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Recoil-Reducing Guide Rods: Do They Work?

We examined the Harrt’s Recoil Reducer, the Recoilmaster by Chandler Arms, and the Heavy Weight Guide Rod from Wilson Combat to see if they improved our shot-to-shot times.

Recoil reduction guide rods tested included
the Chandler Arms Recoilmaster assembly
(top); the Harrt’s Recoil Reducer (middle), and
the Wilson Heavy Weight Guide Rod.

Because of increasing interest in Stock Class International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) tournaments, there has been renewed attention paid to technologies that reduce recoil and enhance shot-to-shot recovery time within the modification guidelines for that category. Like other competition shooters, we were curious about how, and if, these devices worked—and, more important, we wanted to know if the recoil-spring guide rods could help us shoot better.

With those goals in mind, we purchased three different recoil-reduction items: the Harrt’s Recoil Reducer, the Recoilmaster by Chandler Arms, and a tungsten Heavy Weight Guide Rod No. 365 from Wilson Combat. The Harrt’s product looks like a common steel, full-length guide rod, but it incorporates a floating captive inertial mass composed of mercury and ball bearings to add weight and dampen recoil. The Recoilmaster incorporates a strong secondary recoil spring that engages after cartridge case ejection to cushion the shock of the slide against the frame and extend the recoil pulse over a longer duration.

The Wilson product is a heavyweight tungsten guide rod that simply adds 5 ounces of nonreciprocating mass to the forward end of the pistol.

Our Test Procedure
We examined comparative target-to-target split times (shot to shot times), double-tap split times, and ease of maintenance, installation, and use. To ensure consistent, valid results, I shot all the guns myself, using my experience as Stock Gun champion of the 1991 and 1992 World Speed Shooting Championships to build the testing protocol. Also, I installed all the items on a match-grade Caspian Arms Limited Class .45 that I built.

Misses on plates and hits outside the A zone of IPSC targets were not counted in the data.

To make an objective measurement of recoil as it pertains to IPSC competition, we fired two tests to establish a baseline of information. We shot multiple shots on a single target and measured the average times between shots, known as split times, first using the test pistol with the stock spring guide and then using the same pistol and guide with loads generating 50 percent less energy. We then ran the same drill firing single shots at six consecutive 8-inch steel speed plates placed 1 foot apart. The distance was 10 yards, and the full-power load was a 200-grain lead semi-wadcutter bullet pushed at an average of 930 fps for 390 foot-pounds of energy. The 50 percent reduced load used the same bullet at 680 fps for 202 foot-pounds of energy.

The Need for Recoil Reducers
Recoil is the rearward thrust of a firearm that is an equal and opposite reaction to the energy of the muzzle ejecta (bullet plus burned powder leaving the muzzle) when it is fired. The laws of physics dictate that the only ways to actually decrease recoil by 50 percent, which some of these products claim, is to either decrease the energy of the ammunition by 50 percent or double the weight of the pistol. Neither of these choices is desirable. An 80-ounce pistol would be cumbersome and slow to draw and index on target. If you reduce your load by 50 percent, IPSC rules penalize your score for less than perfect A zone hits.

Still, since all IPSC events factor accuracy (numerical score) and time (in seconds) to give a comstock score in points per second, a competitor needs all the recoil control possible to achieve the best score in the least time.

Chandler Arms claims that its unit will decrease felt recoil (a subjective claim) by 30 to 50 percent and measurable recoil by 20 percent or more. Since the Chandler device weighs about 1 ounce and the pistol weighs about 40 ounces, the actual physical reduction caused by increased mass comes to only 2.5 percent. The Harrt’s unit claims to reduce recoil by 30 percent, but because it weighs about 2 ounces, that calculates out to a 5 percent reduction on the basis of weight alone. The Wilson unit, at 5 ounces, has no specific claims attached to it other than it provides “decreased” recoil. Based on its weight alone, the shooter might reasonably expect a reduction of 12.5 percent.

