Pistol Recoil Springs: The Ultimate Guide Home / Pistol Anatomy / Recoil Spring

Pistol Recoil Springs: The Ultimate Guide

Image of Bryan Hill, Founder of Pistol Wizard Bryan Hill / August 10 2022

A diagram of an assembled pistol, next to a disassembled slide, barrel, and recoil spring.
If you want to shoot faster or prevent jams, check out your pistol's recoil spring. We'll cover how they work, how you can change them out for better performance, when to replace a pistol recoil spring, alternatives, and whether you should upgrade your pistol's recoil spring.

On This Page:

  1. Basics
  2. Why Does a Good Recoil Spring Matter?
  3. What Makes a Good Recoil Spring?
  4. Captured vs. Non-Captured Recoil Assembly
  5. When to Replace Pistol Recoil Spring?
  6. Recoil Reduction Systems for Performance
  7. Recoil Buffers: Good or Bad?
  8. Recoil Springs and Slide Racking
  9. I Need a Custom Recoil Spring for My Pistol. What to do?
  10. Should I Upgrade My Recoil Spring?

Basics

When you fire a loaded pistol, the slide recoilsback:

The recoil spring then returns the slide forward:

This process is what reloads the pistol when you fire it.

The recoil spring sits inside the slide,underneath the barrel,and is held in place by a guide rod. Recoil springs come in different weights and types. They affect:
  • Reliablility
  • Recoil sharpness
  • Muzzle rise in recoil

Why Does a Good Recoil Spring Matter?

The right recoil spring prevents jams and improves recoil for faster accurate shots.

What Makes a Good Recoil Spring?

The right spring load (AKA spring strength or spring weight) and durability matter most.
Spring load measures how much it takes to compress a spring a given distance. You can calculate it with this formula:

Load = Spring Rate * Travel (in inches)
Spring Rate = force or weight to compress the spring 1 inch.
So if you had a spring with a 10 lb. Spring Rate and compressed 1 inch, its Load would be 10 lb.
/> Compress it 2 inches, its Load is 20 lb.
Compress it 3 inches, its Load is 30 lb., and so on.

For pistol recoil springs, the listed load is for how much the spring compresses when the slide is locked back. So a 20 lb. recoil spring takes 20 lb. of force to get the slide locked back, an 11 lb. spring takes 11 lb. to get the slide locked back, etc.

Too Strong

If your spring's load is too high, the slide will return with a snap, causing your sights to dip down after each shot instead of returning to the same spot. It's like adding whiplash to your recoil. In extreme cases, the slide won't fully travel back, and your pistol will fail to load itself. You'll get jams.

Too Weak

The recoil will feel snappy coming back, which can be jarring if you don't have excellent grip strength and technique. Even then, it's harder to track the sights in recoil. In extreme cases, the slide will return too slowly for it to load itself. You'll get jams.

See it in action. A weak spring on the left, and a heavy spring on the right:

On the left, the pistol has plenty of time to cycle a new round - reliable, but takes longer to return to target. On the right, the pistol cycles and returns to target faster, but could jam if the shooter's grip or ammo isn't perfect. A better spring load for that pistol would be 13-14 lb.

See this video for more details:



Captured vs. Non-Captured Recoil Assembly

Captured recoil assembly - the guide rod has an end piece that's screwed on after putting in the recoil spring.
Captured recoil assemblies have two sides to the guide rod, with one being screwed on after installing the recoil spring. They're easier to install and remove from a pistol. If you want to change out the spring, you'll have to unscrew the assembly. That screw might need special tools to remove.

Non-captive recoil assembly - the guide rod and recoil spring are separate pieces.
Non-captured recoil assemblies have a guide rod with one side. The recoil spring can slip on or off with ease, but while it's installed in the pistol, everything stays put. Non-captured assemblies are harder to install or remove from a pistol, but usually it's just a few more seconds.

If you need to replace the recoil spring in a non-captured assembly, it's easy: just take it out and swap springs. If you need to tune or maintain your recoil spring, this is the better choice.


When to Replace Pistol Recoil Spring?

