Blowback (firearms)

Blowback is a system of operation for self-loading firearms that obtains energy from the motion of the cartridge case as it is pushed to the rear by expanding gases created by the ignition of the propellant charge.[1]

Several blowback systems exist within this broad principle of operation, each distinguished by the methods used to control bolt movement. In most actions that use blowback operation, the breech is not locked mechanically at the time of firing: the inertia of the bolt and recoil spring(s), relative to the weight of the bullet, delays opening of the breech until the bullet has left the barrel.[2] A few locked breech designs use a form of blowback (example: primer actuation) to perform the unlocking function.

Other operating principles for self-loading firearms include blow forward, gas operation, and recoil operation. The blowback principle may be considered a simplified form of gas operation, since the cartridge case behaves like a piston driven by the powder gases.[1]

Principle of operation

The blowback system is generally defined as an operating system in which energy to operate the firearm's various mechanisms and provide automation is derived from the movement of the spent cartridge case pushed out of the chamber by rapidly expanding powder gases.[3] This rearward thrust, imparted against the breech, is a direct result of the expansion of propellant gases.[3] Certain guns will use energy from blowback to perform the entire operating cycle (these are typically designs using relatively "low power" ammunition) while others will use a portion of the blowback to operate only certain parts of the cycle or simply use the blowback energy to enhance the operational energy from another system of automatic operation.[3]

What is common to all blowback systems is that the cartridge case must move under the direct action of the powder pressure, therefore any gun in which the bolt is not rigidly locked and permitted to move while there remains powder pressure in the chamber will undergo a degree of blowback action.[3] The energy from the expansion of gases on firing appears in the form of kinetic energy transmitted to the bolt mechanism, which is controlled and used to operate the firearm's operation cycle. The extent to which blowback is employed largely depends on the manner used to control the movement of the bolt and the proportion of energy drawn from other systems of operation.[1] How the movement of the bolt is controlled is where blowback systems differ. Blowback operation is most often divided into three categories, all using residual pressure to complete the cycle of operation: simple blowback (often just "blowback"), delayed/retarded blowback, and advanced primer ignition.

Relating blowback to other types of automatic firearm operation, George M. Chinn wrote that: "In the larger sense, blowback might well be considered a special form of gas operation. This is reasonable because the cartridge case may be conceived of as a sort of piston driven by the powder gases. Actually, blowback involves so many special problems that it is best considered to be in a class by itself. The question whether or not it should be included within the more general class of gas operation or recoil operation is purely academic. The important point is that it partakes some of the properties of both classes and, depending on the particular problem at hand, may be considered to be either one."[1]

Simple blowback

Animation of simple blowback operation.
The .380 ACP Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless uses simple blowback. The mass of the slide is enough to delay opening of the chamber until pressure has dropped.

The blowback (sometimes referred to as "straight", "simple" or "pure" blowback) system represents the most basic auto loading operation type. In a blowback mechanism, the bolt rests against the rear of the barrel, but is not locked in place. At the point of ignition, expanding gases push the bullet forward through the barrel while at the same time pushing the case rearward against the bolt. The expanding gases push the bolt assembly to the rear, but the motion is slowed by the mass of the bolt, internal friction, and the force required to compress the action spring. The design must ensure that the delay is long enough that bullet exits the barrel before the cartridge case clears the chamber. The empty case is ejected as the bolt travels to the rear. The stored energy of the compressed action spring then drives the bolt forward (although not until the trigger is pulled if the weapon fires from an open bolt). A new cartridge is stripped from the magazine and chambered as the bolt returns to its in-battery position.