But claims for two of the products raises this question: If the actual physical reduction can be calculated so simply, how can the companies claim to cut recoil by half? The answer: The term “recoil reduction” as it is applied to IPSC shooting is really a misnomer. What’s important how high the muzzle climbs in recoil, thus increasing the time it takes to recover from the recoil of the pistol and fire a second aimed shot. “Muzzle flip reduction” would be a more accurate way to describe what these products are supposed to do.

The Products
The Harrt’s Recoil Reducer was simple and well made, showing no outward flaws in workmanship. It relies on a reciprocating mass made up of mercury and ball bearings enclosed in the rod to dampen recoil. Essentially, the mercury and ball bearings provide inertia that lower the rearward recoil of the pistol. The Harrt’s device weighs about 2 ounces, and the heavy liquid mass encased in the rod tries to remain stationary as the gun begins its recoil cycle and adds forward mass after its inertia is overcome. It has no means of being rebuilt, but examining units that have been used by competitive shooters for two years show, I’ve seen little wear or peening where it is hit by the slide. To install it, you simply remove the original guide, spring, and recoil spring cap, replace the guide with the Recoil Reducer rod, replace the slide on the frame, and reinstall the recoil spring and proprietary cap supplied by Harrt’s. The assembly is then anchored as normal with the barrel bushing. It was easy and straightforward to install the Harrt’s product.

The Chandler Arms Recoilmaster weighs only 1 ounce and adds little weight over the short, factory-supplied guide. It is beautifully machined of highly-polished stainless steel. A one-piece guide rod with a sliding collar, recoil buffering sub-spring, and replaceable polyurethane shock pad comprised the unit. Also, it comes equipped with a proprietary recoil-spring cap and recoil spring that are too small to fit over a standard guide rod. This is designed to buffer the final impact of the slide to the frame and reduce recoil and muzzle rise by spreading out the shock impulse over time as the slide engages the strong sub-spring prior to slide impact.

Installing the Recoilmaster was tricky when following the supplied directions. The original recoil spring guide and spring cap are removed. Then the supplied cap is placed into the spring tunnel in the slide from the front and the bushing positioned to allow the cap to move fully forward and engage the semi-circular cut at its bottom. The barrel link is then pushed fully rearward to allow clearance, and the Recoilmaster rod and supplied spring(s) are inserted from the rear and must clear the rearward edge of the tunnel as well as engage the small hole bored in the cap simultaneously. This required several tries to accomplish. Once installed in the slide, the slide is replaced on the frame as a unit and anchored with the slide stop.

Drawbacks to this design include difficulty of installation, the use of a synthetic polyurethane shock pad used to position the rear of the rod in the frame and cushion the impact of the slide against the frame in recoil, and a proprietary recoil spring. The shock pad has an manufacturer’s expected life of about 1,000 rounds and can be replaced along with the proprietary springs and rod units by purchasing rebuild kits or parts from Chandler Arms. While the shock pad will reduce frame stress under recoil, it will require periodic inspection and replacement because without it, or with a failed pad, your gun will not function. This could be of concern to an active IPSC competitor who will be firing in excess of 10,000 rounds a year or for a gun used for self-defense where an unnoticed failure could have serious consequences.

The main recoil spring has a reduced diameter that allows clearance when compressed inside the recoil spring cap and is not interchangeable with standard recoil springs. Spare shock pads and recoil springs from the manufacturer are a good idea to have on hand should they need replacement, because you cannot substitute standard springs or shock buffers in an emergency.

The heavyweight tungsten rod from Wilson Combat was the most basic of the tested units. By using tungsten, a very heavy metal, and increasing the rod diameter to 0.380 inch from the usual 0.320 inch, 5 ounces of weight are added to the front of the pistol. This necessitates the use of a proprietary, large-diameter, recoil spring and special retainer collar to perform the function of the recoil spring cap. The rod was well machined and the finish showed no flaws. Reducing recoil by adding maximum mass to the muzzle is the most straightforward method of reducing recoil, as our tests showed.

