The original, Eugene Stoner AR 15 firearms are what is called direct impingement. When the bullet is fired it goes screaming down the barrel, as it passed the gas block it directs some of the gas down the gas tube into the gas key on the bolt carrier pushing it back and cycling the weapon. Excess gas is vented to the upper and lower receivers. For the sake of this paper that is the simple description
Now piston operation works pretty much the same up to the gas block. When it gets to the gas block most of the gas is vented into a piston and pushes a rod back that pushes the bolt carrier back cycling the weapon. The excess gas escapes at the piston by the gas block. Again, very simple terms.
1. Piston-driven guns run much cleaner. The gas is vented at the gas block versus venting into the upper and lower receivers.
2. On average, piston-driven guns cost more. There are some very expensive gas impingement ARs and some inexpensive piston-driven AR rifles. However, if you want to purchase the least expensive AR possible, it will be a gas impingement gun.
3. Gas impingement guns are more suppressor-friendly, especially those with an adjustable gas block that allows you to control the amount of gas directed back through the gas tube. It should be noted that with both systems, your rifle will fire dirtier with a suppressor.
4. Piston-driven guns run cooler. The gas that enters the upper and lower receivers is hot, making what is touches hot. On a piston-driven rifle the hot gas evacuates at the gas block, further away from your hands.
The one item that has a lot of controversy is the accuracy, many say that the direct impingement is more accurate. I am going to leave that one alone until I can check myself. Both piston-driven and gas impingement guns are very reliable. If I had to pick between a gas impingement and a piston-driven AR, I think I would try the piston driven, simply because I have not tried it yet and the research sounds like it might be a great option except for three things: parts for gas impingement ARs are easier to find, much more plentiful and less expensive. Still think I’ll do it.
If you own a gas impingement AR and want to try a piston-driven AR, just purchase a piston-driven upper receiver. Since the gas impingement and piston systems work independently of the lower receiver, you can alternate between both on the same lower receiver.