The blowback system is practical for firearms using relatively low-power cartridges with lighter weight bullets. Higher power cartridges require heavier bolts to keep the breech from opening prematurely; at some point, the bolt becomes too heavy to be practical. For an extreme example, a 20mm cannon using simple blowback and lubricated cartridges would need a 500-pound (230 kg) bolt to keep the cartridge safely in the barrel during the first few milliseconds; furthermore, the average force supplied by the return spring is limited to 60 pounds-force (270 N) or the bolt will not travel back far enough to feed a new round. Consequently, the return spring is not powerful enough to keep the bolt closed when the gun is tilted up. In addition, there is not enough energy stored in the bolt to cycle the weapon.[4]

Due to the required bolt weight, blowback designs in pistols are generally limited to calibers smaller than 9×19mm Parabellum (e.g., .25 ACP, .32 ACP, .380 ACP, 9×18mm Makarov, etc.) There are exceptions such as the straight blowback pistols from Hi-Point Firearms which include models chambered in .45 ACP, .40 S&W, .380 ACP and 9×19mm Parabellum.[5] Pure blowback operation can also be found in small-bore (such as .22LR) semi-automatic rifles, carbines and submachine guns, as well as in several low-velocity cannons and grenade launchers such as the Mk 19 grenade launcher and MK 108. Most simple blowback rifles are chambered for the .22 Long Rifle cartridge. Popular examples include the Marlin Model 60 and the Ruger 10/22. Most blowback carbines and submachine guns are chambered for pistol cartridges such as the 9×19mm Parabellum, .40 S&W and .45 ACP. Examples include the MP 40, Sten and UZI. There were also a few rifles that chambered cartridges specifically designed for blowback operation. Examples include the Winchester Model 1905, 1907 and 1910.

The inertia needed to counteract the force of more powerful cartridges would result in inconveniently large blowback design firearms. For this reason most modern semi-automatic handguns firing high-powered cartridges employ a short recoil system, with a locking barrel and slide assembly instead of a bolt.

Advanced primer ignition (API) blowback

MK 108 cannon bolt cycle (part I)
MK 108 cannon bolt cycle (part II)

In the API blowback design, the primer is ignited when the bolt is still moving forward and before the cartridge is fully chambered. This requires a very careful design to ensure the proper balance and equalization of forces between the projectile weight, propellant charge, barrel length, bolt weight, and return spring strength. In a plain blowback design, the propellant gases have to overcome static inertia to accelerate the bolt rearwards to open the breech. In an API blowback, they first have to do the work of overcoming forward momentum to arrest the forward motion of the bolt. Because the forward and rearward speeds of the bolt tend to be approximately the same, the API blowback allows the weight of the bolt to be halved.[6] Because the momentum of the two opposed bolt motions cancels out over time, the API blowback design results in reduced recoil.

According to Anthony G. Williams, the "API blowback principle is used virtually in all open bolt sub-machine guns" (technically, although generally these are known as "simple blowback" weapons due to the very late ignition of the cartridge compared to specially designed API blowback guns like the MK 108), although "the relatively low pressures and velocities mean that extended chambers and rebated-rim cartridges are not required" for sub-machine guns.[7] In heavier weapons, advanced primer ignition (API) was originally developed by Reinhold Becker[8] for use on the Becker 20-mm automatic cannon. It became a feature of a wide range of designs that can be traced back to Becker's, including the Oerlikon cannon widely used as anti-aircraft weapons during World War II.[7]

To increase performance of API blowback firearms,[6] larger calibre APIB guns such as the Becker and Oerlikon use extended chambers, longer than is necessary to contain the round, and ammunition for APIB firearms come with straight-sided cartridges with rebated rims (the rear of the cartridge case is smaller in diameter than the front).[9] The last part of forward motion and the first part of the rearward motion of the case and bolt happen within the confines of this extended chamber. As long as the gas pressure in the barrel is high, the walls of the case remain supported and the breach sealed, although the case is sliding rearwards. This sliding motion of the case, while it is expanded by a high internal gas pressure, risks tearing it apart, and a common solution is to grease the ammunition to reduce the friction. The case needs to have a rebated rim because the front end of the bolt will enter the chamber, and the extractor claw hooked over the rim therefore has to fit also within the diameter of the chamber. The case generally has very little neck, because this remains unsupported during the firing cycle and is generally deformed; a strongly necked case would be likely to split.

