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Direct Impingement vs. Gas Piston: Settling the Debate

Direct Impingement vs. Gas Piston: Settling the Debate

Automatic rifles are incredibly versatile guns, coming in a number of different shapes and sizes. But there are mainly two operating systems that come with this style of firearm, known as direct impingement and gas piston. Each has its own unique capabilities, benefits, and drawbacks. Let’s take a minute to clear up the confusion and settle the direct impingement vs. gas piston debate once and for all.

Here’s what you’ll learn:

What is Direct Impingement and How Does it Work?

The Introduction of the Piston-Driven AR 15

Comparing Gas Piston vs. Direct Impingement – Pros and Cons

Decide What’s Right for You

What is Direct Impingement and How Does it Work?

The first AR operating system introduced over a half-century ago, is known as direct impingement, and delivers the needed amount of gas to cycle the action. This system works by directing gas through a cavity in the barrel, which is then pushed through a thin tube where it impacts the bolt carrier. The mechanism extracts and ejects a spent case as the gas is forced into the back of the gun and then is rapidly pushed forward by the action. Finally, a direct impingement system strips an unspent round from the cartridge, loading it directly into the barrel chamber for the next shot.

The Introduction of the Piston-Driven AR 15

As the AR-15 rose in popularity, so did a need to develop a more reliable alternative to the direct impingement system. Thus, the piston-driven AR-15 was introduced. Using technology gained from the AK-47, a firearm with an operating rod that served as a piston-type mechanism, this operating system made a few improvements upon the direct impingement ARs.

The way a piston-driven AR-15 works is a lot like we described above, however instead of the gas traveling down a tube, the gas pressure is used to push a metal rod to the rear of the gun. The operation rod — or piston — strikes a lug on the top of the bolt to cycle the action.

Comparing Gas Piston vs. Direct Impingement – Pros and Cons

Both systems use gas in their respective ways to cause the bolt to unlock and the bolt carrier group to mechanically cycle and load a new round. So, is one really better than the other?

Since the two systems share some similarities and are essentially both gas-driven mechanisms that unlock a bolt to cycle and load a bullet, you may be wondering why some gun owners prefer one system over another. Well, each carries its own sets of benefits and drawbacks that can affect your shooting style, as well as your personal preference. If you’re wondering which approach is best for you, take a look at some of the following pros and cons of gas piston vs. direct impingement.

Pros and Cons of Direct Impingement

Direct impingement systems have been around for a long time – as such, they’ve been tweaked and re-tweaked for decades. Because of this, there are many advantages of such a tried and tested system, but also several disadvantages due to it being an “old-school” approach.

The first benefit to an impingement-driven AR is that they’re lightweight, thanks to the fact that you only need a simple small gas tube. In a similar vein, they’re incredibly versatile for various barrel lengths across different calibers. Second, you’ll also experience less recoil due to the fact that gas moves the bolt carrier to the rear more gently than other systems. And finally, direct impingement systems are more affordable than piston-driven counterparts, giving your wallet a break.

But there are some potential drawbacks to gassing up your gun, the main one being reliability—particularly with a non-standard or shortened barrel AR, or any select-fire models. Since timing is essential when it comes to releasing the proper amount of gas into your gun, shortening the barrel or gas tube, for example, can lessen dwell time while causing case extraction problems, leading to jams.

In addition, the gas port will inevitably erode over time, leading to more and more gas entering the firearm’s internal system. In select-fire ARs, this is a particular problem, since it decreases cycle time from what it’s designed to handle. This, coupled with timing issues, brings into question problems of reliability among direct impingement systems.

Pros and Cons of Gas Pistons

Gas pistons are a newer operating system for ARs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a favorable option for an AR owner. There are many pros and cons of piston-driven rifles, with their main benefit being reliability.

Because they’re not as prone to ammunition variations, piston rifles won’t misfire as much as direct-impingement rifles. And, since the operating rod does a lot of the work, rather than the gas itself, it promotes a cleaner, cooler system that better handles the intensity of firing a round.

The biggest drawback to a piston AR is that they’re less accurate than direct impingement systems since there’s a rapidly rotating operating rod that affects barrel harmonics and movement. Also, the piston adds extra weight to the back end of the AR and tends to cost a little more than the alternative.

Decide What’s Right for You

For those that want the best of both worlds, the AR’s versatility allows something along those lines. If you own a gas piston AR, for example, you can install a piston-driven upper receiver – and both direct impingement and piston-driven systems work independently of the lower receiver, allowing you to switch between the two mechanisms.

But, which one you choose will depend on what’s important to you as a gun owner. Direct impingement ARs tend to be more accurate at a more affordable price while being easier to carry. On the other hand, piston-driven systems offer more reliability, while running cleaner and cooler. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide.

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