Since the axes of the cylinders are coplanar, the connecting rods cannot all be directly attached to the crankshaft unless mechanically complex forked connecting rods are used, none of which have been successful. Instead, the pistons are connected to the crankshaft with a master-and-articulating-rod assembly. One piston, the uppermost one in the animation, has a master rod with a direct attachment to the crankshaft. The remaining pistons pin their connecting rods' attachments to rings around the edge of the master rod. Extra "rows" of radial cylinders can be added in order to increase the capacity of the engine without adding to its diameter.
Four-stroke radials have an odd number of cylinders per row, so that a consistent every-other-piston firing order can be maintained, providing smooth operation. For example, on a five-cylinder engine the firing order is 1, 3, 5, 2, 4 and back to cylinder 1. Moreover, this always leaves a one-piston gap between the piston on its combustion stroke and the piston on compression. The active stroke directly helps compress the next cylinder to fire, making the motion more uniform. If an even number of cylinders were used, an equally timed firing cycle would not be feasible. The prototype radial Zoche aero-diesels (below) have an even number of cylinders, either four or eight; but this is not problematic, because they are two-stroke engines, with twice the number of power strokes as a four-stroke engine per crankshaft rotation.
The radial engine normally uses fewer cam lobes than other types. As with most four-strokes, the crankshaft takes two revolutions to complete the four strokes of each piston (intake, compression, combustion, exhaust). The camshaft ring is geared to spin slower and in the opposite direction to the crankshaft. The cam lobes are placed in two rows for the intake and exhaust. For the example, four cam lobes serve all five cylinders, whereas 10 would be required for a typical inline engine with the same number of cylinders and valves.
Most radial engines use overhead poppet valves driven by pushrods and lifters on a cam plate which is concentric with the crankshaft, with a few smaller radials, like the Kinner B-5 and Russian Shvetsov M-11, using individual camshafts within the crankcase for each cylinder. A few engines use sleeve valves such as the 14-cylinder Bristol Hercules and the 18-cylinder Bristol Centaurus, which are quieter and smoother running but require much tighter manufacturing tolerances.
C. M. Manly constructed a water-cooled five-cylinder radial engine in 1901, a conversion of one of Stephen Balzer's rotary engines, for Langley's Aerodrome aircraft. Manly's engine produced 52 hp (39 kW) at 950 rpm.