Unlike the other two rods, the Wilson Heavy Weight rod requires minor gunsmithing for initial installation. This involves drilling out the small shoulder at the rear of the recoil spring tunnel in the slide to 0.500 inch and carefully chamfering the rear edge to allow placing the large-diameter tungsten rod with compressed spring and retaining collar into the slide from the rear, where it engages the barrel bushing. While this modification is permanent, it does not prevent you from using either the factory or other aftermarket units.

This minor gunsmithing requires about 15 to 20 minutes to accomplish and then the rod can be maneuvered into the slide to engage the bushing somewhat easier than the Chandler unit. The slide is then retracted and a 1/4-inch by 1/4-inch pin that is L-shaped is released from in front of the retaining collar to allow it to move forward to engage the barrel bushing.

Removing this unit from the pistol is inconvenient. To accomplish this, the slide is retracted and locked with the slide stop. Then the L pin is inserted into the small hole in front of the collar with the careful aid of tweezers. The pin must be prevented from dropping out while the slide is eased forward to let the collar stop against it. It is now ready to be removed by simply sliding the entire unit out the rear of the spring tunnel.

This sounds easy but it requires a gentle touch to place the tiny L pin and keep it in position until the collar and recoil spring are retained behind it. You also must have a set of tweezers with you as well. The little pin can easily become lost in your shooting bag or even during installation. The unit, like the Chandler, uses a non-standard diameter recoil spring that is available only from the manufacturer, so the serious shooter is well advised to keep a spare or two handy. They are available in 13-, 15-, and 18-pound weights, but the pistol functioned reliably, even when we shot reduced loads with the 18-pound spring.

Using baseline data developed without the use of these products, we were able to compare split times for each of the custom guide rod units against the split times for the stock gun with full power ammunition. Also, by shooting the stock gun with reduced power ammunition (which developed 50 percent less recoil energy), we were able to see how much the products reduced recoil when they were compared to a true half-power load. By doing so we were able to measure the comparative split times to evaluate “recoil reduction” in the IPSC sense of the word.

Data in the accompanying chart show that the various recoil-reducing guide rods did indeed provide significant decreases in split times. The Chandler Arms Recoilmaster and Harrt’s Recoil Reducer both performed very close to the manufacturers’ claims for the products, with the Chandler reducing split times by an average of 24 percent and the Harrt’s by an average of 27.5 percent. However, in terms of total reduction in split times, the Wilson Combat Heavy Weight unit was the best—a 40.5-percent reduction.

PFS Recommends
In terms of performance, our tests showed the $79.95 Chandler Arms Recoilmaster device and the $89.95 Harrt’s Recoil Reducer provided similar split-time reductions. The Harrt’s unit is very simple to install, adds a negligible amount of muzzle weight, does not alter the pistol’s function and can be used with conventional recoil springs. We would install it in a Limited Class pistol that will double as a serious self-defense firearm where weight, reliability, and easy-to-find parts is a concern.

The Chandler item might be a better choice if longevity of the firearm was most important, such as in a heavily used competition pistol, where the shooter could afford the luxury of monitoring wear of the shock pad and didn’t mind having to keep a rebuild kit or two on hand.

But the Wilson Combat Heavy Weight Guide Rod No. 365 unit, which sells for $64.95, would be our ultimate choice to minimize shot-to-shot times. However, if you install the product, we strongly suggest keeping a couple of its proprietary recoil springs, a pair of tweezers, and several L pins in your shooting bag.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Test Data."
Click here to view "Contacts."

-By Charles Woolley

Editor’s Note: After completing this test, Charles Woolley used his Wilson Heavy Weight–equipped 1911 to take first place in the stock division of a Cabinet Rifle and Pistol Association IPSC match. He cleaned three of five courses of fire during the match.

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