The API blowback design permits the use of more powerful ammunition in a lighter gun that would be achieved by using plain blowback, and the reduction of felt recoil results in further weight savings. The original Becker cannon, firing 20×70mmRB ammunition, was developed to be carried by World War I aircraft, and weighed only 30 kg.[10] Oerlikon even produced an anti-tank rifle firing 20×110mmRB ammunition using the API blowback operation, the SSG36. On the other hand, because the design imposes a very close relationship between bolt mass, chamber length, spring strength, ammunition power and rate of fire, in APIB guns high rate of fire and high muzzle velocity tend to be mutually exclusive.[9] API blowback guns also have to fire from an open bolt, which is not conducive to accuracy and also prevents synchronized fire through an aircraft propeller arc.

According to a United States Army Materiel Command engineering course from 1970, "The advanced primer ignition gun is superior to the simple blowback because of its higher firing rate and lower recoil momentum. However, favorable performance depends on timing that must be precise. A slight delay in primer function, and the gun reverts to a simple blowback without the benefit of a massive bolt and stiffer driving spring to soften the recoil impact. [...] The exacting requirements in design and construction of gun and ammunition reduce this type almost to the point of academic interest only."[11]

API mechanisms are very sensitive to the ammunition used. For example, when the Germans switched their MG FF (an Oerlikon FFF derivative) to their new, lighter Minengeschoß shell, they had to rebalance the spring strength and bolt weight of the gun, resulting a new MG FF/M model with ammunition not being interchangeable between the two models.[12] The 30 mm MK 108 cannon was perhaps the apogee of API blowback technology during World War II.

An example of API in sub-machine guns is the L2A3 Sterling submachine gun, where the maximum chamber pressure is achieved while the breechblock is still moving forward and is about 0.46 mm away from the rear face of the chamber.[13] The principle is also used in some automatic grenade launchers, for example in the US Mk 19 grenade launcher or Russian AGS-30.

Delayed blowback

For more powerful rounds or for a lighter operating mechanism, some system of delayed or retarded blowback is often used, requiring the bolt to overcome some initial resistance while not fully locked. Because of high pressures, rifle-caliber delayed blowback firearms, such as the FAMAS and G3, typically have fluted chambers to ease extraction. Below are various forms of delayed-blowback actions:

Roller delayed

A schematic of the roller-delayed blowback mechanism used in the MP5 submachine gun. This system had its origins in the late-war StG 45(M) assault rifle prototype.

Roller-delayed blowback was first used in the experimental MG 42 derivative MG 42V and the 1945 Mauser StG 45(M) prototypes. Roller-delayed blowback operation differs from roller-locked recoil operation as seen in the MG 42. Unlike the MG 42, in roller-delayed blowback the barrel is fixed and does not recoil. As the bolt head is driven rearward, rollers on the sides of the bolt are driven inward against a tapered bolt carrier extension. This forces the bolt carrier rearward at a much greater velocity and delays movement of the bolt head. The primary advantage of roller-delayed blowback is the simplicity of the design compared to gas or recoil operation.[14]

After World War II, former Mauser technicians Ludwig Vorgrimler and Theodor Löffler perfected this mechanism between 1946 and 1950 while working for the French Centre d'Etudes et d'Armament de Mulhouse (CEAM). The first full-scale production rifle to utilize roller-delay was the Spanish CETME followed by the Swiss Sturmgewehr 57, and the Heckler & Koch G3 rifle. The MP5 submachine gun is the most common weapon in service worldwide still using this system. The P9 pistol also uses roller-delayed blowback. The Czech URZ AP machine gun is roller-locked.

Lever delayed

A schematic of the lever-delayed blowback mechanism used in the FAMAS assault rifle.

Lever-delayed blowback utilizes leverage to delay the opening of the breech. When the cartridge pushes against the bolt face, the lever moves the bolt carrier rearward at an accelerated rate relative to the light bolt. Leverage can be applied with a dedicated part or through inclined surfaces interacting with each other. This leverage significantly increases resistance and slows the movement of the lightweight bolt. John Pedersen patented the first known design for a lever-delay system.[15] The mechanism was adapted by Hungarian arms designer Pál Király (a.k.a. Paul de Kiraly) in the 1930s and used in the Danuvia 43M submachine gun. Other weapons to use this system are the TKB-517/2B-A-40 assault rifles, the AVB-7.62 battle rifle, the San Cristobal .30 carbine, the FAMAS,[16] the BSM/9 M1 and FNAB-43 submachine guns, the Hogue Avenger and Benelli B76 pistols, the Sterling 7.62 and AA-52 machine guns.

