of course it also had a weaponlight attached to the frame rail.
This first Roland Special was created to address a unique problem. This special forces operator needed a pistol he could use while wearing night-vision (NV) goggles. If you’ve never used NV goggles, you must manually focus them. If the bad guy is in focus, your gun is completely out of focus. Not only can’t you see your sights, you can barely see your gun. But with a handgun-mounted red dot, that red dot reticle is on the same focal plane as the target—problem solved. This and the simplicity of the sighting system are the two main advantages of a red dot optic.
But there is a major disadvantage that all the proponents of red dots on carry guns ignore—most shooters are no faster when using a red dot-sighted pistol at realistic defensive distances, and most are a bit slower. This is largely in part because they keep losing the dot, either before firing their first shots or after. This is a huge issue. How do I know? Because of all the compensators I’m seeing on red dot-wearing carry guns. If losing the dot wasn’t a widespread problem, nobody would be running comps on their guns. Those comps reduce the muzzle rise, thereby reducing the chance that the shooter will lose their dot. Fifteen years ago, nobody was putting red dots onto carry guns, and nobody was making factory-comped guns or comps for carry guns. Now, red dots on carry guns are everywhere…as are compensators for those same guns. Coincidence? No.
But carry guns aren’t competition guns. There’s no size restriction on Open Division race guns, and those comps are often two to three inches long, with multiple ports. Most competitors tweak their handloaded match ammo (bullet weight/velocity/powder) to get as close to zero muzzle rise as possible. Usually, there is so little muzzle rise, the dot in their optic never rises out of view in the window. It either just jumps a little bit or wiggles in a figure eight, whichever the shooter prefers.
For a carry gun, not only do you need to have a smaller comp, so the gun is still concealable, you need to have a less-effective compensator, so the gun will still run. If you’re unclear on how they work, a compensator takes some of those expanding gases shooting out of the barrel behind the bullet and vents them upward, thereby reducing muzzle rise. But that compensator doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In addition to adding weight to your barrel, any gases venting upward are not pushing backward against the gun, thereby altering the recoil forces. The more effective the comp, the more effectively it screws with how your gun is supposed to run.
I checked with Shay Akai of Akai Custom Guns, and their full competition muzzlebrake so effectively diverts gases that the guns have to be fitted with six-pound recoil springs when shooting full-power .38 SuperComp ammo, which is equivalent to a .357 Magnum in bullet weight/velocity. Without a compensator they would need at least a 14-pound recoil spring. But if you’re talking a carry gun, whether factory-fresh or lightly customized, most people aren’t going to want to have to mess with their recoil springs. Comp manufacturers build their products to reduce muzzle rise as much as possible while still being reliable with the factory recoil spring. Those guns that come from the factory with comps installed have full-power recoil springs, which is why those comps are small.
As someone who has spent years studying and making comps, Shay told me that, in general and all things being equal, big ports are better than small ports, no matter how many there are. As the bullet passes through, the flat back of the bullet creates a vacuum force. The bullet pulls gases behind it. Large ports break that seal and divert gases better than small ports. He told me, “The ultimate test of a comp is to shoot it point blank into cardboard. If you get just a hole, that is a clean bullet. If you get gasses chasing the bullet, it will rip the carboard apart.”
Those big comps you see on competition guns will reduce muzzle rise 80 percent or more. Generally, “carry-comps” will reduce muzzle rise 15 to 30 percent. You will definitely notice the difference when shooting. As I said, there are a number of great comps on the market. Parker Mountain Machine was making carry comps before almost anyone else jumped on the bandwagon. They make single- and double-port comps for just about every pistol you might be interested to carry, from the Beretta 92 to the Walther PDP, most of them contoured to mate nicely with your slide. They have proven themselves.
Radian got a lot of attention last year when they introduced their Ramjet and Afterburner combo for the Glock 19. The Ramjet is a match barrel with a port milled into the end, and the Afterburner is a single-port “micro-compensator” meant to work together with the barrel. It’s supposed to be effective, and Radian says the barrel/comp combo can reduce recoil up to 44 percent. It is not coincidental that they also sell a Quick-Tune Guide rod where you can easily replace the recoil spring, and it comes with reduced power springs. You’ll likely need them.
Gabe Suarez has long been a proponent of red dots on pistols, so it should be no surprise that his company has for years been offering a highly regarded compensator; the Suarez Street Comp, made for various Glock models. Meant to work with the factory recoil spring, this small comp has two vertical ports and two side-venting ports. I know a number of people who have used/carried these for years, and they work as advertised.
Shadow Systems is well-known for making upgraded Glock-pattern pistols, and last year they introduced their simply named Compensator. This is a single-port thread-on design meant to mate with the contours of their slides. They seem to understand the double-edged sword that compensators are and state, “The conservatively designed port ensures reliability with full power ammunition… .” I’ve tested this comp, and it works well, reducing muzzle rise maybe 25 percent.
In summary, the reason all the comps you see for carry are small isn’t just for compactness. It’s that if they put any more effective comps on the guns, then the guns will start jamming, if the owners don’t stick reduced-power recoil springs into the gun. Trying to find the biggest reduction in muzzle rise without inducing jams due to short-cycling (with factory recoil springs) is the sweet spot everyone is aiming for.
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.