There are two ways to tell. First, look for issues. The most accurate way:
  1. Your ejected casings fall some distance other than 6-8 ft away from you.
  2. Your pistol fails to feed new rounds after recoil, and you've ruled out bad magazines as the cause.
If that doesn't work for you, replace your recoil spring on every X rounds fired, where X depends on the pistol's use.
Some examples:
  1. 2,000 rounds: Shooting nothing but overpressure (+P, +P+) ammo.
  2. 5,000 rounds: Carry gun.
  3. 10,000-20,000 rounds: Competition gun.
This second method is largely up to you. Some have reported 70k rounds without issues. Unless you're a competitive or professional shooter, you probably won't have to replace your pistol's recoil spring due to wear.


Recoil Reduction Systems for Performance

There are a few ways to upgrade your recoil spring:
  • Mechanical recoil reduction system, that replaces your recoil spring and guide rod. It reduces felt recoil and muzzle rise by 3-5%:
    However, these take some tuning to prevent jams. You'll have to experiment with the different recoil springs provided:
    The DPM recoil system replaces the guide rod with a piston-spring system. A standard recoil spring goes over the assembly.
  • Tungsten guide rod, to add weight to the front of the pistol and reduce muzzle rise by 3-5%. More weight in the pistol makes it less comfortable to carry.
    A tungsten guide rod and standard recoil spring. Tungsten is denser and heavier than plastic or steel.

Recoil Buffers: Good or Bad?

A recoil buffer pad on a CZ 75 slide.

Some pistols, like the 2011 and CZ 75 series, come with a rubber or vinyl buffer pad.

What do they do, exactly? They:
  • Add load to your recoil spring, depending on thickness
  • Change the feel of the recoil
  • Reduce wear on some internal parts

Recoil Spring Load (or Weight)

Spring load increases with buffer pad thickness. How? Think of how it is to load that last round in a magazine, compared to the 2nd last. The buffer compresses the spring more when the slide is locked back compared to no buffer, or thinner buffers. It makes the slide harder to rack all the way.

The CZ 75 series has a 4.6" barrel, while the Shadow 2 has a 4.9" barrel. The space below the barrel for the recoil spring and guide rod is also about 0.3" longer for the Shadow 2. A generic CZ 75 recoil spring functions at a lower weight in a Shadow 2, because that extra space prevents the spring from compressing all the way. A buffer offsets that.

Recoil feel

It can take some shooting to notice it, but using a buffer is like using a dead blow hammer instead of a normal bare steel hammer - less vibration. This probably won't affect your split times, but you may find shooting more pleasant.

Slide stop wear

On a CZ 75 or Shadow 2, a buffer reduces wear on the slide stop, but you don't need it. A heavier recoil spring gets the job done about the same. If your brass extracts 6-8 ft., you won't have excessive wear on that part.

Other points

A set of thick and thin recoil buffers for the CZ Shadow 2.

Buffers wear out. Overall lifetime depends on your ammo pressure, but for CZ pistols, thick buffers last around 5-15k rounds, while thin ones lasts 1-2k.

Too thick a buffer prevents the slide from going all the way back and extracting right. The CZ thick buffer is fine on a Shadow 2, but not on a SP-01 or other CZ 75 models, even with a lighter recoil spring.

Any increase to your recoil spring's load affects extraction. If you use a buffer, ensure your brass extracts 6-8 ft. to prevent jams.

If you're still unsure of whether to use a buffer or not, and your gun came with one, try it out and test your extraction. If it's 6-8 ft., keep it in and see if you prefer it. If it's less than 6 ft., remove the buffer. If it's still under 6 ft. (due to low-pressure ammo, or a compensator), use a lighter recoil spring and start over.


Recoil Springs and Slide Racking

Having trouble racking the slide? Reducing the recoil spring's load will help. You can usually reduce it by 2-4 lb. without any major drawbacks. To reduce your load further, adding a compensator requires a recoil spring around 2-4 lb. lighter to prevent jams. It costs extra and takes some time to get it working right, but it'll also reduce recoil 25-40%.

I Need a Custom Recoil Spring for My Pistol. What to do?

Double-Check Retailers First

Need a replacement spring for your pistol? Here are some starting points:

If retailers don't carry replacement springs for your pistol, here's how to special order your own.

Sure You Need a Custom Spring? Know This

It costs about as much to fabricate 1 spring ($250) as it does to make 5 or more. If you balk at the price of a single custom spring, then I recommend finding at least 9 other people who need the same spring as you so you can pool your money (include shipping) and do a bulk order. Check forums for your pistol, call local gunsmiths, and any other group that may use the pistol you're ordering springs for. The more people you get on board, the closer you get the cost per spring to what you'd pay for a mass-market recoil spring.