Gas delayed

Gas-delayed blowback should not be confused with gas-operated. The bolt is never locked, and so is pushed rearward by the expanding propellant gases as in other blowback-based designs. However, propellant gases are vented from the barrel into a cylinder with a piston that delays the opening of the bolt. It was used by some World War II German designs for the 7.92×33mm Kurz cartridge, including the Volkssturmgewehr 1-5 rifle (with little effectiveness) and the Grossfuss Sturmgewehr (with slightly more efficiency),[17] and after the war by the Heckler & Koch P7, Walther CCP, Steyr GB and M-77B pistols.

Chamber-ring delayed

When a cartridge is fired, the case expands to seal the sides of the chamber. This seal prevents high-pressure gas from escaping into the action of the gun. Because a conventional chamber is slightly oversized, an unfired cartridge will enter freely. In a chamber-ring delayed firearm, the chamber is conventional in every respect except for a 'raised' portion at the rear of the chamber, which is of a smaller diameter than at the front of the chamber. When the case expands in the front of the chamber and pushes rearward on the slide, it is slowed due to this raised portion constricting the expanded portion of the case, as the case is extracted. The Seecamp pistol operates on this principle.

Hesitation locked

John Pedersen's patented system incorporates a breech block independent of the slide or bolt carrier. When in battery, the breech block rests slightly forward of the locking shoulder located in the frame of the firearm. When the cartridge is fired, the cartridge case, bolt and slide move together a short distance until the breech block strikes the locking shoulder and stops. The slide continues rearward with the momentum it acquired in the initial phase while the breech remains locked. This allows chamber pressure to drop to safe levels once the bullet departs the barrel. The continuing motion of the slide lifts the breech block from its recess and pulls it rearward, continuing the firing cycle. The Pedersen Remington Model 51 pistol, SIG MKMO submachine gun and R51 pistol are the only production firearms to have used this design.

Toggle delayed

Operation of the Schwarzlose machine gun.
Image from Pedersen patent[18] describing toggle-delayed blowback mechanism as used in his rifle

In toggle-delayed blowback firearms, the rearward motion of the breechblock must overcome significant mechanical leverage.[19][20][21] The bolt is hinged in the middle, stationary at the rear end and nearly straight at rest. As the breech moves back under blowback power, the hinge joint moves upward. The leverage disadvantage keeps the breech from opening until the bullet has left the barrel and pressures have dropped to a safe level. This mechanism was used on the Pedersen rifle and Schwarzlose MG M.07/12 machine gun.[20][22]

Off-axis bolt travel

John Browning developed this simple method whereby the axis of bolt movement was not in line with that of the bore.[23] The result was that a small rearward movement of the bolt in relation to the bore axis required a greater movement along the axis of bolt movement, essentially magnifying the resistance of the bolt without increasing its mass. The French MAS-38 submachine gun of 1938 utilizes a bolt whose path of recoil is at an angle to the barrel. The Jatimatic and TDI Vector use modified versions of this concept.


First used on the Mannlicher Model 1893 rifle, the bolt in screw-delayed blowback was delayed by angled interrupted threads delayed by a quater twist to unlock. John T. Thompson designed an autorifle that operated on a similar principle around 1920 and submitted it for trials with the US Army. This rifle, submitted multiple times, competed unsuccessfully against the Pedersen rifle and Garand primer-actuated rifle in early testing to replace the M1903 Springfield rifle.[24] This operation is one of the most simple forms of delayed blowback but unless the ammunition is lubricated or uses a fluted chamber, the recoil can be volatile especially when using full length rifle rounds. Another form of this operation was developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov who later developed a prototype submachine gun in 1942 that operated by a screw-delayed blowback principle,[25] which is also found on the Fox Wasp carbine. A pair of telescoping screws delayed rearward movement of the operating parts during the firing cycle. This weapon was ultimately not selected for production.

