If you’ve been anywhere in the realm of modern tactical handguns, you’ve likely seen a very familiar combination. It’s a modern, polymer frame, likely striker-fired pistol equipped with a red dot sight, a flashlight, and a compensator. Handgun compensators have become all the rage, and they’ve moved on to the world of home defense guns.
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Compensators, or comps, used to be confined primarily to ‘race guns’ designed specifically for competition and were often seen in ‘open’ divisions of particular competitions. Competition gadgets, guns, and gizmos tend to make their way to the self-defense world and often in a more compact form.
Let’s dive into compensators and take a critical look at their pros, cons, and common misconceptions through the lens of a defensively-minded shooter.
What is a compensator?
A compensator is a muzzle device, and most of the time, you’ll need some form of threaded barrel to attach the device to your gun. Some exceptions exist, like the Strike Industries Glock comp.
The purpose of a compensator is to reduce muzzle rise. A compensator has a port or ports facing upwards right where the barrel ends. When a firearm fires, the primer creates a spark, which ignites the powder, which creates the gas that propels a projectile down the barrel and out of the gun. As the gas exits the barrel, it enters the compensator which redirects some of the gas upward through the port(s), and this creates a downward force effect on the gun. That downward force counters natural muzzle rise. Less muzzle rise means you can get back on target faster and more efficiently. The less your sights move, the faster you get on target, the better.
What are the benefits of a comped gun?
Faster recovery between shots is inherently valuable, and that is the real benefit of a compensator. That’s easy to understand, but until it’s in your hand, you might not realize how valuable that can be.
In a standard two-handed shooting position, your standard 9mm handgun doesn’t have a ton of recoil. Where you notice the biggest difference with a comp is when you get into trickier situations. When it comes to shooting with one hand, especially your nondominant hand, a comp becomes extremely valuable. It keeps you low, on target, and capable of firing rapidly and accurately.
It’s an increase in total control and makes your gun much easier to handle in all notable situations.
What about muzzle flash?
Before we go into the downsides of compensators, let’s address one of the biggest misconceptions. The muzzle device redirects gas upward, and it can transmit some flash upwards as well. How much? Well, it really depends on the gun and caliber. For a standard self-defense caliber like 9mm, the flash isn’t any more noticeable than a standard muzzle flash.
It won’t blind you, kill your night vision, or somehow make you a beacon to the enemy more than any other degree of muzzle flash. Sure, it might make the gun louder, but in most calibers, it won’t increase muzzle flash to some imagined crazy degree. In fact, a .357 Magnum from the 1.87-inch barrel most snubbies wear is considerably brighter than a comped 9mm.
Speaking of magnum calibers, you will see some serious muzzle flash with compensators and porting when you get into the bigger calibers. Ported .44 MAgnums tend to be quite bright, and I’d imagine other larger calibers with comps like the 460 S&W would be quite bright.
Shooting From Retention
Another misconception rooted in reality is the use of compensators from a close retention firing position. Specifically the idea that using one from close retention can ‘injure’ you. That hot gas being redirected upward can hit you and not be super comfy, but it won’t hurt you. In a life-or-death scenario, you are unlikely to even notice the gas being tossed at you.
If you were to press the compensator up against your skin, then yeah, you might have an issue, but I can’t imagine a situation where this could occur. If we start talking about magnum calibers, then maybe this does become a bigger issue, but for a defensive firearm, it’s no issue.
The Downsides of a Compensator
There are some downsides to consider. First, it adds something else to your gun that needs to be properly installed. If not properly installed, it could fly off or rotate and increase muzzle flip. It also makes your gun slightly longer. However, it’s worth mentioning that modern designs like the P365-XMacro inegrate the comp into the slide and frame design, and that solves the installation issue.
Some compensators can cause reliability issues with certain types of ammo. In the 9mm realm, some guns with compensators have issues running the lower-powered 115-grain rounds. When this occurs, the shooter may need a different recoil spring or use hotter ammunition.
Obviously, compensators aren’t free either. A quality compensator can add 100 to 200 dollars to your gun’s cost, plus the need for a threaded barrel. As always, you’ll have to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze for you.
Do they work?
In my experience, they work quite well. Models from KE Arms, Griffin Armament, and Tyrant Designs have all been exceptionally effective in my 9mm handguns without any reliability issues. The implementation of the P365-XMacro compensator was also quite impressive and delivered some seriously awesome muzzle rise reduction.
The feeling is great, but what about numbers? I’ve used 9mm compensators with a MantisX device and measured muzzle rise and recoil. I’ve seen as much as a 50% reduction in muzzle rise from compensators. It’s especially noticeable in smaller guns. I’ve seen par times cut and watched as my sights have barely moved between shots.
While I do not think a comp is required for a defensively-minded pistol, I do think they can be an exceptionally effective tool. We are beginning to see smaller and more intuitive designs as well as designs coming from major firearm manufacturers. Much like a red dot, they might not be necessary, but they offer shooters a serious advantage.