While the short recoil design is most common in pistols, the very first short-recoil–operated firearm was also the first , the . It used a toggle bolt similar to the one Borchardt later adapted to pistols. Vladimirov also used the short recoil principle in the Soviet heavy machine gun which has been in service with the Russian military and Middle Eastern armed forces since 1949. Melvin Johnson also used the short recoil principle in his rifle and .
The short recoil action dominates the world of , being found in nearly all such weapons chambered for or higher-powered cartridges (weaker cartridges, and below, generally use the method of operation). Short recoil operation differs from long recoil operation in that the barrel and bolt recoil together only a short distance before they unlock and separate. The barrel stops quickly, and the bolt continues rearward, compressing the recoil spring and performing the automated extraction and feeding process. During the last portion of its forward travel, the bolt locks into the barrel and pushes the barrel back into battery.
An alternative design concept for recoil-operated firearms is the inertia operated system, the first practical use of it being the , developed by Carl Axel Theodor Sjögren in the early 1900s, a Swedish engineer who was awarded a number of patents for his inertia operated design between 1900 and 1908 and sold about 5,000 automatic shotguns using the system in 1908-1909. In a reversal of the other designs, some inertia system use nearly the entire firearm as the recoiling component, with only the bolt remaining stationary during firing. Because of this, the inertia system is only applied to heavily recoiling firearms, particularly shotguns. A similar system using inertia operation was then developed by Paolo Benelli in the early 1980s and patented in 1986. With the exception of Sjögrens shotguns and rifles in the early 1900s all inertia-operated firearms made until 2012 were either made by , or used a design licensed from Benelli, such as the Franchi Affinity. Then the introduced the inertia-operated A5 (trademarked as Kinematic Drive) as successor to the long-recoil operated . Both the Benelli and Browning systems are based on a rotating locking bolt, similar to that used in many firearms.
Before firing, the bolt body is separated from the locked bolt head by a stiff spring. As the shotgun recoils after firing, inertia causes the bolt body to remain stationary while the recoiling gun and locked bolt head move rearward. This movement compresses the spring between the bolt head and bolt body, storing the energy required to cycle the action. Since the spring can only be compressed a certain amount, this limits the amount of force the spring can absorb, and provides an inherent level of self-regulation to the action, allowing a wide range of to be used, from standard to magnum loads, as long as they provide the minimum recoil level to compress the spring. Note that the shotgun must be free to recoil for this to work—the compressibility of the shooter's body is sufficient to allow this movement, but firing the shotgun from a secure position in a rest or with the stock against the ground will not allow it to recoil sufficiently to operate the mechanism. Likewise, weapons of this type must be modified (with the addition of extended magazines or stock saddled ammunition slings on shotguns, for example) with care, as any sizable increase in weapon mass can reduce the force of recoil below that required to cycle the action.