If you’ve ever shot a powerful handgun, you know that recoil can make it uncomfortable to shoot. Physics is physics, so the bigger the bullet, and the faster it goes, the more the shooter is going to feel it. The muzzle flips up sharply, which can make it difficult for some shooter to regain control of the handgun and take a second shot.

That’s where porting comes in. It’s a simple idea—put slots in a gun’s barrel at just the right locations that minimize what the shooter feels as recoil and muzzle flip, making the gun much more manageable to shoot. Shooting competitors may port a handgun for use in matches, in which milliseconds count when trying to make fast follow-up shots.

The whole idea of "porting" pistols isn't new, but it sure seems to be catching on recently. The Smith & Wesson Performance Center team has recently released a slew of ported models, and we tested two of them side by side with non-ported versions to see and feel the difference that ports make.

Flip Control

How does porting reduce recoil? Look at how Harrier jets can take off and land like helicopters. Harrier exhaust gas is redirected to generate force in different directions, allowing those big and heavy fighter jets to either hover above the ground or fly straight at more than 600 miles per hour.

Smith & Wesson Ported M&P Pistols: Gun Review
The test guns, side by side: .40 S&W M&P 2.0 pistols without and with ports, left; and 9mm M&P 2.0 models. Other than some functional and cosmetic differences, the test pairs are identical.author photo

Pistol porting also redirects gas, preventing the muzzle from flipping violently upward when you shoot. Here’s how it works: The manufacturer or custom shop cuts one or more very carefully shaped holes or slots in the barrel of the gun. These ports face straight up. When you fire a shot, some of the hot gas jetting down the barrel behind the bullet exits these ports and applies force in a downward direction on the barrel. The result is a dramatic reduction in what you perceive as recoil.

Ported vs. Non-Ported

I wanted to test the porting effect, so with the help of our friends at Smith & Wesson, I got my hands on two nearly identical pairs of pistols. Each set included a standard model with a normal barrel, complemented by a second pistol with a ported barrel.

The first set, chambered in 9mm, was a brand-new Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 with a five-inch barrel, and a Smith & Wesson M&P 9L Performance Center with a ported five-inch barrel. (Yes, there are some functional and cosmetic differences between the two, but the guns are the same size, same caliber, and are made in the same factory.)

The other set was comprised of a Smith & Wesson M&P 2.0 in .40 S&W, and an M&P 40 Performance Center model. Both .40 caliber pistols have 4.25-inch barrels and are identical in overall dimensions.

Smith & Wesson Ported M&P Pistols: Gun Review
Here you can see one of the two rows of ports in the slide on each ported gun, which correspond to ports cut into the barrel on either side of the front sight. The ports direct gas straight up, which helps keep the muzzle down and on target when the gun is recoiling.author photo

I brought all four to the range with a pile of practice and self-defense ammo. I was especially interested in the effect ports would have on some of the full-power defensive loads, as they tend to have more juice and more felt recoil. In the ammo crate, I had American Eagle 124-grain, American Eagle Syntech, Sig Sauer FMJ, and Sig Sauer V-Crown self-defense ammo.

The Results

Ported guns always “feel” soft and gentle when I shoot them, but without a direct comparison to the same gun without ports, it’s hard to compare accurately.

The ported 9mm pistol felt more like a .22 than a standard 9mm. When I ran through the Sig Sauer V-Crown self-defense ammo, which is on the higher side of 9mm energy, the difference between the ported and non-ported pistols was stunning.

Moving up to the more powerful.40 S&W really showed me the difference that porting makes. The .40 S&W model was easy to shoot, even one-handed.

This kind of subjective description really doesn’t tell the story, so I decided to get ever so slightly scientific. A fat Sharpie, a white posterboard, and an iPhone slow-motion video camera were all the tools needed to compare the recoil impulses of the standard and ported pistols. While I didn’t plan on trying to measure recoil in angles or inches, I figured using those wide horizontal lines as a background might help show the results visually.