Other blowback systems

Floating chamber

David Marshall Williams (a noted designer for the U.S. Ordnance Office and later Winchester) developed a mechanism to allow firearms designed for full-sized cartridges to fire .22 caliber rimfire ammunition reliably. His system used a small 'piston' that incorporates the chamber. When the cartridge is fired, the front of the floating chamber is thrust back by gas pressure impinging on the front of the chamber as in a traditional piston. This, added to the blowback energy imparted on the cartridge, pushes the bolt back with greater energy than either force alone. Often described as accelerated blowback, this amplifies the otherwise anemic recoil energy of the .22 rimfire cartridge.[26] Williams designed a training version of the Browning machine gun and the Colt Service Ace .22 long rifle version of the M1911 using his system. The floating chamber is both a blowback and gas operated mechanism.[27]

Primer actuated

Primer actuated firearms use the energy of primer setback to unlock and cycle the firearm. John Garand developed the system in an unsuccessful bid to replace the M1903 bolt-action rifle in the early 1920s.[28] The Soviet designer Fedor Tokarev also experimented with this principle in rifles in the 1930s.[29]

Garand's prototypes worked well with US military .30-06 ammunition, but then the military changed from a fast burning gunpowder to a progressive burning Improved Military Rifle (IMR) powder. The slower pressure rise made the primer actuated prototypes unreliable, so Garand abandoned the design for a gas operated platform that became the M1 Garand.[28][30] The .30 Clarke carbine also used this operation. AAI Corporation used their developmental piston primer mechanism in a rifle submitted for the SPIW competition.[31] During the Abakan trials, the Postnikov APT used this operation. A similar system is used in the spotting rifles on the LAW 80 and Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon use a 9mm, .308 Winchester based cartridge with a .22 Hornet blank cartridge in place of the primer. Upon firing, the Hornet case sets back a short distance, unlocking the action.[32]

Case setback

The case cartridge itself has been used experimentally to actuate the action similar to Garand's primer-actuation. Known prototypes using this method of operation include two 1936 rifle designs, one by Mihail Mamontov and another by Makar Goryainov at TsKB-14, and a 1980s design by A.F. Barishev. The Mamontov and Goryainov rifles are only partially automatic; only the bolt unlocking is powered by the gasses pushing the cartridge back, while the rest of the cycle (ejection, reloading) is done manually as in a traditional bolt-action rifle. A major problem with using the case cartridge as piston is that its motion is much faster (about 1 ms) compared to tapping gas further down the bore through a piston—about 5 ms in the Dragunov sniper rifle, which used the same cartridge as Mamontov's rifle. Barishev made a fully automatic, but rather bulky mechanism that used a mechanical delay. In his system, the case cartridge pushed back a tilting bolt face, that upon reaching a certain angle pushes backwards an unlocking lever that continues farther before unlocking the bolt. The GRAU however still gave a negative evaluation of Barishev's gun, pointing out that the main problems with reliability of firearms using the cartridge case a piston were known since the 1930s and still unsolved.[33]

Limited-utility designs

Blish lock

Main article: Blish lock

The Blish Lock is a breech locking mechanism designed by John Bell Blish based upon his observation that under extreme pressures, certain dissimilar metals will resist movement with a force greater than normal friction laws would predict. In modern engineering terminology, it is called static friction, or stiction. His locking mechanism was used in the Thompson submachine gun, Autorifle and Autocarbine designs. This dubious principle was later eliminated as redundant in the .45 caliber submachine gun. Lubrication or fouling would completely defeat any delay. Whatever actual advantage a clean, unlubricated Blish system could impart could also be attained by adding a mere ounce of mass to the bolt.

Savage rotating barrel

The Savage system employed the theory that the rifling in the barrel caused a rotational force that would hold the gun locked until the projectile left the barrel. It was later discovered that the bullet had left the barrel long before any locking could occur. Savage pistols were in fact operating as pure blow back firearms.[34] The French MAB PA-15 and PA-8 9mm pistols feature a similar design.