Replacing a Spring of the Same Load

  1. Get a caliper. Don't have one? I recommend the NEIKO 01407A.
    NEIKO 01407A

    Precise measurements are paramount. Being off by 0.01" on wire diameter can have a big effect on your spring load.
  2. Measure out your pistol's recoil spring dimensions and write them down:
    Recoil Spring Measurements
    • Free Length: total length of the spring when it's not compressed.
    • Outer Diameter: overall diameter of the spring.
    • Wire Diameter: diameter of the spring wire.
    • Active Coils: count the total coils and subtract 2.
  3. Go to Murphy & Read Spring and order your spring, plugging in the measurements.
    For the spring material, choose music wire. That's the best material for recoil springs, except for a few applications.
    For the spring ends, check your recoil spring. Closed & square are by far the most common, followed by Closed & Ground.
Be aware the price starts around $250 for 1 spring, but the cost to add more springs is minimal.

Ordering a Spring of a Different Load

When you need springs of a different strength than what's available, here's what you do:

  1. Measure out your pistol's recoil spring dimensions with calipers and write them down, as though you were replacing the spring (see above instructions and infographic).
  2. Plug the measurements into this recoil spring calculator:
    Weight unit:
    Free Length:
    Outer Diam.:
    Wire Diam.:
    Active Coils:
    Compressed Length:
    Presets:
    Material:

    Your estimated Spring Load: __ lb.

  3. Don't have the precise Compressed Length of your recoil spring? Here's how to get it:

    1. Lock your slide back. Measure how far the slide travelled from the end of the frame.
      Add 0.125 (the slide travels a little further than its locked-back state).
      The total is your Slide Travel.
    2. Remove the slide from your pistol. Measure the recoil spring's length while installed in the slide.
      That's your Installed Length.
    3. Compressed Length = Installed Length - Slide Travel

    Once you have your recoil spring's specs measured out, tweak the spring design for your desired spring Load(s) compared to your spring's Load.
    If your recoil spring fits tight on the guide rod, change the Active Coils.
    Otherwise, change the Wire Diameter.

  4. Go to Murphy & Read Spring and order your spring, plugging in the measurements.
    For the spring material, choose music wire. That's the best material for recoil springs, except for a few applications.
    For the spring ends, check your recoil spring. Closed & square are by far the most common, followed by Closed & Ground.
Be aware the price starts around $250 for 1 spring, but the cost to add more springs is minimal.

I am NOT an affiliate for Murphy & Read Spring! I don't make a dime off of them or my custom recoil spring calculator! I contacted over 10 spring companies and Murphy & Read Spring offered the fastest response and the best quote. This is purely for your benefit.


Should I Upgrade My Recoil Spring?

The stock recoil spring on your pistol will work great in most cases.
Only change recoil springs when you:
  • Do not get 6-8 ft. of brass extraction with your preferred ammo
    (Reducing the spring load by 1 lb. adds 1.5-2.0 ft of ejection, and vice versa. If you need 3-4 more ft of ejection, try a spring 2 lb. lighter)
  • Notice your pistol jams with your preferred ammo
  • Have trouble racking the slide
  • Add a compensator or ported barrel to your pistol
  • Change your slide weight for performance
  • Shoot competitively and want to get every bit of performance you can
There are many ways to reduce recoil, and there are better options for the level of hassle.



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References

  1. Understanding Spring Load and Its Relation to Spring Rate (2020)
  2. How to Select the Proper Recoil Spring (2019)
  3. Test: Slow Motion | DPM Triple Spring Mechanical Recoil Reduction System | Glock 17 C Gen 4 (2019)
  4. Recoil Buffers and Competition (2019)
  5. Shadow 2 Recoil Pad (2019)
  6. My Shadow 2 Modifications (2018)
  7. Shadow 2 Buffer - When to Replace? (2018)
  8. How often we need to change springs? (2017)
  9. When to replace recoil spring - and how to know (2017)
  10. Understanding Spring Load and Its Relation to Spring Rate (2015)
  11. When to change recoil spring, main spring Tactical Sport (2015)
  12. Tuning your Pistol for Faster Double Taps with Recoil Springs (2011)
  13. DPM Recoil Reduction System Test Result (2010)


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