Since the idea was to show the effect of porting, I elected to use a one-handed hold. Rather than gripping the gun like King Kong, I focused more on being perfectly consistent with the strength of my grip from one shot to the next. While I didn’t hold the pistols like wet linguine, I also didn’t try to muscle the muzzle into non-movement.

After filming various combinations of guns and ammo, I grabbed a few still frames that represented the peak of muzzle flip for each of the four pistols. As you can see by the photos here, there’s a noticeable difference, especially with the .40 S&W pistols.

Smith & Wesson Ported M&P Pistols: Gun Review
The top pistol is a standard M&P 2.0 .40 S&W model with a 4.25-inch barrel. On the bottom is a Performance Center ported model, also in .40 S&W.author photo

That was expected because .40s have more recoil in general, so I wasn’t surprised to see more visible results with those pistols.

Breaking It Down

Let’s talk for a minute about what really happened. The porting on these pistols is designed to reduce muzzle flip, not dampen straight-back movement of the gun. While many rifles have muzzle brakes—which have ports that direct gas back toward the shooter and therefore apply forward force on the rifle to help counteract the straight-back recoil impulse—pistols generally direct the gas straight up, so they only prevent the muzzle from rising. They don’t do anything directly to dampen the straight back movement of the gun, at least directly.

Smith & Wesson Ported M&P Pistols: Gun Review
The Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm 2.0 model (top) has no porting, while the M&P 9L Performance Center model (bottom) does. Both frames show the highest point of muzzle flip. The camera angles aren’t identical, but it’s still easy to so see a significant difference in muzzle flip between the two.author photo

So why do ported pistols feel like they have less recoil? I think it’s because they dramatically reduce that violent wrist snap caused by the muzzle flipping upward after a shot, and that wrist movement is limited. You can see for yourself by positioning your arm as if you’re going to shake someone’s hand. Now rotate your hand straight up, thumb first, without rotating your arm. It’s unnatural, and that’s exactly what happens every time you press the trigger on a handgun. I think it’s the dampening of this wrist torture that makes ported handguns as if like they have less recoil, but that’s just my theory.

But what about noise? You might have heard about how rifles with muzzle brakes are really, really loud. That’s true, but the reason is that rifle muzzle brakes direct much of the gas back towards the shooter. Pistol ports are usually different in that their direct the gas up, not back towards your face. As a result, I didn’t notice a significant noise difference between the ported pistols and the non-ported ones. There’s probably a measurable difference, I just didn’t detect anything obvious.

Whatever the science, I’m quickly getting spoiled. The ported pistols are noticeably easier to control. The reduction in felt recoil is not just a comfort issue. The more you can control your pistol, the more shots you can get on target in less time. And that’s a good thing.

SPECIFICATIONS

S&W Performance Center Ported M&P9L Hi Viz Fiber Optic Sights
Caliber: 9mm
Capacity: 17+1
Barrel Length: 5 in.
Overall Length: 8.5 in.
Front Sight: HI VIZ Fiber Optic
Rear Sight: HI FIZ Adjustable Fiber Optic
Action: Striker Fire
Grip: Polymer
Weight: 28.3 oz.
Barrel Material: Stainless Steel
Slide Material: Stainless Steel
Frame Material: Polymer
Slide Finish: Black/Armornite
MSRP: $700
S&W Performance Center Ported M&P40 HI VIZ Fiber Optic Sights
Caliber: .40 S&W
Capacity: 15+1
Barrel Length: 4.25 in.
Overall Length: 7.5 in.
Front Sight: HI VIZ Fiber Optic
Rear Sight: HI VIZ Adjustable Fiber Optic
Action: Striker Fired
Grip: Polymer
Weight: 27.6 oz.
Barrel Material: Stainless Steel
Slide Material: Stainless Steel
Frame Material: Polymer
Slide Finish: Black/Armornite
MSRP: $700