Other autoloading systems

Other autoloading systems are:

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Chinn 1955, p. 3
  2. Walter H. B. Smith, Rifles, Military Service Publishing Co., 1948, "blowback semiautomatic operation" pp.88-89.
  3. 1 2 3 4 Chinn 1955, p. 11
  4. Chinn 1955, pp. 12–16
  5. "Hi-Point Firearms: Handguns". Hi-Point Firearms. Archived from the original on 2011-07-11.
  6. 1 2 Chinn 1955, p. 31
  7. 1 2 Anthony G. Williams, Rapid Fire, Airlife UK 2000, page 65
  8. Williams, Anthony G., Of Oerlikons and other things…… article
  9. 1 2 Anthony G. Williams, Rapid Fire, Airlife UK 2000, pages 63-68
  10. Anthony G. Williams, Flying Gun World War I, Airlife UK 2003, pages 89-90
  11. Automatic Weapons, AMC pamphlet no. 706-260, February 1970, page 2-47
  12. Anthony G. Williams, Rapid Fire, Airlife UK 2000, pages 65 and 166
  13. Charles Q. Cutshaw (2011). Tactical Small Arms of the 21st Century: A Complete Guide to Small Arms From Around the World. Gun Digest Books. ISBN 978-1-4402-2482-9. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
  14. Stevens, R. Blake, Full Circle: A Treatise on Roller Locking, Collector Grade Publications (2006). ISBN 0-88935-400-6.
  15. U.S. Patent 1,410,270
  16. Modern firearms - GIAT FAMAS assault rifle (France) article
  17. Пономарёв, Юрий (September 2006), история: малоизвестное оружие второй мировой войны: Автомат Хорна [History: a little-known weapon of World War II: Horn Assault Rifle] (PDF), КАЛАШНИКОВ. ОРУЖИЕ, БОЕПРИПАСЫ, СНАРЯЖЕНИЕ (Kalasnikov: Weapons, ammunition, equipment) (in Russian): 20–26
  18. U.S. Patent 1,737,974
  19. Cliff Carlisle, Japanese Pedersen Semi Auto Rifles & Carbines, article
  20. 1 2 Marshall Cavendish Corporation (2003). How It Works: Science and Technology. Marshall Cavendish. p. 194. ISBN 978-0-7614-7314-5.
  21. Automatic Weapons, AMC pamphlet no. 706-260, February 1970, page 2-40
  22. Hatcher, Julian, Hatcher's Notebook, The Military Service Press Company (1947), pp. 38-44. ISBN 0-8117-0795-4.
  23. U.S. Patent 1,457,961
  24. Hatcher, Julian (1983). Book of the Garand. Gun Room Pr. ISBN 0-88227-014-1.
  25. Ширяев, Д. (2000). "Кто изобрел автомат Калашникова" [Who invented the Kalashnikov?]. Солдат удачи (in Russian). 9 (72).
  26. Charles E. Petty, Delightful diversion, Guns Magazine, March, 2004.
  27. S. P. Fjestad (1991). Blue Book of Gun Values, 13th Ed. p. 291. ISBN 0-9625943-4-2.
  28. 1 2 Julian S. Hatcher (1962). Hatcher's Notebook. Stackpole Books. pp. 63–66. ISBN 978-0-8117-0795-4.
  29. Чумак, Р. (July 2011). "БЕЗ ГАЗА. О системе капсюльного двигателя автоматики Токарева" [Without gas: about the primer-driven Tokarev machine gun] (PDF). Kalashnikov magazine (in Russian): 48–50.
  30. "Experimental semi-automatic rifles by John Garand, 1919-1936". National Park Service. Retrieved 2014-12-28. the primer actuated device was doomed to failure as the .30 caliber cartridge did not lend itself to this type of operation
  31. Flirting With Flechettes: The US Army's Search for the Ideal Rifle Projectile May 2000 article
  32. "9 x 51mm SMAW - International Ammunition Association".
  33. Р. Чумак, ГИЛЬЗОВЫЙ ДВИГАТЕЛЬ. О необычных системах автоматики Archived May 13, 2014, at the Wayback Machine., Kalashnikov magazine 2012/11, pp. 72-77
  34. Hatcher, Julian (1947), Hatchers Notebook, The Military Service Press Company, pp. 259–261, ISBN 0-8117-0795-4


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